Bill Nelson and Be Bop Deluxe:
Gentlemen of Rock 'n' Roll

It's tough to think back nearly 25 years ago to when I did this, my first-ever interview. I remember being surprised to find Be Bop Deluxe all pretty young, and well-dressed. I went to their L'Enfant Plaza hotel room scared to death, and expected to see half-dressed groupies, lines of coke, and other forms of decadence. Instead, I encountered the members of the band, fresh from taking photos all over D.C. that morning. Like regular tourists!

I was even more shocked when Andy Clark offered me tea with milk. No "substances from old Japan" in sight. All so fresh and energetic, and not at all the way I'd pictured it. Very hard not to be caught up in the band's enthusiasm.

But Charlie Tumahai did appear to be slightly hung-over and he did mumble throughout the interview. And I hadn't expected to sit down and have four people hanging on my every question--which led to band members talking amongst themselves while I aimed most of my questions at Bill Nelson. I actually started the interview before the very business-like Nelson entered the room. Upon Nelson's discovery that this, the band manager's suite, was larger than those of the members in the band, there were some sardonic comments. But after a round of hellos the thread of the interview was picked-up once more.
I know it's short. But looking back at early issues of Gargoyle now, it's amazing that I was granted an audience at all. And to get first crack at them before either Myron Bretholz of Unicorn Times (and WGTB), not to mention the Post or Star's more credible journalists, was a miracle. The gig the following night at the Capital Centre lasted for something like 20 minutes. I recall a blistering rendition of "Blazing Apostles" and remember little else. The transcription is as follows:

Interviewer: Andy wasn't on the Futurama album. I was wondering what your musical background was. Where did they pick you up from?

Andy Clark: When the two guys from Cockney Rebel left and they got Charlie they were looking for a keyboard player and auditioning then and that's just before they recorded Futurama. They rehearsed it and went into the studio and still couldn't find anyone. So it was just around that time that I was auditioning and I got the gig. I didn't start on the actual recording although I was there for a couple of weeks in the studio.

Interviewer: Where did you get the name? Why Be Bop Deluxe?

Clark: Bill carries around a notebook and he used to just write silly names down in it. They chose it because it would draw the most attention. It's the most unusual.

Charles Tumahai: Somebody said to me the other night in Chicago--they said, "Be Bop Deluxe, that name is the best name in the world." You can't argue with it.

Interviewer: Is the first Be Bop album, Axe Victim, ever going to be available in the States?

Tumahai: It's only available on import.

(Bill Nelson enters. After much bantering ... we start again.)

Interviewer: Are you guys happy with Modern Music?

Bill Nelson: (Laughs.) It's great, yeah.

Interviewer: I think so. So why are you touring DC third-billed to Lynyrd Skynyrd and Pure Prairie League? That seems very strange. You're going to have two completely different audiences.

Nelson: I agree . . . management, management. I would think we should be touring with a different band altogether. Obviously . . . we can't have one.

Interviewer: I would have thought you would have toured with another British band--

Tumahai: It's going to be a really drunk, get down, boogie, bang your head against the front seat, you know . . .bust your head open, break bottles over your head, have a good time, sort of crowd.

Interviewer: What are your basic musical influences?

Tumahai: Everybody.

Interviewer: Obviously Hendrix influenced you a lot.

Nelson: Yeah. Eric Clapton, Duane Eddy, Chet Atkins.

Interviewer: Chet Atkins! That's a surprise. Did you ever see Hendrix?

Nelson: I saw him play lots on TV and film.

Interviewer: From listening to "Lost in the Neon World" and "Dance of the Uncle Sam Humanoids," and what you've said, I really get the impression you don't think much of American audiences.

Nelson: Oh no. (Shaking his head.)

Tumahai: Why the audiences?

Clark: Why the audiences?

Nelson: That whole song was a reaction to being here on the first tour and being thrust deep into the armpit of the music business more than anything. A lot of the people who work for the record company are . . . kind of eccentric. They're just empty sort of people. Music business people generally are. It was kind of about that.

Interviewer: Are you really trying to balance out art and money?

Nelson: I don't know about art, and I don't know about money. Somewhere in between the two. It's a living. And it's like sort of thinking--making a living as noble as possible. It's money, obviously; money oozes into it to some degree. Because we have to survive. We can't make a living off art. There is a certain degree of compromise between an artistic goal and just going out to have to work for a living. It's certainly a more-enlightened way of making money than working in an office building. Which is what I used to do.

Interviewer: Where do you get the ideas for your songs? Is it basically just what happens to you?

Nelson: In a lot of ways, yeah. Based on day-to-day sorts of experiences.

Interviewer: What are you going to do next?

Nelson: We'll do an album when we get back. Then probably touring. It's all kind of planned out for us you know. Till we get to a sufficient stage, in a position of strength, where we can afford to relax. A kind of selling of some kind in the end.

Interviewer: I read a telephone interview with you in a recent issue of Trouser Press and I was curious about your two years in the Gentle Revolution. I was wondering if you'd talk a little about that.

Nelson: Are you the guy that--

Interviewer: No. No, I just read it.

Nelson: That was just a gospel band actually. I got involved with the church for some 2 ½ years. And I started playing in a gospel rock band. Just played around at Christmas, churches. I used to write songs.

Interviewer: And one day you just turned your back on it?

Nelson: I got disenchanted with the actual methods, I think, of the church, more than its message. It's a very, very closed and one-ended sort of thing. They've got a straight-ahead way of looking at everything. There's such a lot that I felt was being missed. In terms of what it was about, which is surprisingly spiritual. It's just too one-track. I got so I couldn't really do it and believe in it. Not believe just in the thing at the end, but believe in the methods being used. Believe in it and live it. I don't believe there's anybody that can preach. They just have to find it out for themselves.

Interviewer: About the arrangements for the songs ... Do you guys just jam and set it up? Or do you really have a concrete idea? I mean. Do you have everything written down?

Nelson: Not actually written down. On the last album, I just did it at home with a tape machine. I've written the songs with guitar and vocals. Then everybody listens to the tape and interprets their own part from it.

Interviewer: What kind of equipment do you play?

Tumahai: I've got a Telecaster bass guitar, a Peavey box, 200 watt top. a little Phaser box, a Solo 100 Phaser, a Mutron.

Nelson: 345 Stereo guitar, which is the one I use most of the time, and I've got a Stratocaster, and some Ovation acoustics for the studio, which I use on recordings. Two Power 100-watt amps. . . bodies are attached but used separately rather than at the same time. A very old Watkind Dr. Echo unit, a Pedal Boy--but it has a power booster in it-- and a Univibe.

Simon Fox: A Rogers drum kit, custom finished in red with gold fittings. It's rather unique. It's Mexican.

Clark: I use five keyboards. A Hammond organ, some electric pianos (a Wurlitzer and Fender Rhodes), Mini-Moog synthesizer, and a String Machine, and they're all in one unit.

Interviewer: Makes it a lot easier to carry.

Clark: And to play.

Nelson: Its got pre-set tabs . . . as well as patch cords for certain sounds. Plus pre-set tabs for like piano, strings, and brass.

Interviewer: Are you really an Australian aborigine?

Tumahai: No. I'm not an Australian!

(Room explodes in wild laughter.)

Tumahai: Never have been, never will be! No, I was a member of a staff full of aborigines. I spent five years down there. I'm a born-bred New Zealander.

Clark: Curious fellows.

Tumahai: My mother being a Malay--

Fox: Just the one?

Tumahai: --and my father being a Tahitian. Not too many of those around. Or not too many playing rock and roll anyway.

Interviewer: Bill used a Jean Cocteau quote on Axe Victim and wrote a song for him on Futurama. I was wondering what you think of him? Are you really into his films--

Nelson: Oh yeah. The funny thing is I've read more than I've actually seen of his films. It's not easy to see the films. Cocteau is someone who never fades. You have the feeling that somehow it's right. I was just influenced by him.

Interviewer: Do you consider yourself a poet-artist trying to raise everyone's spirit a la Cocteau?

Nelson: (Laughs.) I consider it something to aspire to. Whether you attain it or not, I don't know. I wasn't hung up on it. I just consider it a goal to be used by the writing, instead of just writing.

Interviewer: You're just a vehicle for the music?

Nelson: That's the way I feel. I mean I ought to be, whether I an or not, I wouldn't be able to say. It's really hard for me to judge it.

Interviewer: What do you listen to now? Anyone in particular?

Tumahai: Everybody, everything. I can't name them. There's just so many.

Interviewer: What do you think of Robin Trower?

Nelson: He does what he does fairly well. I don't want to knock him. I rarely listen to him. But when I want to hear someone play that way I put Hendrix on.

Manager: We're actually doing a gig with Trower in Chicago.

Interviewer: That should prove interesting. Are you guys on first?

Fox: With him? Yeah. Robin.

Nelson: The thing is he plays the notes and he gets the sound but he doesn't have the spirit. I can virtually pick out the numbers he's getting his licks from. You know they're note-for-note licks. And he's got exactly the same equipment--the Strat, the Marshall stack--and he goes for that sound, although his music is a little more of a bluesier sound. There's a spirit in this kind of music. it's fire you know, and he's perhaps too subdued or something. You know he can match the volume and the sound but there's no wildness inside him. Hendrix did that. He threw himself over the cliff every time he let loose. He said the hell with it, here you go. He didn't care if he was that technically precise or anything, he just went straight in there. Shut your eyes and go to town. The trouble with Trower's music is that it's too cool, too reserved.

Interviewer: Is that the way you play? Over the edge?

Nelson: Depends on how hungry I am. (Laughs.)

Fox: We've seen some notes fly.

Tumahai: He plays with a lot of spirit, a lot of heart.

Fox: Also these last few gigs he's been really pissed off.

Interviewer: Why ?

Manager: The usual.

Nelson: We've had a lot of hassles because we've been given no sound checks. We've just been pushed around. The support band. You know.

Interviewer: I hate to say it, but 1think that's going to happen to you tomorrow night.

Fox: Oh definitely.

Nelson: We've got to expect it.

Fox: Especially when you're good as well. You don't like that.

Tumahai: We're all gentlemen of rock and roll, we can stand anything.

--Richard Peabody

This work first appeared in Gargoyle, issue #4. Please respect the fact that this material is copyrighted. It is made available here without charge for personal use only. It may not be stored, displayed, published, reproduced, or used for any other purpose without the express consent of the author or artist.