Blow By Blow
Epic Records, 1975
REVIEW BY: Eric Atwell
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 10/28/1999
I remember this mutant in middle school that showed me a bag of white powder he had in his gym locker. Given that he was three or four years older than us half-children it was not a stretch to believe he lived the life of a druggie in one of those DARE-type films you had to watch in health class. It happened he also wore black concert tee shirts, and had one that was particularly obscure. Jeff Beck. I filed it away and continued public school, eventually dropping clarinet and saving for a guitar.
That filed item came back at me in the form of another, smellier, dude wearing a Jeff Beck tee shirt in high school biology class. One afternoon, while fighting off the treble smells of stale beer, cigarettes, and body odor, I raptly listened as he told me how Jeff Beck was like, totally essential. Since I was going apeshit over music in my own geeky way at the time I spent some hard earned ducats on Blow By Blow. It's smooth edges just did not gel with my 16 year-old sledgehammer tastes, but the album remained in my collection by default (you know - the more tapes the better). Later, as my interest in jazz players grew, I was digging Jan Hammer's work and found Jeff Beck With The Jan Hammer Band Live. Eventually this caused me to rescue Blow By Blow from bottom row obscurity and give it a spin.
My evolving critical listening skills gave me a completely different perception of the album. It grooves all the way through, it's totally lush, and sounds remarkably up to date. It's not really the songs; it's his fine playing. Beck's work is exquisite and primitive at the same time, with colorful Strat tones and fresh solos that work nicely within the fusion context of the band. "Freeway Jam" inspires acceleration with its cool interplay and bouncing bass line - Beck weaves tendrils of guitar around the solid rhythm climaxing in one of the more memorable instrumental melodies.
Those same instrumental melodies have limited appeal these days. I saw Beck display a mind-blowing array of chops at a concert in '95 that no one there really noticed (except the guitar players). This is partly Beck's fault. His aversion to recording with a band, and his penchant for using a lot of different players, tends to change the vibe dramatically from album to album. He also puts out relatively few records, instead crafting individual guitar masterpieces that are anything but mainstream.
Of course this is partly the appeal - when Beck does appear
among mere mortals he's coming down from his guitar god perch
somewhere between Hendrix and Django and giving his own sacred
message. I know he's not dead, but he's certainly not your usual
rock star (despite the uncanny resemblance to Nigel Tufnel of the
loudest band in the world, Spinal Tap).
Anyway, it's his quirky note choice that separates him from the throng of blues-tempered guitar players - and it wigs me out to think he plucks these otherworldly lines with only his fingers. His slinky riffing is noticeable on the very first track; "You Know What I Mean." The melody is familiar but visionary at the same time, and when Beck hits the nitrous his tone is wicked with the bends and strange harmonics he summons using fuzz box and fingers. The guitar tone throughout is haunting yet you still know its "just" a Strat.
What follows is arguably the most popular of Beck tunes, a cover of the Beatles' "She's Just A Woman." With its reggae-spiked rhythm section the song sounds very organic, leading up to the appearance a 70s icon: the voice box. Peter Frampton popularized the voice box on his Frampton Comes Alive album; incidentally Beck had the thing mastered long before Frampton released that damn song that goes "whaa whaa wha whaa whaaa, whaa wha whaa whaaaa."
It's not a coincidence the album sounds great as a whole. I mean it's only George Martin producing. And the band, as you may expect, is top notch, pumping out the funk-tinged fusion/rock mix that Beck gently and oftentimes abusively floats above.
There is a heavily influenced fusion piece on Blow By Blow. It consists of two songs: "Air Blower", a hopping song that eventually descends into the gentle melodies that set up "Scatterbrain", a nod to another Martin produced epic, Apocalypse, by the Mahavishnu Orchestra. The frantic melody with its semi-orchestral setting works well in the context of this album, though it does come close to being too much at times. Too intense would be a better descriptor. I personally like Beck's almost direct nod to the fusion master John McLaughlin in the song's coda: a searing and harsh guitar tone that segues into a bad ass blues driven riff which turns around and brings the orchestral instruments back into the song, lofting the guitar into a dramatic solo that slowly fades out.
Beck's nod to the great Roy Buchanan on "Cause We've Ended As Lovers" is a wonderfully sedate guitar showcase. His mastery of melodic guitar playing is jaw dropping, using subtle string bends and impressively developed solos to push the song over the edge into pure virtuosity. The fretboard noise is delicious, as is the almost subconscious delay on each note.
Another Beck trademark is the futuristic sounds, something he pulls off with aplomb using effects and technique. Over "Thelonius" he lays a dense guitar on top of the churning funk chords. Once again the voice box is used to great effect - this time as the chorus in a disco-ish phrase. The song seamlessly flows into the aforementioned masterpiece "Freeway Jam." In fact, a lot of the songs segue into one another, leaving no spaces. I suppose this is the influence of George Martin, who had some experience from his work with that well-known English band The Beatles.
The final piece, "Diamond Dust", is an odd jazz progression that is very atmospheric and sticks out a bit from the rest of the album in its melodrama. I bet the smelly guy in my biology class didn't groove on this tune.
I guess Blow By Blow is considered a classic, however it seems to have been lost in time if you imagine its place in the "rock consciousness". Personally, I'll take it over just about any instrumental "rock" album; along with its cousin Wired (which came out a year later), Blow By Blow represents a dramatic shift from pure hard rock to a more cerebral arrangement of songs.
If you haven't heard Beck in the proper context, or all you know of him is a stint on the Roger Waters album Amused To Death, I strongly suggest checking this out if there is the least bit of interest. The stuff certainly isn't your current run of the mill mainstream tripe, and it lacks the mystique of a classic band like Led Zeppelin, but if you like guitar driven music this is a worthwhile album. If you play rock guitar, this is essential to your well-being.
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