Bill Nelson’s Red Noise: Sound-on-Sound – album review
Red Noise by Bill Nelson – Sound-on-Sound
Double CD set
Reissue of the only Red Noise album where guitar hero Bill Nelson switches from progressive rock to new wave with some success.
It’s probably a bit unfair that Be Bop Deluxe lazily stuck under the progressive rock banner because despite Bill Nelson’s undeniable guitar virtuosity, they were hardly yes.
In many ways, Nelson’s no-nonsense thinking and playing in Yorkshire made them a more conventional rock band with glam leanings that sometimes strayed into excess. As the liner notes make clear, Be Bop Deluxe’s last album, Drastic Plastic, played with a much more electronic sound as Nelson experimented with new equipment, so he was already heading towards the starting point of Red Noise.
Like Springsteen with Darkness On The Edge of Town, it’s clear former art student Nelson had taken note of punk and the emerging new wave, so it’s not a huge leap from Be Bop Deluxe to the early days of Red Noise.
Where Nelson might have slipped up was offering a record that’s supposed to be set in a dystopian future somewhere between Brave New World and 1984. So the dreaded phrase “concept album” comes into play, and as the punk wars were fought to get rid of all that nonsense there was probably an element of reverse snobbery on the part of punks. Likewise, his former fans wondered why he suddenly changed direction, but they probably didn’t pay attention.
This box set contains two CDs with a remastered version of the album from the master tapes and a new stereo mix by Ben Wiseman. Only audio bores will be interested in this, but the cleaned up versions demonstrate that John Leckie and Nelson’s own production was free of anything dated music, and at no point does this record look like a museum piece.
In fact, it now sounds like a damn fine new wave record that should have done better when it came out, but I suspect it fell between two stools as being too smart for punks and leaving its older fans a bit perplexed , which Nelson acknowledges in his own honest liner notes. New Wave fans at the time should have been cool with his new direction as they had already had Television and Talking Heads among a range of New Wave bands who really knew how to play and avoided incompetence on their instruments.
Nelson’s record company was unhappy with his new management, especially since Be Bop was doing so well, and insisted he add his name to his new outfit. Meanwhile, volunteer Tyke was assembling a solid band, including his brother Ian on sax, Andy Clarke on keyboards/synths and Rick Ford on bass. Nelson played drums as he had on the demos with more skill, except for a couple with former Fairport Convention drummer Dave Mattacks where you can hear the difference between a gifted amateur and a seasoned professional.
The jerky guitars of Don’t Touch Me (I’m Electric) over a pulsating beat set the tone, as do the upbeat power-pop and overt lyrics of For Young Moderns (“It’s a brave new world for young modern/it’s the calculated age of chance’), which has a nice keyboard interlude from Clarke at the end.
Stop/Go/Stop does what it says on the box, and you can imagine John McGeoch of Magazine among other new wave guitar heroes feeling vindicated that talented players had a place in a post punk world, and Red Noise sounds like Devoto and company in a lot of ways. Nelson junior enters the act with some sax bursts on Radar In My Heart ahead of the lost hit single, Stay Young, which is also a note for Nelson senior being a bit older than his new wave contemporaries, but probably much wiser.
Out of Touch is just plain weird, and A Better Home In The Phantom Zone features plenty of quirky time changes for old Nelson fans. The Atom Age offers a typically economical vintage Nelson solo, but full of power and meaning. Art/Empire Ministry’s catchy electropop that might have sparked some discussion in Sheffield where Britain’s finest electro was beginning to develop its own post-industrial sound. Revolt Into Style sees Mattacks on the sticks giving the song a truly punchy base as sci-fi fan Nelson riffs gleefully calling on the listener not to keep the past alive. but look ahead because “the time is almost 1984”.
Nelson obsessives will appreciate the replica poster that comes with this set and the appearance of a few B-sides. Wonder Toys That Last Forever and Acquitted By Mirrors are much slower than the tracks that made the album feel reggae almost dub. There is also an unreleased track, My Light, recorded during the album session to enjoy, which is a bit of a showcase for Nelson junior.
Mark Powell, who oversaw this re-release, also unearthed 1979 session tracks recorded at RAK Studios, which hint at Red Noise’s power as a live performer. In his liner notes, Nelson suggests that the vocals on the album may have been a little mannered – and he’s sometimes right – but in this session his vocals have a more relaxed and direct tone.
Red Noise was probably one of those unlucky bands that should have been big but in many ways they fell between the two extremes of bickering punks suspicious of competence and progressive rockers desperately clinging to a less than glorious past. . It’s a shame because this is a really strong new wave album, full of great tunes and smarts, driven by the singular vision of one of the UK’s finest guitarists.
Lyrics by Paul Clarke, you can see his author profile here