Let's boogie to a collection of the greatest dance "hits" of what has been called the "No Wave" era of NYC music. Late '70s/early '80s downtown Manhattan was bursting with alt-classical composers, free jazz, New Wave, performance art and, most notoriously, noise bands. Apart from downtown, hip-hop was getting started in the South Bronx and Queens and house music was growing. All of which would coalesce into the punk-funk (aka mutant disco) of the bands presented here. Never has "dance" music been so dark, noisy, and experimental. Unlike the earlier sexy funk of James Brown et al, this stuff is uptight, tense, full of punk's nervous energy. And if the disco they were playing uptown at Studio 54 was slick and glamorous, this music was low-budget, as dirty as a SoHo street corner.
Has there ever been a more inclusive music scene? Black, white, Puerto Rican; gay & straight; male, female, and undetermined; jazz, rock, avant-garde - everyone grooving together. All you needed was a throbbing bass line and some cowbells and congas.
Most of what I know about the earlier New York Dolls/CBGB era I got from history. But this stuff, like the Suicide song featured here, I remember. Whilst visting my family back east, my cousins would take me to clubs like Area, Danceateria and yes, CBGBs (in the days when they didn't check IDs too carefully), I bought some of these records back in the day, I'd hear 'em on the radio. Bi-coastal rivalry meant that this music wasn't as acceptably cool as the hardcore punk scene raging around me in LA (remember Fear's "New York's Alright If You Like Saxophones"? A song I loved, by the way) - but I dug it. I hadn't heard some of these songs in ages, but they hold up really well - it helps that not much music has been made like this since (no one plays percussion anymore?), so it still sounds fresh and fun.
DOWN BY LAW: NYC PunkFunk '78-'84
1. Fab Five Freddy "Down By Law"
2. Liquid Liquid "Cavern" (Perhaps the biggest "hit" song of this genre, and, yep, where Melle Mel got the music for "White Lines")
3. ESG "Moody" (oft, and I'm talking oft sampled band of three sisters/sistahs)
4. The Del-Byzanteens "My Hands Are Yellow (From The Job That I Do)" (History remembers this band for featuring future filmmaker Jim Jarmusch, but they actually were pretty cool.)
5. The Bush Tetras "You Can't Be Funky"
6. Lizzy Mercier Descloux "Wawa"
7. Dog Eat Dog "Rollover"
8. Cristina "What's A Girl To Do"
9. Kid Creole & The Coconuts "There But For The Grace of God Go I"
10. Konk "Elephant" (Speaking of Jim Jarmusch, Richard Edson from this band would act in Jarmusch's film "Stranger Than Paradise," co-starring another downtown scenester, John Lurie of jazzers The Lounge Lizards)
11. The Work "Nearly Empty"
12. Pulsallama "The Devil Lives In My Husband's Body" (This very large all-girl band featured future actress and Bongwater member Ann Magnuson)
13. Material "Square Dance" (featuring future producer-to-the-stars Bill Laswell)
14. The Dance "Do Dada"
15. James White & The Blacks "Almost Black 1" (Some of James White/Black/Chance's band quit to form Defunkt)
16. Defunkt "Blues"
17. Ike Yard "Cherish 8"
18. 8 Eyed Spy "Motor Oil Shanty" (singer, in the loosest sense of the word, Lydia Lunch was previously in notorious noise band Teenage Jesus and The Jerks)
19. Loose Joints "Pop Your Funk" (featuring '80s NY avant-disco mastermind Athur Russell)
20. Suicide "I Remember"
This scene is not forgotten - there are some good books that cover it: "The Downtown Book," "New York Noise," "No Wave", all of which make the point that music was just one element of the downtown scene - painters, photographers, filmmakers, dancers, and performance artists all got thrown into the mix. No one seemed to do just one thing. And they also point out the scene's downfall: rising real estate prices that made Manhattan living impossible for starving artists, AIDS, and the inevitable mainstream absorption.
Oh, and the expression 'down by law' meant that you were hip, street-wise. As Grandmaster Flash's Furious Five once rapped: "New York New York, big city of dreams/but everything in New York ain't always what it seems/you might get fooled if you come from out of town/but I'm down by law and I know my way around."