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City Paper  June 24-30, 2004  music


THIRSTIN' FOR MORE: When a certain sonic non-youth 
cited '70s instrumental punks The Notekillers as an  
influence, (top to bottom) Barry Halkin, David First and 
Stephen Bilenky decided to put the band back together.
THIRSTIN' FOR MORE: When a certain sonic non-youth cited '70s instrumental punks The Notekillers as an influence, (top to bottom) Barry Halkin, David First and Stephen Bilenky decided to put the band back together.
Influential instrumental punks The Notekillers return to Philly after 23 years.

by A.D. Amorosi

Philadelphia expatriate David First may be renowned for rumbling, pitch-bent music like Dave's Waves: A Sonic Restaurant and chilly syn-theoretical elegies like Resolver.

He may also be an better known for his sense of generosity and community

recording, pressing and gifting copies of his cathartic "Jump Back" to his neighbors surrounding the World Trade Center in the immediate wake of 9/11.

But long before the microtonal guitarist/composer became the toast of Manhattan's avant garde, he was a Notekiller. An instrumental outfit formed during Philly's punk '70s, Notekillers turned free Branca-esque primitivism and dire droning minimalism into tangled-guitar twanging pop found its way into the brain of a young Thurston Moore. The Sonic Youth guitarist put his money where his mind is by releasing Notekiller sessions recorded between 1977 and 1980 on Ecstatic Peace. This includes "The Zipper," a single Moore told Mojo magazine was essential to Sonic Youth's beginnings.

Don't know it?

Few do. Even within the local esoteric music scene, First and his Notekillers went unknown. They released one single before splitting up.

"I didn't do much hanging in Philly" says First. "The only players I had relationships with were those met during my time with Cecil [Taylor, free jazz pianist]. Elliott Levin's a shining example."

Other than Levin and a few locals with whom he still plays, First's Philadelphian past was limited to David Carroll, the Bar Noir owner who booked the band, and his Notekillers.

Raised in the Rhawnhurst area, the now-50 First started playing with bassist Stephen Bilenky and drummer Barry Halkin when he was 13. They'd hit the coffeehouses of the Northeast with a precocious form of "jammy/jazzy/Latinish rock" inspired by Love and Spirit. "We started out loners and losers and ended up being the band by the end of high school."

A serious player fascinated with drones, minor modes and Indian ragas from an early age, First became acquainted with microtonality through Charles Ives' quartertone piano duets. He went the free-jazz route: playing with Taylor in 1973, studying with legendary instructor Dennis Sandole on Spruce Street. Sandole, once a teacher to John Coltrane, stressed an avid experimentation microtonal tunings, fractured off-the-fret-board techniques, simultaneous chord-melody that factored into Notekillers sound. Add in extensive string bending, the energy of motoring minimalism and the frenzy of the burgeoning punk movement and you've got what First calls "NK's arsenal."

In 1976, the trio, along with percussionist Thomas Johnson and soundman Richard Bloom began Notekillers with First focusing on the "pop" experience, one as experimental as anything he'd ever attempted.

"A great song is a wonderfully elegant solution to a mathematical equation, but it's a limited set of sensual gestures designed to elicit a pleasurable, even elevated, response," says First. "Notekillers used to have an expression, "same animal, different cages.' That's my motto for whatever framework I'm exploring."

Theirs was a solitary notion born of alienation. Why else would you form an instrumental punk act unless you didn't like anyone? Back then, if you couldn't find even a bad vocalist, you just didn't want one.

"Whenever you add vocalists and lyrics, the music becomes "about something,'" according to First. "You lose direct experience. A lot of energy in 1976 was about getting rid of rock's over-inflated ego and pretentiousness. But there was still that guy in the middle in all these bands saying "look at me!' We saw it as the ultimate radical expression of punk sentiment to get rid of that guy altogether."

They took their "first dozen or so song parts" to David Carroll who booked them repeatedly at Hot Club and Artemis. Years of intense six-nights-a-week rehearsals and too-few gigs amounting to little money led First to two things: hand and wrist problems before the term "carpal tunnel" was invented and a single.

"The Zipper"/"Clockwise" was recorded on a four-track reel-to-reel in the basement of a beauty salon owned by Bilenky's father. They made a thousand copies. First has no idea how many sold. He can only account for a dozen. But two people who got them were Ed Bahlman from 99, a Manhattan record store and label that handled ESG, and Thurston Moore who used to hang at 99. Interesting it was. Their music was like rubbing two sticks together until achieving combustion a layered flux of flange, drone, microtonal morass and hard sharded rhythmic plinking whose sound was a precursor to that of the Edge, PIL's Keith Levine, Lee Ranaldo and Moore. Despite gigs at CBGB and Maxwell's, "The Zipper" couldn't rescue the band from self-implosion when it came out in 1980. "We made gallant efforts to keep going because it was what we always wanted, but it came a little too late. Funny considering all we had to do was wait another 23 years for this round."

Fast forward those next 23 years of First's musical life: AIDS-crisis opera (The Manhattan Book of the Dead), prestigious grants from John Cage's Foundation for Contemporary Performance Arts, that "Jump Back" single and his selfless distribution of it to his WTC-area neighbors.

In 2003, long after First dismissed it, Thurston Moore named "The Zipper" a fave in Mojo, not knowing who Notekillers were except to say they were mind-blowing and from Philly. "The article lists the 45's catalogue number, so clearly his was more than just a fond memory. I wrote to Thurston to tell him it was me," says First, who oddly had shared performance evenings with Ranaldo and Jim O'Rourke (both of Sonic Youth) and appeared on an album of Phill Niblock's with Moore.

"Thurston's first question was if we had more stuff. Luckily, we did, but not a lot some reel-to-reel tapes, cassettes. I hadn't listened to them for years." Not only did First realize that much of what he'd formalized, years later, could be found within those Notekillers session. He also found that he wanted to experience "NK" again, old songs and new. "I'd like to expand bring in my laptop electronics, get more involved with guitar effects; all the things it would have been nice to do 20 years ago had there been the luxury of more flexibility and experimentation."

Twenty eight years after their start, First wants you to know one thing about Notekillers: "We walk the line between playing dumb and being dumb."

Notekillers play with Clare Machado, Janet Bressler, PsyOps and Large Marge, Sat., June 26, [2004] 9:30 p.m., Tokio Ballroom, 122 Lombard St., 215-922-2515.



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