Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Dust It Off: Nihilist Spasm Band - No Record

No Record
Album: No Record
Allied Record Corp., 1968

Another oldie for you this week! The Nihilist Spasm Band formed way back in 1965, the year the Beatles released Rubber Soul and two years before the first official release of the Velvet Underground. In other words, in 1965, rock was in its adolescence, at most.

In the few years that followed, rock'n'roll would grow up fast, with a small but growing number of bands attempting to fuse high art with rock populism. These bands - the Velvet Underground, Captain Beefheart and MC5, among others - would draw on the free improvisation of progressive jazz music, most notably Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, John Coltrane and Sun Ra. They would also consider developments in modern classical music from highly experimental composers like La Monte Young and John Cage, trying to inject the avant-garde ideas of these musicians into a rock'n'roll context.

But in 1965, a group of pranksters in London, Ontario formed a band that would manage to place the experimentalism of other genres in a rock context, not only in terms of musical foundations but also in terms of spirit. Unlike their artistic peers the Velvets and Beefheart, NSB did not cling to any sense of "pop," but somehow, they seem far more down-to-earth than such contemporaries. For a highly conceptual band, NSB shows little elitist artistic pretension.

Some of the lack of pretention undoubtedly stems for the fact on a technical level, NSB are godawful. While this makes the band a difficult listen, it also makes them an eerie precursor to punk - the idea that you don't have to be glamorous or technically proficient to make rock music is clearly present in their ideology. Moreover, the fact that their first record is called "No Record" is an uncanny, if not clairvoyant, foreshadowing of art-rock's future, the late 70's "no wave" movement.

It's easy to overstate the influence of NSB. Truth be told, few musicians of the 60's and 70's ever heard the band, and the first major figure to publicly acknowledge their impact was Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore, not a player in the music scene until the 1980's.

Also, No Record is not really a great listen. If it were produced today, it would be nothing short of terrible. But it's a rare piece of history, and with its context in mind, the record becomes a fascinating and outstanding achievement.

The Nihilist Spasm Band is alive and well today in their hometown in Ontario, Canada. Since their inception, they've played a local show every Monday night, and those are still going ahead as they were forty years ago. Even if they did not shape the course of popular music, the band's dedication to making a racket and having fun is unparalleled, and their avant-garde approach is one that would not be matched for decades after their formation.


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