“Things took a funny turn in the early 70s. It all turned out well when I heard John McLaughlin, because his performance on the Miles Davis Jack Johnson album and with Mahavishnu Orchestra said, ‘Here’s where you can go’. And every musician I knew was raving about them. I thought, ‘This is a little bit of me, this. I’ll have some of that.’ The mastery of the playing, it was unequaled.” – Jeff Beck
“Everybody respects Jeff. He’s an extraordinary musician and he’s developed a technique which is so complex, it’s just a beauty to behold and hear and to feel his playing. He’s having a conversation with you when he’s playing. It’s just he’s not singing.” – Jimmy Page
After Beck Bogert & Appice fell apart in 1974, Beck did what he called a “half-hearted” audition for the Rolling Stones. They jammed on some blues but Jeff had moved on past that and didn’t feel compatible with where they were and where they were going. The Stones knew Ronnie Wood, one thing led to another, and he became the replacement for Mick Taylor. (They got the right guy – ME.)
Beck then started recording instrumentals at AIR Studios with Max Middleton (who had been part of the Jeff Beck Group), bassist Phil Chen, and drummer Richard Bailey. This was the studio that George Martin started after he left Parlophone when they essentially fucked him over on raises and commissions and such.
Beck liked Martin not for his work with the Beatles so much as his production of Mahavishnu’s Apocalypse album. The thing it’s important to understand in all this is that back in the 70s, jazz fusion was HOT. In addition to Mahavishnu, you had Larry Coryell, Chick Corea, Al Di Meola, Weather Report – hell even Manfred Mann was leaning that way.
So it shouldn’t come as a total surprise that Beck’s 1975 album Blow by Blow leaned heavily in that direction without a trace of blues. This is a great album which I wrote about here a while back. I’ll let you wander over there but I’ll post a tune here. Let’s go with the great “Freeway Jam.” (All Spotify stuff on the inevitable playlist at end of post.)
Blow by Blow “was a hit in the US, reaching number four on the Billboard album charts, eventually selling a million copies. It remains Beck’s highest-charting album.” See, this is the era I miss. Assuming an album like this could even be made today, where would it get played? Who would even hear it?
Beck followed Blow by Blow up with the if-not-quite-as-original, then still pretty damn good Wired. In his apparent zeal to actually be the Mahavishnu Orchestra, he added Jan Hammer on synthesizer. The kick-off track is a tribute to Led Zeppelin (while sounding nothing like them) called “Led Boots.” Here he is with his band at London’s Ronnie Scott’s:
In reflecting back, it seems to me that while Beck has remained a recording and touring musician, his career’s highest point – at least from a mainstream visibility perspective – may well have been that 70’s, early 80s period.
Slowly but surely, jazz-rock’s influence and popularity started to fade. MTV came in and the baby boomer generation who enjoyed this kind of stuff became less and less of a buying and listening force. And since Beck wasn’t a Top 40 hitmaker, his albums increasingly became less viable as big sellers on the market.
In the 80s, Jeff played at The Secret Policeman’s Other Ball and the ARMS concert for MS, the latter of which was driven by Ronnie Lane who suffered from the disease.*
In 1985 Beck released Flash, which reunited him with Rod Stewart. The album was produced by Nile Rodgers as the record company was angling for hits. Of the album, Beck later said, it was a “record company goof” and “a very sad sort of time” for him.
But Jeff and Rod, always the great soul and Motown lovers, did manage to pull off a nice version of Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready.” Here are our heroes again, “live.”**
Wikipedia: “After a four-year break, Beck made a return to instrumental music with the album Jeff Beck’s Guitar Shop (1989), the first album to feature Beck as a fingerstyle guitarist, leaving the plectrum playing style.
It was only his third album to be released in the 1980s. Much of Beck’s sparse and sporadic recording schedule was due in part to a long battle with tinnitus.” (Beck has a grand total of eleven albums under his own name, releasing one every four years or so. The rest of the time he spends tinkering with his hot rods.)
I recall buying Guitar Shop. Liked it but kind of a hard album to describe. All traces of jazz are gone and it’s more an instrumental hard rock album. Terry Bozzio – who played with Zappa and UK – was the rock-solid drummer. This tune is called “Savoy”:
I’d never seen Beck play and when I found out he was touring with my then-latest guitar hero, Stevie Ray Vaughan I knew I had to go that. SRV had been almost singlehandedly keeping the blues flame alive. We’d seen him a couple of times during the decade and the show was always great, sometimes bluesy, sometimes jazzy. But I think something competitive came out when these two guys played together and the number one thing I recall was LOUD.
A quick summary of some of Beck’s activities in the 90s: He played lead guitar on Roger Waters‘ 1992 concept album Amused to Death and on the 1993 album The Red Shoes by Kate Bush. He rehearsed with Guns N’ Roses for their concert but didn’t play with them. The Yardbirds were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
And in 1993 he released an album called Crazy Legs, a tribute to Gene Vincent and His Blue Caps and their guitarist Cliff Gallup, a big influence on Beck. Hootchie Mama here comes “Race With the Devil”
Beck got his seventh (of eight) Grammy Awards in 2001 for this cool instrumental track, “Dirty Mind.” I saw Beck again at the Orpheum Theater in Boston in 1999. A look back at setlists from that era advises me that it was largely composed of newer all-instrumental hard rock with “Cause We’ve Ended as Lovers” thrown in maybe to appease the older fans.
Jeff had started playing with female musicians a few years earlier beginning with guitarist Jennifer Batten, who had toured with Michael Jackson. How he found out about Tal Wilkenfeld is somewhat thanks to the Allman Brothers. She met some members of the band while playing in a New York City club. Derek Trucks and bassist Oteil Burbridge encouraged her to join them for their run at the Beacon Theater.
When they were about to play “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed,” Burbridge handed her his bass and she played. She sent a video of this incredible “a star is born” moment to Beck as part of auditioning and he hired her. She was playing with Beck when they did their legendary night at Ronnie Scott’s. I posted bits of it already but you can see it all here.
Somewhere around 2013, it was announced that Beck would play guitar on some of Brian Wilson’s albums. While they did try to record together, somehow it never jelled and to my knowledge, nothing was ever released. They did tour together around this time which I found kinda weird. This might have worked better back in the 60s when audiences were more open to that sort of variety. But I would maintain that generally speaking, they have two very different audiences.
In 2016, Jeff released an album called Loud Hailer. I reviewed this album and will give him points for trying something new. But frankly, there wasn’t much good to say about it.
After the COVID breakout in spring 2020, Jeff released a cover of John Lennon’s “Isolation.” “We weren’t expecting to release it so soon,” said Beck, “but given all the hard days and true ‘isolation’ that people are going through in these challenging times, we decided now might be the right time to let you all hear it.”
Beck has been touring with Depp recently and the reviews, shall we say, have been mixed. Jeff plays great apparently but doesn’t talk to the audience. And when Depp comes on I guess it’s time to go out and get a hot dog.
In 2015, Beck was ranked No. 5 in Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists. As noted he has won eight Grammy Awards. In 2014 he received the British Academy’s Ivor Novello Award for Outstanding Contribution to British Music.
Beck has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice: as a member of the Yardbirds (1992) and as a solo artist (2009). And our last cool President invited him to the Blues Night at the White House. I think Trump invited Milli Vanilli.
Fellow blogger Christian advises me that Beck will be touring the UK in the spring of 2022. I notice he’ll be playing at the Royal Albert Hall in May. Should we go and see how many of us it takes to fill the Albert Hall?
Let’s end this tribute to the Great One with a song he did with Irish songstress Imelda May, a woman who was born right around when Jeff was rehearsing Blow by Blow. (Hell, Wilkenfeld is all of 34 years old.
Reader Phil Strawn clued me in to the fact that the duo had performed a cover of “How High the Moon.” Les Paul’s version of this tune was what inspired Beck to pick up the guitar all those years ago. So we come full circle.
*Lane died in 1997 at the age of 51.
**At Stewart’s induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992, Beck gave the induction speech, saying of Rod, “We have a love-hate relationship – he loves me and I hate him.”
Sources: Wikipedia, Beck documentary, Still On The Run, and website. Music Radar interview.