Julian Cope’s Album of the Month

Be-Bop Deluxe - Axe Victim

Be-Bop Deluxe
Axe Victim

AOTM #51, August 2004ce
Released 1974 on Harvest Records
Side One
  1. Axe Victim (5.01)
  2. Love is Swift Arrows (4.05)
  3. Jet Silver and the Dolls of Venus (3.57)
  4. Third Floor Heaven (2.19)
  5. Night Creatures (3.26)
Side Two
  1. Rocket Cathedrals (2.54)
  2. Advenutres in a Yorkshire Landscape (3.19)
  3. Jets at Dawn (7.02)
  4. No Trains to Heaven (6.24)
  5. Darkness (L'Immoraliste) (3.10)

Note: Though oft dismissed (even by the artist himself) as no more than a Johnny Come Lately at the burn-out tail-end of the Glam scene, AXE VICTIM has edged towards rock’n’roll respectability this past decade. Indeed, Dylan Carlson’s proto-doom band Earth even (mis)named their album SUNN AMPS AND SMASHED GUITARS in homage to a misheard lyric on the title track of this record, which eventually led to the rise of Greg Anderson and Stephen O’Malley mighty Sunn0)) in the mid-1990s. That there was no lyric sheet included within the non-gatefold sleeve of most US editions of AXE VICTIM was probably all down to Harvest Records not applying enough heft to their EMI distributors, for the lyrics were surely written large enough across the gatefold of the original British versh. However, rock’n’roll has always benefited from misunderstandings and Bill Nelson’s lyrics certainly increased in vibe when refracted through Herr Carlson’s cracked and gunked-up faulty ear trumpet. AXE VICTIM certainly ain’t a faultless album by any stretch of thee’magination, but whenever a combo lags so far behind its visionary frontman as did the rest of Be Bop Deluxe Version I, be in no doubt yooz gonna get some seriously be-jewelled barbarian crappola going DOWN!

‘We hit the road to Hull… Sad Amps and Smashed Guitars’

This Album of the Month was the mighty first statement of virtuoso guitar execution by a young and poetic young man called Bill Nelson. For me, it was an example of the shamanic artist displaying his powers to the wider public, here given the role as gatekeepers of the first cosmic portal. However, on AXE VICTIM, the moment had a particular poignancy because Bill Nelson was demonstrating his blazing magic to a demanding music business who would soon decide that, no, his cohorts with whom he had made his earliest moves were not about to make the trip with him. Indeed, despite Bill Nelson’s propensity for over-playing, over-achieving, being massively moved to every point of the compass, and informed by the previous coupla years’ Bowiefied ‘rock’n’roll supermen’ antics, AXE VICTIM’s deeply rock overtones were to become obscured - initially by the make-up, then perceived as a false start or hiccup by its own author - before being kacked out into the sewers (seemingly) forever along with the merely-achieving pub rock and other assorted eclectic musical junk that so inspired the impending punk pogrom.

Gorgeous Cocteau pre-Harvest Records with his unsheared unsigned Kelto-Vikings

But as the truth eventually flickers through, AXE VICTIM’s remarkably cohesive post-post-Ziggy statement is now at the stage when its delightfully contiguous construction has begun to sound more like a Ray Davies/Pete Townshend-informed paeon to the English 1960S than any ‘fag-end of Glam Rock’ as the Melody Maker summarily dismissed all such music at that time. Furthermore, listening to June 1974’s AXE VICTIM butt-to-butt with Television’s Eno-produced Island Records demos from December of that same year, it seems pertinent to suggest that two such fay yet axe-wielding songwriters as Bill Nelson and Tom Verlaine were always gonna be more dependent than most on (1) the charming manner in which the musical ineptitude of their cohorts was captured on record and (2) the devious manner in which their management/record company would choose to make their precious muses available to the public. Moreover, as David Bowie’s metaphor was so transparently informed by Lou Reed’s Warholian period to the point of scrawling V.U. eulogies on his LP sleeves, it seems unfair that all such subsequent offerings were to be dismissed as ersatz when Gentle Giant and their ilk were making a living from far more musical untruths. And even more especially when someone like Bill Nelson seemed perfectly aware of the tightrope between the portentous and the pretentious that he was treading. That he was smooching a Hoyer Les Paul copy on the back of the LP sleeve seems to sum up perfectly Nelson’s grasp of the metaphor. What was ersatz and what was real? If he’d been playing the Hoyer all along the north-eastern seaboard then got a Gibson in for the Mick Rock photo-sesh, wouldn’t that have been pretentious? But he was honest enough to look inside and recognise that embracing the Hoyer was his strange and convoluted truth. Besides, pretentious is a horribly over-used word, and one that doesn’t stand up to much excavation when you talk about a barbarian concept such as the Rock. Half of the rockest stars were nurds whose pretences were what launched them into a situation in which others could start to believe in them.1

Ziggy himself had showed us that Glam could be as revelatory and Gnostic as Krautrock if we did but look below the poorly-applied panstick.2 But thereby hangs a tale – guess you still can’t be considered serious AND clothe your rock unseriously because the ugly interleck-chew-alls will have a tantrum and ignore you or deplore you, as the holier-than-thou so-jazz members of Traffic did when they slagged off their ‘too-flash’ Mott the Hoople Island Records label mates in THE LOW SPARK OF HIGH HEEL BOYS. Yup, if yooz pretty, glamorous or like dressing up, there’s nothing down for you. Unless yooz Richey Manic, and then you have to carve ‘4 Real’ in your arm and disappear at the mystical portals (Aust Services) between Heaven and Hell (England and Wales in whichever order you so choose). Even the self-styled Dionysian Jim Morrison was forced to ugly out later on in his career in an effort to fit in somewhere… and if Patti Smith hadn’t had the muzzy, she’d have been shat on, fer shure.

‘Paintings and songs that I’d done in a day’

Which all brings us to why Bill Nelson’s AXE VICTIM was such a conundrum at the time, and still today mystifies almost everyone. Here was a guitar hero guy from up north on his first LP presumptuous/naive enough to be quoting Cocteau in untranslated French and confident enough to be writing about his beloved Yorkshire hills (‘Adventures in a Yorkshire Landscape’) rather than imagining losing his cherished six-string razor on the way to Memphis. Like the Zig, Bill was happy dressing like a total nance and crediting himself as ‘William Nelson’, all the time his whole trip being backed up by lead-booted troglodytes with clothes grants off the local council. And, like Ian Hunter, David Bowie and Kiss, the Bill Nelson of AXE VICTIM was fascinated by the process of the song and the show and that mysterious area in between. Sure, Nelson’s muse was mightily ‘effected’ by David Bowie, but this angular harlequin was more the Ziggy Stardust character than Bowie himself. For a start, boy could he play guitar! Much as I worship Mickey the Ronce’s tween-time wah Les Paul, there’s so much truly heartrending (and often inappropriate) Nelsonic guitar soloing going down on AXE VICTIM that he must only be described herein as a Gonzoid Virtuoso. If you are hearing this album for the first time, don’t speak to anyone as it goes down; let it all cascade over your shoulders. Sure, his lyrics lag far behind his musical dexterity, but unless William Nelson had reduced his vocals merely to moaning, screeching and belching, there weren’t no words the equal of this boy’s laughably over-reaching muse on AXE VICTIM. Indeed, the first time I heard this offering I did just that… just laughed and laughed – outraged at Nelson’s shamelessness and inspired by his will to power. And all throughout the period in which he was jamming good with Weird and Gilly, they were probably to be found legless in the back of the transit without even ‘a beer light to guide them’. The evidence of all this is, of course, that Nelson split this band just one year later in the middle of a Cockney Rebel tour support and appropriated half of Steve Harley’s band from under the Psychomodo’s very inward-looking gaze. When that didn’t work out, Nelson re-grouped with two monster session guys and blasted out the manic euphoria of FUTURAMA, a 2nd LP which is patchy but (unsurprisingly) over-reaching and contains probably his finest ever song, ‘Swansong’ - a Glam Slam that still makes me cry every time I hear it. In true Nelson form, he glam/hams it up on the back sleeve of FUTURAMA too, dedicating the whole oeuvre to ‘The Muse in the Moon’ and photographed as a monochrome harlequin so very very madly INTO IT that his two new cohorts are having to physically restrain him! O ja ja ja!

But I state with great dollops of hindsight that it is AXE VICTIM on which Nelson really nailed what he was trying to say, even if he himself would most likely disagree. Faust referred to it as the Time between Concept and Reality, and Lou Reed nailed it more poetically with the words: ‘Between thought and expression lies a lifetime’. Well the gulf never is so beautiful as on the kind of rock’n’roll which yearns to be far more than it can ever really reach. Which is why AXE VICTIM is, in its partly bungled, partly punk, partly overly-zealous get-outta-Yorkshire earnestness, far more real and coherent and – like Patti’s HORSES - still more sustainingly pertinent to the 21st century than all of the eloquent Be Bop Deluxe LPs that Bill would subsequently record with technically greater musicians. AXE VICTIM’s striving ernie-ernie-ernie dying seagull guitar overkill and more-than-occasional overly twee self-obsessed lyrical preciousness are its inner strengths because, although it WAS informed by ZIGGY STARDUST, it was just too excited to give a damn about hiding the fact. And what would we really prefer? Sure, at the time Blue Cheer must have sounded like Jimi Hendrix just sneezed a big greenie across the California fautline. But nowadays Leigh Stephens’ artless and uncontrollable Technicolor yawns are certainly far more pertinent to the 21st century than anything Hendrix laid upon us. And who wants Cream’s o-so-delicate ‘Sunshine of Your Love’ when you can hear it refracted through Iron Butterfly’s foggy lens for ‘In-a-gadda-da-vidda’ and then again (and even more sludge-trudged) for Sabbath’s ‘Lord of This World’? AXE VICTIM makes me wanna hear the original pre-EMI demos complete with (inevitably) toe-curlingly inept bass mistakes AND rip the suckers off entirely for my new record.

Purveyors of Pastoral Glam at its finest.

Making love in strange autos

AXE VICTIM kicks off with the title track armed with the kind of ‘Snowblind’ stop-start tempo changes and super-indulgent guitar gratuities that immediately sort out the men from the supermen. The scene is set up perfectly when Bill sings to us:
You came to watch the band,
To see us play our parts,
We hoped you’d lend an ear,
You hoped we’d dress like tarts.

Fairy ‘Nuff, Mr Nelson. I think we all know precisely where we stand from that pair of couplets. Especially as Bill’s guitar frenziedly (and poly-rhythmically) punctuates every dramatic lyrical assertion with the kind of teenage girl ‘hearts-drawn-above-every-I’ and sideways-on email smileys that set him up as an amphetamine Richard Clayderman-of-the-guitar. Indeed, each AXE VICTIM song is at least 90 seconds longer than necessary because of the sheer heart attack obsessiveness of the guitar soloing, and this is precisely what makes AXE VICTIM so special – once you’ve allowed the artist his peculiarly solipsistic metaphor, that is. ‘Love is Swift Arrows’ follows on at a reckless acoustic-driven pace, catchy as a motherfucker and strewn with more of the same garrulous call-and-answer from Nelson’s guitar and gob. It’s like the blues just got sucked into Toni Visconti’s mind and got belched out be-sequinned as Edgar Winter’s unlikely THEY ONLY COME OUT AT NIGHT LP cover:
Room in the east invested with meaning, (ernie-ernie-diddler-diddler)
Open to none but the strange and the wild (stupidly explosive over-achieving guitar crash)
Sunset encounters with destiny’s chances (guitar being 737)
Envelopes marked for the personal life (guitar being 747)

As I declared earlier, AXE VICTIM’S greatest strength is in side one’s contiguous construction, in which each song seamlessly segues into the next like some Moody Blues crossfaded eternal flow, and gives a tremendous eloquence to the otherwise charmingly bozo assertions coming out of Sweet William’s mush. ‘Jet Silver & the Dolls of Venus’ has a delightfully expansive harmonically appealing descending chorus, but it’s ultimately the Peter Pan lyrics that most capture the listener, especially the bit where we can:
‘… see the town, in midnight eiderdown, wrapped in your dressing gown.’

‘Third Floor Heaven’ is the only song on the record in which Nelson steps outside what he knows and tries to walk on the wild side. Luckily, he’s smart enough to make no bones about its being a rip, and just cops ‘Sweet Jane’ and ‘Queen Bitch’ in much the same way that Michael Bruce did for Alice Cooper’s ‘Be My Lover’ on the KILLER LP. Even stranger is the fact that this was still a time when a homosexual could still be referred to in a rock’n’roll song as ‘one of those’! Side One closes with the Ziggy-in-Wakefield proto-Goth of ‘Night Creatures’ in which Billy Boy lists a whole string of Soho wannabes stuck under the arches of the Leeds-London mainline and desperate to hitch out of there down the A1 to London.

Side Two opens with a real telltale glitch – the only Be Bop Deluxe song not written by the Nelse. And watt a noise ‘Rocket Cathedrals’ turns out to be! Written and sung by soon-to-be-given-the-push bass player Rob Bryan, it’s a space boogie that successfully crosses ‘Silver Machine’ with the then-recent ‘Rocket Man’ imagery. The crash bang wallop lyrics may be highly at odds with Nelson’s iron butterfly approach, but they make for a superb bit of stompathon relief, and the bit about ‘sinking a bottle of gin’ as an antidote to ‘thinking about the state I’m in’ is really funny after the previous side’s overly precious allusions. But when the blunderbuss has shot its wad, it’s then back to form for the rest of side two, which is entirely the property of Herr Nelson. Coming as he did from Wakefield, a place ‘where wakes or festivals take place’, it was probably Bill Nelson’s destiny to eulogise his area in an overly sentimental manner. So it well befits ‘Adventures in a Yorkshire Landscape’ to begin as a precious and acoustic 6/8 Spiders-from-Mars-y take on Rodgers & Hammerstein’s ‘My Favourite Things’, here transplanted to the ‘buildings pulled down’ and the ‘pylons that crack/with singing sad wires to council house mystics’. Like Krautrock of the mid-70s, only very provincial musicians woulda dared lay a phased guitar solo on its public. But here Nelson veers from erudite stratospherical euphoria to youth club Les Paul Copy cliché and back without missing a beat, in much the same way that The Guess Who’s mainman Burton Cummings could do with his keyboard playing, and get away with it (probably only because he was both Canadian and a Bozo Dionysus in the Morrison tradition). But, then again, you can get 20 minutes into some truly far out Les Rallizes Denudes burn up and Mizutani will do exactly the same thing, pulling out a cliché AND pulling it off purely because no other sucker ever dared commit such a travesty to record.

Starting in an English country garden complete with birdsong, the 7-minutes-long ‘Jets at Dawn’ is truly lovely and simultaneously annoying (almost a precious as Jon Anderson) and conjures up the ubiquitous TV theme from ‘White Horses’. But once you allow the ‘young thing’ his metaphor, ‘Jets at Dawn’ becomes a uniquely open-eyed, open-mouthed delight, until – hail English motherfuckers – you wanna salute the Union Flag like those damned shameless Yankees do without stint or moderation. ‘No Trains to Heaven’ is gonzoid to the extreme, with a kind of off kilter Bang/Edgar Broughton riff that is pure 1970. Six minutes of dubious harmonic guitar riffs and spindly dual boogie sputter and spit as clichéd lyric kicks in about ‘burning the prisons in which your children live’. Uncomfortable call and answer vocals follow the dumb ass riff, and the shameless William vocally scats MADE IN JAPAN-style along to his own guitar solo.

But it’s the final song ‘Darkness’ with its sub-title ‘L’Immoraliste’ that really nails the gonzo medal to the gatepost, and I can’t blame the raggedy ass backing band for this winner as the performance is Bill’s and Bill’s alone, well, along with a norkestra or three. Cringe you may for the first coupla listens to words such as ‘darkness, you are my true love’, especially as the tune is deffo ripped off Neil Sedaka’s ‘Solitaire’. And when Bill proclaims ‘darkness, you’re with me most every night,’ you gots to wonder what the nights are like when he manages to banish her. I wanna be there! I wanna be there! And yet even here at his closest moment to taking a massive Brechtian Brel-y flop off the nearest bridge, it still fucking works! Am I the most compassionate dupe alive or is this a really beautiful song? I think the latter. And when Doggen says to me occasionally: Explain Goths, I just don’t geddit. Well, I tell him that if he digs this song (which he does) then he understands Goths. For this little jewel sums up Goth in a nutshell and five years before the phenomenon was named. The Hollywood choirs of angels, the Gallic subtitle, the detectable northern accent, the portentous key changes, the French horn, the stops and starts, it all works and shows that it is (as he shamelessly proclaims) ‘no fashionable disguise’. Gimme William Nelson on the record because he approaches humanity in a disarming and delightedly unnerving manner. Add to all of this the classic Mick Rock photography, the ‘Gibson 335 done up as a skull’ artwork, the French quotes from Cocteau and the sub-title ‘Some rock and roll madness from be Bop Deluxe’ and yooz got a timeless classic just waiting to be sung back to life, children. To William Nelson and his slow riders of the Wake Field, please raise your overflowing cup… and sup!

  1. When Bonnie Prince Charlie was known as The Young Pretender, it did not mean that his claim to the English throne was in any way phoney; it meant instead that his case was genuine as ‘a person who mounts a claim, as to a throne or title’. However, when the lead singer in The Platters sung ‘they say I’m the Great Pretender’, you can see from the context that the poor geek ain’t gotta throne to go to and is deluding himself entirely.
  2. It all comes down to how we interpret the Glam, I suppose. Wasn’t it all best summed up when that shitty VELVET GOLDMINE flick came out a coupla years back? Me, I chortled with embarrassment at the pitifully shallow take on the Glam Rock revealed by whosoever was in charge of the soundtrack. Hail babies, these non-heads were operating on 20/20 Hindsight and still couldn’t hack what had counted for real and what was just glow-in-the-dark Mince-alonga-Bolan. These revisionists had done their best to re-fit Glam as having been a strickly Gay Phenomenon, when it had most evidently been nothing more than a Kelto-Viking Brickies-in-lipstick Kneez-up Supreme with a coupla Real Fags on Tow (Jobriath Running In – Please Pass). On the road to gay salvation, VELVET GOLDMINE had, therefore, missed such crucial excavations as the two Mick Ronson LPs (where the fuck was ‘Billy Porter’ and the excruciating phased guitar mayhem of ‘Angel Number 9’?), SLADE ALIVE (sequinned top hats and post-Plastic Ono Band hollering don’t fit our revisionist straitjacket at all, dear’), Alex Harvey’s entire teenage VAMBO utopian rock theatre (‘yes, I know he sings Brel and has a harlequin guitarist but he’s old and Glaswegian, darling’), the first six Kiss studio LPs (c’mon guys, where was Fowley’s ‘I Mean like… do ya?’ not to mention the Gene’s ‘Great Expectations’ being the greatest Mott The Hoople song never recorded by Ian Hunter); and watt abaht the later Hunterless Mott LPs (DRIVE ON being an almost perfectly executed late glam record), or Neil Merryweather’s Space Rangers LPs (as mawkish-but-poetically truthful Hunteresque songs about writing songs, can Merryweather’s ‘The Groove’ ever be topped?); or even the Sweet’s magnificent greed in wishing simultaneously to straddle Chinnichap and chinning the audience (surely their lyric on the ‘Sweet F.A.’ title track is the summit of all glam – who could possibly better ‘If she don’t spread, I’m gonna bust her head’?)3 all the aforementioned are contemporary ball busters that woulda blazed on that VELVET GOLDMINE soundtrack and lifted it considerably, had any genuine motherfucker found time to trawl their record collections beyond the easy-find CD re-ishes. And it ain’t just me – every sucker I know had the same complaints.
  3. Excuse the footnote-within-a-footnote, but what about The Sweet’s 1974 SWEET FANNY ADAMS LP finishing with a boogie-woogie track called ‘AC/DC’ about a bisexual girlfriend? Malcolm and Angus Young have always been coy about the roots of their name, and are known to have been Glam rockers in the band’s earliest inception. As Malcolm’s first band had been called The Velvet Underground (sic) and 15-year-old Angus had worked as a printer at the porn magazine RIBALD, isn’t it coherent to suggest that they – dwelling as they did as Aussie teens fixated with the sleazy underbelly of british and American culture - chose to take their name from this Sweet track, rather than (as they ingenuously asserted in their biography AC/DC: THE DEFINITIVE HISTORY) Angus’ dubious and deeply boring alternative claim: ‘My sister Margaret suggested something she’d seen on the back of a vacuum cleaner: AC/DC. It had something to do with electricity’, he told SOUNDS. Evidence is strong just from my collection of American CREAM magazines that Glam Rock bands such as The Sweet were perceived abroad as being no less credible than any other. It’s for precisely this reason that The Stooges were happy to support Slade on their 1974 US tour, and why Kiss’ Ace Frehley had no problem having a solo hit with a cover of Hullo’s ‘Back in the New York Groove’. Glam was always so deeply rooted in Heavy Rock that it never coulda got away with being truly queer, play-queer being quite close enough for most of these proto-Chromagnauts.