The “rabbit hole.” Any music fan understands the concept right away, especially in these days of fast Internet streaming and the constant availability of anything. Someone mentions a song that sounds interesting, or you see an intriguing album cover, and off you go into the darkest depths of YouTube, starting with songs, then live performances, then rarities (how rare can they be, really, when they're right there on your right-side menu bar, waiting for your compulsive click?), related artists — always more, always further down the rabbit hole.
If you are of the generation that grew up with the Internet, you may think that the rabbit hole did not exist before our current era of accessibility and ease. And you'd be mistaken.
Before, say, 1997, going down the rabbit hole just required a lot more dedication and effort. Careful scanning of the liner notes. Fanzines. Listening to eclectic cult radio stations such as KXLU. And many, many trips to the record store, where, if you were lucky, an older clerk with similar tastes might turn you on to some real obscurities.
Still, even in those Dark Ages of music availability, there were some well-trodden paths. Say you wore out the grooves of Miles Davis' Kind of Blue. Where to go next? Usually Coltrane — A Love Supreme, maybe, which might lead to the marvelously strange Om, supposedly recorded as an improvised session with all the players having taken LSD. And then on to Albert Ayler, Pharoah Sanders, Sun Ra. Always further out.
Getting off such well-worn paths could be difficult, especially if you lived somewhere that didn't support a local scene for your kind of music. But occasionally, very occasionally, someone would issue a road map that would find its way to like-minded expeditionaries. A Rosetta Stone, in the form of a cryptic list of names looking for the right person to decode it.
In 1966, in Los Angeles, Frank Zappa had included such a list in the Mothers of Invention's debut album, Freak Out! Zappa's list would turn many rock fans on to the sophisticated pleasures of avant-garde and “difficult” classical music by composers like Varèse and Stockhausen. And it would influence the most influential “weird music” list ever: the mysterious Nurse With Wound List.
In 1979, three young record collectors in London — Steven Stapleton, John Fothergill and Herman Pathak — lucked into some free studio time and, even though none of them had made music before, decided to record a surrealist album under the name Nurse With Wound. Aided by its salacious S&M cover collage, Chance Meeting on a Dissecting Table of a Sewing Machine and an Umbrella (a title that nodded to the Dadaists) became a sought-after item in those heady days of post-punk craziness. Only 500 numbered copies were pressed, and they all quickly found a home in weird-music households in the U.K., with a few stragglers making their way into experimental hubs in continental Europe and the United States.
Chance Meeting included a strange list of tightly spaced words — at first sight, it looked like an extension of the surrealist album title, a barrage of random names. Upon closer examination, however, those first 500 listeners realized that the list — now universally known as the “Nurse With Wound List” (or NWW List for short) — was an essential catalog of bands and musicians that had influenced Stapleton and his record-collecting buddies.
Almost immediately, copies of the NWW List began circulating as a kind of syllabus for experimental and strange music. Over the years, especially in the pre-Internet era, it became essential for anyone interested in musical explorations beyond the mainstream. With the advent of the Internet, the list continued doing its secret work on further generations of music fans. A website created by a self-defined “obsessive collector of unusual music” who goes by the initials TGK is simply called “Nurse With Wound List.” Then came the Blogspot era of gray-area downloads and links to rare NWW List albums that could be found on legendary sites such as Mutant Sounds. During this era, the albums were hosted on services like Rapidshare or Megaupload. This ended a few years ago with the collapse of many file-sharing services (although some links are still working), and the musical expeditionaries moved to YouTube, free streaming sites and other forms of information sharing.
The list is peculiar and eclectic. There are many German rock groups from the Krautrock era of psychedelic/prog/cosmic music (Agitation Free, Alcatraz, Amon Düül, Amon Düül II, Anima, Annexus Quam, Ash Ra Tempel), Finnish minimalist composers (Pekka Airaksinen), Los Angeles Free Music freaks (Airway), German conceptual artists connected to the Fluxus movement and Joseph Beuys (Albrecht/d), Swedish rockers (Älgarnas Trädgård, Arbete och Fritid, Archimedes Badkar), U.S. soundscape poets (All 7-70), U.K. art punks (Alternative TV), gloriously demented Chilean exiles (Alvaro Peña-Rojas), French avant-psych-prog-jazz weirdos (Ame Son, Arcane V, Archaïa, Gilbert Artman, Art Zoyd, Association P.C.), British experimental composers (AMM), U.S. outsider ranters (Anal Magic and Rev. Dwight Frizzell), Belgian world-music ambientalists (Aksak Maboul), ultra-progressive Italian rockers (Area), U.K. political avant-folkies (Art Bears), U.K. proggers (Arzachel) and U.S. experimental composers (Robert Ashley).
And that's just the entries that start with the letter A.
Despite — or perhaps because of — its willfully obscure, idiosyncratic nature, the NWW List became a common touch point for several generations of experimental and underground musicians, influencing everyone from Sonic Youth to Ariel Pink to that up-and-coming band you caught last night at a druggy warehouse party. In the experimental section at Amoeba Music in Hollywood, stickers will sometimes identify records as “From the Nurse With Wound List.” To this day, it's still a selling point. “It's definitely a great crash course in experimental/progressive music,” says Zac Bouvion, experimental music buyer for Amoeba Records in Hollywood.
Here in Los Angeles, musicians continue to be influenced by the list, especially around the Smell, Pehrspace and other underground scenes. Even mainstream pop is undergoing one of its periodic fascinations with the more experimental fringes; last year, Miley Cyrus released a psychedelic collaboration with pop pranksters The Flaming Lips, and Lady Gaga posted Instagram photos of herself paying homage to extreme Japanese experimental band Les Rallizes Dénudés with a homemade T-shirt.
Hardcore icon (and L.A. Weekly columnist) Henry Rollins is a devout acolyte of the NWW List, which he calls “one of the most challenging and rewarding worlds of music I have ever waded into.” Over the years, Rollins has used the list as a beacon. “I have gathered the [list's] seemingly endless amount of records as physical media or in downloads as best I could,” he says, “and rarely is there a band or artist I had ever heard of previously. These records have factored into my radio-show programming, listening and 'want list' for years now. It used to surprise me that there could be so much great music that I had never heard of, but because of the NWW List, I take that as a fact.”
Strangely enough, there's a clear, definite axis that goes from the bedsit under the gray London sky where this mythical NWW List was cobbled together to our own beloved California. It begins with Zappa's Freak Out List, a huge influence on Stapleton and company, and continues with Bay Area eccentrics The Residents, one of the more recognizable names on the NWW List. In the mid- to late 1970s, Devo in Ohio and the NWW guys in London were drinking from the same spiked jug of California brew, oceans and territories apart.
For the mainstream back then, California signified sun, babes and the much-reviled Eagles. But for those interested in going further, there's always been another version of the Golden State, the one where doomed Aleister Crowley disciple Jack Parsons had “sex magick” orgies in his Pasadena mansion and Charles Manson was a hippie outsider musician who hung out with The Beach Boys.
“For almost 10 years we traveled to used-record stores all over Europe and the U.K.
Scratch the glossy surface of “the industry” and you will find The Weird. The NWW List, in its astonishing wisdom, knew this.
“John Fothergill and I compiled the Nurse With Wound List after much discussion and debate in 1978,” the often elusive but still active Stapleton told us via email recently, during a rare NWW tour that took him to Russia. “We were fanatical collectors of weird experimental music, rock, jazz, classical, avant-garde, the stranger the better. For almost 10 years we traveled to used-record stores all over Europe and the U.K., searching out the unusual and unknown. Thousands of albums passed through our hands, all to be lugged back home and digested.”
In true hermetic style, however, these two musical explorers just printed their list of heroes and influences as a string of words, leaving all the hard work to a potential army of curious cryptologists. “First reactions to the inserted list were not good,” Stapleton writes. “Reviewers just didn't grasp the concept at all. At the time there was no information on obscure, 'left field' music or its makers.”
Before the dawn of the Internet, you had to work hard to get the list, then track down the physical releases, many of which were rumored to be Holy Grail–like, elusive artifacts. Many NWW List entries were eventually widely circulated via tape trading, as original copies were almost impossible to come by.
One of the first names on the list alphabetically is Airway, a band affiliated with the Los Angeles Free Music Society underground collective. A still-active concern, the LAFMS recently performed at the Hammer Museum's All the Instruments Agree festival and is the subject of a new short documentary, LAFMS: how low can you go? One of the experimental-music collective's core members, Rick Potts now works in the experimental section at Amoeba Music. He played mandolin on the debut lineup of Airway, a band with rotating members led by his brother Joe.
Potts, who got involved with the Los Angeles Free Music Society in 1975, explains that LAFMS emerged from a combination of eccentric CalArts students and the weird music–loving staff of the still-existing Poo-Bah Record Shop in Pasadena.
“At CalArts, the electronic-music department under Morton Subotnick was very cutting-edge at the time,” Potts says. “But most of the other students were into ambient styles of music, and they hated what we were doing, which was pretty bombastic.”
The staff at Poo-Bah, led by Tom Recchion (who would go on to become a Grammy-nominated art director, designing album covers for Prince, Lou Reed and R.E.M.), were more sympathetic to the CalArts weirdos. “Our group met through the record store,” he says. “There we met a crowd that was into prog, Subotnick, John Cage, Stockhausen, Sun Ra. But we were a big group, and other people were listening to Funkadelic, Parliament, even ABBA.”
This eclectic Poo-Bah/CalArts group, which began making recordings that mixed synthesizers with toy and broken instruments, organized itself with an official-sounding name. “We came up with the name trying to impress the judges at a tape festival in Germany. It was a kind of joke,” Potts says. “?'Los Angeles Free Music Society.' We felt really isolated here in Los Angeles. We weren't getting any love at CalArts from the serious composers there, so our records became messages in a bottle.”
To this day, Potts hears from people who became curious about the Los Angeles Free Music Society because of the NWW List, which improbably included Airway barely a year after the LAFMS band had started playing obscure live shows.
Another local musician who was involved in the Los Angeles Free Music Society was Don Bolles, who would later become famous as the drummer for influential punk band The Germs. These days, Bolles continues to collaborate with experimental L.A. musicians like Ariel Pink.
“I've actually done a little bit of record trading with [NWW List co-creator] Steve Stapleton, so there you go. Full circle,” Bolles says. “I was a child in the 1960s in Scottsdale, Arizona. When I was 8, I discovered Dada and surrealism. I discovered the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch — 'Gosh, that's the best thing I've ever seen,' I thought. And psychedelic music was on the horizon. And the avant-garde.”
Zappa's Freak Out!, because it was on a major label, was relatively easy to find (“I went to the local grocery store and picked it up”), but in Arizona in the '60s and early '70s, weird music was otherwise hard to come by. “In Phoenix, there was me. I didn't know anyone else,” Bolles says. “Nobody liked The Stooges. They liked Eric Clapton and Queen. I was into Tangerine Dream, Klaus Schulze. There was no support system for this shit.”
He spent hours at the library, researching Zappa's list of avant-garde composers but soon found a better way to experience arty music. “I could go to modern dance recitals where they would play musique concrète, and I would watch girls prance around in leotards. I liked that combination.”
Eventually, Bolles discovered The Residents, and even tracked them to the mailing address for their label, Ralph Records, in San Francisco. “I knocked on their door and the guy who answered said he wasn't in The Residents, but of course he was. He smoked me out with Colombian stuff and played me this cover of 'Satisfaction' by 'The De-Evolution Band,' which later became Devo.”
Later, when he moved to Los Angeles, Bolles fell in with the collection of misfits hanging out at Poo-Bah Records. “I was in Airway for a while. The L.A. Free Music Society people were a tight-knit group — weirdos in Pasadena. The name was kind of a joke — there was a thing called the London Free Music Society, with David Toop and David Cunningham, and they copied that.”
Even after he joined The Germs, Bolles tried to sneak his more esoteric influences into the group's raw sound whenever he could. “In 1978, when I first moved here, people were shocked — 'The Germs guy knows about Stockhausen?!' But you can hear it in the music. On The Germs record, I was the Brian Eno there.”
Although he credits Zappa's list more than the NWW List for his indoctrination into the avant-garde, Bolles holds the latter in high regard. “Anybody else into that kind of stuff from our generation would have made a totally different list, of course. But theirs is fantastic, and it holds up. These are all records you only get when somebody dies nowadays. Basically, nobody sells these records.”
We asked a number of people in the current Los Angeles experimental-music world to tell us what the NWW List means to them in 2016. They all waxed enthusiastic about this curious artifact of pre-Internet culture.
“I first became aware of the list in college,” writes Los Angeles artist Ross Bryant via email. Bryant releases music on cassette as Flesh Realm and Amen Call Center on his label Desire for Sport. “My friends and I were music dorks engaged in a happy arms race to discover the oddest music we could find. So I surely first discovered it online in a campus computer lab, avoiding schoolwork by researching a band with a creepy name.
“The obscurity of this music, that someone had found, catalogued and championed it pre-Internet, boggled my mind,” Bryant continues. “It was an esoteric document in the sense that it was full of obscure knowledge intended for a small number of people. But it was also esoteric in the sense that there seemed to be something mystical about it. A sort of musical Nag Hammadi Library of hidden music, rare artifacts, treasures reverently compiled, to be listened to in a ritual way.”
Bryant says that when he got around to making music, the NWW List was an influence and an inspiration. “I knew that I could work within my means. It was OK to be small. It was OK to be rough around the edges. It was OK to be handmade. And that maybe the same White Rabbit that drew NWW to the recordings on their list might draw someone to mine.”
“I first heard about Nurse With Wound in 1995,” writes Jeff Swearengin, an L.A.-based experimental musician/producer/visual artist who records under the name Sleep Clinic. Like many of his generation, Swearengin was introduced to NWW and early industrial bands like Throbbing Gristle, Coil and Whitehouse as a fan of Godflesh and Nine Inch Nails. “Nurse With Wound was basically the event horizon into the black hole of avant-prog, chamber music, musique concrète, heavy psychedelic, dark ambient, grating noise and soundtrack experimentation.” He admits to being “disappointed at times” in many of the NWW List recordings he's stumbled across “but never discouraged to press further.”
“I was really blown away at the amount of research Stapleton and the other early members who contributed to the list had to have done to even be aware of these bands in a pre-Internet age,” says Zac Bouvion, one of Potts' colleagues in Amoeba Music's experimental section. “The fact that some L.A. hyper-underground dudes made the list is pretty boggling. They laid the groundwork. The reading list is assembled; they've made things much easier for your personal spelunking.”
These days you'd be hard-pressed to find, even in other world-class cultural capitals, a physical record store catering to sonic eccentrics. Angelenos, on the other hand, can go to Highland Park and revel in the glory that is Mount Analog, arguably the best experimental- and weird-music record store in the country — and the closest thing our city has to a physical manifestation of the NWW List.
“I get super-nostalgic thinking about the NWW List, because it's something that's been with me ever since I can remember,” says Mount Analog's co-owner and curator, Mahssa Taghinia. “It's meant something different every time I approach it. It feels new. I feel I progressed a little bit inside. The list has a life of its own. It's the Alice in Wonderland of music lists. Everything makes sense if you go backward or sideways.
“People ask about Mount Analog, 'What's the theme here?' And, like on the list, there's no real 'theme' except a sense of discovery. It's not how much you know about esoteric or occult music. It's the connections.”
Taghinia admits that Chance Meeting is not, on the whole, her favorite album, but its legendary list keeps her coming back to it. “Recently, when the Pekka Airaksinen box set reissue came out, I had my latest 'eureka' moment. 'Where do I know that name from?' I thought. Of course, the NWW List!” Airaksinen, a Finnish composer, is the second name on the original alphabetical list.
“Thinking about the list and its importance makes me think about how you discover music or, to be more precise, how nerds discover music,” Taghinia continues. “Before the Internet, you had a record you love and you read the liner notes obsessively, the production credits. 'This dude also plays drums here.' 'This record has the same producer.' Every record you liked operated as a big connector, connecting the dots pre-Internet.
“Nowadays, [music reference and marketplace website] Discogs provides production credits,” she adds, a bit wistfully. “You don't have to have the record in your hands. It's different.”
Bryant shares some of Taghinia's nostalgia. He also thinks the NWW List — which now lives online at Wikipedia and various fan sites — still has a place. “The list is there as a monument of a time when being a fan and creator of this music took a lot more time and devotion,” he says. And, even in the age of YouTube ubiquity, “There are still things on it that are impossible to find.
“The list is more than a shopping list,” Bryant adds, “though it is very much that. It's an invitation into this particular lonesome corner of the music world. It's a proto–message board post: nerdy, arrogant and yearning for community. It's also a challenge to the scene: 'Look what I've got. What do you have? And what can you make?'”