Bill Nelson – not Be Bop, but still Deluxe

Bill-Nelson-Getting-The-Holy-254298Be Bop Deluxe were an interesting band.  Regardless of whether or not you actually liked them (and a lot of people didn’t, which is why they remained a defiantly second division act in terms of rock history), they never failed to fascinate; and, in so doing, erected an aura around themselves that defied you to ever reject them out of hand.

They certainly traced a fascinating musical trajectory, from the studied-chic glam of their debut Axe Victim, to the icicle new wave of their farewell Drastic Plastic, Be Bop essentially delineated the course that British rock’s most potent obsessions would trace through the decade, and did so with just enough of a head start that only David Bowie could really claim to have topped them as an influence.

“Ships In The Night,” their sole major hit single, remains a pristine moment of pomp amid the drudgery of 1976, and Modern Music, their best-selling album (#12, fact fans) prefigured punk with a potency that only Zig’s Low could otherwise reach for.  And that came out a few months later.

As Brian Eno probably didn’t really say about the Velvet Underground, but that hasn’t stopped people repeating it, not many people listened to Be Bop Deluxe.  But everyone who did formed a synthipop band – and, in so doing, translated the angular cool of their role model into something that even your gran could tap toes to.

They split in 1978, which was both the right time and the wrong.  Right, because it meant frontman Bill Nelson could move on to something else, something more in tune with the demands of the time… Red Noise.  And wrong, because Be Bop surely had more to offer, if only because their albums-so-far had skirted across so many crucial issues that who knows what they might have posited next?

Red Noise didn’t last long, before Nelson moved on, grasping the solo nettle that many people thought he’d been eyeing all along, and when “Do You Dream In Colour” gave him a minor hit straight out of the bag, it was hard to shake the impression that the dilettante would remain dilettantish for ever.  He produced Gary Numan and worked with Japan, but a string of solo albums spread between the occasional major label and his own Cocteau imprint came and went with bewildering speed.

Between 1981 and 1985, no less than thirteen album-length releases stretched his fans’ wallets, some comprised of songs, others wrapped around soundscapes, and stretching deep into both electronic and ambient quarters.  So, when 1986 brought him a deal with CBS’s Portrait subsidiary and the chance to cut his fourteenth album (and twenty-second overall), it really was no surprise that a lot of people had given up counting.  Let alone listening.

Not the fans, though.  For them, every fresh prolusion was a uniquely precious platter, even those that did nothing more than sit on the shelf unplayed, because one listen was all they really demanded.  And when this new album arrived, with a title that it really was hard to ignore… Getting the Holy Ghost Across indeed… a cover that so outraged American Sony that they demanded a complete and utter redesign… and a glorious disdain for snappy song titles (“Suvasini,” “Theology,” “Rise Like A Fountain,” “Pansophia”), all the years spent studying those earlier releases paid off with startling dividends.

Which, sadly, no-one else heard.

The 2013 remastering of Getting the Holy Ghost Across restates its original glory.  Painstakingly repackaged by the UK’s Esoteric, to include both the original album and the attendant Wildest Dreams” 12-inch and the Living for the Spangled Moment EP, there’s a broad and brilliant open-ness to a sound that always felt a little muffled on the album’s original pressing.  As though Nelson’s vision itself felt the shadows were the best place for it, and only now are our ears prepared for the full dynamic scope.  Or something like that.

Mapped out in Nelson’s Echo Observatory home studio (which his liners now reveal was just the room above his kitchen), then rebuilt in 24 track grandeur, the album’s initial sheen depicts nothing so much as world music primitives set loose in a room full of rock’s top technological virtuosos.  Not in terms of execution, which is pristine enough to earn comparisons with anything that the Waterboys pulled off to such popular esteem, with the added genius of Nelson’s eternally exquisite guitar.  But in the constant, and very conscious collision between Nelson’s ever-questing love of synths and sonic modernity, and a lyrical bed that orbited that most primal of passions, a love affair that had spun out of control.

So heartbeat percussion rattles through the darkened forest, while little licks of electronic color flash like startled techno insects, and if hints and flavors of sundry contemporary popsters give the album a distinctly mid-80s feel (“Contemplation” could be Japan; “Because of You” is “She Blinded Me With Science” meets Station to Station‘s “Stay”), Nelson’s vocal remains so uniquely personal that there’s really no point in drawing further comparisons.

Ignored at the time, and misunderstood too (the liners go into chilling detail about the American sleeve controversy, by the way), Getting the Holy Ghost Across is not making its CD debut here.  Nelson reissued both the album and the EP himself in 2006, but this latest return is surely the definitive one… and long may it remain so.

As for the albums that preceded it, and whose style and substance is echoed across it, many are available today via Nelson’s own website (http://billnelson.com), with the What Now? What Next collection serving up a best of the Cocteau label.  For more adventurous ears, there’s also an eight CD box set, The Practice of Everyday Life, released by Esoteric in 2011, its 100 tracks tracing Nelson from his first ever release, Northern Dream in 1971, through the Be Bop and Red Noise years across discs one and two; and then picking precious jewels from the remainder of his catalog (pus a disc of DVD performances) across the rest of the box.  If Getting the Holy Ghost appeals, and you feel the need to dig even deeper… well, its UK retail is around forty pounds, which is a bargain by anyone’s standards, and yes, it is worth the investment.

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