If there ever was an album on which Bill Nelson allowed himself the luxury of being an ‘axe hero’, this would be the one.
The latest installment of Esoteric Records’ reissuing of the Be Bop Deluxe catalogue in deluxe editions (or should that be ‘deluxe Deluxe editions) backtracks a little and alights upon the band’s debut album, originally released in 1974. Regarded as something of an anomaly in the BBD output, it is indeed a little out of step with the rest of their work, having been recorded by a very different line-up, which splintered after this album’s release. Musically it isn’t as different as some might have you believe, but there is certainly more of Bill Nelson’s extrovert lead guitar playing than he would go on to do. If there ever was an album on which Bill allowed himself the luxury of being an ‘axe hero’, this would be the one. Let’s check it out to see how it compares with their other Be Bop repackages though (you can also check out the Velvet Thunder review of the recent Modern Music reissue).
The format follows the other reissues in the BBD series, having a remaster of the original 1974 mix on the first disc and a brand new stereo mix on the second. Like the others, the new mix is tremendous here. Straight away there is a space, separation and all around brightness to the sound which really enhances it – although to be fair, the remaster of the original is pretty good on this one as well. It wasn’t the worst sounding of their albums back in the day, but it has certainly been freshened up here. Note that the track Jets At Dawn, already over seven and a half minutes, is extended to over nine for the new mix. The album itself has a feel of being more of a collection of songs as opposed to a focused album as a whole than the later works, which means that while it may not have the consistency of, for example the band’s magnum opus Sunburst Finish, it is conversely easier to pick out individual standouts. Adventures In A Yorkshire Landscape, for example, may be less than four minutes in length, yet still manages to pack in a tremendous song along with a great dollop of magnificent guitar work. It may be the standout track here, though it does have competition from the likes of the title track, the lengthy Jets At Dawn (such an evocative title!) and the bustling No Trains To Heaven. There’s even a non-Nelson-penned track in the shape of bassist Rob Bryan’s urgent Rocket Cathedrals – something unique among Be Bob Deluxe albums, as Nelson assumed further control after this record.
It’s fair to say that some of the album – particularly those tracks which occupied the old first side of the vinyl – remains in thrall to Ziggy Stardust-era Bowie. That said, influences are unavoidable, and sometimes wearing them on your sleeve can be a good thing. This was a thread which would persist throught the band’s fairly brief career, though never again as overtly as this. And let’s face it, if you’re going to evoke something musically, Ziggy isn’t a bad thing to aim for! The discs are completed by various bonus tracks, including several alternate versions – though the real meat of these is in the form of both sides of a privately pressed pre-album single which paired the marvellously titled Teenage Archangel with an early, and slightly shorter, take of Jets At Dawn.
To complete the release, as is usual with Esoteric and Cherry Red releases, the packaging is exemplary. The digipak unfolds twice to form a four-panel spread, and there is a copiously illustrated booklet penned by Bill Nelson himself, for everything you could realistically want to know about the album and the early days of Be Bop Deluxe as a whole. On top of all of that, there is also the added bonus of a fold-out replica poster of an early ad for the album and tour – stirring the old nostalgia with wonderful old venue names such as Barbarellas in Birmingham, the Kursaal in Southend and the Coventry Locarno. Marvellous stuff. And just in case you need more, there is an ultra-deluxe four-disc set available which adds another CD of radio and studio sessions, and a DVD containing all of the audiophile surround sound bells and whistles!
All in all, a great look at the sometimes ‘unloved stepchild’ of the Be Bop catalogue, and this short lived yet splendid group of musicians – and another winner for the Esoteric guys for sure!