After revisiting the power trio format on Beck, Bogert & Appice Beck felt that a change in strategy was needed. Excited by the possibilities of mixing jazz and rock (i.e. “fusion”) while adding funk to that familiar recipe and doing away with those pesky vocalists, Beck released Blow By Blow, a legendary guitar album, though in the hierarchy of Beck’s work I’d rank it slightly below his best Yardbirds and early Jeff Beck Group stuff on the grounds that it’s less groundbreaking.
Still, Blow By Blow, technically his first solo album, is at the very least a minor classic. Comprised entirely of instrumentals, this was an influential album that surprised both listeners and critics alike, as Beck’s playing and song arrangements are almost always tasteful and melodic. Meanwhile, Beck’s backing band supplies Stevie Wonder-ish piano work and keyboards (Max Middleton again who also writes or co-writes four songs) and funky rhythms (bassist Phil Chenn and teenage wunderkind drummer Richard Bailey round out the lineup), laying the strong foundation for Beck’s outstanding guitar playing to shine.
This richly textured album also features big synthesizer swooshes, and classy string arrangements by ex-Beatles producer George Martin, who in that same capacity here helps provide the album with a warmth, restraint, and elegance that’s often lacking in fusion.
As for the songs, “You Know What I Mean” is perhaps the best of several funky numbers, while “She’s A Woman” (a Beatles cover) is a melodic, reggae-tinged tune on which Beck makes his guitar talk a la Joe Walsh and Peter Frampton but more subtly than either. On the more rocking front, “Scatterbrain” is a relentless groover that builds powerfully and showcases the group’s virtuosity (Beck attracted great drummers in particular and Bailey’s splashy drum fills really stand out here and elsewhere as well), while Beck biographer Annette Carson accurately described the excellent “Freeway Jam” as a “high powered shuffle.”
Fine though these up-tempo tunes are, however, Beck is at his absolute best when he opts for raw emotion over flashy embellishments, and as such the album’s most enduring songs are arguably both ballads. “Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers” (inspired by and dedicated to Roy Buchanan) and the nearly 9-minute “Diamond Dust” are both slow and long songs on which Beck’s understated playing is incredibly soulful and emotional; never again will I doubt the beauty capable of being produced by an electric guitar.
“Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers,” one of two Stevie Wonder covers, in particular features phenomenally expressive playing that shows off his talent for note bending, and you could argue that this song is now recognized as his signature number. In summary, despite some dated elements (mostly with Middleton’s keyboards, though you could say the same thing about Stevie Wonder’s classic ’70s albums from around the same period) and a few less than exciting moments, the stylish, filler-free Blow By Blow remains an eminently appealing instrumental album that’s easily among Jeff Beck’s very best.
Jazz fusion is a tough genre to pin down. It has never truly become a well recognized genre, nor does it have many artists playing its mix of rock and jazz. Miles Davis pioneered the genre, five years earlier to this album, with Bitches Brew. which easily pissed off many of his dedicated fans. But it was Jeff Beck who would truly define the genre, moving away from his former Rock and Blues based efforts, to this all instrumental album. It reigns as his greatest, and most famous achievement.
Beck is a guitarist like few others, his style is incredible, yet ever changing. His virtuoso skill easily outshines other great (and better known) guitarists, like Eric Clapton or Jimmy Page. Here he overdubs himself continually, often times have three separate guitar parts, all interwoven perfectly. But he owes much of the album to his band, as well as famed Beatles producer Sir George Martin. Max Middleton’s tasteful use of the synth creates a perfect backdrop to Beck’s flamboyant playing. Beck’s rhythm section shines as well, with Richard Bailey’s excellent drumming, keeping Jazz and Funk rhythms tied together with nice fills. Bass is none to shabby, either.
But there’s also a certain sense of, well, fun to the whole album which is shown on the first track You Know What I Mean. Beck starts it off with light strumming, joined soon by drums and bass. The song explodes out, with an infectious synth/guitar line, and excellent soloing from Beck. The whole song gives off great groove, which will have the listener bobbing their head almost instantly. Next up, is an original rendition of McCartney’s She’s a Woman. Beck’s lead guitar mimics the vocals uncannily. On Constipated Duck Beck continues the playful groove, with an incredible bassline holding the song together. Beck’s soloing continues to astound the listener.
With Air Blower however, Beck allows Middleton to shine, crafting brilliant solos on his mini-moog. Three and a half minutes in though, there’s a sudden slow in tempo, and Beck takes of on an incredible tone laden solo. Next, Bailey introduces the listener to the frantic Scatterbrain, one of my favorite songs on the album. All the members shine on this track, with excellent electric piano from Middleton, hectic drums, and of course brilliant guitar (I’m getting kind of tired of saying that every damn song on this album has unmatched guitar playing.) There’s some excellent string arrangement from Martin on here, too.
But Scatterbrain gives way easily to my all time favorite Jeff Beck song, the haunting, beautiful ballad Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers (penned by Stevie Wonder, actually.) Beck’s guitar work may not be his most technical, but coaxes wails and moans out of his guitar that few singers could hope to accomplish. As his playing intensifies, the listener is brought down a path of sheer emotions, stunning even the most cold hearted (especially the part from around 3:50 to 4:20, sure bliss.)
The next track, Thelonius features a host of guitars, each providing a brilliant part. Its a nice change to be listening to another “fun” Jeff Beck song, after enduring the passionate Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers.
Then comes another brilliant track, the groundbreaking Freeway Jam, which in many ways has defined Jazz Fusion. Beck’s soloing is godly, and the songs main riff will be stuck in the listeners head for days one end. The bass playing is excellent as well, working perfectly with the drums to provide a foundation for Jeff to go nuts on.
The albums closer, Diamond Dust, is simply stunning, as well, with perfectly arranged strings. Beck’s playing is as calm and as smooth as on Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers, and Middleton’s piano works perfectly. Its a perfect track to end on, leaving a lasting emotional impression on the listener, which will be remembered for as long as music is played.
I may come off as a bit too praising on this review, but this is truly an album that needs to be heard. This is Beck’s Sgt. Peppers or Kind of Blue. If you are any fan of Jazz, Rock, or just great guitar playing this is for you, heck if you enjoy listening to any kind of music this is for you.
Blow by Blow typifies Jeff Beck’s wonderfully unpredictable career. Released in 1975, Beck’s fifth effort as a leader and first instrumental album was a marked departure from its more rock-based predecessors. Only composer/keyboardist Max Middleton returned from Beck’s previous lineups. To Beck’s credit, Blow by Blow features a tremendous supporting cast. Middleton’s tasteful use of the Fender Rhodes, clavinet, and analog synthesizers leaves a soulful imprint.
Drummer Richard Bailey is in equal measure supportive and propulsive as he deftly combines elements of jazz and funk with contemporary mixed meters. Much of the album’s success is also attributable to the excellent material, which includes Middleton’s two originals and two collaborations with Beck, a clever arrangement of Lennon and McCartney’s “She’s a Woman,” and two originals by Stevie Wonder. George Martin’s ingenious production and string arrangements rival his greatest work. Beck’s versatile soloing and diverse tones are clearly the album’s focus, and he proves to be an adept rhythm player.
Blow by Blow is balanced by open-ended jamming and crisp ensemble interaction as it sidesteps the bombast that sank much of the jazz-rock fusion of the period. One of the album’s unique qualities is the sense of fun that permeates the performances. On the opening “You Know What I Mean,” Beck’s stinging, blues-based soloing is full of imaginative shapes and daring leaps. On “Air Blower,” elaborate layers of rhythm, duel lead, and solo guitars find their place in the mix. Propelled by the galvanic rhythm section, Beck slashes his way into “Scatterbrain,” where a dizzying keyboard and guitar line leads to more energetic soloing from Beck and Middleton.
In Stevie Wonder’s ballad “Cause We’ve Ended as Lovers,” Beck variously coaxes and unleashes sighs and screams from his guitar in an aching dedication to Roy Buchanan. Middleton’s aptly titled “Freeway Jam” best exemplifies the album’s loose and fun-loving qualities, with Beck again riding high atop the rhythm section’s wave. As with “Scatterbrain,” Martin’s impeccable string arrangements enhance the subtle harmonic shades of the closing “Diamond Dust.” Blow by Blow signaled a new creative peak for Beck, and it proved to be a difficult act to follow.
It is a testament to the power of effective collaboration and, given the circumstances, Beck clearly rose to the occasion. In addition to being a personal milestone, Blow by Blow ranks as one of the premiere recordings in the canon of instrumental rock music.
In the annals of British rock guitarists it is hard to escape the spectre of Clapton, Page and Beck, a great triumvirate, linked not just because their axe-wielding has left a considerable mark on both sides of the Atlantic, but also because they all shared roots with the same band. In the pre-psychedelia years, when white men confirmed that the blues was not actually beyond them, the Yardbirds managed to recruit three of the outstanding amplified pickers of that generation.
Yet the years have been kinder to the man they called God, richer to the fellow who forged Led Zeppelin once the New Yardbirds had run out of steam. Jeff Beck has instead remained a marginal figure, a guitarists’ guitarist maybe but no longer in the same division as his illustrious ex-colleagues, a Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame inductee but a player whose rock’n’roll fame is rather in the past. But fame can be a curse — Clapton and Page have hardly escaped the scars of celebrity — while a well-founded reputation can bring accolades that are no less deeply felt, just quieter and easier to bear. Don’t look Beck, as they might say.
By the middle Seventies, Beck had followed the rock fairground as electric blues became heavy metal or progressive rock and seemed to have found his niche. The eponymous group he led and the supergroup doodlings with former Vanilla Fudge supremos Tim Bogert and Carmen Appice had established large live followings.
So it was something of a surprise when Beck switched horses and decided to record an album of jazz-tinged instrumentals, perhaps to remind people that his Fender was not merely a war machine but an instrument capable of subtleties and that he was an instrumentalist with more than just blues riffs in his travelling case.
The result was 1975’s Blow by Blow to be followed the next year by Wired and, surprise, surprise, Beck’s creative diversion proved a great deal more than just an artistic success. The two long players became the two best-selling records of his career and really set the tone for his subsequent musical life — the rock antics were largely left behind and his journey as an fusion interpreter of quality commenced.
Fair enough, the time was ripe for this side-track. John McLaughlin had brought the grain of the guitar to Miles Davis’ amplified experiments before forming the Mahavishnu Orchestra, a band who blended the virtuosity of jazz with the worlds of rock, funk and the East. Frank Zappa, too, had taken rock licks into a higher universe in a string of post-Mothers space-trips. So perhaps Beck’s shift was just a case of Zeitgeist fever.
Whatever, for Blow By Blow, Beck was re-united with Max Middleton, keyboards man with his earlier self-named combo, and brought on board bassist Phil Chenn and drummer Richard Bailey, both of whom had worked out with the white British soul singer Jess Roden. The results were more promising than anyone could have hoped to expect.
Underpinned by a solid, unfussy rhythm section, Beck proceeded to weave a spell on a potent range of self-penned and out-sourced tunes. The guitarist and pianist shared composing honours on the opener, the sleek syncopated funk of “You Know What I Mean”, but changed gear on a reggae-fied re-make of the Lennon and McCartney classic “She’s a Woman”, slinky, sexy and distinctively branded by the talking guitar synth, a fresh weapon and rather in vogue that season. Peter Frampton had adopted the very same voice tube around the same time.
But the Beck album, overseen by the production skills of one George Martin, was about much more than technological gimmickry. He had also enlisted a writer at the height of his powers, Stevie Wonder himself, and the sinuous phrasing of “Cause We’ve Ended as Lovers”, deliciously fringed by Middleton’s electric keys, showed the band leader off at his very best. Wonder also threw in the Monk tribute “Thelonius”.
By 1976, the scene had changed. The Mahavishnus line-up had been re-jigged and Beck would be the principal beneficiary, engaging synthesiser master Jan Hammer and also adding the new Orchestra drummer Narada Michael Walden to his crew. The results, aired on Wired, were consequently rather different.
Hammer became writer-in-chief and his electronics coat almost everything in an artificial varnish; the clear, uncluttered lines of Blow by Blow, with Beck very much the featured artist, had been consumed by Moog trills, lean guitar lines submerged in the glutinous washes of the ex-McLaughlin sideman — Hammer blows, if you like.
Wired is not unlistenable by any means but played side by side with the earlier work-out, it has a cloying quality, redeemed occasionally on the Middleton penned “Led Boots”, the Hammer-less “Head for the Backstage Pass” and the Mingus celebration, a re-hash of “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat”, itself a farewell to Lester Young.
In short, these re-issued, re-mastered volumes, draw attention to the changes that were infecting the jazz-rock interface at this time. The synthesiser, enormously versatile yet plastic in tone and timbre, had become the fashionable tool of fusion and by the second disc Beck’s instrumental voice is no longer centre stage — to the album’s detriment.