Week of June 8, 2003

Billy Nicholls

Album:
Would You Believe (Immediate IMCP 009) 1967 R3 

45s:
Would You Believe/Daytime Girl (Immediate IM 063) 1968 
Forever's No Time At All/This Song Is Green (Track 2094 109) 1973 (with Pete Townshend)

'Lost classic' is a much-abused term amongst pop historians, seemingly applicable to anything that sold badly at the time which the writer feels is now due a critical reappraisal. Nevertheless, there are a few records that genuinely merit such an enticing accolade, and 'Would You Believe', recorded in early 1968 by teenage singer/songwriter Billy Nicholls, is one of them.

'Would You Believe' was pressed by Andrew 'Loog' Oldham's Immediate label, but only in minuscule quantities - it seems likely that only a few dozen or so copies were sent out to radio stations and reviewers before Oldham decided to abort. Not so much a release, then, as an escape, and over the course of the last thirty years, just a handful of copies have surfaced, these disappearing immediately (no pun intended) into the collections of well-heeled collectors prepared these days to fork out up to 1500 for a copy. As a result, the album has attained legendary status amongst collectors, the vast majority of whom have heard whispers of its greatness but never actually heard the thing. Now we have the opportunity to judge the album's merits for ourselves.

The story of 'Would You Believe' begins around 1966 when, with all the blithe self-assurance of a 16-year-old, Billy Nicholls approached George Harrison for help in placing his material. Knowing something about the frustration of finding an outlet for your songs, Harrison arranged for Nicholls to record a demo for Beatles publisher Dick James. Somehow, James contrived to lose the resultant acetate, but the apologetic publisher arranged free studio time for Nicholls to record another demo, this time in tandem with one of James' employees, guitarist and apprentice studio whiz-kid Caleb Quaye.

The results found their way to Stones' manager Andrew 'Loog' Oldham, who'd set up the Immediate label a few months earlier. Keen to build up his roster of acts, Oldham hired Nicholls as a staff songwriter. For a starry-eyed school leaver, the attractions were obvious - as Nicholls confided to Mojo journalist Dawn Eden in 1977, he was "getting paid 20 a week, with my own room full of Revoxes, mellotrons and the Stones' guitars".

More than happy to be part of the industry of human happiness, Nicholls quickly fell in at Immediate with Steve Marriott and Ronnie Lane, both men contributing extensively to a late 1967 recording of the track 'Would You Believe'. Marriott's backing vocals are particularly prominent! Initially, the Small Faces' duo's production was relatively sparse, so Oldham decided to overdub an orchestral arrangement that pretty much drowned out the other participants.

'Would You Believe', backed by Nicholls' own composition 'Daytime Girl', appeared as his debut single (Immediate IM 063) in January 1968, sandwiched between the Small Faces singles, 'Tin Soldier' and 'Lazy Sunday'. Reviews were favourable, though the single was later described by one critic as "the most overproduced record of the Sixties" (given the excesses of the era, no mean achievement). Oldham, however, was undeterred by the single's commercial failure, and pressed ahead with a Billy Nicholls album.

With the benefit of hindsight, it's not difficult to see how Oldham must have viewed Nicholls. The Immediate boss was desperate to create a British corollary to the American harmony pop sound of the Beach Boys and the Mamas & Papas, and his nurturing of many Immediate acts only makes sense when considered from this perspective. But many of the label's early signings like the Factotums and the Variations were merely pale imitations of the American model, copycat acts rather than originators who were further hamstrung by a lack of songwriting talent. And then along comes Billy Nicholls - a superb singer, gifted songwriter and as green as the Mendip hills. Oldham, memorably described by critic Johnny Rogan as "the infant overreacher", quickly latched onto the manipulative possibilities.

At last, he could turn his back on cutting unconvincing facsimiles of Brian Wilson tunes in order to mastermind his own three-minute pocket symphonies. Fired up by this grand conceit, Oldham commandeered the Nicholls sessions, recreating the American harmony pop sound in a resolutely English setting courtesy of a string of virtuoso production techniques, multi-layered harmonies and plenty of Wilsonesque baroque instrumentation.

To achieve his aims, Oldham enlisted the help of various Immediate acts. Apart from the Small Faces - Marriott contributed some typically fiery lead guitar to 'Girl From New York' - the album contained appearances by the Warm Sounds duo Denny Gerrard and Barry Husband, as well as Apostolic Intervention (and future Humble Pie) drummer Jerry Shirley. Some of the top session men of the era, including John Paul Jones, Nicky Hopkins and Big Jim Sullivan, were also employed.

Nicholls' own lyrical concerns (bear in mind the initial letters of 'London Social Degree' and the coy reference to "Turkish cigarettes" on 'Portobello Road'!) and voguish whimsy placed the album closer to the Kings Road than California. And his gently spiralling vocals, coupled with Nicky Hopkins' evocative harpsichord contributions, gave several tracks a Kinks-ish sheen - certainly, 'Question Mark' and 'Being Happy' foreshadowed the sound that Ray Davies would achieve a few months later on 'Village Green Preservation Society'.

Perhaps Nicholls and Oldham used up all their ingenuity and invention in writing, recording, arranging and producing the record, for the eventual album title of 'Would You Believe' was borrowed from a 1966 offering by another British harmony pop act, the Hollies. The Nicholls LP was duly readied for an April 1968 release, though the circumstances behind its subsequent non-appearance remain a mystery. Perhaps Oldham, teetering unsteadily on his financial tightrope, merely decided that other projects were more likely to ease his cash-flow crisis: the Small Faces classic 'Ogden's Nut Gone Flake' album (to which Nicholls contributed un-credited backing vocals, incidentally) would be issued in May, a budget-busting promotional campaign and expensive circular sleeve design helping it reach the coveted No.1 position.

Despite writing songs for a Del Shannon album overseen by Oldham, Nicholls gradually became disillusioned with Immediate: the label limped on to autumn 1969 before collapsing, though the writing had been on the wall for many months. After an unproductive year or so, Nicholls hooked up with The Who's Pete Townshend (whom he had met through Marriott and Lane in the aftermath of 'Ogden's...'), contributing to the Meher Baba projects as well as donating the magnificent 'Forever's No Time At All' to Townshend's debut solo set, 'Who Came First'.

After a 1974 solo album, 'Love Songs', for the small GM label, Nicholls put together a group called White Horse, who issued a US-only album in 1977. Meanwhile, he wrote hit singles for the likes of Leo Sayer and Roger Daltrey, also contributing backing vocals to The Who's 1978 album, 'Who Are You' and the earlier 'Tommy' film soundtrack. In more recent years, Nicholls has worked as The Who's musical director, thus reuniting him with former Small Faces drummer Kenney Jones, as well as recording another solo album ('Another Banner') in 1990.

More than thirty years after its conception, the lavishly-tooled 'Would You Believe' can be seen both as a magnificent achievement and an outrageous folly - how Andrew 'Loog' Oldham thought he could recoup the budget that he'd bestowed on the album is anyone's guess. No matter. Despite the project's commercial stillbirth and Nicholls' own, less-than-helpful recollections ("I can't remember anything about these tracks or even being there", he recently observed of nearly half the LP), the album that you hold in your hands is, would you believe, nothing less than the British answer to 'Pet Sounds'.

David Wells, February 1999
Taken from the CD reissue of Would You Believe, Castle/Sequel NEMCD414

Discography/Lineup info taken from The Tapestry of Delights - The Comprehensive Guide to British Music of the Beat, R&B, Psychedelic and Progressive Eras 1963-1976, Vernon Joynson
ISBN 1 899855 04 1


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