I’m convinced that there was an MTV-induced disease that swept through the music world in the crazy 80s that devoured almost all creativity and perspective in its path. The very same virus that almost completely destroyed progressive rock in all its wonderful, innovative facets initially attacked the collective psyche of legendary groups like Genesis and Yes, causing them to put out increasingly inferior material that seriously damaged their sterling reputations. Jeff Beck had avoided this cancerous blight for the first half of the decade by not putting out any new works after releasing his excellent “Wired” album in 1980 but eventually this despicable bug bit him, too, and in 1985 he succumbed to this mind-numbing illness and made “Flash.” There is a silver lining on this cloud, however. The music included on this record isn’t quite as bad as the God-awful jacket he’s wearing on the cover. Holy moley, Beck, that sport coat is louder than a stack of Marshall amps!
Evidently someone talked Jeff into performing songs with a vocalist again even though he hadn’t employed a singer since disbanding the Beck, Bogert & Appice power trio in 1973. But at least he found a good one in Jimmy Hall who had fronted the talented 70s southern boogie/funk band “Wet Willie.” He also brought in Nile Rodgers and Arthur Baker to assist him in producing most of the album but their contemporary, urban leanings may have added to the many problems this project has. Yet, as I said before, the whole music biz was off its meds at that time so it may be a case of having to mercifully forgive them for they knew not what they were doing.
Rodger’s “Ambitious” is the first offering and, relatively speaking, it ain’t too shabby. There’s not a lot of chord changes going on but Beck has a monster guitar effect here that is most intimidating. Hall’s vocal is powerful and the lyrics do a good job of describing the “ME” generation’s selfish attitude that was pervasive in that narcissistic era but it’s Jeff’s ferocious solo that cuts a swath through the tune like a scythe and makes a memorable impression. Next up is Baker’s disco-ish “Gets Us All in the End,” which typifies the overly slick, glossy music of the period that sappy bands like Starship and Loverboy were spewing out relentlessly. And even though Carmen Appice receives credit as being a participant, there isn’t a non-electronic drum track to be found and that’s a big part of the problem. Program them till you’re blue in the face but you can’t program soul into a drum machine. There’s not a rhythm track on this album that wouldn’t have benefited 100% from a human touch, especially when JB had access to the best drummers in the business. All is not lost, however. Beck’s backwards guitar track at the beginning and his hot as Hell lead at the end go a long way in saving the song from being unlistenable. Jeff’s old partner in crime, Jan Hammer, is credited as composer and Fairlight programmer on the instrumental “Escape.” It’s all Jan at the outset, then Beck supplies the melody line a ways in but other than some mildly interesting synthesized noises nothing exciting happens at all. Still, the cut garnered a Grammy and charted as high as #39 so maybe I’m just not hearing it correctly. My bad.
It had been sixteen long years since anyone had heard the raspy, charismatic tones of Rod Stewart on a Jeff Beck album so their wonderful rendition of Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready” is easily the highlight of the proceedings. JB provides tasteful, melodic guitar lines and Rod sings his tail off as you would expect, making this one of the coolest versions of this classic tune you’ll ever hear. But then things take a decidedly downward swing, starting with “Stop, Look and Listen,” a song that sounds like it would fit better in a cheesy modern stage musical than as part of a guitar God’s album. JB turns in a nice ride but it’s not nearly enough to overcome the embarrassingly corny vocal breaks. It gets worse, though. Somehow Nile convinced Jeff that he should showcase his vocal style on the following tune, “Get Workin’,” and I hope that Beck doesn’t try it ever again. It’s barely more than a dumb chant but there’s absolutely nothing positive to report so I’ll move on.
The dreaded Wang Chung disorder is very much in evidence on the forgettable “Ecstasy” and even JB himself knew to stay far in the background on this dog. It stinks. “Night After Night” is next and it’s not necessarily a step up although Jeff does throw in a zesty solo. At least the album ends on an uplifting note. Tony Hymas’ instrumental “You Know, We Know” is more like the quality music we heard on the fantastic “Wired” LP. Beck utilizes a huge-sounding guitar effect and he wails away unfettered over Hymas’ atmospheric keyboards, making us wish that Tony had been allowed to be a more influential presence on this project in general.
Every artist has at least one regrettable, season-ending pitch that he would like to have back and this one just might be Jeff Beck’s hanging curve that failed to break and sailed right over the middle of the plate. It didn’t ruin his stellar career but it did drive him back into seclusion for another four years to continue restoring his antique cars. If you are new to JB’s music please start anywhere but here. “Flash” is yet another sad example of the need to exercise caution when handling any album that has a release date between the years of 1980-1990. Those were dark times, indeed. 2.4 stars.
Before you do anything else with Flash, drop the needle on the last half of “Ambitious,” the album’s chug-a-funk leadoff track. Just as singer Jimmy Hall steps back from the song’s skeletal tune and jackhammer rhythm with a Tarzanlike “yeah!” Jeff Beck’s guitar suddenly shoots up into the mix like a runaway jet, cutting a reckless path through Nile Rodgers’ spit ‘n’ polish production with sawtooth distortion and heat-ray feedback. Then, in a daredevil display of rock-guitar heroics that recalls Jimi Hendrix on Electric Ladyland in his full pyrotechnic glory, Beck yanks his guitar up and down flights of freakish harmonic steps, executes breathtaking suicide dives with his vibrato bar, and claws away at the song’s core riff with angry trills and harsh, scraping leads. Flash is Jeff Beck’s first album since 1980, but that solo — a manic summation of his power and influence in rock guitar, from his Yardbirds days right up to Eddie Van Halen — makes it seem like he’s never been away.
Beck’s reunion here with his late-Sixties bandmate Rod Stewart, on Curtis Mayfield’s inspirational ballad “People Get Ready,” is also a welcome return to classic form, a replay of their soulful covers of “Ol’ Man River” and “Morning Dew” from Beck’s 1968 Truth LP. Stewart wraps his sandpaper croon around the song with tender, unaffected enthusiasm, while Beck gently unravels the melody in his poignant but forceful guitar breaks.
Flash, however, is not an album that dwells on the past. In the same way that he adapted jazz fusion to arena-rock dimensions on the mid-Seventies LPs Blow by Blow and Wired, Beck challenges the rigid discipline of Eighties dance music, with Arthur Baker producing two songs and Nile Rodgers writing and producing another four. In fact, these collaborations almost don’t work; Rodgers essentially gives Beck a series of static groove tunes to gallop around in, as on “Get Workin'” (with Beck on vocals!) and “Ambitious.” Baker, in turn, makes the guitarist fight for solo space, piling up keyboards and background vocals in a disco panorama on “Gets Us All in the End.”
Fortunately, that just makes Beck hit back harder. On the stuttering “Stop, Look and Listen,” he rips into Rodgers’ grooves with violently distorted blues flourishes and air-raid-siren vibrato work. Beck clears the decks with a firestorm solo right at the start of “Gets Us All in the End,” then repeatedly butts into Baker’s dense arrangement with vengeful ingenuity. If there were a bit more Stewart-like grit in Jimmy Hall’s strong but anonymous lead vocals, the result could have been a real funk-metal Beck-Ola. Nevertheless, Flash ranks as one of Beck’s best ever, a record of awesome guitar prowess and startling commercial daring. It is also irrefutable proof that his kind of flash never goes out of fashion.