Be-Bop Deluxe was founded in Wakefield, West Yorkshire, England, by singer, guitarist and principal songwriter Bill Nelson in 1972. The founding lineup consisted of Nelson, guitarist Ian Parkin, bassist and vocalist Robert Bryan, drummer Nicholas Chatterton-Dew, and keyboardist Richard Brown (who left in December of that year). They started off playing the West Yorkshire pub scene, with one regular venue being the Staging Post in Whinmoor, Leeds. They never played bebop music, but instead came out of the blues-based British rockscene of the late 1960s. At first they were compared to the more successful David Bowie, but Nelson never tried to copy Bowie, and appears to have disliked comparisons or being pigeon-holed. This artistic restlessness eventually led him to disband Be-Bop Deluxe altogether and pursue less commercial paths of expression.
After signing to EMI'S Harvest Records subsidiary, the initial lineup of the band only lasted for one album, 1974's Axe Victim, and a short tour. Shortly after this, Nelson dissolved the band and reformed with a new lineup with bassist Paul Jeffreys, keyboardist Milton Reame-James (both formerly of Cockney Rebel) and drummer Simon Fox, the latter introduced by Reame-James to Nelson. However, Jeffreys and Reame-James soon departed the band, and New Zealand-born bassist-vocalist Charlie Tumahai (formerly of Australian bands Mississippi and Healing Force) joined in late 1974. This lineup recorded 1975's Futurama album (produced by Roy Thomas Baker, the then producer for Queen) and was then supplemented by keyboardist Andrew Clark for the subsequent tour, after which Clark joined the band. This final lineup remained constant until the band's dissolution in 1978. Jeffreys died in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988.
Stylistically, the songs took elements from progressive rock, glam rock (the band had flirted with make-up in the early days) and hard guitar rock. "Ships in the Night", taken from the band's third album Sunburst Finish, was their most successful single in both the UK and the US. The single features an alto saxophone solo by Ian Nelson. The album was notably the first to be produced by EMI employee John Leckie, who had hitherto worked for the company as a recording engineer, in which capacity he had served on Axe Victim, which he also in effect produced. It was clearly a happy relationship: Leckie would go on to produce all the subsequent Be-Bop Deluxe and Bill Nelson's Red Noise albums for Harvest, including the proposed Red Noise album Quit Dreaming And Get On The Beam that Harvest refused to release. Nelson shared producing credits with Leckie from Drastic Plasticonward.
The first three Be-Bop Deluxe albums are all, in one way or another, named after guitars. "Axe" is slang for a guitar, "Futurama" is a particular make of guitar while "Sunburst Finish" refers to a style of finishing for the instrument.
The title track of the fourth album, Modern Music, was a ten-minute suite of songs inspired by the experience of the band's touring the US. This was followed by the live album, Live! In The Air Age, recorded on the subsequent UK tour promoting Modern Music although no songs from that studio album appeared on the live one apart from a tantalizing snippet of the audience singing along to Down On Terminal Street. That recording – now featuring the song in its entirety – and a number of other live Modern Music tracks finally surfaced on 2011's 5-CD set Futurist Manifesto.
1978's Drastic Plastic, recorded at Juan-Les-Pins in the South of France under the influence of punk, new wave and David Bowie's Berlin albums, was a substantial stylistic change from the progressive/guitar rock of the early Be-Bop Deluxe. Eager to embrace the changing musical landscape, Nelson dissolved Be-Bop Deluxe.
The band appeared three times on BBC's The Old Grey Whistle Test performing a total of six songs and once on Top of the Pops with their 1976 "Ships In The Night." For the band's Sight & Sound concert in 1978 the setlist was made up entirely of tracks from the Drastic Plastic album.