Why is noise so cool? Defying the stable mind’s logical resistance to entropy, the appeal of chaos in music is clearly in its ability to polarize, to draw a line in the air and dare listeners to jump over it. The quickest, most explicit route to the elitist differentiation of hip is popular rejection. Smelly cheese must be cool, since so many people run from it. Gore-bottled Hong Kong action flicks are cool. Ankle-busting high-heels are the coolest. And so on.
And so it was with the avant-garde no wave wing of New York City’s punk scene in the late ’70s. The small coterie of bands (as institutionalized on Brian Eno’s No New York compilation, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, Mars, the Contortions and DNA) that formed a rebellion inside the greater rebellion pulled like an undertow against the hipster punk rock realm, instantly belittling into relative mundanity those who had rejected mainstream music only to accept its ingenious Bowery variants. The distance from ELP’s uber-technique to Talking Heads’ tensed weirdness telescoped to an inch when measured against Arto Lindsay’s frenzied guitar scrabblings and incomprehensible yelps. The no wavers raised the admission fee to coolville by throwing away all the rules, challenging the in crowd to make itself inner. Song structure? Fuck all that reactionary bullshit. Melody? Please! Who needs it? Lyrics of graspable consequence? Think your own damn thoughts! 4/4 rock drumming? Leave that for the retards unable to escape their white-skin privilege and imperialist upbringing. Instead, the no wave made with unrestricted id, pure expression of the blurt, laying implicit claim to the supreme concept of free jazz and the unassailable black groove cool of hard funk.
Despite its minuscule recorded output, DNA, which existed in two three-person lineups from roughly 1978 to June 1982, was a major presence of startling originality. DNA’s genius and power were immediately evident when the group contributed four cuts to No New York. Lindsay — once described as James Brown trapped in Don Knotts’ body — pits scratch-slash-kill guitar against Robin Crutchfield’s sinister Suicidal electric piano and contributes two vocals showing his unique (if unintelligible) singing style in embryonic form. On “Not Moving,” Lindsay’s playing approximates Syd Barrett with an amphetamine edge.
The band matured on A Taste of DNA. Six pithy, polished statements show Kabuki-painted drummer Ikue Mori coming into her own as a tight, tireless master of shifting asymmetrical rhythm; Lindsay drawls, yells, yelps, gulps, burbles and gurgles his way to left-field legend. Replacing Crutchfield’s monolithic riffing is the sensitive, painterly bass of Tim Wright. This is no formless anarchic blare — each piece is a painstakingly crafted kernel of ideas organized with fearless unorthodoxy.
The three live performances (“Taking Kid to School,” “Cop Buys a Donut,” “Delivering the Goods”) on The Fruit of the Original Sin compilation are a poor epitaph. They suffer from crummy sound quality — one shifts from stereo to mono right in mid-song! — and bizarre editing, though Wright’s bass solo on “Delivering the Goods” is typically exquisite.
For the last encore of its final performance, DNA did Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love,” fittingly capping an iconoclastic career with the utterly unexpected. Released more than 20 years later, DNA on DNA compiles the band’s studio oeuvre (the potently wound “You & You” 7- inch, the occasionally less frenzied No New York quartet, A Taste of DNA and an obscure leftover called “Grapefruit”) with previously unreleased live recordings from 1978, 1980 and 1982. The 32 tracks are a final statement that sound and feel, two decades after the fact, more familiar, more bracingly unprecedented and — face it — fun than ever.
Crutchfield formed Dark Day as a trio after his departure from DNA; Exterminating Angel uses machine-like keyboard riffs as the foundation for moody, Teutonic music. By the release of Dark Day, he had jettisoned his backing band, shifting the music into the twilight of ambient Eno or Dome. Never a complete original, Crutchfield manages to get extra mileage out of the styles he borrows.