Jeff Beck, Now and Then

It is jarring to refer to Jeff Beck, guitarist supreme, in the past tense. When a prominent musician dies, the overdone, rote homages pour out. In Beck’s case, these tributes have been entirely apropos. He occupied a crucial, genre-busting slot of musical history.

I had not given Jeff Beck much notice these past decades. Yet, as a seventies teen, I gave him very substantial notice.

I have no recollection of how Wired, his acclaimed 1976 album, first reached my ears. What I do remember is the enormous impression it made. There was a harsh, metallic beauty and a complexity that was radically dissimilar to my standard listening fare. In short order, I became a Jeff Beck devotee, purchasing most of his oeuvre.

Beck had an ambiguous relationship to fame. It’s surprising to remember that when Jimmy Page formed Led Zeppelin, his model was the Jeff Beck Group (vocalist Rod Stewart, bassist Ronnie Wood, drummer Micky Waller). Such was Beck’s renown at the time.

When I discovered Jeff Beck, his legendary perch had been firmly enshrined, but he lacked true mass appeal. Beck fandom was a little uncommon, but not a rarity.  He was certainly famous enough to generate easily procured paraphernalia. A Jeff Beck poster graced my bedroom wall, positioned strategically in proximity to some trippy Roger Dean artwork. A T-shirt emporium yielded a Jeff Beck in concert iron-on, which I matched to a fluorescent orange shirt. The older attendant—probably all of nineteen and obviously wise to the ways of the world—looked admiringly at my purchase. “The master,” he said with some reverence. I felt flattered, as if I had passed some sudden test to measure my hipness quotient.

When I joined the Beck cadre, he had been moving in a jazzier direction (a direction, sadly, guaranteed not to fill arena seating). Rough and Ready, from 1971, had some pronounced jazz elements, elements that only increased with the release of Blow by Blow and then Wired. DownBeat, the authoritative jazz magazine, gave Beck a cover story in 1977. Wired featured Charles Mingus’s “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” (credited, with unearned familiarity, to “Charlie” Mingus). I had never heard of Mingus, Charlie or Charles. Gradually, I developed a strong interest in jazz, with Wired­ serving as my initial gateway.

There was something a little off-kilter about Beck’s output, almost slightly foreign, like a talented French or Italian rock band that is proficient in the idiom, but ultimately lacks some authenticity. The second iteration of the Jeff Beck Group (vocalist Bob Tench, keyboardist Max Middleton, bassist Clive Chaman, drummer Cozy Powell) released the peerless Rough and Ready, but then came out with the eponymous Jeff Beck Group, which seemed mostly untethered to anyone’s listening sensibilities. Nineteen seventy-seven’s Jeff Beck with the Jan Hammer Group Live—after a string of inventive album titles, he seemed to have run out of inspiration—has a truly stunning version of Lennon-McCartney’s “She’s a Woman.” Yet in parts of this song, Beck—god knows why–utilizes the gimmicky voice box.


Listening to Beck today is a curious experience for me. The Yardbirds, who I liked well enough back in the day, have risen exponentially in my estimation. Blow by Blow and Wired are like viewing vibrant colors that have faded with age. I can approximate the feeling the music gave me at the time. But it is only an approximation.

The underrated Rough and Ready—and the feeling of the album is anything but rough and ready—is one of those aural Proustian experiences. I’m not sure why the album affects me this way. But then again, Proustian experiences are inherently arbitrary. Rough and Ready is a beautiful, evocative work that to me conjures up a high school autumn. The air is cooling; leaves are just starting to drift from the trees. The days and nights are an endless current.


When rock ‘n roll burst into the world, Beck was entranced by this music emanating from the faraway United States. What captivated Beck (and a whole contingent of British guitarists) was not just the music, but specifically the guitar that could be heard embedded within this music. Ricky Nelson’s fan base loved, quite obviously, Ricky Nelson.  What hit people like Jeff Beck, on the other hand, was Nelson’s rocking guitarist, James Burton.

 There is something absolutely fascinating about this. These rock ‘n roll songs were a beacon. They also contained a hidden message in the form of the guitar work. For those who responded to this hidden message, it was an immersion in a musical form: Expansive rock guitar. But expansive rock guitar, at the time, only partially existed. It could be construed that Beck, Jimmy Page, et al were responding to powerful, subconscious impulses that they then identified, fleshed out, made whole. If I was forced to give one example of the essence of creativity, this would be it.


Beck’s output waned after Jeff Beck with the Jan Hammer Group Live. But I had lost interest in his music. It existed purely as an adolescent touchstone.

None of this detracts from his outsized importance or the sadness I felt upon learning of his passing. I keep coming back to that long-ago T-shirt seller and his pithy, accurate summation. Jeff Beck was, indeed, the master.