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Music / Be-Bop Deluxe

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Bill Nelson: When Be-Bop Deluxe started, we had no ambitions about becoming a professional band. We were all holding down day jobs and the band was a kind of hobby, a release from ordinary life. The glam image was a bit of fun, partly stemming from my art student background and partly an attempt to freak out the rather conservative working men’s club audiences we were playing to in Yorkshire back then. But, as luck had it, we eventually got signed to EMI’s Harvest Records and the first album wrapped up the band’s music at that point, along with the glam image. It was hilarious in a way—you only had to look at the band to see that under the makeup, we were anything but glamorous! But I moved away from all that as soon as possible. I think the music the later band made was unclassifiable. It was a genre unto itself.
The best-known lineup. Left to right: Bill Nelson (vocals and guitar), Charles Tumahai (bass), Andy Clark (keyboards), Simon Fox (drums).

Be-Bop Deluxe was a British Progressive Rock/Glam Rock band active from 1973 to 1978. Led by singer/guitar god Bill Nelson, the band basically split up when he decided not to do it anymore.

Bill Nelson had been playing guitar and writing songs with his younger brother Ian in their native Yorkshire since the early '60s. After time in art school and working in government, Bill released his first solo album, Northern Dream, in 1971. The album got the attention of EMI Records after exposure on BBC DJ John Peel's program. Nelson recruited local Yorkshire musicians Ian Parkin, Nicholas Chatterdon-Dew, and Robert Bryan for Be-Bop's 1974 debut Axe Victim for Harvest Records.

The band reformed in 1975 as a trio with Nelson on vocals, guitars, and keyboards joined by ex-Healing Force bassist/vocalist Charlie Tumahai and drummer Simon Fox for the Futurama album. Session keyboardist Andy Clark, having already cut his teeth with guitar virtuosos like Jeff Beck, performed live with the band before joining proper for the following year's Sunburst Finish album. Ian Nelson cameoed a memorable saxophone solo on lead single "Ships in the Night".

The quartet would remain steady for their last two albums, Modern Music and Drastic Plastic before dissolving in 1979. Clark would go on to record keys for David Bowie's "Ashes to Ashes", Peter Gabriel, and Tears for Fears. Fox played with a pre-Yes Trevor Rabin, Pretty Things, and ex-Scorpions guitarist Uli Jon Roth. Tumahai returned to his native New Zealand, where he recorded with reggae band Herbe and advocated for local Maori juvenile delinquents.

Their sound can be described, for the most part, as dreamy, measured, precise and melodic while alternating between mellow and aggressive. David Bowie, Jimi Hendrix and Roxy Music are obvious influences, but the band has a sound all their own. Unlike many other prog-rock artists, Nelson and Be-Bop Deluxe were intrigued by Post-Punk and New Wave Music, and incorporated both styles in their music by the time of their final album. Nelson would carry these influences with him into his solo career throughout the 80s.

After disbanding Be-Bop Deluxe, Bill Nelson went on to form the short-lived Red Noise with his brother Ian, Clark, and ex-Fairport Convention drummer Dave Mattacks before returning to his solo career. He also became a producer, co-producing Days in Europa by Stuart Adamson's pre-Big Country band Skids, A Flock of Seagulls's debut album, and Warrior by Gary Numan. He would also collaborate extensively over the years with musicians including ex-Japan bassist Mick Karn, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Roger Eno, and countless others.

Ian Parkin and Tumahai both died in 1995. Ian Nelson died in 2006.

Bill Nelson still records and updates his Dreamsville website semi-regularly despite ongoing health issues.

Studio Discography:

  • Axe Victim (1974)
  • Futurama (1975)
  • Sunburst Finish (1976)
  • Modern Music (1976)
  • Drastic Plastic (1978)

Live Discography:

  • Live! In the Air Age (1977)

"Between the tropes I go, I go":

  • Author Appeal: Nelson has long courted affectations for 50's commercial artwork, Zeerust-flavored technology influenced by Dan Dare and Buck Rogers, and other retro-futuristic motifs. He's also quite fond of French director Jean Cocteau, naming his label Cocteau Music, releasing a Be-Bop Deluxe song of the same name, and making a soundtrack for his Beauty And The Beast.
  • Blind Musician: Bill Nelson, in recent years, has been losing his eyesight due to diabetes and macular degeneration. He still records new music, releasing multiple albums annually.
  • Early-Installment Weirdness: Their first album (Axe Victim) is a more straightforward glam rock album as opposed to their later prog efforts. The fact that the line-up except for Nelson was completely different may have something to do with it.
  • Eagleland: The "Modern Music" suite has flavor two for its last two parts: "Lost in the Neon World" and the charmingly-titled "Dance of the Uncle Sam Humanoids". Both make up a funk/country interlude with the protagonist pining for home after going off to "fight the creatures of the USA" amidst synth police sirens, stock gunshots, and Bill Nelson imitating a greasy dealer soliciting quaaludes and a new PR rep.
  • Fading into the Next Song: On Futurama, "Between the Worlds" fades into "Swan Song".
  • Idiosyncratic Cover Art: The 1990 CD editions of their five studio albums and the Live Album Live! In the Air Age are designed so that when they're lined up on a shelf, the spines spell out "BE•BOP" at the top and "DELUXE" at the bottom.
  • Idiosyncratic Episode Naming: Each of the band's first three albums is named after a guitar: Axe Victim takes its name from the slang term "axe," Futurama is titled after the UK name for the Kent brand of electric guitars, and Sunburst Finish references a black and gold gradient used to color string instruments when finishing the wood.
  • Later-Installment Weirdness: Drastic Plastic is a lot more electronic than any of the band's previous albums, owed to their interest in the nascent Synth-Pop movement.
  • Power Trio: The band was this for the Futurama album, when the lineup consisted of Nelson (who doubled on guitar and keyboards as well as singing) and the rhythm section of bassist Charles Tumahai and drummer Simon Fox. Afterwards, keyboardist Andy Clark (who was already augmenting this lineup on stage) joined full-time, completing the classic lineup that lasted for the rest of the group's career.
  • Raygun Gothic: A common aesthetic in the band's artwork and lyrics, as well as Bill Nelson's solo works.
  • Revolving Door Band: While more stable than most of their prog rock contemporaries, the band's personnel shift between Axe Victim and Futurama was still a sea change that left Bill Nelson as its sole constant.
  • Record Producer:
    • Like Nelson's backing band, Axe Victim producer, Ian McLintock was a hired gun from his hometown in Yorkshire. Nelson talking about working with McLintock in a 2019 Paste Magazine interview:
    Nelson: ...he was going through some difficult personal circumstances at the time and his mind wasn’t really on the job. It was my first experience working with a producer and and I thought, “This doesn’t seem to be adding an awful lot other than what we were putting in ourselves.”
    • Roy Thomas Baker produced Futurama shortly after cutting Queen's A Night at the Opera. Baker and Nelson didn't get along during the sessions, with each recalling mutual acrimony years later.
    • After Futurama, Nelson asked EMI if he could self-produce the band's next album. The label thought Nelson too inexperienced and set them up with John Leckie, then a staff engineer at Abbey Road Studios. Sunburst Finish became Leckie's first producer credit in a long career working with XTC, The Stone Roses, and Radiohead, among others. Leckie would produce the rest of Be-Bop's albums along with Red Noise's Sound-on-Sound album. Nelson said of Leckie in a 2020 Hit Channel interview:
    Nelson: John was so easy to get along with, especially after my not so happy experience with the “Futurama” sessions. We taught each other how to produce. John had been an engineer at Abbey Road but had never produced anyone before. I had lots of ideas and concepts to do with arrangements and so on, but very little experience of engineering, so the two of us exchanged ideas and knowledge and became a very strong production team. I’m still in touch with John, he’s a very dear friend.
    Nelson: That might mean working on albums that you’re not thrilled by. I wouldn’t be able to do that. I could only get involved if there was something that sparked my imagination. Then again, even when I was producing these people, I’d be sat behind the board and they’d be in the main recording area, and I’d be thinking, “I wish I was playing instead of sitting here.” I enjoy recording my own music far more than producing. Now, at 70 years old, the idea of sitting in a studio for two or three months, slaving over someone else’s album… Time is precious. I’d rather spend that on my own music.
  • Shout-Out: The cover of Live! In the Air Age is a still from Metropolis.
  • Title Track: Axe Victim and Modern Music have them. Live! In the Air Age, named after the song "Life in the Air Age'', plays with the trope.