CD REVIEW – Bill Nelson’s Red Noise – Art Empire Industry

It’s about time. It’s about time Bill Nelson’s work was recognised – not the under-appreciated, excellent Be Bop Deluxe, but the under the radar Red Noise concept and band. So, finally here, for our delectation and delight, is a 6 disc boxed set of the complete recordings of Bill Nelson’s Red Noise! 4 CDs: the remastered album “Sound on Sound” plus extras including home demos and session tracks, a 5.1 surround sound version, and new stereo mixes by Stephen W Tayler, together with a previously unreleased concert from February 1979 in Leicester. And then, on video, we get promo videos and an Old Grey Whistle Test session. And to boot, a well-illustrated book written by Bill and endorsed by Steven Wilson. My cup runneth over!

To the uninitiated, a bit of history…..Be Bop Deluxe had been going for a while, doing well, with acclaim if not fame for albums such as Modern Music, and even featured on Alan Freeman’s playlists from time to time to my delight. But Bill was restless. Disillusioned with the regimented routines of the band’s touring commitments and its increasing commercial success, he wasn’t particularly comfortable being pigeon-holed as a ‘guitar hero,’ though he understood that it was part of the band’s appeal (check out the live ‘Adventures in a Yorkshire Landscape’ to hear his talent). The pressure to stick with what seemed like a winning formula was creatively limiting at the time and Bill wanted to shake things up a little, keep moving and not stagnate. The desire for a change of direction was becoming stronger in the heady excitement of musical change that was 1979, with punk, new wave and other creative and artistic changes all in the mix. No surprise really then that Bill felt that Be Bop Deluxe had run its course. But he did make another album with them.

“Drastic Plastic”, little did we know it laid the foundations for the Red Noise project, with tracks featuring a newly acquired Hagstrom Patch 2000 synthesiser guitar and also tape loops. Drums were sometimes mixed through fuzz boxes and one track had spoken word cut up lyrics. Several of the songs were written using a Moog synth as a starting point and the album had a slightly ‘futuristic’ atmosphere. It unsettled some fans that were comfortable in their ’70’s prog zone, but it was definitely a sign of what was to come. And whilst on tour for this album, Bill was planning his next project…..

…a band with a flexible line-up, a band that could change shape with each album, a band with a strong visual identity (initially a mock Chinese military look: Mao style suits with a large red circle on the jacket’s breast – see pic). Short, cropped haircuts were adopted, and Bill’s only compromise at the insistence of EMI was his name be put into the band’s title. An attempt to keep the Be Bop Deluxe fans on board methinks.

As the album “Sound-On-Sound” began its recording sessions at The Townhouse Studios in London, Bill retained the services of BBD stalwart Andy Clarke to provide a strong keyboard / synth presence. Bass was provided by Rick ‘Pinky’ Ford and Bill’s younger brother Ian came in on alto saxophone and also played secondary keyboard parts. Bill had drummed on the demos and his rudimentary style was deemed by him and producer John Leckie (with Haydn Bendall in support) to suit the songs, using basic mike techniques to keep the raw, edgy sound. That said, a couple of tracks required something much more accomplished in the drumming department. Bill invited Dave Mattacks in to support (check out “Revolt into Style”). Live, the band was joined by Steve Peer, originally an American BBD fan who Bill met while on tour and who shared a cassette with him! (ah, those heady days…..).

I’ll come to the album and music shortly, but it is worth noting that Bill’s progressive thinking and artistic concept was far too ahead of its time for many, fans and record executives alike. In America, BBD had released its albums via Capitol Records, EMI’s ‘sister’ company in the USA. But the advance copy of “Sound-On-Sound” was met with concerns that it would alienate the fans and would have a hard time getting radio play. So, pre-release copies were sent to major radio stations in America to see what DJs thought of it regarding its suitability for airplay. The head of A&R at Capitol at that time was Rupert Perry who Bill says had already voiced the opinion that Bill must have been crazy to create such an album. Writing on the wall, or what? Unsurprisingly the survey returned similar opinions from America’s DJs who, it seemed, didn’t know what to make of it. Comments such as “Too whack-oh for us” and “What is this crap?” were typical of the response. America was not yet ready for Red Noise. So, no American release.

But then things went pear-shaped in the UK too…..EMI Records were taken over by Thorn Lighting Industries, a company that cared little for avant-pop and who quickly stripped the label of artists who were not major commercial propositions, retaining only the mainstream, pop acts. The golden days of EMI’s Harvest label were over. The second Red Noise album, “Quit Dreaming and Get on The Beam” ended up sitting unreleased on EMI’s shelves for a couple of years until eventually being bought by Phonogram where, upon its release, it went Top Ten in the UK album charts. Meantime Bill had launched his own independent Cocteau Records label to release the ‘Do You Dream in Colour?’ single from the Quit Dreaming sessions. And so Red Noise didn’t get the critical acclaim it deserved at the time, nor go onto better things. But that didn’t stop Bill’s prolific musical inventiveness and productivity – but that’s another story.

So what of the music? Well, my 18 year old self was frankly gobsmacked, perturbed and saddened by the seemingly dramatic change in direction, wishing to hark back and dwell on “Futurama”, “Sunburst Finish” or the aforementioned “Modern Music”. That lad tolerated and would eventually come to really like “Drastic Plastic”, as direct as it was in comparison. Today, my 61 year old self wonders what the fuss was all about. It is clear that Bill took the creative and positively challenging choice to evolve his music. It’s also clear that the emergence of Punk followed by New Wave artists, together with influences that Bill had found in the likes of Harold Budd, made a difference. Steven Wilson in his liner notes refers to possible XTC influence, and I get that. There is clear linear linkage from latter BBD to Red Noise; it’s not the musical brick wall that my 18 year old self encountered at the time. It’s progressive – a concept I thought I embraced at the time, but I didn’t realise then how I was far too blinkered in outlook, thinking of prog as one particularly narrow genre of music, not a matter of musical outlook. Bill’s concept and execution, looking back now, is fresh, dynamic, in your face; it’s tight musically and in concept. It’s modern music – in action.

You hear the continuity in things like ‘Don’t Touch Me (I’m electric)’ which has echoes of the last BBD album’s ‘Love in Flames’ and is one of a few with affected vocal style that Bill himself now has slight regrets about – but which suited the song and era attitude. And the quirky, punky ‘Stop Go Stop’ uses a machine gun drum fill last heard in BBD’s ‘Possession’ or earlier in ‘Fair Exchange’. That track is one of a few that are more time-bound than others due to the keys, but it certainly still holds its own. What is great about this re-engagement with Red Noise is hearing the “forgotten” tracks, not just those that have lingered in the memory such as ‘Furniture Music’. Such as the jerkily rocky and amazingly eclectic yet brief ‘Radar in My Heart’, similarly angular keys-led ‘Out of Touch’ or early new romantic flash of ‘Substitute Flesh’. Others such as ‘Stay Young’ do reflect the wider scene of the time, with its touch of Elvis (Costello, not Presley) and Joe Jackson; or ‘The Atom Age’ and it’s art-rock-pop attitude – with one of the rarities on the album – a guitar solo – bliss! ‘A Better Home in the Phantom Zone’ clearly shows the transition from “Drastic Plastic” and, as one of the longer tracks, allows for some great breaks and musical trickiness while displaying its dark simmering anger. The punky son of ‘Blazing Apostles’, perhaps. There’s certainly still an underlying rock element beneath the punkish super-speed of some tracks such as the afore-mentioned ‘Revolt into Style’ or spiky ‘Art Empire Industry’.

And as we move onto album extras. I can understand ‘Wonder Toys that Last Forever’ being left off the album as a Gary Numan-like track that took the album in a slightly different direction. And similarly the country/reggae of ‘Acquitted by Mirrors’ would not fit in, but good on you for the diversity Bill! Session BBC tracks complete the album with well recorded super-intense speedy renditions of several album tracks that show what could and should have been….

Now let’s look at the live Leicester CD. I was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and missed out on this 1979 live feast! It’s in your face, intense, inspiring, and extraordinarily lively; this must have been an extraordinary gig. The quality of recording is great, clear mix, great production and well worth the entrance fee alone. The BBD tracks ‘Possession’ and ‘Superenigmatix’ in the set list are great to hear, and pogo effortlessly into the mix. And those tracks I mentioned earlier as “forgotten” come to life in the live age (geddit?) with the likes of ‘Out of Touch’ amazingly well performed and more vibrant than the studio performance. The ‘Atom Age’ guitar solo is naturally delicious within its angular jazz-punk setting. ‘A Better Home in the Phantom Zone’ becomes even more reminiscent of BBD, ‘Radar in My Heart’ is astonishingly frantic and condensed, ‘Revolt into Style’ and ‘Stay Young’ have Stranglers venom in their bassline and keys riffery, and the encore ‘For Young Moderns’ is a full-on statement of the musical intent, allowing for Bill’s improvisational side to come out first with an eclectic Andy Clark keys solo before his own inspired guitar solo, the rhythm section then driving the improv forward, Bill going all David Byrne in his vocal utterings, before reaching a clattering close.

Whilst I didn’t have access to the full set in this review, it is worth mentioning that the album of new stereo mixes by Stephen W Tayler (check his pedigree – http://www.stephentayler.com/) are excellent. Not just the album tracks, but lost delights like ‘Ideal Homes’, the ska-like ‘Instantly Yours’, the early Roxy/Japan-ishly dreamy ‘My Light’ and early Depeche/Numan of ‘Disposable’, all of which are lengthier songs allowing them time to develop and entice. And Bill’s demos are equally astonishing, whilst not the best quality, but for showing extraordinarily well how far formed his work and revolt in style (yes, I meant that) was. Some tracks such as ‘Acquitted by Mirrors’ did go off in another way (but at least both did feature that fantastic guitar soloing!) and ‘Waiting for the Night’ remained a more BBD-like demo. I am sure the promo videos and an Old Grey Whistle Test session will be equally inspired. Of the rest of the package, the book written by Bill is an absorbing read, and what wise words by Steven Wilson……

I don’t know whether there was mutual awareness between Bill Nelson and David Byrne with his Talking Heads, but the desire for innovation and a quirk, strangeness and charm is fixed in place. Steven Wilson rightly wonders if Bill influenced others such as the Cardiacs. And where did Devo fit into this I wonder? Bill’s quality and ability should definitely have been an influence, such is this new wave masterpiece of intelligent and punchy material. This 6 disc boxed set of the complete recordings of Bill Nelson’s Red Noise is certainly worth the entrance fee. “Sound On Sound” and the subsequent live shows would divide opinion of both fans (like my younger self) and critics, but with the passage of time this album should now be regarded as one of Bill Nelson’s finest works.

Tracklisting:

Disc One: Sound On Sound Remastered
1 Don’t Touch Me (I’m Electric)
2 For Young Moderns
3 Stop / Go / Stop
4 Furniture Music
5 Radar in My Heart
6 Stay Young
7 Out of Touch
8 A Better Home in the Phantom Zone
9 Substitute Flesh
10 The Atom Age
11 Art / Empire / Industry
12 Revolt into Style Bonus tracks
13 Wonder Toys That Last Forever
14 Acquitted by Mirrors (B-side of ‘Furniture Music’ EP)
15 Stay Young (BBC session 17.02.1979)
16 Furniture Music (BBC session 17.02.1979)
17 Don’t Touch Me (I’m Electric) (BBC session
17.02.1979)
18 Out of Touch (BBC session 17.02.1979)

Disc Two: Live At The De Montfort Hall,
Leicester 1979
Previously Unreleased
1 Don’t Touch Me (I’m Electric)(live)
2 For Young Moderns (live)
3 Furniture Music (live)
4 Out of Touch (live)
5 Stop-Go-Stop (live)
6 Atom Age (live)
7 Possession (live)
8 Superenigmatix (live)
9 Substitute Flesh (live)
10 Phantom Zone (live)
11 Radar in My Heart (live)
12 Art / Empire / Industry (live)
13 Revolt into Style (live)
14 Stay Young (live)
15 For Young Moderns (Encore) (live)

Disc Three: Sound On Sound New Stereo Mix
1 Don’t Touch Me (I’m Electric)
2 For Young Moderns
3 Stop / Go / Stop
4 Furniture Music
5 Radar in My Heart
6 Stay Young
7 Out of Touch
8 A Better Home in the Phantom Zone
9 Substitute Flesh
10 The Atom Age
11 Art / Empire / Industry
12 Revolt into Style Bonus tracks
13 Wonder Toys That Last Forever
14 Acquitted by Mirrors
15 My Light (previously unreleased) Recorded
for the “Sound on Sound” sessions
16 Instantly Yours
17 Ideal Homes
18 Disposable

Disc Four: Sound On Sound
96 Khz/24-Bit 5.1 Surround Sound Mix
New Stereo Mix Original Stereo Mix
1 Don’t Touch Me (I’m Electric) (5.1 mix)
2 For Young Moderns (5.1 mix)
3 Stop / Go / Stop (5.1 mix)
4 Furniture Music (5.1 mix)
5 Radar in My Heart (5.1 mix)
6 Stay Young (5.1 mix)
7 Out of Touch (5.1 mix)
8 A Better Home in the Phantom Zone (5.1 mix)
9 Substitute Flesh (5.1 mix)
10 The Atom Age (5.1 mix)
11 Art / Empire / Industry (5.1 mix)
12 Revolt into Style (5.1 mix)

Disc Five Additional Red Noise Sessions
96 Khz/24-Bit 5.1 Surround Sound Mixes
New Stereo Mixes Original Stereo Mixes
1 Wonder Toys That Last Forever (5.1 mix)
2 Acquitted by Mirrors (5.1 mix)
3 My Light (5.1 mix) Recorded for the “Sound on
Sound” sessions
4 Instantly Yours (5.1 mix)
5 Ideal Homes (5.1 mix)
6 Disposable (5.1 mix)
RAK Studios, London May 1979
Video Content
Previously Unreleased
1 Revolt into Style (Promotional video 1979)
2 Don’t Touch Me (I’m Electric) (BBC TV Old Grey
Whistle Test – 1979)
3 Furniture Music (BBC TV Old Grey Whistle Test
1979)
4 Stay Young (BBC TV Old Grey Whistle Test
1979)

Disc Six Bill Nelson Red Noise Demos
1978 – Previously Unreleased
1 Acquitted by Mirrors (demo)
2 For Young Moderns (demo)
3 Stop Go Stop (demo)
4 Furniture Music (demo)
5 Radar in My Heart (demo)
6 Stay Young (demo)
7 Out of Touch (demo)
8 A Better Home in the Phantom Zone
(demo)
9 Substitute Flesh (demo)
10 The Atom Age (demo)
11 Revolt into Style (demo)
12 Waiting for the Night (demo)
13 My Light (demo

Band

Ian Nelson
Bill’s younger brother.  First session was “Ships In The Night”.  Later played in Fiat Lux in the early 80’s and Bolt From The Blue in the early 90’s, and currently the 3D’s.  Also did session work with The Colourfield on their 1985 Virgins and Philistines album. Was to be a member of a new version of Be Bop Deluxe in 1990 but the project never got off the ground.  Ian plays with Moonstone and still teaches college.

Dave Mattacks
Legendary session drummer.  Started out with Fairport Convention, ended up working with tons of people: Sandy Denny, Richard Thompson, Linda Thompson, Spirogyra, John Martyn, Paul Simon, Joan Armatrading, Chris DeBurgh, Phil Manzanera, Kate & Anna McGarrigle, Cat Stevens, Chris Rea, Brian Eno, Peter Green, George Harrison, Paul McCartney, Nick Heyward, Dream Academy, Proclaimers, XTC, etc etc.

Rick Ford
Bass guitarist.  Previously played in Hazel O’Connor’s band.  Later joined Joe Jackson’s band up until 1989’s Blaze of Glory album.  He composes soundtrack music for the entertainment industry in California.

Steve Peer
Drummer. Steve Peer runs an indie record label in Maine, USA called Reversing Recordings.  He is also in a new band called Puzzle Monkey.  Visit their web site at www.puzzlemonkey.com.  Also check out the TV Toy channel (the band Peer was in before Red Noise)

Bill Nelson
Genius. Nuff said.

Internet

Esoteric Records – Bill Nelson’s Red Noise 6 CD set

https://www.billnelson.com/

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.