In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, a contingent of downtown New York artists, following the waning punk movement’s ethos but with more conceptual prowess than musical know-how, began constructing harsh sounds reflecting the decaying city in which they were living. This small but adventurously fertile scene came to be known by the cheeky name of No Wave, a tag that denoted the common thread of all involved of being completely oppositional to what was then popular music.
Teenage Jesus and the Jerks perhaps stretched the musical tether further than any other act of the time. Formed in 1977 by Lydia Lunch, an 18-year-old runaway from Rochester, the band was only in existence for three years, during which time they became known for confrontational 10-minute shows consisting of short and sharp caustic blasts. The band, however, never left New York and only released a couple 7-inches and EPs—as well as contributing to No New York, the crucial recorded document of the period—before calling it quits. While few were privy to their music in those three years, the legacy they left behind has been lasting. In the liner notes to this new compilation, Lunch relates, “The driving vision behind Teenage Jesus was to castrate the tradition of melody and composition and simply vent in the most primal way possible the horrible din of my own torture.” They certainly accomplished that and much more.
There have been several posthumous releases of Teenage Jesus’ recorded output, but none as complete as Beirut Slump/Shut Up and Bleed. Here one can hear all the varied formations of the band as their creative impulses rip at the semblance of song and structure. The album begins with the 38 seconds of guitar piercing of “Red Alert” (from No New York) before segueing into the primordial thwap of initial single “Orphans.” Even at such a young age, Lunch taps into a dark dimension of the psyche. Along with the subsequent “Burning Rubber,” these songs showcase the line-up nucleus of Lunch, bassist Gordon Stevenson and drummer (and Cleveland native) Bradley Field. “The Closet,” “Less of Me” and “My Eyes,” though, capture the Jerks in their first incarnation, with cofounder (and future Contortion) James Chance on sax and the dubiously named Reck on bass. Chance’s horn squeals lend another warped element to the proceedings, not quite free jazz, but maybe “no jazz.” Meanwhile “Freud in Flop,” from the “Baby Doll” 7-inch and with Jim Sclavunos now on bass, is a frenetic 46 seconds that could be Sonic Youth were it five minutes longer.
But what sets this comp apart from others are the tracks culled from the Hysterie album that was released under Lunch’s name and an unreleased live recording of a 1978 set at the Artist’s Space. “Crown of Thorns,” from the former, is a particularly lacerating bout, bass and drum thumps juxtaposed with Lunch’s caterwaul. Less crucial but also interesting are the Beirut Slump, the other band Lunch was in concurrently with Teenage Jesus, outtakes pulled from the sessions for the band’s “Try Me” single. “Case #14” is the most riveting of the bunch, one of vocalist Bobby Berkowitz’s better rants.As much as Teenage Jesus is associated with a certain time and place, though, it’s amazing how current the band still sounds. Forget ahead of their time, they were ahead of any time and this is no doubt why the band still sounds so divisive some 30 years later. Lunch and her comrades plied their artistic vision with guitar, bass and drums (and sometimes sax), but they could have just as easily used any media at their disposal. Lucky for us Teenage Jesus and the Jerks channelled all their psychic discord into this glorious racket.