Posted: December 28th, 2008
The story of Billy Nicholls is a sadly familiar one. It parallels the tragedy of Shuggie Otis, a young child prodigy who delivered an incredibly great album to his record label (1974â€™s Inspiration Information), and got dropped in return. Itâ€™s a life story lived by legions of gifted artists, who, through lack of commercial success, burn through their prime creative years in muted obscurity, waiting for a public embrace that always seems to comes too late, if at all. At 16, Billy Nicholls was a total unknown, a kid with more guts than talent. As the story goes, the teenaged British songwriter had the chutzpah to approach George Harrison and enlist the quiet Beatleâ€™s help in landing him a record deal (clinched with then Rolling Stones manager Andrew Oldhamâ€™s new and edgy Immediate label).
Starting off as a staff songwriter (he penned some tunes in 1967 for label-mate Del Shannon), Nicholls ended up recording an album worth of his own songs, releasing his first single in January of 1968, â€œWould You Believe/Daytime Girl.â€ Although the single didnâ€™t chart, it was hit material through and through. Give it a listen and youâ€™ll realize that the problem wasnâ€™t with the song. The problem rested solely with the label that put it out.
Immediate was a failing enterprise from the start, and Nicholls had the misfortune of being creatively tied to a fast sinking ship. While it had signed and recorded a slew of great artists, the label lacked the marketing muscle to properly push its talent into the limelight. Immediateâ€™s problems were only compounded by the fact that many of its bands were recording adventurous full-length albums, not spiffy little chart-busting radio ditties that might have brought in the cash.
With the exception of the Small Faces, Immediate chalked up too few successes to survive. Their shaky financial condition and the failure of the â€œWould You Believeâ€ single to crack the charts might explain why the label abruptly decided to halt the release of Nichollsâ€™ incredibly great album in April of 1968. The few dozen promotional copies that had already been sent out would go on to become some of the most collectible rarities of the British psychedelic era, fetching upwards of a thousand dollars a copy. But while the legend of his abortive album would grow to epic proportions, Nichollsâ€™ recording career was never to fully recover from the blow.
Nowhere near the â€œBrian Wilson-sized talentâ€ that the more hyperbolically enthusiastic members of the music press would have you believe (Iâ€™m one to talk!), Billy Nicholls did show vast promise, and the torpedoing of his music career is a true rock and roll tragedy. Who knows what greatness Nicholls could have attained had his music been half decently promoted? The â€œWould You Believeâ€ single, like the unreleased album of the same name, could have been huge. The music glows with instant appeal, hitting its mark with Nichollsâ€™ distinctly British take on Brian Wilsonâ€™s Pet Sounds-era.
Each song brims with richly melodic and high-ranging airy vocal harmonies, coupled with majestically over-produced (Ã la Phil Spector) wall of sound orchestration. Obviously having a blast in the producerâ€™s seat, Immediate founder Andrew Oldham lovingly embellished Nichollsâ€™ vocals tracks with layer upon layer of lushly ornate strings, soft-touches of brass, loud guitar leads (courtesy of Small Faces and future Humble Pie legend Steve Marriott), rolling piano rhythms (Rolling Stones session veteran Nicky Hopkins), nimbly floating bass lines (future Led Zeppelin maestro John Paul Jones) and perfect-for-the-song percussion (future Humble Pie drummer Jerry Shirley). The result was a sonic collision of West Coast and British psychedelic popâ€”a mostly sunny, spruced-up hybrid sound that is original and yet familiar. This elaborate music adds even greater weight to Nichollsâ€™ lyrics and vocals, which resonate with a weighty depth of feeling and experience that extend far beyond the greenness of his teenage years.
While certainly no Pet Sounds (nothing can compare), Would You Believe has its own sort of opulently produced shimmer and heart-on-sleeve romanticism, particularly in the lyrics. Only on the acoustic â€œCome Againâ€ does Nicholls approach the songsmanship of Brian Wilson. With its scaled back production and return to basics simplicity, â€œCome Againâ€ is ironically the standout song on this extravagantly crafted album.
Better late than never, Would You Believe was officially released for the first time in 1999, more than 30 years after it was recorded. A lost relic from days gone by, the album should now be recognized as an essential piece of vintage psychedelic Britpop.
- Billy Nicholls – Guitar, Vocals
- Would You Believe? (Paul) – 2:41
- Come Again (Nicholls) – 2:34
- Life Is Short (Nicholls) – 3:07
- Feeling Easy (Nicholls) – 3:12
- Daytime Girl (Nicholls) – 2:14
- Daytime Girl (Coda) (Nicholls) – 1:36
- London Social Degree (Nicholls) – 2:20
- Portobello Road (Nicholls) – 2:05
- Question Mark (Nicholls) – 2:26
- Being Happy (Nicholls) – 2:28
- Girl From New York (Nicholls) – 3:16
- It Brings Me Down (Nicholls) – 4:39
- Would You Believe? [Mono Single Version] (Paul) – 2:38
- Daytime Girl [Mono Single Version] (Nicholls) – 2:14
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