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Bill Nelson - My Secret Studio Vol. 1 album review

Home demos from undervalued prog genius

Having mastered the art of idiosyncratic baroque pop-prog with Be Bop Deluxe and Red Noise, Bill Nelson (his insatiable compulsion to experiment increasingly constricted by the confines of band membership) embarked upon a solo career more characterised by perpetual forward momentum than formulaic reliability.

A guitar virtuoso at music technology’s cutting edge, Nelson seemed as devoted to innovation as David Bowie. His best recordings succinctly defined their zeitgeist, yet he never seemed to take time out to consolidate his successes before moving on. If ever there was a career that favoured art above commerce, it was Nelson’s.

As his fortunes faded – from Do You Dream In Colour? (a minor hit on his own Cocteau imprint at the dawn of the 80s) through divorce, tax and management problems to the collapse of the Enigma label, to whom he’d just signed as the decade drew to a close – Nelson simply carried on working.

Immersed in his home studio between 1988 and 1992, he concocted a treasure trove of over 300 demos, destined for a band that never quite materialised. The best of these saw the light of day in 1995, released across the My Secret Studio series as three individual CDs: Buddha Head, Electricity Made Us Angels and Deep Dream Decoder. A four-disc box set, re-released here, followed (in a limited edition of 2,000), the original trio of releases augmented with an extra disc entitled Juke Box For Jet Boy. Much sought after latterly by Nelson aficionados, it proves to be quite the treasure trove.

Of course, your jaded good sense is probably wondering: “How good can 65 sketchy studio-floor sweepings be?” What you should be pondering, as a prog-leaning sonic explorer, is: “So what did the man who gave us Maid In Heaven and Revolt Into Style do next?” Good question. I’m so glad you asked.

The My Secret Studio recordings are inarguably of their time which, as times go, doesn’t do them many favours as regards posterity. But laying aside orchestral swoops and a dynamism-killing 80s drum machine, many of these ‘song sketches’ are invaluable additions to any collection. Nelson’s guitar tones are celestial, his signature vocals as easy on the ear as Brian Eno, and his evocative instrumentals engaging. For reference points there are echoes of Discipline-era Crimson, John Cale, Roxy Music, Talking Heads, Japan and, especially, Bowie.

Nelson often comes across as the best guitarist Bowie never had – not as dissonant as Fripp, but equally experimental. What he might have brought to ’76 Berlin, God only knows.

Daydreams aside, My Secret Studio Vol. 1 captures an undervalued prog genius at his most inspired.