Contrary to the somehow prevailing beliefs, reissue culture, as of this century, is not damaging per se. The notion that continuously digging the past and trawling history in search for something exciting, as in a cultural and anthropological exercise. Simon Reynolds’ fearmongering on the subject, mostly through the lens of his Retromania, has propagated a notion according to which our love for the past has obstructed somewhat a love for the new. It’s a daring theoretical construction that finds some obstacles, given the very own concept of what music usually stands for. Given the unprecedented access to music with which the internet has provided us, there is no need to fear a bright love and curiosity one could have for the past. The past can be, as we now know, a way of recontextualizing the new.
In this context, British label Soul Jazz Records has, apart from its own original line of work, specialized in the field of unearthing music from very specific times and places, helping define particular soundscapes which, from the perspective of a somewhat untrained ear, might have sounded oppressively otherworldly. From a label which, at the time, was focusing on churning out various compilations, in 2003 the label released New York Noise, an album/collection parsing out the musical (and, in broader terms, artistic) scene from several New York avant-garde “movements” — more specifically, focusing on releases ranging from 1977 to 1982. As the title suggested back then, it didn’t possess a focus, something uniting the whole undertaking. Logically coinciding with the compilation’s initial and main motivation, the album set out to chronicle New York’s underground avant-garde scenario: the birth of no wave, the negation of punk rock and, most importantly, in such a short period of time, the unfolding of a culture which, by its own terms, wasn’t a “culture” according to those day’s requirements. No wave was, above all, the denial of culture.
New York Noise had significant importance when it came out in 2003 — precisely because, at that time, the city itself was experiencing a post-punk revival. A more commercially appealing one, but that period still expressed some longing from the rule-breaking experienced back then. New York Noise, because of just that, meant context and history. And now, incidentally, in contraposition to whatever Retromania has to say about this particular moment in time, context and history are fundamental to the understanding of a “movement”.
No wave was, from the very beginning, to borrow from Marc Masters’ words on the subject, a “philosophy of negation”. It was ultimately predicated on negation. It denied commercial appeal, the New Wave music that sprouted at the end of the ’70s (according to Masters, the name was coined in a response espoused by Lydia Lunch when answering a question on what her music sounded like: “Is it new Wave?” Response: “More like No Wave”.)
That is a classic definition, mainly because no wave is deeply grounded on that word no. It resists categorizations and labels — pretty much, let’s say — just like the ’70s culture itself. As a direct effect, in order to ultimately negate punk rock’s (or sometimes just rock itself) usual tropes in vogue at the time, no wave was based in experimentation. Funk, jazz, noise, foreign music: all was worthy of consideration.
This is path tethered to New York Noise’s mission: it aims to represent, to paint a comprehensive picture of no wave, yet paying tribute to the eclectic nature of New York — that is, there was more going on with New York’s underground scenes. It’s a difficult job with which this (or every) compilation is tasked. Yet, it succeeds marvelously.
New York Noise is broad in scope. Its appeal goes from the Dance’s “Do Dada” (opener), a considerably more pop release, to the experimental nature of Mars’ “Helen Fordsdale”, whose guitar riff and dissonance might or might have not contributed as (in)direct influence to Sonic Youth’s “Teenage Riot”. Which is to say that, while it might be hard to categorize the music carried in the compilation — besides the vague terminology contained in expressions such as “post-punk” and “no wave”, and the fact this music was made all during the same period and in the same location — it doesn’t mean its influence can’t be traced. Despite the notion that people had lost sight of no wave as the ’80s went by.
There are a few curious appearances in New York Noise. Arthur Russell, who, at that time, released music under his Dinosaur L moniker, is still here: “Clean on Your Bean” is one of the compilation’s most exquisite and rewarding tracks, precisely because one is able to trace the transcendental nature of the music under comment here. No wave might have not lasted long enough in order to leave a mark in the public’s collective imagination, but as a whole, its influence is immeasurable. That’s not just because of an incessant revival which took place more than ten years ago and this compilation helped spark, but also because of the music itself, a sprawling collection of art made during a very specific time. A confluence of negation of authority, traditional punk tropes and artistic values.
As it happens with every compilation with a Herculean task in mind, one should suspect of New York Noise’s intentions. When looking for an introduction to the music of that era — the underground’s post-punk vein — the listener will go as far as the compilation offers them to go. Yet, New York Noise’s scope is wide. Awkwardly enough, it’s wider than, let’s face it, No New York, the seminal album which serves as the basic narrative for said period.
The new 2016 edition adds material from impLOG, a collaborative project comprising Don Christensen and Jody Harris, little after their involvement with James Chance of the Contortions (“Contort Yourself” is, as expected, featured in the compilation). “Breakfast” is a perfect closing for the album. Above all, because it condenses the very own nature of the music made in such period. With is calming, jazzy overtones, the songs seems like a displaced commercial for the American way of life. It ends in laughs, as it is supposed to do. It’s also supposed to sound ironic.
The additions in the 2016 version don’t impact that much, which is, in all honesty, something to be overlooked when you consider for how much time the compilation has stayed out of print, which is something that only reaffirms the archival nature of this 2016. Given its original release in 2003, it suffices to say this album has already done (well, it’s good to state) its job of conferring context to a particular moment in the aughts. New York Noise is no encyclopedia, and it doesn’t have to be one. It’s supposed to make trawling the history of a very brief and particular (and important and seminal) “movement” considerably easier. And as for those who fear, in 2016, that reissue culture is a signal for the end of times when it comes to the art of discovery, well, there is nothing wrong with taking a shortcut. As long, of course, as you get anywhere. And there is no better shortcut than New York Noise for at least ten years.