I can’t believe I’m writing this, but today marks the addition of our 200th band to The Weird List. I don’t think anybody, including us, thought we could keep at it this long…and honestly, without you amazing readers out there in Interweb Land, we wouldn’t have. So thank you. And now that we’ve gotten all that mushy shit out of the way…
We couldn’t make just any band our 200th. We had to go with a classic. And few weird bands are weirder or more classic than John Zorn’s Naked City, the whiplash jazz/punk/surf/lounge/thrash/ambient/noise quintet that blew into the world in the late ’80s and blew out again just five years later, leaving a trail of ringing ears, confused jazzbos and grotesque album covers in their wake.
Naked City grew out of an eclectic downtown Manhattan music scene in the late ’80s that coalesced around the original Knitting Factory. Punks went to see jazz combos; jazz musicians joined punk bands. You could see free jazz pioneer Cecil Taylor one night and Sonic Youth the next. Mike Doughty, the future lead singer of Soul Coughing, worked the door. If I had a time machine, right after I killed Hitler, I would go to the Knitting Factory circa 1990.
The ringleader of Naked City was an angry 36-year-old saxophonist named John Zorn, who had been active as an experimental composer and musician for over a decade. A fan of both avant-classical experimenter John Cage and cartoon soundtrack composer Carl Stalling, Zorn spent much of his early career devising what he called “game pieces”: essentially, highly structured improvisations featuring a mix of jazz, rock, classical and unconventional instrumentation. For some reason, most of Zorn’s game pieces had sports-themed names; here’s one, for example, called “Archery,” and another called “Lacrosse.”
To give you the best idea of how weird Zorn’s game pieces could get, here are two different versions of his most famous game, “Cobra”: first, from a 1992 documentary called On the Edge: Improvisation in Music; next, from a 2008 Zorn concert in Tel Aviv featuring Naked City drummer Joey Baron, jazz guitar god Marc Ribot and members of Mr. Bungle. In both clips, you can see Zorn “conducting” the game with yellow cue cards, which he mostly seems to use to whip his musicians into ever greater frenzies of atonal chaos.
In addition to his game pieces, Zorn also dabbled in experimental rock music (with Golden Palominos, among others), duck calls as musical instruments (most notably on The Classic Guide to Strategy), traditional Japanese music, and Ennio Morricone. But he was also listening to a lot of punk, speed metal and early grindcore—influences that really began to exert themselves on his music in the late ’80s, first with Naked City and then with even more overtly hardcore-influenced projects like Spy vs. Spy, his album-length tribute to free jazz legend Ornette Coleman, and Painkiller, his jazz/dub/grindcore trio with Napalm Death drummer Mick Harris and bassist Bill Laswell.
But enough about John Zorn’s lengthy CV. Let’s get to Naked City already, shall we?
Zorn founded Naked City in 1988 with fellow NYC jazz players Bill Frisell on guitar, Fred Frith on bass, Wayne Horvitz on keyboards and Joey Baron on drums. Borrowing the Naked City name from Weegee’s notorious book of gritty tabloid photography and the 1946 film noir inspired by it, Zorn seems to have originally envisioned the project as a chance to playfully riff on gangster movie soundtracks; the group’s self-titled debut album (which featured a graphic Weegee photo on its cover) included punked-up versions of the James Bond theme, complete with gunshots, and Jerry Goldsmith’s music from Roman Polanski’s Chinatown. But it also featured several hyper-condensed blasts of sheer noise, with titles like “Igneous Ejaculation” and “Demon Sanctuary,” often featuring the banshee-getting-a-prostate-exam vocals of Yamatsuka Eye of the Boredoms.
The band’s second album, Torture Garden, ditched the gangster-soundtrack angle entirely and just crammed 42 “hardcore miniatures” onto a single disc (including a few repurposed pieces from their debut). The shortest, “Hammerhead,” was just eight seconds long. The one that sounded the most like some kind of mission statement was called “Jazz Snob Eat Shit.”
Over the next four years, Naked City would release five more albums, each more bizarre than the last. By the 1992 album Radio, they were skipping with abandon from thrash metal to prog-rock to country to free jazz to Looney Tunes soundtracks, sometimes all in the same song. Their live shows became breakneck tours the last 50 years of popular music, often accompanied by the otherworldly shrieks of Eye or their other favorite live guest vocalist, Mr. Bungle’s Mike Patton.
Alas, it was all too weird to last. After 1993’s moodier, more ambient Absinthe, Naked City broke up and John Zorn went on to other, only slightly less nutty projects like his klezmer-inspired group Masada and the Moonchild Trio, his long-running collaboration with Joey Baron, Mike Patton and Mr. Bungle bassist Trevor Dunn.
But for awhile there, Naked City was truly, in the eyes of many, the Weirdest Band in the World. Naked City fans are a diehard breed, even among fans of weird music. This, from a 2005 review of the band’s complete recordings, is only slightly more extreme than usual: “Every time I move into a new place—even before I cart in the boxes—I set up a stereo and blast that [debut] LP in the living room: It cleans out the evil spirits and even clears out bad smells.” I’m gonna go out on a limb and say the guy who wrote that probably moves a lot.
We generally cater to short attention spans around here, and Naked City’s oeuvre offers plenty of material for the ADD crowd. So here’s 55 seconds of Zorn and co., with Eye on vocals:
But believe me when I tell you: To fully appreciate how truly, awesomely insane Naked City was, you need to watch all 93 minutes of this 1990 performance from a jazz festival in Switzerland. Or at least watch until about the 7:05 mark, when it takes Zorn longer to introduce the song “Igneous Ejaculation” than it does for the band to play it.
So to all you Naked City fans who read this blog: Sorry it took us 200 bands to get to them. And now, on to the next 200…
(P.S. Many, many readers have asked us to add Naked City to The Weird List over the years, but we have to give a special shout-out to reader Salvatore Intravaia for answering our call for 200th band suggestions on Facebook. Well-played, Salvatore! As soon as we get around to printing more T-shirts, you’ll get one.)