+Painting with Guitars
The Dreamy Multiverse of Bill Nelson
"A young boy stands before a
bedroom mirror. In his hands a toy plastic guitar with a picture of Elvis Presley emblazoned
on its front... The boy turns to the mirror and, in its fortunate reflection, sees his own future
fulfilled. At that very moment his dreams are delivered and decoded and the ride to here and
now begins." (Bill Nelson, from the sleeve notes of 'Practically Wired' 1995)
It is not only his natural talent to write and create music which makes Bill Nelson so interesting,
his love of the arts as a whole combines a depth of knowledge and observation that adds a special
authority to everything he does whether it be drawing, writing, painting, video making, photography,
recording or performing. His truly multi dimensional interests are often considered avant garde
or esoteric, but this 'outsider' artist is equally a manipulator of pop aesthetics.
"It's the duality, the fusion
of high and low art, popular and esoteric culture that interests me. I'm always fascinated by
hybrid forms, the sparks that occur when opposites impact…"
Explore Nelson's work and you will find that here is someone who has survived the constant
changes and upheavals of the music business, transcending fashion whilst remaining stylish,
always producing material with a timeless elegance, as fresh as the moment it was written. With
a career spanning well over 30 years, Nelson maintains respect, independence and integrity,
the breadth and depth of his work being nothing short of remarkable.
Born in Wakefield in 1948, Bill Nelson has preserved his Yorkshire roots despite long stays
in Japan and lengthy tours around the world.
Self-taught, Nelson took up the guitar at the age of 13, inspired by the music of Duane Eddy
and the Shadows. He gave his first public performance at a school Christmas concert as lead
guitarist of a band of nervous teenagers, calling themselves 'The Cosmonauts': a name chosen
to reflect his childhood passion for science fiction.
On leaving school he pursued an intended career in fine art by studying for four years at Wakefield
School of Art. During this time he joined and formed various local bands, gradually allowing
his art school experience to inform his musical output. He describes his own work from that
period as a fusion of psychedelia, pop art and the avant garde: "a crossroads where
Robert Johnson meets John Cage and Jimi Hendrix jams with Harry Partch."
Bill's gift for song writing and wordplay and his own mastery of the guitar would quickly set
him apart. He would become one of the most influential and inspired guitarists of his generation
though this gift would prove only one - though remarkable - part of a formidable musical and
An early initiative led to an adventurous and still highly rated solo album called Northern
Dream, a domestically recorded, independent release of just 250 copies which caught the attention
of many including John Peel and EMI Records, the first major label to sign Bill. (Peel would
later recommend Bill's work in an interview with the Radio Times, commenting: "You
haven't heard that sound since Hendrix died"
Be Bop Deluxe
Soon after Northern Dream Bill formed the first line up of a band which would put
both his song writing and guitar prowess on the map, Be Bop Deluxe. Their first LP Axe Victim was
released in 1974 and other influential albums followed such as Futurama (1975), Sunburst
Finish (1976) and Modern Music (1977). These albums established Be Bop as one of the first
truly post modern groups as well as one of the great UK rock acts of the period, enjoying chart
success despite limited airplay.
John Leckie, who together with Bill co-produced several Be Bop Deluxe LPs, is now regarded
as one of the world's best producers with albums by the 'Stone Roses' and 'Radiohead' amongst
After one live and five studio albums, Bill decided it was time to explore new possibilities.
In the autumn of 1978 he split up Be Bop Deluxe and immediately embarked on his next adventure,
the band 'Red Noise'. One LP ensued, Sound-On-Sound again co-produced with John Leckie
was a record which built on the futurist nature of latter Be Bop work but gave clear indications
of an ever more experimental course. With 'Red Noise' Bill not only pushed the boundaries of
rock, he also started the move away from guitar as the central motif of his work, towards a
broader, multi-instrumental and electronic approach.
This brave change of direction brought with it concerns from record company bosses who looked
to no frills guitar focused rock groups to bring in the profits. Accordingly, EMI passed on
the next LP although the material was eventually picked up by Phonogram who issued Quit
Dreaming and Get on the Beam in 1981 which enjoyed subsequent chart success. However, this
was a year too late for Bill, who, in the meantime had remained busy by creating and recording
two more albums, and had formed his own independent label 'Cocteau Records' whose first release
was the catchy chart single Do You Dream In Colour issued in 1980.
An instrumental LP taken from a stage production of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (Das Kabinet) commissioned
by the Yorkshire Actors Company introduced Bill to a more rigid form of writing, which he would
later expand on with another stage soundtrack, this time an adaptation of Cocteau's Beauty
And The Beast.(La Belle et la Bete)
Bill's work now revolved mainly around instrumental recordings made in his home studio. A personal
universe of music has been produced this way over the years. These pieces tend to be spontaneous
creations which encompass broad ideas with the minimum fuss. This music often creates brilliant
pictures, moods and its own unique ambience one example being Crimsworth issued in
1994, an almost organic living soundtrack having been created for an art installation and exhibited
at several galleries.
Over the years Bill has worked, produced and collaborated with many groups and artists from
around the world, including Japan's 'Yellow Magic Orchestra' Masami Tsuchiya, Joe Hisaishi and
'Sandii and the Sunsets', the UK's David Sylvian, the late Billy McKenzie, 'Cabaret Voltaire'
and 'Roger Eno', and America's enigmatic pianist and composer 'Harold Budd'. His production
credits are immense and include 'The Skids', 'A Flock Of Seagulls', 'Mock Turtles', 'Gary Numan',
'Nash The Slash', 'Culturemix', 'Channel Light Vessel', 'The Units' 'Roger Eno' and 'Fiat Lux'
as well as many others, both well known and obscure.
In 1986, a brief liaison with CBS produced Getting The Holy Ghost Across, a slightly
more rock orientated LP than some of his other contemporary output. At the same time Bill was
also putting ideas together for an unusual Channel 4 series called Map Of Dreams, a
non dialogue video production based loosely upon the seasons threading cultures, religions,
mysticism and performance art together with a successfully succinct Nelson soundtrack.
This marked the start of a flurry of commissions for film, TV and commercials Dream Demon with
Timothy Spall and Jimmy Nail, Brond with Stratford Johns and John Hannah, Channel 4's Right
To Reply theme, Lucky Sunil a BBC2 play directed by Michael Caton Jones, the soundtrack
to a documentary about Henry Moore (Henry Moore And Landscape), and music for Toyota
and American Express adverts to name but a few. Much of this work was made with experience gained
from stage and theatre soundtracks and other solo performance art events created over the years.
From the mid 70s, Bill has experimented with photography, his work often featured on his album
sleeves and single covers, as has a great range of his pencil, charcoal and collage artwork.
An impressive book of Bill's black and white photos called The Arcane Eye was issued
with a 1984 box set Trial by Intimacy (The Book Of Splendours), encouraging Olympus
cameras to feature Bill in adverts for their latest compact camera. Bill has also made and directed
videos for his own work and for the music of others, ( Channel Light Vessel, Rhythm Sisters,
Ramon Tikaram, Nautilus Pompilius). He has recently begun to create art videos from his own
editing suite, sixteen of which are due for commercial DVD release.
Cocteau Records, which Bill initiated in 1980, continued for around 10 years, issuing, amongst
other things, Bill's captivating double LP of instrumentals Chance Encounters in the Garden
of Light, with much of the material inspired by a practising interest in a mysterious ceremonial
French order called the Martinists and visits to his favourite French destination, Villefranche
Sur Mer. As well as great volumes of his own work, Bill and Cocteau Records also introduced
work by other new bands such as 'A Flock Of Seagulls', 'Man Jumping' and 'Big Man Aviators',
as well as more unusual work by established artists like Richard Jobson.
Heroes de Lumiere
In 1992 Bill began a series of improvised events under the title of 'Heroes de Lumiere' together
with brother Ian on saxophone. This was a continuation of Bill's early 80s Invisibility
Exhibition tour which fused music with theatre, poetry and film. Concerts at Wakefield
Cathedral and Notre Dame de France in Leicester Square were enthusiastically received. These
'experimental cabarets' were an extension of Bill's 1960's Art School explorations and led him
to similar events in French art galleries and Belgian avant garde performance spaces.
Channel Light Vessel
After production work for Roger Eno in England and a collaboration with Harold Budd in New
Orleans, the decision to form the ambient 'super group' 'Channel Light Vessel' was taken.
'Channel Light Vessel' was an unusual but effective experiment between Bill and fellow musicians
Roger Eno (brother of Brian), Kate St John (ex Dream Academy), percussionist Laraaji and Japanese
cellist Mayumi Tachibana. The group recorded two albums, the charismatic Automatic in 1994 and
the stylish Excellent Spirits in 1996, both for All Saints Records. The group also
performed live in both the UK and Japan.
Mick Ronson memorial concert
In 1994 Bill was invited to join the 'Spiders From Mars' at the Hammersmith Odeon for a special
Memorial concert for the late Mick Ronson, another famous Yorkshire guitarist, and someone whom
Bill himself respected. Bill joined Trevor Bolder and Woody Woodmansey, Joe Elliott and Phil
Lanzon from Def Leppard in one of the highlights of an emotional evening. The recordings taken
that evening were later released as a double live album along with a limited edition treble
CD containing video footage.
Big Noise in Twangtown
Practically Wired a solo album released in 1995 by All Saints, is one of Bill's favourite
recordings of recent years and brought Bill and electric guitars together once again, confirming
the authority and style which has inspired and encouraged so many other up and coming guitarists
including the now late Stuart Adamson of 'The Skids' and 'Big Country' fame. Recorded as part
of a trilogy, Practically Wired was quickly followed by After The Satellite Sings,
an album which brought Bill squarely face to face with even the most contemporary movers and
shakers inspiring Reeves Gabrels in his work with David Bowie. Keeping a nose well ahead of
the pack with his intuitive use of drum 'n' bass the LP picked up some impressive press response:
The Wire: 'After The Satellite
Sings sounds fresh enough to be the product of some exploratory young hipster'
The Mix: 'Written directly onto
multi-track during a 28 day recording session earlier this year, After The Satellite Sings is
an album of pure joy, full of insider jokes (like frequent samples from both Jack Kerouac and
Bill Burroughs) and some absurdly inspired playing.'
Mojo: 'Some of the tracks on After
The Satellite Sings are classic, the addictive construction of 'Blink Agog' just one example
of a track at home in almost any context.'
The last Five Years
In 1997, Bill's fourth box set Confessions Of A Hyperdreamer was released, the same
time as EMI's all encompassing Air Age Anthology double CD a dip back into the history
of Be Bop Deluxe's five year career.
A particular trademark of Bill Nelson's creativity is a single minded determination which has
set him apart from the field and provided a body of work which is unparalleled in both breadth
of vision and creativity. The tracks featured on Atom Shop in 1998 marked yet another
leap in style and structure and conclude Bill's partly autobiographical trilogy begun in 1995
with Practically Wired.
In July 1998 Bill collaborated with visual and musical artists 'Dream Stealers' on a new piece
entitled Art Karaoke at the Luna in Leeds (part of Leeds Photographic Fringe Festival).
In September of the same year Bill gave two concerts at London's South Bank Festival Of
Drifting. The organisers' promotional material announced:
'The Festival Of Drifting will attempt
to put into a framework one of the more important and elusive trends in contemporary music.
Happily side stepping the `ambient' word, Drifting will draw a line between those names justly
and historically credited with starting a movement (Brian Eno, Bill Nelson, Durritti Column),
and those who have continued the tradition.'
The Guardian featured a front page review of the event which opened with the words: "God
Bless Bill Nelson."
What Now What Next? a double album containing an eclectic combination of some of his
solo works swiftly followed, once again on the DGM label.
In 1999, Bill began work on compiling a 'Magnum Opus' of Nelsonic delights. Noise Candy, a
6 CD box set of previously unreleased archive material, began to take shape from the vast collection
of recordings amassed since creating his home-studio.
In the meantime, and whilst this process was ongoing, Bill began work on a Noise Candy 'taster'
album, half of which comprised brand new material, the other half, selected tracks from the
Candy Box. Whistling While the World Turns was released in 2000 by Lenin Imports and
was to become the last recorded material on Bill's ancient analogue equipment. Bill de-commissioned
the studio and replaced it with new digital recording facilities shortly after completing the
Around this time he also started work on the Flashlight Dreams and Fleeting Shadows project
- a series of 'Videograms' to be released on DVD. A surreal cornucopia of dream like imagery,
the series is set to music and provides a unique insight into the interior world of Bill Nelson.
As part of the process of getting to grips with the new recording hardware, Bill composed a
series of 'Demo' songs for his own practice purposes. However, it soon became apparent that
these songs deserved to stand as complete pieces in themselves, and the material is to be released
later this year as the proposed album Whimsy. Last year Lenin Imports released the long overdue Simplex:
a hauntingly beautiful ambient journey, created partly for the Henry Moore and Landscape feature.
This album has lain unreleased in the archives since the early 90's although some unauthorised
versions were distributed through a variety of sources.
The release of Noise Candy marks the end of an era in the recording career of Bill Nelson,
whilst at the same time Whimsy is soon to herald the dawn of the next. Nelson continues to create
and innovate in his own way even though many of the pieces on Noise Candy were laid down several
years ago, they still sound fresh and contemporary. And, judging by the wealth and quality of
material that has already been created in his new digital studio, we are still yet to see the
best from this unique, creative and innovative talent.
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