by Perry Meisel
Could there be life after the Ramones? Exemplary suicide on the altar of imitation: Manhattan's Stimulators (the best, ripeness is all), El Lay's Circle Jerks (the worst, regurgitation). The decline of Western sieve: an inability to digest. Beyond the Clash and Costello: neo-psychedelia and New Romanticism. The problem: a refusal to re-fuse. The solution: a p--k romance with funk as inevitable as the rhyme.
P--k f--k has had its harbingers ever since the release of Blondie's "Heart of Glass" coincided with the ascendancy of Hurrah in the winter of '79. The New Wave actually wanted a backbeat less subtle than the Ramones'! People wanted to dance while they thought. Head and body were already the same. Even David Byrne was turning Motown. Then the B-52s' sudden epiphany. They grafted - maybe just matched - the extended pauses of classic rhythm and blues with the de rigeur sparseness of p--k itself. The result: a loose, slappy sound, as if drums could twang, too; an approach to the beat with a lineage today in Polyrock and the Raybeats.
Add to these already convergent designs the rise of horn bands on the old Graham Bond/Air Force model (Noise R Us, Major Thinkers) plus Material's overt re-fusion in jazz over the last year or two (in-fused by James Blood Ulmer's harmelodix). A more genuine crossover than the Cobham/Corea style, since it takes p--k's lessons seriously (minimize, transistorize, assume) rather than laughing at rock and roll as a sly hype, as '70s jazzmen did. And add to pop p--k and jazz the third dimension of an all-synthesizer band like Our Daughter's Wedding slamming those machines into dance, Material at the Ritz this spring, and you can be sure something that transcends both technology and genre is afoot.
The formal announcement still belongs, of course, to James Chance and the Contortions, a/k/a James White and the Blacks. Grinding horns in collision with overdrive p--k guitar, James screams on top and yelps below and suddenly Papa's got a brand new boy. The discipleship was intentional enough, even though it reeked more of lame Jagger than the hommage to James Brown might suggest. But the key to its peculiarity lay in figuring out the confusing shift of names involved (Contortionist personnel shifted, too). Undecided, the Chance/White oscillation reads: "He's White by Chance." Thus Chance/White solves the old '60s "authenticity" problem by lifting the genetic (and generic) injunction: You can be some kind of James Brown even if you're white because, white or black, rock or soul, it's all arbitrary anyway - not biology but sociology assigns meaning to bag and color alike. If the Ramones ever had a conceptual rival, here he was, blurring the line between affect and affectation by making the color line a fiction too. A Major Thinker no matter the depth of his chops.
Chance is off on a European tour after increasingly lukewarm local response; his newest produkt is an hour-long compilation of live appearances, available on cassette from Reachout International Records (611 Broadway, Suite 214, NY, NY 10012). But Chance/White blew open a space for the new guys, almost too many to count with any accuracy. Narrative breaks down once you hit today, or at least two Sundays ago at Tompkins Square Park, where 99 Records (as in 99 MacDougal) sponsored a post-nostalgia festival featuring this stuff.
Needed: a synchronic glossary, a post-White whose who of local rock and role (some jazz, too) in the p--k f--k vein. Let the punny names do the talking. We've lost our heads anyway. Besides, it's fun(k). Choices are somewhat random, as they should be. All of the following groups have either played recently, released a record recently, and/or will be playing locally soon.
As in: Defunkt. By turns a spirited and sluggish brass/strut band with a revvy backbeat. The name gives the problem away: is funk defunct? The band would like to think so, but it stays too close to formula funk to pull the trick off with grace. Despite Joe Bowie's lineage as an "out" 'bonist (Lester's his big brother), the band as a whole sounds too much like a mellowed version of Tower of Power or Kool and the Gang to convince you that more than mindless dance music is their aim. Is playing strictly within genre a mode of ideological capture, self-erasure? Is that why funk may be defunct? How can you play rhythm and blues and not feel like a clown/clone playing just a groove thing? Answer: unless you've got the charms of an oldfashioned frontman - Joe Bowie definitely has 'em - you can't. Solution here: go ahead and play generic if you feel like it. Jeans, after all, aren't genes. If it's okay by Chance, it's okay by Bowie, too, whom Chance joined onstage during a late set last month at Interferon in a moving dis-play of good intentions. Gigs and record (De-funkt, on Hannibal) both exacerbate and occasionally relieve the anxiety.
As in: Liquid Liquid. Hottest thing on Sunday besides the weather. Representatives of the slaphappy school of p--k f--k: no contorted horns, no churning guitar overdrive; instead, slapping snares and toms, choral counterchords blowing open huge horizons of a sound we heard first on "Blue Jay Way" (co-opted with faint glimmers of intelligence recently even by Spandau). Is the name redundant? Hardly. It splays the signifier like a knife cuts brains: here "liquid" is both adjective and noun at the same time. What is the difference between the quality and the thing itself (e.g., between black and being black)? Answer: nothing. A thing is the mere play of its attributions. Jeans, not genes. Post p--k rock and role. You can get the record at 99 MacDougal, though it's hardly representative.
As in: Essential Bop. Young Brit whirlybirders in town for Sunday's Tompkins Park gala, slapping and clapping, sometimes missing. When their Raybeaty guitars and croony vocals fit the monkeytime drums, a fragile but real projectile; otherwise hazy, unripe. Dangerous word, "essential." Intimates unawareness of "end of essentialism" - the "essence" of p--k - asserted by Liquid Liquid.
As in: Julius Hemphill and Bob Moses's Punk Funk Octet. Blame the band for the moniker, not me. More "out" jazzies making the turn last month at Seventh Avenue South in line with Material, Ulmer & Co. The manic overdrive of two guitars challenged Hemphill's insinuating tenor as it negotiated drummer Moses's uncynical backbeat with caution; Hemphill kept his splattering Shorter/Wane Marsh runs sleek and sharp despite his appearance of indistinctness. But no genuinely dominant single melody or solo instrument; "coherence" emerged only occasionally as the band flexed between nerves and relaxation, often building to classic dramatic climaxes even as it eschewed teleology. So the real story is like Material's or Liquid Liquid's: rhythm is melody, so the melody instrumentals are . . . ?
As in: Konk. No joke here, and that's the problem. Konk! Are you knocked out yet? Another Sunday offering, this powerful polybrass conga/percussion affair, legato trumpets and sax accompany the rhythms rather than crack against them. An intentional refusal to force tension into the sound - theoretically interesting, but dreary in practice, especially with so fine a drummer and conga player.
As in: Funktionaries. Contortionistic-plus: tight though fuller horn lines punching the killing rhythmic floor, but fonder than Chance of "out" reed harmonies even on stompers like "Kiss My Funk . . . " and the signatory "Funktionary." Tom Ward (a/k/a Mal Funktion) may be the real James Chance. Not without flecks of neo-psychedelia, vestige of a decade in the Bay Area till a year ago. Defunkt at a more exact level of praxis. Is generic funk the music of a mere functionary? Someone who carries out orders, works in a tradition without questioning or reflecting? The pun situates the functionaries where every "artist" should be: within the necessities of an ideology but also outside them. You can be in two places at the same time. Watch out tonight, Wednesday, August 19, at the Playroom, formerly Trude Heller's.
Originally published in The Village Voice, August 19 - 25, 1981