From hippie folk singer to awesome rock guitarist to high-tech art-adventurer to unstoppable instrumental noodler, Bill Nelson’s musical career, now spanning two decades, has consistently shown style, character and exemplary attention to quality — as well as unrestrained indulgent excess. Beginning with a homemade solo album released by a local Yorkshire record store through a six-album stint leading the hard-rocking but intelligent Be-Bop Deluxe then the short-lived experimental Red Noise and finally as a wholly independent solo act (again), Nelson has made lots of brilliant music, and has also worked with some of the most interesting purveyors of modern sounds, producing and playing on numerous records.
Northern Dream is a lovely amateur work, mixing some electric lead guitar with a melodic folk sense — sort of early Neil Young with an English accent. Very impressive, given the circumstances, and not without genuine merit. Northern Dream led to the glam- inflected Be-Bop Deluxe and a major-label contract; that band succumbed to audience expectations and business problems, becoming an unfortunate symbol of guitar showboating and retarded creative development.
Nelson launched Red Noise after the dissolution of Be- Bop, which had forced him into the confining role of guitar pyrotechnician. Retaining Be-Bop’s keyboard player but outlawing guitar solos, Nelson attacked the future with gusto, drawing together lyrical modernism and subtly infiltrated synthetic sounds. Only the songs are the weak link — despite good ideas, some are half-formed and not up to his usual standards. Sound-on-Sound has its moments, but is essentially a work in progress.
Also in progress during Red Noise’s brief existence was Nelson’s solo work. Although not issued until 1981, Quit Dreaming and Get on the Beam was recorded, piecemeal, at various times and places in early 1979. Unaccompanied save for his brother Ian on sax (and all of Red Noise on one cut), Nelson relieved the selfconsciousness of Red Noise’s technocracy with more varied subjects and styles. There are more keyboards, but his avoidance of guitar is less forced, and there’s even an old-fashioned solo on one number. Although a little disjointed, Quit Dreaming is a mature record of real substance and style. Included in the first ten thousand copies was a bonus LP, Sounding the Ritual Echo (Atmospheres for Dreaming), which consists of synthesizer/tape instrumental fragments; interesting if unfocused. The fifteen pieces sound like audio sketches for later works.
Das Kabinett (The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari) was written and recorded as the score for a stage presentation by the Yorkshire Actors Company. Released on Nelson’s own label, the record consists of eighteen instrumental pieces, each designed to accompany a particular scene in the story. Although musically stunning, it’s a hard concept for rock fans used to song structure (and words) to grasp.
The Love That Whirls — which also included a bonus record, La Belle et la Bête (Beauty and the Beast), the score for another dramatic production by the same company — was Nelson’s finest work to that point. Preponderantly synthesized and showcasing great songs, it finds him dabbling in a variety of styles — Oriental, techno-pop, dance rock, artsy — all with confidence and success. His most accessible work outside of Be-Bop, it was Nelson’s long-overdue breakthrough, opening many eyes and ears to his talents. (Das Kabinett and La Belle et la Bête were reissued in 1985 as a double-album set and in ’89 as a single CD or cassette.)
The 12-inch Flaming Desire EP consists of an extended version of the title song (an LP track) and five leftovers from the Love That Whirls sessions, some also available on UK 45s.
Chimera is an important release, documenting Nelson’s acknowledged influence by Japan’s Yellow Magic Orchestra, most notably drummer Yukihiro Takahashi, who plays on four of the six tracks. Also joining the previously hermetic artist is (the group) Japan’s bassist, Mick Karn, and others, invigorating dynamic tracks like “Acceleration” and “Glow World.” Again playing a lot of guitar, Nelson is in fine form, singing better than ever and writing strong, fascinating songs in a number of different modes. (All of Chimera wound up on the American Vistamix, joined by four prior creations, including “Flaming Desire” and “Empire of the Senses.”)
Nelson’s next major new album was Getting the Holy Ghost Across (revised, resequenced and issued in the US as On a Blue Wing), ten fully produced numbers ranging in length from under one minute to nearly nine. The sound is vintage Nelson — percolating rhythms, layered synths and guitars, Iain Denby’s prominent bass, passionately cool vocals — and the songs are warmly accessible, with tasteful lyrics and likable melodies; the wiggly synths and hornwork on “Heart and Soul” even forge a faint link to funk. Nelson’s songwriting no longer explores new ground, but he continues to mine the same field with success. Perhaps to mark the time since Be-Bop, “The Hidden Flame” throws a fiery guitar solo amid the keyboards.
Savage Gestures for Charms Sake is a lovely but unessential collection of one-man studio instrumentals. The sumptuously packaged Trial by Intimacy is a boxed set containing four individually titled records (The Summer of God’s Piano, also released on its own, A Catalogue of Obsessions, Pavillions of the Heart and Soul, Chamber of Dreams), all previously unreleased solo instrumentals: ambient pieces, improvisations, experiments, incidental mood music and odds and ends. Over time, all four of the albums saw individual release, at least on tape and compact disc.
The 2fold Aspect of Everything is a two-disc (Eaux d’Artifice and Confessions of a Four-Track Mind) compilation of obscurities: B-sides, remixes, demos and other non-LP matter.
Although Orchestra Arcana is still a strictly one-man Nelson project, the specific idea is to weave doodly instrumentals around found-sound spoken-word matter (or vice versa). Iconography and the dance-beat Optimism are both fine in their way, but their existence suggests that Bill’s been spending too much time watching old movies on the tube.
Created as the soundtrack for a 1987 British television series (talk about finding the right man for a job!), Map of Dreams is a collection of cogent pieces that mix ambience and rhythm into nicely affecting soundscapes that are vaguely scientific in tone.
Nelson made another monumental addition to his canon in 1988 with Chance Encounters in the Garden of Lights, a huge set of meditative instrumentals on two discs, The Book of Inward Conversation and The Angel at the Western Window: 41 short pieces in all. You want more? Get the cassette (49 selections) or the jumbo double CD (63 items!).
The deluge continues. For a modest review of Nelson’s activities since 1979, The Strangest Things dips into the solo records, Red Noise and Orchestra Arcana. Something of a best-of package, Duplex contains one disc of vocal recordings (things like “Acceleration,” “Do You Dream in Colour,” “Contemplation,” etc.) and a platter of instrumentals that includes a few previously unreleased items.
Nelson released a flood of sleepy-time guitar’n’synth records in the ’80s. Even the most devout fans of his prodigious instrumental technique, sophisticated art pretensions or Be-Bop Deluxe could be found comatose, buried under the pressed-plastic mountain and befogged by all the gentle (or not so gentle) atmospheres. By 1989, a ten-year wallpapering effort had produced at least two-dozen albums. Enigma Records, which gamely attempted to keep up with the Englishman’s Cocteau- label issue for a while, piled together some of the period’s significant results and a lot more into The Strangest Things and then got on with other corporate endeavors, like going out of business.
After such limited-edition releases as Demonstrations of Affection, a box containing four CDs and a T-shirt, Nelson returned with the more generally available Blue Moons & Laughing Guitars, released on a Virgin subsidiary. The following year, he made a tentative overture to the real world, helping Roger Eno and Kate St. John on their collaborative album, The Familiar. The threesome then formed a trio, Channel Light Vessel, whose Automatic brings him a few leagues closer to music that doesn’t simply drift along prettily. Meanwhile, his smooth one-man voyage continues: Practically Wired (or how I became…Guitarboy!) is a spry, graceful instrumental work that spans a wide dynamic range, using keyboards and samples to enliven a typically finespun set of guitar-based mood pieces. The piss’n’vinegar techno trip of the opener, “Roses and Rocketships,” demonstrates Nelson’s currency (imagine King Crimson doing jungle) and shows a lot more zest than one has come to expect from him; of course, the album soon succumbs to the swoon. But it remains sonically diverse, and returns often enough with a pulse to stay reasonably invigorating. Welcome back, pilot of the future.