The story of Chandra, a unique 12-year-old post-punk sensation that ripped up the 1980s music scene
Chandra Oppenheim may have a recognisable surname, but that’s because she is the daughter of the late conceptual artist Dennis Oppenheim. However, her story is a remarkable tale, one that has seen her carve a name for herself in the post-punk New York scene all while being just 12-years old.
The scene in New York City was in a transitional phase at the beginning of the 1980s, a time when the famed punk movement of the late 1970s began to slow down and led to genres ranging from glam, to new wave, to disco all sneaking into the city’s new eccentric scene which was accepting of everyone. The only caveat, it would seem, was that they needed to have great talent which allowed a 12-year-old sensation from Brooklyn who was backed by a post-punk disco group under the name of Chandra to grow a burgeoning name on the streets.
Her first EP, titled Transportation, was released in 1980 when Oppenheim was aged just 12 years old. Growing up in such a creative household had spurred the youngster to showcase her own creativity and make her own art at such a young age. Chandra, with a prolific spirit, first began to write music at just nine-years-old.
According to an interview with The Guardian, Oppenheim’s major step into the world of music was in 1979 when she was just 11, a period of time when Chandra hired a rehearsal room in the Music Building in Hell’s Kitchen which was described as “a grungy, gritty, rough place”.
Discussing her desire to forge her own vision in a 2009 interview with Nerdtorious, Oppenheim gave her first public discussion in close to 30-years when she opened up on the influence that her creative upbringing gave her: “It made me feel like the sky’s the limit,” she said. “I saw my father do what he wanted to do without a care of what people thought. I felt that this was the best way to operate in the world. In terms of being around these people, I felt like I was an adult when I was a kid. Other kids lived with more rules, and I was around adults and got to see scary movies and go to parties.”
The musician added: “The downside of that was that I was around adults that probably didn’t’ think of me as a kid either. I was a kid of a well-known conceptual artist so I was used to being around crazy people in crazy situations all the time. I was exposed to behaviour that wasn’t the best for a child’s development; like drug-use for example. But again, because it was around all the time, it wasn’t interesting or enticing or anything either.”
Her father was in a tight-knit relationship with the artists and musicians of the late ’70s Lower East Side, he was friends with Eugenie Diserio and Steven Alexander, both of whom had been playing the NYC post-punk circuit with the Model Citizens who were signed to John Cale’s Spy Label.
Chandra, forcing her desire to perform on stage, soon began appearing in clubs and bars around this time in the early ’80s and the band quickly made a name for themselves on the underground New York scene. Given their local success, the group then started touring the states across the North East under the name of the Chandra Dimension. The band’s meteoric rise even included an appearance on the kids’ TV show Captain Kangaroo in which Chandra was interviewed and performed with her band.
Chandra had fully arrived on the scene, regularly performing shows iconic New York music venue Mudd Club and rubbing shoulders with the likes of Blondie, Lou Reed and more. “There were moments when the music was pulsing and Chandra was chanting, in a room full of jaded hipsters, and they’d be staring with their jaw open,” band member Steven Alexander told The Guardian. “It was so pure. Chandra was completely unique,” Alexander added. “We wanted to create a project around her. It wasn’t just about working with a kid.”
Unfortunately, the band broke up in 1982 once her schooling demands became too high. Chandra detailed why to Nerdtorious: “I remember school being rough and I would bring my homework to band practice. So it ended up being a conflict.”
Oppenheim’s career would see a second wave in 2008 when Cantor Records reissued Transportation which set new eyes on to the world of Chandra. Remarkably, in 2016, the final track on the EP ‘Subways’ was bizarrely largely sampled on The Avalanches’ first album in 16-years on the track also titled ‘Subways’.
The sample has clocked of over ten million streams across all platforms and took Chandra aback when she first heard it, telling VICE: “I was really excited to get the news. Anytime anyone is interested in that record, I feel very happy and grateful. And because it was the Avalanches, too, it was really cool.”
Chandra may not make music anymore, but her legacy lives on and if it wasn’t for the beauty of sampling then her incredible story may have never resurfaced. Listen to the 1980 EP in full below as well as The Avalanches’ rejig.