Having listened to a number of other Nurse with Wound records didn’t prepare me for the sheer outlandishness of Sylvie and Babs, widely touted as being one of the best NWW creations in the whole catalog. At the very least it was the most ambitious, requiring something like two and a half years of work and involving dozens of co-conspirators. The results are jarring even for existing NWW fans—perhaps doubly so for more recent converts rather than folks who have, so to speak, been with them from the beginning. “Stockhausen’s Hymnen on nitrous oxide” was one description; “K-Tel gone Dada” was how the record was described when it was still in progress—“one side being abstract, butchered versions of really famous hit records and the other is the ‘Beggar’s Opera’.”
The first NWW record in my life was A Sucked Orange, which turned out to be one of the worst places possible to start with the Nurse sound. That disc was little more than a collection of B-sides and outtakes, not all of them terribly distinguished, either, but it was at the very least a way of preparing me for just how fiendishly strange NWW could be. When I bought Babs, I brought it home at some ungodly hour of the night and listened to it twice through with my jaw dangling open for most of it.
Sylvie and Babs is about as uncategorizable as any other NWW record, but it definitely has a flavor to it that’s unlike anything else with the NWW name on it. For one thing, it’s easily the funniest record NWW ever made—that or the most flagrantly infuriating, openly designed to enrage and tickle the sensibilities of anyone no matter what their musical tastes. At one point the “Dragnet” theme starts playing, overlaid with barnyard noises, then speeding up until it approaches incoherence, then playing backwards at twenty times normal speed, then intercutting with random blops of sound from Broadway musicals, machinery, and vocal accidents courtesy of whoever was in the studio at the time ... then ending with a massively echoed guitar note and someone murmuring, “‘Wow’? Is that all you can say to my offer for squelching?” And that’s not even the weirdest part of the record.
The closest ancestor to Sylvie and Babs would probably be something like Frank Zappa’s Lumpy Gravy, where bits and pieces of this and that are all stitched together using radical and anarchic tape-editing. Some of the material in Lumpy Gravy turns up on Zappa’s other records (like the bizarro speech about the pigs and the ponies), and in the same way, a good deal of Sylvie and Babs can be heard, albeit vastly mutated, in other places in the NWW oeuvre. A good deal of the Sylvie and Babs tapestry consists of music hijacked and mutated from other sources—a munchkin-voiced version of “Language of Love”, for instance, is part of the opening, and vastly re-arranged versions of the “Dragnet” theme and the “Hungarian Rhapsody” fill out the end of side one. (Most of the end of side one is a re-worked version of “A Token Sylvie and Babs Chicken Ditty in Drag” found on the Nylon Coverin’ Body Smotherin’ EP released a year before.)
The album breaks down into two movements (one for each side of the original LP), the first being more dependent on looped phrases of music and the second being a little more aggressive in its cut-up style. Everything from Stan Freberg records to “The Monster Mash” get thrown into the stewpot, but the album doesn’t depend on the listener to play Spot the Sample—most of the time even a seasoned listener would have a hard time figuring out what comes from where, if indeed it comes from anywhere at all. The point, I guess, is not to try and unstitch the puzzle and look at the component pieces, but just to absorb it as a whole, to walk through it and let it have its effect. If you are indifferent to it, or just bored, that’s one of the risks they seem willing to take, but for someone to remain bored through this mad attack on the senses and sensibilities is hard for me to imagine.
The central idea behind all NWW records, I guess, is surrealist sound—audio movies for the mind that draw from traditions as broad-ranging as Tristan Tzara to Krautrock, In an interview, NWW instigator Steve Stapleton talked at length about how Krautrock was a major influence on him, especially after having roadied for several such bands in the Seventies. NWW has drifted more towards the “tone float” type material of early Kraftwerk and further from the explicitly surrealist / cut-up insanity of Sylvie and Babs, and while it’s no less interesting it’s certainly of a different flavor. All of this makes Sylvie and Babs a particularly difficult pill to swallow for those who came into NWW courtesy of something like Soliloquy for Lilith, with its six LP sides of eerie ambient driftwork. S&B is about as far removed from that piece of black serenity as you could get.
It’s been said that NWW records are the closest anyone has ever gotten to recording a dreamscape. If so, the dreamscape of Sylvie and Babs is one of those dreams you wake up from laughing in utter disbelief.
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