Exploring the Outer Boundaries of Sound With Jeff Beck

Jeff Beck, Live at the Hollywood Bowl, 2016.

Jeff Beck, one of the originators of the British Invasion, and a pioneer of fusion died this week at the age of 78. I wrote this profile of Beck after seeing his band perform in Portland in 2011.

The band emerges together into a wavering blue light. The pianist, Jason Rebello, climbs behind his racks of keyboards and synths and begins to fiddle with a glowing MacBook Pro. The young bassist, Rhonda Smith, is dressed for battle in desert fatigues and combat boots. She picks a few thick notes before the wall of amps, her back to the audience. The legendary Narada Michael Walden, grown as muscular as Aaron Neville, slides behind his arsenal of drums, cymbals and chimes. He begins laying down a complex and funky groove. His kit rattles from the seismic force of his blows.

The guitarist stands alone on stage right. He’s wearing a white scarf and black vest without a shirt. There’s a silver armband cuffed around his right bicep. His eyes are concealed behind dark shades. Motorcycle boots extrude from beneath his flowing linen trousers. His hair is still jet-black, chopped in that fraying rooster style. He kicks at a pedal and the white Stratocaster erupts into the shattering opening chords of “Stratus,” an old Billy Cobham headbanger.

The group has been playing for 20 minutes without a pause–working their way seamlessly through the spacey-funk of “Plan B,” the hard rock of “Led Boots,” and a shimmering version of Sean O Riada’s “Mná na h-Éireann”–before a voice is heard from the stage.  No one has complained.

“I can’t sing and I don’t talk much,” Jeff Beck finally mumbles into the mike on a rainy night in Portland. “I’ve got too much to think about.”

Then his band launches into a furious funk-metal version of his song “Hammerhead,” a wah-wah-laden tribute to Jimi Hendrix, with its echoes of “Machine Gun” and “Spanish Castle Magic.” “Hammerhead,” has just been awarded a Grammy for best rock instrumental.

Now 67, Beck wasn’t too impressed by the accolade. “Yeah, well, there’s a lot of categories,” he quipped to a reporter at the London Telegraph. “Best Use of A Comb, Best Paper Clip. You’re
bound to win something if you’ve been around as long as me.”

Jeff Beck is probably the greatest living guitarist, give or take John McLaughlin or the Spanish master Paco de Lucia. Certainly, he’s the most versatile, forging startling new ground in rock, blues, fusion, jazz, electronica and, lately, classical. Still, for more than 40 years, Beck has labored under the shadows of two other veterans of the Yardbirds, Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page, largely because for most of his career he has chosen to work without a vocalist and across more progressive and therefore less commercial sonic terrain.

It’s ironic, then, that Beck’s only hit single, “Hi Ho Silver Lining,” recorded in 1967, featured Beck’s very own tentative and gravelly voice. The guitarist wanted his pal Rod Stewart to sing the lead, but British producer Mickey Most scoffed at the idea, telling Beck, “What do you want that poof in the band for?”

A few months later Rod did join the Jeff Beck Group, along with Ronnie Wood and drummer Aynsley Dunbar, and the collaboration produced one of the landmark albums in rock music, Truth. Keith Moon, Nicky Hopkins and John Paul Jones also played on the sessions as did. Jimi Hendrix, who considered Beck to be the most innovative guitarist he’d ever heard, was also in and out of the studio during those weeks, playing gigs with Beck and his band.

The admiration was mutual. “Jimi hit me like an earthquake when he arrived,” Beck told GuitarPlayer magazine. “I had to think long and hard about what I did next. The wounds were quite deep, actually, and I had to lick them on my own. I was constantly looking for other things to do on the guitar, and new places to take it. The thing I noticed when I saw him was not only his amazing blues but his physical assault on the guitar. His actions were all of one accord, an explosive package.”

Truth is a blues-based album, which opens with a concussive remake of the old Yardbird’s hit “Shapes of Things.” It became a model for early Led Zeppelin and a precursor for the heavy metal sound of the mid-70s. In other words, it was loud, so loud in fact that Beck’s amplifier had to be sequestered in a closet during the recording sessions. Eventually, the decibel levels would catch up with Beck. In the 1980s he developed a debilitating case of tinnitus that kept him off the road for years. Now the volume at Beck’s live shows is reduced modestly with no apparent harm to the distorted growls, shrieks and screams emanating from Beck’s Telecaster.

Keyboardist Nicky Hopkins called the original Jeff Beck Group “the greatest line-up in rock history.” Although he is now viewed as one of the most self-indulgent narcissists in popular music (and there’s stiff competition), in those days Rod Stewart, who had just passed up a promising career as a soccer player, suffered from stage fright. During one of the band’s first gigs in the US, Rod was so paralyzed with fear that he had to sing off-stage. Still, the band played to packed houses from the Fillmore East to the Fillmore West. They rushed back into the studio to record the dynamic follow-up album, Beck-Ola, and then went back on the road. The wildly popular tour was set to conclude with a headlining performance at Woodstock. But the band splintered apart a few nights before the festival, largely owing to feuding between Beck and Stewart. Stewart had just recorded his first solo album, An Old Raincoat Won’t Ever Let You Down, and wanted to perform more of his own songs. He felt he was being overshadowed by Beck’s audacious playing. Rod was right. When Stewart left the band he took Woody with him to form The Faces.

Beck was left in the lurch. He reformed the band with Bobby Tench on vocals and Cozy Powell on drums. But the music didn’t gel, in part, it must be said, because of Beck’s own limitations as a songwriter. The playing, particularly Beck’s searing solos, was at a high level, but the material was stale. Sales were meager and Beck broke up the group, frustrated that the band hadn’t been able to, as he put it at the time, “create a new musical style.”

A few months later Beck put together a power trio with bassist Tim Bogert and drummer Carmine Appice, notable mainly for its blistering cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition,” which Stevie Ray Vaughan later cribbed riff-for-riff. Again album sales were flat and the group dissolved before completing their second album. For the next year, Beck spent much of his time gigging with other musicians, including David Bowie.

Then Beck got a surprise call from Ian Stewart, manager of the Rolling Stones. Stewart told Beck that guitarist Mick Taylor had just quit the band and that Mick and Keith wanted Beck to join the group as lead guitarist. Stewart asked Beck to show up at a recording session in Rotterdam.

When Beck arrived at the studio, he was stunned to see dozens of different guitars lined up, each with tags on them.

“Are those all Keith’s?” Beck asked Stewart.

“No,” Stewart said. “Those are for the auditions.”

“Auditions? What auditions?”

“Don’t worry, Jeff. You’ve got the gig.”

“Fuck that, I’m not auditioning for them,” Beck snapped and left.

“On the phone it sounded like the most incredible offer but being there and getting a taste of the lifestyle was something else,” Beck said later. “One of them would turn up and disappear, someone else would turn up and go off, then Mick would appear and so on. It would be midnight before they were all in the same place at the same time – by that time I could have recorded an album!

“I was being sucked into it, what path was I going to take? But one rehearsal was enough. When I played with the Rolling Stones it was so quaint, after the real violent riffs and wild Billy Cobham rhythms I was getting into, it would never have worked.”

It was yet another fateful crossroads in Beck’s career. The coveted slot in the Stones eventually went to his old bassist Ronnie Wood and Beck, left to his own devices again, plunged forward in a revolutionary new direction. (One can hardly imagine Beck being locked into a band that played the same 25 songs in the same mode night after night for the next 50 years.) His next three studio albums, Blow By Blow, Wired and There and Back, changed the shape of rock music. Jettisoning vocals, these instrumental albums featured a blistering blend of jazz,  funk and blues-driven rock. Working in collaboration with producer George Martin, drummers Narada Michael Walden and Bernard “Pretty” Purdy, bassist Stanley Clarke and keyboardist Jan Hammer, Beck created a frenzied and soulful kind of fusion, featuring long and daring runs in a chromatic cascade of bent and distorted notes. The music was fresh, challenging and much more adventuresome (if not nearly as lucrative) than anything the Stones produced after Exile on Main Street.

After There and Back, Beck seemed to fade from the scene. He was having trouble with his ears, had become impatient with his music and he wanted to devote more time to retooling his growing fleet of hot rod cars. “I like the studio because it’s delicate; you’re working for sound. I like the garage because chopping up lumps of steel is the exact opposite of delicate,” Beck boasted. “The garage is a more dangerous place though. I’ve never almost been crushed by a guitar, but I can’t say the same about one of my Corvettes.”

When he re-emerged in the mid-1980s, Beck had completely reinvented his playing style. The guitarist had thrown away his picks and began playing with his fingers. The new sound, as heard on songs like “Brush With the Blues” and his ethereal cover of Benjamin Britten’s “Corpus Christi Carol,” reveals a new warmth of tone and emotional depth.

Beck is a restless musician, easily bored, even with his own playing. He is a gifted arranger and has a fine eye for assembling talented and sympathetic groups of musicians. But his bands tend to fall apart. Few have stayed together more than two years. One of the reasons, I suspect, is that Beck is a perfectionist, rarely satisfied with any given performance. He is also anxious to explore new sounds and styles. He loathes repeating himself.

Toward the end of the Portland concert, Beck grabbed the mike again and whispered, “If you like this stuff, you’d best listen closely. This is the last time we’ll be performing these songs.” Then he began to play a spooky version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”

Kimberly turned to me and asked if I thought Beck was hanging up his axe. Who knows? He’s sure paid his dues. Last year, while chopping carrots, Beck nearly sliced off the top third of his ring finger. “It was just hanging off by a thread,” Beck recalled in a recent interview with Michael Wright at Gibson guitars.  “I stuck a big chunk — a diagonal slice was taken off the top of it, and I stuck it back and freaked out and then went to the hospital. But I avoided stitches because the surgeon said I’d such a great job sticking it back.   And it had just started to take when he had a look at it, so he said “Don’t mess with it.” He actually strapped it up a bit tighter than I had it. So I had to finish up — I had to play two or three tracks without that finger. ‘Over the Rainbow’ was done with the three fingers.”

But I think Beck meant that he was prepared to shelve the popular covers that had become a staple of his live shows over the past decade (“A Day in the Life,” “People Get Ready,” “Cause We’ve Ended as Lovers” and “Little Wing”) for newer excursions in music.

During the band’s encore, we were treated, perhaps, to a glimpse of the future. With Walden bashing at the drums, Beck tore into a frenetic cover of Sly Stone’s “Higher,” which prompted even the geriatrics (of whom there were many) in the crowd to rise from their seats and begin to hip-shake in the aisles. As the song sizzled down to the  throbbing basslines played by the immensely talented Rhonda Smith, Beck joked, “And now we’re going to take a real risk.” Standing in a white circle of light, Beck began to pick out the terse opening lines of Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance.” The band fractured Gaga’s campy send-up into a psychedelic concoction of after-hours funk.

The night ended with Beck etching out the crystalline notes of “Nessun Dorma” (“None Shall Sleep”), the anthemic aria from Puccini’s “Turandot,” which became a signature number for Pavarotti in his final years. Beck remodels the piece into a luminous, almost mystical, swirl of sustained, quavering notes, the final chord struck while kneeling before Walden’s range of drums. The audience sat in stunned silence for a moment, before erupting into frenzied applause. Walden emerged from behind his drum kit, handed Beck, Rebello and Smith bouquets of roses and then, together, they tossed them into the crowd. This is Portland, after all.

Hendrix and Stevie Ray are dead. Page is a recluse, his chops withered by years of self-abuse. Clapton regurgitates himself endlessly. But Jeff Beck sounds very now and still pressing the outer boundaries of music.

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His most recent book is An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents (with Alexander Cockburn). He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net or on Twitter @JeffreyStClair3