Where were you in ’78?
A new document from the downtown-NYC No Wave movement offers an aural time
capsule of one of the era’s most intriguing, though oft-overlooked, acts.
BY RON HART
When the New York State Council for the Arts commissioned
the conception of Artists Space in
the city’s downtown area in 1972 as a means to provide a proper public arena
for the creativity of the local arts scene, little did they know they would eventually
play host to one of the most significant moments in underground rock history.
In May of 1978, at the Space’s second location at 105 Hudson St.,
fans paid three bucks to catch a week-long festival showcasing NYC’s burgeoning
No Wave movement featuring such upstart acts as Theoretical Girls, Terminal,
James Chance and the Contortions, DNA and Teenage Jesus and the Jerks. One of
those folks who shelled out a trio of Georges to catch the event was Brian Eno,
in town to mix the Talking Heads’ sophomore classic More Songs About Buildings and Food. He was so impressed with what
he saw that he was subsequently inspired to produce a compilation album to
document what was happening.
Not long after came the seminal Eno-helmed No New York anthology, released that
year on the Antilles label and featuring a tracklisting evenly divided between
the Contortions, Teenage Jesus, Mars and DNA (it was reissued on CD in 2005).
The album also prompted the
now-infamous Creem review that read,
in part, “the most ferociously avant-garde and aggressively ugly music since Albert
Ayler puked all over my brain back in – what? – 64… If you’re intrepid enough
to want to hear this stuff (a friend, 3/4 into the first side, complained that
the music was painful – she wasn’t referring to any abstract reaction, she was
grimacing), be advised that Antilles is a
division of Island Records, which ain’t exactly Transamerica Corp. You’ll
probably have to make a little effort to procure it, because there’s no way
it’s going to come to you.”
Presumably, the music from the majority of the five-day May bacchanal
of caustic expressionism exists only in the minds of those who were there. Except, that is, for the group Mars, who closed out the
fest on Saturday, May 6th, alongside the Lydia Lunch-led Teenage
Jesus. A couple of guys in attendance for the two-set gig, sound man Perry
Brandston and Lust/Unlust label chief Charles Ball in particular, came equipped
with devices to capture their
friends in action: Brandston utilizing a Nakamichi 550 Portable Cassette Recorder,
and Ball brandishing a binaural dummy. And
now, for the first time, both bootlegs have been officially made available for
the first time ever courtesy of the Feeding Tube label (www.feedingtuberecords.com) with Mars: Live At Artists Space, a
vinyl-only release produced by the Bull Tongue boys: avant critic supreme Byron
Coley and guitar great Thurston Moore, whose band Sonic Youth owes more than a
few Mother’s and Father’s Day cards to the men and women of Mars.
The Brandston tape is by far the best live recording of the
band out there – the three mics he had rigged to his Nakamichi bringing a sense
of askew clarity that truly secures the primal urgency Nancy Alren, China Burg,
Sumner Crane and Mark Cunningham brought to the stage. Ball’s recording,
meanwhile, is much rougher than its side one predecessor, but no less
revelatory in its intent to conjure the essence of immediacy Mars projected in
concert, evident in the ferocity of their show versions of “3E”,
“Cats”, “Cairo” and the John Cage-on-crack epic
“Puerto Rican Ghost”.
If you are reading this, chances are you’re already a fan,
or at least a curious listener whose only prior knowledge of the group is from
the four songs featured on that overpriced copy of No New York you copped on Amazon. So the next time you happen to
stop into Jack’s Rhythms, Rhino, Amoeba, Flipside, Academy Records, Other
Music, Princeton Record Exchange, the Philadelphia Record Exchange or any of
the last bastions of good, hardcore record shopping in America, and spot Mars’ Live At Artists Space on the wall of
vinyl new releases, trust your urge to make an impulse purchase.
No true No Wave library would be complete without it.