Be-Bop Deluxe: a celebration

It must have been a late Sunday night in 1976 when I first heard the sound of Be-Bop Deluxe (BBD) coming from my wireless. Their album Sunburst Finish was being featured on Sounds Interesting on Radio 3 with Derek Jewell. I’d stumbled on the show entirely by accident while I was looking for something hip (for that read “obscure”) to listen to. It’s more than likely that Radio Caroline was having some maritime issues at the time, which accounts for why I landed on Radio 3.  Caroline was the station of my youth – that is, apart from Armed Forces Network (AFN), whose signal would drift in and out, often right in the middle of a song I really, really loved. As for Luxembourg  it was Top 10 mush with lots of ads for things I didn’t want to buy. But that isn’t to say that Caroline was free from crap. It was going through its “Loving Awareness” thing. Don’t ask me what it was about, all I know was it sounded a bit quasi-Eastern and they plugged the fuck out of it.  Music wasn’t portable as it is now and most of the FM band was a hiss – especially out in the sticks – which meant that most, if not all, stations were on Medium Wave (AM for the Yanks and Canucks reading this) with its crackles, pops, splashes and heterodyne whistles. BBD was, in truth, Bill Nelson’s project and it was he who wrote and sang the songs and played a pretty fine guitar.

The “prog rock” label has been retrospectively attached to BBD for no other reason that the musicianship of the band was superb and Nelson’s songs often used sci-fi imagery, but this is where the association with prog rock ends. The prog rock tag is the mark of the lazy hack. If BBD are prog rock, then so are Roxy Music and David Bowie. Following the release of Axe Victim, their first album, they got tagged with “glam”, due its arrival towards the tail-end of that period. I suspect the reason for this was due to the fact that the band wore make-up, but so did everyone else. Truth be told, they were a little hard to pigeon-hole.

This is “Jet Silver and the Dolls of Venus” (a turn on Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars?), a single taken from Axe Victim. it’s a straightforward rock track that owes a lot to Bowie, in terms of its sonics and captures the Zeitgeist of glam.

The line-up that produced this song would be dissolved by the restless Nelson, who felt frustrated with being pigeon-holed by the music press and wanted to take his ideas in a new direction.  He recruited Simon Fox on drums, keyboardist Milton Reame-James with Paul Jeffreys completing the line-up on bass but the latter two left the band before an album could be recorded and were replaced by Charlie Tumahai on bass and Andy Clarke on the ivories for the live shows. He would join the band full time for Sunburst Finish a year later.

Here they are playing “Maid in Heaven” from Futurama on the Old Grey Whistle Test.

This song along with “Ships in the Night” and “Bring Back the Spark” would be compiled into the Hot Valves EP.  The thing I like about “Ships in the Night” is its reggae vibe but there’s more to it than that. Like the artist he is, Nelson paints a collage of sound: he blends the reggae with the rock and adds some jazz and classic to complete the picture.

Here’s BBD playing “Ships in the Night” on Popquiz.

In 1976, I can remember reading in the NME that Tumahai, a New Zealander, had issues with his work permit, and was told to leave Britain which meant the band’s existence was potentially under threat. Charlie eventually won his case and was permitted to live and work in the UK but this was after a great deal of struggle that saw him having to live in France while the problem was resolved.

In Crying to the Sky, Nelson’s guitar literally weeps (eat your heart out George Harrison!).

The band’s second album of 1976 was Modern Music, which spawned this title track; a most gorgeous suite of songs.

This album was released just as punk was beginning to stir and this prompted a change in Nelson’s musical direction by the time of Drastic Plastic in 1978, but instead of going for three-chord thrash, he makes more use of synths, which most punks rejected, the instrumentation is more understated and Nelson’s use of guitar tends to be modest. It’s around this time that synthesizers are getting smaller and therefore becoming cheaper. Sheffield bands like Cabaret Voltaire and the Human League are also beginning to attract attention. This happened a full two years before Gary Numan’s “Are Friends Electric”?

This is “Electrical Language”, taken from BBD’s final album, Drastic Plastic, released in 1978.

From the same LP, this is “Panic in the World”.  It’s proper post-punk…well, maybe New Wave.

At the time of Drastic Plastic’s release, the real prog rock bands were quickly disappearing up their own jacksies. ELP was riding high in the charts with the flabby “Fanfare for the Common Man”, while Yes, who’d welcomed back Rick Wakeman and his collection of capes the year before, released their turgid LP Tormato.  They were getting stuck in the past, while Nelson was blazing ahead. In 1978,  BBD was dissolved  for the last time and Nelson formed Red Noise. With them, he released one album, Sound on Sound, which spawned two singles, “Furniture Music” and “Revolt Into Style”.  The groundwork for Sound on Sound had been done with Drastic Plastic, this is “Furniture Music”.

Ever restless, Nelson would dissolve Red Noise and go solo. He continues to perform and holds an annual festival called “Nelsonica”. He also makes 5 albums a year!

I recently learned that Nelson had also been ripped off by his record label, EMI and his manager. The judgement is here.

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