Record Review: Bill Nelson’s Red Noise – Sound On Sound US CD

bill nelson's red noise sound on sound cover art

Enigma Records ‎| US | CD | 1989 | 7 73384-2

Bill Nelson’s Red Noise: Sound On Sound US CD [1989]

  1. Don’t Touch Me [I’m Electric]
  2. For Young Moderrns
  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
  13. Stay Young [live]
  14. Out Of Touch [live]

Wow! It was early in my first flush of Bill Nelson fandom when I sourced a copy of the US Harvest LP of his “Red Noise” album. I had bought his 7″ boxed set and liked everything in it so I wasted no time in checking out any Nelson albums I ran across. While I felt that the preceding album “Drastic Plastic” that Nelson had made in 1978 as the final Be-Bop Deluxe album was a very tasty slice of forward thinking technopop, nothing could have prepared our 1979 ears for the furious assault that this album represented.

From the first bar of “Don’t Touch Me [I’m Electric],” it was apparent that Nelson was out to deliver as many high-voltage jolts with this enervated music as he possibly could. I suspect that he’d heard the first DEVO album by the time that it came to write a follow up to “Drastic Plastic” after the break-up of Be Bop Deluxe following that album and tour. But this album was at times even more frantic than the Akron spuds. The synth patches here were configured for maximum twitch. Listening to this song really was like licking a 9v battery! Most of the drums here were acoustic and played by Nelson at tempos that made me suspect tape manipulation, but Dave Mattacks also guested on some tracks with a mixture of acoustic and synthetic drums. What was available in that market segment in 1978-79 was pretty bleeding edge!

On the next track, the tempo withdrew to a less frantic pace. “For Young Moderns” was a backward glance to Be-Bop’s art rock roots with a winsome melodic hook on the synths that either Nelson and Andy Clark, the only other carry over from Be-Bop Deluxe, played here. But the guitars were content to chug in a Post-Glam fashion even as the lyrics were ultimately forward thinking New Wave.

About half of the songs here were electro-punk ravers, and “Stop/Go/Stop” was there to whip your spine back into shape following the relative calm of “For Young Moderns.” The melodic structures of so many of these tunes feels like a brutal application of jingle forms amped up with way too many amphetamines. Drums were applied in rigid tattoos so that any dancing would probably lead to spasmodic jerks at most. In short, it’s the sound of an old pro effortlessly meeting [and maybe surpassing] the New Breed at their own game.

red noiswe furniture music cover art“Furniture Music” was Nelson co-opting Satie’s concept to ends that sounded nothing like the proto-ambient sounds of that forward thinker, but instead strongly recalled the influence of TVLKING HEVDS “No Compassion,” right down to the delay on the keyboard hook that slithered through the song. “A Better Home In the Phantom Zone” belied the possible origins of it being a Be-Bop Deluxe song that I put down to the complex, stuttering arrangement here where most of the songs were simple and direct in their execution.

After a few slower tempo songs, the delirious “Art/Empire/Industry” let loose with a savage pummeling that harked back to the opener. The rigid tattoos of the early syndrums by Dave Mattacks made my head feel like a punching bag when I listened to this one. And I think that Nelson was really on to something with his penchant for titling these songs with a thread of single words held together with forward slashes. It reflected the brutal cut-up modernism aesthetic he was striving for perfectly.

red noise revolt into style cover artThen the album ended with the song that my “vanity label” Revolt Into Style, took its name from. Nelson eased up on the twitch factor to take George Melly’s conceit and turn it into a proper pop anthem. This album set a high standard for an established rock star plowing deep into modernism fearlessly. It may be comparable in its time to something like David Bowie making a jungle record with “Earthling” but I have to say that the latter worked in spite of that conceit. But Bill Nelson had no difficulty or embarrassment in plunging far into an electro-punk aesthetic that could be traced back to DEVO, yet somehow managed to equal or better their achievement without breaking into a sweat. His lyrics for these songs were as busy as the music yet had miles of wit to spare. The measure of this 41 year old album’s achievement is the fact that much of this album reflected extremes that were radical for their time and are still radical now.

– 30 –

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18 Responses to Record Review: Bill Nelson’s Red Noise – Sound On Sound US CD

  1. Mel Creighton says:

    Oh yeah. I love this record. It is one of those records that I have more than one copy of in my collection. The music and the lyrics are spellbinding. When I listen to this work, I feel “Out of Touch” as he says on the first song on side two.


  2. Echorich says:

    Yeah Sound On Sound is an underrated classic piece of New Wave brilliance! There are so many times where the New Wave seemed to be a Venn Diagram. Bill Nelson’s entrance into the New Wave arena brought elements of Glam and prog, as well as a bit of the virtuoso into the mix.
    I agree with your assessment that Nelson was well aware of the artists staking their claims in this musical New World and took more than a few cue’s from them. The artists I feel he most reminded me of at the moment was XTC.
    The John Leckie connection can’t be discounted here, as he worked on their earliest singles and first two albums. In retrospect there are even elements of Magazine to be found on Sound On Sound.
    Still one of my favorite pieces of Bill Nelson vinyl among a collection that is literally massive part of my own music collection.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Gerald McBoing-Boing says:

    One of my all-time favorite albums, so good to see someone appreciating Bill these days!

    I called it “spaz rock” at the time and felt it outdid even XTC’s “White Music” for sheer herky-jerkiness.

    Everything Bill did in the 70s and 80s is at least very good but from 79-84 he was *on fire*, and it’s all great including the brilliant ambient stuff found on the “Trials Of Intimacy” box.

    Subsequently, he changed his vocal style around the time of the failed BeBop reunion and I lost interest.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. jsd says:

    I fucking love this album. All of Nelson’s late 70’s/early 80’s vocal stuff is top notch, but this might even be my favorite out of all of it. Still kicks ass all these years on.


  5. Gavin says:

    Great album-I also have various forms of the singles from it.
    I have never been able to get into BBD-believe me I have tried-but have all of Nelson’s 80s work and still love it to bits.
    After “Atom Shop” I am afraid he lost me-just perpetual “noodling” and ever-more preposterous song titles whose whimsy factor went off the scale into parody.
    The “Cocteau” years are the finest for me,but this and “Quit Dreaming..” were great precursors to the synth-based experimental work.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Ade.W says:

    I had seen BBD live around about 74ish supporting Cockney Rebel at the Liverpool Stadium(an old boxing venue). So was a fan from then on. The change of direction that was Electrical Language still gave no indication of the attack of sound on sound. Its a great album, it still sounds great and fresh today, I play it all the time and the B-sides of Furniture Music. As for the 12″ of Revolt into Style, where is the rest of this live set?
    For anyone who hasn’t heard “Bill nelson and the Gentlemen Rocketeers live”, I can heartily recommend.


  7. Yes, a total classic. I was thrilled to find a copy for my nephew last year!


  8. Dirk L Holland says:

    Here’s hoping that the excellent Bebop Deluxe reissues from Esoteric Recordings continue into Bill’s solo work, at least through Getting the Holy Ghost Across…


    • postpunkmonk says:

      Dirk L Holland – Though I admire BBD and have nearly a full set of the late 90s DLX RMs [I still need “Futurama”] I can’t go down the SDLX box for too many artists. I’ve not concerned myself with the BeBopBoxes. I’m pulled towards the Prince canon due to The Vault material being a big selling point that most other artists can’t compete with in terms of Monk-bait®!


      • Dirk L Holland says:

        I feel weakness looking over Sign “☮️“ the Times, but Lovesexy will crumple me for sure…


        • postpunkmonk says:

          Dirk L Holland – I still may make the move for SOTT. I have a few months. Things can happen. If you can believe it, I’ve still not heard “Lovesexy!” I’d like to see just how many of these boxes the Prince Estate would be planning. With dozens of Vault tracks in the periphery, you could probably do this with any of his 80s albums. I’d definitely be there for “Dirty Mind” or “Controversy” but they might not be on the table, owing to the pre-superstar era they inhabit.


  9. Marcus Allsop says:

    Oh nice to read a great review for this superb album ,really belongs in any list of post punk greats but alas is forgotten and damn it the great Wonder Toys That Last Forever is not included in the hard to find reissue. You really captured Bills triumphant risk taking. Quit Dreaming is also ridiculously good and I love that Bill tries EVERY New Wave vocal style on one album!


  10. Steve Peer says:

    Drums & Wires (Episode 4)
    Build “A Better Home In The Phantom Zone.” Hear about the day when classic rock made way for modern pop music with the release of ‘Sound on Sound” by Bill Nelson and his well uniformed band, Red Noise.
    Peter Cook and Steve Peer dissect classic tracks. We look forward to your comments and rectifying our occasional errors in not getting all the facts right in our exuberance!

    Liked by 1 person

    • postpunkmonk says:

      Steve Peer – Welcome to the comments! We just learned about Mr. Peer’s role in playing the live drums for the Red Noise Tour so undoubtedly he has incisive insights to give us on this album! Nelson fans should definitely check it out. Thanks for letting us know. Anyone with a vodcast called “Drums + Wires” is probably right in our comfort zone here at PPM.


  11. Pingback: Want List: Red Noise Boxed Set Posits The Unimaginable Overstimulation Of “Sound on Sound” In Surround Sound | Post-Punk Monk

  12. Pingback: Steve’s Theme Park Offers Tilt-A-Whirl Of Lockdown Rock With “It’s A Global Rock Thing” | Post-Punk Monk

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