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My Record Collection: Bill Bailey

The music nut, prog savant and all round comedian goes on a journey to the outer limits. First published in Prog issue 20

“You can tell prog rock straight away by the length of the song – it’s gotta be up to eight minutes and beyond. And it’ll be called something like March Of The Badger People, Part One. Always a good sign!

Yes would be the first encounter I had with prog, and on the art side of things, Roger Dean. Yes’ albums looked like the posters I had on the wall – I had a thing about wizards, so had the classic one of Gandalf, and Yoda for some reason – so the art goes hand in hand with the music, and at the time I was discovering comics, science fiction, Lord Of The Rings, Dungeons And Dragons. Prog was the soundtrack to that. 

There were a couple of record shops I went to, one in Bath, one in Bristol. I’d get the bus, with my drainpipe jeans on – looking cool – and started on Buzzcocks, Undertones, Stranglers and Siouxsie, then Motörhead, Sabbath, Priest and Rainbow crept in. There was a sense that prog was ‘proper’ music, like classical, that had to be really listened to and I was as interested in that as the crash, bang of punk. Things that crossed over were bands like Roxy Music and Bowie. 

I love two albums, Hunky Dory and Ziggy Stardust and there was a time where I knew them so well I knew the amount of time between each track. You don’t really get that so much now, because people download stuff and play it out of sequence. A track would end, and you’d go ‘Okay, here we go One, Two, Three’, [sings the intro to Suffragette City] ‘Duh-duh-duh-duh!’. I think that’s something that’s missed. 

It’s an art, really, constructing the album to capture the flow. Yes, I’ve bought digital albums, I must confess. But it’s not the same. Great albums have got a flow and a shape to them like Remain In Light by Talking Heads. The album feels properly thought out, it feels like a concert. 

I discovered Talking Heads in the late 70s when I heard Psycho Killer, then I saw Stop Making Sense, probably the finest movie of a rock concert ever. David Byrne looks like he’s not only from another era, way into the future, but he’s like an alien. He has extraordinary charisma and was so ahead of his time. His lyrics were incredibly prophetic: ‘As things fell apart, no-one paid much attention’. Perfectly true, and very topical. With Once In A Lifetime, probably my favourite song of all time, he says ‘You may find yourself at the wheel of a large automobile, with a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife, and you may ask yourself ’How did I get here?’ I’ve felt that. That spoke directly to me. 

Talking Heads had this otherness that I was attracted to, subsequently I’ve loved other New York bands, like Interpol, that have this curious detachment that summarises their city – I also got into a lot of US stand-ups at that time, like Bill Hicks. That culture is really attractive particularly if you come from rural England. And David Byrne plugged in a building, he played a building. He hooked it up to a keyboard and played – I don’t know how he did it, I don’t wanna know, I just loved the idea. I’ll start by playing a shed and work my way up. A gazebo, then something a bit bigger, then I’ll play the Albert Hall. Not ‘play’ the Albert Hall, I’ve ‘played’ the Albert Hall, I mean physically play it! 

Ah, the Hawkwind Anthology. Wonderful freaks. I love that Lemmy was chucked out of Hawkwind [laughs] A bloke in Shepherd’s Bush kept saying to me ‘Did you used to be in Hawkwind?’. I’d keep going ‘No’ and he’d say ‘Course you’re gonna say that. If you’re in Hawkwind you’re gonna say you weren’t …’. In the end I just went ‘Yeah, okay’. Turned out I was in Hawkwind! For many years! 

I’ve always loved Kraftwerk, from the first time I heard The Model. I then discovered a lot of their earlier stuff, and again just loved that detachment, that strange otherness. There’s this wonderful book, I Was A Robot [by Wolfgang Flur], and some of the descriptions of being on tour he goes on about how he wears tracksuit bottoms on the tour bus ‘cos it’s more comfortable (German accent) “Zey wash very well, and zey are more practical. On a daily basis.” I didn’t want to know that! 

I saw Kraftwerk on the Minimum Maximum tour in Brixton and I was struck by first this enormous rave contingent in the audience, the juxtaposition between these mad ravers and these seated German men in suits just pressing buttons, not moving, and occasionally one of their legs would go up slightly. Were they actually playing or checking emails? That’s when I thought it would be fun to incorporate them in my act, doing The Hokey Cokey, the quintessential British knees-up, that’s the last thing that they’d consider playing. 

I’m an avid browser of music on the net when I get a chance and I can happily be led from one band to another. Over the years I’ve discovered all kinds of bands from Radiohead – they’re classic prog; experimental, always changing, using interesting production techniques and different instruments – to Opeth and Mastodon, who are quite ambitious in the scale of what they do. They fuse metal elements in a more considered way, but you can bang your head and fling yourself about to it. 

My shows are conceptual; I want to create new worlds for people to visit and this is where prog and I meet. Mastodon’s Leviathan [about Moby-Dick] has inspired me to base my next show around a work of art or literature. A lot of prog bands are very theatrical when they perform live and it lends itself very well to comedy in that way. I like to include ideas and instruments that people may not have seen or heard of before – like the oud, or a theremin – and the elements of a rock show work very well for me; sound, lights, screens and cake. Of course you need cake. 

So playing Sonisphere Festival this summer [2011] was incredible. I’d headlined festivals before, but not on the stage with rock bands. It was brilliant fun and I was quite nervous as it was my biggest ever gig – 64,000, an enormous crowd! As soon as I struck a chord and everyone sang ‘Human slaves in an insect nation!’ back at me I was truly humbled. I knew was finally with my tribe – what had taken me so long?!”

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