Interview with Jon Kirkman

Originally published on Saturday 1st April 2006


Billy Nicholls is known for a wonderful album released in the sixties entitled Would You Believe. The album was released by The Immediate label but due to problems with the label the album received only a limited release and has since gone on to enjoy cult status. Billy continued to work throughout the seventies releasing albums and also writing songs including I Can't Stop Loving You, which was a massive, hit for Leo Sayer and more recently Phil Collins.

Over the years Billy has also remained a good friend of Pete Townshend and collaborated with Pete on projects connected with their interest in Meher Baba.

In 2005 Sanctuary, who had already re issued Would You Believe released an anthology of Billy's work entitled Forever Is No Time At All.

Jon Kirkman spoke to Billy at his home in London on 6th June 2005 about the Anthology and some of his solo work and his prestigious rock connections.

Jon Kirkman: Well, your anthology is out, it is called Forever is No Time At All. It seems very apt for a title.

Billy Nicholls: It is a good name for a title. It was not chosen by me but because it was one of my singles that came out a while ago. It was on Pete Townshend's album.

JK: The Townshend connection is weird because your dad was in the same band as Pete's wasn't he?

BN: That's right, the Squadronaires. I didn't know that until after I had met Pete. I came home one day and my dad asked me where I had been. I told him I had been with Pete Townshend and he brought down from upstairs a book of photographs from the wartime and told me that he used to play with Pete's dad. But our connection wasn't the one through the Squadronaires, it was a bit of a coincidence really but these things happen.

JK: Your album Would You Believe has been one of those collectable albums for years and years. It didn't come out because Immediate was suffering problems. Reading the notes from the anthology it seems that you weren't actually signed to Immediate as an artist.

BN: No I never signed a contract with them as an artist but I was signed with them as a writer. I was employed as a resident songwriter for a couple of years. Having said that we were all helping each other out on our records and then Andrew Oldham decided he wanted to do an album with me ˆ that was the Would You Believe album. But as soon as it was finished things started to go a bit strange at Immediate and I am not sure how many copies were printed, maybe a hundred or something but it was never really released.

JK: Were you disappointed that it did not get a proper release?

BN: I was very disappointed, more so with the fact that Immediate went down. It was such a lovely situation there with the Small Faces and Pat Arnold all helping each out. It really was like a family situation. When things went wrong it hurt me much more than the fact that the album didn't get promoted or released.

JK: It did seem like a very creative label but business wise it did seem pretty hopeless.

BN: That's right, to be quite honest I was about 17/18 at the time and I was not very up on what was happening business wise. I was literally writing full time for Del Shannon and myself and singing on other people's records. We were all a bit naïve and unaware of what was going on.

JK: I was growing up with this kind of stuff ˆ I saw this in a second hand shop one day and bought it. It became one of my favourite albums.

BN: What was so strange about Love Songs was that after Immediate folded I got signed to Billy Gaff's label GM Records and started to make an album myself which Billy really liked. He helped me fund Love songs. Then pretty much the same thing happened to GM records. It folded just as it was about to come out. It was terrible. So even though I was still writing there had been a big gap of disillusionment. I did personally really rate Love Songs especially working with Caleb Quaye and it was really a joint effort between the two of us.

JK: Those two albums are now very highly thought of and very collectable. When you did them and suffered those problems did it make you think that you couldn't be bothered recording anymore? Did you maybe think that you would just carry on writing for other people?

BN: Well that is pretty much what happened. I did get disillusioned but the thing about writing songs is that I have been doing it since I was 13 so it is something that is there all the time so you just carry on even though you have been hurt twice. I did the White Horse album and a band called White Horse came and said they would sue us if we went on the road so Capitol dropped that one as well. (Laughs) It just seems to happen again and again and again really.

JK: Having said that, your name has been associated with people like the Small Faces and you have worked with Ronnie Lane, Pete Townshend. That is how I came to know you from the association with these people. Does that bother you in any way?

BN: Pete and Ronnie became very close friends of mine; it is almost irrelevant who they are. We had a connection with one another through Meher Baba so that was something else was very close to all of us.

JK: There seemed to be at the time a small clique of musicians and artists who were Meher Baba followers. How big was that following?

BN: It was a very small nucleus of people really and we did a few albums together. It wasn't really a clique it just happened to be there you know. We did a few concerts and fund raising things to make another album. It just evolved from there. It just dissipated and people became more personal in their approach to Meher Baba I know I have. I don't go to meetings any more.

JK: In the seventies there was a very definite move towards the spiritual side of things wasn't there? What was it that attracted you to that side of things?

BN: Well I rebelled to be quite honest when I found out about Meher Baba. It wasn't long after Immediate Records split and I met Pete and Ronnie and they were completely into it. I went to America for six months and when I came back it hit me that I was running away from something I was involved with. I don't know why this mystical involvement happened at that time, it just did. It was starting to happen in the sixties as well I suppose.

JK: Did it affect you as an artist in terms of inspiration like it did Pete and Ronnie?

BN: Oh yeah, I suppose lyrically I'd say that a lot of songs I was writing at the time could have been about Meher Baba for instance a song called Without Your Love was written and used in the McVicar film was specifically about Meher Baba. Even now I write songs about him but in an ambiguous way.

JK: There is a sort of subconscious feel about some of Pete's songs that you look at in two ways, is it the same for you?

BN: That is exactly it, yes.

JK: Another big success for you was Leo Sayer covering I Can't Stop Loving You, which is of course proved to be very successful in America when Phil Collins produced it. How did that song come about? Was it written as part of an album or did you think that it could be a hit single when you wrote it?

BN: Yeah I did. I came back from America and I had been away from my family. My wife had just had a little girl so I was missing out on a lot of her early days and very upset about having to go back to Los Angeles for ten weeks at a time waiting for a contract. I came back home to Twickenham and wrote that song. It was just a song about leaving because I was emotional about it I just put it into the context of leaving someone. As I wrote it I remember telling my wife that I had just written a hit single. Of course it didn't happen for me but Leo Sayer heard it in Los Angeles and he literally used exactly the same musicians as I had used and had a hit with it.

JK: The arrangement is obviously very similar as well. If you listen to the version on the anthology you can see this including the vocal inflections as well.

BN: Yes he just copied it. Good for him, he had a hit with it. At least something happened with it.

JK: Was it a surprise when Phil Collins decided to do it? I thought at the time that it was a strange choice for him.

BN: I must admit I did too but when I heard his version of it, (he did it 4/4 and added an extra little piece to it that took it up an extra notch as it were) I didn't think it would work at first but it works really well for him. I am really pleased for him, he has taken quite a few knocks and he is a really nice guy. I hope the song has helped him and I am pleased it has given him another hit.

JK: It has done you very well too, it has won you a couple of awards from ASCAP hasn't it, which is nice?

BN: Yes I have just got another one as well! Phil Collins is still touring and I wasn't a big fan of his until I went to see the concert and I couldn't believe how good he was.

JK: You worked with the Who pretty extensively in the late 1980s. How did that come about?

BN: It started with Pete asking me would I musically direct his solo concert called the Deep End at Brixton. It meant putting a lot of musicians together. Pete did not just want to do his own songs; he wanted to do other favourite songs of his. It meant putting a big band together Dave Gilmour and lots of singers, brass section etc. To be quite honest I had never done any musical direction before but it was a friend helping a friend to find the right people. He knew I loved his music and knew a lot about it. He trusted me really to put the best band that I could find at that time together. That continued with the Who really. Pete and The Who wanted to go out with a big band in '89 to do a lot more and strengthen further songs and the only way they could do something like I Can See For Miles was to add more singers onstage to do it properly. It went a bit over the top I must admit. A lot of people knocked it believe it or not.

JK: The Who was one of those bands that were damned if you do and damned if you don't. There are people who see them as the original four piece and won't have any truck with anything beyond that.

BN: It is having the guts to do it. I think Pete and Roger and John wanted to do bigger things with their stuff. They also wanted to do solo stuff and try to experiment. I think it worked.

JK: What was it like for you being on stage with a band like that, it must have been pretty good?

BN: It was actually, I have so much respect for Pete's work. It is great to sing on those songs it really is. I did do a few more, I did Psychoderelict with him, I did Roger Daltrey's solo tour and we ended up doing Quadrophenia that once again had to be big with the brass line up and the singers. Otherwise you would have lost some elements that were desperately needed. It was great but it was hard work thought because you are responsible for a lot of things and then you have to get up and sing. To be honest we have learned and rehearsed over a hundred songs for the '89 tour.

JK: You did the whole of Tommy and there was another set too. It was like two gigs a night in one.

BN: Pete said to me that if he got bored he is going home and he was insured against that. I also had that hanging over my head! Don't forget also that I said Zak had to play drums in Quadrophenia, I had got Zak involved in at the beginning and he had said, "On your head be it!‰

JK: Zak is the drummer for the Who though, obviously the connection with Keith helps because Keith taught him rather than his dad.

BN: That's right that is what he told me. He hasn't looked back. He is doing well; I speak to him practically every other day. He is on the straight and narrow and working well.

JK: Let's get back to your stuff. Your most recent album is Still Entwined isn't it?

BN: I decided to do something that is probably not very fashionable but with not too much fairy dust put on it. If you listen to the first track it hasn't got any echo on it or anything. My son Morgan went along with me on it and helped me produce it. It is a bit exposed and some of the songs are a bit sad but it is something I wanted to do.

JK: Your albums are available through your website and have been for a while. This compilation has been issued through Sanctuary, are there any plans to issue any of the others through Sanctuary?

BN: They are going to see how it goes. We might try to find the original masters for Would You Believe; I think Charley Records may have them. They say they own the copyright worldwide for it. What Sanctuary want to do is put out a deluxe version of it and if we can get the masters it will be a nice to re-look at them and bring them up to scratch and do a good job on it. Maybe we can put some of the out takes and the snapshot demos on it as well. It would be a deluxe edition of it.

JK: That would be a nice release that!

BN: It would be good yes, especially if we can get the masters to make sure it is a good as we can possibly do it. The thing about writing songs is that you might have about ten or twelve ideas on the go at the same time and if one keeps staying with you, you know you are on to something and that means you have a strong melody normally. You can work on it and put good lyrics to it.

JK: This anthology is a pretty good shop window for people who want to get into your stuff isn't it?

BN: That's right but I have about another eighty demos recorded that I haven't even released yet. The next thing I want to do is a more acoustic album, I have done some stuff with the Chieftains and I fancy putting something out like that.

JK: Someone like you just writes song and more songs don't you, you don't just think you will write an album?

BN: That is exactly it, it is what you do.

JK: It has been great speaking to you today.

BN: Thank you Jon.

(This interview is also available on Jon's website www.rockahead.net)