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Bill Nelson talks Be-Bop Deluxe, Sunburst Finish and more

We don’t mean to be crude, but the passage of time is a real pain in the patootie. Hey, whatever your name is, play some Be-Bop Deluxe! The band that should never be forgotten. And, for your pleasure, here’s an interview with Deluxe guitarist Bill Nelson.

By Dave Thompson

We don’t mean to be crude, but the passage of time is a real pain in the patootie.You know the drill… get up, put the kettle on, have a shower, and a blazing row with your Internet Assistant… Hey, whatever your name is.Play some Be-Bop Deluxe.

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I’m sorry, your accent is not in my database.Please don’t ever speak to me again.

It was so much easier in the days of Dial-a-Disc. (Sorry, British joke.I don’t believe we had that service in the US. Or maybe we did. E-mail Goldmine and tell us.)

Spin Cycle first encountered Be-Bop Deluxe through the pages of Rock File, an ultimately five-volume set of paperbacks published in the early-mid 1970s under the editorship of the great Charlie Gillett, and ostensibly a log of every UK chart hit since the dawn of time. But the real meat was the clutch of short articles that preceded the data, and one in particular, concerning the adventures of a young man in Wakefield, Yorkshire, who circumvented the entire music industry machine and pressed up/released his own solo LP, Northern Dreams.Five years before punk established the D-I-Y ethic that had everyone doing that, this was fascinating stuff.

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That young man was Bill Nelson, and by the time the article was published, he’d already put Northern Dreams behind him. In 1973, Nelson’s band, Be-Bop Deluxe, were one of three bands scooped up by EMI Records as a potential savior of the universe. The others were Cockney Rebel and Queen and, though it doubtless seems hard to believe today, the smart money was not on Queen.

Rebel were first out of the box, with “Judy Teen” and “Mr Soft” gatecrashing the UK chart; Queen did show signs of coming good with side two of their second album… and Be-Bop? Be-Bop released the best debut of all of them, the still-stunning Axe Victim, and when both they and the original Cockney Rebel broke up, more or less within weeks of one another, there could only be one winner. Nelson recruited the two ex-Cockneys to a new look Be-Bop…. and then un-recruited them again in time for his own band’s second album, Futurama.

There’s a reissue of that on the horizon right now, a deluxe box… three CDs, one DVD, reams of ephemera.It’s gonna be great. Before that, though… in fact, a couple of months ago now, Be-Bop’s third album came in for similar treatment, and this is where things got really interesting.

Was Sunburst Finish the band’s greatest album? Vacillation is probably the best response… sometimes it is, sometimes one of the others sneaks ahead. Esoteric Records seem to have had no compunction, however, about having it ignite the reissues series, and in terms of toppery poppery commercial acclaim, it was probably the right move. “Ships in the Night” gave the band their first hit single; the artwork caught eyes from across a dozen rooms; the UK media went into ecstatic overdrive; the Be-Bop live show was one of the hottest tickets in town. And the live album that followed proves it all was deserved.

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Nevertheless, it’s a period that Bill Nelson himself looks back on with what we might call mixed emotions.

GOLDMINE: Did you ever dream you’d still be talking about this album 40-plus years later? And, on the same subject, did you have any vision of what you might be doing so far into the future?

BILL NELSON: I have to admit that it is surprising that those old Be-Bop Deluxe albums are getting this kind of attention after so many years, though I'm pleased that people are hip to what the band created back then.

Nevertheless, it can be a little frustrating for me, as I haven't exactly rested on whatever laurels those old albums might have bestowed. I've never stopped creating music and have a vast catalogue of independently released albums with new projects always in progress.The work is ongoing.

Be-Bop Deluxe amounts to only a fraction of my work and, to be perfectly honest, I very rarely pay any attention to it. That may seem a little strange to some people and I can understand why… many bands from the '70s lean heavily on their past commercial success, possibly because they haven't made much new music or have simply re-formed to take advantage of the nostalgia circuit. But personally, I try not to look back too much. I've always used the analogy that a car's windscreen is far bigger than its rear view mirror and offers a wider view.

As for looking into the future: I'm not sure you can plan for that beyond a certain point. I always make music for the moment, for whatever 'now' I find myself in. Once an album is released, I tend not to dwell on it too much, I simply move on to the next moment, whatever that may be.

GM: Glam was the all-consuming passion of the UK marketplace when Be-Bop got together, and your promo photos didn’t exactly shy away from such fascinations. Now, though, we see the name thrown into any number of neat little bags — glam, prog, futurism (which didn’t even exist at the time… unless you invented it). What are your thoughts on history’s obsession with pigeonholing — particularly in relation to Be-Bop and yourself?

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BN: I've always had broad tastes in music, whether it be rock, pop, folk, country, jazz, classical or avant-garde. I've found something interesting and inspiring in most genres. My natural inclination is to not build barriers between them.

We live in an age where it's no longer necessary to show your 'passport' at the frontier, (despite certain politicians trying to make it seem otherwise!); the lines between 'high' and 'low' art have become blurred, which I find interesting. But, since being a teenager I've listened to a wide range of music and I guess that reflects in some way in the recordings I've made, from Be-Bop Deluxe onward. It's all up for grabs and we can wander back and forth through different musical territories as we see fit. No credentials needed other than a genuine love of music.

My inclination has been to draw on all these diverse genres and fuse them into something that satisfies my particular sensibilities, sometimes with a little irony and humor thrown in for fun. That kind of approach, of course, can be a problem for an industry which clearly likes to market things under easily understood labels.

Be-Bop Deluxe didn't fit those boxes. We were difficult to pin down to any one genre, and therefore difficult to market. I guess the closest label might have been 'art rock,' but even that might be too narrow. The 'guitar hero' thing was seized upon by the record company as a marketable angle, though I hope there was a bit more to it than that.

The dividing of popular music into 'tribes' was, in a way, imposed by the industry. Persuading young and impressionable people to form distinct tribal loyalties made it easier to sell stuff to them, whether it was music or clothes or haircuts… but it also narrows their appreciation of other forms of music. Not everyone falls for that ploy, of course and there are many people who will always enjoy the full spectrum of music.

GM: The hit probably skewed things even more.You’ve never seemed that impressed by the feat - as you say in the booklet that accompanies the box set, you were “a bit dismissive.” But come on… at the time… not even a little excited? (“Look ma, I’m on Top of the Pops!”)

BN: “Well, Top Of The Pops and the Old Grey Whistle Test appearances were certainly helpful in bringing the band's music to a wider audience. [The latter is included on the box set.] And, for the people I once worked with when I had a day job, it justified my decision to quit the office and become a pro musician. They might not have cared for the music, but a television appearance, in their eyes, bestowed a kind of legitimacy. I guess it was a vindication of sorts. My old bosses, and quite a few other people, had advised against me becoming a full time musician and thought I was taking a big risk, which of course, I was...

Appearing on Top Of The Pops was both surreal and unreal. Popular fame is an illusion, a beautiful lie. It's useful, in commercial terms of course, to live up to whatever myth the pop industry peddles, but it's never been the real motivation for me. It helped set up a situation where I can thankfully still remain creative to this day, and for that I'm grateful… but making music is the focus of my life, not chasing fame or mass popularity.

GM: Another of the booklet’s joys is the opportunity to reread again all those “hottest band of the year” headlines that surrounded Be-Bop at this time. How seriously did you and/or the band take them.

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BN: We were younger and a little more naive than now, so I guess we welcomed them to a degree. A bit of an ego-boost, which helped give us more confidence. But I was always wary of it, conscious of the fact that it could lock us into a kind of one-way street. I didn't want to be stereotyped by any success we might acquire...

GM: The record label, of course, must have loved them. Famously, it was the label that demanded you write a potential hit single in the first place, and “Ships in the Night” was the result.Were any pressures brought to bear to capitalize on the buzz?

BN: Well, all the usual stuff that went on in the industry with bands at that time, the long tours, the interviews, radio station broadcasts, TV appearances, etc. It seemed fun, at first. I think we enjoyed it and it all helped to stoke the furnace. But, ultimately, it did tend to ring a bit hollow.

GM: Of course, a year later, the entire UK music scene had shifted, punk rock came along, and you were no longer the hottest thing around. Strange thing, though — you were one of the few bands who didn’t seem to suffer from the punk backlash, at least in my circle, and not in the media either. Do you have any thoughts or theories on this, beyond saying “well, obviously people recognized quality” (which we both know they rarely do… the “Maid in Heaven” single is a case in point)

BN: Unlike many other artists, I never felt threatened by punk. In fact, I didn't think it went far enough and thought it musically tame, not particularly subversive. I remember writing an article for the NME at that time in which I offered the opinion that punk was just old-fashioned rock n' roll with sneering vocals attached, along with a so-called 'anti-establishment' attitude. But of course, anti-establishment attitudes are as old as the hills.

Punk musicians were pretty respectful of Be-Bop Deluxe though, whether because the band had played a part in their early musical interests or what, I don't know. But I ended up working with several bands from that era, and liked them as people and as artists.

GM: Back to Sunburst Finish, and that sleeve photo.You were co-credited for coming up with the album cover design - what was the story behind it? And did you run into any objections, from EMI or anyone else?

BN: The cover grew from my original idea, which wasn't a naked girl holding a blazing guitar but merely a silhouetted figure standing on a hilltop at dusk, holding a blazing guitar over his head like a beacon, with the stars twinkling in the sky above him.

EMI suggested using John Thornton to photograph the cover and I think it was he who changed the idea to involve the naked girl. Not as mysterious as the image I had in mind, but obviously more commercial.

The transparent tube with the band inside on the rear cover was my idea though, inspired by a scene in the '50s sci-fi movie This Island Earth.”

GM: Onto the boxset. Whose idea was it to give the album such an extravagant rebirth, and did you take much convincing? And, once the wheels were in motion, how much fun did you have going through old tapes, both looking for bonus material and listening to the remixing… did you have any input into that?

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BN: To be perfectly honest, I had very little to do with it, other than digging out some old photo's of the band and writing some sleeve notes. Cherry Red/Esoteric Records acquired the Be-Bop Deluxe albums from the company who previously owned them and they have embarked on a reissue program, planning to give each album the 'luxury' treatment with remixes and outakes, etc.

I've been able to approve certain elements, but I didn't allow myself to get involved with all the old tapes and so on. I guess I'm too busy creating new music to spend time reliving the past.

GM: What would you say are the biggest “differences” between the original album and its current incarnation(s)?

BN: Obviously, the new mix differs somewhat from the original. I still prefer the original mix that John Leckie and myself did all those years ago. I feel that it's definitive and is exactly how we wanted the album to sound.

Nevertheless, the new mix has been welcomed by some fans for its clarity, and that’s fine…but 'clarity' isn't always a virtue when it comes to art. So, basically, I prefer the textural and mysterious over clarity, plus the fact that the original mix locates the album firmly in the period that it was written and recorded.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not against remixes, but I like them to be more radical and not simply a re-tweak of eq and balance. There was a very hip, contemporary remix of the Be-Bop Deluxe song ‘Heavenly Homes’ a few years back, by ‘Flashman,’ (Steve Alexander,) which I thought was really fabulous. It was totally different from the original, stripping away much of the instrumentation and adding new textures. It transformed the song and put an entirely different slant on it which I loved.

I’d certainly welcome an album remix along similar lines but I suspect many fans wouldn’t accept such a massive jump from the way the original song sounded, so I think that the record company might find that idea too risky and uncommercial.”

GM: Finally, what’s next… both for the Be-Bop Deluxe catalog and for you yourself?

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BN: Well, as I said, the reissue program is ongoing and I believe all the Be-Bop albums will be given a similar treatment. There are also plans to reissue the [post Be-Bop] Red Noise album in the same style, which will be interesting.

As for my own current work, I have several new albums completed and awaiting release, and a couple more in the process of being recorded. I'm also planning to refurbish my recording studio in the near future, and I'm very excited about that.

We've recently built a new website and forum too and it's quite impressive with lots of departments for fans to browse and discover all the different aspects of my work and career, from my earliest days right up to the present.

So, even though I hit 70 last year, I'm more productive now than ever. I write and record every single day and it’s a pure joy.