Love With the Madman
Riding prog’s contrail, fueled by Bowie and Chilton, nipping at the infant heels of punk, Bill Nelson made his marks early and he made them deep. He just didn’t make them very broad. Long before his more esoteric work of the ‘80s and ‘90s, Nelson paraded about with the attitude of a glam rocker and the earnestness of a singer-songwriter. In the overlooked classic-rock outfit Be-Bop Deluxe, we hear Nelson’s developmental roots, five nail-sharp if musically derivative studio records and one high-energy live document, all released between 1973 and 1978.
Futurama (1975) was Be-Bop’s second full-length record. (This and other BBD albums are newly back in print—reissued but not remastered.) Nelson discharged his original bandmates following a tour in support of their debut, Axe Victim, and the sidemen who joined him for Futurama—bassist Charles Tumahai and drummer Simon Fox—stuck for the rest of the band’s short life. (Keyboardist Andy Clark came aboard after the recording of Futurama). Nelson’s love of David Bowie’s talky vocal affectations is every bit as present on Futurama as it is on Axe Victim, but musically this album is more progressive—befitting the era, perhaps, and owing something to the album’s producer, Roy Thomas Baker, fresh from his trio of Queen LPs, but equally befitting the aspirations of three extremely talented musicians.
The opening “Stage Whispers” is three minutes of operatic rock at its best, a song that revels in the power and drama of rock music while taking aim at the genre’s facade of hipness (“The spotlight falls upon the fool / Who sings of love then acts so cool”). “Stage Whispers” is the second part of an unofficial trilogy on the theme of “performance” that comprises the first three songs on the first three BBD albums.
And Bill Nelson is a consummate performer. If he weren’t a singer, a songwriter, or a keyboardist, he’d still merit enormous respect as a guitarist. Licks and solos aren’t exactly in vogue at the moment, but those who love clean, brazen, fiery playing will adore Nelson’s work with Be-Bop Deluxe, particularly on the first two albums. He’s criticized for the degree to which he’s made his guitars a focal point of these records, but such criticisms take as their premise the notion that the guitar exists merely to serve the song. An auteur of Nelson’s caliber and a guitarist with such a fine grasp of the possibilities of his instrument need never apologize for his musical priorities. And P.S., none of the artists whose influence can be heard in Nelson’s singing or songwriting have guitar work anywhere near this good on any of their records. (Queen’s Brian May comes the closest, but he’s too uneven to be considered a serious rival.)
Futurama features two of BBD’s biggest hits, “Sister Seagull” and “Maid in Heaven”, both melodic, radio-ready anthems. “Swan Song”, which closed the LP version of the album, is a plea for musical communion with a lover—a bookend to “Stage Whispers” and a delightfully insane musical nod to both the Beatles and Queen. The disc includes three bonus tracks: a single version of “Between the Worlds” (also an album track; the single version is likely pre-Roy Thomas Baker), a 1977 live version of “Maid in Heaven” (taken from the Live in the Air Age release), and “Speed of the Wind”, a haunting b-side mysteriously appended to the reissue of 1976’s Sunburst Finish as well.
Record aficionados (and CD-only listeners who buy into the industry’s willingness to exploit the coolness of vinyl while stopping short of pressing many new LPs) will appreciate the artwork on the disc itself, which emulates the green LP label of the original Harvest Records release. While the print quality is quite poor, the CD booklet does include full lyrics, original liner notes, original artwork, photos appropriate to this era of the band, and a two-page essay (uncredited).
In conjunction with its decision to put the core Be-Bop Deluxe titles back in circulation, EMI has also served up a tasty single-disc survey called Postcards from the Future. They’re not kidding about that title: you’ll rub your eyes in astonishment when you see that its three selections from Modern Music hail from 1976 and not 1981 or ‘82. What’s more, science fiction plays a larger thematic role in each subsequent BBD album, making “from the future” all the more apt. The compilation touches on each record in chronological order. Not very imaginative, but that’s alright. The music has imagination to spare.
The disc includes a nice 30-years-on essay from Nelson, an excellent reference for matching each song to its original album (complete with release dates), and, best of all, it marks the CD debut of both the A and B sides of the band’s first single. The 1973 single was monaural and limited to 1,000 copies. “Teenage Archangel” is straight-up Mott the Hoople with an almost-quote from Deep Purple’s “Smoke On the Water”; “Jets at Dawn” (later rerecorded for Axe Victim) is a post-apocalyptic vision that hints at themes that would surface later in the band’s career; it clocks in at nearly seven minutes and must have sounded awful crammed onto one face of a seven-inch disk. Both performances are electrifying and both bear Nelson’s characteristic attention to musical nuance.
Postcards also includes the above-mentioned “performance” trilogy (“Axe Victim”, “Stage Whispers”, and “Fair Exchange”), albeit not in sequence. And Sunburst Finish‘s “Life in the Air-Age”, a perfectly good song in its own right, may be the only Roy Harper rip-off I’ve ever heard. (The version included on Postcards is another excerpt from the band’s live album.)
While none of this material has been remastered, that’s as much a blessing as a form of sonic damnation: on the one hand, we don’t benefit from the quality of the latest analog-to-digital converters. On the other hand, neither must we suffer through the egregious dynamic compression and peak limiting to which most albums (reissues and new releases alike) are now subjected. Apart from that first single, these were all well-produced tracks, and their native quality is evident, even if the disc(s) can’t hold a candle to the UK or US LPs.