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.
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.
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?
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”