No.3 Sound On Sound
Bill Nelson's Red Noise
Be-Bop Deluxe called it a day in 1978, after cult success, one chart single and five albums of progressive sci fi rock, leaving gifted songwriter, producer and multi-instrumentalist Bill Nelson free to form a new group, Red Noise. Bill was joined by his brother Ian (saxophone), Rick Ford (bass) and Andy Clarke (keyboards).
Remaining with EMI records, sessions for the first album from Red Noise got underway in late 1978. With his head stuffed full of images, stories and phrases from a bizarre mixture of surrealism, cheesy fifties science fiction comics and Asimov, Bill Nelson had already written much of the new material prior to the final Be-Bop Deluxe album Drastic Plastic, and indeed the songs were meant originally for the follow up to that release. However, the seismic impact of the punk rock phenomenon left its mark on Bill, the energy level of the new songs was significantly high. Insanely so at times
Accompanied by John Leckie at the controls as co-producer, Nelson dominated the sessions, totally in command. It gets under way with Don’t Touch Me, (I’m Electric) a statement of intent. Bill plays drums, guitar and handles the vocals, as he will on the rest of the tracks (apart from some songs featuring Dave Mattacks on drums); it’s very snappy, rattling out a jerky stop/start rhythm that adds a vivid sonic landscape to the absurd words.
For Young Moderns has a lovely melody resembling the older model of Bill Nelson’s sound template, it could be Be-Bop Deluxe. No bad thing, say I. One of several military style arrangements here, the track marches proudly along with Bill overdubbing four different instruments whilst promoting his optimistic plans for a better future:
The old world is burning, there’s ice in my veins
Your breath it inflames me, it fills me with flames
It’s a brave new world for young moderns
It’s a zero hero euro lifestyle
A nouveau a go-go gone wild
This sort of lyric composition is purely stylistic, an approach adopted by some of the most idiosyncratic pop writers of our time: Brian Eno, David Bowie, Howard Devoto, Marc Bolan, Syd Barrett. What they’re trying to put across is an ambience, a poetic scene setting that inspires and excites. Words like this don’t have any linear mandate, they are under no obligation to make sense. Descriptions, alliteration and juxtapositions carry the day.
Synthesizers fizz and pop, a snare drum is rolled and a detached android voice (our Bill mucking about with his vocoder, a device that makes the voice sound robotic) describes a creepy potential world where government regulation is taken to chilling extremes in Stop/Go/Stop:
The Mental Health Department
will make you fit to serve
we’ll sever your connections
and seal off every nerve
Fantastic multi-dubbing creates a panoply of interesting sounds, and a variety of reverbs are employed on certain lyrics, all of which contribute to a dazzling musical experience.
Four beats on two tom-toms and we’re into the first wonderful single from the album, Furniture Music. Not dissimilar to the Be-Bop Deluxe single from the previous year, Panic In The World, this classic song is based around a plinking plonking synthetic sequence running throughout. Angry guitars hammer out huge chords and Bill gets to grips with his living space:
Sometimes when I have time to kill
I watch the world outside my window
it never rains inside my room
sometimes I think about my life
the source for all my inspiration
Sounding rather sanguine amidst this mental spring clean, Bill goes oriental on the middle eight, before an extraordinary performance on the drumkit guides us back into the verses. I remember hearing this at the time on John Peel’s show and being so surprised to hear that it was Bill himself playing those impressive drums.
The noise level goes up a notch with Radar In My Heart, another jerky exercise. This riot of electronic sound is led by double-tracked saxophone and an urgent, pleading vocal.
Keep a firm grip on your innocence, don’t allow your idealism to be corrupted by the aging process!
This is Bill’s lyrical intent on Stay Young, a somewhat phlegmatic harangue knocked off with vivid panache. Bontempi organ touches, harmonica and sax recall those swinging sixties, while the guitars could only be from this period.
Beginning a run of three amazing tracks in a row, the brilliant Out Of Touch follows. By combining a Wurlitzer effect with synthesizers and other obscure audio effects for the opening riff which is a bizarre but attractive robotic squelch, Bill and his co-producer John Leckie bring off something genuinely unique. Subsequently the rest of the song seems to arrive from another planet, so extreme is the musical palette here. The only things that anchor it to the mortal world are the drums and a descending guitar, ascending on the second half of each verse. I wish I could quote the entire lyric here, because they’re so superb. But here’s a sample:
Faces in the street, eyes like mirrors eating holes in the back of my head, I took you to my skyscraper, raped you with a tape recorder under the bed.
Maybe its psychosomatic or the voices in my sleep that make me worry so much, but there’s nothing I can do if the rumours are untrue because I’m out of touch
Bill Nelson is rightly admired by his fans not only for his music but also for his album and song titles. The man is a poet. For example, two of his later tracks were called Atom Man Loves Radium Girl and the excellent Mr Magnetism Himself.
Here’s another: A Better Home In The Phantom Zone. Wow! Mr Nelson hands drum duties over to the experienced Dave Mattacks, a gifted and seasoned musician, who had earned his chops with the folk rock outfit, Fairport Convention. Belligerent guitars crash in alongside Bill snarling out a vocal which brings to mind the Stranglers at their new wave peak period. Red Noise must have rehearsed this track hundreds of times, because the ensemble performance is breathtaking. Listen to the chorus and shake your head in wonder! Bill Nelson croons a smooth falsetto while everything else is locked tightly together. An implacable martinet, his demands are as surreal as they are grotesque:
Go to parties, mix with artists, burn the candle at both ends,
be a winner, dress for dinner, kiss your food and eat your friends.
Turn on the sound, tune-in the static, set all controls to automatic,
your crash will be the more dramatic if you come as you go...to the phantom zone.
Next up is Substitute Flesh, a psychosexual nightmare with another grandiloquent arrangement that has you on the edge of your seat. Dave Mattacks plays a state of the art electronic drum pad which would come to dominate the eighties sound, adding an alienating, distanced feel to the rhythm section. This is particularly effective on the middle eight, where he travels across three of these electric percussion pads to emphasise the futuristic atmospherics. Andy Clarke provides some pretty touches on a string synth while his boss spits out a vile manifesto:
New vices for the jaded, desire unconsummated,
are we born of man or monster?
sperm armies swarm and conquer these fears...
The Atom Age is quite a short number, with an arrogant, almost fascist chorus painted against a backdrop of synchronised guitar, saxophone and bass:
I stand proud as the flag’s displayed
citizen of the atom age
Having gone for a quick piss and a cup of Earl Grey during the last song (Bill played drums on that one), Dave Mattacks returns for the last two tracks and here rattles out a series of tightly controlled snare rolls aligned with vituperative guitars, again descending. A Nelson failsafe, perhaps?
Art/Empire/Industry has a swinging gait to it but nevertheless remains firmly in the science fiction scenario, so beloved of its composer. Like some remarkable marriage between an American fifties jive outfit and the BBC Radiophonics Workshop, Red Noise blast their way through this rip-roaring paean to artistic anarchy:
Paintings are subversive, Freedom is machines
All print is propaganda,
We know what it means to sing art/empire/industry
Bill gets out his trusty vocoder again and employs it on the cheesy final moments, intoning the tertiary title phrase, while a woozy synth lurches behind.
Leaving an absolute cracker for the last treat, Bill completes this fantastic album with Revolt Into Style, the second single. It was just about as unsuccessful as Furniture Music had been, chartwise.
Like A Better Home In The Phantom Zone, this song must have been routined many times preparatory to recording. The band rock out in a disciplined, masterful performance. Beginning with another memorable series of descending notes on the guitar, with dramatic stabs of synth thrown into brief gaps in between the riffs, Revolt Into Style storms into our lives with this sarcastic opening verse:
The posters on your walls mark every fashion’s rise and fall,
why try to keep the past alive?
And though I know the time is almost 1984,
it feels like 1965.
The music in my room is always slightly of tune,
my harmony is up on trial
and though I know the rhythm you’d prefer me dancing to,
I’ll turn my revolt into style
There follows a return of the main guitar lick and then the middle eight, embellished with more delightful synthesizer sounds. Our hero confidently asserts:
The mirrors on my eyes are always focused in surprise,
My mouth is covered by a smile
ou’ll never know what lies behind these public alibis,
I’ve turned my revolt into style
All the instruments are held in abeyance, then gradually build to the shattering finale, sprinkling in some pretty guitar harmonics for good measure. Like so many of my choices for these post-punk reviews, Sound On Sound wasn’t particularly successful. This group split up almost immediately afterwards. There was a UK tour and an appearance on the Old Grey Whistle Test, their only appearance on television. But the reputation of this sublime LP has grown hugely over the years.
Part 4 • Young Marble Giants • Colossal Youth