Sunday, May 2, 2010

They made memorable noise

By James Reaney, The London Free Press

The 44th anniversary of a beloved London iconoclast turned icon’s first public performance passed quietly earlier this month.

Since the icon in question is the Nihilist Spasm Band, world-class masters of noise music, there are some who would say that quiet is the best way to go.

Not me. Not ever.

The glorious sounds, noises and witty words of the NSB must be acknowledged in the band’s hometown whenever the noise muse beckons.

So it is this week, when My London salutes the true patriot love of the band’s Centennial Year ode. It was recorded in 1966, a busy year for our heroes.

The lyrics to the Nihilist Spasm Band’s first and enduring masterpiece, The Sweetest Country This Side of Heaven, will be recited and analyzed during a talk I’m giving at the Central library Thursday at 2 p.m. It’s called Great London Music from Lombardo to Lido and is a part of a series organized by the London Public Library.

The talk is a chance for me to share some selected sounds, visuals and anecdotes about the music of Carmen Lombardo, jazz bassist and country fiddler Jack Fallon, rock ’n’ roll pioneers the Mel-O-Denes, The Band organist Garth Hudson and two London stars of the new millennium — singer-songwriter Basia Bulat and Latina electronica dance and visual artist Lido Pimienta.

It may seem perverse to pause during such a cavalcade of London glory for a reading from The Sweetest Country This Side of Heaven. NSB frontman Bill Exley inspired me by giving a stellar reading of those lyrics at January’s London and Middlesex Historical Society meeting.

I can’t hope to match Exley’s sterling delivery, but can offer a few fan insights.

The title spoofs Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians’ branding as purveyors of “the sweetest music this side of heaven.” The dance-band titan Lombardos had left London for stardom more than 40 years earlier, but that connection was made almost immediately.

Growing out of the London arts scene in 1965, when the Forest City’s bohemian undercurrents surfaced, the NSB soon commenced an endless Monday night residency somewhere “every Monday night.” The Monday night groove started at the old York Hotel in May 1966. By October, a CBC-TV audience had heard Stratford-born artist-hipster-and TV host William Ronald connect the NSB and Lombardo when the arts magazine The Umbrella aired an episode devoted to London. At some point, a sage at the York claimed the NSB sounded like Lombardo “after 10 beers.”

In October 1966, the band recorded its Centennial Year epic, apparently at the old CHLO radio studios.

The Sweetest Country This Side of Heaven was released in a flexdisc format in the fall of 1967 as part of a leading Canadian art magazine which was experimenting madly at the time.

The band makes sweet and goofy noises as Exley intones the majestic lyrics. The first word is “Sask-atchewan” which is followed by a litany of provinces, heroes and observations such as “Canada, home of the shrivelled, the worried . . . the windbreaker.”

Toward the finale, Exley pays tribute to Wild Thing, a huge hit for the British Invasion band the Troggs in 1966. Troggs’ scholars will recognize the allusion. “Canada, I think I love you, but I want to know for sure,” Exley shouts.

NSB fans know for sure. In the decades since recording this masterpiece, the Nihilist Spasm Band has found a cult following in Japan, New York and Europe.

That noise-loving cult started here in London. Unlike the Lombardo band — brothers Guy, Carmen, Lebert and others — so soon at home in the U.S., the Nihilist Spasm Band has never moved on from the Forest City.

Such London loyalty merits recognition.

It would appear that the NSB’s first public performance was on or around April 9, 1966, at the birthday party of Canadian artist Tony Urquhart, then a Londoner.

Happily, we have about six years to prepare a suitable celebration to mark the 50th anniversary of that burst of joyful noise.

James Reaney is a Free Press arts & entertainment columnist and reporter.

james.reaney@sunmedia.ca