On the 'tube

Jeff Beck & Jan Hammer: Star Cycle (live)

1

In 1980 I was working retail in a record store in Joliet, Illinois. I was 19 at the time, and had been playing guitar for just a few years. Of course it was a dream gig, even though it paid little more than minimum wage. We got to listen to music all day while we stocked the bins and served customers.

The one provision regarding any in-store music played, was that it had to be a relatively new release, as a way of staying current and promoting the album. That wasn't terrible, considering some of the great music coming out during my tenure there.

One of the LPs that I had in heavy rotation upon its release was Jeff Beck's 'There & Back', which had collaborative input from keyboardist Jan Hammer. I wasn't way into Beck's music then, but I knew it was a departure from his earlier work.

The opening track grabbed me immediately though, and I became a fan.

Cut to present day;

Beck has been playing some gigs at the Hollywood Bowl in recent years, celebrating his 50th in music. He seemed in good spirits during this number, having some fun with his old friend and collaborator; Jan in revisiting that opening track from the aforementioned 'There & Back'.

It's worth noting Beck's reaction to his drummer's busy fill at the 2:44 mark. Pretty priceless.

2

Yeah, baby! Now that's some shizznit right there!

3

Great clip, Edison. Thanks for posting it.

I don't know that I'd characterize Beck's work as notably different from era to era, at least not in approach. His posture has been remarkably consistent over the years in that every album has employed some aspects of whatever was happening at the front edge of rock - but taken to new places, and with that quirky melodic intelligence his playing has always displayed.

This has resulted in albums (or short series of albums) whose surface texture are remarkably different from each other - but through which run the consistent strains of his tone, touch, and sense of musical syntax. Also, the albums generally incorporate something of the latest trends in music technology, rhythm, and aesthetic - but still sound nothing like anything else going on when they emerge.

Nother words, I guess: always connected to current trends but leaning far forward. Never slavishly derivative nor in the least nostalgic, always innovative, always uniquely Jeff.

The first two albums, Truth and Beck-Ola, are of a piece, and are Beck's contribution to the harder rock developing in 1968-69. Then Rough and Ready and Jeff Beck Group ('71-'72), during the height of heavy rock's first guitar-hero ascendancy, step sideways into a less improvisational, more song-oriented, more group-oriented approach. The material is replete with cooking grooves but light on guitaristic indulgence, and leans toward the jazz approach Steely Dan was assaying at the same time. (Maybe a little timid in terms of innovation: given his later development, one might have expected him to go in a direction similar to Mahavishnu Orchestra.)

Likewise 1973's Beck Bogert & Appice, perhaps Beck's least forward-looking, most au courant effort, a one-off power-trio project with the two ex-Vanilla Fudge members. It was, even at the time, conservative for Jeff, and arguably a misstep. Or in any case, little more than running in place.

Then in 1975, Blow by Blow set the template for the rest of his career - simply stunning material, incredibly played and produced, and alloying genres in seamless ways. This time it was instrumental jazz-rock with a polish, texture and verve unique at the time. Virtuoso and even pyrotechnical guitar - with a few stunts - is nonetheless perfectly embedded in sophisticated arrangements with diverse instrumentation, so that everything sounds necessary.

You'd have thought that, having established such a distinctive aesthetic, he'd stick with it.

But he didn't. His two collaborations with Jan Hammer, Wired and There & Back (1976 and 1980) are very much of a piece, both featuring a surprising commitment to electronic jazz-funk grooves built with synths and sequencers, topped off with angular and fragmented melodic themes and the ferocious, high-velocity take-no-prisoner improvs he and Hammer threw at each other. Hammer wrung guitaristic tones and articulations from his synths, and they followed each other's ideas in such sync that it's not always easy to tell who's soloing at the moment. Maybe these albums were Beck's answer to Mahavishnu Orchestra and Return to Forever - but they incorporated more electronica and even nascent EDM than either, and are by comparison to those bands, both leaner (with less elaboration) and more futuristic. They're remarkable albums which stand by themselves even today - but they require complete commitment and concentration to really enjoy.

Jeff frequently takes several years off to build hot rods and recharge his creative batteries, and when he comes back to the music business, he looks around at what's going on to see where he can push forward. It was five years between the second Jan Hammer collaboration and his fairly mild (and not terribly innovative) Flash, from 1985. Today he more or less disowns this attempt to tap into contemporary pop, with mostly vocal tunes (his first since 1973). But it's still distinctively Beck, showcasing his tone, technique, and melodic sense. And it won him his first of six Grammys.

1989's Guitar Shop was as innovative and distinctive for its time as Blow by Blow had been 15 years earlier - but in its own unique voice. Its fusion of synths, organically funky and electronically colorful grooves, and all the Jeff juice make it a standout in an impressive discography. Desert island album for me, where everything Beck could be seen to have been reaching for all along finally comes together with complete success. A gorgeous, amazing tour de force. I like it. There was nothing like it then, and I've heard nothing like it since (with the exception of parts of later Beck albums). It richly deserves its Grammy.

And it was certainly enough of a statement that he didn't have to say anything else for several years, and when he did, it wasn't in his voice, but the uncannily channeled voice of his first guitar hero. 1993's Crazy Legs, recorded with The Big Town Playboys, is a masterful modern recreation of Gene Vincent material, heavy on the Cliff Gallup. It pretty much sounds like Gene's 1956 band, time-transported to the present and recorded with current tech. (And it is, of course, the source of Beck's closest connection to Gretsch.)

The three albums of Beck's next evolutionary phase - Who Else!,You Had It Coming, and Jeff (1999-2003) - generally share an approach. He revisits the proto-electronica of the Hammer era albums, but updates and advances it with contemporary electronic, synth, and even industrial techniques. But that's just the foundation. It's fleshed out more fully with other instrumentation and orchestration, relatively less emphasis on furious/competitive soloing, occasional vocal tunes, and full integration of a transformed blues-rock guitar aesthetic for the new century. Always a collaborative player who does his best work with others, these albums bring in the superb young women players and singers he's featured since (not to mention a host of others).

And it's worth mentioning that the best Beck albums are also meticulous examples of superlative production, with gorgeous sound and immersive, detailed mixes - which no doubt contributes to the Grammy wins of two of the above. As good as Beck is as a live player - fluid, technically unique, and musically interesting - I think he shines best in the studio, where his expressive tone and phrasing can be embedded in jewel-like settings emphasizing the range of emotion he conjures. Live, he's mostly all rock hard; in studio, he's a sound-painter with enormous finesse.

After a seven-year studio break, 2010's Emotion & Commotion is something like a doctoral thesis summing up everything Beck's evolution from Blow by Blow forward had yielded - but with an emphasis on the empyrean and ethereal. It's full of brilliant and diverse collaborations, succinctly incapsulates both his electronic/synth and jazz/funk rock DNA, and finally gives his melodic and expressive sensibility the full orchestral setting it deserves. If I have a top three list of Beck albums (and I didn't till this minute, considering it all essential), I guess it would include Blow by Blow, Guitar Shop, and this album. (Which won two Grammys.)

Fast-forward six years, and in 2016 we're surprised with Loud Hailer, the full-vocal, full-rock powerhouse album we might have wished for from Beck in 1972. Only it doesn't sound like 1972. It sounds like contemporary rock, but with a bad attitude from the past. Again developed with young collaborators (who were likely the inspiration for the album), it's a non-stop rocker replete with righteous contemporary political outrage and a stern moral sense. Jeff Beck, at 71, an ageless elder statesman helping angry young people make their voices heard.

Gotta love it.


Apologies for the thumbnail Beck overview I had no intention of writing, but once I started...well, that's the way I go. It helps me organize his amazing career in my mind. (At least until I forget again.) I know the original post was just to give some context to the great performance in the video (which I do appreciate), and I don't mean even to disagree with your perspective, Edison. It was just a starting point for me to think about Beck's evolution.

On any given day, I'm as likely to identify JB as anyone else in the category of "all-time favorite guitarist." I admire that he's never stopped evolving, that he's stayed young in spirit while old in soul, and that he has always worked with couldn't-do-anything-else integrity and commitment. One of my heroes - and I have a hard time understanding how anyone could listen to his best work and not get it.

But, alas, I know it happens. I consider it their loss!

4

Nice Beck Review, Tim. I too am a fan.


Register Sign in to join the conversation