The New York Scene: a look back at the last decade

The New York Scene 1998-2010

The gift that keeps on giving until now.

By Alexander Laurence

When I moved to NYC in 1995, musically there was still a hodge podge of bad grunge, horrible hair metal bands, lame punk groups, silly techno acts, corporate boy bands, and sincere singer/songwriter types. It was massively unorganized and vague. Nobody bothered to be cool anymore. There were no cool influences. It was more like a band's desperate attempt to have a hit and get signed. The major labels were still in control and always looking for the next big thing. I used to go to places like Coney Island High, Fez, Brownies, Luna Lounge, Limelight, and underground parties in Williamsburg and Bushwick. No Doubt, Alannis Morrisette, Ani Difranco, and a million other forgettable bands were in the press at the time. I would get a dozen CDs by no-hit wonders sent to me every day.

I remember seeing Marilyn Manson in Times Square in 1996. This was like an important gig at the time. This stuff was supposed to be controversial? MTV had a lot of power back then as apparently every band wanted to be a clone of whatever was MTV ready. People in bands didn’t seem like hardcore music fans. They were more like fans of any band who was on TV. The majority of the radio stations in NYC sucked. They were very formulaic. They played Korn and Limp Biscuit. The only slightly cool NYC bands at the time were Luna, Sonic Youth, Ivy, and Jon Spencer Blues Explosion.

I remember a time when techno and drum and bass took over NYC for a few years. It was supposed to be the next big thing. There was a time when Chemical Brothers and The Prodigy were pretty big, and they devolved into the rave culture, which was more suburban and out in the sticks. Besides the few years when some dance club would open up in NYC every month, and got closed down, there was no sustained scene.

I spent a few years looking around for cool new bands. I read a bunch of music magazines. I hung out with Shirley Halperin in the offices of Smug Magazine on Orchard Street. Bands like Royal Trux and Radiohead used to stop by back in those days. I didn’t know who they were. This diligent search brought me to some Japanese Noise like Merzbow and others. I ended up seeing landmark shows by Mercury Rev, Massive Attack and Portishead. I caught the tail end of the Britpop scene and saw Pulp, Stereophonics, Supergrass, Black Box Recorder, Saint Etienne, and Dot Allison. There were some cool labels like Matador and Warp. But where were all the NYC bands?


As the Britpop scene faded out, UK journalists started to look out for new bands. Some of the bands who were on the cover of NME and Select Magazine in 1999 were Gay Dad and Catatonia. I visited London a few times at the end of the decade and people had mostly moved on from Oasis. America was always a few years behind in the Britlove. There were plenty of Britpop clubs in NYC at the time. Those UK bands usually played at Don Hills or Brownies. At the time, many of the NYC bands who would gain popularity had some connection to England.

One of the bands that I soon discovered was BLONDE REDHEAD. Their first album was produced by Steve Shelley of Sonic Youth. They were very favorable to people who listened to Japanese bands and Sonic Youth. I saw them play often in the early days to small audiences. They were without a gimmick and had no hits. They were the first band that seemed like they were familiar with the No Wave scene, and they in fact named themselves after a DNA song. They toured later with Interpol, who they were a big influence on. By the time they got to the song “23” they had a big hit, and now they are a big touring band. It took fifteen years but they have finally received the recognition they deserve as one of the most influential NYC bands.

At the time, many NYC bands were playing this punk rehash, like Lunachicks and Toilet Boys. In 1996, the Please Kill Me book came out, and Richard Hell even came out with a novel. For some reason there was some punk revivialism, but it took many years for a breakthrough. If a band wasn’t a Ramones rehash, it was rare. I would run into Joey Ramone, Ric Ocasek, or Richard Hell on the street quite often.

The next band I discovered was CALLA. They were from Denton, TX and had been in NYC a while. I read about them in Time Out and saw they released a record with Young God Records. I saw them play a show at CMJ in 2001. I recognized them on the street and saw a few of them who worked at Kim’s Video. They were one of the bands who rediscovered the post-punk era. They had a previous band called The Factory Press that was very Joy Division influenced. They toured heavily from 2003-2007 and even opened some shows with Interpol. They were one of the first Texas bands who moved to NYC: later there was Secret Machines and Spoon. It turned out that they were extremely influential, since many of the NYC bands were interested in the post-punk period. They have been on hiatus for a few years, and I look forward to their return.

Around the end of 2000, I attended the very first Electroclash festival. The best and most enduring of these bands were Fischerspooner, Ladytron, Peaches and Adult. FISCHERSPOONER actually singlehandedly usurped the whole scene and hit NYC like a hurricane. They were the big band on the scene pre-Strokes. They did three amazing albums but their success was never as great as when they first emerged. Signing to a failing Capitol Records was probably a mistake. Bands had tried to be theatrical and have elements of cabaret and fashion before. Fischerspooner blew all these bands out of the water. It was not till Fever Ray or Die Antwoord years later that you had something visually compelling. Fischerspooner should be a big touring act by today. But they are marginalized as a dance act, and have went back underground.

Fischerspooner today (photo: Angel Ceballos)