Until the mid-70s, the only kinds of blue jeans anyone really wore were Levis, Lee or Wrangler. Then came designer jeans like Calvin Klein and Gloria Vanderbilt.
To take on the big three jeans companies, these upscale upstarts needed cutting-edge celebrities to flog their togs: Calvin Klein famously used Brooke Shields and Natasha Kinski in his memorable advertising campaigns. Gloria Vanderbilt’s teen line, “GV Jr.” by Murjani had style icon Debbie Harry of Blondie for the spokesmodel.
In the first one, you’ll notice Lounge Lizard John Lurie on sax and Harry saunters past some SAMO wall tagging (SAMO was the graffiti name used by a young Jean-Michel Basquiat). Eagle-eyed No Wave trainspotters will also notice Mudd Club co-founder Anya Phillips and James Chance as they watch this over and over again…
Another Gloria Vanderbilt jeans commercial with Debbie Harry after the jump…
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.
James Chance/White purveying his single-minded skronky musical melting pot of funky, free jazz, punk and disco—an unholy No Wave gumbo that sounds like James Brown meets Ornette Coleman—in these four numbers taped in front of a French audience in 1980.
“I Feel Good,” “King Heroin,” “Put Me Back In My Cage,” and “Contort Yourself.”
Some of the best James Chance footage I’ve ever seen. Courtesy of the Bedazzled blog.
Whitney Weiss curated this little slice of NYC No-Wave goodness for Network Awesome.
James Chance and the Contortions - “I Can’t Stand Myself ” (live)
Bush Tetras - “Too Many Creeps “/ In the Night (live)
Lizzy Mercier Descloux - “Fire” (on French TV)
ESG - “You’re No Good” (live at Danceteria, 1984)
DNA live at the Mudd Club (on TV Party)
Suicide - “Ghost Rider”
Legendary post-punk performer James Chance (aka James White, aka James Black, best known for the classic “Contort Yourself”) features on a fetching new tie print by Vivienne Westwood.
If you are a fan of late 70s No-Wave skronk AND snazzy ties, then this is may be of interest (here’s looking at you Richard!) However, to purchase this tie you’re going to have to hunt for it, as it is not featured on the Westwood website’s “Men’s Accessories: Ties” page.
And while we are on the subject, here’s a clip of the re-formed Contortions playing live in Poland in 2008: