Bill Nelson

TrackAlbum/Single
THE MERCURY YEARS
(1981-83)
Do You Dream In Colour?Cocteau Records COQ 1
Youth Of Nation On FireMercury WILL 22
Quit Dreaming
And Get On The Beam
Quit Dreaming ...
Empire Of The SensesThe Love That Whirls
Flaming DesireThe Love That Whirls
When Your Dream Of
Perfect Beauty Becomes Reality
The Love That Whirls
The October ManThe Love That Whirls
Glow WorldChimera
Another Day,
Another Ray Of Hope
Chimera
Hard Facts From
The Fiction Department
Cocteau Records COQ 15 B-side
THE LATER YEARS
(1983 onwards)
Deeply DazzledAfter The Satellite Sings
My World SpinsAtom Shop
The Ocean, The Night
And The Big, Big, Wheel
The Alchemical Adventures
Of Sailor Bill
The Invisible Man
And The Unforgettable Girl
Blue Moons & Laughing Guitars
The Spirit Cannot FailChance Encounters
In The Garden Of Lights
One Man's Fetish
Is Another Man's Faith
Iconography
The Wheel Of Fortune
And The Hand Of Fate
Map Of Dreams
Spinning PlanetPractically Wired ...
Times Of Our LivesSatellite Songs
The Celestial BridegroomSummer Of God's Piano

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Contributors: Rob Morgan & David G. Shaw

Was it John Peel or Max Headroom who introduced me to the music of Bill Nelson around 1985? On the one hand a venerated and venerable broadcaster with a legendary reputation, on the other hand a (supposedly) computer generated stuttering talking head. But the first two Bill Nelson songs I heard via these two outlets bookend this particular Toppermost.

Now before I proceed any further I should point out a few caveats on this piece. I have deliberately chosen my Topper Ten from one period of Nelson’s long and extremely prolific career – the early 80s era when he issued three albums on Mercury Records. The reason for this is two-fold. Firstly, this is his most well known solo material, as it was the most well promoted; his singles of this time grazing the charts. Secondly, this era was also when his music most closely resembled contemporary pop music – a casual listener would just assume this was typical early 80s electro pop. However there was so much more than that, not only within Nelson’s music from the period but also to Nelson’s music, full stop.

While I am concentrating on the three Mercury albums, my colleague, David Shaw, will be providing a less specific assessment of Nelson’s solo career and picking some nuggets from over seventy solo albums.

So, back to John Peel and Max Headroom. It was Peel who played Hard Facts From The Fiction Department on his radio show around 1985, it was the B-side of Nelson’s Acceleration single from the previous year and I loved the minimal music – harsh Roland TR808 beats, sharp synth chords and bass, some marimba melodies and a barrage of voice snippets, almost all American, having some perverse logic in how they progress and relate to each other. In the pre-sampling days it sounded amazing, and very time consuming. Around the same time the Max Headroom show played the video for Do You Dream In Colour? and I was fascinated by the peculiar visuals, the masks, the man playing a Minimoog like an accordian, and the song as well – the jaunty, yet arty, post punk music. These two occurrences sent me scurrying in the direction of second-hand record shops because, frankly, most record shops around Cardiff wouldn’t have known Bill Nelson if he’d turned up on their doorstep. Amazingly I bought his three Mercury albums within a two month period, and even in the order they were released, so I could experience the growth and development of his music in real time.

But before I dive into these albums, a little history and explanation. Nelson came to the attention of the music world in the early 70s through his groundbreaking independent album release Northern Dream before forming Be Bop Deluxe and signing to Harvest Records in 1974 (see previous Toppermost #161 on BBD). Between ˈ74 and ˈ78, Be Bop Deluxe released a string of intriguing and frequently brilliant rock albums, starting out glam and flash and heavy but moving towards a more sophisticated form of pop music as the years (and fashions) changed. Nelson was always the leader, the singer, the guitar hero and it was his vision that led the band. However by 1978’s Drastic Plastic, the music world was changing and Be Bop Deluxe were seen as old hat and past it, maaan. Nelson finished that group and formed a new band, Bill Nelson’s Red Noise who made a peculiar album Sound-On-Sound in 1979 – it was almost new wave but with an avant-garde sensibility. However EMI didn’t like it and dropped Nelson during a purge in late ˈ79 (this would also be the official reason for Wire leaving Harvest, incidentally).

At this point Nelson had written and recorded most of the second Red Noise album but had no way of distributing it. Seeing how other post punk bands were setting up their own independent labels, Nelson created Cocteau Records and issued Do You Dream In Colour? in the summer of 1980, alongside the eyecatching video. Even as an independently distributed single, it reached number 52 in the charts which was quite impressive. But the recorded album mentioned on the sleeve note of the single remained in limbo until Mercury boss David Bates bumped into Nelson while they were both in Rockfield Studios in South Wales. Bates expressed an interest in hearing the album and after many negotiations Quit Dreaming And Get On The Beam was issued on Mercury in the spring of 1981, almost eighteen months after it had been completed.

Quit Dreaming is an album which is sonically date stamped “late seventies”. The drum sound Bowie and Tony Visconti had created during the Berlin Trilogy is applied here; the keyboards are clearly analogue and played by hand rather than machine, half the songs sound like new wave with a rock sensibility (Disposable, Banal, A Kind Of Loving) but the more adventurous electronic music points to a future and fitted in well with the contemporary electro pop scene. There are oriental tinges to the music, songs like Life Runs Out Like Sand and Youth Of Nation On Fire are based around primitive drum machines and synths and show Nelson toying with the possibilities of the new technology. Best of all the closing title track – hissing drum box in swinging waltz mode, cascading synth lines and a declamatory vocal from Nelson – sounds like a missing soundtrack to some late 70s BBC Schools TV show. The album on the whole is like a dictionary of late seventies styles, twelve possible ways forward for Nelson and pop. Nelson was still prolific though – all four singles released from the album had three B-sides, and initial copies of the album had a bonus album Sounding The Ritual Echo, a collection of 4-track home studio instrumentals, primitive but fascinating.

His next album would be more solo in nature and execution. If Quit Dreaming was the sound of the late seventies, then The Love That Whirls (Diary Of A Thinking Heart) would be the sound of the eighties. Gone were the acoustic drums and electric bass, the rhythm guitar was banished too, any electric guitar solos would be processed and often played with an Ebow, creating endless sustaining notes, a distinctive sound. Gone too were any additional musicians other than Bill’s brother Ian on sax. But if those instruments were abolished, they were replaced by chirping drum machines (the then new Roland TR808 mostly) and highly sequenced synthesisers, aided by propulsive marimba patterns. Oddly, the use of the high profile TR808 makes the album sound timeless, yet still grounded in the early 80s. (The techno act Fluke sampled two rhythm loops from this LP on Life Support from their excellent LP Six Wheels On My Wagon in 1993 and they sounded absolutely perfect there). This was highly rhythmic music, highly danceable music, and even if it was machine generated it was also emotional music.

The album comes across as a suite about love and how it can affect someone. Clearly, Bill Nelson was inspired by his then wife Jan (hence the song Portrait Of Jan With Flowers) and the songs feel smitten, richly textured, heartfelt, passionate … This isn’t a chaste vision of love, gazing at the adored one, this is a living breathing lustful open hearted record – or to use one of the song titles, it is Eros Rising. The music may sound clinical and synthetic but the human emotions are clear as daylight. Opener Empire Of The Senses sets the scene, the 808 thumps, sequencers chatter in syncopated harmony, marimbas beat a melodic tattoo, and Nelson sings passionately about a love that can free prisoners. Single Flaming Desire soars, the melodies overlapping as “Love turns to lust, ice into fire”, more layers are added until the song is overloaded with sound and noise in a heavenly climax. When Your Dream Of Perfect Beauty Becomes Reality is a throbbing pulsating beauty, a simple instrumental theme building over time, insistent and urgent. The album closer The October Man sees a return to a more normal band format – acoustic drums, Nelson’s crashing rhythm guitar at the forefront, but it is a valedictory song – “I am the October Man. I work for no-one” – and there are more passionate words and finally Nelson allows his lead guitar to rise through the song and express his emotions in sound. The entire album is a long time favourite of mine, one I have listened to thousands of times in the past twenty nine years and I still find it rewarding, exhilarating, thrilling.

Nelson was clearly on a roll and as prolific as ever – early copies of The Love That Whirls included music he had recorded for a Yorkshire Playhouse production of “Beauty And The Beast”, and there were numerous B-sides again. Nelson was also running Cocteau Records as a sideline, there to issue idiosyncratic pop and experimental music by Nelson and others – he issued early singles by A Flock Of Seagulls and Fiat Lux for instance.

Meanwhile in early 1983 Mercury issued a six song mini LP with new Nelson music. Chimera was another step forward from The Love That Whirls and allows other humans back into the music. Yellow Magic Orchestra percussionist Yukihiro Takahashi provides drums on four songs, while Mick Karn’s distinctive fretless bass is smeared all over one song. The mini LP is not quite as lustful as its predecessor, but the songs work well as a suite. Acceleration – a single issued on Cocteau after the fact – was a perfect electro pop vehicle. Every Day Feels Like Another New Drug is a fast paced treaty on the speed of modern living, featuring cut up TV and radio broadcast snippets at its close. Glow World is sultry and exotic – Karn’s bass becoming almost a lead instrument within the song. Another Day, Another Ray Of Hope is a suitably epic album closer, fading in on a halo of sustaining guitar notes before the life affirming melodies take over, though there is an ‘end of the affair’ feeling within the song, a faint hint of melancholy – “How can we hold on to tomorrow?” Nelson asks in the chorus, as summer turns to autumn. Beautiful, yet heartbreaking, with a soaring coda to fade.

Chimera would be the last record Bill Nelson issued on Mercury, there were fallings out behind the scenes and a major label could never truly keep up with such a prodigious talent as his. His music was never compromised by being on a major label, but it did give him the profile to continue as a solo artist on his own Cocteau Records, issuing numerous singles, albums and box sets to the faithful few. The second-hand record shop in Cardiff ended up selling me a lot of his music – even four album boxed sets like Trial By Intimacy (The Book Splendours) – so there must have been another fan in South Wales who was passing on his collection.

I must admit I lost track of his work after Channel Light Vessel in the mid 90s so David’s Toppermost (see below … ed.) will be a voyage of discovery for me.

Bill Nelson continues to record and release music and the rise of the internet has made being a self contained unit more viable in reaching his audience. Long may he continue.

Rob Morgan

 

The signs were there if you chose to notice: Bill Nelson’s real adventure began with the conclusion of his contract with Mercury. Sounding The Ritual Echo (Atmospheres For Dreaming) and La Belle Et La Bête were released as bonus discs (with Quit Dreaming and The Love That Whirls respectively), featuring ambient instrumentals and film scores. With the exceptions of some songwriting for David Sylvian (on Gone To Earth) and a brief stint with “ambient supergroup” Channel Light Vessel, Nelson would release more than 70 records in the next 30 years, using those early experiments as blueprints.

Many releases – those with vocals or electric guitar – were hailed as a “return to form” but after all this time what is Bill Nelson’s true form? Is he a sculptor of ambient soundscapes, an electronica experimentalist, or an axe victim guitar hero? Fortunately for us he’s all three and more. Taken as a whole, Neslon’s post-Mercury solo career is a stream of consciousness document that he describes as “what I do behind closed doors”.

His work goes in and out of print at regular intervals, but most of it is available from his own web site, Bandcamp, or from the annual Nelsonica conventions organized by fans. The tracks listed here should be considered as starting points, but two are from essential releases: After The Satellite Sings is Nelson’s flirtation with drum and bass, credited as a major influence on David Bowie’s Earthling by guitarist Reeves Gabrels. Chance Encounters In The Garden Of Lights is his ambient masterwork, “the consolidation of several years of musical and philosophical practice”. A representative track is listed here, but the work should be listened to in its entirety.

Where to begin? Start anywhere, and sample frequently. Your curiosity will be rewarded – it’s a fair exchange.

David G. Shaw

 

We are indebted to David for uploading his entire toppermost of Bill Nelson tracks to his YouTube channel, see below … Ed.

Deeply Dazzled
After the Satellite Sings (1996)

My World Spins
Atom Shop (1998)

The Ocean, The Night And The Big, Big, Wheel
The Alchemical Adventures Of Sailor Bill (2005)

The Invisible Man And The Unforgettable Girl
Blue Moons & Laughing Guitars (1992)

The Spirit Cannot Fail
Chance Encounters In The Garden Of Lights (1987)

One Man’s Fetish Is Another Man’s Faith
Iconography (1986)

The Wheel Of Fortune And The Hand Of Fate
Map Of Dreams (1987)

Spinning Planet
Practically Wired or How I Became … Guitarboy! (1995)

Times Of Our Lives
Satellite Songs (2004)

The Boy Who Learned Everything
Whistling While the World Turns (2000)

 

Welcome To Dreamsville: The Bill Nelson Website

Bill Nelson’s music on Bandcamp

Bill Nelson Discography on Discogs

Bill Nelson – 40 Years Of Recordings (YouTube interview)

Bill Nelson’s Holyground Recordings 1968-72

Be Bop Deluxe Toppermost #161

Bill Nelson biography (iTunes)

Rob Morgan writes about the music he loves at his website, A Goldfish Called Regret. He is a regular contributor to Toppermost.

David G. Shaw used to write about music a lot. Then he started cooking and blogging about cooking. Now it seems he’s writing about music again.

TopperPost #457

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