DNA - Biography
Punk rock is formalism. It’s got strict rules, a heightened sense of repetition, a rigidity. Right angles. It’s minimalism; abject formalism. The brief blast of noise that we now call No Wave, that followed fast on the exhaust of punk in the late 70s? It’s abstract expressionism. It’s Jackson Pollock; action painting; Viennese actionist gesture. Anarchy. There were no rules, just texture, nihilism; a compelling urge to make as much of a racket as humanly possible, and to flee the encroaching commercialization of punk as it began to soften and market itself as new wave — hence the name — i.e., as it began to not be punk at all. Of course, when No Wave’s shot at commercialization happened, the primary eight or nine bands that comprised the scene scratched and clawed to participate, and those who were excluded are still bitching and moaning about it, but whatcha gonna do? Don’t ever believe a person with a guitar in their hand if they tell you they don’t want to be a rock star. They do. They all do. And there was one band that pulled off the No Wave rockstardom bit with sheer aplomb: DNA.
A bunch of the scenesters were about personal, physical aggression. James Chance — who did a stint with Teenage Jesus & the Jerks, and performed as James Chance and the Contortions, and as James White and the Blacks — appropriated aspects of funk, jazz, and soul, pushed racial offensiveness to its breaking point and started fights like a suit-clad Iggy Pop. Lydia Lunch, the leader of Teenage Jesus & the Jerks, was thoroughly belligerent and nasty, drug soaked, with a background as a teen prostitute.
But DNA? They were cool, man — ice cold. You want a rock star? Try DNA front man Arto Lindsay. He grew up in Brazil in the 50s and 60s, and cut his teeth on that country’s Tropicália movement, and artists like Gal Costa, Caetano Veloso, Os Mutantes and Gilberto Gil. He was soft spoken, and dressed and carried himself like a librarian or a shy college professor. And while Lindsay may have walked softly, he carried a very big stick. His weapon of choice? A twelve-string, red Danelectro, with one string always missing, and the other eleven always tuned to the same note.
Entirely self-taught, Arto played the guitar like — no, that’s not right. “Play” sounds harmless, frivolous. He brutalized, beat, tortured, and physically abused the guitar. He made it howl. Even Lester Bangs, who wallowed in noise like a pig in a Detroit trough, couldn’t take it. For Arto, the guitar was entirely a percussive instrument. He made Derek Bailey sound like a classical guitarist. Robin Crutchfield played keys, although he was soon replaced by Time Wright of Pere Ubu; Ikue Mori played drums.
The band’s recorded output during their 1978-1982 existence was horribly spare: “You & You" b/w "Little Ants" 7” (1978 Lust/Unlust Music); four brief tracks on a compilation appearance; an EP, A Taste of DNA (1981 American Clavé); and a second three-track comp appearance, The Fruit of Original Sin (1981 Les Disques Du Crepuscule). It’s all great, bruising, textural stuff, short-and-sweet rampages; but it’s that first comp appearance that really got them noticed.
Brian Eno was staying in New York, working with David Byrne and Talking Heads on their second LP, More Songs About Buildings and Food. He heard what was going on Downtown, and decided to get involved. He pitched the idea of a compilation record, with himself as producer; he would get a subsidiary of his label, Island, to release it. Everyone jumped, but only four bands were chosen. To this day, Glenn Branca gripes that his band, The Theoretical Girls weren’t chosen. Furthermore, Rhys Chatham is conspicuous in his absence — his piece “Drastic Classicism” is the Beethoven’s Ninth of No Wave (although in all fairness, it’s too long and would have hogged an entire side of the LP).
The result was No New York (1978 Antilles), and the bands that made it on were Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, James Chance and the Contortions, Mars, and DNA. It’s a great LP, and exclusions not withstanding, it was, for years and years the Plymouth Rock of No Wave. DNA’s contributions shine. And when I said Arto didn’t “play?” Scratch that. These tracks are a total romp. How much so? Take “Lionel.” Listen to it chug chug chug, faster and faster, whistling and blowing steam. Get it? Lionel is the toy company that makes toy trains, and that’s what DNA are perfectly and furiously imitating. The world would be a far better place if DNA were on “Guitar Hero” instead of Aerosmith.
When the band decided to call it quits in 1983, they went out with a bang. DNA sold out a three-night farewell stand at CBGB — the scene held them in such esteem. Thanks to John Zorn, we have a document of these essential shows: Last Live at CBGB (1993 Avant). It shreds. Arto joined John Lurie’s “jazz” outfit, The Lounge Lizards, then went back to his roots: He now makes Bossa nova records. How cool is that? Let’s see Lydia Lunch try and get away with a move like that. And, although it’s not on the CD, the very last song DNA played live? “Whole Lotta Love.” They were definitely, definitely cool.