Be-Bop Deluxe

Be-Bop Deluxe was an English rock band led by guitarist and songwriter Bill Nelson. The first lineup released the glam-inspired Axe Victim on Harvest in 1974. Nelson reconfigured the band as a three-piece for the 1975 album Futurama, comprised of lavish, theatrical rock epics. With keyboardist Andy Clark, they made the 1976 pomp-rock albums Sunburst Finish and Modern Music. In 1978, they released the eclectic, experimental Drastic Plastic, a template for Nelson’s solo work and the new wave scene at large.

Members: Bill Nelson (guitar, vocals), Ian Parkin (guitar, 1972-74), Robert Bryan (bass, 1972-74), Nicholas Chatterton-Dew (drums, 1972-74), Richard Brown (keyboards, 1972-74), Milton Reame-James (keyboards, 1974-75), Paul Jeffreys (bass, 1974-75), Simon Fox (drums, 1974-78), Charlie Tumahai (bass, 1975-78), Andy Clark [Simon Clark] (keyboards, 1975-78)


Background

Be-Bop Deluxe was formed by West Yorkshire guitarist and songwriter Bill Nelson. He was musically active at Wakefield College of Art, where he took an interest in the French surrealist Jean Cocteau. Nelson’s first appearances on record are the 1970/71 releases A-Austr: Musics From Holyground and the Lightyears Away half of the split-record Astral Navigations, both released on Wakefield small-press Holyground.

In 1971, Nelson released the mostly self-recorded folk-psych album Northern Dream on self-press Smile Records. The following year, he assembled Be-Bop Deluxe to present his compositions in a hard-rock context. The original band included guitarist Ian Parkin, bassist Robert Bryan, drummer Nicholas Chatterton-Dew, and keyboardist Richard Brown. Chatterton-Dew came from Holyground act Jumble Lane.

Be-Bop Deluxe issued their first single, “Teenage Archangel” (b/w “Jets at Dawn”), in 1973 on Smile. On October 19, they played the second All-Night Festival at Queen’s Hall in Leeds with Blue, Camel, Principal Edwards Magic Theatre, Stray, Vinegar Joe, and headliners Roxy Music.

Nelson and his band were championed early by DJ John Peel, who played tracks from the aforementioned releases on his BBC Radio 1 program. This brought Be-Bop Deluxe to the attention of EMI, which signed the band to their Harvest label in early 1974. By this stage, Brown had left the band.

During the first quarter of 1974, Be-Bop Deluxe played two winter dates with String Driven Thing, followed by seven February–March dates between London, Hull, Liverpool, and Birmingham with Peter Hammill of Van Der Graaf Generator.


1974: Axe Victim

Be-Bop Deluxe released their debut album, Axe Victim, in June 1974 on Harvest (UK, US, Brazil). It features five songs per side, starting with the five-minute title track, a stop/start, mid-tempo rocker with a bluesy feel imparted on a roaming chordal structure. The following tracks include the brisk, fluid “Love Is Swift Arrows” and the slow, scaly “Jet Silver and the Dolls of Venus,” a tune reminiscent of the David BowieMott the Hoople collaboration “All the Young Dudes” (chromatic descending root note in D). The acoustic ballad “Night Creatures” wraps side one with open chords and echoey effects.

Bryan wrote “Rocket Cathedrals,” the neo-’50s hard-rock raveup that opens side two. It’s the only song in the Be-Bop Deluxe repertoire not composed by Nelson. The remaining tracks encompass misty balladry (“Jets at Dawn”), epic hard-rock melodrama (“No Trains to Heaven”), and pained romantic pleas (“Darkness (L’Immoraliste)”), the last with orchestral arrangements by Andrew Powell, who also conducted strings on 1974 albums by Cockney Rebel, Leo Sayer, and Pilot.

The side-two centerpiece, “Adventures In a Yorkshire Landscape,” exhibits Nelson’s fretboard handiwork with crying, oozing bends and scales. In live settings, it served as an expanded showpiece for both Be-Bop lineups.

Axe Victim sessions took place at Air London, CBS Studios, and Audio International Studios with producer Ian McLintock, a ’60s beat journeyman (The Others, Sun Dragon, Sands) who also produced the 1973 album On the Frontier by the Renaissance spin-off Shoot. In addition to lead guitar and vocals, Nelson plays grand piano and shares acoustic duties with Parkin, who plays organ on “Rocket Cathedral,” sung by Bryan.

Harvest issued “Jet Silver” (truncated title) as a single, backed with “Third Floor Heaven.”


Lineup Change

On May 25, 1974, in Friars, Aylesbury, Be-Bop Deluxe commenced a 40-date UK tour supporting label-mates Cockney Rebel, whose second album, The Psychomodo, also dropped in June. Soon after the final show on July 22 at the Hard Rock, Manchester, both groups fractured. Nelson dissolved the Axe Victim lineup while three-fifths of Cockney Rebel walked out on their frontman, Steve Harley.

Nelson inherited two of Harley’s men, bassist Paul Jeffreys and keyboardist Milton Reame-James, who both played on Psychomodo and its predecessor, The Human Menagerie. Reame-James invited a friend, drummer Simon Fox, recently of hard-rockers Hackensack. This lineup plugged Axe Victim during the second half of 1974 on the club and college circuits, where they shared select bills with Procol Harum, Strife, and The Winkies.

Later that year, Reame-James left and Jeffreys cleared out for bassist Charlie Tumahai, a New Zealand Maori fresh off a late-period stint with UK-based Aussie rockers Mississippi (a precursor to the Little River Band). Be-Bop Deluxe played their first concert as a trio on December 7, 1974, at Manchester University.

In February 1975, Be-Bop Deluxe issued their third single, “Between the Worlds” (b/w “Lights”), co-produced by the band and Harvest A&R Nick Mobbs (Babe Ruth, Barclay James Harvest). They would re-record the a-side for their upcoming album.


1975: Futurama

The new three-piece Be-Bop Deluxe released Futurama in May 1975 on Harvest. Several songs feature abrupt key changes and high-end cadenzas, such as “Stage Whisper” and “Maid In Heaven,” the two flamboyant rockers on side one. On “Sound Track,” the theatrical epic side-closer, they shift through multiple passages and tempos, seemingly at random. The two slower numbers, “Love with the Madman” and “Sister Seagull,” are marked with lyrical fretwork indebted to Jimi Hendrix.

Side two begins with “Music In Dreamland,” a carnivalesque rocker with spiraling effects and sonic enrichment akin to Electric Light Orchestra. Nelson’s ode to his idol, “Jean Cocteau,” is a bossa nova ballad with acoustic finger-picking filtered through an Echoplex (a watery effects device employed contemporaneously by Hammill and John Martyn). On the penultimate “Between the Worlds,” Nelson proclaims chivalry amid skyrocketing riffs and a lightning gallop. The suitably titled “Swan Song” is a slow, swelling lament with Music Hall bars and phased sonics.

Futurama sessions took place at Rockfield Studios, Wales, with producer Roy Thomas Baker, who also produced 1974/75 titles by Gasolin’, Hawkwind, Jet, Man (Rhinos, Winos and Lunatics), and albums two–four by Queen: Queen II, Sheer Heart Attack, and A Night at the Opera. The grandiosity achieved on Futurama is similar in parts to Queen II.

“Music In Dreamland” features brass by the Grimethorpe Colliery Band, arranged by Jet keyboardist Peter Oxendale. Nelson handles keyboards in addition to guitar and vocals. All three members are credited with percussion. “Jean Cocteau” features guest bassist Andy Evans.

Futurama was engineered by Gary Lyons (David Essex, Fox, Lone Star, Pink Fairies) and Pat Moran (Budgie, Headstone, Home, Nutz).

Photographer Malcolm Taylor Jr took the group photo, which shows Nelson in a harlequin costume. The album’s Art Deco-influenced cover and inner-sleeves were designed by George Hardie, the artist behind the first two Led Zeppelin albums who recently did covers for 10cc (Sheet Music), Al Stewart (Past, Present and Future), and Genesis (The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway).

Harvest issued “Maid In Heaven” as a single, which the three-piece band performed on The Old Grey Whistle Test (7/19/75).


Classic Lineup

The Futurama UK tour had two legs: May–July and Sept–Dec. For the second, they hired keyboardist Simon Andrew Clark, formerly of the unsigned Mother’s Pride, an opening act for Be-Bop Deluxe on the Axe Victim tour. Clark went as Andy Clark at the insistence of Fox, who believed that two Simon’s in the same band would confuse fans. (Clark is not to be confused with multi-instrumentalist Andy Clark of Clark Hutchinson and UPP.)

Be-Bop Deluxe also welcomed their producer going forward, John Leckie, a six-year vet at Abbey Road Studios who engineered Axe Victim plus albums by Kayak (Kayak), Pink Floyd (Meddle), Plastic Ono Band, Roy Harper, and Sharks. Sessions for Be-Bop’s first album in its classic four-piece configuration (Nelson, Clark, Fox, Tumahai) commenced in the fall of 1975 at Abbey. This marked Leckie’s production debut.

The first fruits of these sessions, “Ships In the Night” (b/w “Crying to the Sky”), dropped in January. That month, Be-Bop Deluxe played Wimbledon with Pilot and the Walker Brothers for the ITV music program Supersonic.


1976: Sunburst Finish

Be-Bop Deluxe released Sunburst Finish in February 1976 on Harvest. Stylistically, it funnels the prior album’s exuberance and virtuosity into compact, conventional song form.

“Fair Exchange” starts on a hyperactive four-chord riff and cuts to flippant couplets about raw deals. Midway, an abrupt spiky riff heralds a martial fanfare. The slower “Heavenly Homes” is another showcase for Nelson’s sustained, silvery runs. It too takes unexpected chordal turns during the second half.

Track three, “Ships in the Night,” reached No. 23 on the UK Singles Chart. The verses feature one of Nelson’s most rudimentary chord structures (C-Dm-F-G) with simple, predictable couplets about characters who lack their definitive assets (his being love). The chorus has a vaguely ska feel. Nelson’s younger brother, Ian, plays saxophone on the break.

“Crying to the Sky” is another slow, lucid number with lyrical guitar work. It’s possibly Nelson’s most overtly Hendrix-influenced song, drawing heavily from “The Wind Cries Mary.” Side one ends on a more epic note with “Sleep That Burns,” an exuberant piece that shuffles through cosmic riffs, galloping verses, airy refrains, and a quirky barroom midsection, replete with Nelson’s fantasy bravado. Of all the tracks on Sunburst Finish, this one bears the most affinity to Futurama.

Side two opens with the folksy “Beauty Secrets,” about a lovelorn, disillusioned narrator who wants to treat his doom as a glorious final act. “Life in the Air Age” is an intergalactic barfly’s lament set to a fluid, finger-picking guitar figure, later reused in the Modern Music suite (below). “Like an Old Blues” is hard-rock boogie with finger-picking licks and predigested couplets over an arbitrary verse/chorus structure.

“Crystal Gazing,” another ballad, opens with chamber strings and Spanish guitar filigree. The tenderly delivered lines are among the album’s most poetic:

And the blessing of the hour
Was the twilight and the tower
With its golden bell from the bottom of the sea . . .
And the moon through the window of the bedroom
Where lovers slumbered,
Made a silver dance of such dust beneath the bed . . .

The climactic “Blazing Apostles” begins on a chugging, slide-up riff in B, then cuts to a slower, closed-cadence variation of the chords from “Sleep That Burns” (traveling between low and high E). It cuts to a non-sequitur chorus (in D) with transistor radio vocals. The final verse throws a different riff between each couplet, including the “Peter Gunn” theme.

Overall, the album’s mix of theatrical flash and bluesy, lyrical moments places Sunburst Finish between the era’s glam-metal (Queen, Mr. Big) and Hendrix disciples (Mahogany Rush, Robin Trower).

Leckie produced and engineered Sunburst Finish with assistance from tape ops Nigel Walker (Bryan Ferry, Bijelo Dugme, John G. Perry, Osibisa) and Peter James, who would also work with John on the upcoming Polydor release Figments of Emancipation by Be-Bop’s tour apprentices the Doctors of Madness.

Powell conducted the orchestration on “Like an Old Blues” and “Crystal Gazing.” He did likewise on 1976 albums by Ambrosia (Somewhere I’ve Never Traveled), Al Stewart (Year of the Cat), Alan Parsons Project (Tales of Mystery and Imagination), Cliff Richard (I’m Nearly Famous), and John Miles (Rebel).

AGI art director Mike Doud designed the Sunburst Finish cover, which shows a female nude wielding an inflamed guitar from inside a glass cylinder (front) and the band confined to the cylinder (back). The predominance of red exemplifies a visual trend also seen on 1976 album covers by Lalo Schifrin (Black Widow), Sylvia Robinson (Sylvia), and the Spiders from Mars. Contemporary Doud visuals include covers for Led Zeppelin (Physical Graffiti), Chick Corea (My Spanish Heart), Rick Wakeman (No Earthly Connection), Vangelis (Heaven and Hell), and Baker Gurvitz Army (Hearts On Fire); the last two also have fiery images.

Original Sunburst Finish vinyl copies have a cardboard inner-sleeve. Besides the lyrics for side two, it states “JEWELS AND NAKED ILLUSIONS CRUISE EVERYWHERE.”

Sunburst Finish reached No. 17 on the UK Album Chart.


Sunburst Finish Tour

The Sunburst Finish tour commenced in January 1976 with four shows in Scotland, starting at Kirkaldy College, Fife. On February 5 in Sheffield, they welcomed their opening act, the Doctors of Madness, who just released their debut album Late Night Movies, All Night Brainstorms. The Doctors supported Be-Bop on 13 dates of the tour’s English leg, which included stops in Liverpool, Swindon, Portsmouth, Leeds, Hull, Manchester, Birmingham, and the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, London. On Figments, the Doctors dedicate the song “In Camera” to “Simon, Charlie, Andy, and Bill Cocteau.”

On March 8, Be-Bop Deluxe played their first American show at the Electric Ballroom in Atlanta, supporting Styx. Be-Bop played 22 confirmed dates on their US tour, including a Charleston engagement with ELO and the Atlanta Rhythm Section, multiple dates with Barclay James Harvest, and two shows in Michigan with Patti Smith.

On April 1, Be-Bop Deluxe embarked on a seven-date West Coast leg (Vancouver BC, Portland, San Francisco, Fresno, San Diego, Santa Monica, Phoenix) as the opening act for Golden Earring; joined on two dates by Slade. Later that month, they headed back east for shows with Starcastle (Milwaukee), Thin Lizzy (Chicago), and Renaissance (Buffalo), plus three northeast dates with The Tubes.

Be-Bop Deluxe returned to Abbey Road in June–July and laid tracks for their fourth album. On September 22, they played a secret show at the Black Swan Club in Sheffield as Funky Phaser and his Unearthly Merchandise, their assumed name on the just-released b-side “Shine,” a 7:52 space-funk jam with greasy flanged chords and smoldering over-tracked leads. It appeared as the flipside to “Kiss of Light,” a taster from their upcoming album.


Modern Music

Be-Bop Deluxe’s second album of 1976, Modern Music, appeared in September. The first two tracks rehash themes from the Futurama songs “Maid in Heaven” (“Orphans of Babylon”) and “Sister Seagull” (“Twilight Capers”).

“Kiss of Light” sports a beaming opening lick and choppy, marimba-laced verses. The tight, lifted chorus segues to a flowing, celesta-glistening bridge. Phasing envelopes the line “She gives me the kiss of light, and all my mirrors are windows.”

The Bird Charmer’s Destiny” is a slow, maudlin piano/vocal interlude that segues to “The Gold at the End of My Rainbow,” a folksy, acoustic number with reverse-tape noodling. The jittery “Bring Back the Spark” closes side one with an angular chordal intro and plunging verse, counteracted by fussy drum patterns. The middle (1:20 in) intersperses three separate song ideas in under 30 seconds. Soon after, Fox speed-rolls Nelson to a fret-shredding climax.

Side two contains the “Modern Music” suite, a six-part sequence that clocks at just under 12 minutes. It starts with a simple, acoustic song proper where the narrator — a touring musician (semi-autobiographical) — laments time away from his loved one. “Dancing in the Moonlight (All Alone)” picks up pace with oscillating leads and fluid key changes, reflecting the singer’s eagerness to get back home. “Honeymoon on Mars” is a short dream sequence where he rendezvous with his lover on the red planet. It flows straight into “Lost in the Neon World,” a brisk passage with biting allusions to interstellar warfare set to the finger-picking riff from “Life In the Air Age.” That segues directly into “Dance of the Uncle Sam Humanoids,” a sequence of chromatic, fusiony key-changes and silvery, hi-hat driven leads, flaked with sundry effects. The suite ends with a short reprise of the title song.

The suite was inspired by Nelson’s experience on the US tour, mixed with interstellar fantasy. A radio insert cuts to “Forbidden Lovers,” a mid-tempo hard-rocker with scaling licks and chugging, cowbell-driven boogie elements. The fluid, shifting bridge reveals further dreams of romantic space travel. The song’s oceany outro, animated with theremin-like sounds, flows into “Down on Terminal Street,” a slow, smoldering, apocalyptic number with a grand, harmonized chorus. The closing track, “Make the Music Magic,” is a light acoustic ditty that bookends the opening “Modern Music” movement.

Nelson co-produced Modern Music with Leckie, who engineered the album with tape ops Mark Vigars (Argent, Colin Blunstone), Pat Stapley (The Shirts, Soft Machine), and Haydn Bendall, an ongoing assistant of John’s who also worked on the 1977/78 Cliff Richard albums Every Face Tells a Story and Green Light. In the liner notes, Nelson states “The songs, as always, are for Jan, towards whom all my feelings flow.” Jan, the assumed subject of the album’s love lyrics, soon became Bill’s wife.

Photographer Roger Bamber (Mott, Hudson–Ford) took the Modern Music cover photo, which shows the group in business suits. Nelson sports a hybrid watch–TV–transistor-radio around his wrist and a rocket lapel pin emblazoned with the album’s title. A globe hovers behind the band, wrapped with a red BE-BOP DELUXE neon light. The design is credited to ROC Advertising (The Aggrovators, The Drones, Jack the Lad, Krazy Kat).

The suited look — as seen in promo pics and concert appearances from this period — was Nelson’s attempt to groom the band with a clean, modernist image for the late ’70s, though he had to compromise on hair length. Within months, newer rock acts would sport the suited look, including Be-Bop’s eventual touring mates The Jam.

Modern Music reached No. 12 on the UK Album Chart.


Modern Music Tour

The tour behind Modern Music commenced in Edinburgh in late September 1976 and included eight UK dates, culminating with an October 2 show at London’s Hammersmith Odeon.

On October 9, Be-Bop Deluxe kicked off a US Midwest leg with back-to-back shows as the opening act for Kansas, followed by dates with Blue Oyster Cult, Head East, and Paris. After two Northeast dates with Lynyrd Skynyrd, they headed West with BOC and Angel.

On November 17, Be-Bop was billed at the Golden Hall in San Diego with Rory Gallagher. During Thanksgiving week, they played three California dates with Rush (supporting Ted Nugent) and shared the bill with Thin Lizzy and Graham Parker at Pittsburgh’s Stanley Theatre. That month, UK Harvest issued Hot Valves, an EP with one song apiece from the past four albums (“Jet Silver and the Dolls of Venus,” “Maid In Heaven,” “Blazing Apostles,” “Bring Back the Spark”). It reached No. 36 on the UK Singles Chart.

Another round of East Coast shows occurred in December with the Climax Blues Band, Dave Mason, Foghat, and Wiggy Bits. On December 12, Be-Bop Deluxe played Yankee Stadium in Fort Lauderdale as part of a five-way bill with Crack the Sky, Climax, Point Blank, and Mother’s Finest.


1977: Live! In the Air Age

Be-Bop Deluxe returned to the UK for a January–February 1977 tour with the Steve Gibbons Band.

Select numbers from these shows comprise Live! In the Air Age, an album+EP with renditions of songs from Axe Victim (“Adventures In a Yorkshire Landscape”), Futurama (“Maid In Heaven,” “Sister Seagull”), and Sunburst Finish (“Fair Exchange,” “Ships In the Night,” “Blazing Apostles,” “Life In the Air Age,” punned for the album title).

The EP contains a nine-minute version of “Shine” (b/w the two Futurama numbers) and the LP features two tracks unique to this release: “Piece of Mine,” a fixture of their recent live set; and “Mill Street Junction,” which Nelson wrote in 1972 and performed with Be-Bop’s original lineup.

Live! In the Air Age sports cover art by the Dutch design firm Cream, which also did mid-’70s album visuals for Alquin (Nobody Can Wait Forever), Druid (Fluid Druid), Gentle Giant (The Power and the Glory), Kayak (Royal Bed Bouncer), Stackridge (Extravaganza), and Tiger (Goin’ Down Laughing). The front and back cover of Live! feature stills from Metropolis, the 1926 dystopian futurist film by Austrian–American director Fritz Lang.

On UK and US copies, the LP was pressed on white vinyl. Live! In the Air Age reached No. 10 on the UK Album Chart.

Live! was recorded with the Rolling Stones Mobile, a portable studio owned by the Rolling Stones. It was also used for 1977 live albums by Osibisa, Santana, and Status Quo.


“Japan”

Be-Bop Deluxe spent the summer of 1977 at the Chateau Saint Georges, Juan-les-Pins, in the south of France, where they recorded tracks for their fifth album. In September, a taster from these sessions appeared on the single “Japan,” a quirky mid-tempo number with simulated koto sounds, staccato synth arpeggios, and cutesy vocal trade-offs over an air-tight, danceable rhythm track. It fades after 2:10 with funky, double-tracked noodling. Stylistically, the song set precedents that were later explored by new wave acts in the UK (Landscape) and Japan (Yellow Magic Orchestra).

The b-side, “Futurist Manifesto,” is a surrealist poem flanked with backward sounds over a sparse arrangement of echoey piano and beat-box precision. The spoken-word vocals and electronic backdrop bear some resemblance to the recent “Albedo 0.39” by Vangelis. This marked Nelson’s first foray into ambient music.

Be-Bop Deluxe played a round of September–October US shows, including dates with City Boy, Crawler, Iggy Pop, Jay Ferguson, Nektar, and Ram Jam. In December, they played five cities in Germany supporting Nazareth.


1978: Drastic Plastic

Be-Bop Deluxe released their fifth studio album, Drastic Plastic, in February 1978 on Harvest. Stylistically, it departs from the lavish guitar pomp of prior albums. The songs here sport refined, treated guitar tones, which trade and often yield to kinetic percussive layers and newfangled electronic sounds.

The album opens with “Electrical Language,” an arching Minimoog melody with a repeated stanza about electronic communication, set to a trance-like drum loop with oozing, fizzing guitar–synthesizer.

“New Precision” is a marching, minimalist modern rocker built on a five-note bassline in G, overlaid with “swimming pool bubbles” (Tumahai), white noise and oscillations (Nelson), and manicured guitar fills. Fox’s drum track veers from tape loop to military snare. Nelson offers a vocal hook with his blaring added syllables on the second title word (“pre-CI-I-Si-on”).

“New Mysteries” is framed by a grandiose drop/sustain riff (Em…Bm-G…Em-Am…F#-B…). The verses sway between D and E with a jarring third note (F) at the end of each bar. Nelson creates another swelling, extended-word hook with “my-ster-ieeees.” A faint, fuzzy chordal sound breaks for momentary leads, flanked by assorted sundries (white noise, cowbell, minimal piano).

The punningly titled “Surreal Estate” starts on a sweet piano motif (in C#) followed by a full-on rhythmic track of pots, pans, and wine bottles. An echoey piano figure trails the vocal melody. The bridge consists of a wheezing Moog hook. Charlie harmonizes with Bill on the chorus, where the “ate” rhymes (“estate,” “date”) land on sugary major-sevenths. On the extended coda (in B), quarreling elements (bobbing bassline, entangled guitar lick) gradually drop out, leaving just percussive sundries, rattling mandolin, and sound effects behind a whistling quartet (Bill, Jan, Simon, and one Paul Bailey) that breaks into “Whistle While You Work.”

Side one climaxes on “Love In Flames,” a brisk, smoldering punk-pomp rocker based on a tri-tone power-chord riff (E-B). Clark interjects on Nelson’s sadomasochist lyrics with icy organ keys that conjure the early ’60s Farfisa sound (just coming back in vogue in 1977/78 with Elvis Costello and Blondie). The song resolves on a straighter two-chord pattern (D-A), where “heartburn” gives way to rising, fractious leads with pure abandon.

“Panic In the World” is a tale of lovers on the run from an impending apocalypse. The mid-tempo tune, mostly in A, is built on clean rhythmic guitar and sparkling synth. Nelson’s swelling “Uh Oh” is the primary vocal hook.

“Dangerous Stranger” sports an electric/acoustic three-chord, 1-4-5 riff (B…E-F), tense then flowing amid Nelson’s slick, vivid couplets:

It’s after midnight in the city of broken dreams
Down in the alley, Galileo meets his pack of thieves
Over the river by the old hotel
There’s a big car coming like a bat out of Hell
It’s the dangerous stranger in his ghostly limousine

Despite the narrator’s better judgement, he’s awed by this dangerous stranger who’s “Driving through the city like a razor across its face.” Amid the harmonized verses, the singer gladly boards the limo, only to find that “what lies on the other side” is “past the point of no return.” The stranger could possibly represent a shady character from the music business. The lyrics wrap for a guitar-wailing coda on a new progression (C…G…F…), which resolves with a slide-lick in A. (Those final seconds were used as bumper music on the late ’80s American music program New Grooves.)

The song’s Berry-esque licks provide one of Drastic‘s only points of continuity with earlier songs like “Rocket Cathedrals” and “Like an Old Blues.” However, “Dangerous Stranger” sounds cleaner with tonal clarity between each layer, showing Leckie’s newfound mastery of state-of-the-art production.

“Superenigmatix (Lethal Appliances for the Home with Everything)” starts with a gardeny tapestry of plucked Ovation 12-string acoustic guitar, accented with light piano and bass (in D6). That cuts abruptly to a walloping verse where Nelson’s madcap voice delivers taut, rapidfire rhymes — “Superenigmatix, there’s one hiding in the attic, and it’s getting all ecstatic cause it goes on automatic” — over a tense three-key bassline (A…A…F#…A…). It plunges to a gruff, two-chord power riff (FF-GG-F) “when the lights go out.” On the chorus, they rise to D for a harmonized, chromatic descent that lands on another power riff (A…G-B-A….). Another gruff riff (F…G…A…) serves as the refrain, overlaid with a squeeking, sputtering synth line. All five movements repeat before the song ends abruptly at 2:10.

Stylistically, “Superenigmatix” pairs the multi-movement meta-pop of 10cc with the futurist new wave of Gary Numan. (The refrain riff resembles multiple passages on Tubeway Army, released several months after Drastic Plastic.)

“Visions of Endless Hope” is a new age instrumental with plucked classical guitar, harmonic notes, rattling mandolin (faint), and subtle Moog bass. A gardeny, tranquil track, it mostly slides around in D major-seven, deviating midway to D minor.  It shares textures from the first section of “Superenigmatix,” but bears no resemblance to the rest of that song or anything else on Drastic Plastic (or anything else in the Be-Bop catalog). The reference points here are Mike Oldfield, Gordon Giltrap, and the Private Parts works of Anthony Phillips.

“Possession” starts with an angular slide-stop riff (B-C..D…B-B..EE). The cadence holds as an ecstatic Nelson waxes on his creative madness and its entanglement with modern, possibly sentient furnishings. Dramatic vocal flare-ups highlight choice objects (“cha·a·a·irs”). Each verse drops for a pause of negation — “maybe it’s just my face”… “until the truth breaks in”… — followed by a four-chord, Townshend-esque windmill strum. The rising chorus shifts higher with each revelation: “Po-sse-ssion, po-sse-ssion” (A-A-B x2) → “pay-ing the price” (A-B-C-D) → “run for my LI·I·I·I·FE” (A-B-C-E♭E♭E♭E♭E♭). A bubbly, staccato synth line is faintly heard below the word “price,” another Tubeway similarity. This song, “Superengimatix,” and “Love In Flames” are the three tracks on Drastic Plastic most akin to Nelson’s subsequent project, Red Noise.

“Islands of the Dead” is a slow acoustic ballad dedicated to Bill’s father, Walter Nelson, who died in 1976. It starts with a plucked acoustic figure over a descending root note (B-A-E-D), capped with harmonic tones. Nelson gives a calm, tender delivery of lines like “Pack up all your mortal memories, cloak your soul in sleep.” Halfway through, the song resolves on a ghostly chanted chorus line as lyrical guitar and swaying sundries play out to the fading notes.

Nelson co-produced Drastic Plastic with Leckie, who engineered the album with tape op Bendall. The latter pair also worked on 1978 albums by XTC (Go 2) and Magazine (Real Life), both comparable to the new Be-Bop Deluxe sound.

Hipgnosis designed the Drastic Plastic cover: an angled depiction of sentient yellow plastic moving from two directions in a room with a red floor, one blue and one green wall (closed blinds), and a white cabinet. On the rear-cover b&w group photo, each member stands apart in an unfurnished room with their heads eclipsed by (and transmitted on) television screens. Nelson’s channel is waterlogged but his face appears on a fifth TV set placed on the floor. Color outtakes from this shoot reveal his shirt to be a patched green button-up.

Harvest issued “Panic In the World” as a single weeks prior to Drastic Plastic, backed by the non-album “Blue As a Jewel,” a folksy five-minute ballad with mischievously sung stanzas about a mystery lady who’s “clear as ice, kind and cruel,” set to an acoustic, chordal arrangement laced with synthesized, EBow-like guitar tones.

North American pressings of Drastic Plastic replace “Visions of Endless Hope” with “Japan.” Canadian copies were pressed on white vinyl.


Final Activity

Ahead of Drastic Plastic‘s release, Be-Bop Deluxe previewed six songs from the album at the Golders Green Hippodrome for the BBC’s Sight and Sound in Concert series.

The Drastic Plastic tour commenced on February 5, 1978, at Coventry Theatre and included 19 UK dates. On March 5, Be-Bop Deluxe embarked on a two-month US tour that included dates with Blue Oyster Cult, Crack the Sky, Starz, Styx, The Tubes, and Wet Willie. Select BOC dates were triple-bills with the up-and-coming English rock band Charlie. Mid-April, Be-Bop played San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom with support from Horslips and The Jam.

On May 3, 1978, Be-Bop Deluxe played their final show at the Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto as part of a double-bill with Nazareth. That month, Harvest issued “Electrical Language” as a single, backed with “Surreal Estate” and housed in a picture sleeve that shows the band’s late-period fashion sense, including a red-dotted shirt (Fox) and sweatshirts emblazoned with the name Cocteau (Nelson) and graphics for the word “LIPS-STIC” (Tumahai, possibly for the band Advertising).

In October 1978, Harvest issued The Best of and the Rest of Be Bop Deluxe, a two-LP comp with one record of material from the five studio albums and a second record of 1975–77 b-sides and outtakes from the Drastic Plastic sessions, including:

  • “Blimps,” an ambient sound collage with echoey piano, plucked piano strings, tinkling glass, glowing Fender Rhodes notes, and backward tape effects.
  • “Speed of the Wind,” a slow, dark, moody rocker built on a four-note staccato guitar figure.
  • “Autosexual,” a swaying 5:51 space-rocker with a repeated stanza set to a looped, trance-like rhythmic pattern (similar to “Electrical Language”), interspersed with plucked guitar lines and swelling, fuzzy bridges. Its final 75 seconds employ gradual discombobulation and a slow fadeout (a trait of Drastic‘s longer pieces).
  • “Lovers Are Mortal,” a slow, misty dream ballad with romantic-fantasy lyrical metaphors.

The compilation came in a gatefold sleeve with an inner-gate collage of live pics and outtakes from the photoshoots of each Be-Bop studio album.


After Be-Bop Deluxe

Bill Nelson‘s musical interests shifted far from the guitar-based glam-pomp on which Be-Bop Deluxe built its audience. He retained Clark and teamed with brother Ian in the new wave quintet Red Noise. Their 1979 album Sound-On-Sound blends the style of Drastic Plastic‘s shorter, more biting tracks (“Superenigmatix,” “Possession”) with the spastic, zoloey sounds of Leckie’s concurrent client XTC.

After Red Noise, Nelson released numerous electro-pop and ambient albums on his own Cocteau Records label, starting with the 1981/82 albums Quit Dreaming and Get on the Beam (recorded in 1979) and The Love That Whirls (Diary of a Thinking Heart). As a producer, he worked with A Flock of Seagulls, the Skids, Gary Numan, and members of Japan and YMO.

Andy Clark played on David Bowie’s 1980 release Scary Monsters and Super Creeps. He also played on 1980–83 albums by Armande Altaï, The dB’s, Judie Tzuke, Nico, Toyah, and Zaine Griff. Starting in 1979, he issued more than 20 albums for stage and screen on the library label KPM Music. His 1982 release Futures contains an instrumental version of “Vienna” by Ultravox (titled “New Era”). Reverting back to Simon Clark, he played on late ’80s albums by Peter Gabriel and Tears for Fears.

Charles Tumahai joined The Dukes with singer–guitarist–songwriter Miller Anderson (Keef Hartley Band, Hemlock, Broken Glass, Dog Soldier) and two ex-members of Stone the Crows: guitarist Jimmy McCulloch (Thunderclap Newman, Wings) and keyboardist Ronnie Leahy. Their self-titled album appeared on Warner Bros. just prior to McCulloch’s 1979 death.

Tumahai and Leahy then formed Tandoori Cassette with guitarist Zal Cleminson (Tear Gas, Sensational Alex Harvey Band, Nazareth) and drummer Barriemore Barlow (Jethro Tull). They issued one 1982 indie single: “Angel Talk” (b/w the reggae-rock “Third World Briefcases”), a slice of modern rock in the Seagulls/Fixx vein. Later that decade, Tumahai returned to New Zealand and joined the Maori reggae band Herbs.

Simon Fox joined Blazer Blazer, which issued the 1979 Logo single “Cecil B. Devine,” a glam/Music Hall number (Heavy Metal Kids style) backed with the raunchy hard-rocker “Warsaw” (marked by a fuzzy EBow break) and the brisk, peppy, new waveish “Six O’Clock In the Morning.” Simon then backed ex-Pretty Things guitarist Jack Green on the 1981–83 albums Reverse Logic and Mystique. In 1991, he surfaced in Orkestra with ELO alumni Kelly Groucutt and Mik Kaminski (Violinski).


Reunions

In 1990, Nelson readied material for a proposed Be-Bop Deluxe reunion, which lost its funding before they could regroup in the studio. The material surfaced on his 1991 solo disc Luminous.

In 1995, Tumahai died of a heart attack, three weeks short of his 47th birthday. Also that year, rhythm guitarist Ian Parkin from the original Be-Bop Deluxe lineup died at age 45.


Studio Discography:


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1 thought on “Be-Bop Deluxe

  1. Description from early draft: “Their output ranges from the theatrical maximalism of Futurama to the kinetic modernism Drastic Plastic.”

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