Revisiting the 1980s ‘New Music’ Scene at Museum of the City of New York

Posted on: July 13th, 2021 at 5:03 am by

Photo: Brad Farwell

Back in the ’80s, how did you find like-minded people who were interested in the same music as you? How did you learn about new music? And how did musicians of different genres learn about other types of music, and find one another?

If you were in New York City, it was easy to find out about various types of music just by walking around. There was more than a bit of serendipity and osmosis in the act of wandering.

You could walk into any little shop and ask the store owner what was currently playing, and while you were there, grab a flyer for a live show by a band you never heard of. And if you walked into a record store (remember those?), you could talk to the staff, who would tell you who was about to perform in NYC and who you absolutely had to check out.

Recreation of band flyers on a city wall. Photo: Lori Greenberg.

Bands made flyers and pasted them up all over the city – on walls, on lampposts, on storefronts. People would get local newspapers like The Village Voice as soon as they hit the newsstands in order to look at the ads in the back which showed the lineups of bands who were appearing that week. Sometimes you might go even if just the name of the band piqued your curiosity. Other times, you would go to a club that wasn’t your usual style just to hear a different type of music. If you were at a club, someone would hand you a flyer or an invite to another club, which had a list of more bands.

Grandmaster Flash. Photo: Brad Farwell.

At the time, there was a mix of jazz, new wave, no wave, salsa, hip hop, avant garde, noise, and more. There was always a lot to discover, and we had to work harder because there was no Internet or Instagram or TikTok.  Just those flyers and word of mouth. This reporter and her roommates would walk all over the city, spying flyers, talking to friends, popping into record shops. It was sort of our own version of a treasure hunt each week.

It was an exciting time, when musicians from uptown started jamming with the downtown crowd and vice-versa. Classically trained musicians would collaborate with rock musicians. Hip hop artists worked with new wave singers. Club owners would book bands that they liked, no matter what the style. You could listen to a wide, sometimes startling assortment of music in one venue on any given night of the week.

Photo: Lori Greenberg

This cross-pollination in musical styles, which created an “anything can happen” atmosphere, has been captured in a new exhibit, “New York, New Music: 1980-1986.

The installation, currently on view at the Museum of the City of New York, utilizes memorabilia, videos, and photographs to showcase the wildly creative period’s diversity in musical genres, explaining the way they influenced the city in general.

Curator Sean Corcoran (left). Photo: Lori Greenberg.

Sean Corcoran, the exhibit’s curator, described it well:

During the 80s, there was a community-driven musical renaissance in New York City. It was an era of creativity and genre-defying performance that, in my mind, stands as one of the most influential in musical and cultural history.

That wide range of music – from no wave to pop to hip-hop to salsa to jazz, mixed in a dynamic arts scene that stretched across clubs and bars, theaters, parks, and art spaces – provided fertile ground for a musical revolution — one that continues to influence pop culture to this day.

Featuring 14 major music moments in this era, the exhibit depicts performances by artists as varied as Run DMC, Talking Heads, DJ Larry Levan, Sonic Youth, Madonna, Joey Arias, Funky 4+1, John Zorn, Kid Creole and the Coconuts, Liquid Liquid, James Chance, Max Roach, Fort Apache Band, Laurie Anderson, Lydia Lunch, Grandmaster Flash, Lounge Lizards, and Cyndi Lauper.

August Darnell of Kid Creole. Photo: Lori Greenberg.

This reporter witnessed almost all of the 14 moments featured in the exhibit. Some favorites of ours included:

  • Kid Creole and the Coconuts at Danceteria (1980)
    In 1980, Kid Creole and the Coconuts led nearly a dozen musicians to perform their Latin American-Caribbean-Big Band genre-bending music at Danceteria, appealing to disco denizens, New Wavers, and everyone in between.
  • DNA and Gray at CBGB (March 22, 1980)
    The pairing of these two influential groups was a symbolic moment in the downtown No Wave scene. By the way, the experimental band Gray was formed by artist Jean-Michel Basquiat and filmmaker Michael Holman.
  • Funky 4 + 1 at Saturday Night Live (February 14, 1981)
    This was a milestone performance, marking the very first time a hip-hop group appeared live on national TV. Funky 4 + 1 – including hip hop’s first female MC, Sha Rock – was invited to perform on SNL by the evening’s host and musical guest, Debbie Harry of Blondie. Harry also gave up some of her allotted performance time, so that Funky 4 + 1 could appear.
  • Beyond Words at Mudd Club (April 9, 1981)
    This graffiti art exhibition and performance by DJ Afrika Bambaataa, the Cold Crush Brothers, and the Fantastic Five, helped propel a new era in New York’s new music. Fred Brathwaite (aka Fab 5 Freddy) curated the show along with the artist Futura 2000.
  • Next Wave Festival at Brooklyn Academy of Music (1982–83)
    An important springboard for new music in the 1980s came from the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s (BAM) second edition of its Next Wave series. The season-long festival included Steve Reich, Glenn Branca, Laurie Anderson, Max Roach, and the dance team of Bill T. Jones and Arnie Zane.

GoNightclubbing installation. Photo: Lori Greenberg.

The exhibit also includes an installation by video artists Pat Ivers and Emily Armstrong of the GoNightclubbing Archive, who have recreated their Video Lounge, which they originally developed for Danceteria in the early 80s.

As you walk through the museum, you step into a suburban rec room-inspired space where you can watch archival footage of downtown musicians such as the Dead Boys, Heartbreakers, and Bush Tetras, along with rare early MTV interviews with New York-based artists such as David Johansen, Madonna, and Run DMC. Also included is footage of Vernon Reid and artist/curator/downtown character Willoughby Sharp, from the Willoughby Sharp Downtown Cable Show.

Photo: Lori Greenberg

We really loved the 14 moments chosen for the show, but we can’t list them all here – just go to the exhibit and find out about the rest.

We had so much fun reliving the era, we wanted more. So, we decided to get some New York stories about New York music from those who were there at the time. That’ll be in Part II, which will run later this week.

New York, New Music: 1980–1986 is ongoing at The Museum of the City of New York.

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