Blow By Blow/Wired Vol. 3. Only this time it took Jeff almost four years to come up with this. One might also ask the inevitable question ‘Why?’ Eight tracks on here, all eight of them just more of the same fusion stuff that we’d already been fed with quite a lot. It’s also the weakest of the three (though only slightly weaker than Wired, so I give it only a slightly weaker rating) – inevitably, because there’s no new ground broken on here. Musically, it’s closer to Wired, because Jan Hammer is still here, with Jeff: his compositions dominate the first side of the record, while on the second he’s been replaced with new-found alumnus Tony Hymas. So the two sides differ from each other seriously: while on the first side there’s enough guitar to disclaim the statement that this is a pure synth-pop album, there’s still no doubt that it’s much more prominent on the second side.
The first side is still driven by Jan Hammer and his hi-tech, robotic noise-making which is even more in the way of good taste than it was before – no wonder, considering that we are ready to enter the Eighties. ‘Star Cycle’ opens the album with a synth riff that’s since become a norm for techno, and I usually shudder at the very first notes of this crap (perhaps it’s no small coincidence that the same riff opens Jethro Tull’s Crest Of A Knave and the beginning of the band’s total and absolute demise). Luckily, though, Jeff Beck’s guitar is anything but generic heavy metal: he does permit himself a little more distortion than usually, but it’s still essentially just a hard, bluesy tone with quite an independent feel. In fact, while the synth work on ‘Star Cycle’ is horrendous beyond words, the guitar parts there are absolutely stunning, some of the most blazing, angry work Jeff’s fingers ever managed to show us. Get it on, Mr Beck! You know you can’t fail your fans’ expectations!
Later on, though, he calms down, and brings to the forward bass player Mo Foster, who’s only happy to make the record as danceable as possible. So they steal the famous Bill Wyman disco bassline off ‘Miss You’ to incorporate in their throwaway-ish ‘Too Much To Lose’, and proceed to marry disco with funk in ‘You Never Know’. I’ll be honest with you, though: nothing ‘nobilizes’ the bland, banal dance rhythms as much as some inspired, fresh and technically masterful guitar playing from some master of the genre.
Whatever I may hold against the album, there’s just no doubt that Beck was in perfect form during the recordings: not a note sounds of place, play it loud and prepare for a couple of moments of musical ecstasy. There are even multi-tracked guitars here! On the other hand, Beck is bound to let down as often as he is bound to lift up. For one, he rarely manages to perform a good ‘slow’ composition: proof irrefutable is ‘The Pump’, a five-minute droning bore that goes nowhere (and it goes, and it goes, and it goes – there’s a steady, boom-boom-boom-boom-bassline, but the effort is ultimately wasted). Nothing particularly energizing about that kind of stuff.
Now the second side is definitely not disco. This is where Beck tries to diversify his style a little: there’s a Hard Rock number, a Psychedelic number, a Boogie Woogie number, and a, er, well, Grand Finale number. To summarize it all in a few words, the odds rock and the evens suck. ‘El Becko’ has loads of great, pulsating energy, an incredibly strong bass riff, and some really driving chops, making this if not the most memorable, at least the most mindlessly enjoyable number on the whole record.
And ‘Space Boogie’ is just the thing that its title suggests – a slight Fifties’ throwback, but clad in modern production values, with ‘astral’ synths all around it, indeed, kinda like Bill Haley among the Comets, if you get my pun. Very weird – I bet you never heard anybody playing strict rockabilly in that style. On the other hand, the other two numbers are just not distinguishable: ‘The Golden Road’ has no melody at all, and in ‘The Final Peace’ Beck and the boys make a brave stab at a grandiose album closer, but fail – even ‘Diamond Dust’ was a better effort than this three-minute whiny guitar showcase.
Overall, though, the album is not all that bad. I’d say the worst about it is that Jeff is too closely giving in to Eighties’ dance music, a thing that led him to the disaster of Flash five years later. His experimentalism, of course, places him a little above that old ‘washed-up bag’, Eric Clapton, but it also makes his music less accessible and much less digestible: Clapton, at least, never really flirted with all these dubious synths and stuff until he made the unforgettable mistake of teaming with Phil Collins. And, whatever you say, three instrumental albums in a row is a bit too much for a musician that’s said to be ‘rock’. Oh, well. I guess that’s what ‘real art’ is all about, isn’t it? You just have to assimilate these kinds of things.
I’ll give you an advice, though. If you have a spare 45 minutes on tape and spare time to lose, you might borrow all these three albums from your local library and tape the best songs – two or three from each album.
You’re guaranteed to come out with a winner. Later on, borrow some studio time, write up some lyrics, overdub them, and you’ll end up with a true lost Seventies’ classic! And don’t forget to mention me on your CD cover as ‘original idea by…’!!
Released in June 1980 on Epic Records, the problem with There and Back is immediately apparent and understood. The three tracks with Jan Hammer go one way while the five tracks with Tony Hymas, Simon Phillips, and Mo Foster go another. As William Ruhlmann notes in his review on allmusicguide, it is a mixed bag recording — the tracks with Hammer are heavily into a kind of funk meets fusion setting, while the second half boasts a more straightforward instrumental rock vibe.
The album doesn’t rise to the level of Blow by Blow (1975) or Wired (1976), but it still remains one of my favorite Beck albums, as the timing of its release matched milestones in my life and remains with me to this day. It’s one of my summer music arsenal must haves, a welcome companion whenever I’m tooling somewhere with the top down.
There and Back had some success too, reaching #21 on the U.S. charts (#11 on the Jazz chart). More than a few of the tracks have remained concert staples for Beck’s groups over the years as well. The three Jan Hammer tracks have their moments but they mostly find him and Beck in competition with each other a bit too much, which takes away from the cohesion of the other tracks. (The drum sound on the Hammer tracks seems weirdly off as well.) Still, Beck manages some nifty solos, especially on Star Cycle where he burns bright and colorful leads and phrases over Hammer’s cacophony of sound. You Never Know boasts some eventful exchanges between Beck and Hammer.
The Hymas/Phillips/Foster trio suits Beck’s guitar shapes better in my opinion. Hymas/Phillips give Beck more support and collaboration than that heard with Hammer. The album changes in tone as well, becoming more rock focused with added nuance and sonic support from the bass and keyboard effects. Phillips is solid on drums throughout.
The two most celebrated tracks remain El Becko (a play on Beck’s Bolero from his debut solo album perhaps), which boasts a “torn flesh” solo from Beck, and Space Boogie, with its nuanced keyboard and straight ahead piano elements, coupled with a rolling drum track and some raucous Beck solos in the mix.
Beck ends the album with one of his signature mood pieces, The Final Peace, which highlights his ability to play beautifully nuanced and atmospheric solos with understated grace while retaining the guitar’s power.
Even with its faults and somewhat dated synthesizer effects, There and Back remains a solid album, with enough Beck guitar zen moments on it to make it worth a listen now and again. I’m still attached to it years later and just hearing Beck go for it now and again remains a blast (three stars).
The good news is that Jeff Beck is back with his first studio record since Wired in 1976. The bad news is that There and Back sounds dismally familiar. In the last few years, such avant-garde guitarists as Robert Fripp and James “Blood” Ulmer — not to mention New Wave upstarts like Public Image Ltd.’s Keith Levene and the Gang of Four’s Andy Gill — have been busy plowing new rhythmic and harmonic ground. Instead of rising to their challenge, Beck has merely returned to the fusion cocoon he started spinning five years ago on Blow by Blow.
Worse, the star opens There and Back with three strikes against him, all of them the work of fuzak keyboardist Jan Hammer, with whom Beck cut a 1977 live album. “Star Cycle,” “Too Much to Lose” and “You Never Know” are formulaic Hammer compositions: i.e., terminally predictable exercises in cosmic Mahavishnu-style virtuosity, lazy MOR fodder or neo-Funk-adelic jive. Throughout most of side one, Beck practically has to fight Hammer’s solo-mad ego for playing room.
Tony Hymas takes over the ivories in the other five tunes, four of which he wrote with drummer Simon Phillips. Though Hymas doesn’t add any new wrinkles to the LP’s jazzrock fabric, at least he’s a team player. Unfortunately, the Hymas-Phillips songs are as skeletal as Hammer’s are overbearing.
Still, there are moments when Beck transcends his clichéd settings. “The Pump,” a simple chord progression funked up by Mo Foster’s hydraulic bass, allows the guitarist ample room to draw out long orchestral sustains. “El Becko” represents the other side of the coin: a tight, punk-chops showcase on the order of Truth’s proto-heavy-metal raver, “Beck’s Bolero.”
Such flashes, however, are far too few. There and Back is a disappointingly static record from a consummate riffer whose specialty was always leading the pack. These days, Jeff Beck seems content to be a spectator, watching the parade go by.