ALL MUSIC GUIDE : 4.50 / 5.00
In 1979 the quintessential no wave group released two albums simultaneously; Buy was effectively the Contortions' debut, originally appearing on the indie label ZE, while the same project was released as Off White under the adopted alias of James White, one of the many identities of leader James Chance. The Contortions are considered to be one of the most important and influential groups of the New York no wave scene, which spawned the crazed postmodern persona of James Chance alongside Lydia Lunch, Mars, and DNA, among others. James Chance was a sort of avant lounge lizard personality cult who led numerous projects throughout the '80s, yet he never quite topped the warped distillation of punk, funk, and free jazz presented here, making Buy a pivotal recording of the New York post-punk era. His hybrid of free jazz sax blowing and agitated funk takes the contortions up a notch from the four tracks the band contributed to the Eno-produced No New York compilation, which debuted the furious angular syncopation of transfigured funk and disco rhythms which became the Contortions' signature. Chance's vocals and discordant sax will sound strangely familiar and appealing to fans of early Roxy Music and Television.
UNDER THE INFLUENCE / WHITE SPIRIT
The 21st century has produced a new generation of young contenders of all kinds, who have, within months, spread a new string of names across the planet such as The Rapture, Playgroup, LCD Sound system, Liars, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Radio 4 and the likes, just to name a few. Once again the heat was initiated in NYC, even though its Lower East Side epicenter « cleaned up » by Giuliani and Bloomberg, has moved a few blocks east and across the river to Brooklyn and Williamsburg. It might be wise to remind the younger ones among us that the origins of this new musical cycle is for the most part rooted in the NO WAVE movement of which James Siegfried aka James White, aka James Chance is undoubtedly one of its most prominent figures. New York City was hands down the artistic telluric center of the second half of the 20th century, especially from the 70's, on. Rising from the ashes of the Velvet Underground, a slew of local bands redefined the aesthetics of rock'n'roll which the merchants of the temple hastened to rename under various designations, such as Punk, New Wave, No Wave, Jazz-Funk or even Disco and Disco-Punk without forgetting to mention the original Electro designation pioneered by the band Suicide. One of the indispensable and emblematic figures of the mid-70's is of course James Chance.
James Siegfried, born in Milwaukee in 1953, began his musical journey on the piano at the age of seven. His style evolved towards a more « free » sound, influenced by the likes of Thelonious Monk and Cecil Taylor, which clearly frightened his teachers at the Wisconsin Music Conservatory. From early adolescence on, he set his sights on the alto sax. John Coltrane's, « Love Supreme », opens up a whole new world to him, at which time the young prodigy immerses himself in the works of Albert Tayler, Lester Young and Charlie Parker and puts together the James Siegfried Band with future Jazz Messenger Brian Lynch at the trumpet. He participates in the post Velvet/Stooges rock band DEATH but ends up leaving his native Wisconsin where he clearly finds no one to understand his musical style. In 1976, New York looks more like a Martin Scorcese film set than Giulani's post-9/11 aseptic Disneyland. The city's downtown heroes are The Ramones, the Talking Heads, Patti Smith, Television, Blondie, Richard Hell and Johnny Thunder's Heartbreakers. But it's most certainly John Lurie's Lounge Lizards that are truly representative of the Free Jazz Loft spirit of which James wished to be the heir.
"James saw the obvious. Jazz had entirely ceased to be dance music and had become an entirely intro-spectator sport. It had lost everything below the waist. It had lost its sexuality and its funk. Jazz had also lost its audience to rock'n'roll, but despite glorious moments, that too was quickly being frozen into cliché and caricature. Then this white dude with free licks comes boogalooing in on the pointiest shoes you've ever seen and it's okay again for high-IQ booty-shaking". Glenn O'Brien
But the exclusive world of New York jazz looks down on these new poseurs and particularly this « white dude », who gets his kicks from listening to Ornette Coleman, James Brown or Funkadelic. So James turns towards the Lower East Side « rock groups ». He explores venues such as CBGB's, the Mudd Club or Max's Kansas City and, hiding behind the pseudonym « James Chance », sets out to link together the bare threads of punk, funk and free jazz. He produces an electrifying sound that will subsequently give birth to a musical current from which today's young contenders will draw their plagiarized « inspiration ». In 1977, James is still an odd ball with his unclassable and non-negotiable Teenage Jesus & the Jerks, with Lydia Koch, soon to be known as Lydia Lunch, occasional cocktail waitress at CBGB's, Reck a Japanese bass player, and Bradly Field on the drums. James revisits nihilism in a world of rock'n'roll in which new wave rules and is especially lucrative for the majors, particularly in Europe. In reaction to this, our newcomers are going to develop a style. Two other bands from New York's arty downtown scene turn the clubs into rehearsal spaces since none of the band members know how to play of an instrument. The first band, China, has just renamed itself Mars. Formed around Marc Cunnigham, China Berg, Sumner Crane and Nancy Arlen. They have recorded two titles: 3E and 11 000 volts with Jay Dee Daugherty supported by Patti Smith who wanted to start her own independent label "Mer Records" (en Français dans le texte), but too busy dealing with her own success finally entrusted me with the recordings that I released on my first label, pre-ZE: « Rebel Records »...
The second sensation, the DNA trio, is built around Arto Lindsay on guitar, the Japanese Ikue Mori on drums and Tim Wright on bass. At the same time, going by the name of the Pill Factory, James and Arto begin recording the original soundtrack of Diego Cortes' film: « Grutsy Elvis », featuring Anya Phillips, future muse and manager of James'. Four titles are released on a maxi ZE records in 1978, one of them being a totally improbable cover of Elvis « That's when your heartaches begin ». Inevitable ego problems at the heart of Teenage Jesus lead James to leave the band and start his own: The Contortions. With the painter and actor James Nares who takes on the role of the guitarist and will be replaced a few months later by Jody Harris of the band Loose Screws, a combo with which he jams occasionally. Pat Place, a visual artist from Chicago, takes up slide guitar, while Reck the Japanese bass player of Teenage Jesus joins the band bringing with him his compatriot Chico Hige on the drums. They eventually both leave for Japan, leasing their place to George Scott and Don Christensen, other member of Loose Screws. Adele Bertei becomes the keyboard player after having learned her skills in Cleveland with Peter and the Wolves with the fonder of Pere Ubu, Peter Laughner. With this line up, in the spring of 1978, James Chance & the Contortions play for every club in town, opening indifferently for Suicide, the Cramps or Mars, transforming every one of their sets into barroom brawls. This phenomenon undoubtedly enhances James' bad boy reputation. He confides to the Soho News: « If somebody comes to see me, they have to pay. And not just in money... New York people are such assholes-so cool and blasé. They think they can just sit and listen to anything and it won't affect them. So I decided I just had to go beyond the music, and physically assault them... The first time I actually did it, really hurt people, was in Soho. I really fucking hate Soho. It was a benefit for this artsy magazine, and all these artsy-fartsy people were sitting on the floor-and if there's one thing I can't stand it's people sitting on the floor. See, there was all this room, and no tables, and I figured everybody was going to dance. But they just sat ».
James attacks. The first rows won't resist, but seeing his size, it's often him who ends up with a black eye, which doesn't stop him in the least. It's during one of these battles, in the middle of summer 78, that James eyes first cross those of Anya Phillips. A glance that said: « Don't you dare do that to me! » It was love at first glare! Anya was a famous wanabe downtown scenester, the brain behind the conception of the Mudd club and a talented fashion designer. An actress in the films of the periods' New Cinema, "Grutzy Elvis" directed by Diego Cortes, « Rome 78 » by James Nares, where she plays the Queen of Sheba or in « The Foreigner », by Amos Poe. She became James' soul sister. She took care of management, of the band's look and played an essential role in the development of James' budding career and the different incarnations that were going to become his trademark. Sadly, Anya died of cancer in 1981. She was only 26!
In may, a sort of festival in the Soho Artist Space Gallery involving all of New York's arty/punky/noisy members, including the Contortions, Mars, DNA, Teenage Jesus & the Jerks, Boris Policeband, Theoretical Girls, etc... was most certainly the starting point of a movement, which the local press immediately took hold of and baptized: No Wave. At the same time Chris Blackwell from Island Records, who had missed the first wave of New York bands three years earlier, including: Blondie, Television, Talking Heads, Patti Smith or Richard Hell, had entrusted Brian Eno with a budget for a demo to record the best of these newcomers. His plan being the signing of future record deals. But none of the bands ended up being to his taste so Eno put together four titles of his favorite bands: Mars, DNA, Teenage Jesus and The Contortions on a compilation which he baptized NO NEW YORK and which came out in November 1978. James Chance & The Contortions signed with ZE records for their first album and entered the Blank Tape Studio in the fall of 1978.
Michael Zilkha and I would spend our days in the studio and our nights at the Paradise Garage, Studio 54, Max's Kansas City, CBGB's or at the Mudd Club. It did not seem incompatible to us to love underground disco played by Larry Levan along with James' Punk/funk/No Wave. After hearing the Contortions' album, Michael suggested to James to re-record new « disco » titles. Anya seeing an opportunity to cash in on another advance suggested another concept: JAMES WHITE (alluding to James Brown) & THE BLACKS, a « disco » version of The Contortions and obtained a new budget to record a second album, which was immediately recorded in the aftermath of « BUY ». August Darnell, transfuge of Dr. Buzzard's Original Savannah Band, that Michael hired as a house producer and who worked in parallel on different ZE projects: the first album of his new band Kid Creole & the Coconuts, Cristina's album, Aural Exciters', Bob Blank's afterhours party band, brought his touch to what is soon to became a classic on the Dance floors and an inspiration for numerous bands, the cult classic « Contort Yourself ».
"James White's most cold and cogent manifesto of white blackness is probably "Contort Yourself." Chance's vocal on "Contort Yourself" reaches a degree of droll dryness rarely attempted by Mick Jagger or even Lou Reed--a combination of Mose Allison on Methadone jazz vocalization and an evil mind control guru. It's a groovy epic vision of world transformation through disco-self-destruction, taunting "Why don't you trying being stupid instead of smart?" Glenn O'Brien.
Numerous guests join in the Blacks' sessions: Lydia Lunch under the pseudonym of Stella Rico, Anya Phillips under Ginger Lee's, Kristian Hoffman under Tad Among's and Master guitarist Bob Quine who played at the time in Richard Hell's Voidoids and who will later join Lou Reed.
"Thanks to the support of ZE records and visionary fan president Michael Zilkha, James got to make his really primitive disco album, just as he had made the sick debut "Buy the Contortions". These records not only had the sound, they had the attitude perfect packaging and a murderously post-chic atmosphere. They were the revolution, whether one realized it or not. The Contortions was the first chic death fashion Pop art band since the Velvet Underground, and it sounded better than if Iggy had gone to Julliard." Glenn O'Brien.
These two first albums which came out on ZE records in 1979 and haven't aged in any way, open up a new standard: introducing Funk grooves, Free Jazz improvs and Disco efficiency, from which the British scene from Manchester will draw its full inspiration a few years later, thus creating the perfect scam.
"I have always been moved in new directions by the sound and vision of this band. I remember thinking long ago that james Chance should be the greatest star in the world. And then I realized that he was, really; it was just that almost nobody realized it. Only the very few. I knew at least a dozen or more thinking hedonists who knew at any one time that James Chance was the most exciting man in art and show business. I also observed that sometimes the entire audience noticed that James Chance was a great star. He was amazing. He burned the house down. He punched the audience in the face and then they asked for more." Glenn O'Brien.
In the same vein as George Clinton, James becomes James Chance & The Contortions, then James White & The Blacks, and has a third incarnation as James Whites ‘s Flaming Demonics in four years, James will record his three best albums on ZE records. A considerable number of musicians participated in the adventure. James experimented the most adventurous combinations, Funk rhythmic sections, arty poseurs, rockers, a kaleidoscope of picturesque characters which we will discover later in many bands directly inherited from this experience: Bush Tetras, Raybeats, Defunk, 8 Eye-Spy, etc...
"James Chance's music changed constantly. He told Allen Platt from the Soho News: "I believe in being dissatisfied at all times. If I could be said to believe in anything. I believe in that." He played new music that was new by method, informed by history, contemptuous of the future and totally based in the present. It worked like a juju charm. To hear it it was to be changed. He was a performer in the greatest sense of the word. He carried the work through to completion. He got results. He executed. And he never failed. He never quit. He had reverses, but it was really the scene that died, not the vision of James Chance". Glenn O'Brien.
Recently, thanks to several new releases and to the enthusiasm of a handful of music critics, the No Wave movement and one of its most imposing personalities, James Chance, have finally found their place in the Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame. No Wave's sinfluence today proves how far this music and its pioneers were ahead of their times.
Michel Esteban, Paris, April 2004