Jazz-rock fusion music has had no greater exponent than Jeff Beck, whose latest album, Wired, demonstrates how vital this genre can be. Even more important, Wired presents Beck in a context that finally satisfies both his uncompromising musical standards and commercial necessity.
Beck's first group, the Yardbirds, was the most inventive of the early Sixties British blues bands and is now credited with producing three of the most important electric guitarists of the past ten years — Eric Clapton, Beck and Jimmy Page. Both Clapton (with Cream) and Page (with Led Zeppelin) became famous after leaving the Yardbirds.
But Beck remained a relatively obscure figure. This despite the fact that the hits following "I'm a Man" — "For Your Love," "Shapes of Things," "Over Under Sideways Down," "Happenings Ten Years Time Ago" — were all powered by his brilliantly manic lead guitar. In comparison, Clapton was an extremely conservative stylist and Page, merely a technician. But Beck's guitar work was visionary: "Shapes of Things" shows his mastery over raga-style guitar solos and multitracking, ideas which were in their infancy at the time. Beck experimented with blues progressions, using feedback and other distortion techniques to push the electric guitar's expressive capabilities into new areas, as well as developing rock and R&B styles along the same lines.
After leaving the Yardbirds, Beck made a classic solo album, Truth, with a band which included Rod Stewart and Ron Wood. Page, meanwhile, formed his own band, Led Zeppelin, whose music was a variation on Beck's concept (compare the versions of "You Shook Me" on Truth and the first Zeppelin album). He returned two years later with a jazz-accented R&B outfit based around keyboardist Max Middleton and singer Bob Tench.
Their two albums featured a lighter, more progressive guitar style. But Beck was still not satisfied and tried a brief, disastrous fling into heavy metal with the ex-Vanilla Fudge/Cactus rhythm section of bassist Tim Bogert and drummer Carmine Appice.
Last year, producer George Martin reunited Beck and Middleton for their greatest collaboration, Blow by Blow, which became Beck's best-selling solo album and established him firmly in the jazz-rock hierarchy. But Beck was only developing ideas he'd been playing with for years.
On Wired, Beck invites a direct and favorable comparison with John McLaughlin (with whom he toured last year) by collaborating with ex-Mahavishnu keyboardist Jan Hammer and his band. Martin didn't score any of the horn arrangements because Hammer's synthesizer fills all those spaces, but the album is better recorded and has a much fuller sound than Blow by Blow. Middleton's contribution is still essential — his one song, "Led Boots," opens the album at its hottest pace and it's definitely enhanced by the interplay with Hammer's keyboards and Beck's guitar. Hammer's synthesizers work from Middleton's clavinet base, and Beck stitches runs in between.
Beck wrote no songs for this record in order to concentrate on his playing, but he dominates the album conceptually. You can tell "Head for Backstage Pass" is bassist Wilbur Bascomb's song from the bass solo that kicks it off, but from there it's all that Beck/Middleton Metal Motown Machine. Drummer Narada Michael Walden contributed four songs, three of which sound like they could have easily come from the Blow by Blow sessions. "Sophie" shows the distance between McLaughlin's cerebral meandering and Beck's incisive, witty compositional ability as the song moves from an introspective theme to an incredibly hard-edged exposition. Hammer swings here in a sweating, unself-conscious ride of pure joy that needs no guru for inspiration. Hammer's "duet" with Beck, "Blue Wind," builds phased rhythm guitars against the tension of those slogging, perfectly imprecise drums into an anthem pitch with furious guitar-synthesizer solo duels overhead. Beck's cover of the Charles Mingus ode to Lester Young, "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat," is an unlikely if not unappreciated inclusion that seems too understated to clock in as more than a tentative exploration of an already well-covered tune, but Beck's soloing, as usual, carries it off with some bizarre phrasing and adventurous distortion.
Many of Beck's older fans claim he's toned down to play this music, but listening closely, you can hear all the fire and imagination that has characterized every phase of his career. Wired is the realization of a style Beck has been working toward for years, and should finally attract the recognition he deserves.
Fortunately, that just makes Beck hit back harder. On the stuttering "Stop, Look and Listen," he rips into Rodgers' grooves with violently distorted blues flourishes and air-raid-siren vibrato work. Beck clears the decks with a firestorm solo right at the start of "Gets Us All in the End," then repeatedly butts into Baker's dense arrangement with vengeful ingenuity. If there were a bit more Stewart-like grit in Jimmy Hall's strong but anonymous lead vocals, the result could have been a real funk-metal Beck-Ola. Nevertheless, Flash ranks as one of Beck's best ever, a record of awesome guitar prowess and startling commercial daring. It is also irrefutable proof that his kind of flash never goes out of fashion.