Growing up there were four guitarists that were always mentioned when it came to dudes that changed the game when it came to rock and roll guitar. Jimmy, Jimi, Eric, and Jeff. For those not in the know(and if you’re not, welcome. Glad to see you), that would be Jimmy Page, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, and Jeff Beck. Now before you puff out your chest and get all defensive and say “Well what about Ritchie Blackmore, Angus Young, David Gilmour, Allan Holdsworth, Eddie Van Halen, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Marc Bolan, Vernon Reid, Gary Moore, John McLaughlin, etc, yadda yadda, and so forth???” Let me say right off the bat that picking the most important guitarist is a subjective thing, okay? But when you’re talking the late 60s, the British Invasion, and the birth of the psychedelic age no other names were mentioned more than Page, Hendrix, Clapton, and Beck. These guys redefined the instrument for the next generation of rock and roll. You cannot argue that. There were outliers for sure, but none created the obsessive fandom as these four did. And in my opinion(subjective, remember?), none innovated playing and what could be done with six strings, some pickups, and a tube amp more than these Four Horsemen of the six string apocalypse.
Of these four, I’ve always felt Jeff Beck usually came in last on the list. He certainly didn’t deserve to be last on the list, but the guy was quiet. He was interested in blowing minds with his playing, then right after heading out to his barn and tuning up his race car. He’d show up to gigs in the early days with oil-stained hands from working in the garage. He had a love for cars like he had a love for guitars, and by the man’s playing you know he LOVED them both eternally. But really, how do you compete with the public and private lives of guys like Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, and Jimi Hendrix? I mean, Clapton, Page, and Beck all played in The Yardbirds. When one left for solo ambitions or more progressive band situations another prodigious player came in to take over. While Clapton left to join John Mayall and his Bluesbreakers and Page took off to form The New Yardbirds, which eventually turned into Led Zeppelin, Jeff Beck did the solo thing. He had some decent success with The Jeff Beck Group, and two amazing solo albums came of it. Truth and Beck-Ola were powerhouse albums that combined Beck’s love of blues with heavier tones. And with Rod Stewart on vocals and Ronnie Wood on bass no one could argue with what Beck had going on. But while he was redefining heavy blues, Clapton was creating the power trio with Cream and Page was making some heavy blues of his own with Led Zeppelin’s first album. Jeff Beck was overshadowed by the popularity Clapton and Page were gaining in their respective post-Yardbirds careers. I mean, how do you compete with stealing George Harrison’s wife, Aleister Crowley, Hobbits, JJ Cale, and some serious drug addiction? And Hendrix? He was a firestorm of musical, spiritual, and political movements. His playing was uncharted territory, and his look was flamboyant. He played his guitar with his teeth, set it on fire, and used feedback and distortion like a painter uses paint. He was bound to move mountains with his optimism and need to constantly move forward. Then, he died.
You can’t compete with a dead man.
But the thing is, Jeff Beck wasn’t competing with any of them. He seemed to take the quieter route, redefining his sound and skill with each album. Going from heavy blues squalls to heavy metal with Beck, Bogart, & Appice. But then in 1975 Jeff Beck released one of the premier instrumental guitar albums with Blow By Blow. His sound was funky, smooth, and slick as hell. He’d flown to the United States in the early 70s in the hopes of recording a record in Philadelphia in the Mowtown studios with Motown’s finest musicians. When he arrived and actually got into the studio they asked him if he had charts and he said no. He figured they could just jam and see what they could come up with. They laughed him out of the studio. He then met with Stevie Wonder and the two hit it off. Beck wanted Wonder to write a song for him to record on his next album, so Wonder wrote “Superstition”. Wonder decided he wanted to keep that one for himself(to Beck’s dismay), and instead gave Beck “Thelonious”. Jeff Beck did end up playing some incredible guitar on Wonder’s song “Lookin’ For Another Pure Love” off the Talking Book album. But all of this would lead to Jeff Beck putting out Blow By Blow, an almost jazzy smooth funk album. It had a tight feel. The guitar playing was refined and tasteful, but still pushing boundaries. Beck relied on the rhythm section of Phil Chen on bass and Richard Bailey on drums to give him solid footing, which allowed Beck and keyboardist Max Middleton to lay down some serious melody and grit. To this day, I think it’s the best Steely Dan album that Steely Dan never put out.
So what do you do to follow something like that up? Well you throw all that jazzy feel out the window and get loud and brash. That’s what Jeff Beck did the following year when he joined forces with Mahavishnu Orchestra’s Jan Hammer in 1976 and released the wildly extravagant and fusion-esque Wired. Everything about this album was the complete opposite of Blow By Blow. If these two records were fighters, Blow By Blow came out of the corner floating like a butterfly and casually got around to beating the listener’s ass. Wired, on the other hand, came running out of the corner like a bull in a china shop. The smooth Les Paul tone was replaced with the teeth-chattering tone of the Stratocaster. Hammer’s out of this world synth playing was like an alien in comparison to Max Middleton’s tasteful electric piano. Even the drumming was in some other terrestrial plane. Narada Michael Walden was a fusion player through and through, but could still lay a good funky groove down when needed. The whole album was like a 180 degrees from the year before.
Me? I bought both albums at the same time nearly 15 years ago. After hearing “Freeway Jam” I knew I was destined to own Blow By Blow. With everything I’d read it seemed that both Blow By Blow and Wired were companion pieces, so I figured I’d order both. Save money on shipping. While I instantly connected with Blow By Blow, Wired was a different story. I was sort of taken aback by the harshness of the guitar and Hammer’s synth work. They were very much in your face. There were tracks that stood out instantly. “Led Boots” was the opener and it felt like one hell of an opening salvo. All of the new components were front and center; Hammer’s space age-y synth sound, Walden’s progressive playing, and Beck’s biting new guitar tone. But they meshed well together. Next track “Come Dancing” is a fun groovy number that has some more restrained blues playing by Beck, as well as some of Max Middleton’s tasty electric piano. All around it’s a great track. Then we’re hit in the face with, in my opinion, the best track on the album. Beck and company tackle Charles Mingus’ “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat”, a song so groovy and funky that you forget what album you’re even listening to. It’s an ode to both the past and the present. Beck plays some of his most fluid lines on this album, as well as evolving his playing into some next phase category. I really feel this song should be played to every up and coming guitarist when needing a lesson in innovation.
So Wired hits you with a one-two-three punch before “Head For Backstage Pass” comes roaring in like a fusion smorgasbord. Slap bass, big drums, and some great electric piano come roaring in. While impressive, it’s not really a song that grabs you like what we’ve heard before. “Blue Wind” seems to be Jan Hammer’s moment to shine. It’s a lot of synth-y noise, like a precursor to the Miami Vice theme. Take from it what you will. “Sophie” has its moments, but to me it just sounds like a so-so Larry Coryell song. The back and forth between Beck’s guitar and Hammer’s synth just doesn’t do much for me. “Play With Me” gets some of that groove back with some great clavinet playing. There’s almost this junkyard wonkiness to the song that makes it endearing. It feels like a real palate cleanser. “Love Is Green” is a beautifully baroque piece that ends the album.
So after reading what I just wrote I think Wired has grown on me a bit over the years. Even in its most pompous moments it seems to revel in the creative process, which I think redeems it. Jeff Beck’s playing was still evolving and growing, over 10 years into his career. He wasn’t satisfied with rehashing all the old riffs and influences(like that Eric and Jimmy guy were at this point.) And he felt the need to surround himself with players and composers that would challenge him, and possibly even show him up. He wasn’t fine with the aristocracy of rock and roll. He gave it the middle finger and redefined it at nearly every turn.
So you want to know what my list would look like, guitar innovating-wise? Beck, Hendrix, Page, and Blackmore. Clapton? He’s no God to me, folks.
Editor’s Note: I must make a note here since I failed to mention it earlier that Sir George Martin produced both Blow By Blow and Wired. His tasteful ear and engineering prowess is all over Blow By Blow. However, he couldn’t stand Wired. He thought it was too loud and unhinged. It was hard for him to produce it, so a lot of that went to Beck and Hammer. I can see his point, but I think they both are worth some serious listening time.