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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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