On his first day recording with the late George Martin, Jeff Beck sensed what the Beatles producer — who died March 8th at age 90 — could bring to his music. With his three-piece band, Beck laid down a version of Stevie Wonder's "Cause We've Ended as Lovers" that left him indifferent. "I didn't think we were laying down much of interest, but then we went to lunch break and heard the quality of the sound," Beck recalls. "I thought, 'This sounds like we're playing in the room — it's clear and fabulous.' That first album was a joy."
That record, Blow by Blow, would turn out to be a milestone for Beck and Martin. Beck's first all-instrumental record, it revived his stalled career, hitting Number Four on the pop chart in 1975, and it was also one of the high points of Martin's studio adventures after the Beatles. "To work with someone of that caliber … he gave me a career," Beck says now. "Without him, who knows what would have happened."
In 1974, Beck was at a professional and artistic crossroads. His previous band, the power trio Beck, Bogert and Appice, had collapsed, and Beck wasn't sure he wanted another singer for his next band: "There were no more Rod Stewarts on the planet," he says, referring to his one-time Jeff Beck Group frontman. In what he calls "a last-ditch attempt" to convince someone to make an album showcasing his guitar, not a voice — a risky proposition at the time — he had his manager reach out to Martin. "I thought he'd be too busy," Beck says. To Beck's surprise, Martin agreed to meet, and Beck brought along a tape of demos with what he calls "snippets of melodies." As Beck recalls, "I was expecting to leave with a red face, but he said, 'This is very interesting stuff — let's start recording.'"
Although both men had been toiling in the British music industry for a decade — Beck dating back to early bands like the Tridents and eventually the legendary Yardbirds — the planned collaboration would be the first time they'd worked together. Like many, Beck was also aware of Martin's pre-Beatles career producing comedy records (like with Beyond the Fringe, the ensemble that included Peter Cook and Dudley Moore). "I thought, 'What an odd choice for the Beatles,''' Beck recalls. "But EMI were in charge of the Beatles and they wanted a guy to corral their talents, and they landed on their feet with George. He saw their harmonies and their potential. I think 'She Loves You' showed that. It's not the kind of thing they would have done without him. George could take a melody and embellish it with the right chords, and then you've got Sgt. Pepper."
Years later, Beck heard firsthand what Martin could bring to the Beatles. Arriving at a studio to meet with Martin, he arrived to find the producer sifting through outtakes and sounds from the "Day in the Life" sessions. "I got there and heard John's voice — it was so clear, I thought maybe he's still alive," Beck says. "I just stood for 20 minutes listening to George talking to John suggesting this that and the other. It was surreal."
Settling into Martin's AIR Studio in London, Beck picked up on Martin's personality and quirks. Martin dressed "immaculately" and didn't like distorted guitars. Even though he was raised in a working-class family — his father a carpenter, his mother a nurse — Martin had a civil, cultivated (but never condescending) air about him. "It's weird, but I always thought he was a member of the Royal Family," Beck laughs. "He was the first person in rock & roll who spoke Queen's English. He had this very diamond-cut voice. I said to [keyboardist] Max [Middleton] one night, 'Why don't we follow him and see if he turns in to Buckingham Palace?'"
Yet as other musicians learned, Martin didn't look down at rock & roll, especially when it dared to venture where it hadn't before. The songs that took shape — the scrappy "You Know What I Mean," the pumping "Freeway Jam" — were rooted in funk, jazz and fusion, and were unlike any that Beck had ever recorded. His new band — keyboardist Max Middleton, bassist Phil Chen and drummer Richard Bailey — was flexible enough to roll with those genres.
"George took to Richard right away, and Max was a great jazz player," Beck recalls. "George could see where I was heading, the jazz overtones. It was another avenue he took to very well." (Stevie Wonder can be heard, uncredited, playing Clavinet on the album's other Wonder cover, "Thelonious," but Beck says that track was an outtake from Wonder's Talking Book, on which Beck guested, so, alas, Beck, Martin and Wonder were never in the studio together.)
Beck says the reggae talk-box-driven version of "She's a Woman" was inspired not by Martin — who produced the original Fab Four version — but by a rendition he heard by R&B singer Linda Lewis. "George loved that," Beck says of his own version. "He was the hippest guy in London." Beck has particularly vivid memories of the album's last track, the gorgeously orchestrated "Diamond Dust." When they first cut the song, Beck thought his band's version "sounded a bit lame." But Martin suggested adding a string section to emphasize the drama in the melody. "When he finished it, he came wafting in and said, 'This reminds me of a French love movie!'" Beck laughs. "I said, 'You've just spoiled the whole effect! I might not put it on the album!' He didn't realize it was the worst thing he could have said to me. But I thought it was beautiful. George lit a fire under it."
Beck and Martin regrouped for a follow-up album, 1976's Wired, although Beck says those sessions were more complicated due to the involvement of keyboardist Jan Hammer, who was even deeper into fusion (and produced, on his own, the album's hammering "Blue Wind"). Beck once played Martin a Graham Central Station record — "and George said, 'I'm sorry, but that's the worst-sounding record I ever heard.' But he said, 'I think I know where you're headed.' I was very smitten with Mahavishnu Orchestra and Jan Hammer."
Looking back on Wired, Beck says, "I was never happy with the solo on 'Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,' the Mingus tune. And I rang George up and said, 'I've got a great idea to modulate that.' He said, 'The album's been out for two weeks!' That's how loose things were back then."
Although Martin and Beck didn't work together again, they kept in touch, and Beck recalls Martin showing up at Beck's home for dinner with a gift. "He brought a massive big bag of every classical record," Beck says. "He said, 'This is for you — keep these and enjoy them and listen to the melodies, and you'll have a career for 20 years. Your melodies are so expressive — this is a good move for you.' Unfortunately, I was into ass-kicking rock & roll then and I was still into small combos." Beck last saw Martin at a recent audio-engineering awards ceremony, where Martin looked frail and was wearing a pair of hearing aids: "two large units, one on each ear. Quite surprising. He can't have been exposed to the noise I've been exposed to. Having said that, conducting an orchestra with cymbals for years probably took its toll."
Looking back on his brief but fulfilling alliance with Martin, Beck speaks with reverence even four decades later. "It's a shame we didn't go back and do more — my biggest regret," he says quietly. "It was such exciting times. I couldn't wait to get to the studio every day. Unfortunately, it hasn't happened since."See how Paul McCartney was influenced by Beatles producer George Martin.