The “Nurse With Wound List” At 40: A Beginner’s Guide
Released 40 years ago, in 1979, and expanded in 1980, the “Nurse With Wound List” has cast a long, indelible shadow for experimental music fans and record collectors. A jumble of 291 artist names — all presented without explanation nor starting points — it is at once a broken primer, a shopping list, a scavenger hunt, a pre-internet listicle without context, a myth, some homework, a still-challenging wall of ideas.
It was compiled by the three members of industrial band Nurse With Wound and inserted in their debut album, 1979’s Chance Meeting On A Dissecting Table Of A Sewing Machine And An Umbrella. Though many of NWW’s contemporaries were bluntly confrontational (SPK, Non, Whitehouse), others did have art bona fides (Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire). NWW, however, were almost academic in their approach to tracing the lineage between art theory and punk provocation, between music and noise. The album title comes from Comte de Lautréamont’s 1860’s Surrealist literature landmark Les Chants De Maldoror. The album is dedicated to Futurist Luigi Russolo, whose 1913 manifesto The Art Of Noises is basically the “Rocket 88″ of making a hideous racket. The sleeve notes were dedicated to Canada’s Nihilist Spasm Band, whose 1968 record No Record approached and destroyed the psychedelic era through sheer chaos.
Naturally, the artists on the NWW list connect the dots between 20 years of recorded music that serve as signposts to the harsh, metallic, clanging jumble within the grooves: the occasionally violent sounds of electroacoustic music’s pioneers, wild bursts of free improvisation, heady prog, jazz-rock, experimental electronic music, collage art, hypnotic treks through German krautrock and Japanese psychedelia, UK confreres in punk, post-punk and industrial and Chilean outsider rocker Alvaro who croons “I drink my own sperrrrrrm” on his 1977 debut, Drinkin My Own Sperm. Nurse With Wound — Steven Stapleton, John Fothergill, and Herman Pathak — were not just musicians and theorists, but record collectors, combing stores across Europe. Their collection of names range from the obvious (Velvet Underground, Captain Beefheart, Yoko Ono, Can) to the nearly impossible-to-find (supremely heavy German crew Sphinx Tush only released one song, in two live versions, in 1970).
It’s by no means comprehensive (with 40 years of hindsight it’s evident that it could use Pauline Oliveros, Popul Vuh, Michel Chion, Eliane Radigue, and Rune Lindblad). It’s by no means all recommended (drawing the lines between Germany’s forward-thinking krautrock pioneers and Germany’s most indulgent prog wanks is a job for Julian Cope and/or someone with more patience than I). But it remains a valuable tool for everything from deep dives to discovered to dabbles to Discogs. Rick Potts of the Los Angeles Free Music Society told the LA Weekly that people still ask him about it.
Its size, scope, and whimsically curatorial lean make it absolutely useless as a “canon.” However, 40 years later, the phrase “Nurse With Wound List” still carries weight as a look inside the brain of three weirdo visionaries who linked experimental music’s past while building its future. Naturally, the current vinyl boom has moved many of these records from obscurity to accessibility, and the phrase “Nurse With Wound List” is an important signpost in the advertising copy. Here’s a few recent vinyl reissues that could help you wade into this impossible scrum of strum, sturm, storm and skronk.
Strain Crack & Break: Music From The Nurse With Wound List Volume One (France) (2019, issued via Finders Keepers)
This week intrepid crate-digger crew Finders Keepers, in collaboration with Nurse With Wound’s Steven Stapleton, releases the first ever anthology of NWW List bands, 13 tracks on two slabs of vinyl. It barely scratches the surface of even the French bands on the NWW List, but provides a tasting platter that doesn’t skimp on the undeniably essential: Pierre Henry is a musical titan who was making electronic music before Kraftwerk’s founders were old enough for kindergarten, and that’s prog heroes Gong backing up Dashiell Hedayat. But of course, the appeal is uncovering the obscurities, the best of which include Jean Guérin’s absolutely bonkers electronic jazz soundworlds from 1971, Horrific Child’s sinister kitchen sink murk-prog from 1976, the demented circus rock of Jean Cohen-Solal (1973) and Zappa-esque poop joke enthusiasts Red Noise.
Basil Kirchin, Worlds Within Worlds (1974, reissued via Superior Viaduct)
A record that won’t fit neatly into any narrative about electronic music’s forking paths – not academic research, not komische/new age exploration, not industrial destruction. This record was British film composer Basil Kirchin creating dank soundworlds out of “various amplified insects, animals, birds, jets and other engines. Sounds of the docks in Hull, Yorkshire… and the autistic children of the community of Schurmatt, Switzerland.” An absolute haunting, bleak, transformative, exploratory sound mush. San Francisco’s Superior Viaduct remains a one-stop shop for NWW alum: They’ve reissued the Residents, Faust, Steve Reich, angular post-punker L. Voag, French chill-prog weirdos ZNR, Italian folk-prog-tronic composer Franco Battiato, anarchic Los Angeles improv crew Le Forte Four, and more.
Free Agents, £3.33 (1980, reissued via Drag City)
Sally Smmit And Her Musicians, Hangahar (1980, reissued via Drag City)
These two records, both released in 1980, make up half of the entire discography of Groovy Records, the imprint of Buzzcock Pete Shelley. Here, punk rock icons already sound bored of the sound they invented, letting the freedom of DIY drive them to more abstract plains. Free Agents is Francis Cookson leading an ensemble of feedback freakery, dub echo, and tape loop madness courtesy of Shelley, Magazine’s Barry Adamson, and more. Sally Smmit is Sally Timms from the legendary Mekons doing the same with her pals for 33 minutes, but with an airier, Wicker Man folk-nightmare touch.
Trevor Wishart, Red Bird: A Political Prisoner’s Dream (1978, reissued via Sub Rosa)
Part of Sub Rosa’s Early Electronic Series, the second release from Leeds electroacoustic composer Trevor Wishart is like the forefather to today’s mutant techno bands like Arca and Amnesia Scanner. Human screams turn to animal sounds, chatter turns to noise. A body horror symphony that connects the human with fauna.
Iannis Xenakis, GRM Works 1957-1962 (1970, reissued via Recollection GRM)
Luc Ferrari, Presque Rien (1970, reissued via Recollection GRM)
Recollection GRM, a subsidiary of long-running experimental electronic label Editions Mego, has been steadily reissuing music from Groupe De Recherches Musicales, the collective of electroacoustic and computer composers paving the future of music from 1951 to the present. Though they’ve unearthed plenty of brain-bending obscurities, they’re not afraid to release the occasional obvious pick. Wildly ahead of its time, the pointillist noise of Greek composer Iannis Xenakis includes fractions of burning embers and who-knows-what-else to make swarms of enveloping, busy tension. Luc Ferrari’s Presque Rien is the polar opposite, a patient layering of field recordings of a fishing village, creating a dreamlike ambience. Both are out of print, but can be found used at non-prohibitive prices.
Ragnar Grippe, Sand (1977, reissued by Dais)
Ghédalia Tazartès, Diasporas (1979, reissued by Dais)
The gloom-leaning Dais records (Cult of Youth, Iceage, Youth Code) has naturally dug up some of the NWW List’s more shadowy offerings. They’ve released two recordings from Swedish electronic composer Ragnar Grippe, including the 1977 landmark Sand, 50 minutes of bloops, shakes, and rattles that’s at once dark and pastoral. Ghédalia Tazartès’ Diasporas, a private press record released in 1979, looks ahead to the noise world’s embrace of tape loops, but with the French singer’s yowls, rasps and croons.
Semool, Essais (1971, reissued by Souffle Continu)
French record label Souffle Continu has been reissuing the wildness emerging from the ’70s jazz freakaverse, a wild combination of free jazz, junkyard improv, accidental psych, and electronic tinkering. NWW List mentions like Mahogany Brain, Jean Guérin, Horde Catalytique Pour La Fin, Dharma Quintet, Nu Creative Methods, Philippe Maté/Daniel Vallancien, and Jacques Thollot are all back in the wild in small runs. The lone album from Semool, 1971’s Essais, is scummy, lo-fi slowpoke jazz glurp through psychedelic globs of reverb.