By 1977, the New York punk scene had run out of steam. Into the vacuum charged a second generation of NYC bands – determined to sever all connections with rock tradition – who came to be called ‘No Wave’.
“I hated almost the entirety of punk rock,” declared Lydia Lunch, raven-haired queen of the new scene with her band, Teenage Jesus & The Jerks.
A poet who turned to music as the most readily available means of expression, Lunch (born Lydia Anne Koch on 2 June 1959 in Rochester, New York) arrived in NYC as a teenage runaway and became a kind of anti-Patti Smith.
She conceived Teenage Jesus & The Jerks in the UK in 1976 as an act of cultural patricide, and their music matched Lydia’s personality – coarse, bitter and harsh.
Drummer Bradley Field couldn’t play the drums and didn’t even have a proper kit, just a single cymbal and a dysfunctional snare.
Lunch couldn’t play the guitar, but that wasn’t the point. Her singing was equally minimal, a piercing and piteous one-note wail. “I like my one note,” she once quipped, “What’s wrong with the note I have?”
With some songs as short as 41 seconds, a typical Teenage Jesus performance lasted about ten minutes . . .
Orphans is probably their most famous song, largely for its couplet “No more ankles and no more toes/Little orphans running through the bloody snow”, but the group’s archetypal short-fast soundstab is The Closet. Field’s hammer-blow snare and Lunch’s harrowed shriek merge into a tolling death-knell rhythm midway between spasm and dirge.
Lunch was a disciplinarian and would literally beat the band with coat-hangers during rehearsals if they made any mistakes at gigs. Onstage she remained rigid, disdaining to engage with the audience through eye-contact or banter, maintaining an unbridgeable moat of alienation between performer and spectators.
James Chance was an early member of Teenage Jesus but Lunch kicked him out for having too much contact with the audience.
Simultaneous with her leadership of Teenage Jesus, Lunch played in Beirut Slump, a more atmospheric outfit whose reeling malaise of noise she compared to The Blob (1958) – “it oozes under doors and people either run away fast to avoid it or they like to let this gooey junk surround them.”
Like Teenage Jesus, Beirut Slump was composed largely of people who’d never played music – filmmaker Vivienne Dick, for example, contributed keyboards.
For her solo debut, Queen Of Siam (1980), Lunch temporarily dropped her primal scream banshee howl for a baby-doll voice, innocent yet coquettish, sweetness with an edge. Slightly less than half the album featured orchestral arrangements by Billy Ver Planck, a composer and bandleader who had penned music for The Flintstones.
Lydia Lunch bounced between extremes – from the schmaltz noir of Queen of Siam to 8 Eyed Spy, an honest to goodness rock ‘n’ roll band. Grinding out snake-hipped boogie steeped in Americana and Southern Gothic, 8 Eyed Spy covered Creedence Clearwater Revival and Bo Diddley. Lydia even wore a denim jacket at one show to complete her white-trash image.
“More than anything else I consider myself a conceptualist,” she said in retrospect, describing her self-confounding musical trajectory as “purposeful and schizophrenic . . . contradictory, contrarian, conceptual”.