NoMeansNo - Biography
By Oliver Hall
NoMeansNo is the progressive punk band of brothers Rob and John Wright from Victoria, British Columbia. NoMeansNo’s body of work is one of the most musically rich in the punk genre, full of surprising rhythmic and melodic ideas, staggering feats of punk musicianship, and stylistic eclecticism that does not call undue attention to itself.
Since NoMeansNo loves to tell the press outrageous lies, writing about the band poses interesting challenges. Rob Wright told web journalist Mark Prindle in 2006, “Most of the things that you read about us, especially if it comes from us, it's disinformation.” Tom Holliston explained to The Skinny Magazine, “There’s always been disinformation associated with NoMeansNo. In the 1980s, before I joined the band, I used to do press releases for them. We’d send out information about the band and biographies and they’d be destroyed and screwed up and completely wrong in print, so—‘Okay, let’s make up anything,’ because that’s what people are going to do anyway!” The official website www.nomeanswhatever.com is mostly devoted to promoting out-and-out falsehoods about the band’s history, plans and membership—the band is playing its last show ever tomorrow night, or composing a rock opera called Doug, or auditioning mandolin players, or otherwise radically changing its sound: “After a chance meeting in a yurt with Gary Lee Weinrib [i.e. Geddy Lee of Rush], vocalist Rob Wright has vowed that every future note he sings shall be in a falsetto.”
Rob Wright had a job washing dishes in a college cafeteria in the late 1970s and one night he saw a D.O.A. show that inspired him to start a punk band. In 1979, he began recording on a primitive four-track tape machine in the basement of his family house with his younger brother John, an exceptionally gifted drummer who played in his high school’s jazz ensemble. Most of NoMeansNo’s early music consisted of just Rob’s bass and John’s drums with vocals by both brothers, though Rob would occasionally play guitar and John played piano and synthesizer. The first NoMeansNo release was a 7-inch split with Mass Appeal, a one-off project by the Wrights’ friend Ray Carter, both sides recorded in the Wrights’ basement. NoMeansNo’s side of the single is devoted to the John Wright song “Look Here Come The Wormies” (no label 1980). John Wright and future NMN guitarist Andy Kerr both played in Infamous Scientists, who issued two now-scarce records in 1981 and ’82 on the Alandhiscar label, both produced by Rob Wright.
The 7-inch EP Betrayal, Fear, Anger, Hatred (no label 1981) collects four more basement recordings, three of which feature Rob Wright playing guitar in a style slightly reminiscent of Andy Gill. Guitar hardly appears at all on NoMeansNo’s futuristic debut LP Mama (no label 1982), a collection of songs arranged for bass and drums and recorded by the Wright Brothers in Victoria’s Key Studios. NoMeansNo’s unique style emerges in the intricate musical constructions and all-too-human lyrical obsessions of Mama, an album that, aside from a faint resemblance to some Ralph Records artists, sounds like nothing else.
Aside from local performances and a few tracks on underground compilations, nothing issued from NoMeansNo until the body-obsessed EP You Kill Me (Undergrowth 1985), guitarist Andy Kerr’s first appearance on a NoMeansNo record. While few other mortals could play the difficult songs on their second album Sex Mad (Psyche Industry 1986), the album’s dramatizations of adolescent agony—particularly the punk tragedy “Dad”—were more accessible to a Mohawked audience than anything on Mama. Then-Dead Kennedys singer Jello Biafra signed NoMeansNo to his Alternative Tentacles label after seeing them in a Bay Area club, and the label reissued Sex Mad the following year. The EP The Day Everything Became Nothing (Alternative Tentacles 1988) and the album Small Parts Isolated and Destroyed (Alternative Tentacles 1988) were compiled on a CD fittingly titled The Day Everything Became Isolated and Destroyed.
Wrong (Alternative Tentacles 1989), a seamless fusion of wildly divergent musical styles that, nonetheless, somehow manages to sound like punk, remains the most popular and best-selling NoMeansNo album. Rob Wright seems to have come into full possession of his enormous voice on Wrong. Through endless touring, NoMeansNo built a reputation as one of the best live punk bands, particularly in Europe, where Rob Wright has said that NoMeansNo was, with Bad Religion and Fugazi, one of the highest-grossing independent bands during the late 80s and early 90s.
NoMeansNo released two albums on Alternative Tentacles in 1991, 0+2=1 and The Sky Is Falling and I Want My Mommy. On the latter LP, they backed Jello Biafra, who had been recording with various bands since the Dead Kennedys split up in 1987. Andy Kerr quit NoMeansNo in 1992 and moved to Amsterdam to start a family with the woman he loved. The Wrights devoted much of 1992 to their alter egos, the Hanson Brothers, a Ramones-style punk band (or “puck rock” band) obsessed with beer, girls and hockey. The Hansons issued the single “Brad” (Wrong 1992), a goof on NMN’s “Dad,” and the album Gross Misconduct (Alternative Tentacles 1992), packaged as a pastiche of John Holmstrom’s cover art and sleeve cartoons on the Ramones’ Road to Ruin.
Rob Wright played all the guitar on NoMeansNo’s next album, Why Do They Call Me Mr. Happy? (Alternative Tentacles 1993). Credited to “those handsome NoMeansNo brothers,” Mr. Right and Mr. Wrong, One Down and Two to Go (Wrong 1994) compiles various new recordings by the Wright brothers as well as 4-track recordings from 1979-1980. The Wrights drafted guitarist Tom Holliston, otherwise known as Tommy Hanson, from the Hanson Brothers, and added second drummer Ken Kempster for NoMeansNo’s tour following Mr. Happy. Touring with two drummers and two sets of drums eventually proved too costly and cumbersome for the band to maintain. NoMeansNo has remained a trio since the mid-90s with Holliston on guitar as Andy Kerr’s permanent replacement, though Kempster drummed for the Hanson Brothers after the original Kenny Hanson, Ken Jensen, died in a 1995 house fire. Holliston first appeared on record with NoMeansNo on the album The Worldhood of the World (as such) (Alternative Tentacles 1995), named after a phrase from German philosopher Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time. NMN’s cover of a song from the Residents’ Intermission provides the title of their EP Would We Be Alive? (Alternative Tentacles 1997), followed by the double-album Dance of the Headless Bourgeoisie (Alternative Tentacles 1998). NoMeansNo covered Miles Davis and the Ramones on their next album, titled either One or No One (Alternative Tentacles 2000) depending on who you ask.
Three former Dead Kennedys sued Jello Biafra for royalties and rights to the band’s records in 1998, with the result that Alternative Tentacles lost the lucrative Dead Kennedys catalog in 2000. Rob Wright cited this as the main reason for NoMeansNo’s decision to buy their own catalog back from Alternative Tentacles in 2002. He explained to Mark Prindle: “Because, well, frankly, when Jello lost his back catalog —when he lost the Dead Kennedys—I thought, well, you know, this doesn't seem like the safest place to be[…] There was just too much legal stuff going on; you don't know when your whole career is going to be put in escrow with some lawyers looking after it, you know? That's not a good thing. Jello was kind of hurt by that, and I understand that, but our back catalog is basically all we've got. And he takes things personally, but for us it was just a wise business thing to do.”
Since NoMeansNo parted ways with Alternative Tentacles, most of the band’s releases have fallen out of print in North America. The English label Southern Records has reissued six NoMeansNo albums on CD, available as imports from some North American retailers. Since the release of their album All Roads Lead to Ausfahrt (AntAcidAudio 2006), the band has expressed interest in returning to the vinyl EP format for future releases. NoMeansNo continues to tour, and like a fine Tuxedomoon 7-inch, they have only improved with age.