Nonesuch / Elektra Records, 1989
REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 08/17/1998
I still remember being introduced to saxophonist John Zorn's combination freeform jazz/grindcore side project Naked City when I was in college radio. The station's music director, Anthony (whom I've written about before on these pages) was in the studio doing his show, and I happened to wander in to chat. Normally, our tastes in music were as different as night and day; I often thought the stuff he listened to was the musical equivalent of someone masturbating with a chainsaw.
But he looked at me and said in a deadpan voice, "This is a song called 'Fuck The Facts'." Eleven seconds later, the track was over, and I stood there in dropped-jaw shock. I was hooked, no question about it.
Zorn, an eclectic bird in his own right, put together this combination of some of rock and jazz's best (albeit little-known) musicians and formed Naked City, a group that broke the mold and rules when it came to all forms of music. Their self-titled debut is the musical equivalent of a heart attack; you never really know what's lurking around the corner as the next track, even if you've listened to the album 50 times. But if you've got the stomach for truly different music, you will love this album.
With Zorn on alto sax, Bill Frisell on guitar, Wayne Horovitz on keyboards, Fred Frith on bass, Joey Baron on drums, and the charming Yamatsuka Eye on vocals (or at least what Zorn calls vocals; others might disagree), Naked City merges the worlds of jazz, rock, country, and a then-little-known form of music in America called grindcore. In England, bands like Napalm Death (whom I got hooked on at the same time) were spewing forth an average of three songs in one minute, with rhythms that sounded like a hummingbird's heart hopped up with methamphetamines. To Zorn, this was just another new musical path to forge.
The band does treat some forms of music with respect, such as Ennio Morricone's "The Sicilian Clan," John Barry's "James Bond Theme," Henry Mancini's "A Shot In The Dark" and the original "Saigon Pickup". These moments of musical reverence provide not only surprise (they usually follow a more intense number), but also a respite from the madness that makes up Naked City.
Oh, but what a wonderful madness it is. The first side of the tape features 17 songs, a few of which clock in at under 30 seconds. If Eye is actually saying anything, I can't tell; his vocals, wonderful to my ears as they are, sound like he dropped the radio in the bathtub and is being electrocuted. (This, I think, is the desired effect for Naked City.) Baron flails on his drums as if he's having a seizure, while Zorn empties his lungs into his saxophone.
Thinking about it, words really don't describe Naked City's sound. I mean, how do you adequately describe a number that goes from the thrash-attack of grindcore to a Latin rumba to a jazzy beat? It's kind of like describing what having an asthma attack is like to someone who doesn't have asthma. (Being a bronchial asthmatic, I speak from experience.) You have to experience Naked City to really understand what they're all about.
And what they are about, in retrospect, is about re-inventing free-form, jazz and otherwise. Combining such elements into songs like "You Will Be Shot," "Batman" (which was re-named "Gotham" on later pressings), "Punk China Doll" and "Speedball" doesn't seem to make sense until you hear it for yourself. (Kind of like how I don't understand how some people can put pineapple on pizza.)
While Naked City is certainly groundbreaking, it hardly is for everybody. The faint-hearted will be running for the exits before Zorn and crew can really get warmed up; purists of jazz, rock, and possibly even grindcore might consider the marriage of several styles of music sacreligious. Possibly. But for the rest of us, Naked City represents unbridled energy, passion and possibly even anger channeled into music. The resulting noise is sheer joy to those who get it, and sheer madness to those who don't.
Naked City recorded one more album (not on Nonesuch/Elektra) before apparently throwing in the towel. Too bad, but not surprising. Seeing that this music could be considered the nitroglycerine of jazz, it was only a matter of time before it went ker-plooie. Thank God we have Naked City to remind us what these forefathers created for musicians yet to come.