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Thursday, October 31, 2013

Be-Bop Deluxe: Modern Music


1) Orphans Of Babylon; 2) Twilight Capers; 3) Kiss Of Light; 4) The Bird Charmers Destiny; 5) The Gold At The End Of My Rainbow; 6) Bring Back The Spark; 7) Modern Music; 8) Dancing In The Moonlight (All Alone); 9) Honeymoon On Mars; 10) Lost In The Neon World; 11) Dance Of The Uncle Sam Humanoids; 12) Modern Music (reprise); 13) Forbidden Lovers; 14) Down On Terminal Street; 15) Make The Music Magic.

Even more disciplined and «song-oriented» than Sunburst Finish — although one needn't get any false ideas about shifting the overall style by simply looking at the album cover: suits and ties they may be sporting, but the hair is still fairly long, and even the word «modern» in the album title does not necessarily mean «New Wave», «punk», «reggae», «electronica», etc. For now, only one concession is being made, albeit a serious one: Modern Music shows serious quotas introduced on «guitar wizardry». For the first time ever, Nelson intentionally refuses to stretch out with heroic solo passages on any of the tracks — which is why most of them are so unusually short — and concentrates on songwriting and atmosphere rather than dazzling technique.

In fact, he might even be concentrating a bit too hard. The final version of the record has 15 tracks instead of the usual 10, and, although some of these are represented by very brief musical «links», the general feeling is that there is too much going on. Some of the songs are genuinely meaningful and evocative, but on the whole, Nelson is not a master songwriter, and when he sud­denly sets himself this challenge — to generate as many songwriting ideas as possible per one LP — it is probably inevitable that a large fraction of these ideas will not work, and those that will may get lost in the forest. And when I say «forest» with a negative connotation, I mean tracks like ʽHoney­moon On Marsʼ: big, pompous, Ziggy Stardust-age compositions, all echo and phasing and anthemic vocals and little in the way of interesting melodic concept. Unfortunately, there is a lot of such stuff here, and it has nothing to do with suits and ties, in fact, it almost sounds nostal­gic in the context of 1976.

On the other hand, this is the album that also gave us ʽKiss Of Lightʼ — a conscious attempt, I think, at recreating the success of ʽSister Seagullʼ, since both songs are driven by a major hook in the form of a screechy, high-pitched guitar riff, and both are among the decade's finest brand of «burly romantic» arena-rock anthems, combining crowdpleasing potential with intelligence and craft. On paper, a crude start like "the woman of moon flew into my room last night" might make one cringe, but put it together with Bill's tricky shuffling of thick distorted riffage and liltingly clean melodic lines — and it works. Maybe because underneath all that romance, as the guitar and the vocals suggest, lies a thick layer of irony.

It is also not true that the pomp is never enjoyable. On ʽThe Gold At The End Of My Rainbowʼ, it most certainly is, since the anthemic chorus is so elegantly and conclusively shaped — and the song becomes a credible power ballad even without the power of the guitar solo. But in general, the most interesting moments of Modern Music are those where Nelson strays the farthest away from the already well-known formula: for instance, on the funk oddity ʽDance Of The Uncle Sam Humanoidsʼ, which, according to its title, should be about something anti-American, but, since it's instrumental, who can really tell (unless the occasional sound effects such as bullets whistling over your head count as implicit condemnations of Yankee violence). Or on ʽTwilight Capersʼ which, for no obvious reason, quotes the Dragnet theme out of the blue. Or on the title track which opens with a series of radio noises — including the listener tuning in, out of sheer accident, of course, on ʽAxe Victimʼ and ʽSister Seagullʼ — before turning into the album's most senti­mental number, almost a prayer to the power of music on the radiowaves.

Actually, ʽModern Musicʼ is not entirely self-contained, but rather acts as an introduction (and, later on, as a reprised coda) to an Abbey Road-style futuristic mini-suite — the one that includes both boring (ʽHoneymoon On  Marsʼ) and exciting (ʽUncle Sam Humanoidsʼ) parts. Presenting it all as «modern music» seems like a funny miscalculation: futuristic it may be in spirit, but on the whole, it is still way more old-school glam-rock than a foresight of the radically new things to come. But the idea of transition from lengthy, drawn-out space jams to these economic snippets, where Nelson's guitar forms the backbone of the song, but leaves out the fireworks, might be such a foresight — as if putting on that suit and tie was a symbolic gesture that also surmised imposing limits on Nelson's «sonic ego».

The bottomline is — it all depends on whether you have more love and respect for Bill as a player or for Bill as a songwriter. If one of your favorite Be-Bop Deluxe songs is ʽNo Trains To Heavenʼ, you will need to come to terms with Modern Music, and live with the fact that the end of 1976 was marked by imposing a heavy tax on guitar pyrotechnics. If, however, going against the grain of mainstream criticism, you find Nelson to be a great master of melody, Modern Music has every chance of becoming your favorite Be-Bop Deluxe album — good melodies or bad melodies, there is a lot of them here, and the old spirit, perhaps not as freely roaming as before, is still largely intact. Anyway, a thumbs up is still well guaranteed.

Check "Modern Music" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Modern Music" (MP3) on Amazon


  1. "the end of 1976 was marked by imposing a heavy tax on guitar pyrotechnics"
    It wouldn't take Ritchie Blackmore and Angus Young long to correct this abuse. Not every teenager was into either disco or punk/new wave.

  2. The Modern Music suite on side two of this record is linked by Science Fiction themed lyrics about the band's American tours. This is my least favourite of their albums, except for a couple of melodramas like Twilight Capers and Down on Terminal Street, the songs seem dull and conventional for Bill Nelson.

  3. Is just me or does dude on the right look like a shady version of Tony Banks?

    1. Looking at the pic more closely now, I actually see Ritchie Blackmore. Meanwhile, the guy with the watch, who I assume must be Nelson, is striking an identical pose to the one Billy Joel has on one of his album covers. Blimey!

  4. I love that you finally reviewed Be Bop Deluxe George. I've wondered for years what you'd think of them. I've read your reviews since back in 2000 and the old site. Your take on BBD is about what I expected (except for Futurama which I'm surprised you didn't like).

    Modern Music is probably my favorite BBD album. I agree with most of your review, except where you pan Honeymoon On Mars, which I totally love ... although to be fair, it's not really a song, it's an index/subsection of a longer work (The Modern Music Sweet) which is a diverse mix of different styles and moods, and besides which, Honeymoon is only about a minute long anyway ... before you know it, it kicks into the Neon World theme. As for me, I love Honeymoon for combining Nelson's two strongest thematic obsessions -- sci-fi and romance -- into one brief and perfect moment. Even if it's not his greatest song (or song section), the merging of the two themes is in my opinion flawless and, in a way, the quintessential Nelson theme ... the core essence of his artistic vision condensed into a single minute. I see your point about it being more "anthemic" than melodically interesting, but in Bill's defense I think an anthemic / universalist thing was what he was going for here. Hence the Flash Gordon reference, perhaps the most famous cliche of the sci-fi adventurer genre. At any rate, just some food for thought.

    What's weird about this album is it seems like it's half looking back and half moving forward. There's all kinds of growth here -- Twilight Capers brings the band into whole new realms and totally amazes me, it's melodic and complex and weird and humorous all at once, and a far cry from a lot of their earlier stuff. But at the same time there's a LOT of traditional Nelson guitar-work on here that wouldn't be out of place on Axe Victim. It's a strange phase in their career, with one foot in yesterday and one foot in tomorrow. Considering the new wave / Eno-esque direction they went in on the next album, Modern Music seems like a last hurrah for Nelson's fret-board pyrotechnics, a last blaze of guitar glory before moving into more technological / new wave-ish realms. I think the pic of the guitar bursting into flames on Sunburst Finish is better suited to this album -- Bill really plays up an inferno.

    I think the biggest surprise is that you didn't even mention what IMO is the greatest song on the album -- Terminal Street. Talk about catharsis ... that one hits me in a spot that very, very few songs ever have. I'm not sure if I can explain why this song affects me so deeply. It just does. He should have ended the album on this song, instead of that cheesy song Make The Music Magic which seems like it's just tacked on to fill space. (Actually my version of MM has 3 bonus tracks : Futurist Manifesto is the best of them, a space age litany that's grim and haunting, yet strangely wistful at the same time, one of their best "science tributes" and well worth hearing).

    P.S : since you asked about the gunfire in Dance of the Uncle Sam Humanoids, to my understanding it represents trigger-happy American policemen (notice the wailing siren sounds immediately before the shots) and America's fascination with guns and violence in general. The Modern Music Suite is mainly about BBD's American tour, hence the Neon World references and phoney-sounding P.R. people and Quaalude sellers and wild west style shoot-outs and etc.

    1. Sorry, I meant the Modern Music "Suite," not "Sweet." I always seem to do that when I'm typing Suite in a hurry. Brain fart I guess.