“Bands like the Sex Pistols and the Ramones weren’t really destroying rock’n’roll … They were still playing Chuck Berry chords,” reveals Sonic Youth frontman and omnipresent punk-doc talking head Thurston Moore in director S.A. Crary’s Kill Your Idols. He’s right: One of the greater misnomers about punk when it first arrived is that it was a new idea. In actuality, all those early groups were doing was stripping rock down to its basic formula — three chords framed on a simple blues structure — a concept that only seemed new in the face of bloated progressive rock and ’70s disco schmaltz. As much as folks like Joe Strummer wanted to believe 1977 was Year Zero, punk was, essentially, ’50s revivalism dressed in crummier clothes.
The bands featured in Kill Your Idols (now on DVD), however, reached back even further than the mid-20th century. They took what Teenage Jesus & the Jerks bassist Jim Sclavunos describes as the “caveman approach” — as in, this is the kind of music Neanderthals would make if they stumbled across a bunch of instruments in the primeval woods: dissonant, atonal and completely formless. If Television and Patti Smith were off-Broadway in the grand scheme of the record business, the groups Crary focuses on were off-off-(and probably off-)Broadway, fringe artists in a fringe subculture. As a reaction against the commodification of punk as “new wave,” someone (Brian Eno is suggested, natch) named the makeshift scene, which was concentrated exclusively in New York, “no wave,” a perfect title given the philosophy of negation linking the participants.
“It was about making music that referenced nothing else,” says Dead Boys groupie-turned-Teenage Jesus screecher-“guitarist” Lydia Lunch.
Crary proves too eager to get to the present, which, at the time of shooting the documentary, was 2002, when the music industry hype machine was again setting its sites on the Big Apple. He presents a rushed history, quickly introducing Suicide, the great early-’70s minimalist electronic duo, as the founding proto-no wavers; spending a few moments establishing no wave’s leaders — Lunch, DNA’s Arto Lindsay, Glenn Branca of Theoretical Girls; sprinting through the second generation, represented by Sonic Youth, Swans and Foetus; then landing in today— or four years ago — where we get to see bands like Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Liars and Black Dice performing in packed clubs for enthusiastic audiences.
At that point, the film gets bogged down in bitterness, as the old-timers layer on the usual complaints about the media and fashion and “pandering post-punk-pop mama’s boys,” as Lunch refers to their young descendents. Not that their arguments aren’t valid: None of the new bands shown here — with the exception of Gogol Bordello, a high-energy ensemble that blends blazing punk with traditional Balkan music — are any good at all. But there’s an odd tinge of jealously to their rantings. Now, with these groups attracting mainstream attention by incorporating scraps of no wave principles, the forefathers sound a tad upset that they were never able to go beyond the record collections of obscuro audiophiles. Crary seems to have gone in with the intent of highlighting a lineage of “innovation through subversion,” and gotten sideswiped by an attitude that, for people who wanted to create music with no historical precedent, is pretty old-fashioned.