Pieces. . .
What if Jeff Beck had encountered John McLaughlin when he was ten? I was watching the new Jeff Beck Showtime Documentary,“Still on the Run”. A fun and informative watch, and I do recommend it. In the first few minutes of that documentary, Jeff is sharing that when he heard the jazz pianist Art Tatum playing, back in his mom’s kitchen, when he was but a kid, he realized he did not want to play piano. “There was no reason to play piano. It had been done.“ He said.
You hear this from musicians often enough. I have had friends tell me that they saw “this or that musician perform and asked themselves, what am I doing? I can’t do that!” Hendrix is the classic example. It is legend that when he first arrived in the UK that the front rows of his shows included people such as Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Steve Howe, Pete Townsend, and the like. Those shows were perhaps where the phrase shock and awe originate. All of us have at some point been in such a position. When someone is that good that you have no desire to enter into that game. There is just no reason to attempt to compete.
Of course with the conversations I allude to and the example of Hendrix I offer up, people do not quit, but the point is made and the point is two fold. One hears such a performer or performance and is not sure what else there is to offer. There simply is nothing else to say. There is no room, no space, no oxygen for another. And with that there is a certain awe and even a humiliation. One simply ponders,”How do I compete with that?”
Later in the documentary Jeff Beck does share his thoughts on when he first heard John McLaughlin. This is circa 1970. Jeff is a little older than when he had heard Tatum. He was at a different point in his life and career. He was, as per his recollections, working on one of his cars. The music he heard though made him stop. He had to take a break from what he was doing and listen. He made himself some tea and reflected that that is where he wanted to go. Again, that was circa 1970. At that point professionally he was somewhere between Rod Stewart and Ronny Wood, and a new lineup of the Jeff Beck Group. And it took him roughly five years to get from that moment to “Blow by Blow”.
When I first started working on and writing this piece, the topic was Tommy Bolin. Basically, I wanted to properly introduce or re-introduce the young man who was able to bridge the worlds of jazz fusion, playing with the likes of Billy Cobham on his Spectrum album, with the James Gang, famous for their tune “Funk #49”. It was Joe Walsh, their original guitarist, who had recommended Tommy to his former band mates. Two totally different styles of music here! And then after those two projects, he takes over the guitar-playing chores in Deep Purple, replacing Richie Blackmore. He does both an album and tour with Purple, and while doing that releases simultaneously his solo album “Teaser”.
As I explored and imagined all of that, I realized there are, however, two stories here. At least I would like to think so. The first being an introduction to Tommy Bolin. Simply put, it is the range of of his music, his guitar; it is simply amazing. The second involves Jeff Beck and how he went from Gene Vincent, Yardbird raves, fuzz, and distortion to recording one of the most significant jazz fusion albums of the period, basically opening up the genre to a mass audience. Both happen in that period of 1970 to 1975. We probably could zero in on the autumn of 1973. Regardless, Jeff Beck probably could not have done Blow by Blow without Tommy Bolin. So, the two for a brief but significant moment are intertwined. And that is basically what I discovered. . . arrived at through the course of the last few months.
So what we have here is the first of a series exploring different pieces of these interconnected stories that leads us to Jeff Beck’s Blow by Blow. And in the process, it gives me a chance to just soak up, savor, and share my take on the stuff of rock ‘n’ roll legend. More importantly, I hope to maybe highlight and explore the progression of two artists who I have been intrigued with since my youth. I would like to at least think it is more the later.
Our tale begins. . .
The story of Jeff Beck is fairly well known. He grew up outside of London. His first guitar was homemade. He was inspired by Les Paul on the radio. He was made to take piano lessons until he started destroying the keys. He lived two towns over from Jimmy Page, who likewise had a homemade guitar. And it should be noted, that though he did not master the piano, Jeff did enjoy his mom’s playing.
Jump ahead a few years. Jimmy Page is now doing session work, or is heading in that direction. Jeff is exploring various bands, including the Night Shift, which was an R&B type thing in like 1963. In 1964, he moves on to the Tridents that was a much more bluesy affair. In 1965 he joins the Yardbirds, replacing Eric Clapton.
Clapton leaves the Yardbirds just as they release “For Your Love”. That is early 1965. He left largely because he saw the Yardbirds moving away from the blues, which had brought him and the band together. “For Your Love” was just too poppy. It was not the direction he was headed. And of course his next gig was John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, before going onto a band known as Cream. So much for his purism. Things do change.
For Beck, however, he was more than able and willing to cover both spaces for the Yardbirds. He joined and quickly was contributing his “wasp farts’ guitar sound on “Heart Full of Soul”. Not only ‘wasp farts’, but a sitar like riff replacing the harpsichord heard in “For Your Love”. And right after that release, they turned around and did a version of the Bo Diddley tune, “I’m A Man”. And the “wasp farts’, for the record, that was a term I recall Beck using to describe the tone he had on “Heart Full of Soul” in an interview from like 1980! It made an impression. I might still have a cassette recording!
Jeff Beck was able to bridge the blues and the pop, or what we are calling pop. Whatever it was, the Yardbirds were doing more and more of these tunes. It is really all of these tunes that propel the Yardbirds. And when I say these tunes, I am alluding to the above and of course “Shape of Things” and “Over Under Sideways Down”. And of course they also did a version of John Lee Hooker’s “Boom Boom” and then there is “Jeff’s Blues”. Again, Beck was able to do both, and to each he brought something of himself.
As they did this mix of tunes, including other favs such as “Train Kept a Rollin’”, and “Ain’t Got You” two things were happening. They were pushing the sound, and they were pushing the technology, Those wasp farts were made largely because that was what one could make at the time. There was just limited amplification, few effects, no distortion. Such things were just beginning to become available.
More importantly, though was the sound they were pushing. Psychedelic was not a thing yet. Neither punk nor hard rock were things yet and there was no metal either. They, the Yardbirds, had this term, “rave”, which pointed to a section of each or many of their tunes, especially when being played live, where it was just sped up, where they would just double down, and every thing was intensified. We take it for granted and hear it in so many tunes today. Back then. . . it was not done. It was actually new.
Now we get to the interesting part, what I believe would be really fun to explore in a business or management class.
To be continued. . .