Ain’t Nothing But The Real Thing …
I have kept quietly open-minded about Franz Ferdinand, the Futureheads, and the like. I see them as a generally if not genuinely good thing to have around. Bright in all senses of the word, but ultimately conservative. It’s telling how keen they are to kiss Morrissey’s quiff.

Now the great quiff of the latter twentieth century belonged to one James Chance (aka James White), the godfather of punk funk, the nabob of no wave, the free jazz radical, a rebel supreme, and one of the great pop figures. His greatest recorded contributions are now all over the place, and Ze Records are quite rightly hailing the return of a legend.

It’s a great story, and one worthy of Nik Cohn or Barry Gifford. The young trouble-maker arrives in New York from his hated Milwaukee in ’75, falls between the stools of free jazz and the nascent punk scene, throws everything up in the air, and comes up with something wilder at heart. Now Ze Records have salvaged four of his greatest works, and they sound fabulous still.

Graduating from Lydia Lunch’s Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, James Chance put together the Contortions, and their achievements are inestimable. What a group! Chance screamed better than anyone in showbusiness, played the wildest sax squawks heard in a pop context, while Pat Place scratched away on guitar, and other living legends passed through and kept things going.

The two records recorded for Ze Records at the end of the ‘70s still astonish me. Buy The Contortions is as antagonistic as any record I know, and the spin-off Off White set from James White & the Blacks remains the most sophisticated and glamorous of artefacts. The latter features guest appearances from Lydia Lunch and the late Robert Quine, which is enough for me to froth at the mouth. The instrumental side of Off White had as much effect on Funky Glasgow Then as anything from the Velvets and Subway Sect, and indelibly informed the Fire Engines’ Lubricate Your Living Room extravaganza.

The Ze reissue series also features a live 1980 Paris set, and a later Flaming Demonics set, and both are absolute joys ­ and as challengingly needling as pop gets. Somewhere between the two King James played with Chicago Art Ensemble alumnus Joe Bowie pre-Defunkt, and really put on a show, complete with young black funk backing group, respected free jazzers, and a cute chick chorus line. Sadly I never saw them perform, but in my dreams they play on to an audience like Elvis’ in Las Vegas.

The interesting thing is that, for someone so often portrayed as an offensive, psychotic bigot, King James did more to empower women outsiders than anyone else I can think of (Lydia we know and love, Pat Place went on to form the very great Bush Tetras with Contortions’ roadie Laura Kennedy, and Adele Bertei went on to form the Bloods and forge a career in film, and James’ manager, mentor, partner and unremitting agitator Anya Philips remains one of the great, tragic pop protagonists ­ and the love story of James and Anya is one of the great tales yet to be fully told), and to encourage out-there jazz explorers, and confront conservative rock crowds with adventurous black sounds. So, okay, he had a tendency to berate hippies, and assault rock journalists, and say some stupid things, but none of us are angels.

And if the alternative is to be a polite pop kid parading around with a Smiths LP under your arm, then give me the downright depraved, the maliciously mad, and ferociously frantic anytime. What we need now is a James Chance of sorts for our times. Think what they could do with r’n’b, beats, and electronica. In the meantime, immerse yourself in, and contort yourself to, these Ze-issues.

© 2004 John Carney