“No New York,” the 1978 compilation produced by Brian Eno, remains a snapshot of lower Manhattan’s music scene at that time. The pioneering punk club CBGB’s was thriving, the influential performance space-cum-disco, the Mudd Club, was about to open and a musician could still afford to live in the East Village without getting a day job.
The four bands on the record — Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, DNA, Mars and James Chance and the Contortions — and the scene that spawned them were lumped together by critics as “no wave.” Though they hardly defined a movement, aside from an embrace of lower Manhattan’s avant-garde traditions and low rent, the label nicely summed up the negation that permeated this second generation of American punk rock. Song structure was, for the most part, discarded. The default vocal style was a scream.
First generation groups like The Ramones, Johnny Thunders and even Television still sounded like rock music, albeit a speeded-up or weirded-out version of it. For many listeners, no wave initially sounded like noise, yet its fierceness and fusion of rock, noise and art set an enduring template for independent music. The recent explosion of dance-punk groups such as LCD Soundsystem and !!! definitely owe something to the genre-hopping energy of no wave.
In this group of iconoclastic artists, however, none were quite as original as James Chance. It wasn’t that he was weirder than the others. After all, “No New York” introduced the world to Lydia Lunch, whose rantings on sex, violence and chaos made her one of the more extreme figures in the U.S. underground. In a scene based on the feedback-driven buzz of guitars, defiant amateurism and a studied, almost uptight coolness, Chance was an anomaly: He played the sax and wore ’40s-era suits. He was a trained musician. He danced.
“All the people in the [no-wave] group were my friends, but I never felt that my music was that close to theirs,” says Chance from his apartment in Manhattan before his Japan tour. “It had a beat. It was danceable. It had that black thing.”
Moreover, in a scene that was overwhelmingly white, both in its membership and its influences, Chance worshipped James Brown. “James Brown created a new rhythm that I don’t think anyone has really improved on much,” says Chance. ” ‘Super Bad’ was the single that may have single-handedly inspired the Contortions. He had the balls to put Albert Ayler-type [free] jazz on top of a 45 that was played on the radio.”
A similar combination of funk-driven beat and noisy clashing sax, keyboard and guitar, gave Chance and his group, the Contortions, their distinctive sound. Chance even had an alter ego, James White and the Blacks, that self-consciously played with the racial tension that underscored his music, tempering the noise in favor of the beat. On one album, they even covered a Michael Jackson song.
“I’d been playing jazz and came to the realization that I was never going to make it in the jazz scene. I had much more of a rock ‘n’ roll personality,” says Chance. “I wanted to bring all the different things I loved to a rock ‘n’ roll audience: the funk beat with the atonal solos on top. I wanted to do something that didn’t use the regular rock ‘n’ roll chord progressions. All the CBGB’s bands weren’t doing anything that musically different. It was all in the attitude.”
Chance arrived in New York in 1975 as eager to explore the jazz clubs as the burgeoning punk rock scene. But while black jazz clubs were right around the corner from CBGB’s, there was little cross pollination. Nothing could have been more different from Chance’s youth in Milwaukee.
“[When I was growing up] you had a top-40 radio station that played everything from Frank Sinatra to James Brown to ? and the Mysterians.
“I first heard The Beatles [in 1965] when I was 12. I wasn’t that impressed, but I was getting interested in girls and all the girls were wild about The Beatles so I thought I better check it out. I spent the whole summer with a radio glued to my ear. It was the summer of ‘Satisfaction,’ ‘Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag’ and ‘Woolly Bully.’ The whole world changed for me.”
Chance’s attempts of injecting James Brown-style grooves into New York’s music scene were regarded quizzically at first.
“The audiences in New York were so cool,” says Chance. “Especially the first audiences for the Contortions’ show, which were all SoHo artists. They were so pretentious. They had this attitude like, ‘I am so cool,’ and I wanted to get a reaction from them, even if I slapped them in the face.”
And slap, kick and hit he did. It wasn’t even that Chance was inherently violent; he just wanted people to dance.
“People never danced much at CBGB’s or Max Kansas City, because they didn’t have dance floors,” says Chance. “‘But around ’79-’80 a couple of new clubs opened with dance floors. But people had to learn how. And the way they danced! Some looked like bunnies hopping up and down.”
These clubs, plus the advent of disco, made the Contortions downtown darlings. They recorded a few albums for ZE records, a label whose own love of hybrids — from the death techno of Suicide to the island-dance music of Kid Kreole and the Coconuts — was a little more in tune with the Contortions. Kid Creole even produced a disco version of “Contort Yourself,” Chance’s rambunctious theme song.
Ironically, it was dancing and the club culture that ensued that spelled the end to the thriving downtown music scene.
“Nothing goes on forever. None of us were interested in becoming commercial so we could only go so far,” says Chance. “They changed the drinking age to 21, which hurt the clubs. There was the AIDS thing. And people’s tastes just changed. MTV happened and young people weren’t interested in live music anymore. There were huge glitzy clubs but music was only one element. People were more interested in fashion.”
Chance, a stalwart Manhattanite who confesses to hardly every leaving the island, spent most of the ’90s — a period he cagily refuses to discuss in detail — outside the music biz, save for a re-release of some of his records by singer/entrepreneur Henry Rollins in 1995.
More recently, along with the re-release of both the Contortions’ studio albums and a few bootlegs on the indie label Tiger Style, Chance has been recording again. A Japanese-only release, “Melt Yourself Down,” coincide with his upcoming Japan tour and a jazz album, “Down and Dirty,” is coming out shortly in the United States. Chance has also reunited with the original Contortions (Jody Harris, Pat Place, Eric Sanko and Don Christiansen) to play the festival circuit, most notably at All Tomorrow’s Parties in the U.K., and the shows in Japan.
Audiences needn’t worried about being kicked in the face with a mike stand, however. Chance describes himself as an “entertainer” in the classic sense now, rather than a punk rock fury — just as long, that is, as everybody dances.