Jeff Beck: Beck to the Future
GW Stevie Wonder’s music became a big inspiration for you around this time.
BECK Absolutely. Hearing Music of My Mind just really moved my spirit. I was at someone’s house; I picked it up and played it. I couldn’t hear what they were saying for an hour. I was just completely mesmerized by the sounds coming off that record. And I thought, There he goes—there’s a genius reinventing himself. And the thought that I’d be standing next to him in the studio one day was way beyond my dreams. But right out of the blue, after having raved about that record, it must have reached somebody at Epic. And they said, “Stevie would be interested in having you go over.” And I sort of went…gulp. It was the most memorable time. Frustrating at first, because you know he can’t see you—there’s this immediate barrier right there. But within a couple of days that was gone. It was really uplifting just to be around and watch him put a song together so quickly and so perfectly that nothing could be improved. He’d do a rough tryout of something that was better than anything I could ever come up with. He was someone with songwriting skills unknown to me before. I thought, I just better stick around here for a couple of hours. And he put me on one of his songs on the Talking Book album [“Lookin’ for Another Pure Love”]. I couldn’t care less if the solo stank. Just the way he said “Do it, Jeff!” on the record, that meant a million quid to me.
GW But you never had the opportunity to record with him again?
BECK There was another one he wanted me to go on, but I was too out of it to play. A bunch of us dropped by [New York City recording studio] the Hit Factory one night when Stevie was there. But we’d really been out on the, uh, cold drinks, so I declined his offer to play. I couldn’t bear to disgrace myself in that state. I was pretty bad. We really could put it away. I said I never did take drugs, but we did lube up occasionally.
1975–’77: THE FUSION YEARS
In 1975, Beck announced that he was tired of working with vocalists. Energized with the jazz fusion movement, which had taken a foreground role in the mid-Seventies music scene, Beck began work on an all-instrumental album with Beatles producer George Martin at the controls. The result was the brilliant Blow by Blow, one of the best-selling instrumental records of all time and probably Beck’s best-known album. Beck delved even deeper into the fusion scene the following year on Wired. He augmented the Blow by Blow lineup (keyboardist Max Middleton, bassist Wilbur Bascomb and drummer Richard Bailey) with two key members of John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra: synth-wiz Jan Hammer and drummer/producer Narada Michael Walden. Hammer’s innovative Moog lead lines provided an excellent foil for Beck and coaxed new shades of timbre and phrasing from the guitarist’s manic sensibility. The two virtuosi went on to release Jeff Beck with the Jan Hammer Group Live in 1977.
GW You’ve always moved with the times and worked in whatever the current musical idiom was at any give time, whether it was heavy rock, fusion…
BECK Can we say that word now and get away with it? Can we say “fusion” without getting arrested? [laughs] When I first heard the Mahavishnu Orchestra, playing in Central Park, I just began to develop wings because of that. They were hugely popular at that time, and it seemed to me that everyone was getting so involved in, and so in love with, playing music. It was a vital thing for me to have that. A lot of people liked Blow by Blow because it simplified McLaughlin and it complicated rock and roll. That album was just one of those things that was so easy. There were great players, willing to play, and decent material. And in four days we’d tracked all the songs. Of course, the overdubs then took four years, but the tracking was really quick. For one, we didn’t have a huge backlog of dough. And George Martin certainly didn’t know what he was getting involved in. I put some tapes on his desk one day. He saw through the mist and said there might be something there. He showed interest at a point where I was really wondering whether I should continue in the business.
GW How would you assess George Martin’s contribution to Blow by Blow and Wired?
BECK I was looking to George sort of as a parental figure: someone to help me present some of my more outrageous visions in a way that would be acceptable to the general public. And he did it quite well. Some of my favorite solos got trashed because he thought they were hideous—not musical. He’d say, “That’s really the most dreadful noise I’ve ever heard.” And I’d say, “That’s what I want!” But I’d usually come ’round to his way of thinking. George is almost like a dad: relaxed, very focused on the sound. George Martin was probably the best producer I’ve had—the guy who could framework what I do without interfering.
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