A Love Letter to California Pop, from a British Fop
In Stoned, his delightful memoir of London in the 1960s, Rolling Stones producer Andrew Loog Oldham describes the city as a swinging haven, teeming with creative auteurs and hotshot bands angling to be the next Beatles or Rolling Stones. Singer-songwriter Billy Nicholls had a different idea: He wanted to be the British Brian Wilson. Enthralled by The Beach Boys' 1966 masterwork Pet Sounds (and the subsequent Smiley Smile), Nicholls wrote a bunch of innocent songs with buoyant refrains and bah-bah-baa backing vocals, and at 16 began seeking professional assistance from George Harrison and others. Eventually, Nicholls was hired as a songwriter at Immediate Records, Oldham's upstart label. With Oldham's blessing and backing from The Small Faces and future Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones, Nicholls spent three weeks in 1967 recording the lavish Would You Believe, a love letter to California pop that could only come from a Brit with a fey way about him.
After a few promotional copies of Would You Believe were pressed, Immediate ran into financial trouble. This made the album a minor legend, a curious footnote to the discographies of The Small Faces and others, and it derailed Nicholls' career for a while. (He's still active as a recording artist.) Would You Believe didn't receive a proper release until decades later, but it's now available in a two-CD version that includes a disc of rarities.
Though "Would You Believe" (audio) finds Nicholls worshipping The Beach Boys overtly, and "Question Mark" tries desperately to be psychedelic, most of this set sounds bracing and beautiful. Nicholls, whose songs have been covered by Phil Collins and Leo Sayer, wrote contemplative pop built on unusual chord progressions — particularly on "Feeling Easy" (audio) and "Portobello Road" — and then surrounded his spare kernels of songs with big orchestrations involving strings and tuba and assorted odd percussion instruments. Nicholls did have a rock dimension: Another highlight, "London Social Degree" (audio), sounds like a Small Faces track.
Would You Believe is so steeped in the florid sounds of the era, and so guileless in its celebration of those sounds, it almost feels like a hoax — the work of a crafty modern student who's painstakingly re-created every detail, right down to the hard-hitting mono mixes. How else to explain why a set of songs this inspired would linger, ignored, on the shelf for so long?
Listen to last week's 'Shadow Classic.'
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