A Strange Chimera: The Prog/Wave Hybrid pt. 4 – Bill Nelson

All of the musicians discussed earlier in this series began as dyed-in-the-wool Progressive Rock artists who achieved fame in that arena before moving on with the times. Bill Nelson seemed to me to be a not quite ideal fit in the Prog mold. His career defining work with Be Bop Deluxe took much inspiration from David Bowie’s work with Mick Ronson and in Nelson, Be Bop had a frontman who was also an axe god. A cursory glance at the Be Bop Deluxe discography reveals Art Rock tendencies as opposed to what I consider Prog leanings. In a Venn diagram, Art Rock and Prog Rock have some overlap, but not necessarily a whole lot. Nelson has a strong yen for sci-fi kitsch imagery that is about 180 degrees from the pastoral/Tolkien/mystical axis of Prog.

I would offer that Nelson/Be Bop got lumped in with Prog because that was the closest fit available in the mid-70s. There were many intriguing artists that were in the no-man’s land between Prog, Glam, and New Wave. This time period, for me, was as thrilling as the nascent pre-rock era where blues, country and gospel were coalescing to form rock and roll in the early 50s. One could also speak of Doctors Of Madness in the same breath as Be Bop Deluxe. John Leckie produced both acts, tellingly. Tiger Lily, who eventually became Ultravox! would be the last step in a path that moves from Prog to Glam to Punk, and eventually Post-Punk. I maintain that there was a lot of latent New Wave in Nelson, just waiting for an outlet that eventually appeared four years into his career.

Bill Nelson ca. 1975

Bill Nelson ca. 1979 – What a difference four years makes

After disbanding Be Bop Deluxe following their excellent “Drastic Plastic” album of 1978, Nelson went full tilt with his instincts, which were keenly in synch with the ’78-’79 zeitgeist. Nelson was never one for 15 minute Prog opii, and his album as Red Noise sounds like the crazed offspring of DEVO, catapulted up to an even higher state of frenzied enervation! The songs concern themselves with alienation, dissolution of self, emotional distance, political and artistic totalitarianism, with occasional bits of optimism shining through at the thought of the new modern world hurtling toward us at the speed of time. Nelson by this point has deliberately eschewed guitars to the point of minimalism and uses a heavily synthesized palette of sound. Many of these songs feature furious tempos.

Harvest Records | US | LP | 1979 | ST-11931

Nelson also went indie and started his own label, Cocteau Records, to release all of the music he was creating at this time that didn’t slot easily into his solo career. Several albums a year were typical for Nelson at this time. He began nurturing local [Yorkshire] New Wave acts and gave A Flock Of Seagulls and Fiat Lux their first releases on his label. He would score plays and films and he also started his Enoesque series of ambient albums that pursued a more contemplative tact. In 1981, he released “Quit Dreaming And Get On The Beam,” his first album under his own name.

Mercury | UK | LP | 1981 | 6359 055

It is a quirky melange of electro New Wave songcraft that steps down the energy levels considerably from the Red Noise album [he had to]. “Banal” was written when his label “didn’t hear a single” and requested something that was more pedestrian. The ensuing track comes the closest to hitting his old Be Bop stride and it actually made a dent in the UK charts, adding delicious irony. Elsewhere, cuts like “Living In My Limousine” featured percolating synthpop played with clanking roborhythm.  Pure New Wave and nothing else.

Phonogram | UK | LP | 1982 | WHIRL 3

In 1982 Nelson released what I consider to be a high water mark of his career, “The Love That Whirls [Diary of a Thinking Heart].” It is a dense and thrilling blend of synths, rhythm boxes, vibes and the return of some incredible guitar leads. Nelson plays every note, apart from drums and vibraslap on two cuts. Tracks with names like “Empire Of The Senses” and “When Your Dream Of Perfect Beauty Comes True” certainly live up to their evocative titles. It all sounds Post-Punk, but in reality, not a thousand miles away from the late period Be Bop Deluxe sound, which I maintain, was always forward thinking for its time. Following this album Nelson moved to CBS for his next solo album and after that, he released a further 63 albums, many multiple disc sets as he grew ever more artistically restless. If you like Fripp, Eno and Bowie, please try some Bill Nelson. He’s all three in one body.

This little excursion into the hidden Prog roots of Post-Punk will be shelved for now. I would make that topic a blog unto itself, in all candor. I may return to the topic on an occasional basis, but next posting will be a return to New Wave; the fresh new sound of yesterday!

– 30 –

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10 Responses to A Strange Chimera: The Prog/Wave Hybrid pt. 4 – Bill Nelson

  1. jt says:

    “If you like Fripp, Eno and Bowie, please try some Bill Nelson. He’s all three in one body.”

    And judging by that last cover photo, he’s a little Sylvian too!

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      jt – Don’t forget, Sylvian’s “Gone To Earth” featured Fripp and Nelson for a real bit of alternate guitar hero overkill – if you’re me, at least. My mind melted down when I initially found out that both of my favorite guitarists were on that record. So far, it’s the only time that I know of them working on the same project, though I’d doubt that they were both in the same studio simultaneously. In the 90s, Fripp’s DGM label released one of Nelson’s solo albums, [“Atom Shop”] so there must be a mutual admiration society going on there to a degree.

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  2. Brian Ware says:

    Thoroughly enjoyed this whole series. Very well done as always.

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  3. Echorich says:

    I think I will never be able to keep up with Bill Nelson’s output. I have at least 3 double cds, 4 double albums and one 4cd set released opost 1983. I have to agree with your assessment of BeBop Deluxe. Certainly not rolling down the hills of Salisbury or poncing around the court of any Crimson Kings.
    The first two solo albums are great intelligent New Wave – not a bad thing in my mind. Living In My Limousine, Do You Dream In Colour, Flaming Desire, Hope for The Heartbeat and Acceleration are stand out New Wave tracks.
    I will add Chimera and Savage Gestures for Charms Sake as equally good in my mind to the first two solo albums.
    But the two prize possessions of my Nelson catalogue are: Demonstrations of Affections which spans four cd’s and presents short and sharp pop tunes grouped in a loose relation to each other and Chance Encounters in the Garden of Lights which is Nelson in a more meditative, instropsective mode.
    Long gone Enigma Records re-released all the BeBop Deluxe and Red Noise albums at the end of the 80’s and then went bust. They also release a couple of new albums, including Opitmism which I really enjoy.

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      Echorich – I still have the T-shirt that came with the “Demonstrations of Affection” box set! Nelson is amazing. He’s splitting with his wife and cranks out a 4xCD boxed set to get his feelings down on it! “Blue Moons and Laughing Guitars” is highly recommended. Apparently it was his demos for a mooted Be Bop Deluxe reunion that never happened. High caliber stuff and all in his usual 2-3 hours from idea to final mix style.

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      • Echorich says:

        That reunion would have been wonderful as Ian Nelson would have featured large in it!

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        • postpunkmonk says:

          Echorich – True! So sad about Ian’s sudden passing. And as for Andy Clark, his synths on “Scary Monsters [And Super Creeps]” were fantastic. He has some other credits here and there but the only thing I can see he released after Be-Bop under his own name were albums of library music! Charles Tumahai died even younger in 1995.

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  4. Frankey says:

    Aren’t Be Bop Deluxe’s “Sunburst Finish” and “Modern Music” prog albums? His bluesy style is comparable with David Gilmour’s.

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      Frankey – Welcome to the comments! I have owned copies of both of those albums on LP ever since, um, 23 years ago, but being LPs I have never played them. They were recently sold off last year, so I can’t hear them now! I can’t say that I have ever thought of David Gilmour when listening to Bill Nelson, but it’s true I have not heard his earliest material. There is a Be-Bop Deluxe boxed set that is on my want list. Who knows when I will actually buy it, though.

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