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Be-Bop Deluxe

Not many early-mid 70s combos successfully bridged the gap between prog and glam-rock (legends ROXY MUSIC come to mind), but Wakefield’s initially-maligned BE-BOP DELUXE held up well under iffy clone accusations of ripping off BOWIE’s “Ziggy Stardust” sound. A vehicle for the undoubtable talent of guitar-hero/singer-songwriter, BILL NELSON (he of cadaverous cheekbones and an independently-issued solo LP in ’71), staying power was rewarded when a new-look BBD hit the Top 30 in 1976 with `Ships In The Night’. But just as the arty Yorkshire group had found their feet, another fad and fashion was taking shape, and the punk/new wave scene seemed to put a death-knell into the majority of the “dinosaur” artists – no matter how post-modernist some of them were, BE-BOP DELUXE included.
On the back of Bill’s aforementioned bluesy solo set (“Northern Dream”) and a guest guitar/vocals spot on the rare “Astral Navigations” LP, 1972 was the year that Bill and Co pursued a new direction with BE-BOP DELUXE. Backed by guitarist Ian Parkin, bassist/vocalist Robert Bryan and drummer Nicholas Chatterton-Dew (keyboardist Richard Brown, who’d played on Bill’s LP, was let go), the pub act turn pro after the release of their debut, gig-only 45, `Teenage Archangel’.
EMI’s Harvest outlet were first to see the commercial potential in BBD, and especially the lyrical symbolism of their enigmatic frontman. Featuring great “skeleton-guitar” artwork on the debut album, AXE VICTIM (1974) {*5}, the band were found wanting on all but a handful of tracks; their flop 45 `Jet Silver And The Dolls Of Venus’, `Adventures In A Yorkshire Landscape’ and their Ziggy-esque opening title track (and possibly `Third Floor Heaven’) the exceptions.
The record’s release was swiftly followed by a tour supporting COCKNEY REBEL, another group they were constantly compared with in the music press. In August ‘74, amid pressures from the suits who were less than enthusiastic about his backing players, Nelson split BBD, but duly re-formed the quartet with unhappy ex-Rebels: Milton Reame-James (keyboards) and Paul Avron Jeffreys (bass). Drummer Simon Fox would stay longer than Bill’s previous personnel acquisitions; Maori bassman Charlie Tumahai was drafted in forthwith for the re-vamped trio’s second set, FUTURAMA (1975) {*7}. Produced by the all-seeing QUEEN knob-twiddler Roy Thomas Baker and showcasing ten Nelson-penned nuggets, it was then a pity that `Maid In Heaven’ or its Stateside B-side, `Sister Seagull’, didn’t make the charts; that is until the group’s exploitative “Hot Valves” EP dented the UK Top 40 a year and a bit later. `Love With The Madman’, the prog-like `Sound Track’, the fragile `Jean Cocteau’ (the man himself an inspiration for Bill) and `Music In Dreamland’ were choice cuts, although they were still in need of a hit or a further signature tune.
In the meantime, keyboard-player Andrew Clark (from CLARK HUTCHINSON) was added to the equation. And at last the band stood tall as they consolidated some critical standing with a Top 20 album, SUNBURST FINISH (1976) {*7}, from which that elusive hit single, `Ships In The Night’, was spawned. The appearance of a naked lady burning a sacrificial guitar was poignant if not corny towards Bill’s reluctance towards becoming the axe hero, and there were softer, acoustic and more accessible songs by way of `Beauty Secrets’, `Crying To The Sky’ (recalling HENDRIX’s “Angel”) and `Life In The Air-Age’; as effective as any hit was the gloriously uplifting `Blazing Apostles’.
Maintaining some equilibrium and musical resolve, further albums MODERN MUSIC (1976) {*6}, concert set LIVE! IN THE AIR AGE (1977) {*6} and DRASTIC PLASTIC (1978) {*5}, all reached high chart positions and found their way into the American mainstream on the back of the new wave movement. The lack of another major (or even minor) hit eluded BE-BOP DELUXE in these days as `Kiss Of Light’, `Japan’, `Panic In The World’ and `Electrical Language’, all failed to produce the necessary oomph to raise them above the new punk perimeters. Although BE-BOP DELUXE enjoyed a couple of years in the big league, their enterprising and restless leader decided to concentrate on another project – BILL NELSON’S RED NOISE.
On a footnote to the dutiful Deluxe alumni, there was tragedy when former member Jeffreys died with his honeymooning bride in the Lockerbie bombing on 21st December 1988; Parkin subsequently died on 1st July 1995, Tumahai on not long afterwards on 21st December 1995.
© MC Strong 1994-2000 / rev-up MCS Dec2012

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