To Out-Ziggy Ziggy
Bill Nelson is one of those perennial cult favorites of the past who never received that huge revival push from any of the hip magazines, or shout-outs from the cult favorites of the present. Even then, it is difficult to think that his core audience would expand due to revival attempts. His career is just so broad and eclectic, and never fully in tune with whatever the current musical trends are (above-ground or underground), that his massive catalogue will never reach far beyond his devoted audience. Bill Nelson is sort of like an even more experimental Todd Rundgren who never bothered to write any radio friendly songs.
Perhaps Nelson’s limited fanbase has caused EMI to not even bother to remaster Axe Victim, the first album from Nelson’s most popular musical experiment, Be-Bop Deluxe. EMI, apparently, felt it was enough to add lyrics and a brief essay to the insert booklet to justify this reissue. Fixing the awful, cardboard flat sound of the original CD remastering job, I guess, would not be cost effective, considering how Axe Victim was not bound to be topping Billboard‘s Pop Catalogue charts. So, in essence, any one who already owns this album on CD, or even has a decent vinyl copy and a workable turntable, should not even bother picking up this latest reissue.
So this album, I suppose, is for those select few who might be interested in joining the Bill Nelson fold but lack a convenient entry point. Axe Victim, ultimately, is a pretty decent, if unrepresentative, album for those interested in an unconventional musician. Be-Bop Deluxe was Nelson’s attempt to cloak his experimental nature with the conventions of the pop music of the day. This being the early ‘70s, Axe Victim finds Nelson and his band appropriating the glam rock sound of David Bowie circa Aladdin Sane and T. Rex while sneaking in Nelson’s mindbending solos into the mainstream audience’s ears. The songs on Axe Victim act as over-the-top set pieces that use big rock hooks to lure the listener into accepting Nelson’s surreal lyrics and unusual guitar playing. “Adventures in a Yorkshire Landscape” is very blatant about this, starting with a nostalgic idyll a la “Penny Lane” that shifts into an epic guitar solo heavily reminiscent of those Frank Zappa songs where he would incorporate a guitar solo from one particular live performance into an entirely different song. These delightful curveballs are what make Axe Victim more than a curio; the seeds of decades of experiments are hidden inside these rather conventional glam rock songs.
The problem with Axe Victim is that the fact that the band is not fully interested in being an actual glam rock band. Nelson and his talented group of musicians do capture every single trope of the rather limited genre. Nelson’s quasi-falsetto would easily suit any song on the Velvet Goldmine soundtrack, the band goes at it like a Spiders from Mars cover band, and the songs are all about the space age and good looking “young things”. However, the songs never seem to cohere, mainly because they don’t have to cohere because they only exist as platforms for Nelson’s guitar work. Maybe in a different genre this would not be as apparent, but glam rock works only when the band members are willing to fully commit to the thoroughly ludicrous self-image that they must groom for themselves. Be-Bop Deluxe has no patience for playing the game, as certain lyrics suggest: “You’d hope we’d dress like tarts / But back stage we stand naked” (“Axe Victim”).
The album does have a few gems, even if Nelson’s guitar solos always overshadow the songs proper. “Jet Silver and the Dolls of Venus” is the one moment where the glitter doesn’t seem forced, as they go all out in a failed but noble attempt to one-up “Ziggy Stardust” and “Starman”. “Night Creatures” shows Bill Nelson writing the world’s first Suede parody, beating out not only Pavement’s “We Dance” but the actual band’s first album by decades. “Darkness (L’Immortaliste)” is a somber, string-laden song that predicts some of Nelson’s experimental, more orchestral, work. The three bonus live tracks, including a reprise of “Adventures in a Yorkshire Landscape”, de-emphasize the glam aspects of “glam rock” and shows Be-Bop Deluxe as an actual band rather than the novelty project that it sounds like on the album proper. Still, this is an album that, when Nelson’s guitars are not on the forefront, is essentially a product of style over substance. This, of course, was the fatal flaw of the glam rock genre in particular, but Nelson, luckily, abandoned this route and went in an entirely new direction by the time of his next release. It would not be the last time Nelson would shift gears.