March 9, 2021

the continuing synth usage is perfectly counterbalanced by some snaking, nicely distorted lead guitar lines from Nelson. This is how to do short, snappily constructed synth-heavy music

Released in 1978, Drastic Plastic, the final Be-Bop Deluxe album, occupies a curious position as the band’s swansong. A record which originally was never intended to be recorded in the form it was, it was born from a sort of compromise between Bill Nelson (who wanted to retire the Be-Bop name and move onto other musical ideas) and the record company (who absolutely did not want him to do anything of the sort). As a result, Nelson agreed to put his plans for his Red Noise project into temporary abeyance, and get the Be-Bop Boys (a phrase which I hope you will join me in never using ever again) back together again for one final ‘sunburst finish’ before he headed off to follow his restless muse. A Be-Bop album it may be, and clearly recognisable as such, but with Nelson’s songs being inspired by his new plans, it showed the band moving into an interesting space which resides somewhere between their prime output and the pastures which Nelson had an eye on already.

Two years had elapsed since the astonishingly fruitful year of 1976, which saw both the band’s masterpiece Sunburst Finish and also the very worthy follow up Modern Music both appear within a six-month spell. 1977 had seen extensive touring and the Live In The Air Age double live album, so 1978 was the natural time for this album to appear. Bursting with ideas, the major complaint which can be levelled against Drastic Plastic is ironically that this feverish melting pot of inspiration led to a sometimes wildly varied set, which fights to balance the proliferation of inspiration against the resulting lack of a consistent identity. When there are ideas coming out of your figurative ears, some are likely to be great while others may miss the mark. That is, to an extent, the case here, though certainly there are more hits than misses.

Opening track Electrical Language neatly encapsulates this restless new direction, as synthesizers are incorporated into the mix more than ever before, giving the piece am almost ‘synth-pop’ sheen years before that particular genre burst into generally uninspired life. However, in an interesting reversal of the expected, this early blueprint for that form is in fact a fully-formed example of how to do it correctly, from which future protagonists would take ideas and relentlessly dumb them down for mass appeal. On this track the ultra-modernistic coating of the synths is complemented both by traditional analogue instrumentation but also imaginative song construction and execution, which results in the electronic instrumentation enhancing the song rather than lazily being its entire raison d’etre. I’m sure we can all think of some guilty parties looming onto our Top Of The Pops screens in the years following this! New Precision follows, to even better effect, as the continuing synth usage is perfectly counterbalanced by some snaking, nicely distorted lead guitar lines from Nelson. This is how to do short, snappily constructed synth-heavy music, and the album is off to a tremendous start. Elsewhere other winners include the funky New Mysteries, the single Panic In The World, complete with nods to Bowie’s Heroes throughout, the lovely instrumental Visions Of Endless Hopes and the closing unsettling balladry of Islands Of The Dead. As previously alluded to, there are times when experiments fail to hit the mark, such as the simultaneously uptempo yet curiously leaden-footed Love In Flames and the five-minute Surreal Estate which, despite its quintessentially ‘Be-Bop’ title, meanders a little and runs out of steam far too soon. These misses are in the minority however, as the chemistry of the band is so good that even when Nelson’s material falls short of the top drawer, they make the absolute most of it anyway. And indeed, who can fail to warm to an album containing a track by the name of Superenigmatix (Lethal Appliances For The Home With Everything)? You may imagine that to be an instrumental. You would be wrong. Those appliances are real…

The two discs here both contain the full album, though as with the previous Esoteric reissues of the band’s output, the second disc has it presented as a brand new stereo mix, and once again this hits the mark spectacularly! The original production was – like most BBD albums, for some reason – curiously flat and a little muddy, but the new mix has the instruments fairly bouncing from the speakers with hugely improved dynamics. As with the other reissues (Modern Music in particular), you will quite probably never listen to the original mix again, so superior is this new job. There are also bonus tracks on both discs, withe the second having single edits and a couple of demos, including a jazzy instrumental called The Saxophonist which is, ironically, almost entirely a guitar showcase. There is, however, no corresponding track entitled The Guitarist featuring a horn player parping all over it. Which is a good thing. The most interesting bonuses come on the first disc, however, with six tracks intended for a planned EP which never materialised. There are short, gimmicky experiments among these, but tracks such as the exceptional Lovers Are Mortal and Quest For The Harvest Of The Stars prove to be real standouts. Indeed, had these two replaced Surreal Estate and Love In Flames, with Quest… perhaps closing the album, Drastic Plastic would have been a far stronger work overall. Great to have them here now, for sure.

There is a humungous six-disc edition also available, with a dizzying array of further rarities, live tracks and the like, which will be the drug of choice for the Be-Bop completist, but for the casual fan, or the man in the street interested in checking out this most uncategorisable and inscrutable of 1970s acts, will find this beautifully presented double disc edition does the job perfectly. Once again, the always interesting Nelson adds his thoughts to the accompanying booklet, giving a fascinating ‘from the horse’s mouth’ dimension. A template for how to reissue and improve an album.

Reviews of the corresponding editions of Be-Bop deluxe’s debut Axe Victim and also Modern Music can both be found on this very site.