Be-Bop Deluxe was one of those mid-seventies bands that plugged the gap between glam and punk like Roxy Music on one side and Thin Lizzy on the other, less ballsy than the latter and less campy than the former. But like 10cc or Sparks, smart enough and tuneful enough to get one through the Horse Latitudes of most AOR programming: the endless sorties of the Eagles, America, ABBA, Elton, Jackson, Rod and the Doobie Brothers.
Lyrically, Bill Nelson’s songwriting seemed to ascribe more to the ethos of another underrated band of the era, Blue Oyster Cult, and their code language of flames and futurism, than any other contemporaries. And even these similarities are more subtle than striking. Nelson could write a song like “Blazing Apostles”, reminding the listener of BOC’s “Flaming Telepaths" in the construction of the title and the theme of transformation, but tone it up with the kind of lyricism that one associates with Brits and Romantic poetry: “Salvation brings a badge to wear/on the glad rags of your soul”…all the while extending a metaphor about pop fame and not buying one’s own press… “Posters make a prophet if you’ve got a soul to sell.” Considering Nelson’s sad and sorry history of trying to get paid for his Be-Bop work, the lyrics seem prescient. He’s invested more than a pound of flesh only to be frustrated at every turn.
“Blazing Apostles” one of the most memorable songs of the band’s five album output, comes from the midpoint of the Be-Bop story, a record called Sunburst Finish, released on EMI in 1976. Sunburst yielded a top 10 BBC hit, “Ships in the Night,” and included “Fair Exchange,” “Life in the Air Age,” and “Sleep that Burns,” all songs considered among the best of Be-Bop Deluxe’s output. Bill Nelson’s guitar work with its crystal tonality and clever hooks was the band’s signature, but Andrew Clark’s keyboards and Charles Tumahai’s bass and backing vocals added all manner of texture to a sound that could be as anthemic as “Life in the Air Age,” an ironic number about “airships crashing into the bay” and a future world where it’s maybe “too dangerous to stay,” or as ascendant as Nelson’s guitar solo on “Crying to the Sky,” which according to Kevin Cann’s notes on the 1990 EMI reissue of Sunburst, “is also Bill’s own personal favorite from all of Be-Bop’s catalogue.”
If Nelson had not described Cann as a friend in a lengthy piece he wrote detailing his troubles with EMI, then the quote would not be worth using. But the fact is Nelson, who has not worked in the mainstream rock world since he disbanded Bill Nelson’s Red Noise in 1979, is not trying to duck or hide from his days as “another fool on the stage with a traveling band,” as he wrote in Sunburst’s opening tune, “Fair Exchange.” Just as surely as he resisted EMI’s attempts to mold him into David Bowie Again and cash in on the top-heavy flash of glitter, glam and teased hair (see the back cover of Axe Victim, Be-Bop’s debut album), and just as surely as he insisted on producing his band (with John Leckie) on Sunburst, Nelson stands by the most commercially successful part of his career. He insists on “a fair exchange,” which may or may not ever happen.
This word, which appeared some time ago as a diary entry on Nelson's website and was recently published in full at Dangerous Minds, is probably not the last word on the subject from Nelson, who records constantly, mostly what is called “exploratory music,” and appears rarely, but it is the most eloquent: "...after a 30 year professional life in music, it’s sickening to realize that I’ve been denied the fruits of the most commercially successful part of my career, thanks to the machinations of a huge, fabulously wealthy global company who prefer to make cheap excuses rather than say, ‘o.k., let’s be fair, we made a mistake and we’ll reimburse you.’ It’s unethical, it’s mean and it’s cheap and nasty.”
Certainly there are far more tragic stories in recent pop history than Nelson’s. Since his rock band days, he has stayed productive composing and creating music, authoring the first installment of an autobiography called Painted from Memory, and hosting the Nelsonica convention, which celebrated its 10th anniversary last year, but considering the achievement of Be-Bop Deluxe, it’s a terrible injustice.
Acknowledgement: I'd like to thank that master of the vaults, George Hadfield, for his inspiration in preparing this article.