London's still burning !

Tuesday 8 March 2011 by Arnaud Rivière Tags: noise, music
The Nihilist Spasm Band in 1968, in front of the York Hotel. From left to right : Hugh McIntyre, Art Pratten, Archie Leitch, Murray Favro, John Clement, Bill Exley, John Boyle, Greg Curnoe. Credits : Ian MacEachern
The story does, in fact, take place in London (Canada), home of the NIHILIST SPASM BAND. Considered THE foremost band of noise, this band of wacky gentlemen is still making noise 45 years after it first began... for the joy of making noise together !
In 1965 in London, Ontario, artists, a literature professor, a doctor, a librarian and a few others recorded the soundtrack for an experimental film : No Movie by Greg Curnoe. An artist passionate about the Russian nihilists’ rejection of cultural institutions, a painter from the North American regionalism movement, a cyclist, the founder of the review Region and its namesake gallery, Curnoe had been a catalyst for artistic activity in London since the early 60’s.  
When the time came to record the audio for this non-film, he brought together some of the regulars at his gallery to create an orchestra of kazoos, and the NIHILIST SPASM BAND was (almost) born...out of the joy of freely improvising a genuine non-music.
Refusing to comply with the rules and tools of music, the members of the NSB decided to invent their own instruments in order to play exclusively their own music: modified and electrified kazoos, homemade guitars, basses with three and a half strings, pratt-a-various (a generic name given to the collection of string instruments of Art Pratten), a waterpipe, a motley assembly of percussion...a parodic take on the usual violin rock bands, a makeshift instrumentarium, between the homemade and the ready-made.
The whole thing brings to mind the orchestras that were all the rage in the streets of New Orleans at the end of the 19th century: the spasm bands. Made up primarily of children, these proto jazz bands took any type of found object and turned it into an instrument : a kettle, a violin made from a cigar box, etc.  The lineage is clear, from the tools, the purpose –the simple joy of playing together – and the know-how : no prerequisites !
NIHILIST SPASM BAND today. Credits : D.R.
In April of 1966, the NSB held its first concert. It may have been a Monday. At any rate, they chose that day as the day to meet up and play, every week, without having to decide between a rehearsal session and a concert : it was always a performance, the atmosphere was relaxed and the audience welcome.  
Forty-five years later, the weekly rendez-vous still stands and John Boyle, John Clement, Bill Exley, Murray Favro and Art Pratten can be heard there.  Only a few changes since the early days  :  Aya Onishi (who comes from the Osaka noise scene which gravitates around the Alchemy label) is a permanent guest of the NSB, while Greg Curnoe (who passed away during a tragic cycling trip in 1992), Hugh McIntyre (who died of heart failure in 2004) and Archie Leitch (who retired permanently in 1969 and is now exiled in Toronto) “play a little less often,” according to the other band members.
The very regularity of the gathering, according to them, is the main reason behind their exceptional longevity : their only ambition, as a band, is to get to the following Monday...and, once a year, to the Nihilist Picnic, a public, bucolic and parodic event of the Nihilist Party of Canada. 
During these gatherings, or when planning other projects that also hovered between seriousness and parody (The Nihilist Lacrosse Team, art gallery co-ops or the literary magazine 20 Cents), the NSB members and their friends were sketching the outlines of a vibrant parallel society.
There’s no other way to survive in Southwest Ontario, which is rather conservative. No Means No, but this particular kind of nihilism mostly rejects - with humor - boredom, and offers itself the luxury of building a London Way of Life.  A sort of collective farce, played out in all seriousness.

"Canada's official music Team"'s logo



It is quite logically under the title NO RECORD that their first album was released in 1968. While their music was already qualified as noise, this was far from being a compliment or an attempt at classifying it. It was just a derogatory accusation: the host of a radio show was even fired for playing their music on the air...
And yet in 1969, they were selected by the Canadian government to represent their country at the Biennale of Young Artists in Paris.  They went on their first trip to Europe (Paris, but also London) dressed in jackets that they decorated with a logo that read “Canada’s Official Music Team.” A perfect expression of defiance for the live performance of the first track on their first album: “Destroy the Nations.” It wasn’t until 2004 that they returned to Europe.
Between the two dates, it took the NSB 27 years to leave Canada again.  In 1996 (then in 1999), there were invited to Japan by Jojo Hiroshige, leader of Hijokaidan and owner of the Alchemy label (a fan from day one, he has released and re-released seven of their albums). There they were greeted as the founding fathers of noise, and yet, as strangers to the angry, anguished and destructive accents of surging electronics, they were very surprised by the musical tendencies of the Japanese scene.
For the first time, they played to packed houses full of excited fans who knew their lyrics by heart (the only exception to the rule of total improvisation: Bill Exley’s lyrics are written down and permanent) and even ended up as guests on a variety show.
While it was in Japan that the NSB was able to live its cult status, this phenomenon is a lot wider than that, and references to the NSB by musicians around the world are too many to count. The jacket notes of the first album of Nurse With Wound (the one with THE list) are dedicated to them, and from indie rock to industrial music by way of improv and of course noise, many musicians claim an affinity with the NSB: Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo (Sonic Youth), Alexander Hacke (Einstürzende Neubauten), Peter Conheim (Negativeland), Carlos Giffoni, Sun Plexus, Peter Buck and Mike Mills (R.E.M.), to name only a few.
A rehearsal-concert



Touched by the way they were received abroad (they were also invited to the U.S. in 1997), and as gentlemen eager to return the favor, they had the idea of launching the NO MUSIC FESTIVAL in London, a joyful symposium of different types of free music that can be grouped under the label “noise.” Beginning in 1998, and with the help of Ben Portis, they produced six editions (including one at Tonic in New York) featuring artists such as Voice Crack, Borbetomagus, Aube, Incapacitants, Fred Van Hove, Jim’ORourke, Reynols, Wolf Eyes, Guilty Connector, etc. As a special feature, they had the idea of leaving the stage open for end of evening jam sessions where anything could happen. London, Ontario is definitely on the map when it comes to joyfully wacked out music, and the recognition from the outside world has enabled a new generation of listeners to become interested in the music of the NSB.

What remains today is a unique approach to music, a freedom that gives to the chaotic sounds of the NSB a vibe that is definitely more primitive than tribal.  Also remaining is the unique approach to the life of a band: made up of non-musicians, the NSB brings together individuals with strong personalities, for whom this activity is crucial without being the central focus of their lives.  Neither a hobby nor a pastime, the NSB is a group of empirical humanists, non-professionals working with zeal and joy ; noisy hedonists. Started in the same time period as leading experimental music ensembles such as AMM or Musica Electronica Viva, the NSB chose not to theorize its approach, as it had no ambition other than the joy of performing together; a concept as musical as it is social, at the heart of what could be considered, when all is said and done, the indigenous folk music of London, Ontario.

Documents and links


  • From left to right : Bill Exley, Art Pratten, John Boyle, Greg Curnoe, Murray Favro, Hugh McIntyre.- Photo: Don Vincent
  • The Nihilist Spasm Band in 1968, in front of the Yok Hotel.
  • The NSB to the ICA (Londres-UK), 1969
  • The NSB in UK, 1969
  • © Don Vincent
  • © Don Vincent
  • © Don Vincent
  • John Boyle/ 20 Cents' cover - october 1969 - Credits : Bill McGrath
  • Bill Exley/ 20 Cents' cover - october 1969 - Credits : Drew Gillies
  • Hugh McIntyre/ 20 Cents' cover - october 1969 - Credits : Drew Gillies
  • Bill Exley/ 20 Cents' cover - october 1969 - Credits : Drew Gillies
  •  NSB, 1984
  • NSB, 2006
  • NIHILIST SPASM BAND today. All rights reserved

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