In the first scene of S. A Crary's Kill Your Idols, Martin Rev of Suicide describes mainstream rock in the early 1970s as an escape from reality. To him, bands like The Rolling Stones, with their glamorous image, dramatic outfits and bigger-than-life bravado were a necessary distraction from the increasingly depressing world outside. The Viet Nam War was a constant presence, and Watergate's stunning revelation was yet another blow to the fragile American psyche. Rev and others, however, wanted to deal with the world on its own terms, and to find a way to address the horror and perceived injustice of the lives they lived. Rev expressed his fury through music and he, along with his band Suicide, was one of the first entries into what shortly became known as the No Wave scene, a short-lived punk movement rooted in New York's East Village.
Starting with the founding of Suicide in 1972, Crary's film documents the next two decades in New York punk, with a twin focus on No Wave and the small group of NY punk bands that either made it big or threatened to do so in 2002 (the best known of which are the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and The Strokes). Despite its narrow focus, Kill Your Idols -- which Crary directed, photographed, and edited -- should appeal to an audience well beyond the punk music niche: In addition to an historical document about the founding of an often over-looked movement, it's also a meditation on artistic creation, and the sources of inspiration.
The film's most interesting segment by far is its first, in which the history and influence of No Wave are discussed by those who played a part in the movement. Among the interviewees are most of the big names of No Wave, including Lydia Lunch and Jim Sclavunos (of Teenage Jesus and the Jerks), Glenn Branca of Theoretical Girls, and Arto Lindsay (DNA), as well as Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth, a band begun very much under the influence of No Wave. In addition to the interviews, Crary offers rare footage of the bands in action, and the grainy, black and white clips greatly enhance the power of interviewees' words. What reoccurs over and over again in the interviews -- oddly edited, with jump-cuts removing words and phrases, and creating sentences that were never spoken -- is the sense of the urgency with which this music was created. Whether it sounds like anything to you or not isn't the point; the music was simply an outlet for the expression of the fear, anger, and disgust shared felt the No Wavers. At times, the music seems almost incidental. As Lydia Lunch -- who couldn't even play the guitar she wielded during concerts -- says, "It was about energy and emotion," and nothing else. These bands were made up of people (the great majority of them men) who "didn't feel like they fit in anywhere," and their music wasn't art: It was "an expression of pain" that happened to find its outlet with guitars, voice, keyboards and drums.
Interestingly, many of the No Wave veterans specifically say that they don't and never did consider themselves musicians. They were people in immense pain, who were trying to express themselves in ways that were totally new, and they didn't want what they did to remind anyone of anything. Founded in the same year as Suicide, the Sex Pistols were a punk band whose music nevertheless had deep roots in American rock music; the No Wavers left those traditions behind, and created something shockingly different. Jim Sclavunos describes this attitude most vividly when he says "We weren't just trying to make music. We were trying to be monsters."
The transgressive nature and violent independence of the No Wave movement is thrown into stark relief by the middle section of Kill Your Idols, in which Crary examines the East Village punk scene as it existed in 2002. Featuring bands like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, the wonderful Gogol Bordello, A.R.E. Weapons and Black Dice, this segment starts out as an examination of punk's evolution in New York and slowly morphs into a forum in which most of the interviewees unintentionally show themselves to be pale imitations of what came before. Most of the featured bands, while expressing disgust with the foolish nostalgia of their counterparts and lauding their own originality, play music that is sounds for all the world like Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, or Sonic Youth, or Theoretical Girls. When the Yeah Yeah Yeahs talk about being the biggest band in the world while also insisting that they're naïve and pure, their blindness is less offensive than it is amusing. There are others, however, who are infuriating to listen to. The lead singer of A.R.E. Weapons, for example, trades aggressively on his rock star credibility, talking casually about hoards of willing women, while doing shots and saying "f*ck" as often has humanly possible. His dismissive condemnation of the nostalgia and accessibility of other bands in the same scene is downright insult in the face of such contrivance, particularly from a man whose music is completely indistinguishable from that made by any high school kid who digs 1970s punk.
Despite this wearisome middle section, Crary rescues his film by, just as the audience tires of the posing punk kids of 2002, bringing the No Wavers back to give their own interpretations of the modern movement. Most of them, not surprisingly, are far from complimentary, responding with a mixture of disgust and understanding. In 1977, after all, there was no concern about record deals or press coverage for these bands, because such a thing simply wasn't possible. The modern bands, however, are creating with the awareness that The Strokes had a major record deal before anyone in their scene had ever really heard them -- it's understandably hard to forget that success of almost unimaginable proportions just might be out there for them, too.
"Artistic purity" is such a terrible cliché that one is always loathe to even invoke the phrase. In this case, however, purity -- albeit a dark, morbid, amoral variety -- is just what drove No Wave bands, and what is lacking from most of the modern movement. The No Wave grew out of a desperate need for self-expression and release. It was simply a means of expression; the 2002 scene was something very different. In evaluating the kids following in their footsteps, however, the No Wave figureheads are shockingly articulate and thoughtful, offering intelligence and passion instead of what could easily have been flippant condemnation. Apart from Eugene Hutz of Gogol Bordello, few of the No Wave successors show any interest at all in the sources of their music or the reason it's being made; and the greatest compliment that can be paid to Kill Your Idols is that it manages to leave even those who know nothing about punk feeling nostalgic for the passion and intelligence of its early days.