Remembering guitar legend Jeff Beck, 78
Guitar legend left indelible impression on industry, listeners
Regrettably, it took until I was 30 years old before I truly discovered Jeff Beck, who passed away Tuesday, Jan. 10, at 78.
As a kid I listened to enough classic rock stations to be familiar with his work in The Yardbirds, his solo albums with Rod Stewart (thanks to Martin Scorsese’s Casino, “I Ain’t Superstitious” will ring forever in my brain), as well as receiving this cassette at 13 called White Boy Blues, a collection of tracks with Beck, Jimmy Page, and Eric Clapton playing blues songs in various bands during the mid-to-late ’60s.
But at 30 years old I ordered Beck’s Blow By Blow and Wired after hearing “Freeway Jam” on internet radio. I had just started getting heavy into jazz, fusion, and Stevie Wonder. Yes, Stevie Wonder. I’d bought Talking Book, and on that album was a track called “Looking for Another Pure Love,” which had Beck playing guitar. It wasn’t a flashy solo. It was subtle, sweet, and sassy, and felt like it was speaking its own language, yet fit perfectly into Wonder’s groovy, funky track. I knew at that point Beck was going to be my next great obsession.
Beck has made decades of music, and I’ve enjoyed them all. But something about his mid-‘70s turn into “jazz rock,” for lack of a better term, is the one that resonates most deeply with me.
Blow By Blow doesn’t have a bad song on it. It’s production by George Martin, the ever-present electric piano of Max Middleton, the rhythm section of Phil Chen and Richard Bailey, and of course Beck keeping the machine running perfectly was, for me, the perfect LP.
It was of its time, yet it sounds timeless. From the opening notes of “You Know What I Mean” to the orchestral and cinematic finale of “Diamond Dust”, Blow By Blow has it all. The funky “Constipated Duck” will forever be cranked up every time it plays near me. The wonderful cover of the Beatles’ “She’s A Woman” with its reggae vibes and talk box guitar vocals, and the sultry ballad “Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers, ” that in my mind has become a timeless classic (and dedicated to the underrated Tele master Roy Buchanan.) Mid-album bangers like “Air Blower” and “Scatterbrain” with frenetic orchestral arrangements courtesy of Martin himself. The Wonder-penned “Thelonious” is attitude personified. Pure groove rock.
Coming back with Wired
A year later, he was back with Wired. Once again produced by Martin, but with a different band (with the exception of Middleton). This album included Mahavishnu Orchestra’s Jan Hammer on synths, and this record was far more frenetic and loud, especially with Beck’s switch from the warmth of his Les Paul to the single coil buzz of a Strat, you knew from the opening track, “Led Boots,” this was going to be a different trip altogether.
It was reported that Martin didn’t know what to do with this louder, brasher sound, and had stepped back a bit from the producing duty, leaving Hammer to take the reins a lot of the time. Still, Wired contains a couple standout tracks, as well as songs that became live standards for years to come. His cover of Charles Mingus’ “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” is nothing short of stunning. While staying true to Mingus’ spirit, Beck somehow makes the song completely his own and drops jaws in the process. The fusion vibes are heavier here thanks to Hammer’s indelible and singular synthesizer work, while “Play With Me” is filthy and funky in all the right place. “Love Is Green” is gorgeous. A stunning ballad.
Focused on his loves
Beck’s first two solo albums are the DNA that became heavy metal, the same with his Jeff Beck Group LPs. Led Zeppelin may have been the “Hammer of the Gods,” but Beck and Stewart forged that hammer for them.
But Beck wasn’t interested in forging anything. He just loved playing guitar and playing with other amazing musicians. That’s why there were never any controversies and scandals. When he wasn’t in the studio or playing shows to promote albums, he was in his garage working on hot rods. I read the unauthorized biography Crazy Fingers about Beck. It was a fantastic read because it was about his music and gear, not scandals or anything like that. Some might have found that boring, but as a guitar nerd I found it fascinating.
Anyways, you all know Beck was a guitar wizard. You don’t need me to tell you that. His death will reverberate for a very long time, as he rewrote the book on guitar playing. He also rewired many brains with his playing and his singular output as a musician and band leader. He rewired mine, for sure.