A New Reissue Illuminates the Hidden History of No-Wave Pioneer Lizzy Mercier Descloux
Lizzy Mercier Descloux
Photo by Michel Esteban
By all accounts, she was a startling vision in New York's late-Seventies downtown scene, a French-speaking New Romantic amid the sea of black tees and jeans at CBGB. But in the annals of no wave's history, one must dig deep to uncover the story of Lizzy Mercier Descloux, a Parisian transplant rarely as recognized as her cohorts, who included onetime lover Richard Hell and former roommate Patti Smith.
Seattle imprint Light in the Attic aims to change that. A label known to be run by passionate crate-diggers with a penchant for reissuing little-known, off-kilter gems in pristine, collector-bait packaging, Light in the Attic recently announced the rerelease of Descloux's entire catalog, beginning with unsung no-wave masterpiece Press Color, out August 14.
Originally released in 1978, Press Color was the first full-length on ZE Records, founded by Michael Zilkha and Michel Esteban — the latter a longtime romantic and creative partner of Descloux's. Patrick McCarthy, project manager at Light in the Attic, produced the reissue after Esteban approached the label. "From their archive in France, [Esteban sent over] all the records and master tapes and sent us all these great photos."
McCarthy was already familiar with Descloux. "I lived in New York for ten years, and around 2003 or 2004 I was working at a record store on the Bowery called Downtown Music Gallery," he says. "Now [it's] a Subway restaurant, sadly, but that's how it goes." At the time, the shop peddled "experimental, avant-garde, avant-jazz...any kind of out-there music," and Press Color had recently been reissued on CD. NYC-based bands like the Rapture and Liars were rekindling interest in postpunk, so McCarthy instantly recognized Descloux's genius. "She was always exploring new ways of working, new locales. Every record was done in a different country — South Africa, Brazil, France, England, America," he says. "The muse always took her somewhere new, but she was the thread, so they always had her Dada-like playfulness about the way she approached music."
Light in the Attic enlisted Vivien Goldman to write liner notes. As a reaction to the popularity of the so-called new-wave acts that dominated the scene, no wave embraced the abrasive, drawing on avant-garde subcultures and sonic experimentation, pushing against definitions of "music" with atonal noise and nihilistic worldviews. A New York no-wave luminary herself, Goldman wrote extensively about the scene and performed in her own band, Chantage. Though the two somehow never met, she and Descloux traveled in the same circles.
"It turned out she was an unknown quantity, in a way. When it came to really telling the story, it needed a lot of research to tell it fully," Goldman says. She tracked down anyone she could find who had worked with Descloux or known her socially. "I compared her to a firefly in the notes; I use that motif because she seems like a bright spark darting off in different directions. But she always remains herself — the glow is the same, but she's in a very different place on each record. So she's a real interesting study as an artist."
By the time Descloux and Esteban came to New York together in 1976, they'd known each other several years, working closely on French fanzine Rock News and a book of Descloux's poems, Desiderata. The couple listened to John Cale, Brian Eno, David Bowie, and Kraftwerk and ran Esteban's punk merchandise outlet, Harry Cover, often going on buying trips in America.
"As a Parisian raised with American pop culture, New York was a dream come true. At that time [it] was not the Disney-yuppie décor it became in the Nineties. It was a Martin Scorsese film set," remembers Esteban. They fell into the scene and began to absorb every aspect of it. ZE Records would go on to produce some of no wave's most iconic artists, including James Chance, Kid Creole and the Coconuts, Suicide, Mars, and Lydia Lunch, dubbing the style "mutant disco" on an early compilation. "I guess it was the same for Lizzy, who felt right at home," Esteban muses. "Hanging out at Max's Kansas City in the same room with Andy Warhol and his gang was quite a fantasy experience. NYC had a very creative energy; I was not concerned at that time by the fact the scene could have or would become influential."
Press Color bursts with the same wild abandon that cemented these like-minded artists' legacies. "I'm trying to think of her artistic antecedents, but you don't find a lot," admits Goldman. "They say there's nothing new under the sun, and usually there isn't. But I started writing about music right before punk hit, and it really was hard to find females unafraid of free expression. There's no doubt that Lizzy rode on this wave of comparative freedom that punk did provide."
The reissue opens with a searing cover of Arthur Brown's 1968 psych classic "Fire," reframed with no-wave hallmarks: saxophone funk, disco-inspired backbone, resilient bass. "Hard-Boiled Babe," a sultry, surly number with lazy harmonica drifting over spidery guitar and a swirling European café beat, and "Morning High," a duet of sorts (Patti Smith hisses lyrics about the violence of love while Descloux echoes her in a French snarl), finish things off.
In between these lie a dozen or so snippets of varying accessibility. Descloux flips between heavily accented English and urgent French, with angular instrumentals interspersed. Creepy organs give "Torso Corso" a haunted house feel, while tracks like "No Golden Throat" and "Jim on the Move" present her slinky take on surf and rockabilly. Terse holdovers from Descloux's early foray into the performance art scene, "Herpes Simplex" and "Rosa Vertov" are frenzied and a bit disturbing (the latter eventually devolves into harrowing, simian yelps). "Tumor," meanwhile, spoofs classic r&b number "Fever," popularized by everyone from Nina Simone to James Brown; instead of a rising temperature, the subject of Descloux's version inspires malignant growth.
The track was sadly prescient, considering her death from cancer at the age of 47. By that time she'd made four more records — 1981's Mambo Nassau, 1984's Zulu Rock, 1985's One for the Soul, and Suspense in 1988 — before retiring in France. These act as a biography of her madcap schemes, which often resulted in extravagant, label-financed world travels. "One of the most significant stories about Lizzy is how she convinced the boss of CBS France, Alain Levy, to give us an open budget to travel South Africa without showing him one lyric or listening to any demos — because we did not have any," Esteban recalls. "Despite the fact that South Africa was still under apartheid, we had this idea to go there and were absolutely positive we would come back with a great album." They were right — Zulu Rock produced her only major hit, "Mais où Sont Passées les Gazelles?" ("But where have the gazelles gone?"), which features a Soweto children's chorus and zydeco accordion. "This was one of the most joyous and rewarding recordings I have been involved with," says Esteban.
With such a fascinating body of work and mesmerizing persona, it's difficult to understand how Lizzy Mercier Descloux faded into obscurity. As is too often the case with female artists, she was overshadowed by entanglements with the men in her life, from Esteban and Hell to British producer Adam Kidron and New York artist Seth Tillet. "Our history is very often hidden from us," Goldman points out. "Let's say we're reclaiming Lizzy Mercier Descloux as the brilliant artist she is, working in many media, working in many sounds, but always trying to express herself and her vision of the world." No longer relegated to the dusty shelves of no-wave connoisseurs, Light in the Attic finally allows her hidden history to shine.
Lizzy Mercier Descloux's Press Color will be reissued by Light in the Attic Records on August 14.
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