Roy Thomas Baker is a producer and engineer held in the highest esteem. His work with Be-Bop Deluxe came in between working on Queen recordings, which would go on to become global smash hits. While Futurama was never a smash hit per se, it received some critical acclaim at the time and even more when the original tapes were revisited and remastered in 2019, creating a true contender for the Best Immersive Audio Album Grammy award.
Be-Bop Deluxe were something of an underground movement in the 1970s. Bill Nelson, lead singer and frontman of the band, was the only mainstay of the group as the line-up evolved through a number of iterations. This is perhaps fitting for a band whose music reflects a mishmash of ideas, perhaps only held together within the constraints of Baker’s production of Futurama.
Rarely has a more divisive band penetrated the prog-rock scene. Some reviewers absolutely panned this album, with an allmusic.com reviewer describing Futurama as “weak on songwriting content.” We would tend to disagree, as Bill Nelson bullishly innovates through an unerringly brave and diverse collection of songs.
The opening track “Stage Whispers” shows what the album has in store. Its musical ideas, melodies, grooves, and general mood seem to switch every few bars. You could be forgiven for hearing echoes of experimental Hendrix in there, but the track evolves into something of a Talking Heads “Remain in Light” groove. Arguably, Futurama was an influence on David Bryne throughout this era.
Swirling, crunchy guitars and classic rock rhythms drive us through the next few tracks of the album, as the album takes on a more mainstream vibe that Bill Nelson never truly recaptured after the 1970s. His guitar playing manages to swerve prog-rock stereotypes, with fascinating rhythms underpinning sometimes sparse vocals. The surround sound mix Roy Thomas Baker was able to reconstruct gives these rhythms room to grow and intertwine with new vibrancy.
As the tracks tick by, a more experimental feel takes hold. “Music in Dreamland” verges on a Pink Floyd sound, while “Between the Worlds” could be a Bowie outtake. Dark and twisted lyrics are juxtaposed with an upbeat chorus. Nelson’s vocals take on the drawl of a Dylan track in the verses, before he barks through the chorus. A weirdly discordant outro transitions us to the concluding song. “Swan Song” virtually starts as a military march, taking on a Sgt. Pepper’s circus vibe before crunchy guitar solos carry us to the conclusion in a true progressive style.
Many of the refrains and musical ideas jammed into this album have a ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ feel. Each song takes the listener on a unique journey which, in surround sound, can take on an even broader sound stage and truly draw the listener in.
The reissue is incredibly well produced, as Roy Thomas Baker shows all of his production prowess to tie these varied, fast-moving compositions into a coherent album now in surround sound. It even has bonuses including extra demo tracks from the ‘70s which have now been given a commercial release for the first time.
With ripples of the influence of Futurama felt through the rest of the ‘70s and ‘80s prog scene, its revival this year brings deserved attention to what is truly an underrated album.