Be-Bop Deluxe: Sunburst Finish - Album Of The Week Club Review

"It’s absolutely amazing. Every single song on there is brilliant." Iron Maiden's Steve Harris on Be Bop Deluxe's Sunburst Finish

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Be-Bop Deluxe - Sunburst Finish

1. Fair Exchange
2. Heavenly Homes
3. Ships In The Night
4. Crying To The Sky
5. Sleep That Burns
6. Beauty Secrets
7. Life In The Air-Age
8. Like An Old Blues
9. Crystal Gazing
10. Blazing Apostles
11. Shine
12. Speed Of The Wind
13. Blue As A Jewel

Guitarist/vocalist Bill Nelson’s decision to bring in keyboard player Andy Clark for the Be-Bop Deluxe's’s third LP was a bright move, resulting in a near-perfect balance of busy art-rock and proggy ambition. 

This hook-heavy collection produced a UK Top 30 hit with Ships In The Night. “The sci-fi fantasies of Bill Nelson translated into rock make a comfortable alternative to much of today’s drivel,” shrieked Melody Maker.

Ask Iron Maiden's Steve Harris and you'll get similar enthusiasm. "I love Be-Bop Deluxe!", he says. "Oh, Sunburst Finish! What an album. I hear something and I like it. That’s the end of it. If something takes my fancy then that’s it. But the songwriting on Sunburst Finish… it’s absolutely amazing. Every single song on there is brilliant." 

Every week, Album of the Week Club listens to and discusses the album in question, votes on how good it is, and publishes our findings, with the aim of giving people reliable reviews and the wider rock community the chance to contribute. 

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Background

When Classic Rock chose its 100 Greatest Guitar Solos Ever, we put the album's Crying To The Sky at number 67.  

"There are actually two solos in the song," says Bill Nelson. "The track was recorded in Abbey Road, in the same room that The Beatles and The Shadows recorded. It’s a big space, and I placed my Carlsbro 100-watt amplifier right at the back of the room while I stood at the opposite end with my Gibson 345 guitar. 

"A very long cable connected me to the amp, whose volume was turned up to the max. Microphones were put close to the speaker cabinet and also at various points around the room to capture the space’s ambience. I used an old Watkins Copycat echo unit to act as a pre-amp and also a Univibe pedal to add modulation.

“The whole thing was very loud, teetering on the edge of barely controlled, chaotic feedback. The solo wasn’t worked out at all, it was totally improvised, as most of my solos are. I think we did a couple of takes, if I remember correctly, but arrived at the ones on the recording relatively quickly. 

"I just jumped in and let the sound and the feeling of the song carry it where it needed to go. My approach to solos is to try and be ‘in the moment’ and not think in technical terms about it. If you’re thinking about every note, you’re not really playing. Thinking too much brings unnecessary anxiety and drives out the spirit. You have to fly by the seat of your pants and not be afraid to take risks, just dive in and open yourself up to whatever might happen; the big splash. 

"You’re chasing magic, not technical perfection. In this instance, those two solos managed to capture and reinforce the passion of the song.”

Other albums released in February 1976

  • Gimme Back My Bullets - Lynyrd Skynyrd
  • A Trick of the Tail - Genesis
  • Jesse Come Home - James Gang
  • Dreamboat Annie - Heart (US release)
  • Their Greatest Hits (1971–1975) - Eagles
  • Reflections - Jerry Garcia
  • Smile - Laura Nyro
  • The Sound in Your Mind - Willie Nelson
  • Starcastle - Starcastle
  • The Third Reich 'n Roll - The Residents

What they said...

"Now on to his third line up of the band in as many albums, Bill Nelson managed to stabilise the ship here, essentially retaining the same members who had made the previous Futurama. Keyboard player Andrew Clark is brought in to fill out the sound, but it is Nelson's guitar which remains the lead instrument. The result is what is generally regarded as the finest album made in the Be Bop Deluxe name." (Prog Archives)

"Adding keyboard player Andrew Clark to make Be Bop Deluxe a quartet, Bill Nelson finally found a balance between his virtuosic guitar playing and the demands of pop songwriting. The arrangements were still busy, but the humor of Nelson's music was on display as never before, and the songs frequently were catchy. For the first time, it began to seem that the group had a future beyond serving as a foundation for Nelson's splashy guitar work, as Be Bop Deluxe charted in the U.S. and the U.K." (AllMusic)

"Be-Bop Deluxe were at their peak here and Sunburst Finish, in this polished and great sounding edition, would be as good a place to start for the uninitiated as any. If that includes you, I am truly envious, you have some much greatness to discover." (Louder Than War)

What you said...

John Davidson: It’s not entirely my cup of tea, being a little bit too clever in places and lacking the solid heartbeat of a more ‘pure’ rock album. It doesn’t have the emotional heft (or anger) of the best ‘post-punk’, and it’s not got all the bells and whistles (or the whimsy) of the 70s prog giants, but it’s technically well executed none the less and a dazzling display of versatility.

Fair Exchange - Some excellent guitar work and vocal phrasing that would have placed this firmly in ‘Post Punk’ / ‘Art Rock’ sub-genre. 

Heavenly Homes – there is almost a genre of quirky slightly poppy, slightly proggy, ‘arty’ rock that has lots of good guitars - the likes of Queen, Roxy music and Todd Rundgren come to mind – Well this is one of those.

Ships In The Night – Pure pop rock – a delight in the 10cc mould.

Crying To The Sky – Vocally a ballad, but musically a slow burn guitar workout with a song structure that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on a Wishbone ash album. The vocals aren’t strong enough to carry the melody but the guitar work is excellent.

Sleep That Burns – this falls somewhere between Heavenly Homes and Ships In The Night

Beauty Secrets – Straight up rock 

Life in the Air-age – an odd one – more up-tempo than Crying but again the vocal styling and music don’t work together. With an out-and-out singer this could have been a prog rock classic.

Like An Old Blues – bluesy rock – imagine a 10cc song played by Wishbone Ash.

Crystal Gazing – This is as close to a David Bowie /Ziggy Stardust track as you can get without being a clone.

Blazing Apostles – And this one could be out of the Roxy Music songbook except for the emphasis on rock guitar instead of keyboard/Sax wig-outs.

The only weakness is the singing. These suit the post punk/art rock songs well enough but I can’t help but I think this could have been an all-time classic rock album with a dedicated singer at the mic.

Overall a solid 6/10 .

Don Holmes: Absolute brilliance. Bill Nelson introduced keyboard player Andy Clarke to the band’s third album to give it another dimension, and this album is up there with the greatest. Pure musical pleasure from start to finish... and of course the brilliant guitar of Bill Nelson.

Blake Johnston: Great band. Not a bad album in the bunch. However, Sunburst Finish is probably my favorite. Beauty Secrets on endless loop, please...

Richard Baker: Wasn't familiar with this group in 76. I bought this album because of the cover. Wasn't long after the local radio station KLRB in Carmel Ca started playing Sunburst Finish. Still have my copy.

Alan Duggan: It was the second Be-Bop Deluxe album I bought ten years after I bought my first (Drastic Plastic). And it just blew me away.

David Hill: I saw them at the Manchester Free Trade Hall on this tour. Great gig, and of course the inspiration for the classic tube scene in Spinal Tap.

Paul Boyle: They opened for Alice Cooper in St. Paul on April 28, 1978. The Alice show ended with someone releasing tear gas near the stage as Alice started singing School’s Out.

Roland Bearne: This is why this page is so exciting, I don't know one note of BBD! Never heard a dicky bird! Can't wait for a good listen. Got a long drive tomorrow...

And back. Well I found this very enjoyable. Musically clever, quite artsy, some very nice guitar work. Must confess it didn't make hairs on the back my neck stand up though. Clever, well crafted, well played all come to.mind but... lacking the "spark" of 10CC at their best or the scope of Alan Parsons somehow (if I'm comparing apples and grapefruit, forgive me!) I will certainly keep it on rotation and see if it grows. A few spins in heavy traffic on the M1 were very pleasant though.

Colin MacKenzie Haggerty: This is a classic listen to the guitar in Crying In The Sky - makes your eyes water 

Graham Tarry: Crying to the Sky and Blazing Apostles are top notch, but the preceding album, Futurama, was far superior; reminiscent of what Muse are doing this century.

Scott Rowley: I first heard Bill Nelson’s name as a teenage Skids and Big Country fan. Guitarist Stuart Adamson credited him as an influence regularly, and no doubt mentioned that he’d produced the Skids’ second album Days In Europa. (People often compared Adamson’s guitar sound to that of bagpipes - it’s striking to hear Be Bop Deluxe do a brief highland jig on Fair Exchange.)

Despite this, I didn’t get to Be Bop Deluxe until relatively recently - last 10-15 years - after picking up a copy of Futurama in a charity shop. (I became addicted to Maid In Heaven: just an amazing burst of controlled energy!) 

In his sleeve notes for this new reissue, Bill mentions that Sunburst was the third in a series of albums named in tribute to guitar playing (Axe Victim is an obvious pun; Futurama was a make of guitar in the UK). 

We got Bill to write for Classic Rock a few times, reviewing other people’s records - he was easily one of the best “guest reviewers” we ever had - and I think I remember him writing about how his discovery of the electric guitar (and that coinciding with the space race) had changed his life, bringing colour and possibility to a drab old England.

Not longer after that I remember interviewing James Dean Bradfield of the Manic Street Preachers and him talking about how he felt that no-one had really ever spoken or written about the “transformative power” of the electric guitar. I think Bill Nelson’s entire back catalogue could be about just that. (I can’t remember speaking to James about Bill, but I’m sure he’s a fan: James is a huge music buff and a massive Skids/Adamson fan and would certainly be aware of Adamson’s influences.) 

Bill’s playing sounds to me like Mick Ronson - that sonorous, dramatic flair, couple with sweet mercurial melodies - if Ronson had been let loose on a Roxy Music album. We tend to think of the 70s in sections - the hard rock years, the glam rock years, prog, punk - but BBD are an obvious through-line, a band that connects Bowie and Roxy’s futurism to pub rock’s love of rock’n’roll and “arty punks” like Television. 

Listening to Side A this morning I thought, “This could only have been made in London in the 70s” - just that mix of Bowie, reggae, Hendrix etc - but it also struck me that it could be Russian, or something: a Yugoslavian band, maybe, who’d heard Ziggy Stardust, Electric Ladyland, For Your Pleasure and Who’s Next just once each at a party and tried to recreate them.

It has an oddness about it which I think is a refusal to follow easy formulas or go down well-worn paths. It was a different era from the one that Greta Van Fleet find themselves in and Bill Nelson still believed in the possibilities and the transformative power of guitar music.

Carl Black: Hello? Hello? Rock music? Hello? No, nobody home in the house of rock here. A light is on, one dim, flickering light in the shape of some cool guitar solos, but just as you think the door is going to open... bang. The lights go out and rock is nowhere to be seen. Not for me. I'm off down the block to knock on the door where the beers are flowing, everyone is jumping and the music is loud and in your face. Oh, the house that rock built. Is that AC/DC I can hear?

Russ Converse: Full disclosure: I requested access to this group solely because the Sunburst Finish cover caught my eye. This was the first album of theirs I bought in '79; diehard fan ever since.

Nick Potter: This has to be one of the most iconic albums of the 70's. Tracks such as Fair Exchange, Blazing Apostles and of course Crying To The Sky as a tribute to Jimi Hendrix. Bill Nelson is an unsung guitar legend, who really doesn't get the recognition he thoroughly deserves. I saw this band twice in the 70s, both stunning performances. This album is a true classic, and with a superb reissue due out any time, well worth investing in.

Mike Knoop: The exact kind of album that I hoped this club would introduce me to. Inscrutable sci-fi ponderings, leavened by humor and excellent musicianship. Like The Yes Album and the first Roxy Music album had a baby raised by Philip K. Dick. It certainly meanders at times but is generally rescued by the shimmering guitar of Bill Nelson. More hidden gems, please!

Brian Carr: Seems like a sound marketing strategy: put a naked woman (in heels!) on the cover to sell it, and keep them hooked with absolutely stellar guitar playing. How were Be-Bop Deluxe not HUGE in America?

Other than a name check or two decades ago in my favorite magazine, Guitar For The Practicing Musician (I miss it so), I would have never heard of them. Crying In The Sky may have appeared on the SongPop app, but since those clips are so short, I can hardly say I’ve heard their music before this week. 

First trip through, wow, what guitar playing! But I may have answered my earlier question: I can’t imagine any of these tunes getting radio airplay in the US. Other than the standout Crying In The Sky, I wasn’t sure how much I dug the album, but it is growing on me. Ships In The Night reminds me of the latter 70s Billy Joel stuff I like so much. Heavenly Homes is beautiful - the guitar, the piano - maybe I could picture this one on the radio. And did I mention Bill Nelson’s guitar playing? The tones... Yeah, this one’s getting added to the Apple Music playlist.

Final Score: 8.54 ⁄10 (424 votes cast, with a total score of 3624)

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