No wave was a short-lived avant-garde scene that emerged in the late 1970s in downtown New York City. In partial reaction against punk rock's recycling of traditionalist rock and roll clichés, no wave musicians instead experimented with noise, dissonance and atonality in addition to a variety of non-rock genres, including free jazz and funk, while often reflecting an abrasive, confrontational and nihilistic worldview. In the later years of the scene, it adopted a more playful, danceable aesthetic inspired by disco, early hip hop and world music sources.
The term "no wave" was a pun based on the rejection of commercial new wave music. The movement would last a relatively short time but profoundly influenced the development of independent film, fashion and visual art.
No wave is not a clearly definable musical genre with consistent features, although it was generally characterized by a rejection of the recycling of traditional rock aesthetics, such as blues rock styles and Chuck Berry guitar riffs, in punk and new wave music. Various groups drew on or explored such disparate styles as funk, jazz, blues, punk rock, and the avant garde. According to Village Voice writer Steve Anderson, the scene pursued an abrasive reductionism which "undermined the power and mystique of a rock vanguard by depriving it of a tradition to react against". Anderson claimed that the no wave scene represented "New York's last stylistically cohesive avant-rock movement".
There were, however, some elements common to most no-wave music, such as abrasive atonal sounds; repetitive, driving rhythms; and a tendency to emphasize musical texture over melody—typical of La Monte Young's early downtown music. The repetitive synthesizer-driven music and confrontational stage act of New York City's Suicide, established in 1970, would become a primary influence to the development of no wave, as did the harmolodic free jazz music of saxophonist Ornette Coleman. In the early 1980s, Downtown Manhattan's no wave scene transitioned from its abrasive origins into a more dance-oriented sound, with compilations such as ZE Records's Mutant Disco (1981) highlighting a newly playful sensibility borne out of the city's clash of hip hop, disco and punk styles, as well as dub reggae and world music influences.
No wave music presented a negative and nihilistic world view that reflected the desolation of late 1970s downtown New York and how they viewed the larger society. Lydia Lunch noted: "The whole fucking country was nihilistic. What did we come out of? The lie of the Summer of Love into Charles Manson and the Vietnam War. Where is the positivity?" The term "no wave" was probably inspired by the French New Wave pioneer Claude Chabrol, with his remark "There are no waves, only the ocean".
In 1978 a punk subculture-influenced noise series was held at New York's Artists Space. No wave musicians such as the Contortions, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, Mars, DNA, Theoretical Girls and Rhys Chatham began experimenting with noise, dissonance and atonality in addition to non-rock styles. The former four groups were included on the Brian Eno-produced No New York compilation, often considered the quintessential testament to the scene. The no wave-affiliated label ZE Records was founded in 1978, and would also produce acclaimed and influential compilations in subsequent years.
By the early 1980s, artists such as Liquid Liquid, the B-52s, Cristina, Arthur Russell, James White and the Blacks and Lizzy Mercier Descloux developed a more dance-oriented style described by Luc Sante as "anything at all + disco bottom". The decadent parties and art installations of venues such as Club 57 and the Mudd Club became cultural hubs for musicians and visual artists alike, with figures such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring and Michael Holman frequenting the scene. Other no wave-indebted groups such as Swans, Glenn Branca, the Lounge Lizards, Bush Tetras and Sonic Youth instead continued exploring the early scene's forays into noise and more abrasive territory.
No wave inspired the "Speed Trials" noise rock series organized by Live Skull members in May 1983 at White Columns which included British band the Fall and American bands Sonic Youth, Lydia Lunch, Beastie Boys, Elliott Sharp, Swans, the Ordinaires, Arto Lindsay and Toy Killers. This was followed by the after-hours Speed Club that was fleetingly established at ABC No Rio.
In addition to those mentioned above, the following musical artists are cited as being part of the original no wave:
No wave cinema was an underground film scene in Tribeca and the East Village. Filmmakers included Amos Poe, Eric Mitchell, Charlie Ahearn, Vincent Gallo, James Nares, Jim Jarmusch, Vivienne Dick, Scott B and Beth B and Seth Tillett, and led to the Cinema of Transgression and work by Nick Zedd and Richard Kern.
Visual artists played a large role in the no wave scene, as visual artists often were playing in bands, and/or making videos and films, while making visual art for exhibition. An early influence on this aspect of the scene was Alan Vega (aka Alan Suicide) whose electronic junk sculpture predated his role in the music group Suicide.
An important exhibition of no wave visual art was Colab's organization of the "Times Square Show". In June 1980, more than 100 artists installed their work in an empty massage parlor near Times Square that included punk visual artists, graffiti artists, feminist artists, political artists, Xerox artists and performance artists.
No wave art found an ongoing home on the Lower East Side with the establishment of ABC No Rio Gallery in 1980, and a no wave punk aesthetic was a dominant strand in the art galleries of the East Village (from 1982-86).
In a foreword to the book No Wave, Weasel Walter wrote of the movement's ongoing influence,
I began to express myself musically in a way that felt true to myself, constantly pushing the limits of idiom or genre and always screaming "Fuck You!" loudly in the process. It's how I felt then and I still feel it now. The ideals behind the (anti-) movement known as No Wave were found in many other archetypes before and just as many afterwards, but for a few years around the late 1970s, the concentration of those ideals reached a cohesive, white-hot focus.
In 2004, Scott Crary made a documentary, Kill Your Idols, including such no wave bands as Suicide, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, DNA and Glenn Branca as well as bands influenced by no wave including Sonic Youth, Swans, Foetus and others.
In 2007-2008, three books on the scene were published: Soul Jazz's New York Noise, Marc Masters' No Wave, and Thurston Moore and Byron Coley's No Wave: Post-Punk. Underground. New York. 1976-1980.
Coleen Fitzgibbon and Alan W. Moore created a short film in 1978 (finished in 2009) of a New York City no wave concert to benefit Colab called "X Magazine Benefit", documenting performances by DNA, James Chance and the Contortions, and Boris Policeband. Shot in black and white Super 8 and edited on video, the film captured the gritty look and sound of the music scene during that era. In 2013, it was exhibited at Salon 94, an art gallery in New York City.