After bombing with synth-pop, Jeff just faded away – for four long years. Maybe he was doing drugs. Maybe he was just watching the world sink into decay and the old morals crumble. Maybe he didn’t give a damn anyway, and in 1989 he returned to the studio to record an album that was as far away from the disaster of Flash as possible. Namely, he’d preferred to stick to the old and true – instrumental fusion tunes, this time with a frinedly support in the face of synth wizard Tony Hymas and famous drummer Terry Bozzio (check out my Zappa reviews, willya?).
Apparently, he thought their help so significant that they’re even listed on the front cover – and by gum, ’tis gotta be one of the funniest covers in the world. See that? That’s a guitar that Beck is repairing! And the board says: ‘Proprietors: Jeff Beck, Terry Bozzio, Tony Hymas’. Great! And as if that wasn’t enough, the title track has a silly voice overdub that depicts all the good sides of a guitar – a veritable guitar commercial. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Fender or Gibson had bought the rights to the song…
On the other hand, the credits in big letters needn’t make you worry. Unlike Wired, the album isn’t keyboard-oriented at all. In fact, while Tony Hymas is indeed present on all the tracks (and has written or co-written every one of them, too), his presence is somewhat more subtle than Hammer’s: he doesn’t solo much, and he prefers short, economic rhythms to Hammer’s long-winded, complex phrasing. And Terry Bozzio is somewhat of a blessing – his drumming is awesome throughout, starting from the very first seconds of the title track.
However, the record’s main good point lies in its surprising diversity. I don’t know, really, but it seems to me that on no other album Beck had ever tried out such a great mishmash of all styles possible – jazz, blues, funk, pop, balladeering, even reggae, even punk (‘Sling Shot’ certainly sounds punkish to me!). And this, combined with the fact that his guitar playing only keeps improving with the years, results in an album every bit as good as his 1975-76 fusion efforts and in some ways maybe better. ‘Guitar Shop’ starts in and blows you away with that raving soloing and Bozzio’s mad, paranoid drumming (some people find the ‘commercial’ vocal overdubs annoying, but I think they’re just funny).
Then you’ll be forced to tap your foot along to the funky, punchy rhythm of ‘Savoy’, a number that tells you that this album is indeed a worthy successor to Blow By Blow. And check out how fine Hymas contributes to the ecstasy with his well-chosen delicious piano rolls, as Beck plays out his heart. Next, you have your silly reggae groove on ‘Behind The Veil’, a song slightly less impressive than the others but overly nice and quietly pleasant, before getting it all really ‘smoked out’ on ‘Big Block’, the record’s ‘blues masterpiece’. And do not forget that Beck always was primarily a bluesman – not a jazz player, not a heavy metallist, not a popmeister, no, blues is what he always did best, and he’s true to his credo, delivering the goods as rarely before. Plus, Tony has all these ‘majestic’ gloomy synths rolling on as if it were more Black Sabbath than Beck, and it gets so spooooky!
‘Where Were You’ is a bit of a letdown, because it has no rhythm: more mood than substance. Sorry, but Tony Hymas is no Brian Eno, after all: Beck does play nice guitar, once again, but I’m just not thrilled, and Jeff, please never try such things again! Your duty is to boogie! Like on ‘Stand On It’, for instance, a fine fine fine hard rocker with some more mad mad mad drum work by Terry and a crunchy crunchy crunchy guitar riff by Jeff. Overall, though, the second side of the album starts to get a bit repetitive – ‘A Day In The House’ and ‘Two Rivers’ still do not manage to inspire me. The funk groove is slightly overdone on the former, with its really annoying ecological message (‘Mother nature has suffered too long… Nothing is being done’, somebody keeps repeating all the time), and the synths, for once, sounding really cheesy and frustrating. And ‘Two Rivers’ is again much too slow and moody to be of any particular interest to anybody but soundtrack loving people.
And yet – the album is being saved from a seven by the closing ‘Sling Shot’, a pulsating, over-energetic rocker with Jeff at his fastest and the whole band finally locking up tight in the greatest groove on the album. What a great way to finish the album! Why hasn’t this idea occurred to Jeff until 1989, damn, after he’d been hanging around for more than twenty years? This stuff really kicks butt! It might be still a bit ‘fusion-flavoured’, but essentially, it’s just rock of the highest quality. And it’s short, like every trusty punk rocker should be.
In all, I really like this album – maybe the last truly great Jeff Beck record in all. No Jeff fan should be content without having it; and who knows, it might even convert a non-Jeff fan. Nowhere near as groundbreaking as Blow By Blow, of course – but if it’s quality we’re talking about, this album has got quality in spades. And after all, whoever said we need vocals in rock? We don’t!
Jeff Beck is the best example I can think of when someone says “acquired taste” in relation to music. Some people swear about his music and guitar playing, others swear at it, claiming it’s too disjointed. My first experience with Beck – namely, the album Wired, fell in the latter category. Someone had highly praised the album, and said I would love it; I later asked that person what they had been smoking.
However, in 1989, Beck released an album that just might be his most accessible work of his whole career. Jeff Beck’s Guitar Shop, a collaboration with keyboardist Tony Hymas and former Zappa drummer Terry Bozzio, takes about two listens to really appreciate, but it has some great moments on it.
In one sense, you can tell that the band is very loose when it comes to this material. “Guitar Shop,” complete with Bozzio’s used-car salesman voiceovers, is an incredibly enjoyable piece that, admittedly, starts off a tad slow. Beck shows why he was considered one of the three big guitar gods of the Sixties (the others being Clapton and Page) – flashy without being overbearing, his guitar work on this one, from rhythm to solo – fits the mood perfectly.
However, the greatest surprise on Guitar Shop is on a piece that features only Beck and Hymas, and is very much a ballad. “Where Were You” is most definitely a mood piece, but Beck makes his guitar almost sing the melody – probably the best I’ve ever heard him play. In one sense, I wish that Beck had included more pieces like this on the album, simply because it feels like he’s found his niche.
Of course, some of the rockers on this release are quite tasty. “Savoy” is a syncopated wonder that shows off the talents of all three musicians, while “Big Block” is a semi-decent song that was my first experience with this album back when I was in college radio. Another song featuring Bozzio’s spoken-word overlays, “Day In The House” is a slightly silly song with a serious message that we’re not paying attention to the earth around us. One almost wishes that Bozzio had provided more of a lyric in the song – the message would have been made that much stronger.
There are a few weak links on Guitar Shop – the album’s closer “Sling Shot” seems to stop suddenly, and is far too short. “Behind The Veil” is an okay piece that, on any other album, probably would have stood out strongly, while “Two Rivers” just doesn’t hit the mark.
Why Jeff Beck’s Guitar Shop didn’t raise Beck into the stratosphere of superstardom is beyond me – I also wonder why there haven’t been followup recordings with Bozzio and Hymas as a three-piece. On this one, quite possibly Beck realized they had captured something special, and chose to move on rather than dilute the magic with other releases.
For anyone looking to discover Jeff Beck’s guitar work, Guitar Shop is as good a place to start – it holds the most lingering appeal compared to many other Beck albums I’ve listened to (and I freely admit I haven’t heard them all… but I’m working on it). Fans of Bozzio’s work with Frank Zappa should also make a beeline to grab this one.