Be Bop Deluxe

The Popdose Guide to Be Bop Deluxe

The story of Be Bop Deluxe is essentially the story of Bill Nelson in the 1970s.  Born in Wakefield, England in 1948 and educated at the Wakefield College of Art, Nelson released his first solo album, Northern Dream, in 1971.  It drew the attention of legendary BBC host John Peel and before long Nelson signed a record contract with EMI’s Harvest label.  But rather than continue as a solo act, he assembled the first lineup of his new band, Be Bop Deluxe.

The band spent the rest of the decade serving as the vehicle for Nelson’s songwriting and guitar playing, and flirted with mainstream success for a brief time.  They never did make it big, however, and are today remembered largely by a core group of devoted fans.  Since the band’s dissolution in 1978 Nelson has kept himself more than busy, collaborating with artists such as David Sylvian and A Flock of Seagulls.  Mostly he has recorded and released an intimidating amount of solo projects of varying degrees of accessibility.  But for this guide I’m just going to take a look at the five studio albums and one live album released during Be Bop Deluxe’s lifetime.

Axe Victim (1974)

Typically it takes a few, if not several, years before an artist writes a song like “Axe Victim,” the title and lead track from Be Bop Deluxe’s first record.  For one, Nelson’s guitar chops are already at a level most guitarists spend their life striving to achieve and for another, he already sounds tired of the whole rock star game.  I’m not sure how else to interpret lyrics like “You came to watch the band / To see us play our parts / We hoped you’d lend an ear / You hoped we’d dress like tarts” and “Last night I felt immortal / This morning I feel dead.”  Is it really any surprise that Nelson ended the band just four years after this album?

Stylistically, Axe Victim is a glam rock record in the mold of David Bowie and T. Rex.  It’s certainly not derivative by any means (although the opening riff to “Jet Silver and the Dolls of Venus” bears an uncanny resemblance to “All the Young Dudes”), but neither is it transcendent.  As debut albums go, it’s a very solid effort with some definite high points and you wouldn’t go wrong in acquiring it.   The energetic “Love Is Swift Arrows” features some nimble fretwork from Nelson, while concert staple “Adventures in a Yorkshire Landscape” pointed the way toward the more progressive direction the band would soon take.

More than anything else, Axe Victim (as with all BBD albums, let’s face it) is a showcase for Nelson’s prodigious talents.  Good thing too, as the band’s original backing lineup (Ian Parkin on rhythm guitar, Robert Bryan on bass, and Nicholas Chatterton-Dew on drums) was sacked after a brief supporting tour.

Futurama (1975)

With a new backing band in tow (Charlie Tumahai on bass/backing vocals and Simon Fox on drums), Nelson enlisted producer Roy Thomas Baker for Be Bop Deluxe’s sophomore effort, Futurama.  While some vestiges of glam can be heard, the group made a clear move on this record toward more melodic, straightforward rock.  “Stage Whispers” and “Between the Worlds” crackle with energy and sound more assured and dynamic than almost anything on Axe Victim.  At least some of the credit must go to Fox, a much more accomplished percussionist than Chatterton-Dew.

While the material on Futurama is not uniformly strong, it’s a definite improvement over the debut.  “Maid in Heaven” is the first clear evidence of Nelson’s ability to write ear candy that still feels substantial, while “Sound Track” fuses progressive and glam rock in a way that must be heard to be believed.  Oh, and need I mention that Nelson’s guitar absolutely owns on this album?

Sunburst Finish (1976)

No sense being coy here – Sunburst Finish is one of the greatest rock albums of the 1970s.  There, I said it.  The band (a quartet once again with the addition of touring keyboardist Andrew Clark) is absolutely dialed in throughout, and Nelson’s songwriting has never been more accessible and sharp.  “Fair Exchange,” with typically blistering lead work from Nelson, kicks the proceedings off in style.  From there the album showcases prime examples of hard rock, progressive rock, and power pop.  The gorgeous “Heavenly Homes” sounds a lot more dense and epic than any song less than four minutes long has a right to be, and segues beautifully into the triumphant “Ships in the Night.” “Ships” became a minor hit for the band, peaking at #23 on the U.K. charts.

With nary a dead spot to be found, Sunburst Finish is simply packed with killer riffs, top-notch performances, and great melodies.  It all culminates on the final track, “Blazing Apostles,” one of my favorite songs ever.  Trying to describe why I love this song with words would just minimize it, so I’ll just urge you to check it out.

Modern Music (1976)

Released just seven months after Sunburst Finish, Modern Music is a fine album in its own right but does suffer by comparison.  The basic sound of Sunburst is still present, but the songwriting tends to meander a bit.  It sounds to me like Nelson had a lot of ideas but no time or willingness to flesh them out.  Hell, there are 15 songs spread out over 42 minutes – what other conclusion can I draw?

Still, there’s no such thing as a bad Be Bop Deluxe album and Modern Music is not without its charms.  “Kiss of Light” has the same breezy vibe as “Ships in the Night,” and the lively “Bring Back the Spark” does just that.  The high point of the record is the six-song, de-facto “Modern Music” suite, a less-than-fond look back at the band’s experiences touring the United States.  The centerpiece of the suite, for me anyway, is the instrumental “Dance of the Uncle Sam Humanoids.”

Live! In the Air Age (1977)

Is there a rock band of any import in the ‘70s that didn’t release a live album?  This particular one was originally packaged as an LP/bonus EP combo, now just a ten-track CD.  It essentially serves as a greatest hits collection drawn from the band’s first three studio albums, with a few new songs (“Mill Street Junction” and “Piece of Mine”) thrown in for good measure.  Overall this is a decent live album but there are better BBD performances available on bootleg, as well as on later live releases.  The two main things hampering Live! In the Air Age are the somewhat claustrophobic production and workmanlike performance.  The highlight of this album is the nearly eight-minute version of “Adventures in a Yorkshire Landscape” that expands greatly upon the studio original and allows Nelson room to really go to town on guitar.

Drastic Plastic (1978)

Call it New Wave, electropop, synth pop, or whatever you want, the 180-degree turn on Drastic Plastic signaled one thing loud and clear – Bill Nelson was done playing the part of guitar hero.  That’s not to say he hung up his axe altogether, but more often than not he uses it to fill out and complement his songs rather than to dominate the proceedings.  Witness the dense, synth-laden “Electrical Language” and “New Precision” as examples.  Even more traditional rock songs like “New Mysteries” and “Love in Flames,” the latter of which would’ve sounded at home on a Nick Lowe record, bear little resemblance to past output when heard through the prism of Nelson’s shifting musical vision.

In terms of atmosphere and sound, the first contemporary album I can compare Drastic Plastic to is the Cars’ Panorama (although Nelson can’t match the effortless hook-writing skill of Ric Ocasek).  It’s a strange coda to the recording career of one of the decade’s most underrated rock bands, and it’s probably no surprise that despite peaking at #22 on the U.K. charts it alienated a lot of longtime fans.  But if nothing else it does set the table for Nelson’s first post-Be Bop Deluxe project, Red Noise.

Sound on Sound (Bill Nelson’s Red Noise, 1979)

Ooh, a bonus album!  I’m wrapping up this guide with Sound on Sound for a few reasons.  It helps to put Drastic Plastic into better perspective within the Be Bop Deluxe narrative, and a lot of the material for Sound on Sound was written with the original intention of recording another BBD record.  The short-lived Red Noise project, which featured BBD holdover Andy Clark on keyboards and synthesizers, is even more a product of its time than Drastic Plastic yet is a more fully realized artistic statement and certainly more engaging.  On tracks like “Stop/Go/Stop” and “Out of Touch” Nelson sounds as energized as he had in years, no doubt glad to be free of the expectations placed upon him by being the leader of a rock band.  There are no ornate, drawn-out arrangements here and Nelson gets right to the point on every song (only two of which exceed four minutes).  Sound on Sound may not be your cup of tea if you prefer traditional rock, but if you have even a passing interest in New Wave (think prime Devo and early XTC here) then find a copy and revel in songs like “Furniture Music” and “The Atom Age.”




  • Anonymous

    No sense being coy here – Sunburst Finish is one of the greatest rock albums of the 1970s.

    Amen, sir. Truer words were never typed.

    Been a fan since picking up Finish off the rack in 1976, and I was one of those who were alienated by Red Noise- it was just too different, all new-wavey and punkish (and I wasn’t much of a fan of either in those days) and a million years away from the Bowie-esque, romantic Nelsongs with the Hendrix-style monster riffs I wanted more of. Eventually, though, I came to appreciate it, and these days I dig it a lot, especially tracks like “A Better Home (in the Phantom Zone)” and “Revolt into Style”.

    Like you say, Nelson has an intimidating mountain of solo projects (a few of which I’ve gone on to buy), and he’s recording new music to this day, some of it very interesting.

    Nice overview!

  • mgladish

    Great article. Nelson has created a tremendous body of work that people will be sifting through for decades. I hope someday he gets his due. There are a great many nuggets on later LPs like “Quit Dreaming and Get On the Beam”, “The Love That Whirls”, “Chimera” and others. His massive shifts in styles are both exciting and frustrating to me as a listener, but it has always been interesting.

  • Garylucy

    What a terrific and much-needed public service. Thank you!

  • Michel Lalonde

    I think Bill Nelson’s finest guitar work is on Sunburst’s Crying To The Sky…2 moving, brilliant solos in one song, more lyrical than the actual lyrics. Lovely use of feedback.

  • Michel Lalonde

    I think Bill Nelson’s finest guitar work is on Sunburst’s Crying To The Sky…2 moving, brilliant solos in one song, more lyrical than the actual lyrics. Lovely use of feedback.

  • Tom

    A great article. I agree with much of it. Drastic Plastic and Red Noise are very similar. I liked both, but only a handful of songs on later projects.

  • Tom

    A great article. I agree with much of it. Drastic Plastic and Red Noise are very similar. I liked both, but only a handful of songs on later projects.

  • http://www.kenshane.com kshane

    Thanks for this. Live in the Air Age was one of my favorite albums of the ’70s, and I rewarded the band for that effort by not listening to anything else they did before or since. Great logic, huh? Now I can fill in the gaps in my education.

  • http://marcmaronrules.blogspot.com Michael

    One of my all-time favorite bands !

    One of the Best Bands Ever
    that unfortunately,a lot of people have never heard of..

    Bill Nelson: a great & unique guitar player..

    I hope someday he gets his due,too..

    Bill Nelson Rules !

    Thanks..

  • rb

    good stuff. i can probably get you an interview with Red Noise drummer Steve Peer (also of TV Toy).

  • Keithmur

    Great article, Chris, about an often-overlooked band.

    My experience with BBD is atypical, because the first album of theirs that I heard (actually, still the only one in entirety) was Drastic Plastic.

    I thought your comparison to The Cars was right on the money – especially since when I heard a song off The Cars’ first album in 1978 (“Just What I Needed”), my first thought was that it was a BBD song!

    Interestingly, Drastic Plastic seems to have been released February 1978, the very same month that “The Cars” was recorded – at Air Studios in London.

    What are the chances that Ric Ocasek and friends were not greatly influenced by that phase of BBD, especially considering that Roy Thomas Baker, who produced “The Cars”, also produced “Futurama”?

  • Keithmur

    Great article, Chris, about an often-overlooked band.

    My experience with BBD is atypical, because the first album of theirs that I heard (actually, still the only one in entirety) was Drastic Plastic.

    I thought your comparison to The Cars was right on the money – especially since when I heard a song off The Cars’ first album in 1978 (“Just What I Needed”), my first thought was that it was a BBD song!

    Interestingly, Drastic Plastic seems to have been released February 1978, the very same month that “The Cars” was recorded – at Air Studios in London.

    What are the chances that Ric Ocasek and friends were not greatly influenced by that phase of BBD, especially considering that Roy Thomas Baker, who produced “The Cars”, also produced “Futurama”?

  • Keithmur

    Great article, Chris, about an often-overlooked band.

    My experience with BBD is atypical, because the first album of theirs that I heard (actually, still the only one in entirety) was Drastic Plastic.

    I thought your comparison to The Cars was right on the money – especially since when I heard a song off The Cars’ first album in 1978 (“Just What I Needed”), my first thought was that it was a BBD song!

    Interestingly, Drastic Plastic seems to have been released February 1978, the very same month that “The Cars” was recorded – at Air Studios in London.

    What are the chances that Ric Ocasek and friends were not greatly influenced by that phase of BBD, especially considering that Roy Thomas Baker, who produced “The Cars”, also produced “Futurama”?

  • Keithmur

    Great article, Chris, about an often-overlooked band.

    My experience with BBD is atypical, because the first album of theirs that I heard (actually, still the only one in entirety) was Drastic Plastic.

    I thought your comparison to The Cars was right on the money – especially since when I heard a song off The Cars’ first album in 1978 (“Just What I Needed”), my first thought was that it was a BBD song!

    Interestingly, Drastic Plastic seems to have been released February 1978, the very same month that “The Cars” was recorded – at Air Studios in London.

    What are the chances that Ric Ocasek and friends were not greatly influenced by that phase of BBD, especially considering that Roy Thomas Baker, who produced “The Cars”, also produced “Futurama”?

  • sulatlalaki

    Incidentally, that’s Nelson’s favorite guitar song of his [at least from the LP]

  • sulatlalaki

    I hated Drastic Plastic and Red Noise. I, of course, love Live! In the Air Age! Well…I do own–and dig–”Practically Wired or How I Became Guitar Boy”. I especially dig Roses and Rocketships, Pink Buddha Blues, and Royal Ghosts. Great stuff. Get it if you haven’t heard it.