Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Bill Nelson's Red Noise—

Released 1979 on Harvest
The Seth Man, June 2004ce
This record drives me nervous.

An album at once manic, synthetic, herky-jerky Pure-Pop-For-Then-People “Sound-On-Sound” is also one of the most fastidiously obsessed of its kind. A total twelve tracks were constructed in themes that were the sole province of what Mick Farren once derided as ‘the Adolf Hitler Memorial Space Patrol.’ Namely, those Bowie casualties of the late seventies/early eighties that cropped up during the new wave/electro-pop cusp and specifically: those of the John Foxx/Gary Numan ilk whose faux-Teutonic electronics were more carnie parody than Connie Plank as they preened all noir-statuesque behind lines of synthesizer string cheese trying its best to be Kraftwerk, but only as perceived by Bowie on “Heroes” and “Low” when the whole time the whole lame ballyhoo was nothing less than a continual re-take/re-plunder on either Roxy Music and/or Peter Hammill role models, anyway. (File under: “Are ‘friends’ eclectic?”)

Predictably, the product of these preening poseur purveyors who peddled then-popular paranoid/robotic/futurist/alienation/romance fad themes for a mercifully short period just prior to the style revolution of Blitz (whose jumped-up denizens dutifully recycled and codified said themes long enough to relay them onto proponents of Gothic rock) were flatly derivative, openly bored and always cribbed strictly from the same sources (Bowie/Roxy/Kraftwerk) as though the only answer to punk’s 1978 dissolution of substance into style was to hail the latter as some new, skyclad emperor instead of making at least a real attempt to concoct something new out of the lessons of the old.

Bill Nelson’s Red Noise’s sole album “Sound-On-Sound” was an unlikely candidate. But it did kick all of the wannabes’ respective asses back to their redundant Berlin UFA film sets and beat them at their own game but the only problem was -- nobody knew it, or admitted it, at the time. Nelson’s songwriting was in full bloom, openly accepting and incorporating new approaches to upbeat and riff-laden pop as they made contact with a compressed studio sheen build up from a multitude of brief though aggressive electric guitar tracks, layers of bizarre synthetic treatments and a small but determined band that corralled it all into a continuous and seamless vision of a planet with an eccentric but unswerving orbit that toiled intensely, insanely and (somehow) cheerfully for all the depictions of the blindingly harsh neon realities of the modern world: a place where danger and the unknown lurked behind every encounter, modern convenience and household appliance.

Red Noise developed from the premises Nelson first began to establish the previous year on Be-Bop Deluxe’s final album, “Drastic Plastic.” From the strange paranoia of “Superenigmatix (Lethal Appliances For The Home With Everything)” to the revved up “Love In Flames” and the claustrophobic “Possession,” Nelson boiled it down into a pressure cooker of quirk co-joined with the distinctly Class of ‘78 nouveau jerkiness of Devo, XTC and Wire. Only difference is that here alongside guitar lines which buzzsawed through thickly layered songs were nerve-wracking lyrics which Nelson’s electro-treated vocals delivered with unperturbed elegance. Brisk is the pace as track after track chase themselves across Nelson’s impeccably fractured and unflappable songwriting, his exacting guitar parts thrown through Mesa-Boogie amplification and into the already dense arrangements against deftly applied and economically dispensed synthesizer overlays. Following Nelson from Be-Bop Deluxe in Red Noise was keyboardist Andy Clark and saxophonist Ian Nelson while Rick Ford (bass) and Dave Mattacks (drums) back with great flair. As in Be-Bop Deluxe, Nelson handles the vocals, guitar along with additional synthesizer, bass and even drums for most of the album: thumping away as though to drive all his creations with a willfully punk edge.

The album begins with quick and irritating synth clusters sounding and trading off with Nelson’s staccato and nightmare-stiff guitar bursts in the straightjacketed spazzerino of “Don’t Touch Me (I’m Electric).” I’m already slugging a quart of espresso just to calm down. “For Young Moderns” proposes a “Zero Hero Euro Lifestyle” for all, with Andy Clark’s fantastically frantic piano discordances tear apart the coda. Besides being an accurate description of the album’s rhythms, “Stop/Go/Stop” describes a paranoid mind control nightmare offset with nearly comical electronic effects and vocoder in precise, abundant detailing and high-pitched electronic “nah-nah-nah-nah-nah-nah” -- along with Nelson’s own thumping drumming and Rick Ford’s bass that cuts out to restart on cue every time (and that’s pretty often in this song.) “Furniture Music” was the first Red Noise 45 and conveys the paralysis of alienation far clearer than Gary Numan’s “Cars” ever could and besides: the guitar’s far more classy and abrasive. “Radar In My Heart" is the younger cousin of Be-Bop Deluxe’s “Love In Flames” with prominent Vox Continental organ and pummeling drums from Nelson. A quick breath and they’re already hurtling into further Vox Continental-domination with “Stay Young” to finish off side one before I even noticed.

Side two opens with the dazed, mechanical stomp “Out Of Touch” as hit-on-the-head-with-cartoon-anvil-tweety-bird electronics burble around angular guitar bursts and descending runs over looming paranoid lyrics like “Faces in the street/Eyes like mirrors/Eating holes in the back of my head” that are nonetheless delivered jaunty as hell. Compounding the broad daylightmare is the highlight of side two, “A Better Home In The Phantom Zone” where Dave Mattacks taking over on drums for most of the remaining tracks as he drives down in a manner most un-unhalfbrickingly against Nelson’s spiky, aggro guitar lines. Synth lines are released and discharge in the background as accusations fly fast and furious (“I caught you in the kitchen/You were curing something itching/Or so you said”) along with the damning indictment of: “Your relatives are white/And all your children have record players/They listen to Tom Robinson/The Beatles and The Byrds/and Lee-oh Say-UH...!” Nelson’s vocals are barking out harsher and harsher while his downstroking guitar is busting at the seams of the arrangement until a synth signal discharges all the pressure, as though a button marked ‘MANIA’ has been switched off along with the song. The relatively relaxed “Substitute Flesh” scenarios switch from candy-assed glee to strident lust. But with lines like “Sperm armies swarm and conquer” and Nelson yip-yip-yipping his head off, I’m losing it. Help. This record’s a panic.

From here on in it’s one gigantic rush. “The Atom Age” sees Nelson blare out punk guitar rhythms and mash out those overdubbed tom-toms right into the floor. A sax blares red alert as it all jerks uneasily on the barbed wire tightrope of modern life against leaking pressure valve synthesizer lines. It’s all got Nelson in a full-nelson, so he throws down a prime Cocteau quote (“I am the lie that tells the truth”) then lets loose with a camped up “La la la, la, la, la, la, la -- LA, LA!” “Art/Empire/Industry” is where everything starts running at once in breakneck paces with vocoderised vocals, quick drum breaks, razor-sharp guitars, jaunty sax, overall neuroses...you name it. This has the velocity of black and white cartoon music played at twice the speed as though to underline the absolute mania that is the heart of this album and it rounds corners tighter than deadman’s curve and the hillsides of Monaco combined only to end abruptly post-punk as fuck like Wire’s “Options R.” “Revolt Into Style” triumphantly closes the record as though the future Bill Nelson always reached for in Be-Bop Deluxe had finally been grasped and was now reaching for him. Psycho synthesizers bubble and squeak in the middle chorus while Nelson manages to easily fit small though manic guitar runs at every turn until several slo-mo guitar windmilling bring to a quick conclusion this fiercely passionately and tense as hell hyper-panic classic.

(File under: Absolute A-Go-Go.)