Overlooked Gems of My Lifetime

Credit is given where credit is due regarding the overlooked gems of my lifetime.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Mike Cosgrove, Basement Guitar God, and Be Bop Deluxe, Part 2

In Part 1's attempt at describing the 6 weeks of visits that an old friend and I used to make as teens to Mike Cosgrove's basement performances of Live at Leeds, I hope to have helped dust off some of your own memories of teenage devotion, aspirations, and attempts at creating an identity. These qualities have come to mind over the last few years, as I've found myself unable to turn away from the awkward charms of British, 1970s glam/prog/futuristic band Be Bop Deluxe. These qualities are among the core values of Overlooked Gems...

Dig. During my own teen years of devotion and identity formation, Be Bop Deluxe was on the periphery of the Trouser Press-touted bands I'd been gobbling up. From what I could tell, there was a lot about them to turn me off: sci-fi song titles, platform shoes, leader Bill Nelson's then-current move into synth-textured futuristic new wave with his new band, Red Noise... The most promising thing I was aware of was the album cover for Be Bop Deluxe's 1976 release Sunburst Finish, but that would have to get in line behind my quest to find an original copy of Roxy Music's Country Life.

A half dozen years later I worked with a great, older music head who would turn me onto a lot of music that I was then ready to check out. Dennis' mind-blowing mix tapes rank up the with the most influential mix tapes of my early 20s, with Andy's and Greg's. One day he presented me with an entire 60-minute mix tape of his favorite songs by Be Bop Deluxe. I immediately formed an image of Bill Nelson's early '80s haircut 100 and pleated slacks. Dennis never was one to bat in the .320s, but this tape made me think he was headed for an extended 0-fer.

The tape started with a half dozen songs from the band's debut album, Axe Victim. I'll refer to the writings of Teardrop Explodes frontman Julian Cope, who on his awesome Album of the Month column describes hearing Axe Victim thusly: "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."

Perfect, Julian! This is how I felt when I first played that old 60-minute cassette my friend made me. I grew to like this stuff but suffered pangs of guilt. I'd just been coming into my own persona, and here comes this music made up of musical bits I'd been proudly rejecting. I would wait for times when my bandmates/housemates weren't home to fire up a bong hit and play this mix of Ziggy-era Bowie; the melodic, wizardly side of Yes, of all things; and Peter Frampton. Once, I think, I tried to turn a bandmate onto this tape, and I was met with good-natured disdain. I tucked the tape away sometime after and forgot about it. Then, about 15 years later, I came across this tape in a box of abandoned cassettes. I popped it in my tape deck, and I felt the same way I'd felt when I first heard it, the way Cope describes it in his piece on the band.

In this same piece, Cope also gets to the ties that bind Nelson to what I think about these days when I reflect on the spark Cosgrove now represents in my memory and imagination, when he writes: "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."

This Nelson guy, I thought, must have been playing along to Ziggy Stardust for the 2 years leading up to the release of Axe Victim. Although the makeup and platform shoes suggest a bit of an attempt at capitalization, the musical debts sound sincere. As Nelson wraps himself in a mantle of Ziggyisms, something of himself can't help but peak out. It's exciting; it's the stuff we can only hope our growing pains are made of. Today I think, Was this the process Cosgrove was putting himself through as he bowed and faced his copy of Live at Leeds? Had I kept up my ritual visits to Cosgrove's basement, would I have witnessed his transformation?

Bill Nelson would slowly transform into something approaching himself with subsequent Be Bop Deluxe albums. He scrapped the band's original lineup for the follow-up album, Futurama, yet the music and Nelson's role in it remained in a delightfully awkward transitional state. Check out this video of the Futurama-era band deftly working its way through the power pop formalities of "Maid in Heaven". Check out Nelson's expressions during his private moments of instrumental passages. Better yet, for awkward, overreaching moments, there's the band's Sunburst Finish-era performance of the clunky prog-boogie number "Fair Exchange". The album Sunburst Finish would mark the band's development into its own strange, slick beast, but live, with the guy 2 years and 3 releases into his professional pop star career, Nelson still looks as giddy and nervous and proud as a kid playing a Tuesday night gig in his first garage band.

If you've tried to do anything, you too may relate to this feeling. Is this where Cosgrove was headed? Did he ever get there, or is he one of those guys I'd meet many times over - later in high school, during my early 20s, during my early 30s - who, for all intents and purposes, never get out of their parents' basement, at the foot of their hi-fi systems and tattered favorite album?

On Be Bop Deluxe's 1977 fine live album, Live in the Air Age, Nelson revisits an autobiographical track from the band's debut album, "Adventures in a Yorkshire Landscape". Live, with his Mark II band, the song is no longer a slightly rushed, 6/8 acoustic-based set-up for some cool hot licks but a pretentious, deliberate, electric piano-based set-up for some searing and emotionally moving hot licks. On the surface, this is a recipe for what I would consider a song worth shooting myself in the foot to avoid hearing, but it works, and it sounds like Bill Nelson has arrived at some strange place where he had been expected.


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