The Contortions’ Buy may very well be the quintessential late-‘70s album. A distillation of the era’s most emblematic genres, it combines the confrontational aggression and nihilism of punk with the dance floor-filling grooves of funk and disco. But unlike punk, funk or disco, the music of James Chance and the Contortions was a highly self-aware, tightly wound commentary on contemporary music that set out to tear down that which had been lionized by the New York tastemakers, all set to a blisteringly funky beat you couldn’t help but dance to.

By subverting the prevailing musical trends, Chance sought to destroy the music in order to rebuild it in his own image. Finding contemporary jazz too blasé, Chance took a more radical approach, cutting it through with elements of both punk and funk to create a true hybrid. Incorporating punk’s aggressive posturing with the radical free funk of Ornette Coleman and James Brown’s basic raps, the Contortions created something daring and new that, over thirty-five years later, still sounds ahead of its time.

Reactionary in nearly every sense of the word, Chance’s performances were literal and figurative assaults. A Midwesterner in the land of pretentious East Coast art snobs, Chance ranted and railed against New York audiences, often getting into physical and verbal altercations with unengaged attendees who lazily lumped his mutant jazz/funk/punk into the unimaginatively titled No Wave movement. Incapable of being a part of any musical wave, the Contortions sound was pure aggression that relied on a higher level of musicality than punk.

More in line with Coleman and Brown than their No Wave peers, the Contortions created an ideal mix of edgy dissonance and noise with a wickedly tight rhythm section. Anchored by Don Christensen’s economical funk drumming and David Hofstra’s club-footed bass lines, Buy often has the sound of multiple bands performing simultaneously.

On “I Don’t Want To Be Happy,” Christensen’s frenetic disco groove is the only recognizable point of reference. Functioning as the song’s center, it’s the only consistent. Surrounded by Pat Place’s open-tuned slide guitar attack, Jody Harris’ furious funk guitar dissonance, Hofstra’s circuitous bass, and Chance’s bellowing adenoidal rants, it serves as a tenuous refuge from the wickedly funky, blistering assault.

Throughout, Place’s atonal guitar slides provide even the most straightforward sections a vehemently avant garde bent. In their often aimless wandering (see “Anesthetic” in particular), they add an unsettling quality to the music, one that calls into question the traditional notion of accompaniment, favoring the visceral over the musical. It’s a radical approach that, when isolated, often stands in sharp contrast to the tightly structured lines laid down by the rest of the group. But, like Chance’s strangled saxophone shrieks and sub-James Brown guttural screams, when presented in context it only serves to heighten these songs rather than prove distracting or superfluous.

During “Contort Yourself,” a song that essentially functions as the group’s manifesto, Chance seethes, “It’s better than pleasure/ It hurts more than pain/ I’ve got what it takes to drive you insane.” A swirling vortex of sound, it perfectly encapsulates the Contortions’ aesthetic in terms both musically and lyrically. By track’s end, the band driving relentlessly, Chance’s vocals become near apoplectic, the sounds distorting and contorting into all manner of unrecognizable shapes as he and the band proceed to do their best James Brown on speed impression. It’s an incredibly exhilarating performance on an album full of them.

With a clear nod to the burgeoning free-funk movement, Harris’ playing on “Roving Eyes” sounds like a strangled approximation of James Blood Ulmer, while Chance’s freeform sax solo carries traces of a less melodically inclined Ornette Coleman. It’s an aesthetically highbrow approach that elevates the Contortions above and beyond their peers in the No Wave ghetto, proving themselves not only wickedly competent players, but also savvy consumers of the disparate sounds being created around them.

Given the incendiary nature of the sound on Buy, it’s little surprise the group lasted as long as they did. Within a year of the album’s release, Chance had disbanded the Contortions, rechristened himself James White (as if the James Brown comparisons weren’t overt enough before), called his backing band the Blacks and attempted to expand the ideas presented on Buy. Unfortunately the law of diminishing returns reared its ugly head and, without the Contortions behind him, his music lacked the vitality and intensity of that group’s debut.

Regardless, Buy stands as a landmark release that has gone on to influence an entire generation of performers. From those who embarked on a No Wave revival at the turn of the century to a host of groups currently putting out intense, confrontational approximations of the Contortions’ sound on NNA Tapes, Feeding Tube and a host of others, the sounds of Chance and company can still be heard reverberating off the walls well into the 21st century.

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