With a remastered edition of Be-Bop Deluxe’s 1976 album, Sunburst Finish, recently released, Prog revisits their world. Guitar maestro, producer and Prog award winner Bill Nelson takes us on a journey through prog and punk, breaking rules and blazing guit
Bill Nelson recalls the band’s masterwork: 1976’s celebrated Sunburst Finish.
If ever two genres of music have been set up in diametric opposition, it’s prog and punk. We’ve all heard the myths about newly converted punk fans burning their gatefold sleeves and cutting up their flares, and long ago concluded that history didn’t happen in black and white.
But even if there were a few desperately trend-conscious musiclovers who hid any lingering passion for prog, Year Zero’s fashion police didn’t outlaw everyone. There was a small but significant strand of artists it was still okay for both proggers and punks to like, and prominent among them were Be-Bop Deluxe.
By the beginning of 1976, this curious quartet, led by guitar virtuoso Bill Nelson, had perfected a trademark blend of styles, combining the instrumental prowess and unorthodox, boundary-stretching approach to rock songwriting that prog had promoted, with a camp, glam-flecked love of rock’n’roll’s dumb bluster, while also displaying a keen sense of theatre and performance art.
On the recently released deluxe reissue of their most successful album, Sunburst Finish, Be-Bop Deluxe still sound like an uncategorisable, uncontainable melange of influences. And when Prog catches up with Nelson at his North Yorkshire base, he claims to have not just pre-empted punk, but actually predicted it, and “halfjokingly”, advocated it.
“Before punk happened I wrote a letter to NME [published in the December 6, 1975 issue] signing it ‘Yours with a bullet, Christian Spink, For the New Music Liberation Front’,” he says.
The letter condemned all previous music as “bland and banal”, proposed that the word “rock” should not be applied to the new music “unleashed” after the letter’s publication, and warned the industry: “The real alternative is upon you, the new age you longed for is here, but it will destroy you and all that you stand for.”
The missive was penned during London sessions for Sunburst Finish, reflecting where Nelson’s mind was at during that pivotal period in rock… sorry, music history.
He laughs at the memory. “I didn’t think for one minute that they would print it in the centre of the letters page in heavy black type with a big square block around it, but there you go…”
In truth, when the “real alternative” did announce itself in the shape of punk, Nelson would be underwhelmed: “When I heard the Sex Pistols I felt it was still quite conservative: just amped up Chuck Berry with a snarling vocal on top. I was more excited by the post-punk stuff when it got more experimental.”
In early 1976, though, Nelson still retained certain principles very much in tune with the prog scene his band were widely considered maverick members of. For instance, when the label insisted that he come up with a single to help sell the new album, Nelson describes his attitude as “dismissive”.
“I didn’t see us as a singles band.
It’s well documented that Ships In The Night is my least favourite song on the album, because with other songs, there was some burning desire behind it, but this was a very calculated, easy riff, I put a hook here and… fortunately it worked.”
Despite telling, self-lacerating lyrics such as ‘Without love… selling ourselves down the river’, Ships In The Night ended up with a No 23 hit and Be-Bop Deluxe found themselves performing on Top Of The Pops.
“It was surreal – we never thought of ourselves being that kind of band,” says Nelson. “Whistle Test was more our territory…”
Yet for all Nelson’s misgivings,
Ships In The Night is anything but a blot on their back catalogue. The codreggae chorus (slowed down from the faster demo that appears on the new reissue package) may have a touch of 10cc about it, but the track is still shot through with the kind of idiosyncrasies (the abrasively squelchy guitar and keyboard decorations, non-linear structure, sax and organ solos and unlikely patchwork of styles) that characterise all Be-Bop Deluxe’s best work.
Another aspect of the band’s sound that wasn’t about to change regardless of prevailing trends was the prominence of
Bill Nelson’s extraordinary guitar playing.
Sunburst Finish was in fact the third of a trilogy of guitar-related album titles, with the reference obvious in 1974’s
Axe Victim, before
1975’s Futurama was named after a brand of budget 1950s electric guitars.
From the start of Sunburst Finish, Nelson’s nimble fingers make a major impact. Opening track Fair Exchange features several dazzling pirouettes across the fretboard, before Heavenly Homes and Blazing Apostles are punctuated in similarly exhilarating style.
But the track that Nelson has always been proudest of in terms of his guitar performance is Crying To The Sky, and it’s here that a distinctly progressive approach to technology helped out significantly.
Amid dissatisfaction with the polished Roy Thomas Baker production of 1975 album Futurama, Nelson asked EMI to be able to produce Sunburst Finish himself, but by way of a compromise they paired him up with an engineer who they felt was ready to make the step up: the future Public Image, Stone Roses and Radiohead producer John Leckie.
One trick he had up his sleeve would help bring Crying To The Sky in particular to life.
“On that track’s vocal John created a reverse reverb effect that really made it float and gave it an ethereal vibe,” says Nelson.
It’s still one of Nelson’s favourites, and when it was altered on the new stereo and surround sound mixes in the reissue package, Nelson wasn’t overly impressed: “On the new mix, it’s harder and more in your face – that’s the problem with a lot of new mixes; they’re clinical and sharper, but I prefer the warmth of the original.”
Still, the original mix is also included in the deluxe package, so you can make your own judgement.
Wakefield-born Nelson came of age as a musician at a time when the possibilities had never seemed more bountiful. Having learned guitar as a disciple of Duane Eddy and Hank Marvin, he displayed such promise that his Dad paid “a fortune in those days” to buy him a Gibson ES-345, a guitar that became his trademark as he grew up to dabble in a variety of styles.
He covered Pink Floyd, Cream and Hendrix with his band Global Village, and was soon inspired by early Yes and King Crimson and “the idea that you could do stuff that was a bit more open-ended”. Yet when he self-released a solo album, Northern Dream, in 1971, it was as a bearded, acoustic-wielding, long-haired singersongwriter. John Peel championed him, and EMI came knocking… only to find a newly shaven, eyelinerwearing Nelson fronting a new band flirting with glam rock.
“We liked confounding people’s expectations,” Nelson smiles. “We were playing in working men’s clubs and pubs in the north, and we liked the controversy that kind of image caused.”
Their love of confounding audiences would continue: later they would tour America, and were given support slots to macho rock acts such as
Lynyrd Skynyrd and Ted
Nugent. “I got the band in Italian three-piece suits and got their hair cut so we looked completely the opposite to the American rock scene, yet we could burn it up with the best of them if we wanted to.”
The intriguing mix of cultural signifiers is still evident for those chancing on Sunburst Finish in 2019. The sleeve, for one thing, looks arguably more suited to 70s trad rock acts, featuring naked model Nicky Howarth Dwek holding up a blazing guitar inside some sort of giant test tube.
But Nelson points out that it was a result of his Art School-cultivated interest in multi-media and the visual side of rock performance rather than any desire for a cheap promotional gimmick.
“I was always very interested in making it a full audio-visual experience,” he says. “On the tour for the album, we had a large film projection screen in the centre of the stage, with clips of futuristic movies like Metropolis, then either side of that we had two slightly smaller screens that projected pulp science fiction magazine covers from the 50s. The whole thing was choreographed to work with each song, and the whole stage set was themed around the album.”
That included the band emerging from the aforementioned giant tube, the one that encased them on the back sleeve of the album.
“The band got inside and it was lifted up into the gods, then we would emerge from this tube in dry ice, fire and smoke,” Nelson recalls. And we, meanwhile, are bound to recall a wellknown “rockumentary”…
“Yes, it’s very Spinal Tap,” he laughs. “Long before the film, of course. I thought at one point that they might have got the idea from us but I later heard that it was someone else.”
One trick Tap didn’t attempt, though, was the Hendrix-esque pyro stunt that Nelson planned as a climax to the aptly named Blazing Apostles as the show concluded. The plan was for a silhouetted Nelson to hold his guitar aloft in the manner of the model on the sleeve. But inevitably, logistics proved problematic…
“Yes, much to my embarrassment,” he grins ruefully. “We got a cheap Chinese-made guitar that looked a little bit like my Gibson ES-345. Then we got a special effects team to cut a channel, line it with metal and put this thick wick soaked in flammable fluid. Then they had a detonator in this channel with a wire running up the back of the guitar, with a switch on the head of the guitar. The plan was that I would hold it vertical, click the switch and ignite the flames, which would blow up around the back of the guitar.
“The idea was, we would be able to use it every night on the last number, because it was only the back of the guitar where the flames went and that had been plated with metal.
“It worked okay in rehearsals, and then we got to the first night of the tour, reached the end of the gig, flicked the switch… and it wouldn’t ignite.
So I ran into the wings where the roadies poured lighter fluid all over it, Hendrix-style, threw a match on it and it fully caught fire. So after that we had to find one these cheap Chinese guitars for every night on the tour. Destroyed a guitar every night. Still, the lighter fluid thing worked every night – only trouble was, we got banned from the Theatre Royal Drury Lane for breaching fire regulations.”
“On the tour for the album, we had a large film projection screen in the centre of the stage, with clips of futuristic movies like
Metropolis. Either side of that we had smaller screens that projected pulp science-fiction
magazine covers from the 50s.”
Try to follow that, Rotten, Strummer and co…
Such grand artistic gestures were only one of many ideas Nelson had in mind for Be-Bop Deluxe, many of which sound way ahead of their time, and more suited to this century, where technology might have been able to help bring them to life.
“I had so many ideas,” he says. “One was for just me to sit on the shore of a lake with a guitar and to float speakers on the water, letting the sound drift in the breeze as I stood on the shore with surround sound. Or to play out on a boat, with a cabinet speaker on the sea shore, gradually getting swallowed up by the sea as the tide came in. Another idea was for us to play on a truck with the back doors open, racing down the motorway and recording with mics on the roof picking sound up as well as cars whizzing by.”
Massively impractical of course, but so was holding a blazing guitar above your head every night. For Be-Bop Deluxe, musical and performance rules were there to be broken. Oh, for more like them today…
Not long after Sunburst Finish,
Nelson began to explore new artistic horizons, and while his new band, Red Noise, explored a more angular, synthinfluenced sound (key songtitle: Don’t Touch Me (I’m Electric)), the post-BBD Nelson would produce bands such as The Skids and work with the likes of David Sylvian, Gary Numan and A Flock Of Seagulls, artists that had been among those punk converts that had still retained Nelson in high regard.
He has since moved towards a more ambient, instrumental style, but unfortunately Nelson’s performances these days are relatively few and far between, as bouts of illness have caused intermittent problems with his hearing and eyesight. However, he did perform a one-off instrumental show, Plectronica, in Leeds in December, a 70th birthday celebration accompanied by an orchestra and featuring a guest appearance from avant-garde composer Harold Budd, a long-time friend. In keeping with Nelson’s continued embrace of technology, it was live streamed to fans via his website.
“The guitar is still at the heart of everything I do,” he says, but it certainly has never limited his horizons. “I’m bursting with new ideas for future releases. The muse continues to fill my life with ongoing possibilities.”
Perhaps wisely, the lighter fluid and ignition switches are safely in storage now. But now the strict musical allegiances of the 70s have gradually been eroded to a yellowing, barely distinguishable line in the ground, we can celebrate Be-Bop Deluxe and Bill Nelson as a prog-inspired one-off – one that would ultimately show future generations the way towards transcending any musical boundaries put in their path.
Sunburst Finish expanded and remastered is out now via Esoteric/ Cherry Red. See www.cherryred.co.uk and www.billnelson.com for more information.