❉ This behemoth of a box set has enough live Be Bop Deluxe to satisfy the most hardcore of fans writes James R Turner.
“One thing that strikes me listening to this music, half a century on, is how fresh it sounds today, and that the performances still sound dynamic and vital to contemporary ears. That is the skill of Bill Nelson’s writing as he matured as a writer and performer. The band were always one step ahead from the contemporary, and that means these songs endure and continue to find new audiences.”
Esoteric Recordings’ superb re-issues of the entire Be Bop Deluxe back catalogue culminates in an remastered and expanded edition of their magnificent live album, Live! In The Air Age which, ironically, was the band’s highest charting LP, reaching number 10 in the UK album charts in 1977. Forty-four years on, Esoteric have made Live! In The Air Age available as either a 3CD set containing the remastered original album, plus three John Peel BBC sessions and the complete Hammersmith Odeon concert from March 1977, or – hold onto your hats, folks! – an epic sixteen-disc (15 CDs + 1 DVD) Limited Edition boasting more than enough live Be Bop Deluxe to satisfy even the hardest of hardcore fans.
When preparing the tapes for this remaster it turned out that the multi-tracks from the concerts recorded during the February/March 1977 tour used to compile the album had been kept and were available for this set. Thus, the sixteen-disc Limited Edition box complements all the material as available on the three-disc set with all of the recorded shows from that tour in their entirety, fully remixed and remastered from the original tapes by Stephen W. Taylor, together with the Star Rider in Concert TV performance, originally broadcast in 1977 and making its DVD debut.
Led by Wakefield’s finest, Bill Nelson, by 1977 the line-up had coalesced round Nelson (vocals, guitars, lyrics), Charlie Tumahai (bass, backing vocals), Andrew Clarke (keyboards) and Simon Fox (drums & percussion). This configuration had been together since 1975 and they were responsible for the classic albums Futurama, Sunburst Finish and Modern Music, all of which have received the (Be Bop) deluxe box set treatment by Esoteric (The 5.1 mixes are really worth investigating). By this point Be Bop Deluxe had become a well-honed live act, bringing the finely-crafted studio albums to life with skill and aplomb.
One of the seventies’ most highly acclaimed bands, and with Bill Nelson rightly held in high esteem as one of Britain’s finest guitarists, this is a perfect document of the band live, and the roar of the audience as they kicked in with the near-title track Life in the Air Age shows how the band were appreciated and anticipated live.
The original album (presented here as the first disc of each set) has been remastered nicely, and with the set being supervised by Bill Nelson himself, complete with his comprehensive sleeve notes, it’s clear that this is the definitive edition, and the usual care and attention to detail that is the hallmark of these sets by Esoteric is evident throughout, ensuring that Be Bop Deluxe’s enduring legacy is respected.
Spanning the group’s career thus far, and recorded on their Modern Music tour, the quirk of the original live album was that it didn’t actually feature any of the tracks from the Modern Music album, instead focusing on the band’s previous albums, full of crowd-pleasers like Maid in Heaven, Sister Seagull, the stunning Adventures in a Yorkshire Landscape (inspired by Bill’s hometown of Wakefield) showcasing his evocative guitar work and a nine-minute-plus version of Shine, one of the highlights of the original set.
As with all the best live bands, no two shows are quite the same, and whilst the set list throughout this box is pretty static, the band perform with such fluidity and skill, particularly on firm favourites like Ships in the Night. The way Nelson’s guitar interplays with Clarke’s keyboards is sublime, and there’s an aggression and edge that only a live gig can produce, whilst the rhythm section of Fox and Tumahai anchor the band, allowing some really funky, loose performances particularly on the incredibly funk-driven Piece of Mine.
The wonderful Fair Exchange rattles along at a rate of knots, and you can hear the audience clapping along in the background, and this is where the finest live albums really work – you can hear the interaction between the band and the audience, and it becomes a symbiotic experience, with each party feeding off the other.
I firmly believe that the best live performances are from bands who treat the gig as a show, and aim to do something different every time with the music, and to entertain the audience, as I’m sure we’ve all sat bored rigid in concrete arenas whilst the latest band du jour are performing their latest album by rote with no audience interaction and no hesitation, repetition or deviation from the songs as heard on the studio recordings.
If I wanted to hear the album, I’d stay at home and listen to it, and conversely the best live albums make you wish you were at the gig, and this is collection a prime example of that. Be Bop Deluxe were always experimental and pushing the boundaries on their studio albums, whereas live the band know that what the audience wants is a show, and across all sixteen discs here, Be Bop Deluxe prove without a doubt that they can put on a show and absolutely rock out with a set-list of crowd pleasers that get the roar of approval, all subtly rearranged to showcase the taut flexibility of the live band.
One thing that strikes me listening to this music, half a century on, is how fresh it sounds today, and that the performances still sound dynamic and vital to contemporary ears. That is the skill of Bill Nelson’s writing as he matured as a writer and performer. The band were always one step ahead from the contemporary, and that means these songs endure and continue to find new audiences.
If you’re a huge fan and are wondering if the sixteen discs here are worth the money, the answer is an unequivocal “Yes!” The scarcity of officially released Be Bop Deluxe live material is more than compensated for here, and the quality of the material and the care taken with the remastering and presentation makes this a must-have. The joy of this mammoth collection is this is a set that you can dip into and enjoy the diverse shows across the different discs. If you’re a casual fan or a bit skint the three-disc edition is a perfect introduction to live Be Bop Deluxe and it’s great credit to Esoteric that they have prepared sets for all budgets.
As live albums go, Live! in the Air Age is one of the best of its generation, and now in this newly remastered and restored form it deserves a place on all discerning rock fans’ shelves.
❉ Be Bop Deluxe: ‘Live! In The Air Age’ 3CD Remastered & Expanded Edition (Esoteric Recordings PECLEC32761) is available from Cherry Red Records, RRP £18.99.
❉ Be Bop Deluxe: ‘Live! In The Air Age’ 15CD/1DVD Limited Edition Box Set (Esoteric Recordings PECLEC162760) is available from Cherry Red Records, RRP £89.99.
❉ James R. Turner is a music and media journalist. Over the last 25 years he has contributed to the Classic Rock Society magazine, BBC online, Albion Online, The Digital Fix, DPRP, Progarchy, ProgRadar and more. James’ debut book is out in September and he is head of PR for Bad Elephant Music. He lives in North Somerset with his fiancee Charlotte, their Westie Dilys & Ridgeback Freja, three cats and too many CDs, records & Blu-Rays.