The latest in Esoteric’s series of reissues from the massive back catalogue of singular Yorkshire artist Bill Nelson is this 1995 album, After The Satellite Sings. By 1995 I had largely, if not forgotten about Mr Nelson, drifted away from his steady solo output, so it is good to hear this album now as if it was new.
Recorded in a remarkable 28 days at Fairview Studios, East Yorkshire, it is instantly apparent that the recording technology used does not date the album to its decade of origin as the sounds on his 1980s output were wont to do. Also remarkable is that according to his liner notes, Bill went into the studio “without having prepared a single note of music or one word of lyric”. Although describing the seemingly methodical recording process, Bill remains “mystified to know how that happened”, for what came out the other end four weeks later is rounded and polished, and not in the least “on the hoof”. That can only act as testament to Bill’s talent, not only in the songwriting field, but also as a producer.
Unusually and in this instance amazingly, given his statement of having no lyrics prepared beforehand, this album is comprised of 14 fully-formed songs, the only two instrumentals being Skull Baby Cluster and V-Ghost. Bill tackles subjects ranging from pastoral and environmental concerns to existentialism, to a sense of wonderment at and of our place in the grand scheme of things using references to nature and technology, themes that go right back to the start of his career. There are also examples of the kind of off-kilter tales that Be-Bop Deluxe fans would recognise. All the lyrics are loosely tied to Bill’s interest in the Beat Generation of Kerouac and Ginsberg, and his love of the genre includes applying cut’n’paste techniques to the recording of the intermittent bursts of nostalgically raucous but controlled guitar parts.
Flipside utilises the then new drum’n’bass rhythms of the time to good effect, an indication of Bill’s always questing nature, and his willingness to try new techniques. The louche laid-back lounge groove of Streamliner is accompanied by a similarly world-weary semi-rap that has me thinking of Robin Scott of M and his excursions into similar territory.
It is sometimes easy to forget, in fact a newcomer to Bill Nelson’s canon on hearing any number of his solo LPs would be forgiven for not making the association, but Bill was of course once an alternative guitar hero for those of us who couldn’t be doing with rock star posturing. The aforementioned teasingly brief forays into the world of dazzling fret work are spread throughout the album, for example as heard on Memory Babe and Ordinary Idiots, the latter with some particularly incendiary work that combined with its modernistic structure recalls Be Bop’s Modern Music album. These fleeting but frequent glimpses serve to remind us of Bill’s many and varied past plank spanking glories, the song title Memory Babe maybe illustrating the point.
More drum’n’bass is mixed with some great guitar on the skittering Rocket To Damascus, which has a distinctly Bowie-sounding vocal, but that’s just how Bill’s voice sounds. However, it would seem the influence has come full circle. Be Bop’s first album Axe Victim was the sound of a band finding its feet, emerging into the daylight under the heavy all-pervading influence of Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust, and in the liner notes Bill is chuffed to relate that Bowie’s then current guitarist Reeves Gabrels told him that Bowie was influenced in turn by After The Satellite Sings when making his Earthling album.
I would like to think that having a sequence of tracks with the concurrent titles of Beautiful Nudes, Old Goat, and Squirm is indicative of Bill’s sense of humour… only he could answer that! Beautiful Nudes is a languidly simmering and gently erotic poem, and Old Goat is a humorous tale of a middle-aged man looking back on his romantic triumphs and becoming less enamoured of his place in the here and now and his less than perfect form, as he “hurtles into history… It’s all too much”. One is reminded that Bill has always been a great poet as well as a multi-talented musician. Squirm is another Bowie moment, full of cut-up and a vague air of repulsion.
After the fire and brimstone of the modern blues that is Ordinary Idiots, the contrast of the naturally ethereal instrumental V-Ghost transports us back to Bill’s early solo work which often featured keyboard-led ambient pieces, this time round hinging on some introspective piano. Very nice.
The album is “Dedicated to the angelic presence of Jack Kerouac”, and as when Kerouac gets it right, there is a Zen-like stream of consciousness to After The Satellite Sings that turns it into a rewarding journey for one’s spirit. If you know little of Bill Nelson’s vast solo back catalogue, this is as good a place to start as any.
01. Deeply Dazzled (5:54)
02. Dreamster 2.L.R. (4:15)
03. Flipside (5:07)
04. Streamliner (4:32)
05. Memory Babe (3:49)
06. Skull Baby Cluster (2:23)
07. Zoom Sequence (4:03)
08. Rocket To Damascus (4:37)
09. Beautiful Nudes (3:01)
10. Old Goat (5:09)
11. Squirm (2:33)
12. Wow! It’s Scootercar Sexkitten! (1:40)
13. Phantom Sedan (Theme from Tail-Fin City) (2:46)
14. Ordinary Idiots (3:35)
15. V-Ghost (3:28)
16. Blink-Agog (5:07)
Total Time – 62:04
Bill Nelson – Vocals, Electric and Acoustic Guitars, E-bow, Bass Guitar, Keyboards, Piano, Marimba, Harmonica, Percussion, Drum Programmes, Plastic Tape and Wind-up Gramophone
Ian Leese – Bass Guitar (8)
Dave Cook – Octopad fills (10)
Record Label: Esoteric Recordings/Cocteau Discs
Catalogue#: COCD 1010
Year Of Release: 2014