Would You Believe?
(Immediate Records, 1968)
“I said that love will come and come again.”
In 1967, 18-year-old pop troubadour Billy Nicholls of Shepherd’s Bush, London, made a bus pilgrimage to Kinfauns, George Harrison’s estate in the town of Esher, in the Surrey borough of Elmbridge in southeast England. In the anything’s-possible spirit of the time, the teenage composer was determined to hand-deliver his Beatles-inspired homemade demos to the Fab Four’s lead guitarist. Harrison was charmed enough by his uninvited visitor’s youthful enthusiasm to listen to the reel-to-reel tape, and impressed enough by what he heard (even though Nicholls’s sister had inadvertently recorded Tony Bennett’s “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” over one of the tracks) to pass several of the songs along to the Beatles’ publisher, Dick James.
James, who misplaced the tape before he had a chance to hear it, atoned for his carelessness by giving Nicholls free time at his studio at 71–75 New Oxford Street in London to re-record the songs. There, Nicholls soon met his future collaborator Caleb Quaye, who was working as an engineer, along with the wildly ambitious young musical entrepreneur, Andrew Loog Oldham.
A prodigy in his own right, Oldham had begun managing and producing the Rolling Stones at the age of 19. At 21, he had founded Immediate Records, one of Britain’s earliest independent labels and the home, at one time or another, of John Mayall, Eric Clapton, Rod Stewart, and Humble Pie. By the time he met Nicholls in 1967, he had already announced his plan to produce “the British Pet Sounds,” the Beach Boys’ pop masterpiece having been released the year before. In Nicholls, with his colorful lyrics, soaring melodies, bright tenor voice, and preternaturally mature observations about life and love in late-sixties bohemian London, Oldham had suddenly found the centerpiece for his pet studio project.
Before Nicholls had time to catch his breath, Oldham had surrounded him in the studio with an extraordinary group of mod rockers and session players. Oldham had recently lured the Small Faces to Immediate Records, where they had begun to take their music in a more psychedelic direction, incorporating phasing, found sounds, vocal narration, and other experimental techniques on recent recordings like the hit single “Itchycoo Park” and their current album in the works, Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake. Band members Ronnie Lane (bass), Steve Marriott (vocals and guitar), Ian McLagan (keyboards), and Kenney Jones (drums) were immediately impressed with Nicholls’s musical abilities and eager to be a part of Oldham’s planned pop masterpiece.
In addition to Marriott and company, Oldham also recruited an impressive roster of big-time session musicians, including acoustic guitarist Big Jim Sullivan (the Kinks), pianist Nicky Hopkins (the Rolling Stones), guitarist Joe Moretti (Gene Vincent), future Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones, future Humble Pie drummer Jerry Shirley, and Caleb Quaye (already playing guitar with a young Reginald Dwight, later known as Elton John) on keyboards.
In the studio, the combination of a naïve teenage troubadour, a seminal British rhythm-and-blues band tumbling head-over-heels into drug-inspired mayhem, and a megalomaniacal young producer determined to make musical history resulted in an improbably magical recording.
Arguably the most over-produced release of the gloriously over-produced psychedelic era, “Would You Believe?” (the record’s title cut and opening track) is a whirling dervish of sounds and techniques. Oldham, who apparently selected the tune (composed by producer Jeremy Paul, and the only non-Nicholls composition on the album) as the overture to his pop masterpiece before partnering with Nicholls, employs every weapon in his musical arsenal to alert his listeners that they are in the presence of greatness.
After a brief opening counterpoint of Hopkins’s ornate patterns on harpsichord and Nicholls’s lighter-than-air, vocalized trumpet fanfare, the song abruptly explodes into a chunky, staccato rhythm of organ, bass, and drums. Toward the end of the second verse, a symphony’s worth of strings muscles its way to the foreground, followed by a prickly run of banjos, a blast of trombones, and—most spectacularly—the unforgettable vocal performance of the Small Faces’ Steve Marriott, whose deranged caterwauling across the top of the mix sounds like anything but a “background” vocal. The overall volume increases with the introduction of each new instrumental motif, heaping crescendo upon crescendo, until the sudden fadeout at the end.
Lyrically, the song immediately establishes the distinctly non-nostalgic theme of the recording. His clear voice soaring effortlessly above the instrumental cacophony, Nicholls announces in the introductory chorus that the unrequited love professed in the verses is long—and irrevocably—past.
I wouldn’t change my mind now.
I wouldn’t waste my time now.
I should erase my mind of you.
Reversing the dense instrumentation and layered production of the opening track, the album’s second cut, “Come Again,” is a stripped-down solo performance, with Nicholls accompanying himself on twelve-string guitar. He seems at first to be cynically wooing a lover whom he has betrayed in the past, reassuring her that the potential pleasures of his affection are well worth the risk of a second abandonment.
Love is worth all the sad things it brings you.
Never mind the pain.
As the song progresses, however, the lyrics suggest that the singer is trying to convince himself—not his former lover—that love isn’t simply confined to the past, and that a better future lies ahead.
Please, take me back.
I love you.
Yes, I do.
It’s a smart, subtle, supremely confident performance, with Nicholls’s calm, pensive vocals gliding nonchalantly across a simple three-note progression. In the end, the song’s protagonist comes across as wounded and off-balance but stubbornly defiant, determined to find love and happiness in a world where meanings continually shift and things are never exactly what they seem.
The tension between defiant hope and world-weary self-questioning continues throughout the remainder of the album, as Nicholls struggles to find meaning, consolations, and epiphanies in a world compromised by institutional pressures, the temptation for social (including subcultural) conformity, and the promise of quick highs and easy answers.
With its breathless vocals and rapid-fire guitar riff, “London Social Degree” comes across more as a parody than as a celebration of London’s drug culture at the time, a good-natured but withering send-off of the self-indulgent mod lifestyle and the instant gratification promised by the acronym of the song’s title.
If you pass and you see a new meaning, girl,
You won’t have to go to church to believe.
You will see the love that makes you think better.
It’s the London Social Degree.
And while Nicholls openly rejects the violence and regimentation of military service on “Being Happy,” it’s not clear how fully or confidently he embraces the facile, carefree alternative with which he confronts the naïve young soldier on the other end of the song.
You must be a better man than I.
While you’re playing soldier,
I’m looking up at the sky.
But I’m being happy.
The recording closes with “Girl from New York,” a hard-rock performance that reflects Nicholls’s growing rapport with the Small Faces. By the time the song was recorded, Oldham, who was increasingly preoccupied with post-production duties for Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake, had begun to loosen his Svengali-like grip on the Would You Believe? sessions. Minus Oldham and his Pet Sound ambitions, the final songs for the recording took on a darker, sparser, and more aggressive tone than the ethereal, multi-layered, power-pop propulsion of the earlier tracks.
From start to finish, the song is marked by the thundering assault of the rhythm section and the raw intensity of Steve Marriott’s lead guitar, the instrumentation in complete contrast to the still-life simplicity described in the lyrics.
I called her at four in the morning.
She came to the phone.
We met in the park as the dawn came.
I picked her a rose.
By the time Would You Believe? was completed, Oldham’s finances were stretched as thinly as his time, and Immediate Records was on the verge of collapse. An early casualty of Oldham’s financial woes, Nicholls’s debut recording, with its modest 100-copy initial pressing, remained virtually undistributed.
While Nicholls was understandably disappointed by the sudden and inglorious demise of his debut recording, he refused to allow the experience to dampen either his musical ambitions or his deepening friendship with Oldham and his fellow musicians. When Oldham invited Nicholls to stay at his Connecticut home, Nicholls jumped at the chance, developing new material in the producer’s private studio and hanging out with Lane, McLagan, Jones, and the other members of the newly formed Faces, who were also in the States at the time.
Back in London the following year, Nicholls and Lane formed the duo Foot and Mouth, touring small pubs in Southern Ireland, where Nicholls tested and refined the new songs that would form the core of his next release, Love Songs (GM Records, 1974). The album featured the beautiful ballad “Stay Awhile,” along with the loose, rollicking barroom rock of “Gypsy.” The band for the recording included Faces members Lane, McLagan, and Ronnie Wood, along with Caleb Quaye and Pete Townshend.
Nicholls and Townshend had first bonded a couple of years earlier while working on the Meher Baba tribute album I Am. Nicholls, who shares Townshend’s devotion to the silent Indian avatar, also composed the Baba-inspired tune “Forever’s No Time at All” for Townshend’s 1972 solo recording, Who Came First (Track Records).
Nicholls’s next recording, White Horse (Capitol Records, 1977) was recorded in Los Angeles, along with Quaye, Paul Barrere and Bill Payne of Little Feat, and Russ Kunkel. The album included the sentimental ballad, “Can’t Stop Lovin’ You,” which would become a major hit for Leo Sayer the following year and again for Phil Collins in 2002.
Since the 1980s, Nicholls has arranged all of the Who’s world tours and live solo projects, while also providing musical direction for such high-handed oddities as Who’s Serious, the London Symphony Orchestra’s tribute to the Who, and The Iron Man, the 1989 musical adapted by Townshend from the work of the same name by poet Ted Hughes.
In 1999, the first CD reissue of Would You Believe? was released by Sequel Records, giving mainstream listeners the chance to experience Nicholls’s and Oldham’s lost pop classic. The favorable critical response has since resulted in a variety of Nicholls re-releases and anthologies, including the 2005 anthology Forever’s No Time at All (Castle Records) and an expanded, two-disc version of Would You Believe? (Castle Records, 2006).
Nicholls’s most recent recording, Rosslyn Road (Southwest Records, 2008), is a collaborative effort with his brother Mike, who plays harmonium and acoustic bass. The album features a rich assortment of folk songs performed with traditional instruments, including a spirited version of W. B. Yeats’s “Crazy Jane on God,” set to music by the Nicholls brothers and Paddy Moloney of the Chieftains.
All of Nicholls’s earlier recordings are now distributed by his personal label, Southwest Records, and available for purchase on his web site (www.billynicholls.com).
Freelance writer and researcher DAVID SHIRLEY is homesick for Brooklyn.