Graded on a Curve: Contortions, Buy

Like any visionary artistic movement, the late-‘70s explosion known as No Wave was both ahead of its time and intrinsically related to its era. This is no more apparent than in the work of James Chance. As leader of the Contortions he debuted on the ’78 Brian Eno-produced compilation that essentially provided No Wave with its name, but Chance and his crew’s long-playing shining moment remains Buy. Initially released in ’79 on the ZE label, a 180gm gatefold edition with bonus cuts is currently available from Futurismo.

As the decades have piled up, the whole No Wave shebang has grown in stature from a dissonant and divisive intersection of punk and art into one of the 20th century’s more striking outbursts of indigenous creativity. It couldn’t have occurred anywhere other than the old, cheap, dangerous New York City, its geographical location but one of the factors causing many to disregard its emissions; hey, it’s just a bunch of arrogant Gothamites peddling pretentiousness.

For those less sensitive to matters of attitude in presentation, No Wave’s haughty stridency is inherent to its appeal. Amongst the scene’s most surly was James Chance; as detailed in his notes for Futurismo’s reissue, he left his hometown of Milwaukee after three years of conservatory study, saxophone in hand with an intention to play jazz. Sensibly he landed in NYC, but things didn’t go as planned.

It became clear that Chance, who’d gained experience playing the music of the Stooges and the Velvet Underground back in Wisconsin, was an ill fit for the burg’s loft-jazz milieu; in turn he gravitated toward CBGBs/Max’s Kansas City. Of course, he wasn’t quick to find belonging there either, and Chance and his pocket of cohorts shaped an alternative to creeping commercialism.

No New York is a cinch as the starting point for anybody curious about No Wave. Along with showcases by Teenage Jesus and the Jerks (the first band of Lydia Lunch), Mars (a quartet fueled by the dual guitar attack of Sumner Crane and future Lunch collaborator China Burg), and D.N.A. (composed of Arto Lindsay, Ikue Mori and Robin Crutchfield), it opens with Chance and the six-piece ensemble he’d managed to harness by the album’s recording.

That lineup, listed simply as the Contortions, offered Chance’s punk-funk-jazz fusion at its most uncompromising. Bookended by the breakneck assault of “Dish it Out” and a steamrolling locomotive cover of James Brown’s “I Can’t Stand Myself,” folks not accustomed to the sound risked getting pummeled. Love it or hate it; there was basically no in between.

On Buy, bassist George Scott III (formerly of Jack Ruby, later of the Raybeats and with Lunch in 8-Eyed Spy) was out, as was the organ of Adele Bertei (soon of the Bloods and a solo career), Chance adding keyboard to his sax and vocal duties. With David Hofstra stepping in on bass, Don Christensen on drums, and Jody Harris and Pat Place on guitars, the group slimmed to a quintet.

“Designed to Kill” starts the record with atonal alto skronk and Harris’ jittery note tangles, the rhythm section working up a non-rudimentary head of steam beneath them. Soon to enter is Place’s distinctive slide guitar, alternately slashing and brandishing slingshot-like elasticity; then comes the rawness of Chance’s vocal bark.

If the No Wavers can be fairly assessed as arrogant, they weren’t aloof. Poles apart from a turn-ones-back-to-the-audience affair, Chance’s stage persona was openly lifted from Mr. Dynamite right down to the emphatic “hit it/me” interjections and then given a crucial mainline dose of hoarse punkish insolence; he was at the forefront of listener engagement.

In non-purist terms Chance laid ground for Jon Spencer as his showmanship qualities proved influential to the likes of Ian Svenonius. The template set, Buy offers eight more tracks; where No New York was captured live, the metropolitan tribal stomp of “My Infatuation” overdubs horn and voice, a maneuver adding depth if not heft to the proceedings.

If abrasive and aggressive, the sound is non-muscular; as others have commented, No Wave was anti-rockist in nature, and the Contortions’ punk-funk hybrid was quite opposite the scrotum-swingin’ jock-jams of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. The band’s strong suit was an infectious, anxious angularity, and it’s easy to draw a line from the forward motion of “I Don’t Want to Be Happy” to the neo-dance-punk of the early-20th century.

Please don’t blame Chance for subsequent indie overkill, for his arsenal was quite varied; the moody crawl of “Anesthetic” displays he was significantly more than one-note on the sax and the spastic splatter-and-burn of the side-closing “Contort Yourself” is a dance craze that sadly never was, complete with a Brownian count-off and a scorching finale.

A huge part of Chance’s allure (or conversely, noxiousness) lay in how he well, contorted precedent (the aforementioned non-purism thing), and that’s right up front in “Throw Me Away.” It begins the flip with mutant R&B wielding truly bent horn, and “Roving Eye” follows, initially focused upon rhythm and scrape. Soon enough, Chance gets to blow his instrumental stack.

“Twice Removed” then takes a finger-snapping faux-jazzy atmosphere, turns it sideways and showers it with spurting organ and string shrapnel, a setting leading us to the tightly-wound “Bedroom Athlete,” the track’s fast-paced opening momentarily giving way to a torrid sax solo (really, Chance’s studies were not in vain; he is a legit force on the alto). From there it darts and struts before barreling to full-tilt free jazz closure.

Due in part to the happenstance of No New York’s recording (reportedly a visiting Eno in NYC to work with Talking Heads attended a performance in the company of Bertei, a light bulb suddenly illuminating above his balding dome) the selections it contains allow one to chance to eternally eavesdrop on developments in their early, raw form.

That snapshot of the early scene is reinforced by Chance’s devotion to the late Anya Phillips as found in his liner text (often diminished as a “friend of Debbie Harry,” Phillips’ photos adorn the 12-page booklet accompanying the Futurismo edition). However, Buy does portray Chance carefully navigating to a wider audience; while lacking in any deliberate softening gestures, it reveals intelligence and shows a touch of restraint.

Some will balk at “Terminal City” and “Incorrigible” getting nabbed from a 2011 release (credited to James Chance and Les Contortions, his long-serving French support) and tacked onto this LP’s second side. I’ll admit it’s a dicey proposition, but the additions don’t betray the preceding vitality, instead they enhance it with an expanded palette of additional sax, trumpet, bass clarinet, and vibes, illustrating that Chance’s music, specifically via the Contortions, possessed legs equipped for longevity rather than just a brief post-punk sprint.

Shortly after Buy the Contortions effectively ended (further evidence of their potency is found across eight live nuggets of ’78 vintage included with the free download) though almost instantaneously Chance utilized the same personnel and a returning Scott III as the renamed James White and the Blacks; ‘79’s Off White, featuring assistance from Lunch, Robert Quine, and others and sporting a swell Phillips-designed deceptively retro cover, is an attempt to examine disco.

To these ears it’s only fitfully taggable as such. Next to the prior stuff, Off White is slightly less substantial, but it’s still very worthwhile. Setting No New York aside, Buy persists as Chance’s essential contribution to the rock narrative. An LP of groundbreaking genre crosspollination emanating from a locus of inspired and occasionally belligerent individualism, it continues to impress.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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