Classic Rock Review

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Who Else But Jeff Beck? (1999)

jeff_beck_whoelseFrom Experience Hendrix

IN 1985, WITH A NEW single, “People Get Ready,” reuniting him with vocalist Rod Stewart for the first time since 1969, Jeff Beck was lined up to be interviewed by one of the British music weeklies of the time.

A writer was assigned, a date was set, and then the guitarist’s office started moving the goalposts. He wanted the cover of the magazine. He wanted lots of pictures taken of his collection of vintage cars. And finally, that was all he wanted to talk about, the vintage car collection which he’d been painstakingly assembling his whole career long.

The interview never happened.

Reminded of all this, close to fifteen years later, Beck laughs, sighs and apologizes all in the same movement. And then he explains.

“What happened was, I got on the cover of Auto Week magazine, and I was the first rock’n’roller ever to do that. It was a bizarre thing, it was one of those magazines which had drag racing stars on, and all the Formula Whatever drivers, and all of a sudden, because I have this collection, and people know about it, I was put the cover of that. And I got more bizarre questions and coverage with that than you would imagine, which was great, because I was going through this very anti period, when I didn’t want to talk about music or guitars. In a way they’re pretty boring things anyway, so unless you’ve got some hilarious new angle on it, let’s not talk about it. I didn’t want to be asked about string gauges or flame maple necks and how many fingers I use and stuff. Cars were just more interesting to me at the time. But it was not intended to be in any way flash, I can assure you.”

Although Flash was the name of your album at the time, wasn’t it?

“Yeah… oh, Christ. Freudian slip.”

That story is told to illustrate one point. That Jeff Beck has always been a contrary devil.

In the late 1960s, while he and Rod Stewart led the first, greatest, incarnation of the Jeff Beck Group to proto-metal bluesbreaking glory, Beck alone doubled as a teenybop pop idol, taking the likes of ‘Hi Ho Silver Lining’ and ‘Love Is Blue’ to the toppermost of the British chart poppermost.

Through the 1970s, when the world was crying out for the raw rock electrics which he, alone, was capable of wringing out of a guitar, he meandered off into jazz fusion territory.

And today, when peers as venerable as Paul McCartney and Eric Clapton have come proper croppers with their toothless attempts to embrace modern electronica, Beck has turned the whole debate on its head by coming up with a new album which makes the Prodigy sound like they’re queuing for their pensions, and leaves Underworld in the undergrowth. He calls it Who Else!, and being as there’s probably no-one else who could have pulled it off so well, it’s very aptly named. Who else indeed?

“I wanted to make an album that would salute everything that I’ve absorbed from people like Bjork and the Prodigy,” Beck admits. “That was the starting point. There’s a lot going on in the techno field, a lot of great stuff, but a lot of it… I was hearing some fantastic rhythm tracks, but that’s all a lot of it was, great rhythm tracks with nothing on top. So I decided to do something about it.”

Recorded with keyboard player Tony Hymas, one of Beck’s most faithful contributors for twenty years now, guitarist Jennifer Batten (best known for her onstage stint with Michael Jackson), bassist Randy Hope Taylor and sometimes Duran Duran drummer Steve Alexander, Who Else! was born out of a single question which has haunted Beck for most of the past twenty years – and underlines many of his more bizarre career moves as well. “What the hell do you do to impress anybody these days? That’s what kept Tony and I going in a way, trying to come up with something fresh and exciting, which would make people go ‘wow,’ but which wouldn’t just appeal because it was clever, or because no-one had done it before. It had to be alive.”

Who Else! is certainly that. Film-maker Peter Richardson heard it, then told Beck that he thought it was precisely the kind of record which Hendrix would be making, if he were alive today. And an overjoyed Beck admits, “I thought that was the ultimate compliment, because when Hendrix first came along….”

When Hendrix first came along, in London in 1966, Beck was the king of the hill. Up there with Eric Clapton, his predecessor in the Yardbirds, and Jimmy Page – his successor! – Beck was the proverbial cat’s pajamas, the fastest, the flashest, the greatest thing on six strings in the country. In fact, one night at the Saville Theatre in London, he came onstage with 12 strings, a Telecaster tuned to the unplumbed depths of D, “and afterwards, Pete Townshend came back and said ‘the best thing about tonight was the sound of your 12 string Tele.’ No-one had ever done that, it was very low and gritty, a real fuck off sound. It was like a bloody ten piece orchestra, it was so powerful, and so absolutely happening. Townshend was watching, and he was wetting himself!”

But when Hendrix turned up, “for someone like me, he was a bloody disaster, for no other reason than he took over the guitar, lock, stock and barrel, and ‘you lot can all piss off, I’m doing this gig now.’ And for me, it was my gig he took away! I couldn’t do any fancy stuff on guitar, for fear of being called a rip off of him, and that had to be considered big time.

“But when he and I became sort of drinking partners in New York, and playing together a lot, I realized that if he could say he enjoyed what I did, that was enough for me. So it was kind of with his blessing that I carried on. Which is why when Peter said that about the new album, it meant so much.”

It has, of course, been an absurdly long time since Beck’s last “proper” album – all three of the records he’s released in the past decade have been either soundtrack (1993’s Frankie’s House), tribute (the same year’s Gene Vincent inspired Crazy Legs) or odd co-operatives (1989’s Guitar Shop). And Beck will be the first to admit it’s been far too long.

“I get recognized, infrequently, when I’m out in London… I go ‘oh yeah, I’m Jeff Beck. I’d better go home and do something about it.’ There were many reasons for doing this album, and it was no mean feat to get it done, I can tell you that. But I think the main thing was, I realized that if I didn’t do something soon, it would be too late. They say it’s never too late to play, but in this game, once you lose your grip, you lose it. I don’t think you can scrabble back.”

At the same time, though, he acknowledges that sometimes, the very motivation to play is away on vacation. “I do get fed up with playing, sometimes, although I try not to let it get me down, because if that goes, I’ve got nothing. I can’t make money doing anything else! And I do get depressed when I see hundreds of guitar magazines, and I’m not in them. The office has a habit of leaving them lying around when I’m there, and I’ll flick through them and… ‘this bastard’s got no right to be on the front cover!’ It’s just one of those funny things.”

Work on Who Else! was completed, fittingly enough, on Christmas Eve last year. “Unbelievable! What a Christmas present! I actually got the first pressing back on Christmas Eve.” But Beck actually began thinking about it, in some form at least, long before that.

“If you want to take it all the way back,” Beck explains, “I started… restarted… the momentum in 1989 with Terry Bozzio, and the Guitar Shop album, which got a lot of response. But we missed the boat with the album a little bit, and even more sinful was not following through with another one sooner, which meant that we had to go out in 1995, 1996, without a bloody album, on a monstrous long tour with Santana.”

That tour, across America through the summer of 1995, was generally regarded as an absolute triumph – the New York Daily News review, which Beck’s record company probably still has pinned to the wall, insisted that Beck’s solos, “at one moment glistening and sweet, at another ruthless and fleet… communicated the fullness of a human voice.” Beck, however, has less than fond memories of the excursion.

“It went down really well, but if it hadn’t have gone great, I think I’d probably have packed it all in then. From my point of view, it was very pedestrian, the whole thing. We were double headlining – headlining one night and opening the next – and in all of those 46 gigs, no-one came across with a single new riff.

“And then, after the tour finished, everybody disappeared into the woods. Tony [Hymas] was so sick of hearing me bellyaching about new material that he went off and did some jazz thing, and when I nailed him about two years after that, I said ‘come on, let’s have some tunes,’ he wrote some fantastic things and some junk, but there was not an album there. I just couldn’t see going into the studio on day one with a gameplan, so we still have a load of stuff lying on the floor that will never be used.

“The other thing was, my tastes were changing rapidly. In the last year even, they’ve changed a lot, they focus more on what I can get away with in outrage. I’m fed up with mediocrity. I don’t care if I use great chunks of grooves from some other records in samples, if it drives me to play more, in a different way or in a special way, then that’s the way it’s done.”

In fact, there is only one outside sample to be found anywhere on Who Else!, a snatch of dialogue from the It’s A Mad Mad… World movie, incorporated into the opening ‘What Mama Said’. But the overall feel of the album is indeed of electronics gone mad, a driving techno frenzy smashing itself against the walls of Steve Alexander’s live drumming, and Beck’s paint-blistering guitar. “Technology is the gauntlet which the last few years have thrown down to musicians,” Beck believes. “But really, it’s the same as it’s always been. Get past the gimmicks, get past the funny noises which everyone knows you can make, and find the core sound. Once you’ve got that, you can do anything.”

That, of course, is the theory behind all of Beck’s greatest albums, from the jazz-rock virtuosity of Blow By Blow and Wired in the mid-1970s, through the below-the-belt rock’n’roll assault of Crazy Legs, and all the way back to the savage blues-busting of Truth, the Jeff Beck Group’s 1968 debut, and the blueprint for every hard rock album of the next five years, from Led Zeppelin on down…

“The thing with Truth was, it was never really developed,” Beck agrees. “We had a sound, and it turned out to be a colossally influential one, but we weren’t interested in just making the same record again and again. Which means I’ve had to sit back here for the past 30 years, watching people perfect it.

“When Led Zeppelin started doing huge concerts, I was sitting in my garage listening to the radio, and going ‘what’s going on? I started this shit, and look at me!'” And he laughs aloud, because though he knows that without Truth, a lot of great music might never have happened, he also knows that a lot of really ghastly stuff might never have been perpetrated, either.

“If I’m in any way responsible for Heavy Metal,” he winces, “then I apologize. But I get vibes from people like Joe Perry and Slash, the really great rockers, the people I like to believe when they tell me things. I know they must have been impressed by that album because I can hear it in their performances. It seems to me, that record played a very large part in what’s going on today. And that’s fine, because I would never have stayed playing that same stuff over anyway.”

That, too, is a creed which Beck has, for the most part, remained true too throughout his career; if Truth was a fiery blues beast, its successor, Cosa Nostra Beck Ola, launched itself unerringly into the heart of the rock’n’roll revival which was sweeping the scene in the late 1960s. The Who were out there playing old Eddie Cochran songs, Lennon was jamming ‘Hound Dog’ and ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ at the Toronto Peace Festival, the Stones had rediscovered Chuck Berry… and the Jeff Beck Group resurrected Elvis Presley, to stunningly effective ends.

That incarnation of the Beck Group, fronted by vocalist Rod Stewart, with Ronnie Wood a less than willing bassist alongside him, imploded just two weeks before it was scheduled to appear at the Woodstock Festival. Had they stayed together to play the show, popular history insists, the Jeff Beck Group would probably have stolen the show. But Beck himself doubts it. “It just wouldn’t have worked. Things in the band had deteriorated to the point of almost disappearing up their own bum. There was such a bad vibe, and I knew that if we played Woodstock and it failed, then I’d never be able to live with myself. But if we didn’t do it, we could always just guess.”

The other thing which persuaded him, he continues, was the presence of the film cameras. “I did not want to be preserved on film. If that thing hadn’t been filmed, I’d probably have said ‘okay let’s do it.’ But I knew it was going to be a big time film, and if we fucked up and we were on film, forget it. I wasn’t strong enough to do it at that time.”

Beck broke up the band, and while a car accident kept him out of commission for the next couple of years, by 1971 he was back fronting a new Jeff Beck Group, built around drummer Cozy Powell and vocalist Bob Tench. Less supercharged than its predecessor, more prone to locking into lumpen rock/soul grooves, this line-up, too, cut two albums (1971’s Rough And Ready, 1972’s Jeff Beck Group), before shattering when Beck went off to form a group he’d first talked about three years earlier, with Vanilla Fudge mainstays Tim Bogart and Carmine Appice.

Beck Bogart And Appice survived one album (and a fairly excruciating live set, available only on Japanese import); then, in 1975, Beck finally got to work on the album which his supporters had been demanding all along, an instrumental set which would showcase his abilities, and his alone. Produced by George Martin, Blow By Blow arrived in March, 1975, and it ripped the formbook to shreds.

And nobody was as surprised as Beck. “I had no idea I was going to be a solo guitarist,” he confesses. “I always thought I had to have a singer, a frontman, and many people over the years have asked me where was the new Rod Stewart – after Rod left – ‘why didn’t you?’ Well, it was simply because there ain’t another Rod Stewart, and to be seen to be looking for one by choosing somebody similar was just silly. Had there been someone else with their own thing going, in the way that Rod had, that would have been different.

“But once I got on the stage, and started to play lots of instrumental stuff, I found I really enjoyed it. To have people clapping me – in the past, well, were they clapping Rod or Bob [Tench] or Timmy [Bogart]? Or were they clapping me? When you have a lead singer, you don’t know that. Unless you get a roar of approval during a guitar solo, you really don’t know who they’re clapping for. And of course, we all wanted to be Billy Big Bananas back then.”

The tours which followed through the mid-1970s did more than feed Beck’s ego, however. They also pinpointed a musical direction he had never seriously considered, one in which the instrumentation was the star, and the istrumentalists were simply the vehicles which carried it to the stage. And once he was joined by Dutch percussion genius Jan Hammer, early into the Wired sessions, suddenly the sky was the limit. Credited to Jeff Beck with the Jan Hammer Group, a 1977 live album (the adventurously titled Live) remains one of those albums which one either loves with scientific passion… or loathes with the hatred normally reserved for watching a couple of computer geeks discussing the best way to upgrade their operating system. Technically it’s brilliant. But it ain’t rock’n’roll.

Beck acknowledges this, but only gently. “The 70s were the perfectionist times, where everybody did spend months and months of time doing ridiculous amounts of tweaking and preening the record, and it didn’t really appeal to me, that stuff. We made Truth in two weeks, Beck Ola in four days, and I do miss that kind of schedule now. I loved it, because the hysterical pressure is what’s lacking nowadays. Everybody’s in slippers and pipes and they can take five years over one guitar solo and that’s not my cup of tea at all. If Little Richard had done that with ‘Lucille,’ ‘Lucille’ wouldn’t have existed. Or ‘Hound Dog.’ I know Elvis used to do 25 takes, but it was 25 takes all in one day, not spread out over six months. I like the danger and excitement elements, and that’s very hard to get.”

Three new albums over the next ten years saw him inching back towards that kind of ideal, and the Gene Vincent tribute, Crazy Legs, at least gave the impression of manic spontaneity. But Beck is convinced that Who Else! – despite its decade-long gestation – is the album which truly returns him to basics.

“There’s more of me on Who Else! than on any other album I’ve ever made,” he insists. “There was more decision making, more packing and slicing, more saying yes and no than I’ve ever done before. In the past, you see, I was playing with great players, and…” and with the specter of the Jan Hammer era again looming over his shoulder… “I was letting them have the run of the show. There’s a certain code within me – I can’t just turn around and tell them to shut up and do what I want them to. But now I can. This time around, it’s my turn to run things, and I’m making the most of it.”

It was Beck who thought of adding a vacuum cleaner to the intro of ‘Psycho Sam’; Beck who came up with the 7/8 time signature which powers ‘Blast From The East’; and Beck who will finally decide whether or not Jennifer Batten’s dream of completely, and dramatically, rearranging his 60s signature theme, ‘Beck’s Bolero’, will finally escape from the rehearsal room.

Bt his incentives are not wholly musical. In an unguarded moment, he admits that money isn’t quite as plentiful as it might be; that a succession of dodgy contracts during his youth have ensured he sees very little from the succession of hits (and subsequently, hit compilations) he enjoyed with the Yardbirds and in the first flush of solo success. Indeed, one early contract was so lopsided that Led Zeppelin manager Peter Grant actually had it hanging on his office wall, “framed as a joke… he’s dead now, but it’s probably still lurking around somewhere, as a warnng to other aspiring young musicians.”

Peter Frampton, one of Beck’s 60s/70s superstar contemporaries, once explained, “when you’re young, someone wants to give you money to make music – of course you’re going to say yes. You’re not thinking of this as a career, you’re not thinking ‘ooh, will I get paid for these records when I’m old and gray,’ and neither were the people you were signing with. It was something which was happening at the time, in the moment; nobody knew that in 30, 40, years time, people would be reissuing all those records on CD, and if you’d told them, they wouldn’t have believed you. Now, of course, it’s happening, and people are making money of those records, and it can be galling. But you have to put it behind you, and get on with what you’re doing now, making money in the present, rather than trying to live off your past.”

Wise words, and – peering out from behind a mountain of Yardbirds compilations, repackaging and recycling three years worth of devastating creativity, with very little reward for its builders – Beck not only agrees with them, he’s living them. “A lot of people think of me as being something from the ’60s, but I haven’t played with the Yardbirds for 32 years, and I doubt I’d even remember how to, anymore. I’ve moved on so many times since then…” and Who Else! sees him moving on even further.

It is an astonishingly contemporary record, the kind of disc which, had it come spinning out at us from amongst the wunderkind godheads of modern techno – the Prodigy, Underworld, Orbital, whoever – would be held up as one of THE sonic achievements of the year. As it is, media reaction to the record has already been surprisingly strong, overwhelmingly positive, and as Beck prepares to tour America this summer, he is adamant that the ball will only keep on rolling.

“We’ve been trying to work out, in my new band, some sort of presentation which is not twee or naff, but which looks good and enables me to get the point across visually and musically. Really, I can’t imagine anything worse than sitting in the back row of some huge auditorium, hearing this big noise coming out of the speakers, which is totally out of scale with the size of the guy on stage. It must get very boring after a while.”

It must. It does. But somehow, Jeff Beck has never, ever, fallen into that trap. Even while the paint was drying on the Jan Hammer live album, there was a sublime ‘She’s A Woman’ to blast all the cobwebs into oblivion; even during the screeching sub-Creamisms of the Beck Bogart and Appice shows, there’d be a ‘Morning Dew’ or ‘I’m So Proud’ to remind you why you bothered going in the first place. And across the already phenomenal Who Else!, there are moments when the mood changes so abruptly, so completely, that you wonder whether you’ll ever become accustomed to everything that’s going on on the record.

Two live recordings, from Beck’s German tour last year, interrupt the savagery with all the style, grace and solo-ing beauty you’ve ever expected the guitarist to unleash; two closing, prettily pastoral, pieces take the edge off the outrage like a cigarette after sex.

It’s the brain battering, rhythm rocking, techno-tinged screamers which will take your senses the furthest, though, and leave you gasping for breath as you reel from their assault. But when visitors look agape at the album sleeve, and ask if it really is THAT Jeff Beck, at least you’ll know what to tell them.

“Who else?”

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May 13, 2010 - Posted by | Jeff Beck Who Else! |

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