US release date: 27 March 2001 (original release, 1976)
by Simon Warner
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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.