Vinyl Memories #2 – James White and the Blacks – Off White (1978) & James Chance and the Contortions – Buy Contortions (1979)

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Punk’s year zero clarion call seemed increasingly empty as the UK lurched towards 1979’s winter of discontent. The music that had once seemed so brave had become reduced to a standardized three-chord stereotype by a generation of young punks seemingly content to remain ever the same.

Suddenly, over the grey horizon emerged a fresh, progressive musical approach in which all genres were ransacked in the same way that the Sex Pistols had attacked the back catalogue of The Who. This new era, which has become known as post punk in the years since, encouraged artists to think beyond restrictive structures. As a result the previously untouchable, hallowed ground of jazz became as open to plunder and redress as dub, reggae, funk, musique concrete and the avant-garde. Suddenly everything was punk.

Post-punk wasn’t about smashing the originals so much as it was a celebration of the source and stretch towards the unknown, realized through the creativity of a cut and paste genre fusion that reordered art’s sacred cows. Where punk might have declared ‘here’s three chords, now form a band’ post-punk screamed ‘here’s a load of genres, now form a universe’. And it touched art as much as music.

James Chance came to earth from the New York loft jazz scene of Manhattan where he created a mélange of James Brown, Charlie Parker and Throbbing Gristle that would become known as a part of New York’s No Wave.

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Off White and Buy Contortions are essentially two inseparable sides of the same coin. Released within months of each other, the albums offer the perfect snapshot of the No Wave scene’s duel obsessions – punk and disco. In many ways they represented No Wave’s answer to Parliament and Funkadelic – same band, but with different ambitions. Parliament was the disco band, Funkadelic the funk band with a rock edge. Each identity aimed to question essentialist assumptions about black music.

Off White was James Chance’s mutant disco album. Buy Contortions was his punk funk set. Each attempted to redress essentialist notions of what a white rock and roll band was supposed to be like.

Easy listening it was not. Discordant guitars strangled hyperactive basslines. Edgy rhythms played counterpoint to squealing freeform sax as Chance (aka White) rinsed the ghosts from Charlie Parker’s be bop body. His vocals doing a similar number on James Brown’s on-the-one barking commands. “Contort yourself one time” yelped Chance… and we did.

I bought Off White from Scorpion Records in High Wycombe. It had a ‘promo only’ sticker on it, which explained why the shop had it stocked weeks before its release. At the time I didn’t know too much about No Wave. I’d read about Brian Eno’s compilation of what he considered to be the four best bands of the scene; James Chance and the Contortions, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, DNA and Mars. But this isn’t what made me buy the album. Quite simply it was the cover art, which seemed like trailer trash Frank Sinatra – high style, low class. To me this was punk and I lapped it up. I’d already dropped the torn up bondage gear in favour of what I thought was a sharp suit (in retrospect it wasn’t). Doc Martens, Sex t-shirts and bedraggled hair remained in place. It was the Johnny Lydon effect. So when I saw James White’s punked up lounge lizard garb it already felt like a part of me and still does to this day.

Through the trash glam meets 50’s nostalgia of the covers, these two albums paved the way for the early 80s embrace of artifice as authenticity like few others. And despite their obvious influences, these two inseparable Siamese albums sound like no one else before… or since.

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