"There is no crueler way to describe the birth and peak of a musical scene," David Fricke wrote in Mojo several years ago, "than saying 'You had to be there.'" Truer words - well, truer words have been spoken, but just think about it. No matter how old you are, you missed out on almost everything. Were you there the first time The Ramones played CBGB's? Yeah, well you missed the Haight-Ashbury scene. What's that? You're the one who suggested R. Crumb just use the place mat to draw on? Don't matter. You never saw Duke Ellington at the Cotton Club.
Except, of course, that nowadays we have access to everything. The hippest scene in history is only a Netflix envelope away. Is it punk to sit back and watch The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle DVD on your plasma screen? Nah, but what are you gonna do? There's hardly any good punk bands anymore anyway, so you might as well crack a Zima and live in the past.
(Old punk pic by Will Murai)
The best way to be punk, of course, is to not be punk. That's what was so brilliant about the No Wave movement in New York, which lasted about six weeks or something but is one of more influential and interesting moments in rock history. Taking the punk rock credo that you don't have to know how to play your instrument, they upped it by saying you don't even have to play rock - at least not in any Chuck Berry lineage. Marc Masters' recent book No Wave is a great document of the time. An oral history with interviews by the likes of Lydia Lunch, James Chance, Arto Lindsay, Glenn Branca, Thurston Moore and many others, it's as good a chronicle as we could hope to have of the time.
The first half of the book follows the landscape as edified and codified by Brian Eno on his No New York album, which stirred animosities by pulling only four bands out of the loose scene. In the second half, Masters expands the No Wave aesthetic to other bands as well as film, television and zines. For those already hip to No Wave as music, this might be the best part of the book. The filmmakers worked in the same down and dirty mold:
"We could shoot a film and show it immediately," said Scott B in 1983. "And working in Super 8 enhances the sense that the film is a throwaway. You're doing it for the moment, and you're going to do the best you can, but you can't get it perfect."
Masters also interviews Glann O'Brien, who calls his Manhattan cable access show TV Party a "Gong Show for geniuses." TV Party might have been the ultimate No Wave effort: It wasn't about trying to be bad so much as allowing that great things would happen, but not by design. Brinkfilm has releases five episodes on DVD, along with a documentary about the noisy, unscripted, unedited show. The doc is good, but the best of the lot is the "Time & Makeup Show" from August 19, 1979, in which O'Brien and company (his regulars included Deborah Harry and Jean-Michel Basquiat, among others) subvert the medium with stillness and silence. They only last so long, however, before it descends into cacophony with guest Robert Fripp answering hostile phone calls. Also on that episode: O'Brien rolling and smoking a joint blindfolded (brash on-camera pot-smoking was a regular feature); a hillbilly makeover segment; a Parisian punk guitar/ accordion duo; a magic show; and an ascent into good taste with a solo David van Tieghem performance. The DVDs all include clips from other episodes as well, in this case a live show from the Mudd Club and an interview with George Clinton.
More splendid resources for the homebound punk:
Punkcast features plenty of concert streams that you can enjoy from the comfort of your own monitor, including Suicide, The Homosexuals, Bush Tetras, Flipper, The Fall, Joe Strummer, UK Subs, GBH, two Slits shows (!) even Pamela De Barres (?), and lots of young punks (Magik Markers and Kiiiiiii rule!) as well.
Some No Wave reissue tips by way of Clinton McCurg.
And, for the punk in need of guidance, Vivien Goldman - the queen of punk journalism - writes the online column "Ask the Punk Professor" for BBC America. There are no stupid questions, you know, only stupid punks, so drop her a line.