Bill Nelson’s Red Noise

Sweeping the world’s forgotten corridors of music, Scott Blixen sets his sights on Bill Nelson’s Red Noise

Falling foul of corporate conservatism, 1970s guitar god and the guiding light of Be-Bop Deluxe, Bill Nelson’s work was ultimately released under three different artist names.

Be-Bop Deluxe put out five studio albums throughout the 1970s on EMI’s progressive imprint Harvest. The last of these, 1978’s ‘Drastic Plastic’, wasn’t meant to bear the BBD moniker, though. In the wake of punk, fret-wank no longer found favour, and Nelson retooled for future-shock rock. More polymath than six-string onanist, he let synthesisers into the fold and sci-fi angst into his lyrics. As new wave wrong-footed rock’s dinosaurs, Nelson sought rebirth with his Red Noise group and ‘Drastic Plastic’ was intended as the first emission of a new venture, not a last gasp of the old. 

But EMI’s grandees weren’t keen to slaughter their cash cow, so they put him in a contractual half-nelson. In 1979, though, he was given free rein to saddle up his dystopian Red Noise for the ‘Sound-On-Sound’ album. 

Without doubt, it packs a punkier punch than its predecessor and while Nelson didn’t ditch his axe it was subsumed into an electro-rock whole. Sitting comfortably alongside LPs by The Human League, Ultravox and Gary Numan, it proved that Nelson was in the vanguard and not some jaded Johnny-come-lately. If you haven’t heard its pilot single ‘Furniture Music’, I suggest you right that wrong immediately – it’s a sublime synthpop seven-inch.

As with labelmates Wire, big-league success eluded Red Noise and they parted company with Harvest. Undaunted, Nelson continued work on a follow-up. The music business is, unfortunately, prone to a hive mentality and, out of contract, you’re considered dead meat. No doubt wary of record company caprice, living back in his native Yorkshire and working from home, Nelson launched his Cocteau label, which gave flight to  A Flock Of Seagulls, as well as his own esoteric output.

Heralded in 1980 by the single ‘Do You Dream In Colour?’,  a high-water mark in the electropop of the time, ‘Quit Dreaming And Get On The Beam’ reached record shops in 1981 under Bill Nelson’s own name as, by this point, the Red Noise moniker had been retired. Initial copies of the LP came with a bonus disc of synth mood pieces, which have aged remarkably well. 

Bill Nelson has since released more records than you can  shake a stick at and pursued his ever-morphing muse. Which should be a lesson to us all, including those myopic music-biz tosspots who bathe in the reflected glory of innovation and  then cut it off at the knees.

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