MODERN MUSIC Bill Nelson

From prog-glam kings Be-Bop
Deluxe and experimental forays with Red Noise and Orchestra Arcana to an
impressive solo career, the guitarist never stays still.

 

BY REV.
KEITH A. GORDON

 

One of the
best things to come about in the wake of the Internet isn’t the availability of
free music, it’s the increased availability of music, period… and for a
hardcore rock ‘n’ roll geek like the Reverend, jus’ trying to get his
collector’s groove on, it’s been a godsend! Back in the dark ol’ pre-net daze,
pinheads like yours truly had to thumb through well-worn back issue copies of
music zines like Trouser Press, Creem, and Bomp! to finger hard-to-find albums from such far-flung locales as Canada
and England to lust after.

 

If you
were lucky, as I was for a short while, you lived near a collectors-oriented
record establishment like Dearborn Music that stocked a healthy bunch of import
singles and elpees; or maybe you had a monthly record show in town where you
could put down your hard-earned coin on that limited edition 10″ Clash EP
or Italian Kate Bush 45 with the alternative studio version of “Wuthering
Heights.” Otherwise, the demented rockist had to depend on wee mail order companies
that advertised in the back pages of the aforementioned publications to carry
that one shining stack ‘o wax that you coveted. You would send a postal money
order off to the advertiser and ask for a copy of THAT record for your
slow-growing but oh-so-cool record collection, waiting patiently by the mail
box for an official government employee to deliver your fab new tunes…

 

The
Internet has rendered much of that dance moot, providing the
hunter/gatherer/hoarder with abundant opportunities to find just about any
recording ever made. It’s also made the acquisition of formerly difficult
import albums as easy as clicking a mouse on the right website. Case in point –
Bill Nelson’s Recorded Live In Concert At
Metropolis Studios, London
(Convexe Entertainment) is a lush, deluxe set
with two CDs and a DVD documenting an intimate, invitation-only March 2011
concert by Nelson and his band the Gentlemen Rocketeers. Nelson is a British
artist, caught on film and tape in London, the album released by a Canadian
record label, and available through the magic of the Internet for we rabid fans
in the U.S. and elsewhere. For a diehard, lifelong rock ‘n’ roll fanatic, could
life get any better?

 

 

 

 

 

Bill
Nelson is a singular talent who has forged an amazing, albeit unique career
that has spanned four decades now. He is best-known, perhaps, as the singer,
songwriter, and guitarist for mid-1970s U.K. glam-metal band Be-Bop Deluxe.
Formed at the height of England’s glam-rock craze, Be-Bop Deluxe was more like
Mott the Hoople in that they transcended glam to deliver five studio (and a
live) albums of guitar-driven, proto-metal pop-rock tunes that served as a
showcase for Nelson’s intricate guitar textures. After the demise of Be-Bop
Deluxe, Nelson dawdled for a while with the experimental band Red Noise,
eschewed the guitar entirely in favor of electronics for his
frequently-misunderstood Orchestra Arcana, and quietly pieced together an
impressive and prolific solo career that, while resulting in few commercial “hits”
has nonetheless resulted in over 40 recordings that have earned the
multi-instrumentalist a loyal following.

 

For the
long-time Bill Nelson fan, Recorded Live
In Concert At Metropolis Studios, London
is a necessary addition to the ol’ collection. The fourteen-track setlist
on CD one spans nearly the entirety of Nelson’s lengthy career, including solo
songs, a little Red Noise, and a handful of Be-Bop Deluxe favorites, all recorded
with a full band that includes flautist/saxophonist Theo Travis (Gong). The
second CD is a good bit shorter, presenting a four-song solo acoustic
“warm up” set that Nelson performed for the assembled crowd,
including songs dedicated to his brother Ian (“A Dream For Ian”) who
played with Nelson in Red Noise, and one for his friend Stuart Adamson
(“For Stuart”) of Scottish rockers Big Country.

 

Recorded Live In Concert At Metropolis Studios,
London
starts
with “October Man,” from what was probably the closest that Nelson
ever came to a hit album, 1982’s The Love
That Whirls
. An engaging slice of new wave romanticism, the song reminds of
Simple Minds or similar 1980s-era fare, with Goth-tinged vocals, mournful horn
solos, doodling keyboards and synths, and shards of angular guitars. The song
has surprisingly dated fairly well, unburdened by the period clichés that hang
like an albatross around the neck of a lot of the decade’s early musical
experiments. It doesn’t take Nelson long to jump into the Be-Bop material,
though, beginning with “Night Creatures,” a somber mid-tempo dirge
from the band’s 1974 debut Axe Victim.
Sounding more than a little like David Bowie in both his vocal phrasing and in
the songwriting, the song’s lush, swirling instrumentation serves to embrace
and frame the lyrics nicely.

 

Switching
gears, Nelson launches into the fluid 1992 solo track “God Man
Slain,” which oddly evokes late-period Bowie, but with a deceptive energy and zeal driving Nelson’s hypnotic
fretwork and Travis’ random, soulful blasts of sax. By the time that Nelson
returns from his solo trip to vintage Be-Bop fare, the audience is fully
engaged, and the guitarist straps on his faithful Gibson ES-345, the same
instrument he used on stage and to record with Be-Bop. “Adventures In A
Yorkshire Landscape,” also from the band’s debut, is a sumptuous musical showcase that displays not only
Nelson’s immense six-string skills, but those of the Gentlemen Rocketeers as
well, the band erecting a magnificent instrumental backdrop against which
Nelson embroiders his complex, elegant patterns. Travis’s nuanced flute solo
colors the instrumental passages and remind of jazz legend Herbie Mann.

 

The
short-lived Red Noise period is represented by a pair of fine tunes,
“Furniture Music” and “Do You Dream In Colour,” both of
which fall on the edgier side of late 1970s era new wave. The former is a
martial, up-tempo construct with forceful, riffish instrumentation, and
machinegun vocals – kind of like Gary Numan with less synths, bigger drum
sounds, and tangled strands of wiry guitar. The latter opens with an
oscillating synth buzz before devolving into an almost popish syncopated rhythm
that reminds of Talking Heads, Nelson’s oddball vocals surrounded by electronic
dots and dashes. Some of my personal Be-Bop favorites come from the band’s 1975
sophomore album Futurama, with which
Nelson took a decidedly left-hand turn towards progressive-rock territory.

 

Evidently
dissatisfied with the outcome of Axe
Victim
, Nelson fired everybody and got new musicians for Futurama, changing the band’s sound
immensely. While critics at the time questioned the prog-rock tendencies of Futurama, the album’s best songs evince
a sort of prototype pop-metal songwriting and performance that would influence
the coming “New Wave of British Heavy Metal” bands. The larger-than-life
“Maid In Heaven” offers up some of Nelson’s most inspired guitarplay,
the song’s memorable riff and infectious melody matched by sing-a-long lyrics
and the guitarist’s great tone and energy. By contrast, “Sister
Seagull” is a hauntingly beautiful performance with cascading
instrumentation, judicious use of a melodic riff, and Nelson’s high-flying
solos. Performed beautifully here, the song’s emotional lyrics are made all the
more poignant by the powerful musical accompaniment, including the crying
seagull guitar licks at the end.

 

As
satisfying as the full-band performances may be, the four-song instrumental set
provided by Nelson on the second disc is just as impressive. The shimmering
guitarplay featured on “Beyond These Clouds The Sweetest Dream” is
stunning in its scope and execution, while “Golden Dream Of Circus
Horses” is just as powerful. The guitarist is accompanied on this one by
Theo Travis, whose ethereal flute and saxophone flourishes meld perfectly with
Nelson’s exotic fretwork in providing a solid example of the artist’s
flirtation with a jazz-rock fusion sound. Nelson is accompanied on the two
aforementioned tribute songs by a pre-recorded, almost orchestral soundtrack on
synthesizer or a synclavier, but his live-wire guitar playing on both is simply
sublime, the guitarist delivering pure emotion through his fingertips. The DVD
part of the set includes a multi-camera shoot of both the full band and solo
performances, and the sound on all of the discs is near-perfect, benefiting
from the small studio venue and Nelson’s firm hand in overseeing the final mix.     

 

Listening
to Bill Nelson is a lot like trying to tell a stranger about rock ‘n’ roll… the
man’s lifetime of music-making is far too intricate, varied, and uniquely
personal to nail down firmly for more than a brief moment. Words fail in trying
to describe the instrumental virtuosity and diverse artistic vision displayed
by Nelson throughout 40 years and as many recordings. The man makes music that
is at once both frequently challenging and enormously entertaining, and Recorded Live In Concert At Metropolis
Studios, London
offers not only a career-spanning musical introduction to a
one-of-a-kind artist, but also a rare visual document of Nelson’s talents. For
fans, this one is a no-brainer, while the curious newbie will certainly fall
head-over-heels after checking out the album.

 

Leave a Reply