The Stick Men | photo courtesy of Cuneiform Records
A guide to the weird and wonderful world of Philadelphia no wave music
No wave music encapsulates a lot of different things: it’s the in-your-face aggression of bands like The Contortions and Lydia Lunch, the arrhythmic art punk of DNA, the pulsating noise of Suicide. It’s jazz, it’s rock n’ roll, it’s funk, it’s electronic and analog, and it’s everything in between. It’s this rejection of the rules – for music and everything else – that was intrinsically and spiritually connected to the almost dystopian environment that was New York City in the late 70s and early 80s.
But NYC didn’t have a monopoly on dystopia, for better or worse, and no wave spread across the country and across the world. That very much included Philadelphia, which produced its fair share of bands and musicians that had a huge effect on the genre, even if they were not always appreciated at the time.
While no wave is still very much a thing, it’s generally agreed upon that the first generation of bands are the canon, the ones who wrote the guidelines for everyone else to follow … or break.
Here is a guide to Philadelphia’s contributions to that first wave of no wave:
The Stick Men
You can’t talk about the Philadelphia no wave scene without talking about The Stick Men. There was nothing this band couldn’t do, from funky, wild punk to weird and noisy skronk. Take a look at the video of them playing on the Uncle Floyd show and I dare you not to find it as catchy as it is charming. There is good reason that almost 40 years after they broke up that the band is still held in very high regard in the city and around the world.
The Stick Men put out one 7” in 1981 on Phantom Plaything – also home to Hidden Combo/King of Siam – the incredible Get On Board 12” in 1983 on Red Records with “Funky Hayride” along with other great tracks, and a fantastic LP in between. A posthumous collection put out by Cuneiform in 2001 called Insatiable is a must-have for fans.
Notes: If you like The Stick Men be sure to check out the recently-unearthed Heathens tape that Mace Canister Recordings – it’s Chuck Meehan from contemporaries YDi – digitized and put up on Bandcamp. That’s the late Beth Ann Lejman from Stick Men along with members of King of Siam, Informed Sources, and Initial Attack.
A University of the Arts band, Head Cheese only put one 7″ record during their brief existence but they certainly made an impact. “Jungle Jam” is still one of the coolest tracks about Philadelphia and the video of the band walking around the city is a total classic. More post-punk than freakout, their sound was fairly minimal with vocals and synths front and center.
Philly punk archive Freedom Has No Bounds uploaded the insert that came with the 7″ and also included this quote from band member Susan Ottaviano:
“We recorded Jungle Jam at Third Story music, an 8 track studio in Philadelphia, in 1981. It was produced by David Javelosa, who we met at the East Side Club. He was performing with his group Los Microwaves at the time. The ‘Jungle Jam’ video was filmed in and around Philly and is truly a love story to the city. There are scenes on Broad Street, the gargoyles in City Hall, a basement on League street and a pig’s head from the Italian Market. The Jungle Jam video has just recently been posted on YouTube. One of the original directors of that video even works for Pixar now. He said that he had more fun on our movie than he does today. You should check it out. It’s pretty funny.”
Ottaviano and Jade Lee went on to be in the far more conventional – but still fun! – Book of Love, who had a lot of success and even opened up for Depeche Mode on a string of dates in 1985.
The Notekillers are a prime example of the Philadelphia scene just kind of being ignored both at home and in other cities. The band started making noisy, jazz-influenced instrumental post-punk music back in 1977 in the Oak Lane neighborhood – guitarist and bandleader David First recently posted a picture of their first practice space, these days a pharmacy — putting out a single 7” in 1980. They gigged around the region for the next year, playing a slew of shows in NYC around that time opening for some of those downtown bands including Bush Tetras, Glenn Branca, and a ton of other no wave notables.
They went on hiatus in 1981. First moves up to New York to pursue music. Drummer Barry Halkin decides to focus on his photography career. Bassist Stephen Bilenky opens up a very successful bike shop that is still going to this day. A break that was supposed to last for six months instead dragged on for more than two decades. It wasn’t until Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore named the band as one of his biggest influences in 2001 that all of a sudden everyone remembered that Notekillers are actually incredible.
A collection of all their stuff was put out by Moore’s label Ecstatic Peace! a few years later and the band actually got back together to play shows on a semi-regular basis and even released a new album back in 2010. They last played Philadelphia in February of 2020 on a two night David First retrospective put together by Bowerbird. You can read about the history of Notekillers and First in the article we published at the time.
Crash Course in Science
While post-punk outfit Crash Course in Science are better known in the electronic scenes, their first recordings back in 1979, featuring toy instruments and household appliances, was decidedly no wave influenced. Although the band only existed for a couple years during their initial run — sound familiar? — a renewed interest in their legacy brought them out of retirement in 2001. An extensive triple LP box set collecting studio sessions, demos, and live shows was released by Vinyl-On-Demand in 2009.
The band was a favorite of XPN’s Lee Paris who not only championed them on the air but also put out their first 7” Cakes In The Home in 1979. They opened for Philip Glass the next year, “playing their kitchen blenders and other gear” according to a review found on the website Discogs.com. Also, the video for their song “Cardboard Lamb” is one of the raddest from that era by a long shot. Read more about the band in our piece from a couple years ago, and listen to them play “It Costs To Be Austere” in WXPN Studios for a Key Session in 2012.
Jamaaladeen Tacuma is one of the coolest, funkiest, most versatile and most interesting bassists of the past few decades. Known primarily for his contributions to jazz and jazz fusion starting back in the mid-70s, Tacuma has also played on a ton of albums considered incredibly important to the no wave scene. Those include releases from Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time – Body Meta, Of Human Feelings – James Blood Ulmer – Tales of Captain Black – and the first one by Golden Palominos in which he’s featured alongside John Zorn, Arto Lindsy of DNA, Bill Laswell, Fred Frith from Henry Cow, and a bunch of other luminaries. And that was all before 1984!
Tacuma also appeared on a 1981 fusion album called Coup De Tête with a band put together by composer and percussionist Kip Hanrahan that included Anton Fier and Laswell – the core of Golden Palominos – Frith, Lindsay, Bern Nix, Jerry Gonzalez, and Germantown’s own Byard Lancaster on flute. Lancaster is best known for his work with Sun Ra, Khan Jamal, Sounds of Liberation, Sunny Murray, and more.
Tacuma’s career has spanned multiple decades and genres and shows no sign of slowing down. His discography is outrageously huge; he’s probably the only musician to play with Coleman, Nona Hendryx, King Britt, John Zorn, The Roots, and children’s band The Wiggles, who he toured with a couple years back.
When he’s not recording or touring, Tacuma runs an amazing vintage boutique called The Redd Carpet Room in Southwest Philly. You can keep up with him on his social media – highly recommended – or via his website.
Here’s something that you probably didn’t know: there was a short-lived experimental and no wave scene in Allentown starting in the late 70s. While there’s always been something going on there, the Lehigh Valley was much better known for its punk bands than anything else. Well, that and that one Billy Joel song.
Still, something had to be happening there. A big hint was the Live In Allentown album no wave-adjacent skronkers Borbetomagus put out in ‘85. A total classic, sure, but what happened that a NYC free jazz noise rock band ended up recording a show out in Central PA?! Los Dominos certainly had a big role in setting the stage for all that.
On their recently set-up Bandcamp page they refer to themselves as “A Pre-Industrial, Neo Primitive Pop band from the Pa. Suburbs.” There are more than 15 tracks on there ranging in sound from raw and rhythmic Throbbing Gristle-esque industrial to more straightforward punk to stuff that’s very reminiscent of bands like The Residents and DEVO.
According to the band’s bassist Irman Peck, “For a short time we had a rehearsal space that turned into a nightclub (Egad’s) that became pretty active.” At that spot, he told The Key, Los Dominos shared the bill with the aforementioned Stick Men as well as “numerous European improvisation luminaries” brought in by Gary Hassay, a free jazz saxophonist and Allentown lifer who probably deserves his own article.
Notes: Guitarist and lead singer Greg Weaver was a well-known artist in the Lehigh Valley. He passed away in 1995 at just 49 years old. This great article from the Allentown Morning Call goes into Weaver’s legacy and also talks about the band and their impact.
Sun Ra Arkestra
The Arkestra is a jazz band, nobody is disputing that, but they are also so much more than that. Their influence has been ever-present for almost six decades and you can be sure that’s extended into no wave. An immeasurable number of musicians from that scene have cited Sun Ra and his outfit including Sonic Youth, Glenn Branca, John Zorn, and many, many others.
While they might not have had any recordings that were as sonically dissonant as Suicide or Mars, there are some songs that are clearly in that wheelhouse. The one that comes to mind first is “Nuclear War” that was released by Y Records – also home to The Pop Group, Slits, and Pigbag – in 1982.
Notes: The Sun Ra catalog is rather intimidating and if you have never really listened to the band it might be hard to figure out where to start. Their most recent album Swirling came out last year and it’s absolutely fantastic. While with most bands it pays to engage with things in chronological order that is not totally necessary with the Arkestra. Check out the Bandcamp Daily guide published in 2017 and also make a point to listen to the collection of songs vocalist and violist June Tyson played on calledSaturnian Queen Of The Sun Ra Arkestra that Sundazed released a couple years back.
Rat At Rat R
Rat At Rat R might be known as a New York City band but the no wave noise rockers actually formed in Northern Liberties in 1980 and gigged here for a year before making the move two hours north. Musically they were very much the link between the heavier, angrier sound of The Swans and the more angular and mathy Sonic Youth. The fact that Rat At Rat R played tons of shows with both those bands during their almost ten year existence is not surprising at all.
In a 2012 interview with the Village Voice, guitarist John Myers reflected on the influence of no wave and specifically composer Glenn Branca, whose ensemble he would end up joining. While he made it clear that he would never outright ape anyone’s sound, he did say that, “Branca inspired me to be daring, to take chances, to push the boundaries, and believe in my own music.”
Notes: Another Philadelphia-in-NYC connection would come in 1989 when bassist Sonda Andersson joined noise rock band Live Skull alongside Rich Hutchins, who was also the first drummer for Philly Buddhist hardcore punks Ruin.
G. Calvin Weston
Like his occasional bandmate Jamaaladeen Tacuma – and really like so many of the musicians profiled in this article – percussionist Calvin Weston has done it all. One of his first credits was on Ornette Coleman’s Of Human Feelings, which was recorded in 1979 when Weston was barely older than 20. That was also the first time he played on an album with fellow Philadelphians Tacuma and Charles Ellerbee.
A year later he was on James Blood Ulmer’s album Are You Glad To Be In America? which was released on Rough Trade, a label that put out a lot of punk and avant garde. Like Coleman, all of Ulmer’s music is considered very influential on the no wave scene, especially their output in the late 70’s and early 80’s.
Since then Weston has played with everyone from the Lounge Lizards to Tricky to Derek Bailey and so many more. His next one is with Yanni and Alexi Papadopoulos of Stinking Lizaveta fame in a band called Wail. That’ll be coming out on Translation Loss Records sometime this spring.
These Philly bands were definitely not no wave but played music that butted up against the genre during it’s core time period:
Bunnydrums – One of the best Philadelphia post-punk bands, especially in the early 80’s when that sound was still being developed. Despite being more Joy Division and Tuxedomoon than Lydia Lunch or DNA, there was a definite streak of weirdness and experimentation going on that made them stick out from many of their peers. Over the years the band was tapped to open up for everyone from Pere Ubu to Pylon to the Sun Ra Arkestra, which certainly speaks to their sonic versatility.
The Reds – History might remember The Reds as a new wave / power pop act but when they first started out back in the late 70’s they were much noisier and less straightforward. Clearly influenced by The Velvet Underground and The Doors but existing at the dawn of punk, the band’s first couple releases were downright sleazy – in a good way! – rock n’ roll that was wonderfully heavy on the synths. They were definitely considered strange enough that they got the chance to open for Suicide at St. Mary’s on Penn’s campus in 1978 and Public Image Limited at the Tower Theater a couple years later.
Executive Slacks – The industrial dance sound of Executive Slacks was pretty unique when the band first formed in 1980. Listen to their hit song “The Bus” below and think about how they were doing this sort of thing before Ministry, before Nine Inch Nails, before so many of the more ubiquitous bands in the genre even started. While not no wave, those early recordings certainly feel quite inspired by the genre. In a 2015 interview with the Dangerous Minds website the band’s Matt Marello spoke about using tape loops and found sounds to construct songs.
No Wave Today
While no wave is very much considered both a genre and a specific period of time, there were and are many, many bands playing music in that vein well after 1985. Here in Philadelphia we had the amazing industrial act Sink Manhattan and the absurdist surf punk of More Fiends in the late 80s and early 90s. More Fiends was one of the few local bands to record a session with the legendary John Peel of the BBC, a feat we wrote about last year. The late Mikey Wild and his various backing bands over the years also fall under that umbrella.
Twenty years ago Captain Crash was one of the first bands to introduce this reporter to the glories of abrasive, cacophonaous, and weird music. The same can be said about Mat Rademan / Newton of Breathmint records and his tireless promotion of noise acts in basements and warehouses around West Philly at around the same time. While not many of those were no wave in the strictest definition, they certainly had a lot of the elements and attitudes of the genre. Seeing Minneapolis’s Cock E.S.P. covered in tinfoil and rolling around the floor of the Killtime while screaming their heads off was a transformative experience.
One of the best of the past few years was Old Maybe, who sadly broke up, though singer and guitarist Jazz Adam currently plays in a fantastic bi-coastal outfit called Cheap Meat that we wrote about last year. Other no wave-inspired bands in the Philadelphia area you need to check out include EAT, Taiwan Housing Project, Bloated Subhumans, Chronic Anxiety, Devil, Drill (members of the late, great Ursula, who also deserve your attention), and many more. These groups might seem dissimilar from each other but that’s part of what makes no wave so interesting.
In an interview a few years back for Dummy Mag Lydia Lunch said: “I like that no wave is having a kind of resurgence and some influence in music because it’s really just about putting it out there as aggressively and brutally as possible and not giving a shit about the fucking consequences.” That was true in New York City in 1976 when she and her band Teenage Jesus and the Jerks helped birth the genre and it’s just as true in Philadelphia in 2021.