“What a pandering bunch of post-punk mama’s boys they are! It’s just so la-di-da happy-go-lucky spoiled little brats from the suburbs coming in to start a band which tells me absolutely nothing, shows me nothing new, is not visionary and is, by its very nature and attitude, redundant. The commodification of bass and drums is the downfall of music. Where’s the fucking tuba? Pick up a tuba, a trombone, anything but a bass, guitar, or drums.”
Lydia Lunch’s acerbic monologue in Scott Crary`s now-on-Netflix 2004 no-wave documentary Kill Your Idols chews up modern guitar music. She’s right — telecasters have been on the market since 1948, what’s left? We need to push forward with no wave’s intellectual concepts, vision and extremity. Don’t we?
Love for her cultural contributions from Teenage Jesus and the Jerks’ No New York appearance to the present aside, Lunch sounds like that guy with classic rock on every preset, locking himself in a wood-panelled basement emulating Jimmy Page. Assessing music in one dimension — whether by virtuosic ability or referenceless originality — cuts out the heart of the most emotional mode of expression available.
The attitude is viciously pointed at punk, loitering around the same three chords and short songs since 1975, exorcizing anything wandering out too far. Somehow in that stasis, the great unwashed swell of adolescent incompetence keeps cutting records that mean something to people, even after decades of strip-mining the template. Hearing punk for the first time and realizing there are other people who don’t fit in, who think the people around them are stupid and boring, and who are making music is exciting. The excitement doesn’t evaporate because Milo Goes to College was recorded before most of you were born.
The obsession with constant forward momentum is a liberal mindset that forgets why we listen to music. There are other worthwhile pursuits, other sources of merit. In a 1980 interview with Zig Zag magazine, Public Image Ltd.’s Jah Wobble has this to say about disco: “I really like it, it’s very useful, practical music.” We need to do reality checks on any narrow vision. Try getting excited, feeling bummed out or even dancing to the latest avant-garde and you’ll see what I mean.
Skill and progress aren’t liabilities, but they need to be subordinate to your aims, whether functional or artistic. If you’re saying, as the Desperate Bicycles did, “it was easy, it was cheap, go and do it,” solid musicianship undermines your message. There are approaches and goals that need talent or innovation to be effective, without them music crumples and atrophies. The danger is using these tools as criteria for judging music.
Trouble compounds when novelty or ability or beauty or any single attribute is expected to behave a certain way: You stretch your capabilities to ape Led Zeppelin; Beauty is best expressed through delicate harmonies; If it’s marketable, it can’t be pushing boundaries. There’s a glut of limits you can put on music, and they make lousy records. The pursuit of originality is camouflaged to look open-minded, but it’s just as unhealthy as the rest of these mindsets.
Lunch complains there’s no revival of the essence of no wave. In the opposite corner, Mark Perro of The Men told Pitchfork, “I never thought of us as any sort of big-picture thing, just a bunch of people trying to honestly express what they have to say. And the easiest vehicle for that has been rock ’n’ roll.” Exhausted, boring ideas are worth rebelling against, and your parents should find new music alienating, but if you forget that music exists on many planes — emotional, functional, etc. — your next record might as well be 40 minutes of impossible, unlistenable solos.