Jeff Beck is famous, and wealthy, but not that famous and wealthy. Hailed by nearly every contemporary as one of the most innovative, expressive and technically accomplished rock guitarists in the history of the genre, his career has been sabotaged at nearly every turn by equally famous tendencies to, at various points, become publicity shy, to grow bored with music, to throw a band-breaking tantrum over the stress of touring or a malfunctioning amplifier, or to simply refuse to make any concessions to those who would mold him into a hit-making machine like Eric Clapton or even Jimmy Page, fellow Yardbirds who innovated early but, it could be argued, never moved beyond those breakthrough into the breaches they created.
The same cannot be said for Jeff. Here is a guitar player who, with the album “Truth,” provided a heavy blues-rock sound that set the template for everything Led Zeppelin ever did in the same mode. A player who proceeded to have the great misfortune to suffer tinnitus, head injuries, and the loss of Stevie Wonder’s hit song “Superstition,” (originally designed as a vehicle for Stevie and Jeff’s duet but which became a solo Stevie Wonder tune once his record label heard the song) in the early part of the Seventies. He then proceeded to make jazz fusion understandable and acessible to the general public on “Blow by Blow” and “Wired.” In the Eighties he solidified his presence as a truly technically accomplished shred machine on “Flash” and a talented instrumental composer on “Guitar Shop.” And in the Nineties, he brings us this album: a techno-based instrumental offering with no shortage of screaming guitar. And in between each release are all the hallmarks of a frustrated and demanding musician, who doesn’t release albums for years because he can’t get out from underneath his latest hot-rod.
By all rights this effort should have fallen flat on its face. How on earth could a British blues-era refugee, edging into his late fifties, ever manage to produce a techno album and have it be even close to credible, interesting, or cool? What would an Eric Clapton techno record sound like, for instance? It would be the end of his career. But not for Beck. A hallmark of his style is his need for propulsion behind his music: he’s never been able to keep ensembles together because he wants everything his way, compositionally, but at the same time he needs the dynamic energy of others in order to play to his highest potential. In the machine and keyboard based sounds of electronica, provided by longtime collaborator Tony Hymas, he has found a worthy opponent to tame and as a result makes some of his compositionally tightest stuff yet. Add in the occaisional guitar pyrotechnics of tapping virtuoso Jennifer Batten, you’ve got one of the coolest records anybody that’s still putzing around from Beck’s era in the Sixties has EVER produced in recent history.
Here’s the album track-by-track:
1.) What Mama Said
This track dispels any notion that Beck has gone off his rocker right off the bat. We are greeted by a techno beat and a sustained guitar chord being strummed, with a lot of mechanical wooshes to get into it. The aldrenaline begins pumping immediately as Jennifer Batten provides one of the SICKEST two-handed tapping riffs I’ve ever heard, as fluid as a keyboard and as rhythmically tight as the greatest rock playing. A short quote from “It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World” is heard, and right away we are greated with some very tasty riffing by the Beck-meister. This is rocking music with fantastic flourishes of machine and keyboard rhythms underneath. A swirling interlude occurs, and then a version of Batten’s riff is played by the bassist. Jeff then solos over the bassline for about a minute and a half, building up from the barest, small phrases into his screeching, wailing and dipping lead guitar. Batten riffs underneath for another moment, and then the ending is a quick cascade of frenzied drumming and a reprise of the “melody” riff. Amazing stuff.
2.) Psycho Sam
It doesn’t stop there. This is a very interesting track, with distinct metal vibes in the rhythmic choices that Beck makes (which is cool, because he’s always said that he loves all-out metal and claims that he can play it much eviler than anybody that currently does it). A nice legato lead is played over alternating-panned rhythm guitars, and a very frantic bassline played on keyboards. Then something very nice and un-Becklike comes out: a harmonized lead! After this nice melody is played, we have very fast clean guitar and a Middle-Eastern dual harmony riff that showcases Beck’s mastery of the whammy bar for the first time on the album. His solo does the exact same thing: with dips and bends all over the place, we can see that he hardly takes the effort to bend with his fingers anymore, so adept is he at using the whammy bar to control his pitch and vibrato. His tremolo picking is also very adept, which is all the more badass since Beck plays only with his fingers. A metallic interlude comes after long solos and reprises of the melody, and a long outro solo ends it, kept interesting by all the arrangements of the mechanical instruments.
3.) Brush with the Blues
Taken from a live recording in Germany, this song is a much more stripped down track, bearing no techno influence at all. Instead, we are treated to a thoroughly modern blues, with some of the most expressive soloing I’ve heard from anyone anywhere. It’s all here: incredible control of tone and dynamics, the flipping of pickups and tone pots and volume knobs on the fly, the expressions of his whammy bar, harmonic squeals, and an orgasmic solo filled with raunchy, screeching, and innovative blues shredding. Bringing it back down for the outro, Beck once again relaxes us with the utmost mastery he has in this style, and leads us into the next track, which forays back into techno territory with a twist.
4.) Blast From the East
Alternating between measures of 7/8 and 4/4, the rhythmic sense of this song is a bit twisted, but that’s more than okay because of the very cool Middle-Eastern-type leads Beck gives off, always with a neat exuberance and characteristic wail that makes it very cool. The solos are also extremely accomplished, demonstrating Beck’s fluid control of dynamics and bends. He’s particularly great at hitting “accidentals” and odd notes that, played by anybody else, would sound terrible, but due to his tendency to bend them all out of shape with the bar sound very musical and are deceptively complex and expressive. There’s another dual harmony, courtesy of Ms. Batten, later in the song.
5.) Space for the Papa
This is blues twisted beyond all recognition. There’s a very simple, grooving riff that makes up the basis of the song’s rhythm (when there is one, that is, as much of the song is just ambient keyboard swirls), followed by a very long solo section in which Beck orgasmically screeches and phrases using a slide, in which we can hear every extraneous noise of his guitar, which are reverbed heavily and sounding more like mechanical clanks. His swells and crashes are very cool and apocalyptic, and when the beat comes back in, his phrases take on a tight grooving quality, until they culminate in a series of tapped harmonics, natural harmonic dives, and very speedy natural harmonic triplets. Great stuff, and a hilight of the album.
6.) Angel (Footsteps)
A much more mellow affair, this track sees Beck playing slide lead over an almost silly, bouncy rhythm subdued by powerful keyboard chords. The song is based around a series of “fusiony” key changes and modal interchange, and the results are quite beautiful. This took a while to grow on me, as at the age when I first got into this, I was still on the lookout for nothing but screechy solos, but over a while the complex harmonies, which are simultaneously modern and fusiony, and yet remarkably reminiscient of ’50s ballads like “Sleepwalk,” really jumped out at me as beautiful and very tasteful.
Named after George Lucas’ first film, this song is a rhythm-oriented track, with no real solos to speak of (although at the opening we are greeted by an absurdly fast and rhythmically complex legato figure). The only real guitar centerpiece are the whammy-dived chords and notes that jump out on occaision. Cool, but mostly only effective as background music. I’d say this qualifies as filler.
This a cool little track, although it, like the previous one, seems like a bit of a throwaway. We combine 7/8 time with an Eastern-blues lead with a slow, subdued funk-blues bassline. This is pretty psychedelic and cool, and brings to mind slightly similar work from Beck’s Yardbirds period (during which time his bandmates were obsessed with Eastern influences). This track is also interesting only as texture. It doesn’t hold one’s attention as a musical piece, I feel.
9.) Even Odds
Here’s a very irreverent rock-out moment, and a rare display of unashamed lead fireworks. Beck is normally the epitome of tastefulness even in his speedy moments, but here he indulges in crashed cymbal, crushing drumbeat sections, a heavily-distorted riff alternating between 5/4 and 4/4, leading to very melodic, Satriani-like melodies, to a growling and wailing solo that indulges very frequently in speedy tapping, which is a trick Beck came up with years before Van Halen but has always shied away from using in the wake of its popularity. His take on the wide-interval sounds people like Vai use, using tapped notes as a sort of replacement for a picked phrase of a basic pentatonic idea, is very organic and effective. Once again, Beck’s guitar typically sounds like anything but a guitar.
Written by a master of the Celtic form, Donal Lunny, this song is an excellent showcase for Beck’s ability to simulate the simple, hornpipe-style lines of Scottish airs with his guitar. Playing along with a wonderful acoustic guitar performed by Mr. Lunny, which utilizes koto and artificial harmonic passages in a wonderful free style, Beck harmonizes the wonderfully emotive and beautiful melody with both a violin and an Ulliean pipe, I believe. The results are a little mixed: I think Beck dialed in too distorted a tone, but it mixes pretty well with the other instruments. Again, his use of the whammy bar to control pitch is astounding.
11.) Another Place
A beautiful little instrumental closes this out, with a tasty fingerpicked piece by Mr. Beck. Almost classical sounding, this is another doorway into the myterious musical mind of the guitar player, who has typically hidden a vast portion of his musical knowledge on record.
This is great stuff, and a wonderful challenge for any player and lover of Beck’s previous work. Joe Satriani aped this on his “Engines of Creation” and came up with another thing that showed just how effective rock guitar is when working in conjunction with the overlooked rhythmic complexity and musical sophistication of electronica, but this record is even then much more innovative than Satch’s version. Beck is a true rock player, as he is often as noisy and raunchy as he is musical. Beck combines nearly all his knowledge of his previous efforts and brings them to bear on these heartless machines and injects some soul into everything as a result. This is a highly interesting and quite good record.
Who else? Well, for my money, practically anybody. This is Beck’s first serious artistic statement in exactly a decade (I refuse to view Crazy Legs as anything more than a gimmick), and the result is definitely less than completely satisfactory. As far as I can figure out, the usual critical assessment of this record goes something like ‘yup, it’s the good old Jeff, but fans will probably be disappointed by the production’. You bet your life they will. While Beck still teams up with old pals like Jan Hammer and Tony Hymas, the production values for about half of the tracks are totally hi-tech, and on some of the tunes – hold your horses! – Jeff goes as far as to employ techno and trip-hop beats. Actually, it was quite possible to suspect him of being possible to catch the disease: Jeff had always been sniffing out the fashions, and his albums never sounded ‘outdated’; but for some unclear reason I still hoped the techno virus wouldn’t catch him. It did – and dit it exactly at a stage where, as it is my firm belief, techno is already fading and on the way out; at the least, employing techno beats at the present time does harm your reputation where it probably didn’t five years ago or so. Late as usual, but never you mind. I actually sat through tunes like ‘What Mama Said’, ‘Psycho Sam’ and ‘THX138′ three times – but I will never do that any more, nossiree, I’ll just program my CD, thank you very much.
But anyway, I would forgive Beck for going techno if only he didn’t forget to deliver the usual goods. After all, the numbers on Guitar Shop weren’t that groovy either, melodywise, but everything was compensated by those warp-speed solos and the incredible playing technique which really lifts the listener out of his chair and splats him against the wall. And after all, one can even get used to the electronica stuff. Yes, time works wonders – once I would have just shoved this piece o’ plastic under the bed without further thinking, now I’m… yeah, I’m actually listening to this! Holy crap, I’m even LIKING PARTS of this! Shouldn’t probably be watching the generic techno numbers on MTV last night.
Nevertheless, I was talking about Jeff’s guitar playing on this particular album. And this is where I have my rub against the critics – because I really couldn’t tell this was a Jeff Beck album if not told so previously. The guitarwork on most of the songs (by the way, I think I forgot to say that the album follows the ‘instrumental’ tradition: no vocals whatsoever) is terribly subdued, especially on the more modernistic ones. Hey, did you actually hear the guitar at all on ‘What Mama Said’? On ‘Psycho Sam’, Beck sounds like he’s not really playing his instrument but plugging it through a computer; ‘Space For The Papa’ is a deadly long (eight minutes), boring, monotonous electronic jam with the guitar often sticking to the background, and the main emphasis on a catchy, but rather banal synth riff. I must say that when Beck does really step in on that instrument in certain places, he does it with vehemency – but eight minutes? Pretty damn grim. Although, if you don’t have any problems with Nineties’ electronic fluff at all, ‘Space For The Papa’ will probably sound a masterpiece when compared to… to Prodigy.
Even more disspiriting are the numbers where El Becko actually picks up the instrument and gives it some punch. I was never much impressed, and still ain’t, with the only blues track on here, ‘Brush With The Blues’; anybody could have played that slow, uncomplicated, unspirited solo – really, you don’t need to be Jeff Beck to play like that. It’s not bad, really – it’s pretty tasteful background music, but you can get thousands of instrumentals like that! Where’s the distinction, dammit? And the same goes for all the other tracks – it sounds as if Beck really wasn’t that hot in the studio at recording time. In fact, the back cover of the album, where Jeff ain’t sitting and playing, but is instead relaxing in a chair after a presumably solid lunch, is much more telling. ‘Angel (Footsteps)’ is okay, and the folkish ballad ‘Declan’ near the end of the album is even moving in its own specific way, but even these two songs are average, nowhere near his best work. What the hell?
Okay, defense time. Apart from the two or three annoying electronica anthems, none of the instrumentals are bad. Very few are particularly memorable, either, but I did have a good time while listening to such punchy ones as ‘Even Odds’ or, especially, ‘Blast From The East’, whose melody I really loved – now there’s a fine dance number with quite a bit of originality. The stupidest thing about it is how it begins with a masterful acoustic riff, and then whammo whammo, in pop all the electronic drums and the robotic guitars. Yet the robotic guitars do a fine job in presenting us with one of Jeff’s all-time greatest riffs, well worthy of just about anything on his infamous fusion landmark records.
And in any case, Jeff can still play. I don’t know if the desire to tone down his technique was intentional or he’s just getting tired and old of the whole business, but the solos on the slow ballads are okay – you never get swept away by them, but while they’re on, they’re really moody and caressing and all that. I guess it all depends on your mood, anyway: last time I listened I almost wanted to give the album a good rating, but then it ended and I found out all my good memories were gone and only the bad remained, so I just had to re-think my idea. Then again, I just caught myself whistling that ‘ta-tum-ta-tam-ta-taaaaaauuuutam’ chord sequence from ‘Blast From The East’… Ah, what the heck. I’ll give it an overall rating of eight and let’s just pretend nobody noticed.
Seriously, this can only be recommended to diehard fans of Beck – and even then, only about a half of this, not more (I can hardly imagine a diehard Beck fan grooving to Hammer’s synths and computer drums on ‘What Mama Said’ or ‘Space For The Papa’). Let us just get together and pray and hope that by the year 2009 Beck comes to his senses and releases something that could actually be called fresh. All right?
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.