Cult heroes: NoMeansNo – noise-funk-rock-hardcore pioneers you must hear

The Canadian prog-punk-jazz-metal heroes have just split up. Here’s why you should rectify a wrong and investigate them

What the hell is wrong with this year? David Bowie has gone. Prince has been taken far too soon. NoMeansNo have split up. Brexit looks set to wreak financial havoc on those British subjects least able to afford it. America is sleepwalking into disaster with Donald Trump. The Labour party seems damaged beyond immediate repair. Terrifying sabre-rattling with Russia has begun over Syria … Hold up. Rewind a second there. Who have split up?

After 37 years, the defiantly underground (AKA unpopular) Canadian rock trio, NoMeansNo – who mixed noise, jazz, funk, dubstep, heavy metal, hardcore, prog, free improvisation and avant-rock into their sound, while never really straying too far from their Ramones-worshipping roots – have finally called it a day. And now, I’m going to explain (via the means of list of 10 reasons) why we’re all a shower of shivering, narrow-shouldered bastards for letting this appalling calumny occur.

1. The River (1993)

NoMeansNo were the greatest punk band ever. And now they’re gone. I hope you’re all satisfied – you bunch of massive whoppers. And now that I’ve vented, we can proceed.

2. Ghosts (1991)

NoMeansNo were formed as a duo in Victoria, Canada in 1979 by brothers John (drums, vocals) and Rob Wright (bass, vocals). They would expand to a trio with Andy Kerr and, later, Tom Holliston on guitars. As well as following directly on from the likes of Canadian hardcore pioneers DOA, their earliest material shows the influence of such postpunk groups as Joy Division and new wave acts like Devo. They continually raged against the constraints of onetwothreefour rock and embraced the supposed contradiction of being punks who were fans of prog. Their stars aligned briefly in 1989 with the release of Wrong, their most popular album, which came out on Jello Biafra’s Alternative Tentacles label. While a fantastically intense document and must-own LP, it still really doesn’t showcase the band at full stretch lyrically or musically. But in typical millennial, post-music style, their narrative has seen them reduced to the status of a one-album proposition. Tired of always being asked to perform Wrong-in-its-entirety gigs and of the growing indifference to their later (but still fantastic) records, they have now called it a day. But take a look at any of their albums or EPs and you will find gem after gem, such as this remorseless grinder from 0+2=1, for example.

Watch Nomeansno play Ghosts live in 1991.

3. Big Dick (1989)

On one level, NoMeansNo were essentially trying to map the outer limits of what it was possible for a punk rock rhythm section to do. It was something that they were very good at.

4. Rags and Bones (1989)

And of course, now that I’ve got all of that stuff about Wrong off my chest, let me restate – it is a fantastic album. Rags and Bones is obviously the best face-melting song ever to explore existential crisis with a Moby-Dick reference. And yes, I’m including Mastodon’s Blood and Thunder in that assessment.

5. Kill Everyone Now (1993)

It’s just that Wrong isn’t as good as Why Do They Call Me Mr Happy? – which is the high watermark of all western civilisation.

6. It’s Catching Up (live) (1991)

NoMeansNo were also one of the greatest live rock bands of all time. You could have gone and watched them yourself. It’s not like they weren’t constantly on tour for 37 years. Luckily for my hyperbolic claims, they did leave behind some convincing evidence in this department in the shape of Live and Cuddly and Live in Warsaw.

7. I Can’t Stop Talking (1998)

As always when it comes to lyrical content, you can just ignore it if you like. NoMeansNo function just brilliantly as an exciting, whacked-out punk group with lots of gnarly sounding phrases to shout along with after a few beers if that’s your thing. (I’m not throwing shade – this is how I came to the group initially.) It’s just that lyrically they were several cuts above most of their peers. Punk is/was not short of very bright people, but in a genre where the minimum entry level is Poundland nihilism and angry sloganeering, few come close to Rob Wright’s ability to illuminate subjects such as body horror, existential crisis, antinatalism, the equal failures of religion, democracy and liberal humanism, the oppressiveness of machismo and the absence of free will with such lucidity and breathtaking poetry. It’s more usual to see this kind of subject matter being discussed in the writing of John Gray, Michel Houellebecq and Eugene Thacker than in punk lyrics; and Wright’s tactic of using “lowbrow”, pop-cultural references to illuminate profound philosophical concepts is reminiscent of the writing of Kurt Vonnegut. (1995’s The Worldhood of the World may not be the only punk album that’s directly inspired by the writing of Martin Heidegger but it’s the only one I can think of off the top of my head.) Their choice of band name, an anti-date-rape slogan, was and remains at best deeply unpleasant, but I don’t believe it’s shock-for-shock’s-sake or misogynist in intention. Instead, to me, it reflects an ongoing interest in the treachery of language itself. You can hear them still railing against the problems of communication on I Can’t Stop Talking, a minimalist pop-punk banger from Dance of the Headless Bourgeoisie, released two decades into their career. The lyrics to this track – and this applies to most of their songs – really deserve to be read on their own.

8. Bitches Brew (2000)

The brass balls of it. Covering the title track of Miles Davis’s most celebrated (among heavy rock fans at least) album, Bitches Brew. It’s an epic but doomy punk rock affair played live by a three-piece (augmented by guests on Fender Rhodes and congas) but still thrillingly analogous to the original. As always with NMN, there’s a twist – the track has been reimagined as a piece of gritty American noir, with the dark, disturbing imagistic lyrics calling to mind Dashiell Hammett and James Ellroy. Covering electric jazz fusion standards might not be everyone’s idea of fun, but Miles Davis was adored by all the smartest punk rockers from Henry Rollins to Penny Rimbaud. I mean, just check Rated X from 1974, which is practically the blueprint for Public Image Ltd’s best albums.

9. Dark Ages (Shackleton’s My Goal Beyond Mix) (2012)

Because he is a forward-thinking and phenomenal bass player, Rob Wright’s interest in dubstep over the last decade is easy enough to understand. Despite temporarily overlooking the group’s biggest musical asset – John Wright’s drumming – the Butchering the Sacred Cows EP from 2012 was a complete success and saw them go out, in terms of recorded output, on a high. It works so well because the interest is clearly not a passing whim, as the well-judged assemblage of remixers – Shackleton, Orphx, Miles and Deadbeat – suggests. Even if you don’t own this EP, anyone who has seen NMN over recent years will know Deadbeat’s Power and Glory mix of The River, as it was often a set opener. I think it’s fair to say that the reason for this late-stage departure was a mixture of genuine passion and gentle trolling of their own fans. But of course, if you think of punk rock as being a certain kind of spirit or approach to art and life, rather than a restrictive set of codified genre rules, then this was a very punk rock thing to do indeed.

10. Cats, Sex and Nazis (1993)

I don’t love this song because it baits the steadfastly mediocre Faith No More (“We care a lot!” “You’re a liar!”). I don’t love this song for its boozy, raging, lolloping riffs. I don’t love this song for its unsurpassed levels of balefulness, scorn, intransigence, intolerance and sarcasm. I love this song because somehow it seems to nail everything that is wrong with the internet, despite being released in 1993. While probably talking about problems with the media in general – the patronising but entirely provable idea that a lot of people are happy with the papers/TV as long as they are provided with fluffy animals, titillation and stories on political extremism – it really seems to have double the relevance now when you think about it. “Why do they call me Mr Happy?” asks Rob Wright during the closing seconds of this song. It’s a rhetorical question. He’s more than happy to tell you: “It’s because I’m so … fucking … smart.” Too true, sir, too true. But NoMeansNo were perhaps ultimately too smart for their own good as well, unfortunately.


John Doran

The GuardianTramp

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