The release of a whopping eight-CD retrospective gives Bill Nelson the chance to take a look back over an extraordinarily prolific and ceaselessly experimental career. Interview by Pete Langman
‘The past is another country, they do things differently there.’ It’s 40 years since Bill Nelson recorded his debut, Northern Dream, on a two-track machine in a studio in Wakefield that wasn’t even a studio – it was the bedroom of a friend. This anniversary is being celebrated with a mammoth box set, The Practice of Everyday Life, whose 150-odd tracks Nelson chose personally… a process which raised some interesting questions.
‘Looking back at the character who made Northern Dream, there’s a lot of me that I don’t recognise,’ Nelson muses. ‘I’m curious to know how that person came to be that person, because I can’t remember how that happened. How did I come to write such a lyric? Why would I do that? I think we leave this trail behind us, like some creature shedding its skin.’
This creature’s next skin was that of the pretty, high-cheekboned, glammed-up frontman of Be-Bop Deluxe, but the softly-spoken Yorkshireman has come a long way since the ’70s, the subject of the box set’s first two CDs, and he finds it amusing that many still cannot see past that version of himself.
‘I did a concert in Newcastle in the late ’80s or early ’90s, and a guy came backstage and said “My God, you’ve changed,”’ he sighs. ‘I thought he meant the music, but he said “No, you’ve really aged.” I said, “When was the last time you saw me?’ And he said, “1974.” I said, “If you look in the mirror, I think you’ll find you’ve aged since then, too.” He’d got the first album with the photograph of me, and he’d never seen me since – but he still had this image that this person is that person on that album cover, and forever he sits there. He got a shock when he saw that there was a real person who had moved on some years.’
Since Drastic Plastic, Be-Bop Deluxe’s last hurrah from 1978, and his ’80s solo career, Nelson has ploughed an idiosyncratic furrow. ‘The way I’ve worked over the last 20 years shows that I’m not particularly rushing to just suit a fanbase,’ he says. ‘It’s not that I don’t appreciate having a fanbase there, but I try not to become stereotyped by the ’70s.’ He has become a cottage industry, releasing multiple albums every year, playing all the instruments, engineering, and even producing the artwork himself. ‘It gives me the freedom to try things out without having to persuade anybody that it’s worth trying out,’ he declares.
It’s a far cry from the days when some working-class guys from Wakefield (for whom TV was ‘another world’ and the idea of recording an album other than in a local studio was an ‘impossible dream’) formed Be-Bop Deluxe. Often categorised as glam rock due to a propensity for dressing up – ‘wearing make-up was a way to get up the noses of a lot of people in working men’s clubs,’ Nelson says – their music was rather more sophisticated, especially after exposure on the John Peel show led to a deal with EMI. Even then, the past had an influence.
‘I’d already written what became most of the second Be-Bop Deluxe album,’ Nelson says, ‘but EMI said “You ought to put out the songs you’ve been playing for the last couple of years – you’ve got an audience now.”’ Be-Bop Deluxe’s debut, Axe Victim, was released in 1974. ‘Critics can look at that first album and then presume that that’s where you are for the rest of your life,’ sighs Nelson. ‘Obviously, you’re not, because people move on.’
Moving on, of course, necessitates a relationship with the past, balancing past and present, tradition and innovation. On his last tour, in 2004, Bill Nelson mixed a chunk of Be-Bop stuff, a bit of Red Noise and some ’80s material to celebrate the 30 anniversary of Axe Victim, while 2012’s proposed tour will feature both old and new tunes. The support act will be one Bill Nelson, playing an acoustic set of newer material.
The Bill Nelson story really starts with his parents’ radiogram. ‘They had a lot of 78rpm records,’ he recalls. ‘One of them was Elvis’s Jailhouse Rock, and Scotty Moore’s solo made me sit up and listen. But Duane Eddy was my real first inspiration to pick up the guitar seriously.’ Soon, young Bill would also discover Hank Marvin, Chet Atkins, the Ventures and the Sputniks. Unschooled and unable to read music, Nelson describes his progress as a ‘self-taught, kind of guesswork thing.’ Soon, he was seduced by early psychedelic players like Yardbirds-era Jeff Beck and Jimi Hendrix. ‘I was at art college when that scene was emerging. It was kind of the hip thing to listen to.’
A flirtation with the jazz stylings of the likes of Wes Montgomery, Jim Hall and Kenny Burrell has developed further lately into an appreciation of Bill Frisell. ‘Frisell is a wonderful musician, and while he sits generally within the jazz genre his music crosses quite a few boundaries,’ Nelson enthuses. ‘I really like his sensibility and his harmonic approach. He’s very intelligent, very sophisticated and very listenable.’
In fact, Bill Frisell and Jeff Beck are on Bill Nelson’s list of people he’d like to produce. He’s likely do a damn fine job with either. He co-produced all the Be-Bop albums apart from Sunburst Finish with John Leckie, was seriously considered for a little-known band called the Sex Pistols, produced the Skids’ Days In Europa and an album with Gary Numan, which Numan ended up remixing independently. ‘Producing isn’t something I’ve wanted to do as a full-time thing,’ he says. ‘If it’s something that interests me or I find challenging, then I’ll probably try and take it on, but otherwise… it’s frustrating sitting behind a mixing desk watching everybody else have all the fun, really.’
When it comes to collaborative fun, Nelson regards his work with the Yellow Magic Orchestra on Naughty Boys, where he played guitar synth as well as straight guitar, and his efforts with Harold Budd on By The Dawn’s Early Light, recorded by candlelight at Daniel Lanois’ New Orleans studio, as particularly rewarding experiences.
Always a fervent admirer of electronic music and artists sucvh as Terry Riley and early Kraftwerk, the 1980s found Nelson putting the guitar into a different position, using it more as a ‘rhythm instrument and textual component’ than as a regular lead-playing device. ‘Most guitar players were using the same kind of language, in a way,’ he explains. ‘I thought it might be time to explore something else, so I had a period of playing around with electronic music.’
He bought a Minimoog, later controlling it with a Hagstrom Patch 2000, a synth controller with wired-up frets, but it proved impractical live, as both synth and controller had their own tuning stability issues. ‘Eventually you come to a point where they all blend together,’ he continues. ‘I did rediscover the guitar. I can’t think why… maybe when everybody got into electronic music, I went back again. Now, though, it’s all completely integrated.’
In his music Bill Nelson is an intriguing mix of arch-traditionalist and ultra-modernist, keen to make it new and yet highly respectful of all that has come before, including his own work. It’s simply that links with the past only remain when they earn their keep. In terms of guitars, Nelson still uses the trademark Gibson ES-345 stereo which his father bought him for ‘£300 and some’ when he was 17. And what of his other 41 instruments? ‘Every guitar has its own personality,’ he points out. ‘While some might sound similar, they feel different and even the look of them can give you a certain mood. Every few weeks I maybe have three guitars sitting in the studio, and then I’ll swap them around and put another three out.’
His collection spans several Gretsches including a White Falcon, a two-tone green Anniversary and an orange 6120, which he likes for their distinctive clean-plus-bite sound; a curvy red-and-white custom guitar built by Dean Campbell called the Nelsonic Transitone; and several Eastwoods. ‘They’re modern takes on budget guitars of the ’50s and ’60s, like Silvertones,’ reports Nelson. ‘They’ve got a character all of their own and a retro-futuristic look.’
Perhaps the phrase ‘retro-futuristic’ best sums up Nelson’s aesthetic, and possibly it’s because of this that he only recently acquired the ‘big two’ guitar models, a Strat and a Les Paul, even though he was influenced by both Hank Marvin and Les Paul himself. ‘Nearly every other issue of a guitar magazine had a Stratocaster or Les Paul on the cover, and as good as they are, you know… you think “there must be other guitars!”’ he says.
A career as long as Nelson’s encompasses a fair amount of gear, and from a Rosetti Lucky Seven amp to a custom Carlsbro 50w head ‘designed to look like it’s come from the Jetsons’ to his current signature amp, a two-tone maroon and off-white 40w combo with three 10" speakers custom-made by Dave Gascoigne of Rosewell amps, Nelson has always mixed style with substance. When Be-Bop Deluxe began to get successful, he replaced his Vox AC30 with a Carlsbro 50w head and 4×12" cabinet – he wanted a Marshall but couldn’t afford one – expanding his rig until he ended up with ‘two Carlsbro 100W heads, two H&H tape echo units, six SAI custom-built speaker cabinets with two 12"s in each, a big Pete Cornish pedalboard and a custom-made preamp on one of the amps so I could push the front end to get natural distortion as well as having the option to kick in the pedals.’
He bought the first Zoom unit: ‘I loved the fact that you just plug it straight into the PA and it just sits there on your strap, but before long my digital setup ended up as complicated, if not more so, than anything I had with Be-Bop Deluxe.’ He’s still an avid user of the Ebow, a tool he discovered in the ’70s. ‘It can be very expressive: you can change the harmonic content, the emphasis, strengthen the note and so on.’
In the studio his visual aesthetic often accords with his aural sensibilities. Take his Shaftesbury amp: ‘It looks a bit like a TV,’ he says. ‘It’s pale blue and grey, with a chrome grill that could have come off a 1960 Vauxhall Cresta. It’s an interesting-looking thing. I bought it first of all because it looked so cool, but it’s got a sound all of its own, plus a built-in tremolo unit and two elliptical speakers. If you want a sound like the Kinks’ You Really Got Me… well, it hasn’t got ripped speakers, but it sounds like it. A really ratty tone.’
Ultimately, however, Nelson is convinced that the true sound lies within the player, and he points to a track called The Modern Music Suite – which came out on an earlier box set released by EMI – as an example. A live recording, he took it into a studio to tidy it up only to remember why it had languished unreleased: technical problems had rendered the first few bars of guitar a ‘horrendous racket.’ But the studio had a Pod 2 and an Epiphone 345. ‘I messed around with the Pod for a little while, and this Epiphone which I’d never touched before… and you can’t hear the join. There’s a drop-in on that track that has a 35-year gap.
‘I know people rave about valve amps and all the rest, but when you’re recording and mixing, at the end of the day it’s still going onto a digital format. I patched it up using a digital unit and a guitar that wasn’t the guitar I played on the day, and it sounded seamless. I challenge people to find the drop-in. There’s a myth that you can only use that one item of equipment to get that sound, but if you’ve got time to tweak things and your ears are reasonably in the right place, I think you can get sounds on all kinds of things.’
A 35 year drop-in, and you can’t hear the join. That’s the Practice of Everyday Life.