Billy Nicholls

Would You Believe (Immediate 1968)

Folks tend to flock towards the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, The Zombies’ Odyssey and Oracle, Love’s Forever Changes and the Kinks’ Village Green Preservation Society due to history anointing them as the touchstones of late 60s psych-pop. However, this era was rife with albums that fell just short of the brilliance of these classics. This was such a fertile period for the genre and bands like the Hollies, Bee Gees, Sagittarius, Flaming Groovies recorded great works that are somewhat forgotten in the glow of these anointed favorites. One of my favorit also-rans from this period is Billy Nicholls’ Would You Believe as it borrows bits and pieces from the big three, but it buries its melancholy sentiments beneath uplifting harmonies, carefully orchestrated arrangement and the occassional bluster of a raucous riff.

Nicholls’ songs are great on their own, but much credit must be paid to the influence of Andrew Loog Oldham, producer of the Rolling Stones, manager of the Small Faces and head of the Immediate label. He is responsible for the lush backing of Would You Believe’s most memorable songs. In fact, his production works so well because the incessant positivity of these arrangements conflicts with some depressing sentiments. I’ve always been a sucker for sour notes dolled up in fancy clothing, so I tend to favor the tunes where Billy smiles to hide the tears.What is even more amazing is that much of the album was created while he was 16 years old and that the Small Faces provide backup on some of the tracks. Supposedly, Oldham viewed Nicholls’ as a potential cash cow that he could mold into a British Brian Wilson to serve as a bookend to Mick Jagger, but it didn’t quite work out that way.

Anyone who can pen such a slice of sunshine like “Life is Short” is ok with me. The entire song revolves around a innocent obsession where the “ba-ba-ba’s” mask the desperation of a young man obsessed with a woman who won’t give him the day. He gets so caught up in the fact that life is transient and get so worked up about the pursuit that I almost want to chase behind that waggish scamp. His romanticism constantly gets the better of him and the result is a song like “It Brings me Down” which documents his angst in sublime fashion as piano, guitar, harpsichord and drums collide in a fruity manner that celebrates the orchestral excess of the time period. Plus, the instrumental coda at the end of this song is a perfect way to go out as it backwards tracks its way to Beatledom.

Nicholls became disilluisioned with the album’s lack of success, broke with Oldham and recorded a couple solo albums that I’d love to hear. It is a shame because the optimistic moments hint at a bright future that was never fulfilled.

World Party-Bang!

August 13, 2008

World Party Bang! (

Crysalis/EMI 1993)

pt. 1

The Waterboys might not have been the sensation of their heroes, the Beatles, but what they didn’t borrow in melodic craftsmanship from the fab four–they took quite a bit actually, they mimicked in distribution of labor. With Mike Scott hooting enough to fill the shoes of a Lennon and a McCartney, it left Karl Wallinger to take the diminutive, underemployed, role of George Harrison.

Wallinger adhered to the archetype and moved ahead with his own thing. World Party recorded five albums in the wake of his departure from the Waterboys (1985-?), all with their merits. But it was his 1993 album, Bang! an eco-social concept album, that was both his best, and most continually puzzling as it eluded broader context recognition.

World Paty was pretty well established by 1993, with indie hits like “Put the Message in the Box” and “Way Down Now”, along with a critically-favored collaboration with Sinead O’Connor, but Bang! demonstrated Wallinger’s push out of staid indie jangle to a self-made pastiche of pop-rock songwriting and crate-digger exploration. The Beatles, Beach Boys, and Stones, permeated the sound, braided in with Prince, Was Not Was, and early The The.

The very notion of a political record from 1993 sounds a bit precious given all that has happened since. But Wallinger, every bit the intellectual, took the Earth Day-era sensibility and crafted some lasting music. Didn’t hurt that he could also fashion a hook and layer harmonies with the best of them.

“Is it Like Today?”, probably the best charting single of his career, was a sci-fi allegory about the end of times, a bit of wistful folk with Wallinger plying his gorgeous one man-CSNY vocal strategy to glorious effect. Like any good sci-fi the key is to humanize the story, which he did–right down to the nominal “bang”, forcefully whispered in mock compliance to T.S. Eliot’s apocalyptic vision.

And though his entreaties of Ursula K. LeGuin were (probably for the best) limited, that subtle talent for pushing human warmth into pedantic, speculative spaces proved invaluable. The cautionary, “Give it All Away” (perhaps more in line with Rachel Carson, in fact) was a tuneful and hectic nod to Paul Hardcastle’s “19”, remembered not nearly as well, and yet sounding far less dated for the trouble.

For that matter, the Prince homage, “Rescue Me” was both unlikely, and prescient. At a time when the Mtv Unplugged zeitgeist pushed a lot of artists into begrudging (and as often flat-out fake) acoustic directions, Wallinger’s nod to Prince’s synth soul-pop was an improbable, lovingly unironic, retort.

Best among the set, however, were the pretty side two ballads. “Sunshine” had the easy blues of something spun from Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti (I’m thinking, “Down By the Seaside”), or that mostly elided fourth side of the White Album. But the zen moment occurred on the smiley-faced tearjerker, “All I Gave”. It pooled the World Party resources of honeyed harmonies–here reaching dizzied Bee Gees heights, a sparkling guitar from McGuinn’s best Byrds numbers, and a lyrical sentiment that–even to the naysayers of Wallinger’s environmentalist agenda and other various lefty notions, must have been irresistable.

Bang! happened in the detente of Clinton’s America (the birthing hour of Blair’s England) when the do-gooding drive seemed only altruistic–as opposed to now when it feels positively dire. But such was Wallinger’s great moment, a romantic lull during which he, nevertheless, felt compelled to sound the alarm to warn he future. The all-wasteful, hacking blacklung in me feels as though I missed the point fifteen years ago. The overly romantic, hacking blacklung in me remains content to have enjoyed it as I did…