During the 1970s, the UK was fertile ground for some of the most significant rock subgenres to emerge and make their marks in music recording history. Artists like Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, David Bowie, T-Rex. Roxy Music, Yes, Genesis, and later on, The Clash, Sex Pistols, Joy Division and many others would pioneer what has since been categorized as metal, glam, prog and punk, and would go on to influence dozens of other bands in ensuing years. Their influence can still be heard in contemporary bands ranging from St. Vincent and Rival Sons to Greta Van Fleet.
Lost in the cracks and left to only garner a loyal but limited cult following was Be-Bop Deluxe. Helmed by guitarist-vocalist Bill Nelson, Be-Bop Deluxe was a vehicle for showcasing Nelson’s catchy but quirky compositions, guitar-obsessed virtuosity, melodic sensibilities, and pop-culture interests in sci-fi, movies, comic books, and fantasy, all laced with tortured Byronic romanticism and symbolist literature, and poetry from his literary heroes like Jean Cocteau.
With hummable songs that belied complex arrangements and highlighted Nelson’s fleet-fingered guitar solos, Be-Bop Deluxe trod a fine line between glam and prog, both musically as well as visually. Their stage attire was decidedly the polar opposite of the heavy makeup and glitter outfits of glam (which they flirted with and then abandoned in their earliest incarnation): wide-lapeled powder-colored suits with bell bottoms, which seemed to comedically send-up wedding bands, especially with keyboardist Andy Clark’s enormous bowties.
After five studio albums and one double-live concert release, Nelson disbanded Be-Bop Deluxe to pursue his ever-expanding interests in other types of music. He composed film soundtracks, theatrical scores, and countless solo albums ranging from ambient instrumentals to industrial electronica, with ballads and rock anthems sandwiched in between. The laundry list of his solo music and other pursuits alone is worthy of a standalone multi-part article overview. He was a pioneer of the DIY home studio producer trend, becoming an early champion of the Fostex B-16 multitrack tape recorder during the 1980s, and his incredibly prodigious music output over the past 40 years defies both easy categorization and cataloging. In addition to guest session work with friends like Japan’s Yellow Magic Orchestra, and David Sylvian, Nelson has dabbled in video and in guitar design, with a number of signature models from Eastwood Guitars and Campbell American Guitars.
Be-Bop Deluxe could be considered a template for the Smashing Pumpkins, where guitarist-vocalist Billy Corgan has similarly used the band as a vehicle for his own visionary guitar excursions. However, Nelson was considerably more musically generous with his bandmates, as the remastered and expanded 16-CD edition of Live! In The Air Age, released several months ago, demonstrates.
Live! In The Air Age exhibits a superbly tight Nelson-led quartet featuring underrated Maori bassist Charlie Tumahai, drummer Simon Fox, and keyboardist Andy Clark. The 16-CD collection contains minimal overdubs, according to Nelson, save for percussion on “Shine” (which he performed under the pseudonym “Cabasa El Dubova”), and a few guitar parts to fatten up the sound. Hearing the power of Be-Bop Deluxe live in concert and the sheer audacity and innovation in their music offers substantive evidence of how grossly overlooked the band was in its heyday.
From the jet plane flanging effect on its opening riff, the leadoff song, “Life In The Air Age” encapsulates Nelson’s sci-fi romanticism with contrasting lighthearted melody and harmonies and lyrics:
Life in the Air Age, it’s too dangerous to stay.
Life in the Air Age, Airships crashing every day into the bay.
Life in the Air Age, all the oceans have run dry.
Life in the Air Age, it’s grim enough to make a robot cry.
“Sister Seagull” features dynamic riffing and mock seagull cries, courtesy of a Uni-Vibe, MXR phase shifter, and what sounds like an Echoplex, Binson Echorec, or other tape delay.
The rhythmic and tempo shifts, counterpoint bass lines, atmospheric keyboards and harmony vocals are all musical elements that justify Be-Bop Deluxe’s claim to prog equivalence with 1970s peers like Yes and Genesis, and Nelson’s raunchy guitar tones have been cited as a primary influence by none other than Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols.
Nelson continues to play the song in concert in his solo performances, showing that all of his formidable guitar chops are still intact.
While instrumentals like “Shine” straddled into R&B and jazz fusion territory within Be-Bop Deluxe’s musical lexicon, fan favorite “Adventures In A Yorkshire Landscape” contains one of Nelson’s most elegantly melodic improvisational solo platforms. The interplay between bassist Tumahai and keyboardist Clark during the latter’s solo section, and then the entire band’s freewheeling trading of musical phrases, combines both the structural complexity of King Crimson with the jazzy spontaneity of the Allman Brothers Band.
Perhaps one aspect of Be-Bop Deluxe’s music that set them apart from other prog rock artists was Nelson’s song topics. While definitely quite European in his lyrical references, Nelson’s sci-fi musings and underlying cynicism were a stark contrast to the Tolkienesque imagery of Yes’ Jon Anderson, the introspection of Greg Lake, or the mythologically sexual analogies in Peter Gabriel’s Genesis songs, and closer to the forlorn, dispassionate observations found in some of David Bowie’s or David Sylvian’s works.
Early Be-Bop Deluxe songs like “Jets at Dawn” from Axe Victim contained lines like:
Jets at dawn trail across the sky
Silver birds writing words for airman’s wives.
Jets at dawn, writing in the sky
Silver planes (vapour trails),
Drawing Coca-Cola signs
Even on this early track, Nelson’s penchant for Jimmy Page-like layering of multiple guitar parts is evident. Nelson also gives the guitar a much more prominent part in Be-Bop Deluxe’s music than King Crimson’s Robert Fripp, probably the guitarist most emblematic of the prog genre, and who also has a similar control freak reputation.
“Maid in Heaven,” the single from Futurama, became a crowd pleaser in concert, and displayed Nelson’s ability to craft memorable hooks, a talent that he would often suppress in his post Be-Bop Deluxe music, to the disappointment of his fans.
“Ships In The Night,” the single from the Sunburst Finish album, was Be-Bop Deluxe’s highest-charting UK single, reaching number 23. An unusually casual T-shirted Be-Bop Deluxe (except for Clark) was featured in their music video, accompanied by Nelson’s brother, Ian, on saxophone. Ironically, “Ships In The Night” was the rare Be-Bop Deluxe song not to feature a guitar solo, which is rectified in various live renditions.
Similar to offerings from Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Yes, and Genesis, Be-Bop Deluxe’s contribution to the extended-length song suite UK prog rock catalog can be heard on their fourth LP, Modern Music. Featuring the songs “Modern Music,” “Dancing In the Moonlight (All Alone),” “Honeymoon On Mars,” “Lost In The Neon World,” and “Dance of the Uncle Sam Humanoids,” the suite revisited Nelson’s recurring sci-fi and outer space themes, front and center. Supposedly inspired by Be-Bop Deluxe’s US tour, the “Modern Music Suite” would become a live tour-de-force, with flurries of Asian-influenced pentatonic scale musical interludes that foreshadowed Nelson’s future directions.
Nelson’s fixation with the guitar and all of the sound effects at a guitarist’s disposal is something he shares with Billy Corgan, and exceeds that of his prog rock guitar peers, such as Steve Howe of Yes, or Robert Fripp. Be-Bop Deluxe’s first three album titles all reference guitars: Axe Victim (“Axe” being slang for “guitar”), Futurama (a budget-priced guitar brand popular in the UK for beginners that was a first electric guitar for George Harrison, Albert Lee and others), and Sunburst Finish (literally a color scheme developed by guitar manufacturers to emulate violins, with coloring that’s darker on the outside and lighter at the center). Even on the 1978 Be-Bop Deluxe song “Japan” from their final studio album, Drastic Plastic, Nelson references his (at the time) latest custom guitar from Yamaha.
Nelson’s affinity towards Japan, already present in his appreciation of Japanese toys, electronics, gadgets, manga and anime, would deepen with his musical collaborations on projects with the members of Yellow Magic Orchestra, and blossom personally with his subsequent 25-year marriage to Emiko (ex-wife of YMO drummer/lead singer Yukihiro Takahashi).
Nelson’s love of sci-fi and guitars happily converged with his limited-run design of the Astroluxe for Eastwood Guitars, later modified for wider commercial release as the Astroluxe Cadet.
After Be-Bop Deluxe dissolved, Simon Fox would play drums with Trevor Rabin, the Pretty Things, and most recently, with Birmingham funk group Parade. Andrew Clark became a UK studio musician, notably contributing keys to such hit records as David Bowie’s “Ashes to Ashes,” Tears For Fears’ The Seeds of Love album, and Peter Gabriel’s hit singles, “Don’t Give Up” and “Big Time.” Charlie Tumahai returned to New Zealand and continued to play music locally, and became an advocate for Maori cultural heritage and a counselor for young Maori criminal offenders in Auckland, before succumbing to a heart attack in 1995.
In spite of increasingly-impaired eyesight due to diabetes and macular degeneration, Nelson continues his prodigious music output and still performs live. A record release concert for his 2013 album Blip showed Nelson still exploring new sounds with an EBow, a device that magnetically simulates “bowing” of guitar strings, like the sound of bowing a viola or cello). The concert starts at 1:47 in the clip. He then shifts over to blues-oriented shredding (3:45), some guitar geekdom (4:54), and a tribute in memory of his brother Ian, featuring saxophone over a languishing jazz progression.
While Nelson is justifiably proud of his Be-Bop Deluxe music, he is quick to emphasize that it is only a small fraction of his musical catalog. However, he is admittedly very pleased with the expanded release of Live! In The Air Age and the prospects for a critical reassessment of Be-Bop Deluxe’s place in rock music history.