Sorting through the flotsam that is rock lore to figure out how events happened, who was involved and when, especially through the substance addled ’60s and ’70s is like trying to determine a pig’s gender by looking at a plate of bacon. You have a good shot at getting it right but you’ll never know.
Beck had covered a Stevie Wonder song on the Orange Album and later in 1972 Wonder and Beck were kicking around the idea of JB doing some session work on Little Stevie’s next album Talking Book. In May they met at Electric Lady in New York and Beck recorded some guitar tracks. A few days later the entire JBGroup went into the studio to observe Wonder in action and to try and get Stevie to write a song for their next album. Here the stories diverge.
One version has Beck noodling on the drums and Wonder writing a song over it. In defense of that oft-repeated story Jeff Beck did throw out a drum pattern to inspire Wonder but nothing came of it. Beck is quoted “I hoped he would write me one song to get me going, you know, in that new direction.” But it wasn’t Beck’s drumming that made it happen. Martin Powers related in his comprehensive and fun biography, Hot Wire Guitar: The Life of Jeff Beck, the story that I think makes the most sense. Powers in an interview with Max Middleton:
“Beck says ‘Play me something funky.’ Stevie says ‘Ok, why don’t you guys get a drink and I’ll come up with something.’ Jeff and the others left for a while, but I stayed there sitting next to Stevie while he played the clavinet. The next thing, he started this riff…it was magical. He built up the track, played the drums, started putting words together on each take. When we all came back the next day, Stevie had the whole thing finished.”
Superstition. Beck and band were thrilled, but Wonder knew exactly the impact this song would have so Beck never got it for himself. In one hand and out the other. #1 in the US on release and sold a million copies as a single.
By 1974, Jeff Beck was done with the Jeff Beck Group process and was looking for new directions, possibly just as a solo with hired guns. He was enamored with what was going on in jazz fusion and did some experimenting with bands like Gonzales that would become Hummingbird, then Zzebra with Terry Smith and Dave Quincy.
Most telling as to his new direction was his involvement with Eddie Harris and Upp. The whole thing was very ‘lookin fer sumthin’/avante garde and gave Beck a platform which he used to forge his new bearing. In 1973 Jeff and Upp had appeared in a BBC special hosted by Julian Bream, The Five Faces of Guitar, which was designed to showcase several top guitarists from different genres like flamenco, classical, and with Beck as the representative of rock. He confused the audience with a reggae version of Lennon/McCartney’s “She’s a Woman”, and the stage was set for his next work. Jeff joined Eddie and Upp on their 1974 album E.H in the UK which included Ian Paice on drums and the sublime Albert Lee on guitar.
In early 1974 John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra released the seminal album Apocalypse produced by George Martin, who started his own studio and production company after the Beatles had left Abbey Road. Beck, always a huge fan of McLaughlin’s, was impressed with the work and contacted Martin about producing his next album. As it turned out, George was a big fan of Beck as well and agreed to produce what would become Blow by Blow.
Jeff at first brought in Carmine Appice for the drums but after a few days in the studio Appice let on that he thought the band should be called The Appice and Beck Project. Jeff famously said “Well you can bugger off”, then realized he was in the studio and out a drummer. Gotta love that guy! Max Middleton, who was brought in on keys again, called up an 18-year-old wunderkind named Richard Bailey that he’d worked with in Gonzales. This worked well, as Phil Chen from that band was on bass for Blow by Blow.
Martin brought a hardened discipline to the studio that Beck struggled with. The band would be slated to start at 10AM and JB would show up at 6 in the evening when everyone was basically finishing up their tracks. But once he realized they were doing tracks without him, he made the effort to show up earlier.
A side weirdness happened as they were finishing recording. In December ’74 Mick Taylor of the Rolling Stones abruptly handed in his notice and the Stones’ replacement desire was Beck. Jeff was certainly aware of the financial possibilities, so the following January found him in a studio in Rotterdam with the Stones. But he found their studio discipline (or lack thereof) hard to handle, which was saying a lot because Beck’s problems in that area were well documented. In the end he said, “In three hours I only had to play three chords and I need a little bit more energy than that.”
Back in the studio, Blow by Blow got its finishing touches. The disc is not only a favorite of mine but became jazz/rock/whatever fusion’s first best-seller. The band was tight and Jeff’s guitar playing and writing had taken a decidedly funky turn. Middleton contributed “Freeway Jam” and co-wrote “Scatterbrain” with Jeff, which would become a perennial show tune for him. And Jeff got his Wonder wish. Stevie wrote “Thelonius” for the album as a nod to Beck’s work on Talking Book, and played clavinet for the song as well. Yes, I know Middleton was credited with the clavinet on this cut but you’re all wrong. Just listen to it. Stevie. Period.
Released in March 1975, it was expected to slowly grow on people. Instead, within weeks, it went to #4 on US charts and eventually sold two million copies worldwide.
In April 1975, Jeff was approached for a tour with McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra. With some Beck band changes and a real nervousness at opening for his hero, the tour did three months in the US, to huge success. Beck and McLaughlin, toward the end of the tour, were switching places on the bill.
Added bonus: Beck met Jan Hammer.
Hammer had co-founded Mahavishnu with McLaughlin, so Jeff was familiar with his work. Beck once said “Jan was the best guitarist ever to have played a keyboard”, and the match was magic. George Martin was again tapped for producer and our old friend Max on keys. Joining was Willie Bascomb on bass and the incomparable ex-Mahavishnu drummer Narada Michael Walden, who also penned four songs for the 1976 release of Wired.
On the album, Beck dished homage to Mingus’s “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat”. Done in one take (!!!!!!), the version was done so well Mingus wrote a note to Jeff telling him how much he loved it. Mingus. Sigh.
Remarkable in music are folks that are magic on stage and studio. Not common. Most remarkable was how well Hammer and Beck got along musically and professionally. Hammer wrote and produced “Blue Wind” for the project.
The album itself presented some difficulty between Martin and Beck, and at one point the two of them flew to LA to record the guitar tracks at Cherokee Studios. There was disagreement about the direction the album should take and at the end of the Cherokee sessions George and Jeff parted ways. Jan Hammer finished the production, although Martin is credited with producing the album. Wired would go to #16 and certified platinum, and, like Blow by Blow, sell two million copies.
Beck joined Jan Hammer’s band for a tour in the fall of 1976 that was characterized as “sheer bloody lunacy”. Everyone beat the crap out of everyone else with intense soloing on a nightly basis. Thankfully some of these nights were preserved on Jeff Beck with the Jan Hammer Group Live, released in March 1977. Go get this. Just go get it. You don’t need to stream it first or borrow it from a friend. If you’ve gotten this far in these articles, you’re a Beck fan so just get up, get out, and get it. But you can check out this live version of “Scatterbrain”.
Fernando Saunders on bass. Uh huh.
In the fall of 1978 and into ‘79, Beck and Stanley Clarke put together a band (how did I miss DAT) and toured Japan. I don’t know of any album, but there are YouTube crappy audio cuts. Clarke spoke of Beck’s huge following in Japan and his amazement of the adulation that followed them everywhere.
Lucky for us, Beck and Clarke joined again for the North Sea Jazz Festival in 2006 with Vinnie Colaiuta on the kit. Check out how much fun they were having.
Land o’ Goshen.
Most important of the 1979 Beck/Clarke joining was adding Tony Hymas on keys, who would become a perennial bandmate, and Simon Phillips on drums, both of whom would join Beck on There and Back, his first studio album in four years.
Staying with Tony Hymans and Simon Phillips, the new lineup included Jan Hammer on some keys. But a bass player was needed. A hard working session bass man named Mo Foster, whom Phillips knew, was added. There was some sputtering between studios, then Ken Scott who engineered Truth was added and the album was finished at Abbey Road.
The writing duo of Hymas and Phillips filled in the gap Beck needed to turn short riffs, which no one did better than Jeff, into full songs, as well as bring ideas to Beck which he loved. Hammer contributed some classic songs like the opener “Star Cycle”.
The result was the closest work Beck had envisioned when he and I heard Cobham’s Spectrum. The tone that Beck had developed by this time was something so unique you have to invoke Jeff and Allan Holdsworth as immediately and singly recognizable.
Released in June 1980, There and Back went to #10 on Billboard’s Jazz Albums and #21 on Billboard’s 200.
Those of you who know Cobham’s “Quadrant 4″ will recognize that influence on “Space Boogie”. But don’t discount Simon Phillips on those skins. The man can BASH and played with everybody.
Shiver Me Timbers.
I have to apologize to those I promised this was the last Beck article in the series. There are still a couple of decades left, so I’m gonna finish in the next column. Coolness to come. The frickin guy never stopped.
For those of you who can’t get enough, I will again recommend Martin Power’s joyride of a biography Hot Wire Guitar: The Life of Jeff Beck, from which I stole unabashedly. Great read, fun writer. See you next issue. Same time, same station.