This gallery is organized around 14 selected, singular moments in the vast trajectory of new music in early 1980s New York. Representing a variety of genres, venues, and influential events, they are chosen from among thousands of musical moments that defined the richness and diversity of the city’s music scene. Although they are by definition incomplete, together they provide an overarching impression of the energy and innovation that defined the era.
In some cases, the moments are pivotal and their influence long-lasting. Others highlight an interesting lineup of bands or confluence of performers, while certain festivals embody the efforts to bring together musicians under larger umbrellas to foster more serious consideration of their practice. When viewed together, these moments—arrayed around the walls of the gallery—provide a sense of the innovation, energy, and cross-pollination of musical ideas that was happening across the city at this moment of openness and creativity.
The following moments are organized counterclockwise from the gallery entrance.
Event: Beyond Words
Venue: Mudd Club
Date: April 9, 1981
The meeting of ideas between uptown and downtown culture crossed an important threshold on April 9, 1981, when the Mudd Club in TriBeCa hosted Beyond Words. 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.
For several years, the featured DJs and MCs had been rocking parties uptown while graffiti writers from throughout the five boroughs had been painting the subways with “style writing.” By the beginning of the 1980s, a swirling interest in graffiti-based art, DJ turntablism, rapping, and b-boy culture—what would be brought together under the umbrella term “hip hop”—began to percolate into the downtown scene. Art and music events at the Fashion Moda arts space in the Bronx, The Times Square Show produced by Colab in 1980,
and New York/New Wave at the P.S. 1 arts center in Queens in February of 1981 all set the stage for Beyond Words.
Fred Brathwaite (aka Fab 5 Freddy) floated between these worlds and was instrumental to connecting these cultures. Fred was also a regular at the Mudd Club, where music, art, and “happenings” regularly shared the bill. With the artist Futura 2000, he curated the Beyond Words exhibition, featuring the work of downtown artists side-by-side with graffiti writers, and booked the musical performances. Downtown took notice. Soon there were regular nights for hip-hop parties hosted at Club Negril, then the Roxy, and an international tour in 1982 promoting the culture with stops in London and Paris.
Artist: Talking Heads
Venue: Central Park
Date: August 27, 1980
Five years after first taking the stage at CBGB (opening for the pioneering punk rock group the Ramones), on August 27, 1980 the Talking Heads played a sold-out concert at Wollman Rink in Central Park. The band had just finished mixing their fourth studio album, Remain in Light, which pushed their music in new directions. They were now fusing new wave rock and roll with Afrobeat—a combination of American funk and jazz with West African polyrhythms. In the words of lead singer David Byrne in New York Rocker, “It’s not Talking Heads with a new style. The whole concept has changed.” The nervous, dark-humored lyrics of the 1970s gave way to propulsive rhythms and an almost ecstatic evangelical lyricism.
For the first time, the band expanded beyond the classic quartet of David Byrne, Chris Frantz, Jerry Harrison, and Tina Weymouth, bringing in an array of musicians including guitarist Adrian Belew, keyboardist Bernie Worrell, bassist Michael “Busta Cherry” Jones, percussionist Steve Scales, percussionist and backup singer Dolette McDonald, and backup singer Nona Hendryx.
The Central Park show—with a crowd of nearly 20,000—was only the second time this lineup played together live. The group imbued a new collective spirit into the Talking Heads’ music. Several tracks from the Central Park show were later included on the live double album The Name of This Band Is Talking Heads (1982).
Artists: DNA and Gray
Date: March 22, 1980
On Saturday March 22, 1980, DNA and Gray, two bands associated with New York’s "no wave" scene, hit the stage of CBGB on the Bowery. Many no wave bands at the time deemphasized traditional musicianship and technique, an attitude that allowed them to explore sound, pattern, texture, and free improvisation. The CBGB gig was emblematic of this moment in no wave: the two bands played together frequently from 1979 through 1981, and the materials gathered here embody the pairing of the two influential groups on the downtown scene.
At the time of the March 22 gig, DNA was a trio, with each member taking an unconventional approach to their instruments. As New Yorker music critic Sasha Frere-Jones wrote: "Too often described as "noise," [Arto] Lindsay’s guitar figures have more in common with painting—they shift in tone and texture, often in disorienting ways, but none of them are random. [Ikue] Mori’s drumming depends heavily on tom tom patterns, rather than the kick, snare, and high hat used by most timekeeping drummers. [Tim] Wright generally played coherent, melodic [bass] lines. ...Lindsay sang as if he were bringing words out of his stomach with a hook, rendering them unintelligible."
Gray’s artists were untrained on their instruments: Jean-Michel Basquiat on clarinet or synthesizer; Michael Holman on percussion; Nick Taylor on guitar; and Wayne Clifford switching off on a variety of instruments (Shannon Dawson, later of Konk, was an earlier member of the band). Music critic Glenn O’Brien described the group as “sort of an easy listening bebop industrial sound effects lounge ensemble,” later writing that Gray approached music-making “the way one would pick up a strange machine and try to intuit its operation and function.”
Event: Konk vs Liquid Liquid
Venue: Tompkins Square Park
Date: August 9, 1981
A move of marketing genius turned an outdoor summer concert into a sensation by branding the August 9, 1981 event as a showdown between the featured bands. Richard McGuire of Liquid Liquid created a poster for the Tompkins Square Park concert in the form of a prizefighters’ bout announcing “Konk vs Liquid Liquid,” promoting a friendly rivalry between two bands that loved to make their audiences dance. The resulting concert, which also featured several other local and international bands, earned favorable reviews in both The Village Voice and New York Rocker.
Liquid Liquid and Konk both formed in New York City in 1980, and they quickly developed reputations for their slightly off-kilter music, driven by groove-based, danceable funk rhythms. Born out of the New York post-punk new wave scene, Liquid Liquid sounded nothing like anything that preceded them: without a guitarist, they built their music on uniquely propulsive grooves. Konk drew on a range of new wave, funk, disco, and Afropop influences with the free-form improvisation of jazz. Both bands would continue to perform and record for several years. Liquid Liquid’s notable release “Cavern” in 1983 became an instant dance club classic, sampled by numerous hip-hop groups over the years.
Event: Noise Fest
Venue: White Columns
Date: June 16 to 24, 1981
When nightclub owner Ray Boykin declared, “Let’s face it, a lot of music is just noise,” he unwittingly inspired a groundbreaking art and music event: the 1981 Noise Fest. Although Boykin was referencing the atonal and dissonant art rock of the "no wave" movement of the late 1970s, by the early 1980s an expansive cohort of musicians was still exploring the possibilities of “noise.” The director of the TriBeCa arts space White Columns, Josh Baer, invited Thurston Moore of the band Sonic Youth to curate a lineup around the theme, and what was envisioned as a one-day event quickly snowballed into a nine-day festival from June 16 to 24, 1981.
As Moore recalled, “Bands started calling me to be involved. Just about everyone who did call I said yes to… Insane…” The watershed event brought together “contemporary avant-garde post no wave punk experimentalists” who created a memorable—if aggressive—experience. As The SoHo Weekly News reported, “The room is tiny, the reverb is deadly, and the amplification so loud that it is all but impossible to stand inside the room for more than a minute.”
White Columns turned the event into a platform for experimental art by mounting a concurrent exhibition under the title The Big Beat and producing a companion zine. The event also spawned a limited-edition cassette tape, recorded by Anne DeMarinis of Sonic Youth, and inspired White Columns director, Josh Baer, to partner with composer Glenn Branca to create Neutral Records. The label went on to release seminal first efforts by Sonic Youth and Swans, along with important recordings by Y Pants and Branca.
Artist: Kid Creole and the Coconuts
On any given night beginning in the early 1980s, Kid Creole and the Coconuts would hit the stage and transport their audience to a fantasy world that The New York Times described as “The Marx Brothers meeting Carmen Miranda in Bob Marley’s Kingston.” Such was the case when the group, fronted by August Darnell (Kid Creole), led a revue of nearly a dozen musicians to perform their danceable genre-bending music at Danceteria in July 1980.
As the press release for their debut album, Off the Coast of Me (1980), noted, “Their name conjures up images of tropical serenity and island madness and the group features in addition to August Darnell...vibes player and music arranger, Andy Hernandez (Coati Mundi), and a motley multi-ethnic sexually integrated crew cooking up a combination of island music and working-class urban funk.” Their ambitious second release, Fresh Fruit in Foreign Places (1981), was built on the concept of a musical travelogue and became a stage production at The Public Theater.
Their music was smart, edgy and always danceable, appealing to the still-dancing disco denizens, die-hard new wavers, and everyone in between.
Date: December 16, 1982
On Thursday, December 16, 1982, an ambitious 24-year-old using just her first name took to the second-floor stage at Danceteria on 21st Street to publicly perform her own music for the first time. Singing her recently recorded single “Everybody,” Madonna served as the opening act for the UK independent music chart toppers, A Certain Ratio.
Madonna Louise Ciccone had come to New York from her native Detroit five years earlier with aspirations to become a professional dancer. By the early 1980s, she was a familiar figure on the downtown scene. As DJ Mark Kamins, who eventually produced her first single, said, “Madonna was a regular at Danceteria. She had great style and had to be the center of attraction.” Her debut appearance, and the single for Sire Records, served as a springboard to fame; the release of her self-titled album quickly followed in 1983.
The following year, Madonna captured worldwide attention when she performed “Like a Virgin” at the MTV Video Music Awards at Radio City Music Hall. Her suggestive performance has gone down as among the most iconic moments in television history. Over the next decade and a half, Madonna became “the Queen of Pop”—a towering figure in global music and fashion.
Event: Next Wave Festival
Venue: Brooklyn Academy of Music
Date: 1982 to 1983
An important springboard for new music in the 1980s came from a source that might have seemed unlikely: the venerable Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM). But by September of 1982, when the second edition of its Next Wave series launched, BAM was already known for fostering adventurous art. The season-long festival featured an unprecedented number of artists, both new and well known, from diverse disciplines—many presenting world premieres.
Opening the series was Steve Reich, an established leader of minimalist composition; his program spanned the range of his career, from Drumming (1971) to the world premiere of Vermont Counterpoint (1982). Downtown musician and composer Glenn Branca premiered his Symphony No. 3: Gloria for electric guitar and percussion, a raucous piece that combined the musical pedigree of minimalism with the allure of rock and roll. Laurie Anderson premiered the complete mixed-media rumination on modern America:
United States: Parts I–IV, combining spoken word and electronic music with projections.
The 1982–83 Next Wave series concluded with a collaborative presentation between modern jazz great Max Roach and the dance team of Bill T. Jones and Arnie Zane, a milestone of innovation and interdisciplinary performance. This capped off a season of visionary concerts that introduced new music to a wide audience. Next Wave has remained a mainstay for BAM ever since.
Artist: Funky 4 + 1
Venue: Saturday Night Live
Date: February 14, 1981
On February 14, 1981, the Funky 4 + 1 appeared on Saturday Night Live (SNL), marking the very first time a hip-hop group performed live on national television. Formed in the Bronx in 1976, the group that performed on SNL included four men—K.K. Rockwell, Keith Keith, Li’l Rodney C., and Jazzy Jeff—with the “plus one more” being Sha Rock, hip hop’s first female MC.
In a move that reflected the growing influence of hip hop on downtown rock culture, Funky 4 + 1 had been invited to perform on SNL by that evening’s host and musical guest, Debbie Harry of the legendary new wave/punk band Blondie. SNL invited Harry to pick a fellow musical guest to accompany her, and she chose Funky 4 + 1, whom she introduced as “among the best street rappers in the country” and “her friends from the Bronx.”
The group performed their second single, “That’s the Joint,” released on Sugar Hill Records. The Village Voice music critic Robert Christgau gave the song his highest rating and later named it in his best of the '80s list. It has remained influential over the years, sampled by both the Beastie Boys and De La Soul.
Artist: The Fort Apache Band
Date: December 31, 1985
On New Year’s Eve 1985, the Bronx-based Fort Apache Band played multiple sets at Mikell's, a jazz club on the corner of 97th Street and Columbus Avenue. The music that evening embodied the group’s animating project: to explore the creative intersection of Afro-Cuban and Puerto Rican musical traditions with jazz.
The band had been co-founded by brothers Andy and Jerry González in 1979. Andy played standup bass; Jerry, the leader, was a percussionist and trumpeter who embodied the intersectional spirit of modern Latin jazz. Initially, the group was nameless (their first album, Ya Yo Me Curé, was recorded under Jerry’s name), but they eventually named themselves after the South Bronx police precinct, turning a slur into a statement of pride. (The ensemble had been active in the protests against the production of the Paul Newman film Fort Apache, The Bronx in 1981.)
Having recorded a live album (The River Is Deep) in 1982, by the time of their New Year’s Eve performance the group was deep into the exploration of the musical themes that would come to fruition in 1989’s Rumba Para Monk. This landmark album paired Latin rhythms with Thelonious Monk compositions, to great acclaim. “Whenever I heard jazz—Trane, Miles, or Monk—I heard the Cuban rhythms with it all along,” Jerry González told Down Beat in 1990. “Dizzy (Gillespie) proved that you can superimpose authentic bebop over a complex Latin rhythmic bass without watering either of them down.”
Artist: John Zorn
Date: October 13, 1984
Cobra is one of avant-garde composer John Zorn’s most influential “game pieces”—genre-defying musical compositions designed for controlled improvisation. Premiered at Roulette, a TriBeCa alternative art space, on October 13, 1984, Cobra was inspired by a World War II role-playing game of the same name. The piece was conceived as a system of rules intended to create “a looser, yet more complex set of interpersonal relationships” for a group of musicians and a prompter. Zorn wrote the score with the intention of encouraging fast pacing and quick changes in the music. He compared his intentions to “the kind of radical time slicing and syntax structure of the classic cartoon music of Carl Stalling and Scott Brady.”
A native of New York City, Zorn has been a central figure in the downtown scene since 1975. He is known for drawing on a wide range of musical genres, including jazz, rock, hardcore punk, classical, klezmer, film, cartoon, popular, and improvised music. Zorn continues to create an influential body of work that crosses standard academic categories. Cobra has become a staple of avant-garde music, routinely played by both seasoned musicians and students looking to hone their improvisational skills.
Event: Keith Haring's Party of Life
Venue: Paradise Garage
Date: May 16, 1984
On May 16, 1984, artist Keith Haring threw his first Party of Life, a birthday celebration that was a rapturous convergence of art, music, and performance at the Paradise Garage nightclub in SoHo. The festivity was co-hosted by Larry Levan, the club’s resident DJ and noted record producer and mixer, and featured a star-studded guest list with performances by Madonna and John Sex. Madonna sang “Dress You Up” and “Like a Virgin,” which released later that year, wearing a Stephen Sprouse-designed suit painted by Haring and LA II.
Paradise Garage had opened in 1977, inspired by David Mancuso's private DJ parties at The Loft—no liquor was served, no food or beverages were sold. The club was invitation-only, with a devoted patronage of primarily Black gay men, and DJ Larry Levan’s turntable wizardry was the primary draw.
In his journals, Haring wrote, “I don’t know if you know how important the Paradise Garage is, at least for me and the tribe of people who have shared many a collective spiritual experience there.” Ann Magnuson, downtown artist, actor, and friend of Keith Haring, wrote that “dancing was our pagan rite and the Paradise Garage, the first multi-cultural gay dance club, became Keith’s Pantheon.” The Party of Life was perhaps the ultimate example of downtown art, fashion, and music converging on the dance floor.
Artists: Run-DMC and The Treacherous Three
Venue: Graffiti Rock
Date: June 29, 1984
History was made in June of 1984 when the first syndicated hip-hop TV show was recorded on a soundstage in Midtown Manhattan. Graffiti Rock creator, Michael Holman (a percussionist for the "no wave" band Gray, also highlighted in this gallery), described the show as a “music and dance party celebrating street life.” Although the show ultimately aired only one episode, on June 29, it had big ambitions: to provide “a glimpse into the future, a chance to view what today’s youth is thinking and feeling, singing, and dancing. And that, ultimately, will help determine what direction our entire society is taking.”
Graffiti Rock featured groundbreaking acts, including Run-DMC’s performance of their hit single, “Sucker MCs.” Formed just the year before in Hollis, Queens, Run-DMC had just released their first LP in the spring of 1984. By the time of Graffiti Rock, the trio had developed their hard hitting “rap rock” sound with songs like “Rock Box.” They also acquired a fashion aesthetic that would reshape hip hop for generations, incorporating a street style that featured Kangol hats, Adidas sneakers, and black leather jackets.
The program also featured Kool Moe Dee and Special K, two MCs from the veteran trio The Treacherous Three. Based out of Harlem and the Bronx, the group was known for the speed and lyrical qualities of their rhymes. The MCs provided the show’s introduction, breaking down the elements of hip hop, including breakin’, DJing, and the verbal stylings of MCs, all with a graffiti-laden set. They were also featured in a friendly freestyle battle with Run-DMC.
Artist: Arthur Russell
Venue: Experimental Intermedia Foundation
Date: September 22, 1985
A groundbreaking moment in the New York experimental music scene came in the fall of 1985, when Arthur Russell staged several performances at the Experimental Intermedia Foundation in SoHo. The solo performances of new and reworked compositions paired Russell’s plaintive tenor with his cello, sometimes drenched in distortion and reverb. Several songs recorded during these performances make up a significant portion of Russell’s groundbreaking 1986 album, World of Echo.
Russell came to New York City in 1973 from his native Iowa by way of San Francisco. Classically trained in composition and the cello, he quickly fell in with the downtown crowd and became the booker for the avant-garde art venue The Kitchen. As he gradually became disillusioned with the opportunities in the experimental music scene, he was also frequenting nightclubs like The Loft and Paradise Garage, the center of the gay club scene. Their influence soon began to appear in his work, as Russell began to create music for New York’s dancefloors. He collaborated with groups such as The Flying Hearts, Loose Joints, and Dinosaur L, which produced dance classics “Is It All Over My Face?” and “Go Bang! #5.”
Russell was the rare individual who could move between worlds, from theart hall to the dance hall, and his influence on contemporary music makers and appreciation by music critics has only increased in recent years. Russell was diagnosed with HIV shortly after the release of World of Echo, and he died in 1992.