Be-Bop Deluxe was a 1970s English prog-rock band fronted by virtuoso guitarist Bill Nelson. Sunburst Finish was the group's third studio album and is notable for featuring their biggest commercial hit, "Ships in the Night." It's also Nelson's least favorite track on the release.
"EMI were looking for something they could release as a single, and I'd never considered the band to be anything but an album band," he told Mix magazine in 2019. "I considered hit singles as belonging to the domain of ephemeral pop acts, rather than the currency of a 'serious' rock band."
Nelson started out with the song title and worked up the tune at home on his Wurlitzer electric piano. Andy Clark, who officially joined the band as full-time keyboardist on Sunburst Finish, plays the spacey electric piano riff on the track. Lyrically, the song finds Nelson incomplete without love, like a "harp without its strings" or "a bird that has no wings."
The band recorded the album at Abbey Road Studios in London. Nelson wanted to produce the album himself, but the label wasn't having it. They offered John Leckie, a tape operator who worked on all four of the Beatles' solo albums in 1970 and was ready to make the leap to producer. Leckie, who would go on to helm albums from Simple Minds and Radiohead, and Nelson hit it off right away.
"I had musical and arrangement ideas, and John knew the board and had sound experience," said Nelson, who is listed as a co-producer on the album. "He was a facilitator in a big way. If I could imagine something, John would know how to pull it out of the hat. The idea was that we could cross-fertilize, teach each other what we were good at."
The band was having trouble capturing the reggae feel of Simon Fox's drums in the remodeled Studio 3, its new drop ceiling and carpeting messing with the acoustics. Luckily, they found a small corridor with a linoleum floor. Leckie told Mix: "It was the only 'ambient' space at that time, since Studio 3 was so dead. In addition to the other mics, I set up a pair of ambient microphones, to pick up more of that live sound, particularly for Simon Fox's snare drum. He was so perfectly tuned, and the resonance of his snare hits the melody and voice just right. That's why Simon Fox is a great drummer."
Nelson's younger brother, Ian, plays saxophone on the track.