January 21, 2020
Released On July 21, 1982
Released By Mercury Records
There’s a great clip you can find online, an interview with Bill Nelson from 1983 that, among other things, touches on his feelings about moving on after the dissolution of his moderately successful 1970s glam leaning band Be-Bop Deluxe. Nelson looks gaunt in a polka-dot tie and yellowed bleach-blonde hair, his appearance slightly at odds with his thoughtful and soft-spoken nature.
Midway through the interview, we get a glimpse of Nelson’s makeshift studio. It’s my favorite part of the video. It doesn’t look much different from most people’s home studios that I know. The unheated room is scattered with synthesizers and tape machines, promotional posters for Be-Bop Deluxe and Bill Nelson’s Red Noise thrown up on the walls with black electrical tape. For most homegrown musicians these days, the space would feel familiar and cozy, if not a bit unremarkable.
I see something deeper while watching this part of the interview though. This is 1983 after all, five years before I was born, and I can only imagine that having a recording space like this must have felt like a luxury instead of commonplace as it is now for many musicians in 2020. In it I see someone who has become excited about music again. When Nelson describes the ending of Be-Bop Deluxe at the beginning of the interview, his feelings are bittersweet, saying “…the love went out of it and it became a bit of an act, to be honest.” The Nelson we see toying around in the studio however is someone who has become free to explore and experiment, buzzing intently and seamlessly from synthesizer to marimba and back. It’s a rewarding visual representation of the difficult-to-describe feeling that I’ve always had while listening to The Love That Whirls.
Bill Nelson has put out a lot of music, like a lot. It’s an overwhelming discography that crosses multiple projects, decades and styles which even most Bill Nelson fans probably haven’t fully explored. If I had to pick just one though, which it seems I have, then The Love That Whirls is the record where Nelson’s vision feels the sharpest. For me, it’s not only one of the most tragically overlooked examples of early ’80s synthesized pop and experimental music, but one of my favorite records.
The title itself comes in part from a Kenneth Anger film of the same name which was destroyed in processing and lost to time. The influence of various multidisciplinary artists seemed to flow openly through Nelson’s creative output at the time, most notable among them being Jean Cocteau. He would even go on to name the label he founded “Cocteau Records” in honor of his idol.
Nelson’s lyrics are often abstract in nature, glimpses of dreamlike imagery and indistinct ruminations on the past. “The Crystal Escalator In The Palace Of God” for instance, one of my favorite tracks on the record, is a fluttering and hypnotic song about a half-remembered art-deco department store from Nelson’s childhood.
Songs like “Eros Arriving” put Nelson squarely in line with some of his forward thinking Japanese peers. I can only assume Nelson was a fan of what was happening in Tokyo at the time, most notably drawing parallels to Yellow Magic Orchestra members Ryuichi Sakamoto and Yukihiro Takahashi. Takahashi’s Neuromantic in particular, released just a year before in 1981, has always felt to me like a good comparison point. The two would even go on to work together on a track called “My Highland Home in Thailand” the same year that The Love That Whirls was released.
On the latter half of the record comes one of Nelson’s most successful unions of his newfound experimentation and past as a glam-rock front man — “The October Man.” Nelson himself has described the song as “one of the tracks from that album which has, for me, stood the test of time.” Built around an icy and repetitive descending synth line, the track is also the only song on the record with live drums as well as one of the few songs to feature Nelson’s inventive guitar playing. It’s a beautiful and propulsive song that easily rivals what David Bowie and other more famous contemporaries were doing around the same time, a stinging and unfair reminder that Bill Nelson’s talents as both a songwriter and producer have largely gone unsung.
That someone as gifted as Bill Nelson should go so underappreciated is a saddening mystery to me, but to those who find it, his music continues to bring a great deal of joy. The Love That Whirls has become my go-to recommended album ever since I discovered it a number of years ago, a vibrant example of almost all the things I love about music from this era.
Synth-rock icon dissecting art from rock with profusive imagination.
Reflection I: The Crystal Escalator In The Palace Of God Department Store — It was 1983 and I needed a new Walkman. Having been unsatisfied with the Sony I got after my first one (note: the first one), I took a hard look at a new entrant in the game of personal cassette players: Aiwa. Determined to go for quality, I splurged $75 on their smallest, most beautiful model. All metal, barely bigger than the tape itself, this was an object of beauty complete with solenoid controls, including on the remote control panel on the headphone cord. To make that form factor work, Aiwa had designed it to work with one AAA battery, but it also came with an external battery pack that slid onto the bottom of the unit if you needed longer uptime. In short, this thing was high-tech cool decades before the iPod had even been dreamt of. I unboxed it right inside the store, inserted the battery, and chose the first tape I would play in my space-age device. Actually, there was no choice: It had to be Bill Nelson’s Chimera, which had just come out and which I had carefully transferred to a TDK-SA90 before leaving the house. I touched the solenoid marked with the forward arrow and was transported into a world of swirling colors, sticky melodies, and soaring harmonies, a sublime combination of electronic and acoustic instruments, with inspiring lyrics sung by the handsome man with the warm tenor voice. And I would have expected no less, having been listening to his prior album, The Love that Whirls (Diary Of A Thinking Heart), for months. This was modern music, and I was a modern man. I pictured myself, prow-like, cutting through the crowd on the sidewalk — they couldn’t touch me — and then I made it so, my Nelsonian armor giving me all the protection I needed.
Reflection II: Flaming Desire — “Love turns to lust / Ice into fire…” This was the perfect description of my emotional and hormonal state, with the object of my desire coming closer to reach with each meeting. I must have heard the song on the radio, because I can’t remember anyone who recommended Bill Nelson to me. I found the album that contained the song and was just amazed by the sparkling songwriting, all of it realized by Nelson, who played every instrument on the album save the drums on “The October Man” (that was Bogdan Wiczling), displaying a remarkably assured use of electronics and, if you listened carefully, stunning dexterity and tone on guitar. Perhaps it was best that I didn’t know Nelson was once an “axe victim,” a prog-rock guitar hero, and the leader of Be-Bop Deluxe from 1972-78. Although I have since come around to Be-Bop Deluxe, I was then at the lowest point of my tolerance for prog, but by the time I found out about Nelson’s checkered past, I was already sold. I even filled out the form to join Acquitted By Mirrors, the Bill Nelson fan club. And that object of desire? She remembers The Love That Whirls as the first tape I made for her, which she used to listen to in bed when we were apart. I also took to heart the lyrics from “Eros Arriving:” “This time it’s working / Bodies uncover… / Every moment / Belongs to another…” This year we’ll celebrate 32 years of marriage — thanks, Bill! Listening now, I feel all those emotions again, simultaneously astonished by Nelson’s achievement, a vision of artful synth-pop that is far above what you might associate with that term — many thanks to Jack Tatum for inspiring a revisit.
Reflection III: Portrait Of Jan With Flowers — Jan was Nelson’s wife and their love was deep and abiding at the time, a state that I admired and to which I aspired. But the artist in me was also intrigued by the idea of a portrait in sound, like this lovely little instrumental. Nelson, also a fine photographer and graphic artist, gave me a hint of the creative fecundity that could arise when you allow borders between disciplines to become paper-thin. I wanted to write, draw, take pictures, make music… and by letting each of these inform the others, I became more satisfied with the results — and found other people agreed. Going deeper into Nelson’s world, I discovered part of the well he drew from in the polystylistic multimedia work of Jean Cocteau, for whom Nelson named his record company. This was further exemplified by the bonus album of evocative electronics that came with my copy of The Love that Whirls, “La Belle Et La Bete,” described as “Music composed and played by Bill Nelson for the Yorkshire Actors Company production of Jean Cocteau’s classic film” — you can find it on disc three of this collection. In his liner notes, he refers to a previous collaboration with Yorkshire for a production of The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari — which became another record to seek out — and the influence of George Auric, György Ligeti, and Erik Satie. Even if I haven’t listened to Nelson so much over the last few years, I’m still following those breadcrumbs. Join me.
Let me start by saying how great it is to be back for another year of Off Your Radar. How fun is this? Cheers to our fearless editor and founder Doug, and cheers to another unpredictable year of underrated jams. And let me contradict myself right away by saying that calendars are totally arbitrary and we’re all drifting through space at our own individual speeds and Bill Nelson reminds me of how awesome that is. I was thinking about the flexibility of time all weekend, given that my sister’s family and our mom came to Richmond to celebrate Christmas 2.0 — something we’ve hosted in January for the past few years to remedy not all being in one place on actual Christmas. We wrap and tear open presents, cook a bacon-centered breakfast, drink Bloody Marys, spin Vince Guaraldi… the whole deal. I genuinely and repeatedly forgot it wasn’t Christmas on Sunday. A day later, I started digging into The Love that Whirls and felt time bend all over again. In one sense, the album is firmly rooted in the decade in which it was made. Characteristic synth sounds, guitar processing, and vocal textures all scream “1980s.” But there’s also a thrilling focus on the future — on pushing forward sonically. You hear it immediately in “Empire Of The Senses,” in the metallic punctuation on the second beat of each measure, and in the frenzied countermelodic synth tones that cloud the mix. The opening cut could beautifully soundtrack a scene from a film set a century from now in which the main character light-rails into the heart of a metropolis buzzing with bright, unfamiliar technology. You hear it through to the very end, in the unrelenting propulsion of “The Passion” — in those pace-setting, whip-like hits on each fourth beat. Bill Nelson was clearly making visionary art, and the momentum created by The Love that Whirls is contagious. Here’s to another trip around the Sun, however brisk your orbit may be.
The Love That Whirls is what Peter Gabriel might’ve made in the early ’80s had his face been smiling instead of melting. Gabriel made some fantastic records during that time, but they’re self-serious to a nearly suffocating degree. Bill Nelson, conversely, made a deeply ’80s album without the social baggage of the time period. A lot of that has to do with how mechanical The Love sounds and feels, and it goes beyond the obvious fact that it’s an electronic record. Just as much of that feel comes from Nelson’s vocal delivery, which is the middle ground between two Davids — specifically, Byrne and Bowie — with a little Gary Numan thrown in, too. Combine the music and his voice and you’ve got an album that reminds me of Blade Runner. There are several moments throughout where I wondered if this was written from the perspective of an android. There’s a cold and calculating vibe, especially when emotions and feelings are discussed. It made me think of Rachel, who didn’t know at the outset of the film that she was a Replicant. She looks and acts like a human, or so she believes: She “thinks” and “remembers” because she doesn’t know better. Similarly, “The will to resist her has turned into water / Rivers of lust are her systems of torture” is poetic, but in the context of the record it reads like poetry from a machine trying to approximate what a human would create. In other words, it might be something Roy Batty would’ve come up with had he lived longer. Given the water imagery, it would be right at home in his ‘Tears In Rain‘ speech. I’m pretty sure that’s a compliment.
Sure, Let’s Go With That
The layered intricacy on this record points to just one reason Nelson was viewed as a favorite of “thinking musicians.”
Sometimes we feature albums here at Off Your Radar that I already know and love. Sometimes we have albums that I knew of peripherally and never really listened to for one reason or another. Sometimes we have albums that I wish I’d known of sooner and hate that I lived without them for so long. Sometimes, like this week, we have albums that I know I haven’t heard, but that already feel like they’re worn into grooves of the soundtrack of my life, and I just haven’t paid attention. Somehow everything about Bill Nelson’s The Love that Whirls was familiar and established, even though I know it’s not and isn’t. “Hope For A Heartbeat” is a song that I never played for my friend E in her room during my senior year of high school. “He And Sleep Were Brothers” was never played at the goth club where I danced my ass off with B and B in 1998, but it should have been. “Flaming Desire” wasn’t stuck in my head for the better part of a decade, but why wasn’t it? All of these things feel like they could have been true, and yet none of them are. Time to make some new memories, I guess.
50 Foot Pop Queenie
The hip kids call it ‘Synthwave,’ now. It’s the sort of music that they quietly enjoy, kept a secret between themselves, their closest friends and whoever reads their irreverent blog posts. They know that when they mention it to their senior coworkers it will be met with sneers, chuckles, or something far, far worse — nostalgic retrospections from people whose entire musical experience was dictated by what received the most radioplay or what showed up on Friday afternoons on their favourite half-hour video countdown. Though approached under the auspice of “future” sounds, it would be absolutely unconscionable to rob synthwave of the dignity of its roots, its inspirations, and even its outliers. It is, in every sense of the word, an exercise in either nostalgia by those who were there or homage by those lucky enough to have been born later and introduced to the jewels of the era of excess but someone in the know.
I had no idea who Bill Nelson was and despite considering myself a fan, not only of popular music history throughout my life, but in the esoteria of my favorite genres, that kind of surprises me now. The Love That Whirls is great. I mean, it’s really great. This collection of 17 songs which came out in 1982 would have already been ahead of its time and thus adorned with the dubious term “experimental” music. That same term in 2020 might imbue a work of music with a certain panache or credibility, but in those days it was basically the same as stamping it permanently with a marker which would ensure it gets relegated to the smallest, least visible of the record shop bargain bins.
The experience of listening to it reminds me most of the first time I heard Sigue Sigue Sputnik’s “Flaunt It” which came out just four years later. In both cases, you’ve got music that took full advantage of everything that music production technology of the era offered, from drum machines to the burgeoning sound of that unmistakable ’80s chopped snare hits. “When Your Dream Of Perfect Beauty Comes True” is a brief but beautifully optimistic instrumental with a strong rhythmic refrain reminiscent of New Order. Opener “Empire Of The Senses” introduces the album with memories of Thomas Dolby or Simply Red. In all of these cases, I am simply grasping for the familiar touchstones that is captured here wholly originally and regrettably underappreciated.
On the bright side, one can look at the opportunity to rediscover this album as a time machine to take you back to an era that maybe you’re fond of, or maybe your parents are fond of, and really appreciate the theatrical nature of the overwrought vocal style, the relentless pursuit of interesting but still musically appealing synth sounds, and all the while doing it with a band that even they might never have heard of. If you want to really one-up your hip friends who count among their musical discoveries the latest from Mitch Murder or Mega Drive, come at them with the real deal — the authentic sound of ’80s synth. What is this? — they might ask — a new Mental Exile record? “No!”, you’ll answer. “You mean you’ve never heard of Bill Nelson before? His solo discography alone fills two columns on Wikipedia!”
When they glance at you, incredulous, I recommend following with “Do you even ’80s?!” — and make sure you’re wearing your pencil-thin neon tie.
If there’s something that’s gonna drag me away from NFL playoff pre-game coverage, it better sure as shit be interesting. Luckily, Bill Nelson’s intergalactic romp through the future is nothing if not interesting. It’s also ahead of its time and brilliantly nuanced. As a hip hop guy, naturally I’m going to be drawn to the drum programming first. The immediate impact of “Empire Of The Senses” got me thinking about all the trappings of the classic Miami bass sound. It’s weird to think about, but 2 Live Crew had to have heard this record at some point — listen to the 808 patterns and drum rolls. Take away Nelson’s vocals, and I can eerily hear Luther Campbell employing all the hoes to… I digress. But the important thing to note hear is that it’s 1982 when Nelson comes out, and Miami bass doesn’t reach its apex for another 7-8 years. The 808-fest continues on “When Your Dream Of Perfect Beauty Comes True,” and takes an intriguing turn on “Flesh.” Still an uptempo record, the drum programming pivots from the Miami bass style to the herky-jerky, push-the-snare-ahead-of-the-beat signature style of Prince. And also the reverb. Oh, the reverb! Back to my hip hop roots, I always appreciate a good interlude, and this record makes great use of them with “The Bride Of Christ In Autumn,” “Portrait Of Jan With Flowers,” and “Echo In Her Eyes.” All of these short pieces do a great job of reinforcing the aesthetic of the album. I have to say that my favorite moment is “He And Sleep Were Brothers” when the drum programming deviates entirely from the Roland 808, and changes to a traditional hip hop break beat style. The slow, plodding, booming drums on this track remind me of the horror I felt the first time I heard the opening measures of Led Zepplin’s iconic “When The Levee Breaks.”
With sweeping interludes & awe-inspiring climaxes, The Love That Whirls often feels closer to a modern opera than a traditional album.
Bill Nelson pulls no punches about his preference for decade-classic hallmarks of hard-edged synths, a healthy dose of reverb, and droplet-style drum machine beats, on 1982’s The Love That Whirls, that’s for sure. The latter beats could swap effortlessly out of “A Private View” and right into Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight,” which happened to be released one year prior to this LP. In some cases, however, the instrumentation grabs attention not through an endearing reminder of other beloved records but from a sheerly jarring appearance. (The abrupt switch from an atypical intro of smooth, reverse-phased synth tones, to a metallic snare beat that rings out like a piece of loud, loose aluminum, in “Flaming Desire,” is a focal point of the most distracting type.) Yet, for every facet of standardized instrumentation and tonality common to the times, glimmers of clever divergence arise to break up the predictability. What should be organic rattling of a vibraslap in “Empire Of The Senses,” for example, also gets a metallic tone treatment. However, its less demanding nature therein, makes the stuttering of the simple percussion instrument sound entirely at home, rather than irritatingly singled out, within the song’s otherwise very sterilized and artificial sound set.
That’s not to say the tapping of one non-digital object holds up the album’s opening on its own. A second, less obvious strong point to The Love That Whirls, lies in Nelson’s savviness around arrangement, which is also at an applaudable high at the album’s beginning. While the track is dense and teeters on the brink of sonically overwhelming when the instrumental backing is in full force, there’s a very scrupulous order to it all. The subtle but distinctly unique assortment of short, rounded, beep-like tones that zip around Nelson’s echoing voice, have a fervent-but-organized quality, not unlike the splash from technicolor displays of carnival stands. It’s the thoughtful utilization of these less flexible and more cliché sonic elements that show how Nelson’s skill as a songwriter can move his music above other projects of the time. It’s not just the tools at hand but how they are shaped, placed, and how much room they’re given to roam. These decisions are what take the LP from “just another ’80s synth record,” to “an ’80s record with an ear for the unusual applications of art rock.”
I’d never heard of Bill Nelson before today. I expected him to be a country singer and The Love that Whirls to be a country album. I believe that all of these assumptions were based on the singer’s first name being ‘Bill.’ Regardless, this album is not a country album. Within the first few seconds of listening, ’80s’ entered my head, along with a wave of perms, synthesizers, and music videos. A friend recently recommended that I pay some serious attention to the use of synthesizers in the ’80s, and this album presented me with the perfect opportunity. The soundscape of this record is defined by the instruments’ abilities and limitations. The bleeps and bloops and whirs and whistles fade in and out throughout a song like “A Private View,” creating a hypnotizing drone of synth. There’s an art to every instrument, and this album explores the synthesizer (I hope it’s a synthesizer) with no fear of over-indulgence. There was a time where this particular writer disliked the ’80s, almost entirely because of the synthesizer, but those days are long gone. Now, as someone who just wants to hear as much difference between day-to-day listens as possible, hearing the extent to which an instrument that I used to turn my nose up to can be used to create a musical landscape is a wonderful experience. On another note, I looked up Bill Nelson’s discography, and the man is incredibly prolific. As an artist, I can respect that, and understand that this album is just a single moment in the history of his substantial music career. I’m happy to have gotten to experience a small part of Bill Nelson’s career today.
Do you move through the music or does the music move through you? This is what I’m left wondering after gazing into the endless wonder of Bill Nelson’s luxurious 1982 record. It’s a journey for sure — a ride if you will. But what kind of ride exactly? Shifting to a song like “He And Sleep Were Brothers” from “Flesh,” for instance, reminds me of those theme park rides where a cart carries you through different sections and scenes. But I’m also reminded of those immersive 4-D simulator rides where you sit in a movable chair as the screen showcases the ride and you follow along. (Here’s one that was at a nearby amusement park for the longest time.) In one instance, you move through the ride. In another, it moves through you. Obviously, music is a different, singular experience, enjoyed across all mediums and moods, but it feels all connected here. If I look at it one way, I’m moving through the music, with the tracklisting serving as the cart carrying me from one “attraction” to the next. (Favorite attraction, hands-down, is “Eros Arriving.”) On the other hand, though, immersive is just the type of word for this record. Each track is overflowing with so many moving parts — parallel, perpendicular, and crosscutting — that it almost feels like every part of my brain is firing to try and catch them all. Doing so can feel like you’re chasing imaginary dots, comparable to gazing upon an optical grid illusion like this. But all of the parts in these songs are real, tangible elements for your ear to pick out if you’ve got time and know-how. So maybe I am moving through this music — shifting through each section of each area to examine all the layers and textures outside of the 2D format its presented — and maybe that answers my initial query. Or maybe, just maybe, all of the musical opulence in this record is making me think larger than the mosaic synth-pop music presented, leading me to ponder the implications of an indoor ride that mists you with water as the screen travels underwater. That seems more likely, but it doesn’t stop my mind from wandering and wondering, which seems about as good of a thesis to the music of Bill Nelson as you’re going to get. Perhaps another one of his records will give me the answer I’m looking for (Sounding The Ritual Echo is piquing my interest), or maybe my tenth spin of this magnificent record will. Both seem good to me.
For My Parents by Mono
Chosen By Davy Jones