James Chance & The Contortions Buy

[ZE; 1979]

Styles: no wave
Others: Lydia Lunch, DNA, Mars

If there is a single idea from the late '70s, early '80s No Wave scene that should be remembered, it's this; for this brief moment in time, anything suddenly seemed possible. Instead of retreating to a simplistic arrangement of effectively throwback rock, a la Ramones' fuelled punk, No Wave completely embraced and simultaneously rejected a variety of influences, styles, and ideas, generating a body of work as equally abrasive, experimental, and nihilistic as it was enthralling, funky, and downright forward-thinking in its own perverse way. Or, to phrase it in a more digestible format for the pop-media-saturated world: Happy Days is to The Ramones' style rock, as Twin Peaks is to No Wave. Both explored, celebrated, or tore apart various musical and artistic influences and styles from the past. Yet, while one amounts to enjoyable, feel-good (albeit steeped in a subversive schoolyard gang mentality) back-to-basics rock, the other, while rarely ever pleasant listening, is utterly compelling for its in-your-face audacity, sneering deconstruction of traditional musical forms, and its creation of something that is still, almost 30 years later, at times shockingly new.

Milwaukee, Wisconsin transplant James Chance was one of the key players in this less feted, but far more musically adventurous period in New York musical history. Famed for brutally challenging his audiences when playing live — he was known for aggressively picking fistfights with people in the crowd — it's his explosive, funk-punk-noise-free jazz work with his equally frenzied backing group The Contortions that led Brian Eno to select Chance and his band as the openers on the revelatory and now seminal 1978 No Wave compilation No New York. Which is fitting, since Chance and The Contortions are still, in many ways, the perfect primer for delving into the myriad of artists who came to make up the No Wave scene. Punk enough for the punks thanks to Chance's manic yelps and screams, yet smart and daring enough for the more adventurous thanks to an iconoclastic use of rhythm, sax, and a violent aping of past musical styles.

Nowhere is this confrontational assault of sound better heard than on Chance and The Contortions' 1979 debut, Buy. A blistering collection of tracks that slam together a barrage of ideas whose roots are firmly planted in funk, punk, and free jazz, influences which are sent skyrocketing into the atmosphere in a great big cacophonous ball and slammed back down to earth in order to create something fresh out of the destruction. This is abrasive music, nothing smooth about it, even if it does feature a saxophone. Its antagonistic tendencies are equally reflected in the lyrics. On tracks such as "I Don't Want to Be Happy," Chance rolls through a grocery list of the masochistic pleasures he enjoys, stating by the end that he prefers “…the ridiculous to the sublime.” "Contort Yourself," arguably Chance's signature tune, plays off a funkier edge to the band. Augmented by tight drums and the odd slash of guitar and sax, he howls and wails like a methhead James Brown, pleading and screaming to the listener to 'contort' themselves over and over again. His approach on the song is raw, explosive, nail biting, and everything else that feels downright dangerous in popular music (he later reworked the track into a funk-punk-disco tune on the follow up LP Off White, where Chance and The Contortions recast themselves as James White and the Blacks for an equally essential collection of mutated disco numbers). Taken as a whole, Buy showcases Chance as being more punk than the punks, and he does it with blaring sax blurts instead of poorly played guitar strums.

Chance's musical career was effectively over by the mid-'80s (though he did return to periodically performing live in 2003), but his work with The Contortions personifies the type of raw attitude, freedom of expression, and vision that continues to challenge, excite, and inspire. It embodies a specific view that embraces new possibility, freed from the confinement of rules and restrictions of past traditions, allowing one the chance to escape the tyrannical grip of one's idols and step out on a new path —  even if it is a fleetingly brief trip in the long run — that's entirely your own. Which really, if you need to simplify it, is what Chance and the No Wave scene were all about.

1. Design to Kill
2. My Infatuation
3. I Don't Want to Be Happy
4. Anesthetic
5. Contort Yourself
6. Throw Me Away
7. Roving Eye
8. Twice Removed
9. Bedroom Athlete
10. Throw Me Away (Live)
11. Twice Removed (Live)
12. Jailhouse Rock (Live)

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