Arts and Entertainment

Tops in Tokyo

The Nihilist Spasm Band, which hangs on the fringes of London's musical culture, is a bona fide hit in Japan.

By Ian Gillespie 
Free Press Arts & Entertainment Reporter

From the flower-power '60s to the lean, mean '90s, they've been mocked, scorned, tolerated and, mainly, ignored.

Since 1965, they've banged drums, hummed kazoos and wacked guitars with little regard for rhyme or reason. Almost every week they've gathered -- visual artists Murray Favro and John Boyle, physician John Clement, teacher Bill Exley, retired librarian Hugh McIntyre and London Free Press technician Art Pratten -- to play their unfettered brand of improvised chaos.

Usually, no one listens. When there are listeners, reactions range from amused disinterest to outright hostility. People leave. Sometimes, they throw things. At least once, things have almost degenerated into fisticuffs.

But in Japan, the Nihilist Spasm Band is king.

That became apparent to the London band about two months ago, when they travelled to Japan to play three concerts. At Tokyo's Club La Mama, they were greeted by a sell-out crowd of 220 fans who each paid more than $50 Cdn a ticket. The club was so jammed, some fans watched the show on a closed-circuit TV in the lobby. The crowds were equally enthusiastic at clubs in Osaka and Kyoto.

NOISE BAND MUSIC: Dubbed the "fathers of Noise Band music, " the Nihilist Spasm Band members were interviewed by journalists, stalked by autograph seekers and wined and dined by record company officials. They performed on Tomori's World of Music, a weekly TV variety show with a viewership of five million. A Japanese musician revealed his noise band -- Spasmom -- was named after the London group. One fan admitted paying $925 Cdn for an early Nihilist Spasm Band album. Another said his dream was to attend a band rehearsal at the Forest City Gallery in London.

"We were treated like stars," says Boyle. "And in that context, we were the stars. We have never, in our lives, experienced that kind of openness and hospitality and adulation.

"They knew our records. They knew our old songs. When Bill (Exley) started off the Tokyo concert with No Canada, which was on our first record made in 1968, they cheered the way they would at a Joni Mitchell concert.

"Unfortunately we're back home (now), so we don't have to deal with adulation for a while."

True. Although they perform music -- or noise -- that mirrors modern masters such as Philip Glass, John Cage and Karl Stockhausen, back home in London, the Nihilist Spasm Band is just a bunch of greying noisemakers who, as Rodney Dangerfield is fond of saying, don't get any respect.

"The Spasm Band is a little odd," admits Art Pratten. " But this is not a very receptive town and you get used to that. Then all of a sudden you go to someplace where's there's lots of variations of music and people take you serious."

FIRST KAZOOS: It all started in 1965, amid a swirling London arts scene. A group of artists, including the late Greg Curnoe, started fooling around with kazoos. They quickly added guitars and gutbucket bass. Soon, they were making their own instruments.

Every Monday night for five years, the band played at the York Hotel (now Call The Office). They spent a year playing Monday nights at the Victoria Hotel, then returned to the York until its owners, Moe and Eddie Assaf,
couldn't take it any more.

Boyle recalls a show at Hamilton's McMaster University during the early '70s.

"The first concert, we emptied the hall, and the second concert they stayed till closing time and screamed for encores," he says. "Within minutes, everybody in the place was dancing . . . and they didn't need melody and rhythm any more. They were just squirming and writhing around and having fun."

Surprisingly little has changed. Although Curnoe was killed in a cycling accident in 1992 and former member Archie Leach has vanished ("We don't really know what became of him," says Boyle. "He just went his own way, completely"), the rest of the band's line-up remains the same.

And the noise? Pratten compares the band's loud, atonal and often accidental sounds to a conversation between a group of friends -- not everyone is talking about the same thing at the same time and sometimes one individual takes over and grabs focus.

"I see the band as a form of expression," says Pratten. "It's all improvised. . . . Each person has a certain (musical) voice and there's a great deal of call and response among the people in it. We use the language of noise and rhythm."

Adulation on the other side of the world is welcome. But when it comes to the Nihilist Spasm Band, an audience may be, ultimately, irrelevant.

"The equivalent, I suppose, is pure research in science as opposed to applied research," says Boyle. "It's experimentation with improvisation and with sound. . . . It's an act of freedom (and) of expression. And a valid one."

"There's a joy in playing itself," says Pratten. "There's something that happens within it that is rewarding in itself."


CURRENT LINE-UP: John Boyle (electric kazoo, thumb piano, percussion), John Clement (guitar, percussion), Bill Exley (vocals, noise, kazoo), Art Pratten (Pratt-a-various), Hugh McIntyre (3 1/2-string electric bass) and Murray Favro (guitar)

DISCOGRAPHY: The Sweetest Country This Side Of Heaven (flexidisc single, released in Arts Canada magazine, 1967); The Nihilist Spasm Band Record (1968); The Nihilist Spasm Band Vol. 2 (1978); Nineteen Eighty-four (1984); 7x~x=x (1985); World Record (Japanese compilation,1992), What About Me (1993).

Copyright © 1996 The London Free Press Printing Company Ltd.