Guitarist/singer/songwriter Bill Nelson combined Prog Rock, Glam and Art Rock into the unique sound that was Be-Bop Deluxe. They were musically adventurous, but always maintained a strong sense of melody and a memorable hook or two, as evidenced by this track from their 3rd album Sunburst Finish, released in 1976. Let’s explore the “Sleep That Burns“.
“Sleep That Burns” (Bill Nelson) Copyright 1975 B. Feldman and Company Ltd. All rights assigned USA and Canada to Beechwood Music Corporation
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Greetings, music fans. This is the “I’m In Love With That Song” podcast coming to you on the Pantheon Podcast network. My name is Brad Page, and each episode of this show, I pick a favorite song of mine and we explore it together on our never-ending quest to discover what makes a great song. No musical knowledge or skill is required here, just musical curiosity.
On this edition, we’re delving into a song by a band that had some success in the UK, but it never translated to the US. Nevertheless, I think they were a pretty interesting and pretty unique band. So let’s explore Be-Bop Deluxe and a song called “Sleep That Burns”
The band Be-Bop Deluxe was really the vehicle for Bill Nelson. A guitarist, singer and songwriter from Yorkshire, England, he attended Wakefield College of Art in the 1960s and did some recording as a guitarist for other artists and got a little bit of attention for his guitar work on an album by Light Years Away in 1971. Here’s some of Nelson’s playing on the Light Years Away song called “Yesterday”:
Nelson released his first solo album, “Northern Dream”, on his own label—that’s pretty adventurous for 1973. He pressed up 300 copies, one of which found its way into the hands of the legendary BBC DJ John Peele, who played it on his show, which in turn got Nelson a record deal with EMI Harvest Records. By then, Nelson had formed a band of his own which he called Be-Bop Deluxe. EMI signed Be-Bop Deluxe and released their first album, “Axe Victim”, in 1974.
After the release of “Axe Victim”, Nelson fired everyone from the band and reformed the group with a new lineup, including drummer Simon Cox and bassist/vocalist Charlie Tumahai. a native of New Zealand. This new version of Be-Bop Deluxe released their next album, called “Futurama”, in 1975.
The “Futurama” album really established their sound: a little bit progressive rock, a little bit glam, and a little bit of that Roxy Music art-rock sound, all anchored around Bill Nelson’s brilliant guitar playing.
Nelson had also been playing some keyboards on the albums, but for the next record, he wanted to expand that, so he brought in a full time keyboard player to the band. His name was Simon Clark, but since the band already had a drummer named Simon, they convinced him to use his middle name, Andy.
But changing up band members wasn’t the only changes on Bill Nelson’s mind. He wanted to mix things up on the production side, too. Their first album had been produced by Ian McClintock; Roy Thomas Baker was the producer on their second album. Nelson wasn’t really happy with either of them, so he wanted to produce the next album by himself.
The record company, though, thought he was too inexperienced to produce the album by himself, so they wanted him to co-produce with somebody else. EMI suggested John Leckie, who was a staff engineer at Abbey Road, and they felt he was ready for his first job as a producer. Nelson met with Leckie and they got along great. So they agreed to produce the next Be-Bop Deluxe album together.
Sessions began in October 1975 at Abbey Road. After a month or so of recording, the album was complete and it was released in January 1976. They named the album “Sunburst Finish”. The album features one of the all-time great album covers, and the record includes the track “Ships In The Night”, which would become their biggest hit, reaching number 23 on the UK charts. But I don’t believe it charted in the US.
Bill Nelson, though, has said many times that “Ships In The Night” is his least-favorite track from Be-Bop Deluxe, so we’re not going to explore that one here, even though I like it. We’re going to focus on another favorite track from this album, the song that closes out side one of the record, “Sleep That Burns”.
I should mention here that in 2018 the album was reissued as a deluxe 2 CD set that included the original version of the album, along with a new remixed version. I debated over which version to use here; I generally prefer to use the original versions, but some of the instruments and parts stand out a little better on that 2018 mix. But in the end, I decided to stick with the original mix. So just to be clear, we’ll be hearing the 1976 version here.
“Sleep That Burns” was written by Bill Nelson. Like everything else on the album, Nelson played all the guitars and sang the lead vocal. Charlie Tumahai played bass and did the backing vocals. Andy Clark provided the keyboards and Simon Fox plays drums.
The song is about dreams. Bill Nelson said, “I had a fascination with how we spend so much of our time asleep. Dreaming and dreams don’t make sense. I thought of the song as being kind of a movie.” And so, to set the stage for our theater of the mind, the song opens with the sound of an alarm clock going off and someone awakening from a dream.
If that big introduction sounds a little familiar to you, that’s because Bill Nelson came up with that part as sort of a homage to “Baba O’Reilly” by The Who.
There are many layers of guitars all throughout this song. Nelson’s main guitar at this time was a Gibson ES345. The color of that guitar is what gave this album its name, and he uses that guitar on many of these tracks. Let’s listen to the guitars on this intro.
There are two heavily distorted guitars playing those Pete Townsend chords, panned left and right. Sounds like there’s also an acoustic guitar or two playing those parts. Then there’s a cleaner electric guitar playing an arpeggiated part in the middle.
By the way, if some of these musical terms and guitar lingo is confusing to you, go back and listen to Episode 75 of this podcast called “The Language of Rock”, where we explain some of these terms.
There’s also a higher pitched part that sounds like a lead guitar line, but it’s actually Andy Clark on the mini Moog synthesizer. After two repetitions of the intro part, we head right into the first verse.
There’s a fantastic galloping rhythm to the verse, and a great guitar part that Bill Nelson is playing, these upper-register triplets played on his guitar. Let’s listen to just the instrumental parts on this verse without the vocal.
Just a couple of lines for the verse and then we hit right into the first chorus. No time wasted here.
A slightly different feel for the chorus, and Andy Clark’s piano comes forward in the mix. Clark is playing the Abbey Road Studio One piano, a 9-foot Steinway grand piano that no doubt appeared on dozens of classic recordings. Let’s hear a little bit of that piano.
I like that extra “All right” in the background there.
They repeat the intro riff before the next verse, and Andy’s synthesizer part is even more prominent this time.
“I’m locked in your dark world, where hearts hold the keys; half-opened, enchanted, half-truths and half-dreams”
Andy Clark’s keyboard parts add another layer on this chorus. I believe in addition to playing piano, he’s also playing a Melotron. It’s the very same Melotron the Beatles used on “Strawberry Fields Forever”
Let’s just hear that part again, this time with Charlie Tumahai’s bass up in the mix.
As we mentioned before, Bill Nelson envisioned this song as kind of a movie. He described this next section as a new scene in the dream, where you’re sitting in a cafe in some exotic place. Listen and you can picture that in your mind. Andy Clark’s using his Mini Moog again to create some sound effects. The band raided the Abbey Road Sound Effects library and made some of the background noises themselves by clinking plates and silverware together to create the sound of the cafe. The band also gathered around the mic to make the background chatter as well.
Andy Clark’s playing some nice tack piano here.
And then the dream gets darker, as dreams often do.
The vocals are suddenly doubled and panned left and right.
Bill Nelson does some nice guitar work here, recorded backwards. Back in the 70’s, there was no easy way to do this. You had to literally turn the tape over backwards and hope that what you were playing would work. Let’s hear just the guitar.
Spiraling piano leads us back into the intro riff and the next verse.
Here’s another chorus. This time, let’s see if we can bring up the drums in the mix.
Simon Cox on the drums. The drums are mixed pretty low on this track, it’s kind of a bummer.
Let’s pick it back up at the final verse. There are additional background vocals echoing the lead vocal on this verse. Bill Nelson’s added single guitar notes, sustained with feedback, on this chorus.
Nelson lets loose with a great guitar solo for this finale.
“Sleep That Burns” – Be-Bop Deluxe
Be-Bop Deluxe would record two more studio albums and a great live album before they disbanded in 1978.
Bill Nelson’s next project was a band called Red Noise, but they only released one album in 1979. Always a restless creative mind, bill Nelson’s sound and style has evolved a lot over the years and he’s released literally dozens of solo albums. He’s incredibly prolific.
Drummer Simon Cox went on to play with Trevor Rabin and a bunch of other projects over the years. He’s still out there kicking it somewhere.
Andy Clark joined Bill Nelson in Red Noise, he band that immediately followed Be-Bop Deluxe, but again, they only released that one album in ‘79. But Andy would go on to do significant work as a session keyboardist on some great records. He played on David Bowie’s “Scary Monsters” album, including the song “Ashes to Ashes”. He plays on Peter Gabriel’s “So” album and “The Seeds of Love” album by Tears for Fears.
Bassist and vocalist Charlie Tumahai unfortunately died in 1995. After Be-Bop Deluxe, he played with The Dukes, a band that featured former Paul McCartney and Wings guitarist Jimmy McCulloch, but that didn’t last long.
Charlie was born in Auckland, New Zealand, and in 1985, he returned back home and joined the legendary New Zealand reggae band The Herbs. He was also very active in the Maiori community and volunteered a lot of his time. Charlie was a hero to many New Zealanders, and it was a real tragedy when he died of a heart attack in December 1995. He was only 46 years old.
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I’ll be back in two weeks with another new episode. On behalf of everybody on the Pantheon Podcast Network, I thank you for listening and I hope you enjoyed this episode on Be-Bop Deluxe and “Sleep That Burns”