For New Yorkers, “downtown” is more than just a location — it’s an attitude, an aesthetic. From the explosion of punk and new wave that came out of CBGB in the ’70s to the improvised music that emerged from the Knitting Factory in the ’80s, downtown has denoted a certain type of risky, eccentric music.
Ze Records was one of the oddest of the labels documenting New York’s various downtown musical subcultures, claiming fealty simultaneously to no wave and disco. The label’s revival, after a 20-year hiatus, couldn’t be better timed. New York’s music scene has recently been resuscitated by new bands with a distinctly downtown vibe. Two new compilations from Ze provide a crash course in its history.
“Mutant Disco” is the more palatable end of the spectrum. Much of the album wallows in kitsch, but this is downtown disco after all, and Ze’s take on dance music was just as challenging as its more experimental releases (and not surprisingly, as in the case of Lizzy Messier or Arto Lindsay, featured many of the same players). The Waitresses’ ironic girl-power anthem “I Know What Boys Like” is more for swaying than dancing, and only an intrepid few would brave a dance floor playing Material. Even Kid Creole and the Coconuts owe less allegiance to disco than swing. “Annie,” the closest thing Ze had to a hit, bounces with jazzy Latin giddiness.
“N.Y. No Wave,” is both more difficult and more compelling music. A reaction to the studied pop of new wave, no wave took punk aggression and turned up the volume. It was messier, harder, louder and not particularly interested in being either pretty or predictable. No wave’s influence is considerable, and it’s no wonder that, two decades on, many of the cuts on this record still cause shivers. Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, the first project of punk chanteuse Lydia Lunch, retains its charismatic menace. Suicide, arguably the world’s first true electronica band, has no peer. And if you thought the sax could never be a punk instrument, listen to James Chance.
New York’s current musical renaissance owes much to these artists, if not in sound then in style. Where would the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s deadpan delivery be without Lunch, or Interpol’s planar synth sound without Suicide? Unfortunately, the heir to Kid Creole’s exuberant, silly big-band sound has yet to surface, but we can only keep our fingers crossed.
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