By 1975 Jeff Beck was by some distance the least commercially successful of the trio of guitar heroes to have cut their teeth in the Yardbirds – the other two being Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page. After the power trio Beck, Bogert and Appice had not lived up to expectations, and possibly fed up with singers who kept on leaving his band for other gigs (Bobby Tench and, more notably, Rod Stewart) he went into George Martin’s AIR studio to cut a purely instrumental album – a risky proposition for a rock player in the mid 70s.
The resulting Blow by Blow was a commercial and critical triumph and still is Beck’s best-selling album. He followed up a year or so later with another album in the same broad vein, again with George Martin producing. These are the two albums that put Beck firmly back on the map, and on which much of his considerable reputation as an ace guitarist rests.
Blow by Blow is the more…. organic of the pair. Beck took a small band of crack session players into the studio with him – Max Middleton (veteran of previous Beck projects and later a key member of Chris Rea’s band) on keyboards, Phil Chen (later a member of Rod Stewart’s band) on bass and Richard Bailey on drums – and they all click to deliver a superb ensemble performance. The engineer is frequent Martin sidekick and plain all-time-great Geoff Emerick and the recording sounds fabulous – spacious but also full of detail.
Beck has often seemed to want for good material, but here the selections are good with strong melodies and hooks. Stevie Wonder’s “‘Cause We’ve Ended as Lovers” is a stand out with Beck building up gradually to a solo rich with chops and fascination (so much more satisfying than the later live clips you can find on YouTube on which he jumps too quickly into balls-to-the-wall soloing). He even makes tasteful use of a talk box, which makes sense in this context because there’s often a very vocal quality to his guitar parts.
Middleton is consistently excellent with parts that often surprise and fit at the same time. His composition “Scatterbrain” is another standout with Beck and the band playing with great attitude on the ensemble passages strong solos (including Middleton himself), a kickass performance from Bailey and Martin’s string arrangement soaring alongside the solos. Throughout the album Beck hooks the listener with clever hooks and a frequent off-hand attitude that makes it sound like he’s casually tossing great fills and licks away.
He wasn’t though. Martin tells the tale of how Beck couldn’t stop tinkering with the recording, repeatedly re-recording parts. It says something for Beck and Martin that so little sounds forced. The tale ends with Beck calling Martin to arrange still more revisions only to be told that the record was in the shops.
Next year’s Wired saw Beck lean further toward the world of jazz fusion with Mahavishnu Orchestra alumni Jan Hammer and Narada Michael Walden bought on board. (Walden is best known as a producer of over-egged pop hits, but here he shows his excellence behind the drum kit). It’s a more aggressive affair with the studio players (Middleton is retained and Bailey plays on two tracks) playing with notable attack and energy and Beck rising to the challenge and turning up another notch from the very high standard he’d set on the previous album.
But the record also lacks the soulfulness and unified feel of it’s predecessor, and Beck choses a lesser set of tunes. Too often the sound is a riff (admittedly a funky, hook-laden riff as on the Walden composition “Come Dancing”) with solos layered on top, so there’s less melodic interest.
The solos however are exceptional even by Beck’s standards. Students of rock guitar will want to pay attention, there are some very hot guitar parts here. If you study bass or drums then the record is just as impressive. Hammer, whose synth solos are often guitar-like, seems to spur Beck on to increasing heights.
This pair of albums represent Beck’s commercial and artistic high water mark. His technical gifts never waned, but subsequent albums seemed to miss the strengths that Beck and Martin had identified and put so sharply in focus.
PS: There is a small annoyance with Blow by Blow in digital format. The album was created so that the tracks flowed or cross-faded into each other. With the discrete files of the digital album the effect is spoiled.