Bill Nelson isn’t what I would describe as space rock or psychedelic. But his 1970s band Be Bop Deluxe certainly had sci-fi and futuristic themes. And there’s an ambient/soundscape quality to much of his solo work. I followed him closely from the Be Bop years through the mid-80s and then lost track of him until last year when I learned of a new book biography, which I picked up and enjoyed. Cherry Red’s Esoteric label, in conjunction with Nelson’s own Cocteau Discs. has reissued Nelson’s 1986 Getting The Holy Ghost Across (aka On A Blue Wing), which is probably the first, or one of the first, of his albums released after my attention was diverted in the 1980s.
Nelson is an elegant lyricist, and during the Be Bop Deluxe days was an equality elegant and lyrical guitarist. Nelson intentionally stepped away from the guitar hero role and went on to use the instrument more as a textural tool, like an audio paintbrush. The first hint of things to come was the last Be Bop Deluxe album, 1978’s Drastic Plastic, evidence that Nelson had been influenced by the music flourishing in the initial post-punk explosion. And his next album, Bill Nelson’s Red Noise, is in my opinion long overdue for recognition as the post-punk classic that it is.
After Red Noise, Nelson’s solo output, both albums and EPs, came at a steady clip, featuring a variety of songs, experimental work, and theater production scores. Getting The Holy Ghost Across is very much in line with where Nelson was at in this period, being a set of 80s electro driven pop songs that draw on an intriguing mix of styles. Contemplation is an 8+ minute ambient electro-pop song with lusciously efx’d soundscape guitar licks, quirky, yet body swaying rhythms and seductive melodies, like some kind of New Wave Torch song. Theology blends 80s electro-pop with the robotic quirkiness of Kraftwerk, and then projects it into a cinematic dream world. Wildest Dreams is a space-age swinging song with a Caribbean inspired flair, but also violin, horns, and beautifully disorienting efx. Lost In Your Mystery includes Oriental and jazz elements, all within a spacey dreamy indiosyncratic brand of New Wave romance and quirky but seductive rhythms. We’ve got the spacey electro jazz-pop of Age of Reason and the electro jazz-funk of Because of You. And The Hidden Flame is an electro grooving pop tune with a catchy melody that is far above anything heard in the major hits of the day.
The 11 track bonus CD includes all the songs from Nelson’s Living For The Spangled Moment and Wildest Dreams 12″ EPs. Standouts includes the “wild mix” of Wildest Dreams, which has passionate vocals from Nelson, killer bass, and freaky psychedelic effects at the end. I love the funky electro jazz-pop of Heart and Soul, Living For The Spangled Moment, and Finks and Stooges of the Spirit, the latter of which includes brief rockin’ guitar leads. More beautiful leads can be heard on the electro-pop Word For Word. There are also some interesting instrumentals. Feast of Lanterns is a spacey dual acoustic guitar piece. I like the spacey atmospheric vibe of Night Birds. And Self Impersonation is a cool grooving psychedelic electro-pop instrumental with tasteful guitar leads.
If Nelson missed the early 80s MTV boat, it’s probably because as accessible and catchy as so many of these songs are, there’s still a freaky factor that drives them excitingly off the beaten path. He utilizes elements of electro dream-pop, Kraftwerk quirkiness, romanticism, lounge jazz and ambient/soundscape atmospherics and effects to create his own brand of innovative 80s pop. The bass throughout has a beautiful fretless sound. Combine that with Nelson’s creativity and proficiency with the guitar and an exquisite lyrical flair and you’ve got a set of songs that are musically challenging, yet completely accessible to all.
Reviewed by Jerry Kranitz