The missing link is a magician

Bill Nelson started glam, went gnostic and will end the century in York Minster. By Mark Prendergast
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The Independent Online
I'm driving around the Yorkshire countryside in the rain with Bill Nelson. He's talking about playing with gamelan musicians in Bali, an intuitive happening which developed into an interesting improvisation. He then lunges into a graphic description of Tokyo life, a life he led for a year while separated from his wife and living with his Japanese girlfriend, Emiko. Now back in Yorkshire in a bijou mews house in the middle of hills and dales, Nelson is fast reconstituting his career after a four-year legal battle with an ex-manager over who owns the vast Bill Nelson back catalogue.

Nelson is one of the great survivors of the glam-rock era of the early Seventies. Two albums on EMI - Sunburst Finish and Modern Music (both produced by the Stone Roses' producer John Leckie) - catapulted his band Be Bop Deluxe into the mainstream in 1976. Max Factor and lip-gloss met Ziggy Stardust, Jean Cocteau and outer-space travel fantasies. Bill got on Top of the Pops and played magic guitar solos on his Gibson.

On the wall of his house are the two gold discs he received for those albums. "Although Be Bop used irony, we didn't forget a sense of warmth. We respected the juxtaposition of things, the rubbing of one style against another. We took elements from the history of rock and roll, deconstructed them and reconstructed them. Wouldn't have used the term post-modernist then, but would now."

Rather than cite David Bowie as his major influence then, Nelson goes back further - to the days of Jimi Hendrix. "I was an art student in Wakefield at the peak of the cultural revolution of the Sixties. I was into Roy Lichtenstein and Pink Floyd. The whole idea of taking the everyday and removing it from its context appealed to me. At the same time Bryan Ferry was at Newcastle College of Art and Bowie was doing arts lab things in Beckenham. So I applied Ibsen's Peer Gynt and John Cage's prepared piano things to the guitar. I formed ad hoc ensembles and at Holyground studios recorded Northern Dream, my first album."

That 1971 opus would get Nelson national airplay from John Peel and a deal with EMI. Roll on 1976 and a Sunburst Finish gig at the Drury Lane theatre in London where such people as David Sylvian, Gary Numan, Cabaret Voltaire and the Associates turned up to see Nelson play and duly formed bands. "I was the missing link between one thing and another." In 1979, a year after Be Bop closed for business, Nelson returned with Red Noise, a group perfectly in spirit with the times. Stripped down electro-rock was his forte and he pushed forward with both technology and the short song form to be a very successful Eighties artist. "I did 25 albums in the Eighties. Some on my own label, others for Phonogram and CBS - Quit Dreaming, The Love that Whirls, Chimera, Getting the Holy Ghost Across, plus boxed sets, instrumental stuff, Orchestra Arcana stuff, music with Yellow Magic Orchestra, Cabaret Voltaire, produced the Skids, the Associates, Gary Numan, Nash the Slash. Did films like Dream Demon, Henry Moore, Map of Dreams, Brond. I did a 30-second TV ad for Right to Reply and got pounds 14,000 for it. I just never went away. Prog rock was about going away for five years and coming back in another five years. I'm a musical beast and have to keep creating."

Dotted around Nelson's abode are subtle references toNelson's music of the past - Fifties space toys and robots, Jean Cocteau books and candelabras used in ceremonial magic. The latter influenced the making of 1988's Chance Encounters in the Garden of Lights - one of the finest instrumental albums of mystical ambience ever. "There was a time in the Eighties when I was a member of three different secret orders. Magic was a very narrow part of what I did. Rosicrucianism, alchemy or the word gnostic would be more apt because they cover a multitude of sins. I'd had an interest in Aleister Crowley and his disciples. Crowley was to magic what Gary Numan was to electronic pop music. He was into power and elitism. Israel Regardie, one of his followers and the last surviving member of the Golden Dawn, said anyone contemplating anything to do with ceremonial magic should undergo intensive psychotherapies. I had a temple and dressed up, but if I go any further people will start thinking about Hammer Horror films and The Devil Rides Out, the archetypal cliche."

By his own account, Nelson has released more than 60 albums, not counting collaborations. Having worked with David Sylvian in the late Eighties, Nelson lent his whirling luminous guitar sound to the re-formed Japan in 1991. A shift to Sylvian's management at Opium Arts saw him working with the likes of Daniel Lanois and Harold Budd in New Orleans. Recent stints with Kate St John, Laraaji, Roger Eno and Japanese band Culturemix see Nelson stretching even further.

"I suppose I have a spiritual philosophy which is personal. I think people should keep these things to themselves. I saw the Shadows at the Playhouse Theatre when I was a teenager, and it was as if I had seen the burning bush on Mt Sinai. Hank Marvin was a prophet of the gods for me and Hendrix later moved things around. This new boxed set, My Secret Studio, records inner and outer feelings during a period of personal crisis. Some of it is surreal, some of it light-hearted and fizzy. My next album, After the Satellite Sings, is very diverse but takes what's happening at the harder edge of drums and bass. It features Jack Kerouac samples and is out in the New Year."

Nelson, now in his mid-forties, has never stopped. He talks of Be Bop Deluxe covers bands, of glam weirdos who have stalked him and his family and of his need to push forward. "What my experience has taught me is that the clothes, the big houses and Rolls-Royce are meaningless. It's the ability and stability to create that matters. I'm working on a millennium project titled 2000 Words to be performed in York Minster at the end of the century. It will involve everyone I've worked with. I'm also working on a film, Evocations of a Radiant Childhood, which is semi-autobiographical and a book, Little Illuminations. You see, I just don't want to ever stop."

n 'Bill Nelson: My Secret Studio (Music from the Great Magnetic Back of Beyond Vol 1)', a four-CD boxed set, is available on Voiceprint. The same label will release 'After the Satellite Sings' in January