There are enough Old Tenisonians who read this site that I couldn’t hide the contents of the first few Jamming! fanzines even if I wanted to. Alongside my energetic screeds on The Jam, The Clash, The New Hearts, TRB, and The Who back in 1977 and ’78 were equally enthusiastic reviews of ELO, Rainbow and Rush. At least I didn’t write the latter ones: the fanzine was initially a partnership with a schoolmate, Lawrence Weaver, who was an unapologetic hard rock fan even at the age of 14. Still, I’ve always harbored a certain embarrassment about those first four “school” issues, remaining secretly grateful that less than a thousand were printed in total.
Imagine my relief then, when a long-term pen-pal friend, Steve Peer (more of whom later), cleared out his closet and sent me some mid-seventies American rock magazines, including the fifth issue of what was then called the Trans-Oceanic Trouser Press, dated October/November 1974. For those who don’t know of it, Trouser Press was a pre-punk fanzine published by Ira Robbins, one of the pre-eminent Who historians and editor of all manner of Trouser Press Record Guides. (Disclosure: I contributed to those Guides and consider Ira a friend.) Ira’s fandom is not without limits – he has angered Pete Townshend over the years by publicly critiquing The Who’s endless reunions – and as such, I’ve always considered his taste in music to carry credibility.
So it was with some shock that I opened up this presumably rare early issue of Trouser Press to find that Ira had spent the summer of 1974 on a music-seeing trip to London… only to return with enthusiastic reviews of Blodwyn Pig, Bearded Lady, and Greenslade, while spilling negative ink on Thin Lizzy and Sparks in concert, The Marquee Club as a venue and the latest Mott The Hoople single ‘Foxy Foxy.’ So much for credibility.
You can plead that it was 1974 and that it must have been hard to tell which way the musical wind was blowing. How, for example, to react to Axe Victim, the debut album by the Yorkshire band Be-Bop Deluxe, whose shamelessly self-indulgent title was enunciated by a sleeve design featuring a guitar body in the shape of a skull, whose music was punctuated by front man Bill Nelson’s impossibly detailed and lengthy guitar solos, whose lyrics were a mixture of what can only be termed “progressive rock” poetry and self-glorifying rock’n’roll mythology? Released on the Harvest label – EMI’s home for all things progressive – the back cover even featured a quote by Jean Cocteau. In French! It would be hard to invent a more perfect caricature of the era.
But Ira – who picked the album up on that same summer holiday to England –hailed Axe Victim as a minor masterpiece. (Actually, what he wrote, as part of a page and half review, was that it would likely end up as his album of the year, given the absence of a new Who LP.) Axe Victim was re-released earlier this year, along with the four subsequent studio albums and one live set that comprised Be-Bop Deluxe’s short career. (Nelson had earlier released a solo album, Northern Dream, which found its way into John Peel’s hands, onto the BBC airwaves and led to the EMI deal. Axe Victim is nonetheless considered Nelson’s real musical debut.) With all six CDs landing on my doorstep, I found myself able to dip into, flip through and discover anew the entire Be-Bop Deluxe catalogue. And you know what? Ira was right: Axe Victim is masterful.
In that review of 31 years ago, Robbins makes much of Axe Victim’s debt to David Bowie, and it’s impossible to hear ‘Jet Silver and The Dolls of Venus’ as anything other than a young Yorkshireman’s deliberate tribute to the power of Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. But there are just as many similarities to Bowie’s protégées (of a kind), Mott the Hoople, especially in Nelson’s obsession with his own career. Mott leader Ian Hunter, as we all know, had a habit of singing about his “six-string razor” and his “Saturday Gigs” but Nelson actually opened his group’s debut album with the almost impossibly self-obsessed line, “You came to watch the band.” Dramatic dynamics, frequent guitar interludes, and a pervading sense of glam – “Johnny was an actor, oh you must have known,” runs the opening line to ‘Third Floor Heaven’ – further such similarities. Yet while Axe Victim can be dated to its year of release almost on first lesson, it is more than an anachronism. Heard again all these years later, it remains much as Robbins perceived it at the time and select others: as the solidly impressive debut of a prodigious talent.
1975 saw the release of Futurama, which went so far as to name a song for ‘Jean Cocteau’ but also included the impressively melodic ‘Maid In Heaven’ and ‘Sister Seagull.’ That was also the year the Be-Bop Deluxe line-up solidified, with bassist Charlie Tumahai, drummer Simon Fox, and finally keyboardist Andy Clark affording Nelson a sense of proper camaraderie. And it was also the year that I joined Bill Nelson’s fan club, after I saw Be-Bop Deluxe play the Great British Music Festival at London’s cavernous Olympia. Actually, I joined Ronnie Lane’s fan club by mistake: being all of 11, I got the order of the groups wrong!
Then, in early 1976, Be-Bop Deluxe released their third album, Sunburst Finish, and there was no longer any confusion: I played the album almost every night while doing my homework, and Bill Nelson soared into Pete Townshend’s slipstream in my short list of axe idols. At least until punk came along.
Sunburst Finish may still be my favorite album of 1976. (Like Ira, that was in the absence of a Who album, of course.) It remains a remarkable record, somehow encapsulating the most egregious examples of self-absorbed mid-seventies guitar heroes (this cover featured a naked woman holding a burning Gibson – to paraphrase Axe Victim’s background color, how much more Spinal Tap can you get?), yet brimming over with an energy that rivaled the reactionary fury of the oncoming punk revolution. ‘Fair Exchange,’ ‘Sleep That Burns,’ ‘Life In the Air Age’ and ‘Blazing Apostles’ all stand as unusual examples of a post-glam hard rock that remained, song titles aside, were surprisingly down to earth, Nelson’s solos less a display self-indulgence than the helplessly natural expressions of a born virtuoso. And while many of his lyrics are precociously poetic, he could write a love song with the best of them: ‘Ships In The Night’ was an effortless hit single that spring. If it’s true that you can judge an album by its producer, then it’s worth noting that Sunburst Finish bears the imprint of one John Leckie.
Be-Bop Deluxe were firmly in the spotlight that spring. But Bill Nelson sensed the changing tides of musical fashion and before the year was out, had unleashed Be-Bop Deluxe’s fourth album Modern Music on a confused fan base. Gone were the flaming guitars and naked ladies: the group were now depicted wearing business suits, desperately trying to bring themselves back into the acceptable mid-ground of their peers David Bowie and Roxy Music before the guitar heroes’ barricades were stormed by three-chord wielding young punks. It didn’t work, and a poorly timed live album Life! In The Air Age – what British band in its right mind released a live album in 1977? – was followed only by 1978’s Drastic Plastic. The cover to that fifth, final studio album caught the group in flux – imitating new wave imagery while maintaining their distinctively pre-punk logo. Nelson was no less a modernist than John Foxx of Ultravox or Colin Newman of Wire, and ‘Panic In The World’ and ‘Superenigmatix’ were post-punk anthems by almost any other criteria, but Nelson could not get the public to forget the excessive baggage he’d carried so freely with him in the mid-1970s and, recognizing the diminishing returns, brought the group to a halt. (John Leckie stayed on board until the end. The producer is clearly not be-all and end-all.)
In 1979, Jamming! fanzine having shaken off its own hard-rock tendencies though not its pre-punk influences, I determined to interview Bill Nelson upon the unveiling of his new act, Red Noise. Through politeness and persistence, I was scheduled an interview with the man courtesy of the eminent publicist Tony Brainsby’s young assistant, Magenta Devine. Until, that is, the day before the interview, when the future TV star canceled my appointment, stating – in all apparent sincerity – that Nelson “needed the time to get his shit together.”
I was so disappointed that I showed up for the interview regardless. Fortunately, it was in my own neighborhood – the massive cinema on the Brixton Road that would later become the Fair Deal and later still, the Brixton Academy: Red Noise had hired it out for pre-tour rehearsals. I hung by the backstage door, and when Nelson emerged from a car of some sort, I nervously put myself in his way and told him my sob story. To his undying credit, knowing nothing of the interview’s scheduling nor cancellation, Nelson invited me in, and we conducted the interview in the dressing room, there and then. It wasn’t the best conversation, but I’ll dig out the manuscript and reprint it some day.
At which point, enter Steve Peer, Nelson’s new American drummer. Peer properly befriended me that day, ensuring that I hung around to watch the full band rehearsals. As a Yank, he was probably himself on unfamiliar ground and keen to bond, but as I quickly discovered, he was also just an inherently kind person. To which end, a few weeks later, Peer ensured that I was on the guest list for Red Noise’s official London debut at the Drury Lane Theatre, of which I remember only that Be-Bop Deluxe bassist Charlie Tumahai braved the hall of mirrors and took a seat directly in front of me. A week after that, upon opening a letter from Peer (no e-mails back then!), I discovered that the drummer had also put me on the list for the back-stage party – and expressed disappointed that I had not shown up. He had, he assured me in writing (and also in all apparent sincerity), been waiting to introduce me to all sorts of “chicks.” God knows how I’d have handled myself with them; I don’t believe my voice had even broken by then!
I have stayed in touch with Steve Peer over the years, though we haven’t seen each other since that day in Brixton. And, by following his ongoing career from a distance, equally admiring of and bemused by his relentless underground output, I suppose I have stayed in touch with Bill Nelson too. There was no reason to suggest the two would ever again cross my paths across my desk. But circumstances have a habit of converging in mid-life and, just as EMI re-released the Be-Bop Deluxe catalogue, Steve Peer sent me this package of mid-seventies American rock magazines. Did he know that Axe Victim – then only an import – was celebrated in the pages of that early Trouser Press? Perhaps not, but he did include a bonus CD gift: Bill Nelson’s home demos for the lone Red Noise album, Sound On Sound.
At the time of writing this column, the bulk of my CDs and LPs still in packing boxes, I can’t dig out the commercial release of Sound On Sound for comparison. But the demos remind me why I held Nelson in such high esteem before, during and after punk: ‘Revolt Into Style,’ ‘Furniture Music,’ ‘For Young Moderns’ and ‘Radar In My Heart’ are each of them thrillingly angular, aggressive, melodic and danceable slices of distinctly late-70s art rock. Comparisons to Wire and Ultravox remain relevant, as do nods to American acts like Devo and Talking Heads. Red Noise was every bit as contemporary as any other post-punk act that actually came of musical age back in the days of glam and prog-rock, and Sound on Sound could, lyrically and musically, even be taken as a modernist manifesto – and by that criteria, as a more successful one than Be-Bop Deluxe’s Modern Music or Drastic Plastic.
These demos are affected by hiss, fade, and the occasional tape glitch, but they are alive! (In the air age) as often only demos can be. Factor in that they’re the sole work of multi-instrumentalist Nelson himself and they’re nothing short of remarkable. In addition, they help confirm the vast journey taken by that one young Yorkshireman in a comparatively short space of time for, vocals aside, there is little to connect the Axe Victim Bill Nelson of 1974 with the Red Noise Bill Nelson of 1979 – except, perhaps, to suggest that here was a man who, through his five or six years in the spotlight, continually reflected the current trends in rock music. And, more often than not, made music that survived those short—lived fashions to live on as exemplary examples of their era.