BE BOP DELUXE
Be Bop Deluxe were the brainchild of and vehicle for one Bill Nelson, an immensely talented guitarist with a Bowie-esque voice and a gift for the glam, the prog, and the pop. Of all the relatively successful British 70s eccentric pop groups, Be Bop are probably the least easily definable. They started out as Ziggy Stardust wannabes, with the focus squarely on Bill’s guitar god heroics, but immediately afterwards the lineup shifted and the sound followed suit. The band proceeded to mutate into a hybrid of weirdo prog-glam and romantic pop, with song-suites and mountains of epic guitar solos, finally culminating in Bill’s adoption of new wave and synth pop. But throughout the group’s brief lifespan, the focus remained mostly on Bill and his incredible guitar playing. He’s clearly one of the most underrated axe-men from the 70s, with a unique playing style and creative sonic ideas galore. The one big drawback with these guys: they sound like an amalgamation of similar groups rather than a TRULY distinct band. And while Bill could write a mean pop hook, he didn’t do it enough – things can get repetitive and lifeless from time to time. But overall the band is very underrated, Nelson himself INSANELY underrated as a player and rock figurehead, and their best material can stand up to any of the 70s pop greats. I’ve included some peripheral Bill Nelson solo work as well – he was the bandleader and song-writer after all, and he put out a handful of fine pop albums immediately after disbanding his main group (before getting lost in a sea of self-released instrumental records).
Northern Dream (Bill Nelson Solo)
Sunburst Finish *
Sound-On-Sound (Bill Nelson’s Red Noise) *
Quit Dreaming And Get On The Beam (Bill Nelson Solo)
The Love That Whirls (Diary of a Thinking Heart) (Bill Nelson Solo)
Chimera (Bill Nelson Solo)
_________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________ NORTHERN DREAM (BILL NELSON SOLO) (1971)
Bill Nelson’s first solo record came out years before the first Be Bop Deluxe record. It was a small pressing, financed without a label, and I’m guessing it was recorded mostly by Bill solo with amateur equipment. That is, it SOUNDS like it was recorded on amateur equipment, by a then amateur songwriter. While Bill’s journey towards guitar hero is obviously already well underway here, he hasn’t yet found anything approaching his classic sound and vibe. This is mostly derivative singer-songwriter stuff with the focus placed on guitar effects and soloing. Bill’s playing is solid, but he hasn’t yet reached the mind-blowing qualities of his later work, so listening to this album I’m left mainly pondering the ways in which he’d better himself. Glam or AOR or prog hadn’t really entered the rock vocabulary yet when this was recorded, and it’s obvious Bill was listening to a lot of Neil Young at the time. Some of this material is highly indebted to Neil, and Bill’s vocals even occasionally approximate the singular Neil whine. There are some dull instrumentals like the title track and the incredibly stupid “Bloo Blooz,” and also some mediocre folkier acoustic guitar songs like “Sad Feelings.” The only track that REALLY works for me is the Neil-esque “End Of The Seasons.” With its plaintive melody and romantic vibe, it’s the only tune that shows promise, and had it been better recorded, it might have been a real gem of a track. The overall sound here is ugly and lo-fi – not in a way that benefits this material, though. Bill is mostly going for a peaceful vaguely country-folk-blues feeling here, and the scratchy homemade recordings don’t do his already weak songs any favors. Esteemed radio DJ John Peel was apparently quite fond of this album – his playing its songs led to Be Bop Deluxe’s initial signing with EMI. I guess we should be thankful that Peel saw something in Nelson that I simply cannot fathom! This is the epitome of a “fans only” album, and not at all essential listening to get a grip on the Bill Nelson/Be Bop Deluxe catalog.
_________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________ AXE VICTIM (1974)
The first Be Bop Deluxe album has Nelson fronting a completely different line-up than his later more commercially successful one. Stylistically, this isn’t totally at odds with the “classic” Be Bop sound, but it’s far more obviously indebted to Bowie and Glam rock. This record is also nowhere near as polished and chops-y as its followups, with the rest of players mostly struggling to match Nelson’s instrumental prowess. That being said, the first part of this record rules. Throughout the 70s, no matter what he was doing, Nelson always managed to sound glammy – but here he’s very obviously trying to be an out and out glam rocker. And on first listen to this album one might be inclined to write him off as a Bowie rip-off. But the man really does have his own vibe and style, and of course he’s an incredibly unique virtuoso on the gee-tar. The first side of this record is by far the most “Ziggy-esque” run of tunes Bill would ever record, with obvious conceptual lyrical lifts from Mr. Stardust and a decidedly theatrical-glam delivery. “You came to watch the band, to see us play our parts, we hoped you’d lend an ear, you hope we dress like tarts,” sings Bill right at the top of the album during the glam-tastic title track. It’s a brilliant way to open the record – simultaneously a condemnation and celebration of the glitzy music industry and its toll on struggling groups. The tune is full of Bill’s mesmerizing guitar solos – he loves to fill every nook and cranny of his songs with busy soloing – and though it’s not QUITE the classic glam anthem I think he may have been going for (lacking as it does a truly memorable melody), it’s still great heavy stuff! Up next is the tightly swinging “Love Is Swift Arrows,” a complex pop tune with some great hooks. Then comes the big time wannabe-Ziggy track, “Jet Silver And The Dolls Of Venus” (I mean, just look at that fucking title!) Luckily, the track manages to rise above the derivativeness by providing album’s best and catchiest chorus – the tune could hold it’s own against any of the more well known glam anthems, really. My favorite track comes next – “Third Floor Heaven” – a brief explosion of heavy Ziggy glam with another killer chorus. The rest of the album fails to stand up to the opening 4 tracks, and it takes a HUGE dip on side 2 where there’s way too much Nelson noodling and not enough hooks or focus. “Adventures in A Yorkshire Landscape” became a live staple, but aside from it’s ripping guitar solo it’s not all that great here. And speaking of ripping, it nearly rips of the “My Favorite Things” melody from Richard Rodgers! And the dull chorus of “Jets At Dawn” nearly rips off “Penny Lane!” Again, Nelson lifts the song above the gutter with some great guitar work. “No Trains To Heaven” sounds like Cream gone glam, with a bunch of heavy blues riffing and jamming. There are some cool riffs and guitar tones, but as I said before, the rest of the band just can’t match Nelson’s prowess and the track sounds limp. The closer “Darkness (L’Immoraliste)” is one of the lamest Nelson songs on record, with a cliched melody oversung by Bill against soupy orchestration. So while this isn’t prime Be Bop Deluxe, it’s definitely worth hearing for the awesome A-side, and pretty damn impressive overall for a debut!
The big one! Nelson put together a whole new line-up for Be Bop’s second record…and they destroy! This is not only by far the best Be Bop Deluxe album in terms of material and arrangement, it’s also their best SOUNDING record. It was produced by Roy Thomas Baker in his Queen-y prime, and from the amazing opening track you can immediately tell how powerful and fresh a sound these boys have concocted. This blows the debut out of the water as a sonic experience. Nelson goes completely over the top with his guitar effects layering, and every moment is played as EPIC and HEAVY. It’s a supercharged 70s proggy-glammy-pop album with every note in place and loads of great ideas. It’s also one of the best guitar rock albums I’ve ever heard. Bill has basically discarded the straight glam shtick in favor of a harder to pin down mix of fusion, prog, glam, romantic pop, and heavy metal verging at times on AOR (though never really crossing the “taste” line into typical AOR cheese). In many ways, this is the first “real” Be Bop Deluxe album, though the band would simplify the sound immediately afterwards. And while the band kicks, playing complex almost Zappa-esque parts with perfect precision and intensity, the real show belongs to Nelson’s guitar. I’m floored by the amount of melodic and tonal invention on display here in the six string department. Bill’s writing has also taken a big leap forward – this album has very little dead time, and only a couple lesser tracks (but even those are saved by the incredible showmanship and guitar playing). “Stage Whispers” is that amazing opener I mentioned earlier – it moves through a series of complex arrangement shifts but remains catchy and exciting the entire time. “This guitar does not lie” sings Bill, and whereas the title track on “Axe Victim” felt melancholy and tormented, this opener just reads like: “I am a guitar God, I am going to pummel you with my greatness, lick my heels mere mortal.” Yes, this is one flashy record. But it’s GOOD flash! This feels like the purest Be Bop Deluxe record, the only one where Bill let his total freak flag fly. He sounds insanely confident with his new band, and comfortable pushing his sound into riskier and more bizarre territories. Each side of this record ends with a 6 minute track, “Sound Track” and “Swan Song” – both colorful, shape-shifiting, melodic, and powerful slices of 70s glam-pop heaven. “Swan Song” may be the most mesmerizing moment in the entire Nelson catalog. There’s also the mind-blowing “Between Two Worlds,” a fast paced show-offy pop song with a great chorus and all sorts of stop-on-a-dime arrangement shifts. There are two tracks here that drag this album out of total classic status for me – “Sister Seagull” and “Jean Cocteau.” The former is a relatively sludgy slow heavy metal tune with some cool guitar riffs, and the latter a romantic acoustic Latin-tinged ballad. They’re both decent, but hardly up to the level of the other stunners – “Seagull” has some lyrical gaffes that make it difficult to accept. But overall, I highly recommend this record to 70s rock fans. It mixes up many of the most entertaining pop styles from the early part of the decade, and spits ’em back out with ferocity, energy, melody, and spectacle. Nelson may have been labeled a poor man’s Bowie on his previous record, but in 1975 Bowie released arguably his worst classic-era album “Young Americans” and Bill released this bad-ass platter, his best ever! Take THAT, David! (For the record, I love Bowie).
SUNBURST FINISH (1976)
This is most people’s favorite Be Bop record, and I suppose I understand the sentiment. The band retains the “Futurama” sound and lineup, but considerably up the pop ante and pull back on the flashy proggy guitar pyrotechnics. There’s still ample flash for your gullet, but listening to this it’s obvious Bill and co. were putting the emphasis on the hooks and vocal melodies. In other words, nimble-fingered Nelson has reigned it in a bit. So where someone might rip the previous record for overkill, and the next one for over-simplifying the sound, they can easily turn to this album as the “balanced” one. The band dropped Roy Thomas Baker, brought in the equally great John Leckie, and most importantly added touring keyboardist Andy Clarke to the lineup. This album is FAR more keyboard oriented than the previous two. Fusion-y synths and Rhodes abound, some of them a bit dated and pushing AOR territoriy, but most of them pretty tasteful and subdued. Bill sounds like he’s been listening to some Mahavishnu Orchestra with some of those guitar tones, but he’s not layering himself to the same degree on here. The keys are filling in so much space in the sound now, and Bill sounds happy to just play killer rhythm parts most of the time (but don’t worry – he still noodles quite a bit in the cracks). The glammy hook-fest “Fair Exchange” opens the record on a giant high note, and it initiates an incredible opening trio of tracks that the rest of the album never quite lives up to. As an anthemic band-defining album opener, the band couldn’t have done much better than “Exchange.” It moves between super catchy glam verses, with Nelson over-singing in a fantastic classic glam-campy manner, and boogie woogie rockin’ choruses, with a bunch of slamming proggy fusion-y instrumental sections tying things together. Monumentally fun and glorious prog pop! The next track, “Heavenly Homes,” operates in a stranger fashion- it’s basically a linear composition that doesn’t open into it’s “chorus” until the last third, after which Nelson takes an appropriately giant arena rock guitar solo. This leads into the record’s big single – “Ships In The Night” – probably the only Be Bop composition you MIGHT have heard on classic rock radio. It’s the poppiest thing they’d ever produce, but luckily it’s a super fun and quirky pop song with a big hook and a perfect arrangement. After that, things get trickier. The rest of the record occupies a hard-to-define middle ground between catchy and messy, with a lot of unfocused tracks that sound great, and contain incredible passages, but never quite take off as killer compositions. Acoustic popper “Beauty Secrets,” for example, has a sweet verse hook and a fun chorus (I especially love the 2nd refrain with the “you’re such a naughty boy” backup vocals), but it just doesn’t STICK to me like a good pop song should. It’s entertaining, and performed with total flair, but it lacks a strong core to elevate it beyond fluffiness. Most of these tunes just don’t sit still long enough to read as great songs – I don’t mind A.D.D. songwriting, but I want it to feel earned and controlled as opposed to messy and fussily complex. Bill straddles the line on a lot of this stuff. Not to mention the fact that a lot of the songs sound very similar to each other – a problem that will become exacerbated on the followup. Anyway, enough complaining. “Sleep That Burns” has an incredible galloping verse, and “Life In The Air Age” rocks a great bouncy electric piano groove. I could do without the synths on that latter track, but it’s still prime prog pop entertainment. “Like An Old Blues” sports some phenomenal gee-tar work from maestro Nelson, and it’s also got a melody straight out of the Elton John songbook (in a good way, not a derivative one). It’s more commercial than anything you’d find on “Futurama,” but still complex and odd enough to keep my happy attention. One more complaint, or rather TWO more: just like on that previous record, each side of this one includes a more languid track that opts for romantic acoustic moodiness over flash and thunder. I like this band flashy, and a schmaltzy acoustic-y ballad like “Crying To The Sky” does nothing for me in Nelson’s hands. “Crystal Gazing” is lathered with strings, but that doesn’t cover up the awkwardness of the melody. Bill ends the record on a catchy glammy high-note with “Blazing Apostles.” I particularly love the dark fusion section after the “choruses” – incredible distorted guitar tone going up against a silky smooth Fender Rhodes with the tremolo turned way up. Love that sound. This is certainly one of the key releases in Bill Nelson’s career, and you must hear it if you have any interest in this band. But it ain’t the peak – that, my friends, had already been scaled.
LIVE! IN THE AIR AGE (LIVE) (1977)
Be Bop’s one live album is a predictably unnecessary affair, proving further my point that 70s art rockers needn’t have bothered with live records. Nearly every track on here had already been rendered in much better fashion on the studio records. I mean – it’s not as though Bill was afraid to let loose his guitar demon in the studio. Occasional sloppiness adds nothing to these tight prog pop songs, and the band doesn’t change up the arrangements enough to warrant your attention. Only a heavy rippin’ “Blazing Apostles” stands up to its studio counterpart. If you’re a huge fan of the guitarist, you might be interested in hearing him extend the ending solo of “Adventures in Yorkshire Landscape.” Of course, I am a fan of the guitarist and I find the solo boring. And of course, the guitarist is the band leader and his name is Bill Nelson and I’ve already mentioned him a thousand times on this page and I should just go fuck myself. OK NOW, in case you were wondering, there are indeed three new compositions on display here. They’re all completely negligible and of value only to the world’s biggest Be Bop Deluxe fans, but if you’re one of those fans you certainly know the songs already. First up comes “Piece Of Mine,” a sleazy piece of generic mid-tempo 70s boogie rock that would stick out as obvious filler on any of the records from this era. “Mill Street Junction” is a bit better, if only because it’s a more comfortable Be Bop-styled song with essentially the same melody as “Sleep That Burns.” The tune lacks a chorus where I think it begs for one, but it does showcase some more of Bill’s fantastic guitar playing. Finally, we get the proto-Phish “Shine,” a 9 minute funky prog fusion jam. It’s grooves, I guess, if you’re really white. And British. It does sound remarkably like Phish, so if you like Phish a lot you should hear it. If you don’t like Phish a lot, you and I should get a drink sometime. _________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
MODERN MUSIC (1976)
Far worse than its two immediate predecessors, “Modern Music” is a record in search of an identity. The band put their photo on the cover, and they’re wearing suits and ties like a bunch of geeky new wave dudes. They’ve simplified their sound here in some sections to the point of complete dullness. There’s too much acoustic guitar, not enough pyrotechnics, and Nelson is repeating himself left and right. Right at the top of the B-side, they include an epic fragmented song suite full of chops and quirks. They’ve got one foot in the pop pie, the other in the art rock pie, and they end up with the color brown. A part pock pie. A nothing of a record that fails to leave even the slightest impression on me. It’s all very tight and professional, and there are some wonderful little moments scattered about, but this just totally lacks the fireworks and energy of the earlier records. Now, when I mention that “pop pie,” I don’t want to give the impression that there’s a bunch of AOR schlock on here. That’s the not the case at all – Bill Nelson has far too much taste and personality to let his sound degenerate in such a fashion. If anything, this is closer to your average late-70s power pop album than your average late-70s “proggy pop” album. But it’s power pop lacking power. And it’s got no edge. The record is structured in a lop-sided manner, with the radio-attempts and “pop” tracks on the A-side and the weirder tunes shuffled off onto the dark side of the moon. Let’s talk about the B-side first, because it’s easily the winner. Like I said, it opens with an extended suite of song fragments, all bound up with the title track and its reprise. So you can call it the “Modern Music” suite! I have no idea why the boys didn’t start the album with the suite – it would have been unique for ’em, and something of a mission statement. The little song fragments that make up this medley don’t seem related in any conceptual way, but they’re all a gas! Had Nelson expanded them into full tracks they’d probably be better than the proper pop tunes on the A-side of the record! I particularly like the warm harmonized hooks of “Honeymoon On Mars” and groovy funk-prog of “Dance of the Uncle Sam Hummanoids!” The title track itself sounds more like the limp wimps that make up the rest of the album, but it’s in good context amongst all these quirkier snippets. The whole suite sounds like a gentler version of “Futurama/Sunburst Finish” material, and if Nelson had to mellow out the sound, I wish he’d done it like THAT throughout the record. But he DIDN’T! Because pretty much everything on the first half of the album blows. And we’ve heard it all before – there are very few new melody or arrangement ideas on this record. That probably has to do with it coming RIGHT on the heels on “Sunburst” – the two albums were released the same year! This was probably rushed out to capitalize on the success of “Ships in the Night,” as you can tell by “Ships in the Night Part 2,” otherwise known as “Kiss Of Light.” Yes, the band made sure to write another bouncy keyboard driven quirk-pop song with the same basic vibe of “Ships,” but unfortunately it’s got a far less enticing hook. It ain’t bad, but it ain’t too good neither. “Orphans of Babylon” opens this record, and it might as well have been called: “Bill Nelson falls asleep and writes a Bill Nelson song.” Sorry, boys, but that is one dull, self-derivative hook you’ve got going on in that tune. “Twilight Capers” is one of those linear songs Bill tends to go for, but this one is just a mess and lacks a solid melodic or conceptual focus to keep it afloat. “The Gold At The End Of My Rainbow” is one of those corny romantic Bill ballads a la “Crying To The Sky,” but it sounds even weaker in the company of all the lesser material. The side ends with the aptly titled, “Bring Back The Spark,” which does indeed bring it back a bit. It’s a galloping rocker in the vein of “Sleep That Burns” – the band finally kicks into gear on that track. There are a couple decent but uninspired sounding tunes at the end of the record, but this sounds overall like the work of a tired and temporarily tapped out group of smart dudes. I give it a decent grade due to the title track suite, and because it’s a mostly pleasant well-performed mediocrity that never falls into badness, just boringness.
DRASTIC PLASTIC (1978)
The final Be Bop Deluxe album is easily the worst of the 5, and one of the worst pop albums Bill Nelson ever created. It’s mostly just mediocre, but a good third of the album falls below even that threshold into the realm of the ugly and unpleasant. One thing this album has going for it: a new sound and vibe, though it’s really only a tentative dip into foreign sonic waters. Instead of supercharged guitar-virtuoso prog pop, Bill takes the band in a darker new wave direction, pulling back on the complex arrangements and serpentine melodies to replace them with herky jerky synth grooves and mantra-like repeated phrases. Of course, this transformation only takes effect on the first half of the album – just like its predecessor, this is a schizophrenic beast, front-loaded with “new wave” songs and backloaded with more standard Be Bop fare. The album opens with three terrible overlong dirges that shoot for moody Bowie-esque Krautrocky weirdness and end up sounding like the subpar soundtrack to a corny 80s sci-fi movie. Oddly enough, Bill would release a totally killer new wave album immediately after disbanding Be Bop. Here he sounds totally clueless. “I speak to you in Electrical Language” goes the repeated hook to the opening track, but after 5 minutes of a stilted and subdued looped rhythm thrusting its way forward beneath a slew of dorky synth noises and porno guitar solos, I’d rather Bill just shut up in electrical silence. “New Precision” is even worse – an obnoxious repeated synth bass groove gets coupled to a completely boring vocal melody and the whole thing brings to mind a far lesser version of what Bowie was doing on “Station to Station.” Bill needs to bring back the spark to his guitar playing too – what’s with all the generic soloing and tones? I guess there’s just not enough substance to the songs to make for exciting solos. The worst offender of the opening trilogy has to be the dark dance track “New Mysteries” – that sure is one UGLY melody, though I don’t particularly mind the little guitar stabs Bill plays on the fourth beats of the dumb sounding groove. Thankfully the album picks up big time after those three openers, – though it never comes to close to the heights scaled previously by this lineup. “Surreal Estate” is overlong, but it’s still a neat quirk-pop song with an endearingly odd arrangement. It reminds me a bit of one of the poppier tracks on Genesis’ “The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway.” “Love In Flames” rocks pretty hard, but it’s practically hookless. Then comes the album’s best “pop” song by a long-shot: “Panic In The World.” It’s got the only memorable chorus on the entire record, though it sounds a bit too much like The Cars for comfort. The rest of the record mostly seems like a bunch of limp leftovers from “Modern Music,” save for the album’s only genuinely excellent track, “Superenigmatix,” which reminds me of “Futurama”-era and shows the band pumping up the tempo and complexity for a short 2 minute goofball proggy popper. “Visions of Endless Hopes” is an Eastern-tinged new wave tune with an annoying but sorta catchy “I’m in love my Japan” chorus. It certainly points the way to future Nelson projects, but he’d get much better at the sound. It’s not surprising that the band broke up after this record. Bill had basically pulled the rug out on ’em with his new wave embrace – this isn’t really all that glammy or proggy or even poppy, and it also doesn’t necessarily require the services of super chops-oriented players. I imagine the fans were also a bit taken aback when they heard this, but I think it all has mostly to do with the weak material. Had Bill released his next album as a “Be Bop Deluxe” album proper, this would have sounded more like a forgettable transition album as opposed to a disappointing swan song. But disappointing it is – if I were a bigger fan or following them in real time, I might even say “heartbreaking.” It just plain craps on me.
SOUND-ON-SOUND (BILL NELSON’S RED NOISE) (1979)
Mighty mighty rebound, there, Sir Nelson! After officially shedding the “Be Bop Deluxe” moniker and retaining only the services of keyboardist Andy Clarke, Bill went ahead and made one of his all time greatest records! The seeds were sown with “Drastic Plastic,” but that album not only failed on the artistic front, it also showcased a darker and more subtle new wave style. This one be a spastic early XTC-sounding punky hook monster, mon. It’s as if the entire previous three albums had never existed and Bill was pushing out from the zany over-the-top energy of his “Futurama” days. This might just be the most CONSISTENT record in the man’s catalog, lacking as it does any hint of strummy romantic balladry or pulsating synth pop non-songs. It’s all forceful syncopated herky jerky new wave, with hooks galore and incredibly tight, creative arrangements. To be blunt – it kicks ass. Just like early XTC, the pace here is totally frantic and pulverizing. There isn’t a moment spent in reflection – there isn’t a second of moodiness or atmospherics. It’s all wringing-your-neck quirk pop, heavy and guitar driven with a lot of synths mixed into the fold but never annoyingly so like on the last Be Bop record. Bill has suddenly brought back his pop melodic prowess in a major way on here, maybe even bettered it. I’ve always considered tight jumpy new wave the most logical progression from 70s art rock and prog. It’s very chops-based music, but also very reliant on melody and personality. And I’m very happy to hear Bill reign in the sloppy underwritten limpness of the last couple records and just thrash at us with some muscular bad-ass choppy rhythmic pop songs. His vocals perfectly suit this material as well. He sounds very much at home while moving very fast and syncopating the shit out of everything. Like I said, this is a remarkably even record, so consistent it’s almost difficult to discuss highlights. The record opens with the exhilarating Devo-esque new wave blast “Don’t Touch Me (I’m Electric)” and concludes with the fantastic pop song “Revolt Into Style,” and it’s stuffed with goodies such as the heavy glam-punk “Better Home In The Phantom Zone” and the groovy single “Furniture Music.” Every track has something great going on – “For Young Moderns,” “Art/Empire/Industry,” “Out Of Touch”….all insanely high quality examples of late-70s new wave. Remarkably, Bill keeps his guitar histrionics mostly in the closet for this new project. He was probably sick of being labeled a “guitar God” and trying to challenge his musicianship, change things up and all that. If you want guitar solos, you’ve got Be Bop Deluxe. There’s no room for extensive soloing anymore, kids, because PUNK had taken charge of the brigade and Bill was a man of taste and foresight. This is one of the most successful approximations of the punk spirit I’ve heard from any former art rocker, and I can’t imagine anyone ripping on Nelson as a dinosaur after listening to this platter. Needlessly obscure, this record should really be considered an essential part of the Be Bop Deluxe story as it’s closer in energy and sound to the earlier band than most of Nelson’s subsequent solo work. It’s also really exciting and unique, and perhaps more than any other of his records shows us what a truly talented man was Bill Nelson in the 70s. Get it today!
QUIT DREAMING AND GET ON THE BEAM (BILL NELSON SOLO) (1981)
Another high quality oddball new wave pop album! This one pulls back the tempos and changes the energy from neck-wringingly frantic to atmospheric and experimental. Bill retains elements of the Red Noise vibe here (and I believe some of these tracks were initially intended for a second Red Noise record before Bill got dropped by EMI), but he pushes sound into a darker more abstract territory very comparable to Berlin-era Bowie/Eno. In a way, this is a combination of “Drastic Plastic” and “Sound-On Sound,” but it’s much better written and distinct than that last Be Bop record. Nothing sounds forced or bad-ugly – Bill has settled firmly into the early 80s and he sounds like a seasoned new wave rocker. The pop hooks are less immediate this time around, but there are a few giant ones and every other track makes an impression even when going more for atmospherics than hooks. “Banal” kick starts the proceedings, sounding like it was channeled in directly from “Heroes.” That new wave-glam bass-line sounds MIGHTY similar to the classic title track of the Bowie record. But it hardly matters when the song sounds so fantastic, and the chorus hooks pumps so hard. This is the last Nelson album I’m aware of that showcases a ton of actual rock energy – after this record he’d dive pretty hard into synth pop and ambient music. The best overall rocker here is definitely “Decline and Fall,” which has a chorus to die for and a great vocal performance in a lower register than usual for Nelson. It simply oozes exciting guitar rock energy. Mainly due to the tune’s fast pace, It’s one of the closer tracks in spirit to “Sound-On-Sound,” along with herky jerky Devo-esque nutter “U.H.F.” Elsewhere we get the bouncy fractured “Do You Dream in Colour,” with it’s awesome industrial synth noises. Then there’s another Eno/Bowie sound-alike called “Disposable” which even has Nelson approximating that metallic Carlos Alomar guitar tone to excellent effect. I don’t mind a little bit of derivativeness when the material is THIS well done, understand? The title track at the end of the record sounds more like what Nelson would be playing around with on his next few releases – less jumpy and less rocky and more synth-driven and more repetitive. So just like the previous record, this is a wonderfully consistent piece of work, the kind of album experience that makes you feel as if you’re in the hands of a true musician. And it’s very different from classic era Be Bop Deluxe – it’s not show-offy, but it’s still creative and catchy as heck. I would venture to guess that many a Nelson listener might find his new wave period MORE impressive than his glam-prog one. This sound has certainly aged a bit better – or to put in other terms, more indie rock bands cop THIS sound rather than the mid-70s one. Bill’s solo discography is giant and daunting, but this first release is clearly tied to his 70s pop days and it deserves a lot more recognition than it receives. I don’t think I’ve ever heard it mentioned ANYWHERE, and that’s a shame. It would make a perfect double feature with the previous album – similar if a bit more diffuse, and nearly just as excellent.
THE LOVE THAT WHIRLS (DIARY OF A THINKING HEART) (BILL NELSON SOLO) (1982)
Bye bye rock and roll, hello experimental/ambient synth pop. This is one of Bill’s more beloved 80s records, but it’s far enough away from the Be Bop Deluxe sound that I’d venture to guess its biggest fans are less glam, new wave, or prog-heads and more romantic lush 80s pop lovers (or fans of late-period Japan/David Sylvian or even early 80s Roxy Music). It’s just not particularly poppy or catchy, its very relaxed and never rocks, and it’s full of soundtrack-y instrumentals that do absolutely nothing for me. I suppose I should admit upfront that I greatly prefer Bill’s earlier genre choices – this music sounds mechanical and dated to me. If these aren’t all drum machines they might as well be, and while that electronic component is essential to Bill’s new style, I just don’t think he’s integrated it with enough song-craft. He doesn’t seem particularly interested in songs at this point anyway, but whereas on the next mini-record he’d perfect this energy and style, here things still sound a bit tentative. Bill is still playing a lot of guitar, but it’s now of the e-bow ambient variety. There are no guitar god solos on here. He’s also very committed to his lower vocal register by this point (thanks a lot Bryan Ferry). Similarly to Sylvian, Bill has adopted a bunch of Eastern influences and so you get your fair share of “oriental” scales played on “state of the art” 1982 synthesizers. When someone describes an album to me and emphasizes the word “textures,” I usually anticipate a snooze-fest that puts the focus on sonics over song-writing. This is one of those records. And granted, the “textures” can be quite lush and cinematic. Tracks like the Eastern-influenced “A Private View” (with one of the better vocal performances on the record) and the opener “Empire of the Senses” create big walls of synthesized sound and succeed in creating unique other-worldy atmospheres. When I listen to ’em I feel like Bill is swooping me up in his arms and taking me on a magic carpet ride through a swirling sensual computerized Asian landscape. The only problem is that the landscape looks like the special effects in “The Last Starfighter.” Now, I know what some of you might be thinking. It’s the old fanboy argument. “Bill is an artist. He isn’t going to stick with the same dead genres into the 80s. If you can’t follow him, that’s your loss not his.” I understand that perspective, and I’m not calling this a bad record by any means. I like some records in this vein, even if it isn’t my favorite vibe. But there’s something lacking from this one. It feels like a hodgepodge of experiments, some more successful than others, but it doesn’t add up. There are indeed some excellent tracks here, though. My favorites come later on the record: “Flaming Desire” and closer “The October Man.” The former is perhaps the poppiest of this set – it was actually released as a single. It’s a catchy weirdo dance track. It’s very repetitive and more of a groove than anything else, but I adore the vocal hook when Bill goes “open your heart to my flaming desi-RE” going up to falsetto on the second syllable of “desire.” “The October Man” drips with hypnotic robotic elegance, and it’s also got a stellar vocal hook. You can wrap yourself in this record if you love these sounds – just throw on some headphones and light up a joint and let go. Dig the textures, man. What can I say? I don’t dig the textures.
CHIMERA (BILL NELSON SOLO) (1983)
A tightening up and brightening up and punching up of the “Love That Whirls” aesthetic, this mini-album (only 6 songs) kicks dated butt. Whereas the previous record was a meandering dirge-y “texture-based” synth pop album, this one is a catchy consistent and overall excellent synth pop album. Every track makes a impression, and most of them are fantastic energized synth rockers. Bill brings back some forcefulness here, and I think he’s greatly improved his understanding of this aesthetic. Of course, this is also a much more organic sounding record than the previous one. And it’s got some giant hooks to boot! “Acceleration” is one of Bill’s best ever pop singles. The album opens and closes with two beautifully atmospheric pop tunes, both of which sport intoxicating vocal melodies (“The Real Adventure” and “Another Day, Another Ray Of Hope”). This was a collaboration with Yellow Magic Orchestra’s Yukihiro Takahashi, and there’s a lot of big bold drumming and a rawer sensibility than Bill exhibited on his previous album. Even though this is essentially an EP, “Love That Whirls” was like a pop EP mixed with a bunch of ambient instrumentals anyway. I’m glad he didn’t feel the need to clutter this release up with similar filler. Of course, right around this point he began cluttering up his catalog with so many instrumental albums I have no choice but to jump ship. Seriously – go look at the man’s post-70s discography on Wikipedia. It’s GIGANTIC. I’ve dabbled in his subsequent releases, but I’ve yet to find one that showcases even the slightest continuity from the Be Bop Deluxe days. The “pop” followup to this record is called “Getting The Holy Ghost Across” – I listened to it once and it pushes the sound into an even more extreme synthesized 80s pop direction. It was a very unconvincing listen, to say the least. There may indeed be some major winners among the latter day Nelson records – actually, I’m pretty CERTAIN there are based on the man’s talents in the 70s and early 80s. But I’m not going to listen to five million more records. And so we leave Bill behind on a pleasant note – a wonderful little half album of propulsive synth pop gems.