“BE-BOP DELUXE – CANCELLED”
OK, here’s where I KNOW I saw Cockney Rebel play live somewhen in 1974.
I’m sure of this because I saw Be-Bop Deluxe as a support band to Cockney Rebel long before I saw them headline… plus I spent more than two weeks after the show trying to hunt down a copy of their debut album, “Axe Victim”
As excited as I must have been to see Cockney Rebel in concert – presumably for the first time? – I can still remember how Bill Nelson’s tight little band completely blew me away that night. It’s certainly embedded in my memory how, on their final number (no encores for a support band), Bill created some screaming feedback on his guitar, coolly unstrapped it and laid it on the stage to continue screeching whilst the band walked off to tumultuous applause.
I’m not kidding when I say I really hunted for “Axe Victim”. None of my regular haunts seemed to have it in stock and no-one seemed to be able to obtain copies of it from EMI, Harvest Records’ distributor. I was phoning shops on a regular basis, all to no avail. None of the mail-order companies stocked it. No-one I knew owned the album either so I couldn’t settle for a taped recording of it to tide me over. Then my Mum took a phone message one day to inform me that Whitwams had received stock and they had popped a copy aside for me. I rushed in to Winchester and was probably never as eager to pass over my £2.99 or so.
In retrospect I know exactly why Be-Bop Deluxe appealed to me back then. Guitarist and founder Bill Nelson successfully merged prog rock sensibilities with a glam rock sound and image which, when totaled, was almost impossible for me to resist. “Axe Victim” is a perfect merger of snappy pop songs and extended proggy guitar-solo-ridden pieces that go off several tangents. I’d go so far as to say everyone will find a little something they would like about Be-Bop Deluxe.
(links to You Tube videos except where stated)
• “Axe Victim” (@last.fm)
sets out Nelson’s stall perfectly, telling a kind of Ziggy Stardust-lite tale about a post-glam band apparently disintegrating…
You came to watch the band, to see us play our parts
We hoped you’d lend an ear, you hope we dress like tarts
But back stage we stand naked, all the make-up cleaned away,
My poet sheds his pretty skin, and turns to face the day
And there’s nothing to be done, no nothing to be said,
Last night I felt immortal, this morning I feel dead
And the love that gave its blaze to my heart,
Now brings a haze,
Be careful…I’m an axe victim
Hung up on these silver strings,
Like time machines…
Like voices on the wind
We hit the road to Hull, sad amps and smashed guitars,
Played badly at ‘The Duke’ to almost no applause…
But someone made it worthwhile, when smiling with bright eyes,
They gave me full attention and took me by surprise…
But today the feeling’s gone.. no, faded like a ghost,
Last night I saw the future.. this morning there’s no hope
And the words that I sung so clear
Are now clouded by my tears
Please be careful…’cos I’m an axe victim
Hung up on these silver strings,
Like seagulls cries…
Like church bells in the night…
The final 90 seconds of the song is, essentially, an instrumental, Nelson showing off his not-inconsiderable guitar skills.
Someone once remarked something along the lines of that whilst Nelson had the intellectual ability write about ‘other wordly’ things in his compositions, he often threw in down-to-earth remarks about his own upbringing, preferring here to mention an unfashionable Northern city, Hull, rather than any number of ‘romantic’ American cities he could have chosen to accentuate the story.
• “Love Is Swift Arrows” (@last.fm)
Again shows off Nelson’s slick guitar work, this time overlaying a drumbeat that, for some reason, always reminds me of The Kinks. I always liked the lyric “Echoed words spoken by token romantics” and how easily it trips off the tongue.
• “Jet Silver And The Dolls Of Venus”
If the Bowie influence is not immediately apparent then this cut is the giveaway, just managing to fall short of being an out-and-out parody. Once again it is the guitar work that separates it from the ‘ordinary’ here, and I’ve always thought that – for whatever reason – Nelson sings this weaker than he’s otherwise capable of. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s a fantastic track – the chorus again reminding me of the Kinks – just that it feels ‘undersung’, if that makes any sense? The ending is about as prog rock as you can get!
• “Third Floor Heaven” ( @last.fm)
feels a weak cut to me nowadays. It didn’t feel weak back then. It’s based around a ‘Stones’ riff that Nelson pulls off to perfection – which, yes, I tried to emulate on my own guitar… with predictably terrible results – but the lyrics, seemingly about an S&M hooker, fail to move as much as they did when I was an impressionable 17-year-old.
• “Night Creatures”
This is where Nelson listened to Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” or “Sweet Jane” and created his own take on ‘people of the night’. I love the laid back acoustic feel of this cut, Nelson’s voice matching the mood perfectly. It feels like the ‘calm before the storm’ of the next track…
• “Rocket Cathedrals”
Opening with what sounds like a garbled ‘public warning’ message, this quickly turns into an almost ‘pub rock’ anthem, worthy of someone like Ducks Deluxe. It just ROCKS. I never had it pegged as a song that was worthy of covering in any way shape or form, so imagine my utter surprise when, whilst researching a few things for this post, I stumbled across an awesome Brian Setzer Orchestra version of it!
• “Adventures In A Yorkshire Landscape”
This is the ‘tour de force’ cut of the album, almost single-handedly summing up what BeBop Deluxe are/were about. Romantic words (here, Nelson waxes lyrically about Northern England, poets, churches and more) highlighted with crafty guitar work and alternate bursts of energy and quiet. It’s one of Nelson’s songs that could have equally slotted onto any of the follow-up Be-Bop albums or the guitar-centric solo work later on in his career
• “Jets At Dawn” (@last.fm)
is magnificently languid in its lyrics and presentation, Nelson’s guitar chops again coming to the fore. I’ve commented on this before, but it remains amazing to me that guitarists (who I consider third-rate hacks) such as Eric Clapton get all the ‘fame’ and attention for their (apparent) tricky guitar skills when they couldn’t/wouldn’t hold a candle to the likes of Bill Nelson in his prime.
• “No Trains To Heaven”
has always disappointed me. Did then, does now. Seems to go nowhere and has always felt like a ‘filler’
• “Darkness (L’Immoraliste)” ( @last.fm)
returns Nelson to Bowie/Ziggy territory, having a “Five Years” feel to its composition. It’s grand, orchestral and theatrically pompous in a manner that Nelson would repeat on later Be-Bop albums. You can imagine it performed by a huge chorus on a West End stage. (The only other artists I have ever known to have pulled this sound off successfully are Simon Warner and The Divine Comedy)
“Axe Victim” is, by far, the Be-Bop Deluxe album I know the best, but its far from their finest work. I think Nelson was still finding his artistic feet and whilst its a very admirable debut, his latter fascination for all things ‘sci-fi’ would prove to the making of him and the band.
Tonight though, in 1975, the anticipated return of Be-Bop Deluxe onto the live stage was cancelled. Of course, in true EFA70sTRO fashion I have not gone into any detail as to why the gig was called off, nor given any indication that it was going to be rescheduled in the future.
However, by way of a little trivia I can impart that this new tour would have featured two members who I saw perform with Cockney Rebel the previous year. Bill stole Rebel bass guitarist Paul Jeffreys and keyboard player Milton Reame-James from under the nose of Steve Harley. Bit naughty, but this kind of thing happened a lot with bands back then.
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Bill Nelson – Legend – FACT