Author: Bruce Jenkins Date Posted:9 February 2024
When Jeff Beck died suddenly just over a year ago it sent shockwaves through the rock community. With a career spanning an extraordinary six decades, the legendary British guitarist had numerous groups of his own while always being available for collaborations. Over the years he worked many times with pal Rod Stewart, while also lending his six-string talents to recordings by Kate Bush, Tina Turner, Ozzy Osbourne, blues demi-god Buddy Guy and Jon Bon Jovi. Readers of this column may also recall that Beck appeared on stage with David Bowie at the famous final Ziggy Stardust performance. (More here)
First coming to prominence as the replacement for Eric Clapton in the Yardbirds, Beck was highly regarded in the UK scene. Indeed, Nick Mason of Pink Floyd recalled in his memoir how his band wanted to recruit Beck as a replacement for Syd Barrett, but "none of us had the nerve to ask him." After the death of Brian Jones the Rolling Stones also approached the guitarist. To call him "well regarded" is a massive understatement. Beck, even early in his career, was revered.
As the Seventies unfolded, Beck was drawn to the jazz-rock sounds emerging into the rock mainstream. Drummer Billy Cobham’s Spectrum (October 1973) was hugely influential. "Spectrum changed my whole musical outlook," Beck said. "I thought, 'this is the shit we need’."1 In 1974 he began recording instrumental pieces with a band including composer and keyboard whiz Max Middleton, the music being produced by George Martin. Blow By Blow was released in March 1975. A few months later, Rolling Stone magazine printed a review.
Beck’s music here is… closely connected to Stevie Wonder’s, Herbie Hancock’s and perhaps most of all, to that of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, his current touring partner. The only axe Beck has to grind is his Gibson; there are no statements here, only his usual flurry of notes. His affection for Max Middleton’s keyboard playing seems more sensible than it did with the group that made Rough and Ready. Middleton is derivative of Chick Corea and Hancock, but it hardly matters. His principal function is to complement Beck and he does that well.2
This music was totally different from the heavy rock sounds of his recently disbanded trio, Beck Bogert Appice. From the jaunty jazz-funk of opener "You Know What I Mean" through to the keening emotion of closer "Diamond Dust" this is an album of taste and vitality. Along the way we have a gloriously melodic ballad (Stevie Wonder’s "Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers") the fast-grooving "Freeway Jam" and even a Beatles cover! Perhaps inspired by working with producer George Martin, Beck covered the Fabs "She’s A Woman", using a talk box effects device to produce the odd, mutated vocals. The single received radio airplay, and this—along with the co-headlining tour with John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra—helped propel Blow by Blow into the US Top 10.
So how does Blow By Blow hold up almost fifty years later? The short answer is, very well indeed. George Martin’s production is clean, and his orchestral arrangements deft and understated. ("Scatterbrain" is a classy example.) Drummer Richard Bailey is as versatile as the music demands, while Middleton’s work on Fender Rhodes, synthesisers, and clavinet will delight those who love analogue keyboards. As for Jeff Beck, he brings that precious combination of technical ability and verve that lights up the best guitar recordings.
Overall, this is a feel-good slice of Seventies jazz-rock that is both accessible and, dare I say it, fun. It was a creative peak for the English guitarist, and a record I’ve been enjoying for decades. That won’t be changing anytime soon3.
1. Phillips, Matt (2023) John McLaughlin: From Miles and Mahavishnu to the 4th Dimension. Rowman & Littlefield, London.
2. Marsh, Dave (1975) Blow By Blow. Rolling Stone (accessed 30-01-2024)
3. The Sony/Epic 2020 re-issue used for this review is excellent; clean and clear.
© Bruce Jenkins—February 2024