Back when most kids their age were in the throes of Beatlemania, an octet of Canadian art-nerds calling themselves The Nihilist Spasm Band rewired the whole notion of popular music for their own twisted ends and created one of the most alarming cacophonies imaginable, especially when you consider they formed in a musical landscape dominated by Elvis, the Beach Boys, and Herman’s Hermits.
There were a couple of unique elements at work with Nihilist Spasm. For one, all of their music was improvised. Aside from vocals, everything they recorded was a first (and last) take, and every live performance is spontaneous. No piece has ever been played twice, at least not in the same way. Secondly, they created their own instruments, or at least modified standard instruments until they were thoroughly unrecognizable. Perhaps their most infamous re-invention is the electric kazoo. Retrofitted with hearing-aid mics stuffed inside its tinny shell, the tuneless bleating of this unholy creation is one of the band’s greatest gifts to humanity.
Their first widely-released album, 1968’s No Record, is a wild, ear-searing wall of chaotic fuck-noise that seems impossible given its time frame (Harry Partch meets The Boredoms was a pretty original concept for the era, you must admit). Naturally, it became a murky underground cult favorite quietly influencing 80’s noiseniks like Sonic Youth, Einstürzende Neubauten, and KK Null. In fact, they were (and still are) huge in Japan. Well, relatively. They call them the “Rolling Stones of noise” there, at least. In 2000, there was even a documentary released about the band. I mean they’re still completely and hopelessly obscure, sure, but they had a few pops of fame here and there.
And here’s the really crazy thing: they’re still together. Fifty years on and the band still tours with an almost all-original line-up (two members of the founding group, Hugh McIntyre and Greg Curnoe, passed away in 2004 and 1992 respectively), and still play blindingly loud on crazy modified scream machines made to confuse and terrify in equal fistfuls. They’ve opened for Sonic Youth and jammed with REM and if the recent announcement of their upcoming Sonic Protest Tour is any indication, their reign of chaotic improvised terror isn’t over yet. Not bad for a group of 70-something Canadians who still haven’t learned how to tune a guitar in 50 years.
Bonus random fun fact: NSB’s lead singer Bill Exley taught high school English to best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell.
Some choice moments from the 2000 documentary on Nihilist Spasm Band
Nihilist Spasm Band, still noisy after all these years
Nihilist Spasm Band’s greatest non-hit from their landmark 1968 album ‘No Record’
Previously on Dangerous Minds:
Smegma: Strange rumblings from legendarily freaky art-damaged noise rock improvisers