This story is over 5 years old.

A Big Bang: New York Noise and the Downtown Explosion

We spoke to Soul Jazz boss Stuart Baker about NYC's heyday and the recently re-issued New York Noise compilation.
February 17, 2016, 2:49pm

One of the easiest things to do in life is to be an outsider looking in. Being an outsider, being out of the loop, out of the scene, admiring it from afar, is license to be an idealist, a romanticist, and all of us, deep down, like the idea that art is somehow intrinsically, inherently something that's worth romanticising. That's how this writer feels anyway, and one period in recent art history that I've idealized more than any other is what was going down in New York between say, 1977 and 1982. This was a ferbile period for writing, painting, experimental film making, and music. Looking back on it now, looking at the likes of Jean Michel Basquiat and Arto Lindsay and Laurie Anderson and Cindy Sherman and every other impossibly cool, creative, out there, avant-leaning artist—in the broadest sense of the word—you'd be forgiven for mistaking it for some kind of nirvana. As David Byrne put it, at the time, "New York was a scary and legendary place and downtown was like a bohemian living museum, which was pretty thrilling for an aspiring artist and musician. It was all very new and exciting, at least for me and it was incredibly funky, the sleaze and poverty were everywhere."


London in 2016 seems very, very staid in comparison, doesn't it? Still, it's here, in 2016, that you can get a taste for a moment in time when it (presumably) felt like gaunt young men armed with guitars and a stack of French philosophy were going to take over the world, courtesy of Soul Jazz's new New York Noise compilation. Originally issued in 2003, it featured the likes of Liquid Liquid, ESG, Glenn Branca, and Mars, it arrived at a pivotal moment: NME approved indie bands were trying to fumble in the dark with dancier elements, and punk-funk was born, which was handy, because pretty much every song on the compilation was the blueprint for the likes of the Rapture. Everyone loved New York again!

The original New York Noise: (Dance Music From The New York Underground 1978-1982) was followed by a pair of follow up compilations and a book of photography that documented one of the most explosive, engaging, energizing moments in contemporary culture. Earlier this year, they announced a 2016 rejig. With all that in mind, we decided to drop Stuart Baker, Soul Jazz's founder, a quick line to discuss the compilation and the "obnoxious and creative" artists found within.

James Chance and the Contortions

THUMP: The original New York Noise compilation dropped in 2003. I was 13 at the time and lived out in the woods, but even then, even there, it seemed to have a massive impact, coming at a time when the whole punk-funk thing seemed to be taking the music press by storm. Was it a very deliberate act on Soul Jazz's part to press the compilation at that moment?
Stuart Baker: Well yes, as far as I can remember. We only release music that we are into at that moment in time—sometimes that coincides with what is popular at the time, sometimes not—in this case yes. From our own point of view we were continuing a path of our own. I think we had released an A Certain Ratio retrospective, an album of British post-punk bands called In The Beginning There Was Rhythm (with bands like The Pop Group, 23 Skidoo etc), I think we had released the ESG compilation, A South Bronx Story. At the same time bands like The Strokes were around, the whole DFA/James Murphy axis, and they were all name-dropping these original NYC no wave/punk/funk bands, so it it seemed quite synergenic to release an album of New York dance/punk bands from the 80s.

Why a 2016 revival?
Well, the compilation had been out of print a long time and was one of our most successful releases we went on to release two further New York Noise compilations as well as a photography book (that David Byrne wrote an introduction for). A few years ago Soul Jazz Records made a kind of ideological choice to work only with independent record labels when we put together an album so we had to change some of the tracks. We tried out what it would sound like and it still sounded fresh (to me anyway). So that is why we decided to do it.


For those who might not know, is it possible to give us a brief overview of exactly what was going down in NYC at that time and how it joined the dots between punk, disco, low culture and high art?
Yes, no problem. New York in a financial and political black hole leads to cheap rent in the run-down warehouse region of the city (East Village) which in turn attracts lots of poor people (aka artists and musicians) who are at the same time attracted to the allure of New York grit. This leads to a proliferation of art and musical creativeness in relatively small area, aka downtown. These artists and musicians begin to collaborate, artists play in bands, and everyone realises they are all part of the same thing. As certain people involved in this scene become well-known and continue with their original ideas (like Blondie, Basquiat etc) they manage to bridge a link between high and low culture, punk and disco. How's that?

Was it, for want of being reductive, as cool a world as it seems to an outsider like myself?
I think it was lots of people living in run-down apartments which were probably cold and smelly but looked nice in photos, all trying to do something new and different. I think most of the people were quite driven in their search for something. Which to an outsider is attractive but I imagine it would be quite hard to live with them. So if cool means everyone's a little bit obnoxious and also creative at the same time then yes, I probably agree with you.

Can you tell us a little about what's been swapped in and out and why?
For the aforesaid reasons Liquid Liquid, Rammelzee and ESG are not on the new edition. New inclusions are Alan Vega (I had always wanted Suicide on in some way before but it was not possible at the time), Implog (Don Christensen and Jody Harris), extra tracks by Bush Tetras, Konk, Mars and the truly awesome pre-New York Noise punk Chain Gang with "Son of Sam."

Final one: will the world ever tire of hearing "Contort Yourself"?
No, I still like it!

The 2016 edition of Soul Jazz's New York Noise: Dance Music From the New York Underground 1977-1982 is out now on LP, CD, and MP3.

Follow Josh on Twitter