Tuesday, July 19, 2005:

Bill Nelson's Red Noise

Bill Nelson's Red Noise - robot answering the phone
Bill Nelson's Red Noise -- Furniture Music
Bill Nelson's Red Noise -- Out of Touch
Tell me, you see an LP with this cover, with a price of two dollars, and the 33 is in good shape. Can you not buy it? You're curious, right?

These tracks are from Sound-on-Sound, an LP recorded at Townhouse Studios in London and released in 1979 on Harvest/EMI/Capitol. I'm not sure what I'd expected, exactly, aside from something interesting. Playing the "sounds like" game, the music is equal parts The Cars and Talking Heads, except when it's The Cars/Talking Heads/Kraftwerk. Yes, it sounds like its era--post-punk/New Wave--but it's accomplished work.

The lyrics tend towards the neurotic and somewhat cold; as a whole, they're discontent with the trends towards greater computerization. The songs have titles like "Don't Touch Me (I'm Electric)," "Radar in My Heart," and "Substitute Flesh"; the lyrics have passages like "I'm all hooked up to every modern appliance / But I hang with the angels on the gallows of science" ("The Atom Age"). It seems a safe bet that Nelson (or at least his narrator) was dissatisfied with the society of the time, and that he associated it with dehumanization and alienation. It's odd, then, that so much of the content seems to be from a point of view that's already alienated. Is this a concept album, or is this Nelson speaking directly? Did the alienation cause the discontent, or vice versa (or both)?

"Furniture Music" is a song about a man who gets tired of being in his room, so he rearranges his furniture. Perfectly sensible solution, when you're afraid to go outside.

"Out of Touch" seems almost schizophrenic, with its focus on staring faces and eyes like mirrors and people who seem to know more than they're letting on. Whatever you do, don't try to fool the man with science.

... All of this might be horribly depressing if it weren't for the music: it's catchy and upbeat, occasionally frantic, making it easy enough to hum along and miss the lyrics. I could see a DJ dropping some of the tracks, the dance floor packed with sweaty oblivious people; I wonder what Nelson would think about it. He'd probably regard it with a wry humor, maybe write a few notes in a small battered book.

At any rate, I don't know if he still records, but I'd love to hear what he's up to these days. I'm also curious if he thinks the world now is much like the kind of world depicted/predicted on the LP.
[Amazon.com]: CD re-release.

update: Girish points out an Ira Robbins writeup of Nelson, which shows he's been up to quite a lot indeed since 1979.


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