James Chance and the Contortions

James Chance and the Contortions

During my formative years, as I strived to broaden my musical horizons, it took some real serious hard yakka. In those pre internet days of the late 70's, I might be lucky to catch a glimpse of some odd alien sounds that would twinkle my earlobes on a late night TV show like Nightmoves or be introduced to a sparkling new artist by tuning into one of my favourite radio shows on 3RMT (which later became Triple R) or I would ask what they were playing in the background on my regular weekly import record store visits. I don't remember where I first heard James Chance and The Contortions but buying the first two albums "Buy" and "Off White", certainly was a revelation. It was also very confusing because the "Off White" album was by James White and The Blacks but it was the same band. The uncompromising sound was something that I had not heard before. It was loud and in your face. I was totally confused as an impressionable teen but I loved it. The music press labelled the music as "No Wave", which I always thought was such a meaningless moniker and a cheap reaction to New Wave. To me it sounded like a car crash where the raw angry passion of punk met the precise discipline of jazz.

The highlight of those two albums was a song titled 'Contort Yourself'. The version from "Buy" was a fast paced sonic attack. The second version from "Off White" was an laid back extended disco twelve inch mix, complete with female back up singers. No wonder because it was remixed his record label mate August Darnell AKA Kid Creole of Kid Creole and the Coconuts fame. I hated disco at the time but I loved this reinterpretation when it came out in 1979. In 2003 they would reissue the twelve inch and add a third slower version of 'Contort Yourself' that was all over in a little over three minutes. Other standout songs included the "Buy" opener, 'Design To Kill', 'I Don't Want to Be Happy', 'Roving Eye' and their wonderfully weird and erotic version of Irving Berlin's 'Heat Wave'.

James Chance and the Contortions

Many years have gone by, since buying those records and there were many more James Chances releases over the years. James Chance remained one of those innovative artists that I respected that unfortunately I thought I would never get to see perform live. Apparently there has been attempts to get James on a festival bill over the years. He is certainly way up on my MUST SEE list, right next to Suicide that has never toured Australia. At least Suicide did come close as being a part of the Nick Cave curated All Tomorrow's Parties in 2009. From the story I heard, Alan Vega hates air travel, so a 20 plus hour flight to Australia was out of the question. Suicide got replaced by Simeon of Silver Apples, who put on a mesmerising performance at Mt Buller's ATP.

So late last year when I saw the Northcote Social Club update their website that James Chance and The Contortions was playing in January, I jumped out of my skin with excitement! Their was no press releases, not one ounce of publicity, no billboards pumping James visit to Australia. I hope it wasn't going to be a train wreck because I really wanted it to be outstanding. According to the description on the venue's website, The Contortions would be made up of members of The Drones and Clairy Browne & The Bangin' Rackettes. The air of mystery was high. Would Gareth Liddiard be involved and would we see Clairy Browne providing backing vocals?

The stage was set, the curtain was drawn and we would wait and see. The room was half full when I arrived but it had completely packed out before the headliner hit the stage. You could hear behind the dark curtain they couldn't hide the sense of urgency. James was suppose to have performed a DJ Set Howler two nights before which got cancelled due to his flight being delays. Then I heard that he had only arrived this afternoon and went straight to soundcheck. How was this going to pan out? Had he had enough of a rest after such a long flight? How prepared were the local version of The Contortions going to be? I could hear behind the dark curtain, the occasional familiar frantic guitar stabs, that went through me like a jolt. All would be revealed soon.

The curtain were suddenly drawn and there was James Chance. Resplendent in smart blue shirt and the dark suit with glittery lapels and sporting his trademark gravity defying pompadour style quiff.

James Chance and the Contortions

Scanning the stage it was a joy to see hired gun Dan Luscombe of The Drones on lead guitar. On drums and bass guitar we had two members of Clairy Browne & The Bangin' Rackettes, Nick Martyn and Jules Pascoe. There was no mucking about as this was straight down to business. No band member introductions. Just James counting his band in with a simple "1,2,3,4" before they burst into the opening track, "Design To Kill". With Nick's pounding drum and Dan's light finger guitar work, it was such a powerful way to commence the set.

Design To Kill

James Chance & The Contortions - Design To Kill @ Northcote Social Club, Northcote (14th Jan 2016) from Carbie Warbie on Vimeo.

Next up was 'Almost Black' with James Chance playing some funky keyboards, which ended up with a superb saxophone solo. Next song is his laid back Gil Scott-Heron cover of 'Home Is Where the Hatred Is' from his latest album "Incorrigible!". James is in fine voice, as he sings along the smooth sounds, while occasionally barking instructions to the band to "take it down fellers". Next was another song from the new album. "This is a little dance tune" as James introduces 'Do The Splurge'. Midway through the song he get down and dirty and busts out some dance moves with the crowd up front. I totally was not expecting that. Such energy from this old school entertainer.

Do The Splurge

James Chance & The Contortions - Do the Splurge @ Northcote Social Club, Northcote (14th Jan 2016) from Carbie Warbie on Vimeo.

After the slow burn of 'Jaded' the band hit their strides again with a ripper version of 'Roving Eye'. He introduces it by saying "I wrote this song about Lydia Lunch". James was a member of Lydia's band Teenage Jesus and the Jerks before being unceremoniously kicked out of her band because she wanted to take a more minimalistic approach. Which ended up being a good thing because it was the reason James formed The Contortions.

This was followed with the insane saxophone intro of 'Bedroom Athlete'. The pace is unrelenting. Up next was two back to back James Brown covers. James version of 'Super Bad' was totally funked up with him playfully stabbing the keyboard with one hand. The infectious groove was in the room and you couldn't help but tap your feet as James busted some dance moves before his incredible sax solo. All this needed was the famous James Brown cape routine to make it complete.

Super Bad (James Brown cover)

James Chance & The Contortions - Super Bad (James Brown cover) @ Northcote Social Club, Northcote (14th Jan 2016) from Carbie Warbie on Vimeo.

"It's just a small injection of King Heroin" as James introduces his second James Brown cover - the ultimate junkie lament. It starts and builds slowly, becoming immensely moving. It is definitely one the highlights of the set.

By now James has removed his jacket and his shuffling feet went into overdrive. With a snap the infectious groove of 'Contort Yourself' was being blasted. With the "contort yourself one time" bit, James playfully attacked the keyboards. Then he grabbed his saxophone, dropped his microphone into his instrument and slowly played himself off stage to thunderous applause, as the band left the stage too.

Contort Yourself

James Chance & The Contortions - Contort Yourself @ Northcote Social Club, Northcote (14th Jan 2016) from Carbie Warbie on Vimeo.

James Chance and The Contortions returned for an encore, where they performed 'I Can't Stand Myself' while James demonstrating various dance moves from the mash potato to the camel walk and the boogaloo. James crooned, "We love to stay all night, but you know that's it's outer sight....but we gonna split". Then on the count of four, he instructs his band there will be no more. James Chance was beyond my wildest imagination. Design To Kill....ohh yeah.

James Chance and the Contortions
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