Why have one live album when you can have seven? Or eight?
The live, double album: As 1970s as Tupperware, but not quite as durable, they were God’s gift to the music industry. They were cheap and easy to record and gave the artist a chance to shake off their writer’s block or go into rehab, ready to re-emerge with their “new direction”. Some of these records have stood the test of time and you can’t call yourself a fully paid-up rock nerd unless you’ve got copies of Live and Dangerous, Frampton Comes Alive, and Rockin’ the Fillmore nestling in your archives. On vinyl, of course. One that you might not have is Live! in the Air Age by Be-Bop Deluxe. Well, now’s the chance to plug that gap with quite possibly the mother of all expanded editions.
Initially released in 1977, Live! In the Air Age was never really a live double album, but a single record and a three-track EP. Why? I have no idea, but Be-Bop Deluxe took pride in being slightly to the left-field of rock and roll. While their contemporaries were resplendent in sequinned kimonos or yesterdays jeans and T-shirts, Be-Bop took to the stage dressed for an upscale wedding reception, with keyboard player Andy Clark often sporting a bow tie large enough to have its own zip code. They were a law unto themselves.
This singular approach has meant that Be-Bop’s fanbase was a rather constricted but voracious demographic. It also means that the fans they had in the ’70s are still fans today and are more than happy to shell out almost $150 on multiple concert recordings from a single tour. Over 15 CDs, a DVD and an expansive booklet, Be-Bop Deluxe aficionados can dive into the minutiae of the bands’ 1977 tour and get over-excited about multiple versions of “Maid in Heaven” and pictures of reel-to-reel tape boxes. This is a good thing.
If you’re going to release a massive chunk of live material, you have to be secure in the knowledge that the performances are up-to-scratch. Well, in this case, they are. Bandleader Bill Nelson had drilled the band into a lean, tight unit and as a result, any mistakes, flubbed notes or off-key harmonies are conspicuous by their absence. What sets Be-Bop apart from many of their contemporaries is, although they were as precise and reliable as an atomic clock, they also had The Funk. Bassist Charlie Tumahai and drummer Simon Fox provide a supple backdrop for Bill Nelson’s complex and intricate compositions and stellar guitar playing. Keyboardist Andy Clark (he of the oversized bowtie, remember?) is just as happy providing textures and washes behind the songs as he is getting busy on the MiniMoog. In the pantheon of ’70s keyboard virtuosos, this makes him nearly unique.
Live! in the Air Age is a neat showcase for the band and highlights their live prowess and a fine selection of material. Of course, you get the hit, “Ships in the Night”, but you also get two, as then unreleased tunes in “Mill Street Junction” and “Piece of Mine”. Both songs hold up well against tracks from their current album Modern Music. “Swan Song”, originally from their second album Futurama, sounds particularly vibrant on this release, freed from the rather claustrophobic production of the studio cut.
The original, 1977 release is augmented here with three songs recorded for the BBC, a previously unreleased “in concert” DVD and seven complete live shows, all of which have identical track listings. Even as I type, Be-Bop fans around the world are playing “spot the difference” and micro-analysing the between-song announcements. Only the closing song of the performances, the encore selection “Blazing Apostles” varies from night-to-night. In the time-honoured tradition of ’70s rock shows, it’s pulled out to over 20 minutes in length and must have caused many concertgoers to miss their last bus home, back in the day. Well, if you left early, here’s what you missed – if you were there, it must have been great, but in 2021, you may be wishing that the band had restrained themselves a little. Or played “Jet Silver and the Dolls of Venus” instead.
Be-Bop Deluxe never quite made it to the top table of ’70s rock. Despite a back catalog of varied and polished albums, the ability to deliver consistently exciting live shows and a stellar composer/guitarist in Bill Nelson they are now fondly remembered by their diehard followers and forgotten by the rest of the world. This release won’t change that – let’s face it, who but a superfan is going to hit the “buy” button for something as ultra-nerdy as this? Hopefully, the heavily abridged version of this, weighing in at a mere three CDs, will tempt the curious to lend an ear. Everybody loves an excellent live album, don’t they? And this is one of the best.