When the CD began to replace the LP, I found myself in something of a dilemma – did I replace all the albums I’d lovingly accumulated, or accept that times had changed, and move on; keep buying new music, just do it on the new shiny digital format?
The answer wasn’t clear for a number of years – the first device we owned capable of playing CDs also had a turntable – but in the end, when I no longer had a way of playing all those records, I reluctantly sold them (in my defence, they were bulky, heavy and a severe pain to move around, and we moved house a lot in those days), and selectively replaced the vinyl albums I loved the most with copies on CD, which was much more portable.
I also had a ridiculously large collection of albums on cassette, including re-recorded versions of many of the vinyl albums I no longer owned. We’ll be coming to all those format issues in good time, I suspect.
In the meantime, this was one of the albums I bought on CD to replace my vinyl copy, and I have no idea why.
In fact, as I’ve been thinking about this album, I have no idea why I bought it in the first place, let alone a second time. I don’t remember thinking of it particularly fondly at the time (bar two songs, which I’m coming to), and I can’t imagine why I thought I needed to hear it again some time in the early 2000s. On top of that, I’ve had to jettison somewhere in the region of 200 albums from this list – albums which I’d have considered higher up in the pecking order than this one, yet here it is.
What’s going on?
I wasn’t a particular fan of Bill Nelson – I was aware of Be-Bop Deluxe, but only to the point of having seen people with copies of Sunburst Finish or Axe Victim; they were, as far as I could tell, in the same general musical area as the likes of Supertramp or Alan Parsons, only with fewer hit singles – and I don’t remember this having been excitedly passed around like a few other albums of the time. What I do remember is that I definitely took my copy of this in to school to lend to someone, so I must have, at least to begin with, liked it enough to recommend it to others. Whenever I think of this album, my mind conjures up, for some reason, the gallery above the games hall at school where we would occasionally play table tennis, so presumably, that’s where I swapped it or talked about it, or something.
But it has its hooks in me, clearly. From all this time away, I’d like to tip my hat to the marketing team who promoted this album, because you must have done a staggeringly good job. There was also, I imagine, a glowing review in Sounds. What there wasn’t, as far as I can see, was a clear understanding of what this album was, or why I should buy it. More than once.
1979 felt like a bit of a crossroads in music. There was a clear sense that guitars were perhaps becoming a little old hat. Synthesisers, previously unwieldy and untrustworthy banks of electronics which would go out of tune if you looked at them funny, were suddenly compact, affordable (up to a point) and able to make new sounds; noises which turned up all over the post-punk landscape. Bands were more easily able to get their music into the hands of the public, and all kinds of strange music was much more readily available than before.
Some of the bands I’d been following changed their approach to things around this time; songs became shorter, spikier and had fewer instrumental excesses. There was also a generational thing going on; new, young bands appeared, who appeared to take pains to disavow everything which had gone before. Many of the people who were getting the attention of the music press were musical originalists; they had new instruments, or new ways of using old ones, and an apparently genuine desire not to pay attention to the previous generation. Unlike most musical generations, who sought to build on what had gone before, this generation seemed interested only in burning everything down and starting again.
If you were an established musician, therefore, with several successful and critically-praised albums under your belt, you had something of a dilemma. A few – OK, Genesis – managed to reinvent themselves as pop stars; a great many wandered off course, never to be heard from again, and some, including – it would seem – Bill Nelson, tried to start again with a whole different approach to music.
There’s another, more famous, keyboard-based album coming up next week, which spotlights just exactly what was going on with all these synthesised keyboard sounds, but this was the first of that wave of albums I’d heard, and perhaps I wouldn’t have got to that other one without this one first; perhaps this was my gateway to electronic music; the one which would set me on a path away from all those noisy guitars.
Or perhaps that was the Eberhard Schoener album from before. Either way, as I’ve already hinted, it didn’t stick. I still prefer my guitar-based music to have keyboards in it, but I never – quite – went full electronic. Which, no doubt, is my loss.
I’m no closer, however, to finding out just what it was about this album in particular which snagged my attention and brought me back to the point where, a couple of years ago, I found myself staring at a second-hand vinyl copy in a record store and wondering if I should buy it for a third time. I didn’t, on that occasion, but perhaps I should have. Let’s find out….
As I said before, there are two tracks on here I can still hum, and even know some of the words to. They are, it turns out (and as I had suspected) the last two songs on the album, but the comforting thing for me is that I do recognise the names of the others; this wasn’t something I bought and then hardly ever played.
The first thing I notice about the opening track, Don’t Touch Me (I’m Electric) is that it’s a guitar-based song; this clearly is more a more complicated album than I remember. The vocals are in the late-seventies ‘not quite singing’ idiom, and there’s a lot going on in the mix – weird squelching sounds, a synthesized saxophone solo, and a real spikiness to the whole thing; it’s a short, snappy post-punk song which might easily have appeared on that Boomtown Rats album from a few weeks back. Not what you’d call a memorable tune, but there’s more going on than I perhaps realised at the time.
And now I’ve invoked Tonic for the Troops, I hear it all over For Young Moderns too. Not just the title, but melody lines and the whole idea that this is new, ‘modern’ music. What’s obvious here is that the ‘new’ sounds are layered over a traditional rhythm section and the punchy guitar chords frame whatever synthesised sounds there are, illustrating just how much is ‘new’ in this sound – not as much as you might think at first listen. I also have a sneaking suspicion that there’s a musical theme or two which we might hear again later. The song eventually fades out under a fistful of discordant piano which manages to be – as intended, you suspect – cold and robotic while also chaotic and unstructured.
Stop/Go/Stop is, frankly, more of the same. It has a Philip K Dick-inflected dystopian future feel to it, and music to match. I keep trying to find synonyms for ‘spiky’, because that’s really the key feature of all the music so far. I do think this marries the old and new sounds more successfully than the previous two tracks, but I’m not sure I have anything much more to say about it.
Furniture Music was, I think, a single from this album, but I don’t think the plodding rhythm and blank nihilism struck much of a chord with the British public. It is a more interesting song than I’m making it sound, very late seventies / early eighties in feel, but there are bands and artists just around the corner who will make this kind of thing hugely popular by just tweaking the sound a little. This, for example, might have benefited from being about 10% faster, or just holding the guitar sound back so the synthesizer carries more of the tune.
And, I’m sorry, but I’m not getting on with the vocal stylings. Knowing it’s done for effect doesn’t make it any more bearable to listen to, I’m afraid. Maybe I loved it more when I was a whiny teenager, as that’s pretty much exactly what it sounds like.
Fortunately, Radar in my Heart is much better. Faster, more melodic, with more interesting extraneous noises. It’s beginning to dawn on me that this is an album sung from the perspective of a robot or android or something, and this works much better with that in mind, and with the spark of life which has been injected into this.
Stay Young also works; I think it helps that it has a harmonica solo followed by a proper, old-fashioned guitar break, and the synthesized sounds weave in and out rather than being laid on top of everything. It’s picked up quite a bit since I had a moan about it; let’s see what side two sounds like.
Out of Touch is the inevitable one about the psychotic breakdown; this seemed to be a common theme around this time, and there’s undoubtedly a whole doctoral thesis to be written on the themes of psychosis and disconnect in the lyrics of post-punk bands; were they trying to shock (there’s one line in this song which is definitely there for effect, and which sits very uneasily with the rest of it now), or were they just reflecting the times? Hard to say in this case; it’s a song sung in character, and while there’s probably some value in diving deeper into whether all these songs are from the same point of view, and whether that character is a robot or just a dehumanised person, I’m not sure they’ve yet made the case that they deserver any further analysis.
If this album has a manifesto, it’s laid out in A Better Home in the Phantom Zone, which is the point where it finally stops experimenting and just breaks out an actual song which is about something. It is, of course, partly about the whole ‘suburbia is the worst’ aesthetic, but it has a real bite to it, and rather than just referring to things, it actually manages to invoke the spirit of someone like J G Ballard, and the fascination and disgust with the mundane. I like this song better than everything I’ve heard so far put together, and it’s because the musicians feel involved, and so does the listener. I’d have happily listened to a whole album of this, thanks.
Sadly, Substitute Flesh can’t quite maintain the momentum. Where it should make you uneasy and on edge, it just makes me, at least, slightly queasy. I can clearly see what Nelson was aiming for here; it’s just that the song doesn’t quite hit the target, and it just sounds a little disjointed – the music here is much better than the vocal line and the lyric, which probably needed another couple of drafts. It’s not dull like the middle parts of side one, but it doesn’t quite reach its potential, either.
The Atom Age is similar, although it lacks any of the edginess of the previous track – it’s just a blank robot anthem. Listening to it, I’m irresistibly reminded of Hazel O’Connor and her android persona in Eighth Day; it’s very much of its time, and I don’t think it’s aged well. Oh, and there’s a guitar solo which feels like it’s dropped in from another song; another genre, even.
Anyway, here come the two songs I remember clearly; I’m really looking forward to finding out why.
For the first time since I put this on, I’m smiling. Art/Empire/Industry has me bouncing along; not only does it have an irresistible beat and a riff I remember after all this time, it feels like – maybe for the first time – everyone on this track means it. There’s a callback to an earlier track, a neat invocation of Nineteen Eighty-Four, some vocal treatment towards the end which finally lifts the sound out of the groove of disinterest it’s been mostly stuck in, and while it’s just as nihilistic and bleak as all the other tracks, it’s also fun. And that’s ultimately what I’ve been missing.
Revolt Into Style explicitly namechecks 1984, and as a result, the song almost breathes a sigh of relief – this is what all of this has been about, and now we can just cut loose and enjoy ourselves a bit. Like its predecessor, it’s a song full of life and has a melody which will crawl into your brain and stay there for – let’s see – 42 years and counting. I was afraid of this, but it’s true; the last two tracks on here are so much better than everything else that I almost understand why I bought the CD version – at a time when there was no other way to hear half-remembered songs from albums you no longer owned, buying another copy was probably worth it, just to hear two tracks which had stayed with you long after the overall impression of the album had faded.
Before I go, I’m going to recognise the sterling work of drummer Dave Mattacks throughout this exercise. I’m not sure I’d have got through all of this without his care and attention to detail. When he, too, gets to cut loose at the end, it feels like a just reward for all the work he’s put in holding these songs together.
Overall, then, do I recommend rushing out to buy your very own copy of Sound-on-Sound? Probably not, although you can make up your own minds. 1979 was a strange and interesting year for new music, and while I don’t think this album heralded anything in particular, I’m sure its influence was felt in some of the things we would shortly be listening to, and while I won’t be urgently seeking this out next time I’m in a record store, I’m certain that if it was carefully remixed, I’d love to hear some of the things which are surely hidden away in here somewhere.
Anyone got Steven Wilson’s number?
Any other albums by this artist to consider?
This is the only Red Noise album; if the guitar-focused parts intrigued you, you might like to try some Be-Bop Deluxe (Sunburst Finish with its oh-so-Seventies cover is still probably their best, but the last two albums point the way towards this, as it turns out). The next Bill Nelson album, released under his own name, is called Quit Dreaming (and Get on the Beam), and I’ved heard that a couple of times. It does seem to address some of the issues I had with Sound-on-Sound, and almost had a hit single in Do You Dream in Colour?
Compilations to consider?
There’s a Very Best of Be-Bop Deluxe album, and several Bill Nelson compilations, including a recent series called The Dreamer’s Companion which I know nothing about, but may well investigate.
Not from this band, although – intriguingly, I have heard a live version of Out of Touch, which I think was the B-side of a single. It is fascinating to think that there might be a whole live set from this time out there somewhere; I have a suspicion that these songs might well have worked better live.
Anything else? Not that I’m aware of, although in researching this, I see a DVD called Flashlight Dreams…and Fleeting Shadows, and I’d like to know more.