Truly great jazz is rhythmic enough to lure you in but chaotic enough to make sure you don’t get bored…or too comfortable. Truly great funk is rhythmic enough to keep your body moving and your senses tighter than a trucker on a yellow-jacket binge. Cross these mighty twin forms together and you land somewhere near the county of James Chance. Even then, like any artist worth their salt, simple categorization is not only uneasy but also ill advised. And that’s when things get truly exciting.
Emerging during the late 1970’s quick-flash but potent No Wave movement, Chance, by way of Brookfield,Wisconsin, arrived in New York City and would go on to make a musical mark that initially defined and defied the very scene that he would be associated with. He first came to recorded prominence with an appearance on the Brian Eno-produced compilation, No New York, which also featured greats like DNA, Mars and Teenage Jesus & the Jerks. (A band Chance helped create along with lead singer/force of nature Lydia Lunch.)
However, it was 1979’s album Buy, Chance’s debut along with his band, The Contortions, that changed multiple games and is a rare example of a work that is simultaneously of its era and yet aggressively repels dust and art-mold. Its sonic punch and bone-rattling kinetic rhythm is the kind that cracks buildings at their foundations and runs off all the right people from a party. Arriving on the scene with internal influences ranging from Thelonious Monk to The Stooges, it was a no brainer than the man’s creative thumbprint was going to be unforgettable.
“Contort yourself one time! Contort yourself two times! Contort yourself three times!....”
Buy was and forever is, a powerful work. Upon first listening, the instant vibe is chaos. Truly great music can either cause a riot (i.e. Stravinsky) or calm a riot (i.e. James Brown) and with James Chance the potential for both is thriving and waiting. Atonality collides with a jazz-blues-funk permutation, with Chance, in key moments, coming across like an angular, honky James Brown. The second wallop is what the man does with the sax. It’s the spiritual heir apparent to jazz godheads like Ornette Coleman combo-ed with the throbbing pulse of a city full of crime, despair, drugs, dirt and living defiantly while nodding your head to the less than pleasant reality that surrounds you. In short, one James Chance sax solo makes up for a multitude of sins committed against this noble instrument all throughout the 1980’s in popular music.
From the opening track, “Design to Kill” to the tiki-guitars-from-Hell work on “My Infatuation,” Buy is an unrelenting ride. If a punch can feel like an act of mal-love, this is it. There’s the crime-tinged jazz of “Twice Removed,” featuring lyrics like “...been washed up and left to dry” and “I only like things twice removed.” The big barnstormer of the album, however, is “Contort Yourself.” The song plays out like a battle cry for the entire work.
“It’s better than pleasure, it hurts more than pain. I’ve got what it takes to drive you insane.”
It’s a big, bold statement that not only can be backed up, but Chance himself knows that he can back it up. Seeing footage of the man even further backs it up, since once you witness Chance suited up and coiffed like the bastard son of Chet Baker and a lounge lizard, it hammers the point home. Then there’s the scream. The yowl that Chance lets out in “Contort Yourself” is piercing and possesses all the wow factor of a steel mill combusting.
Thirty-six years later and Buy is more than a mere document of an art movement in time. Like any great creative work, it still lives and breathes, perhaps even more now than it did back in the day. Buy was originally released on Ze Records, the same NYC based label that featured Lizzy Mercier Descloux, Suicide and Christina. Now it has been re-released on 180 gram vinyl, in two different colors, via Futurismo. The re-release features a reflective cover of the original’s striking photo featuring a model that is more mannequin-like than flesh and a lush 12 page booklet featuring rarely seen photos by Chance’s then manager and partner, the late Anya Phillips. (Philips was also known for her own personal style and fashion designs, examples of which can be seen both on the Buy cover, as well as the cover of Blondie’s Plastic Letters album.) There are also two bonus tracks in the form of “Terminal City” and “Incorrigible.” The re-release is a luscious tribute to a seminal, ground-breaking album.
Luckily, Chance has never really stopped performing. As James White & The Blacks, he did a supremely killer version of “Sax Maniac” in Downtown 81 (A film ripe with mind blowingly great artists including star Jean-Michel Basquiat and musical appearances including DNA, Kid Creole & the Coconuts and Tuxedomoon.) He still regularly performs and judging by the assortment of recent live videos on YouTube, Chance still has that barely definable “it” that animates his mutant muse. This is an artist who roundly deserves a wider examination beyond “No Wave icon.” He is that, but James Chance is much more and re-examining an album like Buy is the perfect starting place.
Below, the original Contortions live at Max’s Kansas City, 1978, New York NY. James Chance, Jody Harris, Pat Place, George Scott, and Don Christenson.