Graded on a Curve:
Be Bop Deluxe,
Axe Victim

Some people are just in the right place at the wrong time. But few have been as unfortunate as Bill Nelson, the front man of English rock band Be Bop Deluxe. Be Bop Deluxe put out a miraculously good debut LP, 1974’s Axe Victim, which suffered due to circumstances beyond its control. To wit, it was a glam record released at around the same time as David Bowie’s final stab at glitter rock, Diamond Dogs. This shouldn’t have been a big deal; England was awash in glam bands at the time, many of them enormously successful. No, what really did Nelson and Be Bop Deluxe in was the fact that Axe Victim bore a more than passing resemblance to the work of Mr. Bowie, which led critics to lambast Be Bop Deluxe as mere copycats.

As a result, Axe Victim has never gotten its fair due as a great glam album, on a par with Brian Eno’s “rock” albums, Mott the Hoople’s All the Young Dudes, or the four albums attributed to Ziggy Stardust and the other personae Bowie adopted during the Glam Age, when it seemed every wild young thing in England was sashaying about in glitter-encrusted platform boots and home-made space suits that screamed, “Look at me! I’m from Venus!”

Nelson founded Be Bop Deluxe in 1972 in Wakefield, West Yorkshire. A little history—Wakefield was dubbed the “Merrie City” in the Middle Ages, and “the perfect place to lose an eye” during the height of football hooliganism in the 1980s. (Okay, so I made that last part up.) The band was composed of Nelson on lead vocals, guitars, and keyboards; Ian Parkin on rhythm and acoustic guitars and organ; Robert Bryan on bass; and Nicolas Chatterton-Dew on drums, backing vocals, and incredibly pretentious name. Together they set about ingratiating themselves into the glam scene that was all the rage at the time, and they hit all the right notes on Axe Victim, which benefitted greatly from Nelson’s virtuosity on guitar.

Mick Ronson may be remembered (and justly) as Thee Glam Rock Guitarist, but Nelson plays with a fire and fluidity that are downright awe-inspiring, and he could throw down a solo every bit as good as the tour de force Ronson serves up on Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars’ “Moonage Daydream.” And it hurts me to say that, because I love Ronson’s solo the same way some people love their bongs, or their collection of Randy Mantooth paraphernalia.

The title track is an autobiographical confession a la Ian Hunter of the sordid reality of being a rock star. To a melody that’s elegiac in feel and includes about 200 cool guitar riffs, Nelson sings, “Sad amps and smashed guitars/Played badly at The Duke/To almost no applause.” There’s a heavy and slower midsection in which Nelson calls himself “an axe victim/Hung up on these silver strings” before the band hits the “road to Hull,” and it’s all a big bummer except for the music, which is great. Also great is Nelson’s solo, which goes on and on like the coins falling from a gargantuan slot machine winner. Follow-up “Love Is Swift Arrows” is a fast-paced rocker that includes a chorus that does sound Bowiesque, but Nelson’s guitar is a thing of beauty and a joy for at least a couple of minutes, and Nelson sings that all he wants is to be left alone, presumably to play the singeing old school rock’n’roll solo that is guaranteed to satisfy your doctor-recommended guitar solo requirements for the entire week.

I suspect “Jet Silver and the Dolls of Venus” is the song that got Nelson in the most trouble with those critics who branded him a rip-off artist. It boasts a cool melody and a great chorus, but unfortunately for Nelson a song about a band called Jet Silver and the Dolls of Venus is doomed to be written off as a transparent attempt to cash in on Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars. Lost is the fact that it’s a more than decent tune featuring lots of great vocals and lots of fine guitar, including a solo that closes the tune in an aura of zooming feedback. Oddly enough, the rip-off situation is reversed in “Third Floor Heaven,” which boasts a great intro and melody, both of which Judas Priest shamelessly swiped when they recorded “Living After Midnight” some six years later. Seriously, how the Priest avoided a lawsuit is beyond me. Perhaps you’re not allowed to sue priests in England. But the similarities! Same intro, identical melody; about the only difference is that Nelson’s vocals are on the swishy side, in keeping with the campy tenets of glam. “She will break your heart,” sings Nelson, as fey as can be, and a female of the species repeats in a spoken voice, “She will break your heart.” From there on in it’s all power chords and keyboards, and a set of lyrics that are campier than the ones on Bowie’s “Queen Bitch.”

The ballad “Night Creatures” opens on a quiet note, and describes a collection of glam creatures and their various idiosyncrasies. With their “white faces” and “painted eyes” and “heels so high” they haunt the night, Johnny the Actor and Angel “the dancer with the mean guitar.” The melody is lovely, albeit once again a bit beholden to Bowie. A chord change, some vocal phrasing—they’re little things, but they bear Bowie’s stamp, which is one reason why I love the rave-up “Rocket Cathedrals.” Its theme of space travel is reminiscent of “Space Oddity,” true, but the song’s manic tempo and old school rock’n’roll riffs bear no resemblance to anything ever put out by the Thin White Duke. This could have something to do with the fact that bassist Bryan handles lead vocals; but then again, it’s not as if his vocals are camp-free either. “Adventures in a Yorkshire Landscape” is a low-key tune, not so different from what you might hear on Hunky Dory; it features lots of “aaaaahs,” which are followed by a little muscle and a guitar solo that almost reaffirms my faith in my fellow man. It’s fluid, otherworldly, and the sound I hope to hear as I depart this mortal coil and ascend to that great Mott the Hoople concert in the sky.

Speaking of lovely, “Jets at Dawn” opens with bird song and Nelson announcing that the war is over, and boasts a chorus guaranteed to make you glad. Oddly, Nelson sounds like Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull on the choruses, which comes as quite the mindfuck if you’re not expecting it. It’s a song of solemn celebration, with the soldiers coming home and Nelson singing “Jets at Dawn/Writing in the sky/Silver planes/Drawing Coca-Cola signs.” The song also seems to be a hymn to the all the pretty young things of glam, with Nelson singing, “Said goodbye to the others/The old musicians of the past/Said hello to the young things/Oh, your songs are here to sing at last.” But just as memorable as the melody and the lyrics is Nelson’s guitar playing; this is Be Bop Deluxe’s longest song ever, and much of it consists of Nelson torturing his guitar lines into twisted and unique ways to welcome in the “New Age” he has seen risen.

Meanwhile, “No Trains to Heaven” is a funky rock’n’roller with subtle prog tendencies—it’s like math rock, man. Nelson follows each of his vocal lines with some tasty guitar before he launches into a magnificent solo, which is followed by some call and response between Nelson and the band. Then the band falls into a slightly jazzier groove, with Nelson once again setting his fret board on fire just for the flaming fuck of it. And he proceeds to go on in this manner until the song takes its good old time petering out at six-and-a-half minutes. As for LP closer “Darkness (L’Immoraliste)” it’s a moving and synthesized string-laden tune that is as lovely and dark as a poem by Baudelaire. Nelson gets all dramatic on the vocals, emoting, “You’re with me/Most every night/You’re with me/Most every night” and “Darkness, you are my true love/Darkness, you are my pride.” It’s over the top, this one, vocal histrionics heaped atop strings and even more vocal histrionics, and it’s the better and lovelier song for it.

The tragedy of Axe Victim is this; so put off was Nelson by the accusations of aping Bowie that he literally fired the band and founded a Be Bop Deluxe II that eschewed glam for less commercial pastures. But history was replayed come Be Bop Deluxe’s fifth and final studio album, 1978’s Drastic Plastic, which was again critiqued for wearing its Bowie influences on its sleeve. By this point Nelson had had enough; following the release of Drastic Plastic he dissolved Be Bop Deluxe completely to form a new band, Bill Nelson’s Red Noise.

Nelson was probably as right to abandon glam as Bowie was at about the same time—accusations of mimicry aside glam was dying—but there’s something about Axe Victim that moves me in a way that none of Be Bop Deluxe’s later LPs, all of which are good, do. A lot of it has to do with the fact that I’m a glam kid at heart, and Axe Victim is a great glam album—fey, androgynous, and with more than a touch of the alien (as Kid Congo Powers, a glam kid if ever there was one once told me, “We all wanted to be aliens!”) about it. If you like glam it’s must listening. If you don’t like glam you should like glam, and a good way to start is by buying this LP, embracing your inner alien, and buying yourself a pair of thigh-high glam boots with stacked heels and lots of gold glitter. You don’t have to leave the house in them, but they’ll make bipperty-boppertying around to Axe Victim while pretending you’re at Rodney Bingenheimer’s long-defunct English Disco on Sunset Strip—that home away from home for both glam bands and glam kids like Kid Congo—more fun.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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