DREAMING IN MONOCHROME
Gig Review of:
BILL NELSON with the
YORKSHIRE ACTORS COMPANY
at ‘The Warehouse Club’, Leeds
(26 May 1981)
Does Doctor Caligari dream in monochrome for t-o-o l-o-n-g? A four-piece theatre group, all white-face, mime exaggeration and stark dramatics are punched through by Bill Nelson’s taped ‘Das Kabinet’ soundtrack cutting electronic shockwaves through the conversation, the sound of breaking glasses, and the flip prurience of ribald hecklers. Then, on video monitors, the vintage violence movie ‘Blood Of A Poet’ (1930) flashes up in ice-sharp black-and-white, and Nelson’s puppet-master Art Attack strategy falls neatly into place. The masks, face paint and surreal symbolism of Jean Cocteau’s film neatly complement the Yorkshire Actor Company’s exhumation of a similarly antique horror text.
Pretentious? Art School schlock? Hell no, what they deliver is a sweet wall of sound, harsh jaggedy guitar blocks storming at the disciples in immediate range, inducing the glorious gut-level affirmation of pogoing! “Don’t Touch Me, I’m Electric” is launched as episode one. But by the time they’re through the choppy rhythms of “Rooms With Brittle Views” and into “Furniture Music” it’s time for more meticulous note-taking. Bill Nelson’s in black, broad sash belt delineating bagged black pants, his ‘Dan Dare’ eyebrows arch, occasionally resembling the sensitive Eng Lit teacher of Sixth Form fantasies, occasionally grimacing in an agony of ecstacy as intense as Wayne Sleep, as fingers tongue clitoral flicks up and down the fret. But always there’s the solid up-front front-line Rock.
He announces “Do You Dream In Colour” which jells musically well, best of the set so far, up-gearing from the stark stripped-back rawness in which all frills get lost in the muddy sound-mix with the unintentional electric fireworks, and the near-spontaneous tumble of the build. THIS, from Bill Nelson – clinical craftsman, precise perfectionist!!! But the band is a pick-up of hastily-assembled musicians under the umbrella tag of the ‘Practical Dreamers’. There’s brother Ian Nelson on alto sax and synth, Don Snow thefted temporarily from the Sinceros on keyboards, Bob Danvitchelin of Fingerprints on drums, and Alan Quinn from the News (as well as Bill’s pre Be-Bop Deluxe Global Village band) on bass. A deliberately impermanent line-up designed to feed off its built-in instabilities to result in a novel informality. Quinn grins hugely, an immense guileless smile as he bounces contagiously, set against Ian Nelson’s impassively studious diligence, and Bill’s more devious sideways sneer and more calculatedly self-conscious movements.
Before he delivers the incandescent new single “Youth Of Nation On Fire” born of burning desire – prefaced by a sarcastic swipe at poxy record label politics, and the Red Noise sonic artefact “Out Of Touch” he infiltrates his ‘cultural bit’, which slows the momentum some. Nelson on a solo stool laying over-the-top guitar lines over the top of enormous slow-turning tape spool sounds. His guitar wedged somewhere between Wes Montgomery and a reflective Jimi Hendrix. Music that flits like loose sunlight, ‘enough to make a robot cry,’ long meandering sound strands referenced again to Cocteau, via “Opium”.
The total set, end-to-end, up-market and down, spans just over forty-five minutes, during which he reconnects the audience with the two lost years elapsed between the Red Noise ‘Sound-On-Sound’ (Harvest, 1979) to the solo ‘Quit Dreaming And Get On The Beam’ (Mercury, 1981). The motley devotees retire satisfied, and demanding more. What regulation crowd-pleasing encore is prepared? Surely not “Ships In The Night”? Or could it be the “Adventures On A Yorkshire Landscape” that solitary malcontents howl for? No chance, Bill Nelson ambles back for a second determined shovel-full of solo improvisations. The point is clear. This is a ‘fun’ tour. He’ll play along with this ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll rubbish’ and do it magnificently – but he aint about to compromise. This time he’s doing it on HIS terms, and he’s NOT going to fake it.
NEW ADVENTURES ON
BILL NELSON was appearing at the Leeds ‘Warehouse Club’ with
a solo music-set augmented by Theatre and Jean Cocteau film.
It was one of my earliest opportunities to use my recently acquired
status as Music Journalist with ‘Hot Press’ to pursue my own obsessions.
And, caught up in transition from the Glam guitar-hero of
Be-Bop Deluxe, into solo experimentation,
he makes for a great interview subject…
‘NO TRAINS TO HEAVEN’
On stage a little while before he’d made concessions to role expectations with black bagged pants and broad black sash, now he’s opted for casual sports jacket with negative ostentation and zero image associations. His guitar might not tell lies, but with Bill Nelson what you see is not necessarily what you get. Perhaps this is a symptom of the hinted dual personality flaunted during the set? A schizophrenic access point by which to home in on the naked psyche? So I accuse him, suggesting there’s an element of condescension in his careful manipulation of the straight Rock format used to infiltrate his advanced cultural scenarios of French avant garde artists and theatre.
But he’s not to be drawn. Smiles playfully through grey owl-eye lenses, swirls ice concentrically around his glass as Devo’s “Whip It” whispers up muted through the floorboards. ‘Naw’ he jibes. ‘It’s just my bizarre sense of humour. I’m enjoying it, I’m enjoying playing again, it’s just that because it’s old material we’re playing, I find I take it all with a pinch of salt. It’s great fun, but it’s not totally Soul-satisfying.’
This is Bill Nelson who toured his own immaculate vision with Be-Bop Deluxe. This is Bill Nelson who, according to contemporary legend, launched Red Noise in its wake as a guerrilla subversion aimed at what he perceived to be the inept inefficient record industry. He’s waging war for the purity of his untainted art – now vindicated after two label-less years by a chart album he’s already bored with!
Is this current band a continuation of Red Noise, then? An emphatic ‘No.’
So is Red Noise totally defunct? ‘Red Noise was intended to be just basically a name to cover all kinds of evil.’
I’ve heard Bill describe Red Noise elsewhere as more a project than a band. ‘It was a project, yes.’
So is this a new phase of that same project?
The delivery is slick, a practiced PR routine. The problem for me is to de-structure this ritual of two role-playing strangers compressed in an artificial setting for a brief sixty-minutes, and get beyond the glib complacencies we’ve both done fifty times before…
So I ask if he remembers the counterculture magazine ‘Styng’. He’s now stood sideways, eyes focussed at some point above him, either three-quarters way up the wall, or several years back in time. There’s a vague kindling. ‘Y-e-e-e-s, that’s right. I remember that!’ Regurgitating memories of Barnsley’s harassed and ludicrously absurd underground newspaper, caved in through the combined weight of accumulated hash and obscenity busts a full decade ago. Therein appeared my own first journalistic ramblings – and also a piece written by Art Student Bill Nelson. An analysis of the Who album ‘Who’s Next’, extolling ‘music that flits like loose sunlight.’
We have ignition. Now the grin comes unpressured. ‘Have you got a copy, ‘cos I haven’t? If you could let me have a photostat I’d be really pleased. Because I’ve never had a copy.’
So let’s explore some interconnections. Bill Nelson made his first vinyl around the same time he wrote that review, the rare privately recorded ‘Northern Dream’ (Smile, 1971). Variously re-released in a number of formats over the subsequent years, the twelve tracks – from “Photograph (A Beginning)” to “Chymepeace (An Ending)” was financed by Ken and Betty Bromby of Wakefield’s ‘Record Bar’ and recorded at Holyground Studios, in the bleak backstreets off Wakefield’s Kirkgate. A studio run by Mike Levon and Dave Wood. Bill later recalls (to Mark Hodkinson of ‘Record Collector’) that ‘they were two friends if mine living in a place like a hippie commune, and I used to visit them a lot.’
I also pay a visit to the studio around the same time for ‘Styng’. I was met by the huge imposing form of Mike Levon, who lives with the post-PreRaphaelite Shirl in the flat adjacent to the studio. They overlook Cass Yard, a rundown square of cobblestones besieged by trashcans and decaying buildings forgotten by the council’s redevelopment schemes. The two-track studio, essentially a twelve-foot square converted bedroom. It seems a rather frail optimistic venture pushing its way through the Yorkshire grime towards the sun. Its ratty-haired ambience more late-sixties, the fag-end of hippie idealism, yet also a tentative bridge towards late-seventies DIY ventures. And by implication to Bill Nelson’s own uncompromising stance against the purely profit-driven machinations of an industry determined to reduce talent down into marketable units.
As we sat there talking in mid-1971 I was flipping that album sleeve, a record laid down over a patient and painstaking period fuelled by uncounted cups of coffee, and sessions illuminated by Nelson’s laser guitar-work, derived somewhere between a Folk simplicity – and Jimi Hendrix. A style perhaps filched from the ‘Play In A Day’ book cartoon-illustrated on the cover, honed into shape by playing Shadows and Duane Eddy singles at 33-rpm in order to hear and memorise each note. That sleeve-art is by Eddie Taylor after the style of Robert Crumb, a moon-whitened bedroom with carefully selected books on a shelf – Tolkien, a ‘Beano Annual’, Buddhism, the Bible, Atlantis, and the story of Krishna. An intellectual Bohemian overkill designed to impress. Yet the record works. Simple arrangements, incisive guitar-work, lots of first-person pronouns. From this beginning, Be-Bop Deluxe was to evolve…
In the ‘Warehouse’ tonight, strange ghosts are being unleashed, coming unhinged and out-of-focus like the flickering pages of a burning book. I attempt to pin down memories.
Bill also played on other Holyground products, including the spacey Folk-Psyche ‘Astral Navigations’ album, first issued in a limited edition of just 250. ‘Yes, I played acoustic guitar on that, and Hawaiian guitar on another track…’ Pause, ‘no, I played Hawaiian guitar on ‘A To Austr’ (an album that took its name from an encyclopaedia spine) and on ‘Astral Navigations’ I played acoustic and electric guitar on around three tracks. Just a guest musician role, it was a place that was happening in Wakefield. I haven’t even got copies of those records either!’
‘MUSIC IN DREAMLAND’
Be-Bop Deluxe confused and confounded the critics. They were generally shovelled into the Glam Rock, Art Rock, Prog-Rock categories, with Bill regarded as something of a guitar-hero. He could play the game as required. But there was always something that didn’t quite fit. More depth. The debut Be-Bop Deluxe album – ‘Axe Victim’ (Harvest, June 1974) carries a sleeve epigram by phantasmagorical 1930’s French multi-discipline artist Jean Cocteau. The second album – ‘Futurama’ (Harvest, July 1975) includes a track called “Jean Cocteau”, while Nelson’s own label would be named ‘Cocteau Records’. When was that Jean Cocteau influence acquired, did it come around the same formative period?
Bill nods. ‘Yes, I got into Cocteau during Art College, they had a library full of books about obscure Twenties and Thirties artists, and I started tracing things through and finding out what he’d done. There’s a lot of it, he’s a hero still. He’s the only hero I have. I don’t idolize anyone, apart from him.’ Then he stops as though his enthusiasms have run him further than he intended. ‘I don’t actually IDOLIZE him, I just have an affinity. Every couple of years I go to the South of France and hang out in the places he hung out in, and try to soak up some atmosphere. Everyone has some kind of guru.’
In fact, the Cocteauesque theatrical attitudes first became apparent in Bill’s pre-Be-Bop band – Global Village, who used films and masks. Attitudes that resurface in his current involvements with the Yorkshire Actors Company. ‘It’s a cyclic thing’ he concurs. ‘It’s finding its way back to that place again. It’s a re-assessment. Doing a lot of interesting things that are more than just playing Rock numbers on stage.’
Just that now he’s more in a position to indulge those ambitions? ‘I’m hoping to diversify a bit.’
A fine euphemism. But of course, Jean Cocteau never had to play the ‘Warehouse Club’ mid-week. Whereas Nelson’s brief tour is supported by the Yorkshire Actors Company who attempt to do just that, perpetrating a play for which Bill wrote the electronic score. A cyclic element further illustrated by the stylistic counterpoints between their theatrical cavortings, and the monochrome Cocteau film screened on video monitors prior to the gig.
‘Sure, there’s a connection…’ falling short of admitting to a master-plan. ‘It’s a difficult thing for them to do in this kind of place. Not only have they not got microphones on their persons, but this is an abbreviated version of the full production, it’s cut down by half. When they do it in the theatre, obviously people go there to watch that and that alone, and you get an incredible reverence for the act that’s going off. People are very quiet, and they listen. But they said to me that they deliberately wanted to play places that people wouldn’t normally expect a Play to be at. They wanted to take that risk, which is why they’re on the tour. They’re taking all kinds of chances it terms of size and sound – people talking and drinking. I think they’re incredibly brave. I’m full of admiration for them. They’re very good – you should see them in a Theatre doing the whole thing. It’s totally different. It’s so intense, it’s really stunning to watch.’
He’s moving now, this is obviously what excites him most, the new departure of coordinating sound to vision. ‘For the full version I did something like twenty-five pieces of music, and it meant going to rehearsals, timing sequences, making copious notes about what was happening and what impressions I got from what was happening, taking them away and sitting with a four-track machine, various instruments and percussion, and just trying to record sounds and music that related in some way to the visuals that were going on onstage.’
New Adventures on the Yorkshire Landscape? ‘Yeah – in some ways. But it’s NEW adventures, definitely NEW adventures. I’m not interested in turning back the pages and doing what I’ve done so many times before…’
‘BE CAREFUL, I’M AN AXE VICTIM,
HUNG UP ON THESE SILVER STRINGS…’
The reference is to the straightjacket period as Be-Bop Deluxe ran out of momentum. More ghosts, five years on this time. I see Be-Bop Deluxe in Bridlington, a tacky seaside resort on the north-east coast, in winter a surreal paradox of sad arcades with coke culture out of season. Around the ‘Spa Hall’ kids were gathering within earshot of the tide, trying to overhear the support band beyond the faded-grandiose exterior, drab fairy-light constellations in tawdry rainbows dancing in the salt wind above them. ‘You came to watch the band, to see us play our parts. We hoped you’d lend an ear, you hope we dress like tarts, but backstage we stand naked…’ (“Axe Victim”).
I’d seen the Rolling Stones here years before, watched the Kinks in their tired velvet jackets, the Animals dark and menacing. Now 1976, by contrast, seemed a bleak period of shallow Glam-Rock posturing, in which the ‘Sunburst Finish’ album stood out even more three-dimensionally. Downbill is a band called Sailor who’d scored a no.2 hit with “A Glass Of Champagne”. Waiting outside, their sound comes muted to compulsively structured bass-lines over the wash of waves. Then Be-Bop Deluxe, their hard sounds piling up on each other, falling properly and articulately into place. Bill Nelson immaculately white-jacketed like a fifties retread from Jack Good’s ‘Oh Boy’ TV-show, rose in button-hole, black hair combed into quasi-slickback. Words strafing clear and concise – ‘she’s a maid in heaven, he’s a knight on the tiles…’
So what went wrong? For the pundits and hustlers who confidently expected a new Queen or ELO the bust-up of Be-Bop Deluxe must have seemed like failure. ‘Last night I felt immortal, this morning I feel dead’ (“Axe Victim”). From the initial personnel of Bill with guitarist Ian Parkin, Robert Bryan on bass and back-up vocals, Richard Brown (keyboards) and Nicholas Chatterton-Drew (drums) – the group was relaunched after ‘Axe Victim’ (1974) with new shifting line-ups. Simon Fox coming in on drums, first former Cockney Rebel Paul Jeffreys then New Zealand-born Charlie Tumahai (bass) and first Milton Reame-James then Andrew Clark (keyboards, who stayed on for Red Noise). But for Bill, the failure lay not in breaking the band, but in not breaking it two years earlier when creatively, and sales-wise, they’d hit their peak. Yet for contractual reasons, and out of loyalties, they’d done the one-more-tour and the obligatory one-more-album.
‘One thing I got into with Be-Bop was, we were forced into the work syndrome, and it’s very narrow. You focus on just recording and touring.’
What about the critic’s accusation more frequently levelled at Be-Bop Deluxe, that it became too preconceived, too clinical in execution? This hits a nerve. ‘We were musicians! We weren’t idiots hammering away, you know. We knew what we were doing, and that – to some people, is clinical.’
‘SOUNDING THE RITUAL ECHO’
Bill’s current musicians are far from contrived. Cannibalising members of the Sinceros and Fingerprints, plus Alan Quinn – a refugee from Global Village, now with the News. It feeds off its deliberate instabilities. There’s a background ripple of conversation, the band are standing around further down the narrow room, tactfully distancing themselves from my cassette machine. There are also members of the Psychedelic Furs somewhere in attendance, plus a couple of Wakefield’s Stranger Than Fictions, and one or two Loss Of Heads.
But Bill Nelson remains the centre of attention, the focal point – as he was in Be-Bop Deluxe. He carries the weight, and it’s he that bears the slings and arrows of outrageous criticism. He looks scrawnier now than he did at the Bridlington Spa, leaner, his features more angular, cheekbones more extruded. But although the gauche naïveté has gone, the energy and enthusiasm is renewed – with a vengeance. In a sense, Bill’s present position could almost be seen as a devolution to that original Holyground ethic, the completion of the cycle, but with the added dimension of a decade’s experience, and a reputation that opens doors to studios like Rockfield and the Stones Mobile. Yet the initial opposition to this freedom, in its guise as the Red Noise ‘project’, was formidable.
With Be-Bop Deluxe he wrote ‘it’s just a matter of style’. With Red Noise he quotes poet Thom Gunn – via George Melly, about “Revolt Into Style”. There’s a temptation to dismiss such rhetoric as similar attitudinising. He talks of his single “Youth Of Nation On Fire” (1981) – still seven-inch minded, but in a futuristic way, as being about ‘youth saying we’ve had enough’. But this ‘old hackneyed lyrical theme is carried by a lot of Asian and Oriental motifs. The cover has a Chinese flavour to it, a Chinese Communistic struggle flavour. Although I’m not a Communist.’
So in what way is the political content more than just an adoption of style, a turning of revolt into marketable symbols? To Bill Nelson it goes deeper than such superficialities would indicate. The real political shift, the only valid revolutionary act is to induce change of consciousness. According to this vocabulary the democratisation of recording technology is political in that it alters the balance from passive consumerism into interactive involvement. And with a few honourable exceptions – such as Mick Farren’s Deviants, Holyground was a trailblazer, an advance guard of that DIY avalanche. Secondly, Bill’s rejection of artful exploitation of his audience in favour of commercial down-gearing into more experimental areas constitutes another shift. Self-determination and creative freedom can never be a part of the media-ocracy. That is also political. So the medium becomes the message. A precious and personal subterfuge.
But wait a moment, this is a back-to-square-one situation! Isn’t this conceptual Trojan Horse a form of condescension? A deliberate multi-pronged manipulation of Rock imagery for culturally ulterior motives? Or if it is, does it matter? I don’t know. Bill Nelson might not be Jean Cocteau, but he sure as hell ain’t Shakin Stevens either!
‘I’m concerned with changing people’s attitudes towards what is, and what is not commercial. What is, and is not music. And you can’t do that by being completely extreme’ he continues, articulately and self-confident. Classless, devoid of regional accent. ‘You have to – not dilute, but direct. You have to aim what you’re doing at a certain part of your audience, and hope that it spreads. The audiences we pull are not exactly unintelligent, and I hope some of the ideas expressed are…’
Absorbed? ‘Yes, in a way. You can only change the system from within. An old adage, but it’s very true. Stand on the outside and shout forever, and all the people on the inside do is use you as a vehicle. You have to reverse that situation. You have to use them, and in some ways it’s a slow, long process. There’s a lot of people I admire. I admire Public Image Limited who do it by sheer force of… how can I put it? Not anger, but there’s some kind of…’
Nihilism? Intimidation? ‘Fear, yes. They almost instil fear into people. Rather than be frightened, people capitulate, and it works for them. I’m not that heartless, and not that cold about it. ‘The Flowers Of Romance’ (April 1981) is the first time Public Image Limited have proved to me they’re worth anything. It’s the best they’ve done. But that isn’t the route that is going to change everything overnight. You have to work in much more subtle and devious ways. I’m far more devious than John Lydon, and nowhere near as honest. If it comes to changing attitudes I’ll do it by devious routes rather than honest routes, because honest routes just get kicked out of the window.’
He gives a self-deprecating laugh. ‘I can’t waste time at my time of life. I can’t waste time alienating people. What I’ve got to do is change people’s ideas and change them very quickly. Give them new ideas and new concepts in a form they can accept – but that bends their attitudes.’
It’s easy to brand such talk as pretentious. The kind of thing that goes down well in intense Art School discussions primed on Jean Cocteau and Marcel Duchamp, but which in the cold glare of Rock ‘n’ Roll come across as arrogant, elitist even. But if you think that, you’ve got it wrong. That would be a misinterpretation. Bill Nelson could have opted for the path of least resistance, capitalising on the proven commercial potential of the Be-Bop Deluxe format. But instead – like the Yorkshire Actor’s Company, he chose to reject sell-out and make his vision work despite occasionally inhospitable climes. I get the overwhelming impression that this decisive rejection of external pressures, and their replacement with far more exacting personal standards, suits him fine. It seems almost intoxicating. It’s an indulgence he’s earned.
So how does he intend to use this freedom? ‘What we’re trying to do now is keep time on one side for production work, some time for film-work, while also running the label. There’s a few things I’m interested in beside just banging guitars out on stage. I’ve pushed them to the back for a long time, and I’m getting to the stage when I should be a little more mature and a bit more disciplined about what I’m doing. I’m hoping to get the next album together after the end of this tour. I want to write it very quickly, literally days before I go into the studio. I’ve got ideas already worked out and I’ll assemble a band to record the album, and take this band on tour with me.’
A backlog of material already on four-track will probably emerge as ‘B’-sides, he explains, while the next line-up will reject synthesiser orientation. Two drummers, one a percussionist. Two bassists, one six-string. Plus marimba, violin, acoustic guitar and vocals. ‘It’s gonna be based on Japanese melodies, and it’s going to be all about eroticism. It’s going to be the most erotic music album ever, without being obvious. It’s going to be erotic to anyone with intelligence. Anyone that’s thick as planks won’t get it.’
A litmus paper test for the intellect, I conclude as my C60 spirals to an end…
Later, outside the ‘Warehouse Club’ in the star-shocked clear Leeds night, a fanzine seller is attempting high-pressure sales technique on a bleached-out refugee from Bill Nelson’s audience. In appearance a regulation – if delightfully dishevelled New Decadent, she seemed unimpressed by the gig. Probably prefers Shakin Stevens. I buy her fanzine anyway!