Thursday, May 13, 2004

Rollin' and Tumblin'

Welcome back to 1975, when a wholly instrumental, fuso-muso wankfest could hit #4 on the album charts, as long as it was produced by George Martin: proof, if more were needed, that mid-70s America was ripped to the tits on Platinum Maxwell House.

Jeff Beck's Blow By Blow is reputed to be one of those "made on drugs to be played on drugs" records—and the name alone, along with song titles like "Diamond Dust," oughtta give you some idea of the drugs we're talking about, here. Never tried the charlie myself (I always liked Bill Cosby's line about the ol' Septum Blizzard: "They say it intensifies your personality. Well, yes. But what if you're an asshole?"), but I've got a fondness for this disc, especially for "Freeway Jam." For all coke's reputation as a drug of excess, "Freeway Jam" is an object lesson in making something out of (nearly) nothing.

(I realize that I'm violating the ground rules I laid out at the beginning of this week, here—endearing this record is, but not actually crummy. Also, Beck's pedigree with the Yardbirds et al. pre-dates the Seventies. But if Beck, like Stevie Wonder—who, not coincidentally, is all over Blow By Blow—came of age in the Sixties, then he, also like Stevie, truly came into his powers in the Seventies—and also like Stevie has ever been pressed to match his triumphs of that decade: while Jeff Beck may have owned the Seventies, the Faustian upshot was that the Seventies would ever after own him.¹)

Cross-fading from the frenetic "Thelonius" (the songs on Blow By Blow segue into each other) in a soft patter of Richard Bailey's snare drum, a series of rolls and snaps resolves into a loose, head-bobbing jive. The band, such as it is, enters for the long intro—just a bass ostinato and a Fender Rhodes ping-ponging sparse chords across the stereo field, with Beck himself (his tone processed to a bowel-loosening roar) sends a series of virtuoso pings and squeals echoing into the spacious groove. So far, there's not a whiff of melody, or even structure—it's not music so much as pure, distilled attitude. It's Mexican stoplight candy, growling at idle, jaw-dropping even when it's going nowhere.

When the melody arrives, it's a simple, pretty thing, soaring over a sudden percolation in the bassline that manages to recall both Steely Dan's "Reeling In The Years" and John Cale's "Mercenaries (Ready For War)." (Undying love and a big wet sloppy kiss to the first home-recordist ProTools geek who creates a mash-up of these three—to be titled "Ready For The Freeway [The War Years]," or perhaps "Road Warrior Reel." Lenlow, I'm lookin' at you.)

Naturally, it's fabulous music to drive by—but without the nervous energy that underlies most great driving songs ("Radar Love," for instance—that's a tension headache with horn charts). It's muscular yet casual, the sound of four tip-top session guys at the peak of their powers, offhanded and unhurried but with horses to spare, a performance vehicle with nowhere special to go, in no particular hurry to get there, just enjoying the drive.

Va-va-va-vrrroom, baby.

¹ Credit where it's due: I first heard this joke about Milton Nascimento, in (I think) an old issue of Musician, which was, for a while, a remarkably well-written magazine—but, as with many things, when the rot set in, it set in fast.

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