Highways to Paradise: Be-Bop Deluxe – ‘Axe Victim’

❉ An impressive starting point and a cohesive and confident record that still fizzes with energy.

Be-Bop Deluxe occupy a curious position in the 1970s rock canon. Never keen to be pigeonholed, dogged leader Bill Nelson steered the band through shifting line-ups and varying success, always with an eye for the progressive. With Be-Bop Deluxe and later Bill Nelson’s Red Noise, Nelson touched upon every major rock genre of the 1970s before the decade was up. Be-Bop Deluxe have appeared on compilations of progressive rock, proto punk, art rock, punk, glam rock and new wave, not forgetting The Tiswas Album. The Wakefield band recorded five albums on Harvest between 1974 and 1978, the first of which, Axe Victim, is reissued by Cherry Red imprint Esoteric Recordings in a handsome expanded edition available both in a 2CD expanded edition and a 3CD / 1DVD deluxe boxset.

Axe Victim (advertised as “some rock ‘n roll madness from Be-Bop Deluxe”) was released in June 1974. Unlike the band’s subsequent records, this is a glittering glam rock affair, and the influence of David Bowie in particular is palpable. The album arrived some two years after the band’s formation, when Nelson recruited rhythm guitarist Ian Parkin, bassist Robert Bryan and drummer Nicholas Chatterton-Dew.  In these early years, the band acquired a strong following in their native Yorkshire but struggled to find a suitable record deal. Impatient, they released a single Teenage Archangel / Jets at Dawn in 1973 on Nelson’s own independent label Smile Records. Both sides of this single are included on this set; Nelson seems keen to point them out as the band’s first released work in his booklet essay for this new edition, perhaps a riposte to those who consider Be-Bop Deluxe latecomers to a genre which had become part of pop’s fabric by Axe Victim’s release.

Be-Bop’s pursuit of Ziggy-type glam rock at this time might seem canny, but it appears somewhat unique for a band from Wakefield. Be-Bop Deluxe were outliers to what was a mainly Southern phenomenon. The Midlands (with Slade, Mott the Hoople and Wizzard) seemed to be the furthest North glam’s platform boots would stomp, at least in the charts. Geordie, the briefly-feted hard rock band featuring hollering vocalist Brian Johnson, were only as glam as was necessary to compete. Nelson has described his embracing of glam rock as “a way of confronting certain stereotypes about the kind of bands that were in Yorkshire at that time”.

Key hallmarks of the glam genre are inextricably linked with London, especially the stylised Newleyisms of David Bowie’s voice. Nelson’s voice was more mild-mannered, and many songs on Axe Victim show a band keen on musicianship and progression above parroting. A glam direction may even have been something of a gamble. Early photographs of the band betray their roots, with a bearded Nicholas Chatterton-Dew looking like a bed-in John Lennon. Even on the Mick Rock photographs of the band taken for the sleeve, smoke was blown to obscure Ian Parkin’s face as Rock felt he “didn’t quite fit the glam image of the band”. Before the band’s 1974 signing, Nelson turned down multiple offers of a solo record deal on the strength of his self-released 1971 album Northern Dream, a folky affair limited to 300 copies. Nelson was offered membership in a supergroup too, but chose to pursue a future with Be-Bop Deluxe instead; “I’m amazed, (and somewhat shocked), by how certain I was of what I wanted to achieve” Nelson writes in his essay.

The band were finally signed to EMI in 1974 and encouraged to record songs that had become established components of their live set. Upon release, Axe Victim was criticised by many publications for sounding derivative of David Bowie’s work; the album’s reputation still centres around this comparison. It’s easy to see why – the lyrics alone probably sounded well-trodden in June 1974. From Jet Silver & the Dolls of Venus (“Jet Silver and the Dolls of Venus/Play their music ‘specially for you”) to Night Creatures (“Johnny was an actor, oh you must have known/He wore his new Max Factor, nearly stole the show”), the influence of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars couldn’t be more apparent. Musically, Nelson’s glam is more lithe than Tony Visconti’s heavy-set productions. The songs often centre around Nelson’s virtuoso guitar work – atypically clear and playful for the glam era. Perhaps the Be-Bop Deluxe of 1974 had more in common with the most free-spirited rock bands of the previous decade’s end like the Love Sculpture, Family and Spooky Tooth; highly inventive, muscular rock bands for whom the psychedelia of 1967 was a springboard, never an instruction manual.

Axe Victim’s ten songs are well constructed and reward repeated listens. There’s a consistent quality here that betrays not only Nelson’s vision but also a strong band chemistry. Love Is Swift Arrows (written by a lovestruck Nelson about a girl whose name he concealed in the initials of the title) races along with nourishing melodicism, while No Trains to Heaven is admirably showy. This high quality is even maintained for Rocket Cathedrals, written and sung by bassist Robert Bryan and the only song in Be-Bop Deluxe’s entire discography not composed by Bill Nelson. It’s a propulsive rock and roll romp that again recalls Bowie, this time his frenetic recording of Let’s Spend the Night Together. The lyrics, home truths deployed by a wide-eyed astronaut somewhere between Elton’s Rocket Man and Ricicles mascot Captain Rik, add to the giddiness.

However, Axe Victim’s best songs are those less tied to space age themes. When not aping Bowie, Nelson’s lyrics stand up well – the album’s most affecting moments are when Nelson sings of “Silver birds writing words for airmen’s wives” and “Quiet old ladies who’ll soon pass away”. The ballad Darkness (L’Immoraliste) is the album’s only song written on piano and is perhaps its high point. It is a beautiful piece, a hymn to the gloomy with a string arrangement (arranged by Andrew Powell) that is reminiscent of Roy Wood’s work with the Electric Light Orchestra. Adventures in a Yorkshire Landscape, a similarly funereal song, is another highlight. It breaks into a florid Nelson guitar solo halfway through, a sign of the prog tendencies he was to further explore on future projects.

Disc Two features a fresh mix of the album by Stephen W. Taylor. Layers of acoustic guitars glow a little brighter while some fresh creative choices are inserted – I noticed a new timed echo on Nelson’s voice on Jet Silver & the Dolls of Venus. Adventures in a Yorkshire Landscape benefits most; the original mix sounds dull in comparison to the shimmering, wide remix. The set also includes hitherto unreleased early versions of album tracks including an interesting version of Night Creatures where Bill Nelson delivers the lyrics in spoken word, and exclusive to the boxset is a third disc featuring seven BBC radio session recordings and most impressively four songs recorded as an audition for Decca in December 1973. I wouldn’t have expected the tapes for this session, recorded with Thin Lizzy producer Nick Tauber at the helm, to still exist. Among the four songs recorded are two that didn’t make it onto Axe VictimBluesy Ruby and I’ll Be Your Vampire. This set is a truly spectacular treatment for the album.

Bill Nelson split the original Be-Bop Deluxe in August 1974. “I have decided to reform Be-Bop Deluxe so that the new group will be more in keeping with my current writing” Nelson was quoted in a Record Mirror cover story headlined “Be Bop is axe victim”. This wasn’t the last time a restless Nelson would find the confines of the band limiting, and sadly his bandmates seem to have released no further music outside of Be-Bop Deluxe. “Axe Victim was a modest beginning, flawed but not without charm. And not the end of the story” Nelson says in his essay. End of the story it certainly wasn’t, but Axe Victim is an impressive starting point. Many debuts are a fusion of conflicting visions for an act, with concert “fan favourites” brushing shoulders with up-to-date compositions and strong songs flanked by weaker cousins in the name of band democracy. Axe Victim isn’t like this. It’s a cohesive and confident record that still fizzes with energy. Ziggy LARPers? Maybe, but this album doesn’t bother us with its own “It Ain’t Easy”. Glam rock was simply the launch-pad for Bill Nelson’s boundlessly creative career, and it’s a testament to the band that they pulled off the genre so convincingly before abandoning it. Never once “like a square peg in a round hole”.

❉  Be-Bop Deluxe: ‘Axe Victim’ (3CD/1DVD Limited Edition Deluxe Boxset) released July 17, 2020 by Esoteric Recordings, part of the Cherry Red group. RRP £49.99. Click HERE to order directly from Cherry Red Records. Also available as a 2CD Expanded Edition, RRP £11.99 – click HERE to order from Cherry Red.

❉ Cherry Red Records have been releasing and reissuing the most innovative and independent thinking music since 1978. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.

❉ Huw Thomas is a musician and writer from Radnorshire, Wales. His special interests include Northern Irish band Cruella De Ville, Cardiacs, Back to the Egg and Oh No It’s Selwyn Froggitt. He tweets as @huwareyou.
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