Bill Nelson goes back to the Futurama


The three albums that made me discover my musical taste in my early teens where Paul & Linda McCartney’s ’Ram’, ‘How Dare You’ by the 10cc, and ‘Futurama’ by Be Bop Deluxe. The latter is now available in a deluxe reissue and you can save yourself a lot of time by just getting it because it is essential. If you keep on reading, you have been warned, this text is longer than necessary.

Whereas I bought ‘How Dare You’ a souvenir from a language course in England during the summer of 1976, the other two albums I heard because they were the possessions of older brothers of classmates. I used to visit the friend whose brother had ‘Ram’ on an almost daily basis, and eventually managed to borrow it on an interminable basis.

But I did not meet the other classmate as often. And I think at one point his older brother got tired of me always wanting to hear ‘Futurama’ so he started refusing my requests. But as it happened, their dad ran a sound systems installation business from home, so they had lots of audio equipment. In the end, the elder brother gave in and made me a cassette tape copy of the album.

I remember listening to the cassette while trying to picture the cover art in front of me, with its intriguing symmetries and Art Deco stylings. There was a streamlined black phoenix bird flying over a futuristic machine landscape, a contrast between nature and technology that made an indelible mark on me. The phoenix was also on the inner sleeve, and in my imagination it became increasingly fantastic, to the point that I was slightly disappointed when years later I bought an actual cop only to find out that there where just two birds in black and white on one side and the picture repeated in negative on the other side.

That’s what a vivid fantasy can do to you. But it could never do that to the music on this album, because it still to this day goes beyond my wildest dreams.

Already the upfront assault of guitars on the opening track ‘Stage Whispers’ sounds like nothing else then or since. Now here was a guitar hero who sounded like he come in a spaceship from Mars, with alien melody lines and a heavy octane energy that nevertheless had no trace of hard rock in it whatsoever. Instead the guitar tones would sputter forth like electrified droplets of quicksilver.

It seemed to me that this visitor from outer space was gradually coming to grips with the primitive instruments we had here on earth. He sang “This guitar does not lie / The great deception is not my achievement” on that first track, and then he opened the following track ‘Love With The Madman’ with the lines “Piano keys don’t please me / They’re so dark.”

My suspicions where confirmed on third track ‘Maid in Heaven’ – that is, at least for as long as only had that cassette copy and didn’t realise that the first word in the title was in fact not “made”.

The fourth track on the album extends the breathless halo of energy that embraces these recordings, and to me, ‘Sister Seagull’ was the phoenix bird on the cover turned into a spaceship.

I could continue with half-remembered childhood memories for all of the tracks on this album, but suffice to say is that the opener on side 2, ‘Music in Dreamland’ gave me the idea that space was maybe something inside us as opposed to beyond the heavens. In that way, it gave the remaining tracks a more philosophical significance, or as the lyrics on ‘Jean Cocteau’ go: “Enchanter of souls.. / Your dreams still unfold.. / Sign your name with a star…” 

Listening to the album today, I can confirm that it just sounds better and more unique the older it gets. What I didn’t know back then was that the album was recorded at Rockfield Studios by none other than Pat Moran who made one little known but fantastic album with his own band Spring released on the cult Neon label in 1971. l can now attribute that extra magic to Pat Moran. Bill Nelson gives Pat a lot of credit for the album’s sound in the new liners, while admitting his own ego clashed with the album’s official producer Roy Baker Thomas, who was called in as star producer after his success with Queen.

The new reissue by Esoteric comes in two variants, a double CD with a remaster of the original album and a new remix of the album, as well as a deluxe box with an extra CD and a DVD. I haven’t heard the DVD, but I am afraid that just like the recent Esoteric reissue of ‘Sunburst Finish’ the new surround mix will be presented in a heavily compressed DTS version due to limitations of the DVD format rather than in a lossless version. Given that the box is expensive as hell, I do not at all understand the reasoning for not using Bluray instead, as even my old PS3 can read Bluray discs. 

On the extra CD, there is a hitherto unreleased BBC “In Concert” session from 1975 with three tracks each from the two first albums as well as the only BBC recording of non-album track ‘Piece Of Mine’. It is a great session that shows a band on fire, and given the rarity of the “At The BBC 1974-1978” package that contains the other BBC 1975 appearance on the CD as well as the videos on the DVD, it might well be worth the price of entry.

But for me, the bonus tracks on the second disc, available in both packages, are potentially more intriguing. First of all, there is the never before available initial, unfinished and piano-led, backing track, three-piece version of ‘Music in Dreamland’. It is fantastic to hear this early version as it says a lot about the gestation process.

But then there is the mysterious alternate single version of ‘Between the Worlds’. The single was withdrawn almost directly after its release, and I have always thought there was just one version that was then re-recorded by the same band on the album. But that there should be an alternate single version, hitherto unreleased? I suspect that what we are talking about here is the recording made by an interim lineup of the band in late 1974 with Milton Reame-James on keyboards and Paul Jeffires on bass, both from Cockney Rebel. But the same version has previously between released on the “The Be Bop Deluxe Singles A’s & B’s” compilation, except here it has 14 seconds added to the beginning. Since when did adding 14 seconds warrant calling a track previously unreleased? I wish the liner notes could have been more informative!

In any case and despite all my ramblings, you need this album. ‘Futurama’ is guaranteed to take you back to the future.

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