For one brief moment, semi-legendary cult musician Bill Nelson had a genuine pop hit. His band Be-Bop Deluxe stumbled upon a vaguely-reggae, upbeat tune called “Ships in the Night” which managed to capture the musical zeitgeist of the mid-‘70s by borrowing a Rick Wakeman-esque keyboard riff and sweetening the chorus with some Queen-style harmonies. The album it came from, Sunburst Finish, was, by most accounts, Be-Bop Deluxe at its peak and a tantalizing glimpse into what Bill Nelson could have accomplished as the pop star he was never really meant to be.
Sunburst Finish is a remarkable show of restraint. Bill Nelson’s Bowie fixations, full blown on Be-Bop Deluxe’s debut Axe Victim, are significantly toned down allowing the band to find its own style, one that turned out to be far more prog than glam. Gone too, sadly, are Nelson’s lengthy guitar solos that provided much of the brightest moments on the early Be-Bop Deluxe albums. Only “Crying to the Sky” is designed to showcase Nelson’s guitar work, as it does in two extended solos that rank as some of the most gorgeous guitar moments of the seventies. He also gets a few runs in “Like an Old Blues”, which sounds exactly like what the title suggests it sounds like, and on the concluding “Blazing Apostles”, but these short solos do not overwhelm the song like on previous outings.
On the rest of the songs, Nelson simply uses his guitar to embellish the songs, not to carry them. Unable to lean back on his spectacular guitar skills as a crutch, Nelson forces himself to create the big hooks and the catchy riffs that he had failed to produce on Axe Victim and its follow-up Futurama. Beyond “Ships in the Night”, songs like the hard rocking (and very Queen-like) “Fair Exchange” and the inexplicable but righteous “Sleep That Burns sear themselves into their listeners’ consciousnesses.
Perhaps what keeps Sunburst Finish so listenable is the band’s emphasis on speed. Nearly every song races out of the gate and does not relent until the end. Even ostensible ballads such as “Life in the Air Age” never linger in one spot for too long. Although it is roughly the same length as Axe Victim it just feels like it’s a lot shorter. Nelson and his bandmates seem determined to get from one section of the song to the next with the least amount of distance, which makes the quite complex songs that Nelson writes feel more like standard pop songs. In fact, Sunburst Finish is a difficult album to categorize, it is defiantly progressive in its arrangements and instrumentation, but the songs are all quite short and radio friendly. It’s less prog-rock, and more prog-pop. The song does not sound as dated as many others of the time because of the band’s newfound dedication to the art of the song. The band eschew all the worst excesses of progressive rock on Sunburst Finish, there are no epic ten minute fantasias here. In fact, the only moment of insufferable overload occurs in the cheesy orchestration on the odd-man-out ballad “Crystal Gazing”.
The bonus tracks added to the first CD reissue return on the current reissue (which sadly does not clean up the terrible 1990’s mastering job). “Shine”, the b-side to “Ships in the Night”, is a seven and a half minutes of excess that did not deserve to be on the original album, but is a fun bonus track with Nelson providing a few more moments of guitar mastery and some throwaway dialogue. The other two tracks, “Speed of the Wind” and “Blue as a Jewel”, are comparative bores that add little of value to the album. In any case, the heart of the album is the real reason to pick this up. Bill Nelson would produce better albums, but he would never again be this accessible and fun. Never again, for instance, would Nelson start playing “Peter Gunn” in the middle of an oblique attack on organized religion for no apparent reason. That is kind of a shame.