A Wiggle in Your Wham

The Electric Kool-Aid Contortions Test

The four Contortions cuts on 1978's No New York compilation (not included in the new Irresistible Impulse James Chance box) got the Contortions' sound, but Eno mixed the thing onto tissue paper, and it's too damn thin. It's still jarring and extraordinary, and by far the best record of what the band actually sounded like. James had lots of good ideas for 1979's Off White and Buy the Contortions, but he botched the production by making everything too clear. Those albums are crawling with inspiration nonetheless. Among other things, James throws in disco moves and camp silliness, adding the sha-la-la-la spirit of pop music rather than just playing tough. Those two albums are the first half of Irresistible Impulse. The rest is James with sidemen, mostly recorded in the early '80s after the Contortions broke up, and it's far too legit—expert jazz and funk musicians, complex horn arrangements. James is singing and playing better (his voice had been ragged in the early days), but what's lost is the Contortions' ferocious welding of sound and spewing it out. On record you can discern the lyrics, however, which are smart where his stage patter was dumb. It's as if he'd heard the Stones' "Under my thumb is the girl who once had me down" and understood that "had me down" was the greater part of it.

The Contortions' sound was unique: The rhythm had a push like no jazz band and a speed like no rock band, so it kicked the music into contortedness years before rave and jungle. And it brought the noise a decade before Public Enemy, and anticipated lots that's going on in hip-hop right now. Neptunes fans: Go listen to "Jump" on Mystikal's Let's Get Ready, but imagine the riffs doubling up on themselves with nightmares thrown on top. That's what the Contortions sounded like. Except no one else really sounds like the Contortions. Their two guitarists had this beautifully fucked playing, Jody splattering us with hard notes while Pat unsettled us with eerie slides. The band provided momentum that James undercut when he resorted to overdubs, and which none of the "real" jazzbos and funkbos (Bern Nix, Joe Bowie) could give him post-Contortions. But James gave the Contortions its center, its reach into our hearts and guts and minds, and a lot of its form. Definitely a whole-beats-sum-of-parts deal, and I'm sad that the band members weren't all shanghaied into band counseling and forced to stick with one another. (I should talk; I never stayed in a band more than a year.) There's much beauty in the solo sets—in clearing out the band sound, James made room for horn charts and jazzy interplay. But he didn't have to clear out the band sound to do this.

He's young, he's sexy, he hits people.
photo: EDO
He's young, he's sexy, he hits people.

Someone once asked Jody what he thought Miles would think of the Contortions. "He'd call it a third-rate version of what he'd done several years earlier." I jumped to the Contortions' defense: "No. Miles is too diffuse. You guys are rock 'n' roll."

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