Sunburst Finish, the 1976 album from art rock quartet Be-Bop Deluxe, falls into this valley set between the major musical movements in the band’s native England. Prog rock and proto-metal was on the wane with the rising signs of punk and post-punk about to dominate the cultural conversation. Like the lyric of the album’s hit single “Ships In The Night,” it felt like a square peg stuck in a cultural landscape of round holes.
Heard today, it feels like the perfect record for that time period. Singer/guitarist Bill Nelson adhered to a musical complexity that resulted in multi-tiered tunes like “Sleep That Burns,” which moves from ambling rock to cocktail jazz to full on bombast in a mere five minutes, and the searing rock of “Blazing Apostles” and the ether-drunk psychedelia of “Crying To The Sky.” Sunburst was a clearing of the decks before giving way to the dart-like directness that ripped through the English music scene just a year later.
Sunburst also represented the final metamorphosis of Be-Bop Deluxe as it introduced the band’s finest lineup that included keyboardist Andy Clarke, bassist Charlie Tumahai and drummer Simon Fox. They would carry the torch for this project forward for another two years before Nelson pulled the plug. It also carried some milestones for the band beyond their only charting single. For the first time, Nelson was allowed to control the mixing board with a great deal of help from John Leckie, the now legendary producer who got his first major co-production credit from these sessions.
This album has been fresh on the mind of longtime fans of Be-Bop Deluxe and new listeners thanks to a recent deluxe reissue of the album released by Cherry Red Records that marries a re-mastered version of the original recording with a new stereo mix, a batch of bonus tracks and radio sessions from the time. It’s a lovely package that does justice to an oft-overlooked album (at least here in the U.S.).
Paste recently spent a little time on the phone with the band’s leader Bill Nelson to talk about the making of Sunburst Finish, working with Leckie and how Be-Bop Deluxe changed with the arrival of Clarke and their arrival on the pop charts.
Paste: Listening to Sunburst Finish, I was taken by how many different styles of music you worked into these songs from rock to jazz to reggae and a bit of Latin influence. Was that pretty reflective of your listening habits at the time?
Bill Nelson: My listening, generally, is very eclectic. I listen to all kinds of music. I listen to a lot of jazz, classical, pop, rock, avant garde music. It all tends to leak into the songwriting process in some ways.
Do you have a sense of what you were listening to back then?
I’ve got a vast record collection and even back then it was pretty large. Back then, I was listening to Steely Dan, Frank Zappa, Jackson Browne, Neil Young. Loads of different people.
You’ve talked about how you presented the rest of the band with fairly complete demos for the tracks that would end up on Sunburst. Was that something that was welcomed by the other guys in the group or was there any pushback or any friction about not having their songs in the mix?
Nobody ever came forward with any song. I was considered to be the band’s songwriter. There was no problems with that at all. I basically steered the band. The main lineup of the band with Simon and Charlie and Andy was put together after I disbanded the first lineup that made Axe Victim. The band members were, in a sense, not signed to the record company. They were signed to me as session musicians. So, the band was built around what I was writing and my direction.
And as you said in the video interview that came out when this reissue was announced, they were adding their own spins on these parts that you had written for them.
When they heard the demos, we’d work the songs out according to the demos. As the rehearsals went along, we added little twists to them. Different inflections, nuances, so they were developed a little further. The thing that we were always conscious about retaining was the essential impression, the feeling of the demos. Sometimes it drove us mad because we’d get a track finished and compare it to the demo and we’d go, “You know what? The demo sounds better. Let’s try again.” Sometimes that was a crazy thing to do. We shouldn’t really stick too closely to the demos. Sometimes we didn’t, sometimes we did. It depending on how the thing sounded or what happened in rehearsals. There was input from everyone but at the same time, the essential shapes of the song had to stay as close as possible to the demo versions.
This was the first record that Andrew Clarke played on, as you brought him into the band right after your second album Futurama was completed. What did he bring to the band that you were missing up to that point?
When we recorded Futurama, I played keyboards. I bought a second-hand upright piano and I wrote most of the songs for that album on the piano rather than on the guitar. I was trying to come up with a different angle. So the basics of the songs on Futurama were piano, drums, and bass, and the guitar came as an afterthought almost. When we got towards recording Sunburst, I realized there was going to be a need to have a keyboard player because as a three-piece, the songs on Futurama [performed] live were quite different to what the recorded versions were. So, we looked for a keyboard player and auditioned different people. What I was looking for was someone who had that flexibility to move through various styles and Andy was the one keyboard player who could do that. His own style, when he joined, was kind of in the prog rock area. He was into bands like Emerson Lake & Palmer and King Crimson. What we needed to do then was to soften that a little bit and bring more into a pop sphere, but retaining some of the prog elements. He was open to doing that and it worked well within the context of the songs I was writing.
And talking about moving into the pop sphere, there was some chatter from your record label at the time about trying to get a hit single with this record.
There was a certain amount of that. I’d been asked to try and consider what I might put forward as a single. The song “Ships In The Night,” I almost wrote with my tongue firmly in my cheek. It was light and it was fun but I didn’t feel at the time a really serious piece of work. I put it to the record company and said, “There’s your single,” thinking it was satisfy them but it would never really do anything. The irony was that it was quite a successful single for the band. The good aspect of that was that it introduced an audience to what we were doing who then sought out the album and discovered the real meat of what we were doing. It broadened our audience out and helped us gain a better footing. While it’s not my favorite Be-Bop Deluxe song, I owe it a debt of thanks for introducing a larger audience to the band.
Sunburst Finish was also your first co-producing credit for the band, which it sounds like you were ready to do at the time. You seemed to take the role pretty quickly.
The first album we ever did, we had a producer called Ian McLintock and he was going through some difficult personal circumstances at the time and his mind wasn’t really on the job. It was my first experience working with a producer and and I thought, “This doesn’t seem to be adding an awful lot other than what we were putting in ourselves.” And then EMI put us with Roy Thomas Baker for the next album, who was the hip producer of the day with Queen. We went into the studio with Roy and it seemed to me that his engineer Pat Moran was the person who was really crafting the sound of those records. I thought he was an absolutely genius engineer.
When it came to the third album, I thought, “Well, I need to talk to EMI and see if they’d let me take the reins and produce this myself.” I felt confident enough to do it. They said, “You’ve never had any experience of producing before but if you really feel you’re up for it, we’ll put you in with this engineer at Abbey Road called John Leckie. John’s a staff engineer for a few years and he’s about ready to make the step up to producer. What if we put you and John together and you can co-produce?” I did know John because he had worked on a couple of the songs on Axe Victim. He’d been an engineer available one weekend when no other engineers were available, and I got on with him. So EMI arranged us for to have lunch together and we sat and talked and decided it would be a good idea to work together. We went into the studio and it was absolutely plain sailing right from day one. There was no hill to climb over. It just felt really natural straight off. We never got in each other’s way. We shared information and knowledge. It was great fun.
Part of this reissue of Sunburst comes with quite an extensive remix of the album. How do you feel about having this older music worked over and polished up like this?
Yes and no. I had nothing to do with the remix. It was done by someone that Cherry Red Records hired. I didn’t hear it until it was finished. It is a kind of a shiny digital mix of the album. I have to say that I prefer the original. We spent a lot of time making it sound we felt it should sound. It was a product of the technology we had at the time. Polishing it up with new technology can make things clearer to a degree, but things being clearer isn’t necessarily better. You sometimes need to keep a texture…it’s hard to describe. The record when we made it was very much a point in history, a product of its time. When it’s polished to the degree that you can do with digital EQ and so on, it becomes a more clinical, harder, sharper event. It’s lost of some of its warmth, I think. But it’s not a definitive mix. It’s an alternative mix. In that sense, it is a much different take to it. I always feel if you’re going to do a remix, it should be radical. It shouldn’t be a rebalance or a re-EQ and sharpen things up. It should be a complete reinterpretation of the songs.
You’ve done a little bit of production work outside of your own music, with artists like The Skids and Gary Numan. Is that something that you’d like to do more of or are you happy concentrating on making music of your own?
I tended to accept the gig if it was something I was interested in. John Leckie, for instance…I’m sure he’s in a position now where he can pick and choose, but for a while you have to take what’s given to you. That might mean working on albums that you’re not thrilled by. I wouldn’t be able to do that. I could only get involved if there was something that sparked my imagination. Then again, even when I was producing these people, I’d be sat behind the board and they’d be in the main recording area, and I’d be thinking, “I wish I was playing instead of sitting here.” I enjoy recording my own music far more than producing. Now, at 70 years old, the idea of sitting in a studio for two or three months, slaving over someone else’s album… Time is precious. I’d rather spend that on my own music.
Looking over your discography, you’ve released a lot of music. Do you feel like you have to hurry this stuff out as it’s fresh? Do you worry over this material?
I record almost every day. I have a home studio and everything’s done here, me on my own. I play all the instruments. It’s a sheer joy to do this. It’s never a chore. It’s always something I look forward to. It’s almost like the first song I’ve ever written. It just feels brand new every time. It doesn’t all have to be wiping your brow of sweat and agonizing over every single note. Some tracks and some albums can be like that and be quite intense and deeply dragged out from your inner core. Other things can be fun and you can skate over them and enjoy them for them moment. Almost sketches as opposed to oil paintings.
What is next for you? What are you working on now?
At the moment, I’ve got about 11 or 12 albums waiting to be released over the next year or two. At the same time, I’ve almost finished a new vocal album. And I’ve got some new equipment coming in the next couple of months to re-equip the studio to a new software-based, completely digital system. When I get this album finished, I’ll then switch off the equipment that I’ve been using for the last 18 years, strip it out and put in this new software-based recording system. Then I’ll have to grips with how to use it, I suppose. I’m both looking forward to it and a bit nervous about it.