❉ Revisiting Bill Nelson’s Futurist Manifesto 44 years on.
What sort of band was Bill Nelson’s Be Bop Deluxe? Well, for a start that’s not an easy question to answer, not least because the guitar rock experimentalists conspicuously flitted through styles with magpie ease across their legacy of five studio album’s on EMI’s prog subsidiary Harvest… and this defiance of easy categorisation is in evidence all over their second album, 1975’s Futurama.
With its tricksy time signatures and flashy, epic guitar solos, the band’s sound and musical chops was proggy enough to find favour with the likes of Sounds magazine, Radio One’s John Peel, and Bob Harris’ Old Grey Whistle Test, yet had enough recognisable elements of theatrical glam-rock to find favour with a teen/student audience alongside other ’74 Art Glam bands such as Cockney Rebel, Queen and Eno-less Roxy, offering a slightly more sophisticated take on the movement than the pure teenybop bands who arrived to fill the void left by a souled-out Bowie, disbanded Mott and an estranged Bolan.
This was certainly true on the Wakefield-based band’s debut LP, Axe Victim, so in hock to the gospel of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars – Third Floor Heaven, Jet Silver & The Dolls Of Venus and Night Creatures are fanboyish carbon copies of Queen Bitch, Ziggy Stardust and Lady Stardust – that it would be cruel but not inaccurate to summarise Axe Victim as Ziggy Stardust fanfic. There’s something endearingly transparent about the outright emulation of the MainMan from this wide-eyed boy from the provinces and his fellow upstart arriviste outsiders, and had Axe Victim been the be-all and end-all of the Bill Nelson/Be Bop Deluxe story, its main influence on popular culture would be John Holmes’ iconic ‘skull guitar’ artwork, much reproduced and imitated over the years on music mags and schlock horror paperbacks.
But, as the cliché goes, this was not the end, but the beginning. Harvest saw potential in Nelson, and with the encouragement of EMI’s A&R department, sought a new line-up, eventually settling on drummer Simon Fox and bassist Charlie Tumahai, and paired up with Queen producer Roy Thomas Baker. Together, they found themselves in North Wales’ Rockfield Studios and created Futurama, in Nelson’s own words “a dramatic change of direction for Be Bop Deluxe”.
This would be something of an understatement, as this exciting, dynamic new trio assembled an album leagues ahead in ambition from the youthful naivety and affectionate mimicry of Axe Victim’s Ziggy cosplay, a colossus of an album that’s been a feature of this reviewer’s turntable ever since he discovered an unloved copy in his student union’s record station 20 years ago, and thanks to a handsome Deluxe Edition from Cherry Red Records, the results are here for all to enjoy 45 years on from its initial release.
What sort of album is Futurama? [Paul Darrow voice] Well, now… Limitless in a word: “…what a leap of faith & imagination it was”, writes Nelson in the sleeve notes, “Pop, rock, jazz, progressive, neo-classical, folk… I personally found inspiritaion from a whole raft of music, an endless river of sound and emotion.” And how! There’s dazzling musicianship on show here, with Bill Nelson’s quicksilver guitar work threatening to out-Ronson Ronson at every pace (he would, in time, prove himself to be a guitar genius the equal of his fellow Yorkshireman), but as much about cinematic melodrama as show-offy virtuoso hijinks to make it equal parts of the ‘Art Glam’ moniker, and as worthy of screaming onstage adulation as pointy-headed sixth-form common room dissection. If Michael Moorcock’s Cornelius Quartet were a rock opera, it might sound a little like this.
With sweeping arrangements ranging from Queen-esque baroque to Genesis-pastoral; at times, Futurama is gargantuan and overpowering, with crashing Wagnerian bombast and high drama on cuts such as the goose-stepping, mellotron-enveloped Sound Track and the manic Between The Worlds, inhabiting the same nightmarish Fascist dreamscape as Bowie’s The Man Who Sold The World (the album’s title, Futurama, recalls the Fascist art movement Futurism) or the fantastical prog-oddysey of Queen II; elsewhere, there’s a respite from sturm und drang with Side 2’s palate cleanser Jean Cocteau, a sublime homage to the surrealist filmmaker’s dreamscapes, and the outrageously hooky Maid In Heaven, the album’s obvious choice for single and a minor hit. Talking of miners… There’s also some wonderfully quirky moments that inject the album with real character, such as Side 2 highlight Music In Dreamland where its glam bombast is bolstered, rather unexpectedly, by the Grimethorpe Colliery Band to unique effect.
Although Nelson professes that he never established a rapport with Roy Thomas Baker, attributing much of the finished production’s effectiveness to RTB’s engineer Pat Thomas, as a rock album Futurama certainly sits within the same quadrant of decadent chamber-rock as Baker’s almost orchestral approach to rock on Queen’s early albums, the eponymous effort by Andy Ellison’s Jet (whose keyboardist Pete Oxendale arranged Music In Dreamland’s brass band parts) and Cockney Rebel Mk I’s The Psychomodo and The Human Menagerie and if you’re a devotee of such platters’ you’ll find much to enjoy here – but it’s in its quieter and more eclectic moments, such as Sister Seagull and Jean Cocteau, that point towards the beginnings of Bill Nelson’s fascinating journeyman career, which really deserves an article to itself.
After some lacklustre reissues in the ‘80s and ‘90s, of which according to an infamous web posting Nelson didn’t see a single penny, Cherry Red Records have given Futurama a fitting forty-fourth anniversary repackage, following a similarly successful treatment of 1976’s Sunburst Finish. As well as a fine remaster of the album, certainly sounding better than my well-loved secondhand vinyl pressing, additional house room has been given to a more spacious sounding alternative mix that’s an alternative- rather than superior- listening experience, both sides of a unique single release plus an unreleased track from the same session, and on the 3 disc set, some vintage Radio One recordings (and on the 3CD/1CD, a concert recording and video footage plus additional replica merch). All this, plus fascinating, frequently amusing and insighful liner notes, fastidiously compiled by Bill Nelson and writer Mark Powell that fill the listener in on the complete story behind this hidden gem from one of rock’s most ambitious periods: After all, as Bill writes, “It was all just music.”
❉ Be Bop Deluxe – ‘Futurama’ (Deluxe Edition/Limited Edition Deluxe Edition) is out now from Esoteric Recordings/Cherry Red Records as both a Deluxe Edition (PECLEC22672) RRP £11.99; and a Limited Edition Super Deluxe Edition (PECLEC22670) RRP £44.99.