C'mon Feel The (Red) Noise,
For about two weeks at the end of January I was convinced that Red Noise was just a figment of a desperate publicist's imagination. Despite many attempts on my part to find a convenient time to travel up to Yorkshire and catch Bill Nelson on his home ground, something always cropped up to prevent it.
First of all there were fairly simple explanation for the hold-ups. Like "Bill's getting a haircut this week" or "Bill's moving house" - you know, pretty standard delaying tactics really - but when God and British Rail also joined in the conspiracy to ensure that, in the unlikely event of my being able to catch a train, I'd undoubtedly step straight off it into a six-foot snow drift, I was forced to admit defeat and wait until Mr. Nelson was ready to come down to London.
During the five days or so when London was free of snow after the first thaw, Bill was nowhere to be seen. But on the very day that celestial dandruff fell again, there he was bright and breezy at his publicist's office near Victoria, ready to help me shake the snow off me boots. Or rather he wasn't.
"Bill's just popped out to do some shopping," says the man. Oh really? Shall I come back tomorrow? Next week? In a couple of months, maybe? I wonder to myself.
But I'm deceived into accepting a cup of tea heavily laced with bromide, on the pretext that it will help me develop a photographic memory, and by the time I've woken up, there's Bill hovering over me smiling, all leather trousers, wool topcoat and haircut. So the stories might have been true after all.
After the usual salutations Bill, lens lady Jill and I traipse down to the interview room, where a handy pen and notepad can be found chained to the table. Sitting down on the lush backless settee, I confront the man they call the Ogre of Selby. The fact that every time I've met him he's been mild-mannered and charming must mean that a lot of other people come in for a lot of stick to compensate for it. I bet a typical entry in his diary reads something like, "Got up, felt really good. Beat up wife, poured boiling water over baby, shouted obscenities at coach party of old age pensioners, ran over cat, shot manager and booted publicist down stairs."
Well, that's the impression you get from the thumbnail sketches of him offered by some writers. Where do they get it from? Most likely it's rooted in his well-known single-mindedness at the helm of Be Bop Deluxe, a band which, you will recall, is no longer extant. The irony of this is that for all his image in certain quarters as a dominating tartar mercilessly whipping the other members of Be Bop round to his way of thinking, he actually disbanded the group because things weren't really going the way he wanted them to go at all. Is this man never satisfied?
In fact he'd been moaning to his manager for two years solid about the various artistic frustrations he was experiencing, and the fact that he felt Be Bop was moving ever further from what he intended in his original conception. It came to a head during one American tour, but Bill was told splitting the band then would have been financial suicide.
"So I said what about some projects on the side," he explains, "like a book of photographs and lyrics, and perhaps a little solo album, and my manager said 'Sure, certainly' and all the time he was filling up the date sheet so I had no time to do anything."
But suddenly last August the picture changed, and Bill was told that if he wanted to break up the band, then now was the time to do it because though it had been too early in the year before, it would be too late the year after.
"I couldn't believe it. I was a total relief - this amazing weight came off my shoulders. But as soon as you start putting a new band together, it all comes back again, only worse," he chuckles. "It's different when you're up to your eyes in debt to make a decision to knock it all on the head and take a really big gamble - which it is, for me. Be Bop weren't in the Elton John/Rod Stewart income bracket but we were pretty secure for a couple of years to come, whereas now, who knows what's going to happen?"
At the moment, that question is asked optimistically. Bill is very much more pleased with the first Red Noise album than he was with any but the very first Be Bop waxing, whose spirit the new album 'Sound On Sound' sets out to capture. And the new band, it seems, are anxious for his artistic guidance whereas in the old band he "had to fight for it".
"I don't know if that's the best thing in the long run and I don't know how long it'll last, but I do know that when I came out of the studio with this album I was proud whereas with the other albums I couldn't bear to listen to them for two months afterwards.
However, he maintains, he wasn't ashamed of them. They were good in their own right and certainly not the exquisite nothingness reckoned by one reviewer recently to sum up Be Bop's five year output.
But there was, it seems, no way for Bill to get his music back on what he regarded as the right lines while there was still a band called Be Bop Deluxe.
"Drastic Plastic was the last ditch attempt to get the band to change a bit but it was difficult for people to accept. We were really up against the 'oldies' syndrome with our audiences and I felt that the new material from that album got less response than any previous new material had."
With the band up to their eyes in debt, a way out seemed ever more unlikely, but when it came, he grabbed it with both hands. The only musician who went with him to Red Noise was keyboard player Andy Clarke. Bill's brother Ian was brought in on saxophone, Rick Ford was recruited from a jazz/funk/soul outfit to play bass, and that left just the drummer's shoes to be filled. For the album, they're worn jointly by Nelson and top British session man Dave Mattacks, who, it seems, paid Nelson the biggest complement of his life by agreeing to play on it.
When the band tour later this month, the man behind the drum kit will be American Steve Peer, who joins Red Noise from TVT, a New Jersey outfit who happened to be great Be Bop admirers. In fact when Bill saw TVT play, he thought they were "better than we were".
By this time we've been chatting for about half an hour. Bill's lean, youthful features and important new haircut have been captured from every angle by the camera of Ms Furmanovsky and he still hasn't shouted at me, stamped his foot or thrown my cassette recorder through the window. He did, however, laugh when I nearly fell off the couch and I believe this is the first real evidence of his true sadistic nature.
Bill is now saying how Red Noise didn't happen overnight.
"Red Noise didn't happen overnight". There, I told you. "It was a progression from ideas which started way back, and the next album won't be the same as this one. The element of change - the surprise - is what made rock interesting in the first place.
"But it doesn't belong to anyone in particular. It doesn't belong to the young or the old, to people who've got street credibility or people who haven't... It belongs to anybody who likes the music or can express themselves through it or by listening to it. Why should people be so desperate to hold on to it as some kind of personal property that no-one else has any right to share? I hate that attitude. If there is a movement centered on what I term new progressive music, then why shouldn't we lend what weight we've got to it?
"I see XTC as a band playing new progressive music - the type of band that's doing something that's still musical yet it's defining a new aesthetic. You can't really compare Red Noise with Be Bop; there's no way you can use the same judgment values. You've got to find some new ways to listen to it.
Now that isn't entirely true, much though Bill might wish it to be, because as he admits himself, several of the songs on 'Sound On Sound' were written for the next Be Bop album if there'd been one, and three of them at least would feel pretty well at home on 'Drastic Plastic' - we're talking here about 'Phantom Zone', 'Revolt Into Style', and 'Art/Empire/Industry'. But we know what he's getting at, and we can sympathise with his desire to make the break as clean as possible can't we?
As far as Bill's concerned, the essence of Red Noise is that it's less concerned with sophistication in the way that this term has come to be understood in the last half a decade. But at the same time it's not trying to be crude or mindless.
"In some songs I've tried to break from the idea of a rhythm which starts at point A and goes to point B by a logical progression; these are like blocks, more architecture than music if you like. 'Radar In My Heart', 'Don't Touch Me (I'm Electric)', and 'Stop/Go/Stop' are all a little bit angular; you can't just flow through them, yet their urgency creates its own kind of flow.
"Then there's the straighter, more abrasive things... and the people who say it's ripped off from XTC should listen to 'Superenigmatix' or 'Love In Flames' on Drastic Plastic. They could be on this album, and they were demoed nearly two years ago. So the ideas aren't sudden revelations by any means.
So simplicity rules, but not too the point where it becomes retrogressive. And another major difference from Be Bop lies in the lyrics, which are a lot less personal than they've been in the past.
"Around the 'Sunburst Finish' period they were mostly love songs; well it's not that I feel I've exhausted by capabilities in that direction but I felt it would be nice to do lyrics that weren't intentionally serious, word plays and so on..."
Getting back to the songs on the album, there is one at least which is an affectionate look back at the Sixties, in contrast with the forward-looking stance of the rest of the material. Called 'Revolt Into Style' it's the very last track on the album and features a build-up ending with little musical quotes from things like 'Strawberry Fields Forever' and the crashing finale from 'Substitute'.
On one level, the lyrics are a comment on fashion, 'The posters on your wall mark every fashion's rise and fall/Why try to keep the past alive?/And though I know the time is almost 1984/It feels like 1965..."
"This is stating that I feel there's no reason why I can't sever my connections with the past. I don't have to be ex-Be Bop lead guitar player who gets written up in International Musician because he plays a Yamaha. I mean, the album has nothing for the guitarist at all. For the first time, I think the last thing I considered was my own contribution as a guitarist."
The lyrics also reflect Bill's established principals of 'subversive' writing - that by dressing his ideas up with the trappings of a normal pop music lifestyle they would be accepted more readily than if he came straight out with a few 'cantankerous opinions'.
But, when all is said and done, Red Noise is still a compromise.
"Even with the new band I can't do exactly what I want to do because it's going to be me sole source of income. So I had to decide to take my original principals, my original ideas, and make them as accessible as possible, saving the 'real thing' for various side projects."
Already he's made some inroads into territory outside the new band. You may remember that John Cooper Clarke was Bill's special guest on the last British Be Bop tour, and Bill played on his debut album. He has also helped out informally with production advice for a mate's band called The Injectors who have made a single for Phonogram, and if their recording career takes off, he may become more involved.
But the project which is likely to consumer most of his remaining energies during the foreseeable future is the construction of a home studio in the new house he's moved into.
"I'm having four rooms knocked into one. It'll be small and not very sophisticated but it will be 24-track, and arranged so that I can do things on my own fairly easily.
"I hope then to do what I originally did. I got my recording deal by going into a local studio and doing the album and everything myself, which is exactly what lots of little labels are doing now. All I wanted at the time was to have something with my work on it as a little testament to the fact that I existed.
"To go back to that idea on the side would be great. Not so much with me as a performer, but there are lots of bands up North like the Mekons and Gang Of Four who'd love the chance to get into a 24-track studio but the most they can afford is eight or 16 tracks. Just to get them in for free, find some way of doing one-off singles, maybe, and perhaps be involved on a production level..."
Now that seems to me to be an admirably altruistic ambition in an industry not known for investing any time in anything that isn't necessarily going to bring the greenbacks rolling in. Who knows, maybe Selby will become the Mecca for new progressive bands in the months to come, with Bill Nelson as the new Guru (sorry about the mixed metaphors).
However, just as I'm speculating on this interesting possibility, the publicist's assistant enters the room to inform us that other people are waiting for their turn for an interview and could we wind things up now?
"You vill go now, pliss!" he commands, and I feel obliged to make my excuses and leave. Just as I'm on my way out, Bill takes me by the arm. "Of course you realise," he mutters through gritted teeth, "that on the advice of my management everything I've just told you is a complete fabrication. They've always told me to tell anything but the truth to the press. As a matter of fact I have just spent the entire morning out measuring XTC's inside leg."
I am utterly desolated and am unable to eat properly for a week.
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