Triumph of the Bill
The admirable Nelson returns
by Jim Green Trouser Press, November 1981
You could say that Bill Nelson is almost the Superman of rock. In real life a polite, mild-mannered fellow, onstage he becomes a dashing figure, singing songs with dramatic lyrics and wielding a guitar that can leap tall scales at a single bound.
On his recent US mini-tour, Nelson dressed like Clark Kent with an English art school background: dark baggy trousers and shirt (with a horizontal flap at the top) set off by red shoes and glasses with purple plastic frames. Despite the sartorial flair, a unassuming manner and traces of a homely Yorkshire accent are excellent disguises for a guitar hero of no small magnitude.
Well, Nelson is, isn't he? True, when he became known as leader of Be-Bop Deluxe back in 1974 he seemed a bit too intent on fusing a single persona out of Ziggy Stardust-era Bowie and Bowie's flash guitarist Mick Ronson. The following year, though, Be-Bop Deluxe's second LP (Futurama) showed that Nelson's graceful, dignified playing might rehabilitate the tarnished role of guitar hero.
Yet somewhere along the line Be-Bop stalled. Nelson's subsequent project, Red Noise, fell apart after it barely got off the ground. From 1979 through 1980 Bill Nelson appeared to have put his guitar picks in storage, instead turning producer for the Skids and the Original Mirrors. Then a pair of Nelson singles appeared on two different independent labels. The guitarist rejoined the majors this spring with a solo album, Quit Dreaming and Get on the Beam, for British Mercury.
Nelson's music now sounds strikingly different than before-even given the hints of a new direction on Be-Bop Deluxe's final Drastic Plastic and Red Noise's sole LP, Sound on Sound. Quit Dreaming's angular music, often propelled by an electronic beat, can be quite jarring. The lyrics' surprising (for Nelson, anyway) sardonicism is reflected in Nelson's liner notes, which send a verbal "bouquet of barbed wire to everyone who got in the way" of the album's release. (Quit Dreaming was recorded two years before it came out.) Most shocking of all, guitar plays a very restrained role in the proceedings, rarely taking off on Nelson's trademark soaring solos. What's going on?
It's very difficult to rise above the level of your own best clichés," Nelson says from his New York hotel room. "It was too easy to conform to that 'guitar hero' pose in front of an audience."
Nelson himself would be first to admit he had climbed into a creative straitjacket. These cells are my inventions," he wrote in "Rooms with Brittle Views"- but it does require someone else to tie the hands at the back.
"EMI [parent company of the British record label Harvest] never placed Be-Bop in the right perspective," Nelson says. "We were always advertised in a way that didn't do us justice and booked as tour support for the wrong bands - including one US sprint opening for Lynyrd Skynyrd (!).
After Nelson dissolved Be-Bop Deluxe he gave EMI the choice of dropping him right then or supporting him on a new project. "They said, 'No, no, we'll keep you on,' but when they heard Sound on Sound they were taken aback. A friend had dinner with EMI's head of A&R and told me he'd been asked, 'What's wrong with Bill? Why's he doing all this crazy music?"' On this side of the Atlantic the record was a decided commercial stiff, and Capitol (EMI's stateside affiliate) dropped Nelson like a hot potato.
Other forces came into play as well. In 1979 EMI's corporate parent decided to tighten the purse strings. "Bands in the middle echelon, just keeping their heads above water, like, say, Wire, were dropped. So was I. Quit Dreaming was written by the end of '78, recorded from January through June of '79, mixed and scheduled to come out that August." The axe came down in July, however, depriving Nelson not only of a label but an album as well; EM I owned all the tapes. Nelson has said that Quit Dreaming represents only two thirds of them.)
Other labels, at least in England, would be pleased to add Nelson to their rosters, right? But Nelson indirectly found out that his management was "being too greedy about how much money they asked." Worse, Nelson claims they subsidized their own financial problems with money from his account.
What seems to have hurt Nelson the most, though, was his management's attitude toward his creative direction. They were handling other acts with more ordinary styles than Nelson's (particularly his new directions), and "were always pushing the commercial on me." He found it difficult even to engage in side projects, like publishing a book of his photographs (some of which decorate Quit Dreaming) or writing film music.
"I had all these ideas and would say to my management, 'I'd really love to do this.' They'd say, 'Yeah, we'll set some time aside,' but the time would never come; there was always another album or tour. It was like they were humoring me."
The relationship had to collapse eventually, and it did. Mark Rye, whom Nelson knew from Harvest/EMI, was his tour manager toward the end, and when the split came Nelson asked him to be his new manager.
Now Nelson had plenty of freedom, a sympathetic representative - and not much else. He made a lot of demos at home on a Teac four-track, experimenting with instrumentals "a bit like ambient music but perhaps a little more demanding." (These tapes appear as a bonus album included with some pressings of Quit Dreaming.)
Nelson found an outlet for these interests when an avant-garde dance troupe in Belgium asked him to play during a festival in honor of his idol, Jean Cocteau.
"I didn't have a band at the time, so I recorded backing tracks at home and improvised over the tape live. They're not really 'backing tracks,' though; the tape is equally as important as the improvisation. There were times when I'd let the tape play for three minutes without adding a note, and there were times when I'd play constantly. It was a new slant for me, and I really enjoyed it; I've done several of those concerts since."
Nelson released "Do You Dream in Colour" on his own Cocteau label (which Rye helped set up). "I was desperate to put out something to show there was commercial appeal to what I'd done for EMI that they hadn't put out, and couldn't afford a whole album."
The cost of buying the master back from EMI, pressing and distributing it himself pretty much tapped Nelson out. His dance troupe friends had the Crepescule record label, though, and Nelson had plenty of home demos at hand; resulting in "Rooms with Brittle Views" and its more experimental flipside, "Dada Guitar." The latter instrumental is fairly characteristic of Nelson's tape-and-improv concert music, "although some of [the concert music] is a lot slower. "
"I use an E-bow [an electronic device which produces a violin-bow effect]. When I first tried doing that music at home I used a pick, but it was too easy to get into jazzy flourishes. An E-bow forces you into a different approach, since you can only use one string at a time; it's a very constant, fluid sound. "
Nelson also tried other effects: flangers, ADT (automatic double track) and guitar synthesizer. The real struggle, though, was (and is) with himself-to avoid the easy flash riff. "I've been playing everything on my demos, and from time to time I'll work at drums, bass, synthesizer, but not guitar, so when I come back to it I can approach it fresh. I didn't play guitar at all for a couple of weeks until this US tour."
Nelson admits ambivalence toward Quit Dreaming, even though he feels vindicated by its success. (The album entered the British charts at number seven-higher than Be-Bop Deluxe ever went.)
"The basic concept behind Sound on Sound was to pull together all the science fiction themes I'd hinted at in Be-Bop; on every album there's at least one science fiction song. The idea of the next album-1 got the title from a computer dating ad in a book about kitsch! -was to do just the opposite: have no science-fiction at all but have a variety, make eclecticism part of the style.
"Quit Dreaming became more and more personal as I wrote it. There were pressures from my management. EMI was being taken over, nobody was secure, and my management said, 'Hit singles; ignore that arty stuff.' I wrote 'Living in My Limousine' but I didn't like it; I thought it too much of a compromise. I took it to them and said, 'Here's the only commercial song you'll get.' They said it wasn't obvious enough, that it should be more banal. So I wrote 'Banal,' which is about using all these musical clichés and hating them. They were delighted: it sounded so commercial, but it had a subversive message. Unfortunately, when it came to being played on the radio [as a single preceding the album release] we were told programmers didn't like its air of cynicism. "
Nelson didn't have control of the tracks selected for Quit Dreaming, nor their order. He is disappointed that "Banal" and "Limousine" were picked to open the album, not to mention that the latter is even on it. Also, for thematic and/or stylistic reasons, "Do You Dream in Colour" was to have been left off the EMI LP; it appears here, evidently on the strength of its relative accessibility.
As a whole, however, there's plenty to explore on this record-which, to be fair, should be viewed as a transitional work. "Disposable" and "U.H.F." are commendably quirky experiments; "Banal" is wonderfully danceable satire; "A Kind of Loving" (if UK Mercury were smart enough to release it as a single) could be a distinctive yet quintessentially pop hit that most bands would give their eye-teeth for. The playing, almost all of it by Nelson, is excellent.
"This was going to be released as by Bill Nelson's Red Noise, which was never a permanent band in the first place; the idea behind it was a catchall name for something that would be flexible and change. I wanted to do this one by myself, basically. My brother Ian played some saxophone, and on 'Disposable' there's the original Red Noise line-up: myself, Ian, Ricky Ford on bass, Andy Clark [ex-Be-Bop Deluxe on keyboards] and Steven Peer-from the New Jersey band, TV Toy-on drums. But the rest is me.
"Although I was doing the album myself, I was keeping the old line-up on retainer so it would become a fixture but because we were going to tour right after the record came out. When I was dropped I had to let them go." Two years later, only brother Ian could be recruited for the English and US tours. "Andy Clark is doing TV jingles these days and his schedule wouldn't let him do all of both tours. We only had about eight days to put together the touring band; luckily, with two days left, we got Don Snow [of the Sinceros] to handle keyboards and synthesizers." Alan Quinn, a longtime Yorkshire chum of Nelson's, played bass, and Fingerprintz drummer Bogdan Wiczling (a.k.a. Bob Schilling) completed the line-up.
'In my heart of hearts I didn't really want to tour. I wanted them to put me back in the studio. But this is to reestablish what I'm doing, so record companies can see me here-and, really, it's for the fans. It's been three years since I last toured here."
Nelson is concerned that his fans might not get what they expect; his most recent records have not been widely imported until now, and he thought the reaction in Boston (the first date) indicated some disappointment. In New York, though-despite odd shouts of "Yay! Be-Bop! "-the crowd at a well-filled Youthanasia club seemed extremely receptive.
The live set opens with an improvisation over tape before going on to material from Sound on Sound-and Quit Dreaming. In New York Nelson even threw in a stunning new tune, "Eros Arriving," which should be on his next album. But no Be-Bop tunes. Nelson humbly thanks the audience and says he hopes he'll be back for a tour with only his tapes. Backstage Nelson sheds his performing togs-on again with the purple framed glasses-and speaks graciously to all well-wishers.
What's next? There are some side projects Nelson would love to get to-such as scoring the Yorkshire Actors Company stage adaptation of the German silent-film classic, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
"I thought they'd wanted incidental music, but, as it turned out they wanted it continuously. I went to rehearsals for a couple of weeks with a stop-watch and wrote it sequence by sequence. It's very much expressionistic music in the spirit of the play, enhancing it without heavy rhythms. For some English tour dates, instead of a band we had them doing a condensed version of the production as our opening act-which went down surprisingly well. The music wasn't written to stand on its own but some of it does, and I'd like to put out an album of selections on Cocteau. I'm also working with Richard Jobson of the Skids; I'd like to put an album out of his poetry on Cocteau. Neither Virgin [the Skids' label] or Mercury like these things, commercially anyway, but they have exclusive contracts with Richard and myself. Still, there are ways around that, like guaranteeing them some money."
Tour conflicts got in the way of Nelson overseeing Orchestral Manoeuvres' next LP; he had to scrub an appointment to play guitar and talk production with Japan for similar reasons. He is pleased with his work for Last Man in Europe and A Flock of Seagulls, whose debut 45s he produced for his own label. As he found out when he met the Skids, Nelson is something of an idol to younger, new wave musicians who-ironically made Be-Bop Deluxe sound rather antediluvian. (Skids guitarist Stuart Adamson proudly showed Nelson a song list he'd ripped off the stage after a Be-Bop gig.) He is atypically evasive, though, when asked who or what influenced his own change of direction.
"It was very much the same progression of ideas going on in other people's minds at about the same time," he says after a pause. "In fact, a lot of the 'avant-garde' rock bands aren't doing anything new; they're just seeing the '60s in a different light. I grew up when it was originally happening, and was in local bands. I also have, um, the curse of an art college education-those are sort of dirty words in England these days and was involved in all sorts of things: multi-media events, writing an electronic score for lbsen's Peer Gynt. I didn't have a synthesizer but used a prepared guitar, threading nails through the strings-John Cage's piano ideas on guitar. I still had that taste in Be-Bop but the environment wasn't right, and we moved more toward the idea of selling records. Now the environment's more open and I can do it instead of talk about it-or get talked out of it by my manager. "
Still shaking off the shock of sudden success after two years of suspended animation, Nelson is plowing ahead. "I feel rather strange trying to invest [Quit Dreaming's] songs with fresh emotion, as if I'd recently done them. Just before I went on tour I was in the studio working a little on the next album. I had this great scheme to use synthesized percussion and a normal drummer, two bass players-one with a six-string, a violin and no electric guitar, just acoustic. It would have an oriental flavor. I don't know how it's going to turn out, but I don't want to copy Quit Dreaming. "
What more can you do but wish Bill Nelson luck in sorting it all out? Nothing, except hope he doesn't quit dreaming now that he is back on the beam, and can release his ideas again.
back to the interview main page