Tuesday, 25 November 2014

BILL NELSON: Album History


 Album review of: 
(1995, Resurgence RES-114-CD) 

Everything But The Girl go Jungle, so why not Bill Nelson? After all, he’s been here already. He was low-fi hi-tech as long ago as “Do You Dream In Colour”, Indie before there was a name for it.

Trouble is, he plays a fantasi-Cola of three impossible styles before breakfast, programmes plastic tape-recorder and wind-up gramophone, then takes a song idea on a trip around the studio like a ‘dog on an infinite leash.’ For Bill, it’s all just sonic food for inspired noise. Which all makes ‘After The Satellite Sings’ probably too dense for dance. Virtuosity isn’t cool. All you need, after all, is three chords and the truth. And Bill Nelson flaunts his guitar skills in fluid witty snatches, a soft Bo Diddley shuffle feeds onto “Skull Baby Cluster”, a brief Eddie Cochran jolt for “Wow! It’s Scootercar Sexkitten”, then a metal screech play-in to the inspired “Ordinary Idiots”. They all blend in with fleeting Be-Bop horns and jazzy fingering on the exquisite “Flipside” The ambient spaciness of “V-Ghost” follows as a casually immaculate afterthought.

Nelson’s Art-On-Your-Sleeve lyrics, which provide walk-on’s for Jean Cocteau, Jack Kerouac and William Blake are also suspect, right? Oasis thefts from John Lennon or Burt Bacharach, or Blur’s Kinks-Smallfaces lifts are alright. But record buyers and dancers can’t possibly relate to strange French movies, Beat Generation novelists or loopy nineteenth-century visionaries, can they? Isn’t such a limiting attitude even more patronizing?

This album is a Sunburst Finish of avant-Jungle with lyrics like fibre-optic scans of his intestines. If you say David Bowie, then it’s way beyond Bowie’s latest. It draws and blends from each phase of Nelson’s complex career structure, while accelerating the BPM. He adds guitar blasts from Be-Bop Deluxe to manic samples that recall his experimental Red Noise phase, and dedicates it all ‘to the Angelic Presence of Jack Kerouac’ – ‘wither thou goest America, in thy shiny car in the night…’ He feeds on massive reserves of word-power with richly compacted lyrics that have a fastidiously mannered playfulness, a texture and structure, a clarity and precision entirely their own.

Bill Nelson still dreams in colour, dreams of “Beautiful Nudes”, “Phantom Sedan” or “Dreamster 2LR”. And if this kind of virtuosity and intelligence is suspect, then that’s everyone’s loss.


1948 – Bill Nelson, born 18 December in Wakefield, West Yorkshire. A Sagittarius like Jimi Hendrix

1964 – studies at Wakefield College of Art, during various adventures in the Yorkshire landscape including a Rock band called Global Village, plus Gentle Revolution – a multi-media group with movies, actors, mime and masks. Reviews the Who album ‘Who’s Next’ for the ‘Styng’ counterculture newspaper

1970 – features on the album ‘A-Austr: Musics’ from Holyground two-track Indie studios with Mike Levon, who wrote half the songs with Brian Calvert, Chris Coombs wrote the others

1971 – appears on the single ‘Yesterday’ written by Chris Coombs, which is played by John Peel on BBC Radio One. Also on LP ‘Astral Navigations’ with Mike Levon, Chris Coombs and Brian Calvert

1971 – November releases debut solo album ‘Northern Dream’ (Smile LAF 2182) privately recorded at Holyground, an initial 250-pressing financed by Wakefield’s ‘Record Bar’. Simple arrangements lit up by incisive guitar, and lots of first-person pronouns. Side one: ‘Photograph (A Beginning)’, ‘Everyone’s Hero’, ‘House Of Sand’, ‘End Of The Seasons’, ‘Rejoice’, ‘Loves A Way’, ‘Northern Dreamer (1957)’. Side two: ‘Bloo Blooz’, ‘Sad Feeling’, ‘See It Through’, ‘Smiles’, ‘Chymepeace (An Ending)’. Friends Leom Arthur and Gareth Eilledge contribute bass, and Richard Brown on drums. Reissued 2011 as Cocteau COCD 1001, through Cherry Red

1973 – Be-Bop Deluxe ‘Teenage Archangel’ c/w ‘Jets At Dawn’ (Smile LAFS 001.A). First group line-up assembled from friends, rather than according to musical proficiency, with Bob Bryan (later of Rudi And The Zips) on bass, Ian Parkin on guitar, and Nicholas Chatterton-Drew (later of Barnsley band Biffo) on drums. Managed by Betty Bromby – charging £11.50 per gig! Single is done in Roxy/Bowie clothing with 6:50-minute B-side, well-crafted guitar and lyrics. Management switches to Mike Dolan as reputation snowballs

1974 – Be-Bop Deluxe sign to EMI late-1973 in the London ‘Marquee’, and release debut album, ‘Axe Victim’ (Harvest SHVL 813, June) – subtitled ‘Some Rock ‘n’ Roll Madness’ with sleeve epigram by Jean Cocteau, includes both sides of single ‘Jet Silver And The Dolls Of Venus’ c/w ‘Third Floor Heaven’ (June) plus ‘Axe Victim’, Love Is Swift Arrows’, ‘Rocket Cathedrals’ (written by Robert Bryan), ‘Jets At Dawn’, ‘No Trains To Heaven’, ‘Darkness (L’Immortaliste)’ about novelist Andre Gide, ‘Night Creatures’ about a Gay actor, and ‘Adventures In A Yorkshire Landscape’. Lyrical sophistication evident in Rock eulogy ‘be careful, I’m an axe victim, hung up on those silver strings, like wings, like time machines, like voices on the wind’. Produced by Ian McLintoch, with Jenny Haan on guest vocals. Launched by epic tour with Cockney Rebel

1975 – album ‘Futurama’ (Harvest SHSP 4045, July). A line-up purge – Bill recruits Milton Reame-James (keyboards) and Paul Jeffries (bass) snatched from Cockney Rebel as tour terminates (August 1974), and drummer Simon Fox from Hackensack. The two ex-Rebels promptly split (to form new Wave band Chartreuse with ex-Strider vocalist Bob Elliot and issue May 1977 single reviving Kinks ‘You Really Got Me’). Bowler-hatted New Zealander Charlie Tumahai slots into the then three-piece Be-Bop Deluxe to record second LP at Rockfield Studios with Roy Thomas-Baker (known for his work with Queen), with a sometimes impenetrable sound complemented by the overall lyrical-sleeve concept allegedly lifted from Harlan Ellison’s SF novel ‘Repent Harlequin! Said The Tick-Tock Man’. Includes later-single ‘Maid In Heaven’, ‘Jean Cocteau’, ‘Stage Whispers’ (‘I’m waiting in the wings, with all the strings and things, that help me make the music’), ‘Love With The Madman’, ‘Sound Track’, ‘Music In Dreamland’, ‘Between Two Worlds’, ‘Swan Song’ and ‘Sister Seagull’. Yorkshire links retained by inclusion of Grimethorpe Colliery Band – previously used on Roy Harper’s ‘When An Old Cricketer Leaves The Crease’

1976 – album ‘Sunburst Finish’ (Harvest SHSP 4053, February) reaches no.17 in January, on chart for twelve weeks. Engineered by Bill Nelson and John Leckie, with Bill’s brother Ian Nelson adding alto sax and Andrew Powell’s orchestral arrangement. Includes ‘Fair Exchange’ (‘give me your body, love, and I’ll give you my mind’), ‘Heavenly Homes’, ‘Ships In The Night’, ‘Crying To The Sky’, ‘Sleep That Burns’, ‘Beauty Secrets’, ‘Life In The Air-Age’, ‘Like An Old Blues’, ‘Crystal Gazing’ and ‘Blazing Apostles’. On the sleeve a naked girl brandishes a flaming guitar, ‘Melody Maker’ calls the vinyl ‘a finely balanced work with some startling guitar runs.’ A US tour with Lynyrd Skynyrd and Pure Prairie League get it chart ratings there too, but elements of disillusionment surface. Bill tells ‘NME’ ‘music doesn’t stand on its own two feet any more. It leans heavily on the media. On the advertising media and all the people who go with it’ (7 February 1976)

1976 – February single ‘Ships In The Night’ (Harvest HAR 5140). Andy ‘Mumbles’ Clarke (keyboards) completes line-up with Nelson, Fox and Tumahai in time to be voted ‘New Musical Express’ ‘Most Promising UK New Name’ – prediction fulfilled when it reaches no.23 in February, on chart eight weeks

1976 – August, ‘Kiss Of Light’ c/w ‘Shine’ (Harvest HAR 5110), despite a blitz of press, and Bill informing ‘NME’ of his intended experiments with Environmental Guitar, this single bombs. The 7:30-minute Latin Funk flip credited to Funky Phaser And His Unearthly Merchandise

1976 – September album ‘Modern Music’ (Harvest SHSP 4058) reaches no.12 in September, on chart six weeks. Tumahai’s work-permit trouble restricts UK touring, they record at Abbey Road. The resulting black bands get mixed critical reception, fading in with radio-tuning through cuts from their earlier albums, then running through ‘Bird Charmer’s Destiny’, ‘Forbidden Lovers’ and ‘Dancing In The Moonlight (All Alone)’, closing with acoustic strummed ‘Make The Music Magic’. Nelson and Leckie’s spacily-produced second-side suite forms surreal impressions of their US tour – when Bill reported America is ‘five years behind the time’ (NME, 5 February 1977), ‘Honeymoon On Mars’, ‘Lost In The Neon World’, ‘Dance Of Uncle Sam’s Humanoids’ and ‘Gold At The End Of My Rainbow’

1976 – October EP ‘Hot Valves’ (Harvest HAR 5117) old tracks includes ‘Maid In Heaven’, ‘Blazing Apostles’, ‘Jet Silver And The Dolls Of Venus’ and ‘Bring Back The Spark’ reaches no.36 in November, on chart five weeks. Yorkshire rhythm guitarist Mike Close temporarily augments Be-Bop Deluxe for UK promo tour, and three-month US slog with Angel. ‘You get trapped by your own success, no matter how meagre it might be, it traps you’ (‘NME’, 5 February 1977)

1977 – July album ‘Live! In The Air Age’ (Harvest SHVL 816) reaches no.10 in August, on chart five weeks. Bill now married to Jan and living in Selby. Be-Bop Deluxe’s slick professionalism becomes increasingly devalued as New Wave erupts. Hard-core fans pack out winter 1976 tour to see movie-clip backdrops of seagulls, ‘Astounding’ and ‘Amazing’ SF magazine covers. Issued as renewed pressure on Tumahai forces studio relocation to the South of France. This LP continues SF preoccupation with a still from Fritz Lang’s ‘Metropolis’, and takes live tour tapes ‘from the nervous white light of the stage to the calm persistence of plastic.’ Reproduces cuts from ‘Futurama’ (‘Maid In Heaven’ and ‘Sister Seagull’) and seven from ‘Sunburst Finish’ plus new ‘Piece Of Mine’ and previously-unrecorded 1972 ‘Mill Street Junction’. Also features bonus EP with 9:30-minute live version of uncollected ‘Shine’. Produced by Bill, stand-out tracks ‘Ships In The Night’ and ‘Blazing Apostles’

1977 – September ‘Japan’ (HAR 5135), escaping formula this single uses oriental effects

1978 – January ‘Panic In The World’ (Harvest), then May ‘Electrical Language’

1978 – February album ‘Drastic Plastic’ (Harvest SHSP 4091) reaches no.22 in February, on chart five weeks. Simpler production, approach and ads promoting it as ‘synthetic songs for the video generation’. Moderne sleeve shows the band with TV sets for heads. It programmes the two 1978 singles plus ‘New Precision’, ‘New Mysteries’, ‘Surreal Estate’, ‘Love In Flames’, ‘Dangerous Stranger’, ‘Superenigmatix (Lethal Appliance For The Home With Everything)’, ‘Visions Of Endless Hopes’, ‘Possession’, and ‘Island Of The Dead’. A tour with John Cooper-Clarke results in Bill co-producing and playing in the Bard’s first album in July

1978 – September ‘The Best And The Rest Of…’ (Harvest SHDW 410) Be-Bop Deluxe announce split with £40,000 debt, and Bill complaining of the ‘limitations of a rigid structure. 2LP-set with one album of the ‘best’, the other of new studio material (‘Shine’, ‘Lights’ and instrumental ‘Blimps’). Subsequently Andy Clarke goes into TV-jingles, Fox joins Canadian band Blazer-Blazer. Tumahai first joins Hollywood Killers (August 1979), then joins ex-Wings Jimmy McCulloch and Miller Anderson in Dukes for single ‘Hearts In Trouble’ (Warner K 17453)

1979 – January first from Red Noise, ‘Furniture Music’ c/w ‘Acquitted By Mirrors’ and ‘Wonder Toys That Last For Ever’ (HAR 5176). Bill launches new assault as ‘more a project than a band’, using Andy Clarke (keyboards), Ian Nelson (sax), Rick Ford (bass) and Fairport Convention’s drummer Dave Mattacks for these initial sessions

1979 – February album as by Red Noise, ‘Sound On Sound’ (Harvest SHSP 4095), produced by Nelson and Leckie. Liberated from expectations imposed by Be-Bop Deluxe these twelve relentlessly modernistic and experimental tracks utilise dissonance, violent time-changes and bleep-and-fart electro-effects, with ‘Don’t Touch Me, I’m Electric’, ‘Substitute Flesh’, ‘For Young Moderns’, ‘Atom Age’, ‘Radar in My Heart’, and ‘A Better Home In The Phantom Zone’. It repositions Bill into Eno, John Foxx and Tubeway Army zone, with promo photos revealing Devo/industrial bleak uniformed anonymity. For the tour Steve Peer substitutes for Mattacks

1979 – April ‘Revolt Into Style’ c/w ‘Out Of Touch’ (HAR 5183), top-side lifted from Red Noise album, makes literary links to poet Thom Gunn and jazz singer George Melly. Flip cut live at De Montfort Hall, Leicester. Around this time Bill and brother Ian discard group structure, to record hours of free-form music that will make up the basis for ‘Sounding The Ritual Echo’. Label refuses to release such ‘uncommercial’ material, so Bill produces the single ‘Could This Be Heaven’ for Original Mirrors (Mercury), and works with Arista band News. At Rockfield Studios he also produces the Skids ‘Masquerade’ single and April ‘Days In Europa’ album

1980 – releases May solo EP ‘Do You Dream In Colour?’ (Cocteau COQ1) with ‘Ideal Homes’, ‘Instantly Yours’ and ‘Atom Man Loves Radium Girl’, which reaches no.52 on the UK singles chart with minimal promotion. Still deadlocked with label he forms his own Cocteau Records (74/78 Seymour Place, London W1) in old Holyground/ Smile spirit. Contagious melodies and jerky freeze-frame aurals recorded at Rack Studios and Rockfield. Bill tours ‘Souvenirs Of Impossible Events’ with guitar-sax improvisations over pre-taped backgrounds

1980 – single ‘Rooms With Brittle Views’ c/w ‘Dada Guitare’ (Les Disques Du Crépuscule TWI 013), continuing his return to critical favour this imported continental single reaches no.1 on ‘Melody Maker’ Indie Top Ten 7 March 1981

1981 – May single ‘Banal’ c/w ‘Mr Magnetism Himself’ (Mercury). But first – more production work, ‘It’s Not Me (Talking)’ single by A Flock Of Seagulls (Cocteau), ‘A Certain Bridge’ by Last Man In Europe (Cocteau) and ‘Losing You’ c/w ‘You Don’t Turn Me On’ for Wakefield band Stranger Than Fiction (Ambergris). By May there’s a new label, and new manager – Mercury and Mark Rie respectively. ‘Banal’ cut near Bill’s Selby home on the Rolling Stones Mobile, its title sniping at Harvest official’s suggested ingredient for hits. Flip recorded with Ian at Rockfield, plus 12” tracks ‘Turn To Fiction’ and ‘Hers Is A Lush Situation’

1981 – May Bill Nelson album ‘Quit Dreaming And Get On The Beam’ (Mercury 6359-055) includes ‘Living In My Limousine’, ‘Do You Dream In Colour’, ‘A Kind Of Living’, ‘Youth Of Nation On Fire’, straight into BBC album chart at no.7, vindicating Bill’s determination to control his own musical destiny in defiance of style or hype. ‘Melody Maker’ calls it ‘snapshots of a moving mind… a democratic craziness… where chords are discarded in favour of a trellis-work of lines and figures’ 

1981 – album ‘Sounding The Ritual Echo (Atmospheres For Dreaming)’, originally an instrumental bonus LP to ‘Quit Dreaming’ issued two years after its inception, reissued in 1989 as Cocteau JCS 12, with Dave Mattacks (drums), Ian Nelson (sax), Rick Ford (bass), Andrew Clark (keyboards)

1981 – June double-single and 7-inch ‘Youth Of Nation On Fire’ (Mercury WILL22) with ‘Be My Dynamo’, ‘Rooms With Brittle Views’ and ‘All My Wives Were Iron’. Launched on brief promo tour including the Leeds Warehouse

1981 – August single ‘Living In My Limousine (Remix)’ (Mercury WILL 312) with ‘White Sounds’, ‘Birds Of Tin’ and ‘Love In The Abstract’. With Bill Nelson now established as an idiosyncratic and always-interesting figure out on the perimeter of contemporary music, he continues strictly on his own terms…

1983 – invited by Gary Numan to produce his album ‘Warriors’ (Beggars Banquet). Bill also plays guitar and keyboard on track ‘Poetry And Power’

1990 – creates the Populuxe label, and releases solo material

1995 – album ‘After The Satellite Sings’ (Resurgence RES-114-CD) Resurgence from PO Box 5, Derwentside, Co Durham DH9 7HR

2002 – released ‘Three White Roses And A Bud’, with Fila Brazillia and Harold Budd

2006 – Universal Music (UK) reissue three re-mastered albums with bonus tracks

2013 – plays a fundraiser concert at Wakefield’s ‘The Hepworth Gallery’ in aid of the Unity Works project

2014 – honoured by his home-town with a star on its ‘Walk Of Stars’


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