My iTunes library currently has 92 CDs worth of music by Bill Nelson, or 1,374 songs, from his earliest release Northern Dream, to the latest self-published disc Perfect Monsters. No other musician I follow has such a huge discography (other than the Grateful Dead, most of whose releases are live recordings), nor has maintained a consistently high level of musicianship for so long. I listen to Bill Nelson’s music often; sometimes picking an album, sometimes just putting my big Bill Nelson playlist in shuffle mode.
I first heard Bill Nelson’s music in recordings by his band Be Bop Deluxe in the mid-1970s. A combination of glam rock and futuristic ideas – think David Bowie, Ultravox, Roxy Music – Be Bop Deluxe released five studio albums from 1974 to 1978, and one popular live album, Live! in the Air Age, in 1977. While the band never hit the top of the charts, their albums did make the top 20 in the UK, with Live! in the Air Age hitting number 10.
I don’t recall exactly when I first heard the band; it may have been with the release of Modern Music in 1976. I quickly became a fan, picking up the previous albums – Axe Victim, Futurama, and Sunburst Finish – and then managed to see them live at the Palladium in New York, in October, 1976, in an unlikely pairing with Lynyrd Skynyrd. It’s hard to remember a concert from 40 years ago, but I recall being more impressed by Bill Nelson’s searing guitar riffs than by Free Bird, and the Live! in the Air Age album, released the following year, provided an excellent record of the band’s touring prowess.
These were my years of collecting records, notably those by English bands. A couple of years later, I started listening to the post punk music of The Durutti Column, New Order, and others, but I remained a staunch fan of Be Bop Deluxe. Their final album, in 1978, was Drastic Plastic, which was a quirky nod toward the future.
After that, Bill Nelson recorded a few albums on Mercury, then went solo, creating his own label Cocteau Records, and began releasing a series of interesting, often surprising albums. I bought everything I could find: singles, LPS, EPs, different versions of albums (some of his early solo albums were available in editions with a second, free disc). Then, in the mid-1980s, I left New York for France, and dropped out of new music for a long time.
Nevertheless, I bought Be Bop Deluxe’s albums on CD, and they long remained part of my music library. About a year ago, I looked up Bill Nelson on Amazon, and found that he had an extraordinary discography. In particular, there were two box sets that I grabbed. The Practice of Everyday Life (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) is an eight-disc selection of music from Nelson’s earliest days through 2011, the 40th anniversary of the start of his recording career. It features some Be Bop Deluxe tracks, some of the early solo music, as well as songs from more recent recordings. With more than 150 songs, it is a broad selection of his work. Noise Candy (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) is a six-disc selection of solo recordings originally released in 2002, and reissued last year. With about 120 songs, it shows the wide variety of music he has recorded since the 1990s. And a 2012 live album – two CDs and one DVD – Live In Concert At Metropolis Studios London – Bill Nelson & The Gentlemen Rocketeers (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) offers a showcase of some of his old songs from Be Bop Deluxe together with some of his newer music, in a rare live performance. It’s worth getting just for the DVD, to see Bill play live.
But it doesn’t stop there. Bill Nelson has released dozens of albums that he has recorded, mixed, and marketed on his own. His Wikipedia page gives a fairly complete list of his recordings, and you can see that he generally releases about four to six albums every year. These are released in small editions – currently 500 copies each – and the only way to find out about them in time is to follow his forum, where new releases are announced. There are also more than 20 albums currently available for download on Bandcamp, including some rare recordings that haven’t been available for decades. (The Bandcamp page is a good place to sample some of Bill Nelson’s music.)
Nelson’s music has attracted a devoted, but small, group of fans. He has said, on his forum, that “even though I only press up 500 copies of an album these days, the physical CD sales do enable me to continue in the work I’ve done for over 40 years now, thanks to those loyal fans who snap up every copy.”
The music ranges from guitar-focused rock to ambient music; from lyrical instrumentals to acoustic ditties; from songs to experimental works. But through all this music, there is a “Bill Nelson sound,” a tone of lightness, playfulness, a tone that Nelson calls “retro-futurist.” Together with the music is the album artwork, which often combines science-fiction imagery with levity.
Unfortunately, Bill Nelson has suffered total hearing loss in one ear, along with other health issues, and has said he most likely won’t ever be performing live again, but he continues to record almost daily in his home studio. In a recent post on his forum, Bill listed thirteen albums that are due for release in the coming months.
Bill Nelson is one of the most productive indie musicians I’ve ever encountered. With his wide range of music – from rock to ambient, from progressive to undefinable – he is a rare talent in this world of standardized music.