“In the ‘70s I said I’d love to release an album per month, like a magazine. People thought I was insane!” Bill Nelson just released two albums – and he has at least nine more coming up

Bill Nelson
(Image credit: Future)

Nostalgia isn’t a word often associated with Bill Nelson – yet he views the past through rose-tinted spectacles on his latest solo albums, All The Fun Of The Fair and Starlight Stories. The forward-thinking Be-Bop Deluxe and Red Noise bandleader tells Prog about his childhood heroes, beating the challenges of ageing and his works in progress.

With two new albums released in recent months and plenty in the pipeline, it’s safe to say Bill Nelson remains, at 75, as inspired and prolific as ever. One reason for this may be that he came from a devotedly musical family.

“The day I was born, December 18, 1948, my mum was starting to go into labour, but knew my dad had a gig at the town hall in Wakefield for the Lord Mayor’s Christmas Ball,” he chuckles. “So she didn’t tell my dad she’d started – it was an important gig for him and she knew he’d not go. She packed him off to the gig, and only then called the midwife!”

His dad was a saxophonist who had a big band in the 50s. “So music was always around for me. My mother was in a tap-dancing troupe – that’s how they met. I had a cousin who was a jazz trumpeter and another who was a classical and flamenco guitarist. So it was definitely in the air.”

Music still surrounds Nelson in the 2020s, and he records at home in Yorkshire for several hours a day. “I’ll start around 5pm or 6pm, have a half-hour break for dinner at 9pm, then go back and work until midnight or 1am. I like recording at that time. Somehow there’s less energy in the ether from other people. Everyone’s gone to bed and in a strange way there’s more oxygen for me to focus.”

Does he love it as much as ever? “Oh yes, I enjoy it tremendously,” he replies in his warm, light, Yorkshire burr. “I keep coming up with new ideas, so it’s an ongoing process. I don’t perform live any more because of health issues, but recording I can still manage to do despite failing eyesight. It keeps me sane, in a way.”

His half-century-plus career has covered leftfield pop success, glam, prog, electronica, ambient experimentation, and now an assured cult status as an artist revered not just by his loyal fanbase but by other musicians. (He’s collaborated over the years with everyone from David Sylvian to Cabaret Voltaire, Yellow Magic Orchestra to Harold Budd, and Johnny Marr often namechecks him.) 

Since the heady days of Be-Bop Deluxe and Red Noise, he’s released an astonishing number of albums, clearly more comfortable away from the old industry and label norms. “I can get very self-critical listening to my own stuff,” he says. “But everything has flaws anyway. There’s only apparent perfection. If you look under the surface, anything has blemishes. And with my work now, I think that’s what makes it sound like me.

As much as I’m proud of Be Bop Deluxe, it doesn’t much relate to me here and now

“Most bands have bigger budgets, but many end up with that super-polished finish, which makes everything sound the same. So there’s something to be said for the limitations I inhabit, with me doing all the engineering and everything here in what was a small bedroom. I always get more excited by the next thing than the last thing I did.”

His most recent releases make a contrasting but complementary pair. Starlight Stories is dreamy, introspective; All The Fun Of The Fair is more exuberant, flamboyant. The spark for the former was a nostalgic memory from childhood, wherein his mother read to him from books that she herself first encountered as a child, almost 100 years ago.

“It’s strange; I rarely go in with a plan – I just see what happens. But that idea emerged, and then tracks coalesced into a cohesive whole. Those 1920s books were full of art nouveau illustrations and fantasy pictures, evoking all kinds of strangeness.

“I’ve got a couple still – huge, thick books with oddball stories and poems. Blake, HG Wells, an abbreviated-for-kids version of Don Quixote, plus more obscure stuff. There was something romantic and ethereal about them. A sense of wonder.”

Titles like Sailing Through Skies Of Blue and Goodbye Golden Sands set the mood before the album even starts. “Goodbye Golden Sands came from recalling when my folks had a chalet on the east coast, in a park called Golden Sands. Out of curiosity I looked on Google Maps recently and the entire area had been washed away by the sea. This was quite a shock; that whole area – disappeared.”

Although the record may nestle with nostalgia, Nelson’s career has famously been forward-looking. There were phases, notably in the 80s, where it seemed he was suffering for being ahead of his time as he mixed together ideas, instruments and genres. Nowadays, though, he’s happy to embrace both the past and what’s yet to come.

“There’s a dichotomy now, yes,” he muses. “I don’t know if it’s because I’ve come to a certain age. These days I suppose there’s more to look back on than there is to look forward to as time’s running out. Then again, once an album’s out, I rarely listen to it again. I’m thinking, ‘What’s next?’ For instance, the 70s and Be-Bop Deluxe – as much as I’m proud of that, it’s 40-odd years ago, y’know? It doesn’t much relate to me here and now.

“Yet I do like drawing on things from the past and putting them in a fresh new context. The electric guitar is still a fundamental feature of what I do, but I try to surround it with other things – electronica, samples, glitches and so on. So I’m not sticking with the standard rock stereotypes.”

Prog has spoken with him at length about the Be-Bop Deluxe days and sassy art-glam reissues on previous occasions. Just for fun, we ask which are his personal favourites among his old band’s albums. “Gosh, that’s hard, you see, because I always like a few tracks from one, a few from another. We were young!

“So I’ll say individual songs. Off the top of my head, I’m fond of Crying To The Sky, Adventures In A Yorkshire Landscape, Visions Of Endless Hopes, Love Is Swift Arrows and Darkness (L’Immoraliste). Otherwise, it’s like choosing between children!”

In the 80s keyboards and synths were predominant, then I went more ambient… now all of those things come into play

If Starlight Stories is as ruminative as a Pre-Raphaelite painting, Nelson’s other new piece has more in common with pop art. “Yes – though the phrase ‘all the fun of the fair’ has sinister undertones. Perhaps because I was thinking of Ray Bradbury’s book Something Wicked This Way Comes. Again, since I was a child, fairgrounds have always been somewhat attractive but somewhat weird!

“Then, of course, the rides can be seen as the ups and downs you experience in life: bad things and good things. As with circuses or clowns, there’s a sense of, ‘Should I be laughing or running away?’ So yeah, there’s a theatricality and spookiness on that record; it’s much more ‘rock’ than Starlight Stories. But never orthodox...”

His release schedules aren’t orthodox either. Are those who buy his albums able to keep up? “I’m fortunate in that respect. They do seem to get into it and come back for more. Part of that is it’s never the same thing! I don’t plough one furrow – there’s an element of surprise each time.

“There was a time in the 80s when keyboards and synths were predominant in what I did, then I went more ambient, abstract. But now all of those things can come into play – rock, jazz – they’re all likely to be in there, not fighting with each other but trying to harmonise.

“I remember, back in the 70s, expressing my frustration at the pace at which the music industry worked. I said I’d love to release an album per month, like a magazine. People thought I was insane! But now most of us are free of all that. I’ve got three volumes of guitar instrumentals called Guitars Of Tomorrow almost ready, and half a dozen albums held over from pandemic time: Powertron, Magnetic Travels, Phantom Fuzzbox, Studio Cadet... these will all soon be mastered, and hopefully come out.”

The first Duane Eddy single I ever got was Because They’re Young… They might say a record can’t change your life – this one did

Nelson’s unconventional way of thinking stems back to his youth. The freedom he experienced as a student at Wakefield College Of Art seems as significant in shaping his output as his musical roots. “I was encouraged to go because I liked to draw, and that was one of those moments when your outlook on life changes drastically,” he reflects.

“We were given freedom to be responsible for our own education. We were taught – and very well – but allowed our own approach. And at that time, late ’65 or ’66, the music scene was catching fire too, with the beginnings of what became psychedelia and so on. It all fed off each other. I discovered John Cage, Stockhausen, Jean Cocteau – all these things opened doors, musically and visually.”

After pondering whether music and art still spin off each other in the 21st century (he admits he doesn’t keep up with pop music nowadays), Nelson recalls that in the early 80s he toured an ambitious project called The Invisibility Exhibition, with “the Yorkshire Actors doing plays, Japanese duo Frank Chickens performing, Richard Jobson reading his poetry, and my brother and I improvising over taped backing tracks – and people were open to it. They gave it a try and enjoyed it. Barriers between disciplines came down. That echoed for me the 60s, when art and music blossomed: fertile, colourful.”

Stretching even further back, he adds that his original guitar heroes were Duane Eddy and The Shadows. It transpires that since Nelson was asked to present Eddy with an award in London some years ago, they become friends. [Eddy died in April 2024.] “The first single I ever got of his was Because They’re Young, when I was 10. They might say a record can’t change your life – this one did.”

Nelson himself is, of course, a guitar hero to many, and his versatility and ongoing spirit of musical adventure that has kept his restless yield intriguing for so long. Frustratingly, diabetes has led to sight problems which now hinder him working onscreen. “It’s hard to see the right thing to click on. So that’s maybe, subconsciously, another spur to try and get as much as possible done while I still can.”

He’s previously persevered despite a hearing issue too. “I’m still totally deaf in my right ear. But the strange thing is, when I record I can hear stereo – with one ear. I don’t know how that works! Something to do with my brain being trained to the vibrations...”

It’s to be hoped that Nelson and his good vibrations long continue to bedazzle us with artful abundance. “Something always seems to jump out and say, ‘Try me!’” he says with a smile. “There’s a lot still to come.”

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts has written about music, films, and art for innumerable outlets. His new book The Velvet Underground is out April 4. He has also published books on Lou Reed, Elton John, the Gothic arts, Talk Talk, Kate Moss, Scarlett Johansson, Abba, Tom Jones and others. Among his interviewees over the years have been David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Patti Smith, Debbie Harry, Bryan Ferry, Al Green, Tom Waits & Lou Reed. Born in North Wales, he lives in London.