Jeff Beck’s porno guitar masterclass: Blow By Blow

January 13, 2023
7 mins read
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Musician’s musician, guitarist’s guitarist Jeff Beck has left the building. GARY STEEL offers a sacrament to the genius player.

“His hair is so pretty…I’d like to bite his neck/I’ve heard a rumour he’s more fluid than Jeff Beck.” So goes the line in ‘Punky’s Whips’, a Frank Zappa song about his drummer’s supposed fetish for hair band Angel’s guitarist Punky Meadows.

Naturally, the reference to fluidity is a double entendre. After all, rock stars were famous for their promiscuous peccadillos, and Jeff Beck did manage to marry an astonishing six times over the course of his 78 years. But we know what Frank really means as soon as he utters the words. Jeff Beck was one of the most effortlessly fluid guitarists of the rock era, a musician who gained iconographic status for no other reason than his mean ability with an electric guitar.

 

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Unlike the other great guitarists of the rock era, he didn’t sing, and although he did write the odd piece, writing was never his forte. Unlike Eric Clapton or Peter Green he didn’t have an instantly recognisable overall sound, and during his career, he changed his musical style over and over again. His reputation rested firmly on his ability to spank that plank, and spank it real good.

Probably my favourite all-time Jeff Beck moment occurs on the explosive single he recorded with The Yardbirds shortly before the hit group broke up, ‘Happenings Ten Years Time Ago’ backed with the similarly excellent ‘Psycho Daisies’. Jimmy Page, later of rock behemoths Led Zeppelin, had joined the group and suddenly they had an explosive guitar arsenal that was simply too strong to contain within one group. As we know, Page would front The New Yardbirds who would soon evolve into Zeppelin, and Beck would form his own group with Rod Stewart. While Page had the vision to create a new sonic architecture for rock (while blatantly ripping off old blues songs), Beck just kept doing his thing for several different projects that kept his reputation intact without setting the world on fire.

The next stand-out work that Jeff Beck did was Blow By Blow, his 1975 reinvention as a jazz/rock fusion superstar. There was nothing outwardly innovative about the album, and jazz/rock fusion heavy hitters like John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra and Chick Corea’s Return To Forever were already firmly established with their explosive dynamics, complex compositions and superb musical skills. It might seem strange to today’s audiences, but for a few years in the early-to-mid 1970s, the major jazz/rock fusion groups were hugely popular, and could command massive crowds. Jeff Beck entered this milieu with Blow By Blow, recorded with former Beatles producer George Martin (who had worked with Mahavishnu Orchestra) and a core line-up of Max Middleton (keyboards), Phil Chenn (bass) and Richard Bailey (drums). (Middleton would go on to work with the likes of Kate Bush, John Martyn and Chris Rea, and become an in-demand session musician. Jamaican-Chinese bassist Phil Chenn would also become an in-demand session muso, and would play regularly with Ray Manzarek of The Doors. Trinidadian Richard Bailey went on to hold down the drum stool in Incognito for many years and more recently, work with Steve Winwood.)

In effect, Beck chose fairly anonymous session guys to work with who would do their job but not impose much of their own personality on the project. Beck himself is co-credited with writing four of the nine songs on Blow By Blow, with one Lennon/McCartney song (‘She’s A Woman’) and no less than two contributions from Stevie Wonder, who also played uncredited clavinet on his song ‘Thelonius’.

Listening to the album for the first time today can bring on a measure of bemusement. Unlike the thundering crescendos and fiery virtuosity of John McLaughlin and pals, the first few songs on Blow By Blow sound like the kind of greasy, lurid quasi-funk heard in the first flush of mainstream porno movies of the early ‘70s, with particular reference to Deep Throat. Except it’s, um… cleaner. That is, there are none of the dirty lurching, humping rhythms found in skin pics of the time. Instead, Blow By Blow could almost be mistaken for an easy listening album with its rather perfunctory supporting performances and fairly freeze-dried sonics. The album would certainly have taken on another dimension had Beck employed a really sizzling hot, dynamic drummer or gut-churning bassist, but it would also have lost some of its queasy charm.

Sometimes, great records are like a double-edged sword, and in this case, there’s certainly a cheesiness and one could claim a certain lack of imaginative gravitas. Contrast Blow By Blow with Frank Zappa’s great jazz-rock fusion One Size Fits All from the same year, and you’ll see what I mean. The dynamic range is wide and deep on the Zappa record, and the songs are composed and engineered to reveal the grit in every individual performance as well as the full ensemble. But none of that matters when you find yourself wanting a record in your life, and despite your reservations, playing the record over and over again, for sheer enjoyment. And the joy in Blow By Blow is in the way the fairly spare arrangements let the guitar breathe, and Jeff Beck reveal his true artistry on his instrument.

The trick is to turn it up loud, whereupon it transforms into something other than wallpaper, and you can really appreciate the intricacy, timing and sound of Beck’s guitar. The groove of the opening piece, ‘You Know What I Mean’, could be The Meters except that it’s clearly got a bit of disco tinsel in its feathers. The guitar sounds extremely nimble and really sings. And after all, it’s that “vocal” quality that so many appreciated about Beck’s playing. Hilariously, it’s the Beatles track, ‘She’s A Woman’, that’s the most “porno” sounding thing on the album, with its moist electric piano and dirty voice-box, the playful groove leading into a rather lyrical and reflective section. With its Caribbean inflections it’s simultaneously cheesy as hell and utterly gorgeous, and the fretboard work is pure genius. Every track fades into another (a trick first used on those late ‘60s Moody Blues albums) and next up is ‘Constipated Duck’ with its gritty clavinet and busy groove. ‘Air Blower’ (at least it’s not called ‘Leaf Blower’) is pure disco-jazz-fusion with what sounds like a synth-guitar cascading over the busy beats (or perhaps it’s Middleton’s synth and Beck’s guitar playing in parallel), and it’s long enough at 5:07 to incorporate a ballad-like section towards the end. ‘Scatterbrain’ is the closest Blow By Blow comes to echoing the sound of John McLaughlin, with a dizzying chord progression familiar to lovers of the Mahavishnu maestro, and even a George Martin orchestration at its climax. ‘Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers’ is the first of two successive Stevie Wonder songs gifted to the project, and it’s the first real example of the beautiful ballad playing Beck would use to great effect in the early 2000s. This is a guitar dripping with expressivity and emotion. ‘Thelonius’ is a second Wonder piece and it’s a wondrous piece of disco-funk with Beck playing around with who-knows-what guitar gizmos and gadgetry to thicken the sound, as well as a voice-box. ‘Freeway Jam’ is pretty much what it says on the lid: a fairly undistinguished jam by keyboardist Middleton, which nevertheless gives the crack band a chance to unleash some more hot licks. And finally, all eight minutes and 24 seconds of ‘Diamond Dust’, a piece composed by fellow guitarist Bernie Holland that starts out slow and reflective, with orchestra, and takes us on a lush journey to the end of this rather exquisite album.

I think American rock critic Robert Christgau had a point when, reviewing this album, he slammed Jeff Beck as a mere technician. He didn’t have the creative vision of Hendrix or the songwriting talent of Peter Green and he seemed to spend much of his career stumbling through a variety of dead-end projects. Despite all that, there was artistry in his playing that rose above it all, and testament to that is the respect with which he was held in the music community, and principally amongst his guitar-playing brethren.

For me, Blow By Blow is the high point of his long career, but it’s follow-up, Wired, is also very good. And excellence abounds in the various Beck performances scattered through the rock and pop history of the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s and into the 21st century. I’ve never attempted to collect Beck but a cursory look through my collection shows that he was a busy man outside of his better-known roles in bands like The Yardbirds. I’ve got him guesting on Donovan songs, and tracks on a British blues compilation (The Jeff Beck Allstars), on Cream lyricist Pete Brown’s solo album, on the GTO’s album (the groupie band that Zappa put together), on Jennifer Warnes’ album of Leonard Cohen songs, and even on a Kate Bush album. One of the more enjoyable Beck projects I hung onto was Jeff Beck’s Guitar Workshop with drummer Terry Bozzio, and then there’s the 2008 DVD and CD of Beck performing at Ronnie Scott’s, which shows that he was still in top form in his later years. Lastly, there’s an album called Music At Free Creek, a kind of superstar jam session that he participated in during 1969, and there’s some wicked Beck work on that. Check your own collection: even if you don’t know it, there’s probably some Beck in there.

 

 

 

 

Steel has been penning his pungent prose for 40 years for publications too numerous to mention, most of them consigned to the annals of history. He is Witchdoctor's Editor-In-Chief/Music and Film Editor. He has strong opinions and remains unrepentant. Steel's full bio can be found here

1 Comment

  1. Saw Jeff Beck at Aotea Centre, Auckland Feb 3rd 2009 with his regular band (Ronnie Scott’s fame). Top show. His performance at the Les Paul Tribute concert New York is superb going back to early rock and roll with Imelda May and a genuine old rocker band. Get this on Bluray if you can. Although American artists on this can be passed over.

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