Perhaps nothing punk produced – not its music or its fashion sense – has had as lasting an impact as its DIY spirit. The notion of "doing it yourself", avoiding the trappings of the music industry and its inflated sense of cultural purpose, drove many a novice musician to find their own means of making and distributing their sound. During the transitional phase between the garage grind of punk's power chord strategies and the synth and style conscious coming of New Wave, another movement, entitled No Wave, swept through the scene. Proudly proclaiming its performance art ideals, and specifically disassociated from the concept of music in general, these noisemakers became the foundation for such seminal acts as Sonic Youth, and Suicide. Until now, very little has been known about the No Wave pioneers, and the post-millennial bands that have followed in their famous (or in some cases, infamous) footstep. Now, thanks to director S. A. Crary's fascinating (if flawed) documentary, Kill Your Idols, we get a determined look at those who made the sound, and all the fury that accompanied it.
New York in the mid to late '70s was a combination of literal and metaphysical Hell. The streets were dirty, and dangerous, and the city was suffering from internal corruption and external vilification. It's no wonder that punk rose up from within this dire domain. It's cries for confrontation and change were attempts at some manner of sustainable youth coup. Unfortunately, in a culture still clamoring for disco, the guitar-driven directives from most of the scene's stalwarts fell on deaf ears. That's when artists like Suicide, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, and DNA decided to destroy the very elemental aspects of music itself. For Martin Rev and Alan Vega, the emerging technological scream of synthesizers became the backdrop for Manhattan's menace. For Lydia Lunch of Teenage Jesus, it was all about the politics – interpersonal, international, sexual, etc. Bands like DNA, and later Sonic Youth wanted to rip apart the requirements of sound, detuning their instruments and experimenting with structure in order to give music back its inherent basics…and beauty. For all of them, it was a matter of taking the 'art' out of the 'artifice' the record industry had created. Apparently, it's the same today. Bands like Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs and A.R.E. Weapons are using the No Wave movement as inspiration for their own sort of sonic deconstruction. In the '70s, the goal was to Kill Your Idols. In the new millennium, it's apparently time to emulate them.
Kill Your Idols starts off with a stellar premise for a documentary. Hoping to trace the history and growth of the No Wave scene in mid '70s New York, director S. A. Crary rounds up a few of the usual suspects – and a couple we desperately hope to hear from – and turns the camera on their open, opinionated selves. For anyone who grew up in the period, only 'hearing' about artists like Lydia Lunch or Suicide from their more hip and haughty pals, this is a chance to get in on the ground floor of the significant sonic movement and see what all the fuss was about. Experimental, inaccessible, avant-garde and purposefully antithetical to the mandates of the music biz, No Wave was like looking at the internal organs and skeleton of sound. It offered no rules and allowed very little premeditation. Many viewed it as the aural extension of the personality playing it – from Sonic Youth's considered cacophony to Lunch's confrontational harangue – while critics either embraced its provocation or dismissed it outright. In many ways, this approach will probably copy your reaction to this fine, fragmented film. On the one hand, you will definitely find these aging musical anarchists an intriguing and engaging bunch. As a matter of fact, why Lunch doesn't have her own Politically Incorrect style talk show ala Henry Rollins is a major media mystery. But there will be folks who hear the racket these reasonable people made and bristle at such an atonal attack. For them, no amount of erudition can make up for their lack of melody.
But that was the very point of the No Wave scene. It was about the primal, inherent sound inside all of us. To these artists, everything inside a person had the potential as music – pain, sorrow, anger, aggression, love, logic, goofiness and grandeur. The trick was finding a way to let it all out. Unlike punk, that placated its emotions in three chord rapid-fire riffs, a No Wave concert could have spoken word elements followed by two hours a feedback, a series of staccato keyboard notes layered over a garbage can rhythm section. It could be poetry and preaching, or the drone like dirge of a detuned bass. Whatever the case, the only mandate was to be true to yourself – avoiding imitation, or in essence, killing those you'd idolize and thereby emulate. It makes for an intriguing aesthetic, and when spoken about by people as insightful as Thurston Moore, Lunch, Glenn Branca, Arto Linsday and Jim Sclavunos, you get a real sense of how serious this was. Unlike other movements (New Romantics, Goth, Emo) that seem based in fashion first, music second and meaning third, No Wave walked along wearing its "fuck you" facets in full view. More provoking than punk, less linked to the industry than any other aspect of 'rock and roll', No Wave meant no compromise, no allegiances, and no selling out.
Yet it's this final element that ultimately dooms this documentary, dragging it down from classic to competent status. Had Crary stayed with the story of how disgruntled youth who found The Ramones too routine embraced the pure spirit of DIY, we'd have a terrific chronicle of a time, a place, and a very active, very antagonistic scene. While it does demand a bit of backwards glancing – after all, context is hard to come by some 30 years later – the core concept of Kill Your Idols is another compulsory cog in the story of rock's rise from the '50s to now. But then the director had to go and sully the importance of No Wave's works by offering up the pretty poseurs who make up the "current" New York noise landscape. Before going much further, it has to be said that this critic holds a particular bias against the modern "versions" of his teenage life soundtrack. He finds power pop punk demeaning to its forefathers, and all post-millennial experimentalism stinking of misconstrued banality. That being said, there is nothing wrong with focusing on bands like the Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs or Black Dice, and the music they make does have some wonderfully winning features. But when juxtaposed against the real deal, when Karen O is seen speaking right after Lydia Lunch, the chasm between originality and plagiarism becomes obvious. The new bands don't need to be labeled as phonies or copycats. They have a worth outside of the comparison to the past.
Unfortunately, such subjective showcasing occurs about halfway through Kill Your Idols. Believing a successful correlation can be drawn between the first timers and the fresh faces, Crary begins mixing and matching, bringing comments from Sonic Youth into discussions began by Gogol Bordello. The snotty sentiments of most of the modern bands reflect poorly on the pretensions presented by the Me Decade fixtures, and the result is a mutual demeaning of both. Indeed, one of Kill Your Idols most unsuccessful facets is the decision to use the past to comment on the present and visa versa. It undermines the importance of both while failing to fulfill the clear mandates of such a compare and contrast ideal. If we are supposed to see a sort of simpatico between the generations, it's virtually nonexistent. Even worse, both sides seem to hate each other, barely capable of complimenting, or even considering, the value in what the others are doing/have done. In the beginning, when Crary is focused on the first few volleys in the No Wave attack, we completely accept the premise. When the newbies enter into it, we are momentarily confused, but then find room for them in the discussion as well. But when the two can't behave themselves, sniping and complaining about who's truly the most subversive and inventive, the film looses its way. Kill Your Idols may have been a figurative call to rock rebellion decades before. Sadly, some 30 years later, it's a literal reaction to jealousy and commerciality.
Using a combination of stock elements – old film, new DAT interviews, analog video footage and modern technological advances – the DVD version of Kill Your Idols provides an intriguing visual transfer. There is no attempt to clean up the ancient material, no desire to match the present with the precedent. As a result, we get a hodgepodge production that looks aesthetically pleasing in its 1.85:1 non-anamorphic widescreen imagery. The choice to go with a faux letterboxing is intriguing, as it gives a cinematic feel to a print that was obviously aimed at a full frame market. Still, the minor amounts of grain and age are acceptable when compared to the relative rarity of the visuals on hand. Even without the 16x9 enhancement, this is still a fine looking digital picture.
Many music fans will balk at the aural aspects of this release, clamoring for a 5.1 remix when all they receive is a Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0 offering. Frankly, the original recording elements – tinny VHS tapes, subpar cameras with built-in mics - make such a remastering strategy seem foolish. No matter the amount of time or technology, a mono recording of Lydia Lunch from inside an acoustically unforgiving bar isn't going to sound like a 24 track CD. Without fusing over its lack of finesse or spatial ambience, we can appreciate the audio for what it is – clean and crisp with all conversations easily understood. And since the story is as important as the sound, such sonic clarity is crucial, and welcome.
One of the best things about DVD is that a disc can hold material that truly supplements and supports an otherwise disconcerting title. That's what happens with Kill Your Idols. Thanks to the wide array of additional interview footage, performance pieces, live clips and video material, we get a broader picture of No Wave and its influence. Suddenly, all the arguing and posturing makes sense, and is seen for what it is – artists staking out their claim for recognition and relevance. With the inclusion of an extensive photo gallery, a collection of trailers, and some intriguing weblinks, we get a fleshed out presentation that faultlessly complements the motion picture provided.
Though it can appear confusing at times, mixing its messages as readily as it over/underplays the importance of the movement, Kill Your Idols is a strangely satisfying experience. In making No Wave manageable for people who may not even give the innovative noise a second listen, filmmaker S. A. Crary deserves a great deal of credit. He finds the proper balance between pontification and perspective, giving otherwise inaccessible material a clear sense of purpose and a context in which to appreciate it. For all these reasons, and the remarkable amount of found performance footage, this determined documentary deserves a Highly Recommended rating. It may not be perfect, and does deride both the original noise innovators and their modern day counterparts, yet it still tells a significant story worth noting. Certainly, punk provided the creative catalyst, but the No Wave sound was born purely out of the soul and spirit of those determined to make it mean something. All these years later, it's hard to see what the struggle was about. Kill Your Idols elucidates the issues very clearly. No Wave wasn't just about clamor. It was about people's response to same, and how it made the artists feel inside. The same can be said about this determined documentary. It's not just a history of a specific time in music. It's also a testament to the lasting effect of the era's influence, for better or worse.
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