Thursday, November 10, 2011

Early History of The Contortions #4

Early History of The Contortions #1 (Introduction)
Early History of The Contortions #2 (Dec '77 - May '78)
Early History of The Contortions #3 (May '78 - August '78)

10.12.1978 – Max’s Kansas City, New York, NY

1. Bedroom Athlete  2. Disposable You  3. Dish It Out  4. Flip Your Face  5. Design To Kill  6. Anesthetic  7. Almost Black  8. Throw Me Away  9. Jaded  10. Contort Yourself

James Chance (voc, as), Jody Harris (guitar), Pat Place (slide guitar), George Scott (bass), Don Christensen (drums).

The band appears at a New York venue called Club Hollywood on 9.14.1978. At some point Adele Bertei either left the band or was pressured to leave by Anya Phillips. According to various sources, Bertei had been in and out of the band and at one point, Phillips “drove her from the group” as Pat Place reported in the August 1979 New York Rocker. George Scott remarked in same article that Bertei had gained confidence from doing various solo sets and left voluntarily. Regardless, she was not in active duty with the band on the 8.17.1978 Max’s set and only appears on a few songs during the “No Wave Jam” in the second set. It’s unclear when exactly Bertei left Contortions, but it could have been as early as the first half of August 1978. The split must not have been too acrimonious because she would play and sing on a few tracks (including a vocal duo with Phillips) from James White and the Blacks “Off White”, recorded around October 1978.  Anya Phillips assumed official management over the band soon after Adele Bertei’s departure and began trying to place the bands in more “upscale” venues in addition to Max’s. The band opens with a great version of “Bedroom Athlete” which reappears after a long absence. The repetitive “Disposable You” debuts here, based on a bossa nova rhythm with weird guitar that sounds a bit like “The Girl From Ipanema”. “Dish It Out” is extremely fast and excellent here. James Chance’s vocals are particularly aggressive at this performance. “Flip Your Face” is given a typical run-through. As an introduction to “Design To Kill”, James devotes the song to the “hardworking staff of the Chelsea Hotel” – mocking the death of Sid Vicious’ girlfriend Nancy Spungeon earlier that day. “Anesthetic” begins with Chance quoting “I’m In the Mood For Love” on the saxophone. “Almost Black”, one of the tracks by Contortions’ disco alter-ego James White and the Blacks makes an appearance here. “Throw Me Away” has a typical rendition here, still with the noisy, driving middle section which was ultimately rearranged for the “BUY” album. The middle of “Jaded” adopts a nice backbeat here for the first time, making this turgid composition much more interesting than normal. “Contort Yourself” sounds similar to how it finally would on “BUY”. This particular concert was very assured sounding, tight and no-nonsense.

10.1978 – Blank Tapes Studio, New York, NY
1. Contort Yourself  2. Stained Sheets  3. (Tropical) Heat Wave  4. Almost Black  5. White Savages  6. Off Black  7. White Devil  8. Bleached Black

James Chance (voc, as), Jody Harris (guitar), Pat Place (slide guitar), George Scott (bass), Don Christensen (drums) with Adele Bertei (keyboards, vocals, percussion), Kristian Hoffman (vocals, piano), Paul Colin (tenor sax), Robert Quine (guitar), Ray Mantilla (congas), Lydia Lunch (guitar, vocals),  Anya Phillips (vocals) and Vivienne Dick (violin)

In 1978, the high rollers at ZE Records offered James Chance a substantial budget to record a “disco” album for them.  Essentially, James White and the Blacks is the Contortions playing vaguely disco-oriented compositions. The back cover of the ZE Records 12” featuring “Contort Yourself” b/w “(Tropical) Heat Wave” says the tracks were recorded at Blank Tapes in October 1978 by Bob Blank. The “Off White” album credits simply say “Fall 1978”. It doesn’t sound like a particularly complex production, so it’s probably safe to assume the sessions began in October and were wrapped up soon after. The A side of the album opens with a somewhat discofied version of “Contort Yourself” with Adele Bertei guesting on organ. Some recent editions of “Off White” substitute a six-minute-long August Darnell (Kid Creole and the Coconuts) remix of “Contort Yourself” which is more blatantly metronomic and less cacophonous than the Contortions renditions. There’s a lot of added percussion and some unidentified female backup vocals during the chorus. “Stained Sheets” follows, a slice of S/M audio vérité with James Chance and Lydia Lunch (credited as “Stella Rico”) engaged in a perverted phone-sex call. The vamp behind the vocals is somewhat laid back, but peppered by noisy electric piano stabs by Kristian Hoffman. “(Tropical) Heat Wave” by Irving Berlin is a novel, kitschy track featuring lead vocals and electric piano by Kristian Hoffman (credited as “Tad Among”), some sultry verses by Anya Phillips (a.k.a. “Ginger Lee”) and hyper conga playing by Ray Mantilla. “Almost Black” ends the side, an uptempo instrumental featuring some repartee between Anya Phillips and Adele Bertei (mysteriously credited as “Randy Marlowe” and “Little Willie Feather” and Robert Quine takes a vomitous wah-guitar solo at one point. On some versions of the “Off White” album, the long track “Almost Black” is separated into two parts. Side Two of the album contains four intense instrumentals which sound a lot less like disco and a lot more like harsh Contortions tracks without vocals. “White Savages” may have percolating hi-hat on it, but it also features Lydia Lunch’s patented slide guitar terror as well as nasty saxophone soloing and percussive white noise organ by James Chance. “Off Black” unfolds in mid-tempo, focusing on the warped guitar interplay between Jody Harris, Pat Place and Robert Quine. By the end, the tune double-times and launches into a dense thicket of 6-string skronk and honking saxophones. “White Devil” is a mid-tempo romp with some skronky Lydia Lunch guitar playing. “Bleached Black” slithers by in a sinister manner, aided by the dry violin scrapings of Beirut Slump member and film-maker Vivienne Dick. After the break-up of the original Contortions, the ex-members were all uniformly disappointed with “Off White”, accusing it of being a bad record. It is certainly somewhat incoherent in focus, but has many charms, and the instrumental side is as potent as anything the group ever recorded in a studio. It seem the album was available as a French import during fall 1979 and as a domestic release by October.
The Blacks a.k.a The Contortions, fall 1978. Photos by Anya Phillips


1.28.1979 – Max’s Kansas City, New York, NY
1. Dish It Out   2. My Infatuation   3. Design to Kill   4. Anesthetic   5. Roving Eye   6. Twice Removed   7. I Can’t Stand Myself    8. Disposable You   9. Throw Me Away   10 . Bedroom Athlete

James Chance (voc, as), Jody Harris (guitar), Pat Place (slide guitar), George Scott (bass), Don Christensen (drums).

In November and December, the group appears at Max’s Kansas City, on 11.23.1978 with the L.A. punk group X, and on 12.15.1978 with kiddie-punk group The Blessed featuring Howie Pyro and probably Heartbreaker Walter Lure. A Contortions gig at Club 57 is advertised on 1.12.1979 also. This Max’s performance exists in separate audio and video forms, the video being crudely shot and over-exposed black and white. I’m not sure what the origin of the video is, but it could be by either the Armstrong/Ivers team (who were definitely using black and white cameras in 1978), or possibly Paul Tschinkel, responsible for the NYC cable access show “Inner Tube”. The shot seems like it may have been one camera of a multi-camera shoot, as there are long shots of Chance’s dancing feet and extreme close-ups of various musicians for long durations. The room audio recording sounds like it was made near the bar because the ringing of the cash register is extremely loud on it. The band looks fairly miserable or grim during the concert, particularly bassist George Scott. “Dish It Out”, “My Infatuation”, “Design To Kill”, “Anesthetic”, “Bedroom Athlete” and “Twice Removed”  are executed in a typical manner. “Roving Eye” finally appears with its James Brown-style funk overhaul featuring Don Christensen’s catchy syncopated drum pattern. Chance leaps from the stage and terrorizes the audience a bit during “Anesthetic” and “Throw Me Away”. The bassline to “Disposable You” has changed completely from the dark, chromatic one played on 10.12.1978 into a more consonant sounding line. The middle section of “Throw Me Away” is beginning to resemble the slightly more relaxed-sounding vamp used on the “BUY” album. The other bands on the bill are WKGB (a synth-based act who eventually released a single on Fetish Records) and The Cutthroats (most likely, the garage band led by bassist Gina Harlow).

as James White and the Blacks:
2.2.1979  - Club 57 at Irving Plaza, New York, NY

1. Off Black   2. White Savages/Sophisticated Cancer   3. Almost Black   4. I Don’t Want To Be Happy   5. White Devil/Melt Yourself Down   6. Jaded    7. Contort Yourself   8. Contort Yourself (cont.)
James Chance (voc, as, organ), Jody Harris (guitar), Pat Place (slide guitar), George Scott (bass), Don Christensen (drums)

Most likely the first live show under the “James White and the Blacks” guise. According to reports, someone tried to sabotage the show and convinced the Village Voice to write “cancelled” over the ad listing. “Off Black” is performed in a similar manner to the “Off White” album version. “White Savages” is performed with a new middle section, but adds lyrics which would eventually surface with completely different music as the song “Sophisticated Cancer”.. Anya Phillips would die of cancer by 1981 – I don’t know if these lyrics are a direct allusion to her condition or not. “Almost Black” appears here in a very song like form with Chance focusing on lyrics before taking off on a saxophone solo. “I Don’t Want to Be Happy”is played in a very fast, aggressive manner with generic offbeat disco hi-hat accents and some noisy organ playing from Chance. It is a similar arrangement to what would appear on “BUY”. “White Devil” from “Off White” is performed with the lyrics from “Melt Yourself Down”, which would later be sung to completely different music before being included on the 1986 Japan-only LP of the same name. “Jaded” is playedd here with an uptempo backbeat as well as mellow-sounding, rolling guitar chords. Pat Place’s slide guitar remains loud and acrid though. “Contort Yourself” is played at a faster-than-normal tempo with the generic disco hi-hat pattern, and for some reason Jody Harris’ guitar gets turned up extremely loud. The band sounds really great and inspired here in general. The other acts on the bill include Mumps (featuring Kristian Hoffman), The Reasons and Information (with drummer Rick Brown). The Contortions are also listed in the Village Voice ad, but I don’t know if they played a separate set under that guise or not.
It's possible this picture was taken at Club 57/Irving Plaza on 2.2.1979. left to right: James Chance,
Kristian Hoffman, Pat Place and Anya Phillips. There is no audible participation from either
Hoffman or Phillips on the extant audio.

Next up, part FIVE: The recording of "BUY" Contortions  . . .

This text was written by Weasel Walter, all rights reserved 2011.
If you use this for any reason, please credit the source fairly.

Early History of The Contortions #1 (Introduction)
Early History of The Contortions #2 (Dec '77 - May '78)
Early History of The Contortions #3 (May '78 - August '78)


Adam MacGregor said...

Fascinating sleuth work!

In a future installment, will you be covering the ROIR tape wherein they do that hysterical version of "Don't Stop Til You Get Enough"?

Serena WmS. Burroughs said...

WW: about the 2/2/79 gig at Club 57, I'm stumped, because Club 57, the real one on St. Mark's Place, was a pretty small venue, I would think too small for the band at that point in their life. I wonder whether it was at Irving Plaza, a much larger space where Club 57 used to promote events.
Anyway, Club 57 was where I did my second or third gig in NY, a one-shot quartet consisting of John "Broken Hand" Morton and me on guitars, Charlotte Pressler on Ace-Tone organ, and Bradly Field on congas (or was it bongos? I can't find the tape!) at a voodoo-themed night. (The tape is probably with the snows of yesteryear...) --AK

Weasel Walter said...

You know what, andrew?
You're absolutely right. 2/2/79 WAS at Irving Plaza, but it was probably promoted by Club 57. I had this in some old notes but wasn't sure, but now that you're saying it, it totally makes sense. Thanks for pointing it out! Jjudging from the sound quality of the tape, it sounds like a serious p.a. and I didn't think Club 57 had a system like that.