Like Sunburst Finish before it, it’s a meticulously arranged album, with not a note out of place and everything in the service of the song
Be Bop Deluxe, led by the closest thing the ’70s had to a second Bryan Ferry in the shape of the dapper and stylish Bill Nelson, were always a square peg in a round hole. In fact, they delighted in it, being forever just slightly out of phase with the zeitgeist – they were out of their time then, and to be honest their time has never precisely existed. In a similar way to Ferry’s utterly contrary image, and Bowie’s flat refusal to be dated by any current trends of the time (other than occasionally starting them), Be Bop followed their own muse both sonically and visually. It may not have gained them superstardom at the time, certainly in the singles charts, but it has also insulated them entirely from any form of ridicule as ‘yesterday’s men’. They’re still tomorrow’s men in many ways.
Modern Music, the fourth Be Bop album, appeared in September 1976. This was an astonishingly quick turnaround after their breakthrough album, the superb Sunburst Finish, which had appeared only seven months earlier in February, which makes it astonishing that they could make any realistic attempt at a strong follow-up. Which, amazingly, they did, because this is almost certainly the equal of its predecessor, and still holds up today. The centrepiece is what is often referred to as the Modern Music Suite, bookended by the title track with four other pieces sandwiched in the middle – Dancing In The Moonlight (All Alone), Honeymoon On Mars, Lost In The Neon World and the marvellously titled Dance Of The Uncle Sam Humanoids. It was written to reflect Nelson’s slightly disillusioned and jaded impressions of touring in America, and it’s an excellent lengthy work, introduced by a radio being tuned and alighting upon three old Be Bop Deluxe tracks along the way. Also of particular note is the penultimate track Down On Terminal Street, which quickly became a huge live favourite, but in truth the only slightly disapponting track here is the rather flat footed and earthbound Forbidden Lovers, which even Nelson admits was written ‘to order’ rather than from the muse striking him. There is even an eight-minute B-side, Shine, included as a bonus track, which is an astonishing sort of alien-funk workout, sounding something like Bowie’s Fame performed by Steve Hillage!
The musical and vocal touchstones along the way include plenty of touches of Bowie and Cockney Rebel in their most interesting incarnations, yet it’s all recognisably Be Bop. Like Sunburst Finish before it, it’s a meticulously arranged album, with not a note out of place and everything in the service of the song; Nelson was a magnificent lead guitarist, but his occasional fluid outbursts tend to come and go so quickly you treasure them while they’re there. In fact, the bravest thing about this album in retrospect was the cover design and the name: with Sunburst Finish having such an evocative title accompanied by a truly iconic cover design featuring a (tastefully) nude model holding aloft a flaming Gibson guitar against a stunning red backdrop, following it up with an album called Modern Music showing the band members looking like four insurance salesmen at a conference weekend was brave indeed! One can’t help thinking that the opener Orphans Of Babylon may have made a safer title track, for instance, yet somehow it worked, with the album repeating its predecessor’s success. It seems that quality music will often prevail after all!
Overall though, there is one real winner here which makes this new edition a genuine must-have: the new stereo mix of the album contained on the second disc. It’s an absolute sonic revelation, improving on the slightly flat yet serviceable original mix immeasurably, in terms of presence, clarity, power and general out-of-the-speakers attack. Tracks which had always left me underwhelmed in the past, such as The Gold At The End Of My Rainbow or Bring Back The Spark, suddenly came into focus and made perfect sense, as if I’d grasped for the first time what Nelson was really getting at with them. Trust me, if you get this set, that’s the only mix you’ll ever want to listen to, it’s truly sublime.
There is a bigger and grander edition also available, which includes live recordings and many more packaging delights, but if you simply want the best of what Modern Music has to offer, together with an enlightening new essay from Nelson himself, at a reasonable outlay, this set is hard to beat. It’s 44 years old, but it’s still Modern Music.