I drew the comparison to Dada, as have numerous other commentators, and I think it is a valid one – the heady, defining days of the movement were an expression of absolute rejection of existing norms and contempt for the meaninglessness of consumer culture, undermining it by, literally, fucking the system off and doing everything yourself with its discarded scraps. From a creative perspective it was utopian, but as a business model it was worthless.
If there was going to be any kind of financial traction to be had in this, this DIY ethic was the first thing that had to go. Enter Malcolm McLaren, the PZ Myers of British alt-culture. Having used up, and ultimately destroyed, his flagship product The Sex Pistols, McLaren was ready to ride punk back into the lands of consumerism, designer control and brand labels. The bastard’s answer was the pure dripping insipidness of New Wave, closely followed by the narcissistic onanism of New Romanticism.
Once the DIY ethic of punk was subverted, it was ripe for commodification – but it also needed to be denatured and declawed. The first things that had to go, apart from distortion pedals, were the expressions of commitment – the mohawks and the facial piercings1. It had to be turned into something part-time, a look that could be put on for the weekends and shed again for the work week to accomodate those that actually had cash they could be deprived off – office workers. New Wave was naughty, but not too naughty, and your boss and your parents need never know. It was “safe”, there was no more danger. The first consequence is the loss of most of its creative energy, but that is a small price to pay for business expediency. There was a collective groan of despair from many. It was ignored.
Of course, it wasn’t quite end of story yet. There still were some pockets of resistance, and some kids that still wanted to fuck the system. Perhaps the greatest response was in the US with the explosion of American Hardcore. But there also was a lesser scene, possibly even more interesting. It was concentrated almost entirely in New York – the appropriately named No Wave, which I must confess a spiritual yearning for, a time and space where I would have felt most at home. It was another resurgence of the primal Dada impulse and made for some of the most interesting cultural artifacts of the 20th century.
Rather a convoluted way of saying I stumbled upon another long lost gem. One of the No Wave golden boys, James Chance, in this incarnation, as James White and the Blacks (aka …and the Contortions), with what is possibly the sleaziest thing ever committed to vinyl. Lydia Lunch is on the other end of the phone.
1 – Now, 30 years later, both of these seem tame and acceptable, which confirms that most things take a whole generation before they can be properly stomached. I hope gay marriage folks aren’t holding their breaths for actual, as opposed to tokenistic, progress.
Higher quality, even sleazier sounding version here. The above is nice for the random damaged vinyl feel though –