A few years ago I was offered an interview with Jeff Beck. I jumped at the chance. It would be 10 minutes only and it was the very next day. Oh, and it was for The Listener. Almost implausibly they were going to run it as a four-page feature, they wanted a sidebar of Beck’s contemporaries and the interview would provide some quotes around which I was to write a 3000-word summary of Beck’s career.
I never questioned why The Listener might want this – but I knew they had come to the right person.
I love Jeff Beck.
And there was so much to say about him. Here, after all, was a guy who had been one of three very famous players in The Yardbirds. An ordinary-ish British blues band, good, but not great; their status elevated because Beck and Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton passed through their ranks. Also, Beck had nearly been in Pink Floyd and The Rolling Stones, had almost been in Led Zeppelin. He’d go on to record with Bon Jovi and Roger Waters, with Rod Stewart and so many others. But most importantly there was a small handful of records recorded under the name The Jeff Beck Group (actually two very different groups, across a half dozen years) and there were the solo albums. Instrumental. Jazz-rock. Totally horrifying to so many people. Maybe that’s part of the appeal.
Jeff Beck’s journey has been about finding his voice. His early singles – Tallyman and Hi Ho Silver Lining featured a not-strong singing voice. But the lyrical way he has with a guitar would eventually fix that, would replace the need for any singer.
Beck can play the great sideman, and still does. His albums feature guest vocalists, he still turns up to do sessions, finds work. But his real strength, the real beauty, the magic trick in his career has been finding that voice on the guitar, as soloist, as lead guitarist. He sings through his guitar (and I’m not referring to the talkbox, that was only a feature of a couple of his 70s albums).
Jeff Beck is the only player from his era that has continued on, kept searching. Page gave up. Clapton created laurels to rest on long ago. Beck’s music is not for everyone – that’s a big part of what makes it so great. But he continues to find a way to speak through his guitar. Covers of The Beatles’ A Day In The Life and Nitin Sawhney’s Nadia exist in Beck’s voice, that phrasing, those subtle bends, dizzying slide playing, frenetic, exciting, passionate.
Have a listen to 1975’s Blow By Blow; that might just be Beck’s masterpiece, his most complete solo album, certainly. Here is where fusion feels like actual music, not just exercise for musicians. There’s space in these jams, there’s emotion in the playing, Beck’s guitar-voice is starting to really take shape here, his version of the Stevie Wonder song, ‘Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers, is definitive. Stevie wrote the song for his ex-wife Syreeta to sing. Beck’s version is better. Syreeta’s might be the personal story, but Beck’s playing contains multitudes, there’s everything in his playing and yet it’s never too crowded. That’s no mean feat.
Go back to The Jeff Beck Group’s earliest work – when a young Rod Stewart was one of the great blue-eyed soul singers you could ever hear. There’s a song called I’ve Been Drinking. It’s a masterpiece. Every component is great, the press roll on the snare that introduces the main body of the tune, Rod’s exemplary vocal, actually an extraordinary performance, almost overwhelming in its magnitude. The piano intro that frames the song is crucial, obviously. But then there’s Beck’s guitar solo – it’s like a scene-stealing actor. The bit-part player that becomes the big-shot. It’s as if he’s Rod’s duet partner. It’s almost a cliché – such is the outpouring. But there’s heart and soul in that playing. He throws everything into it. And, again, it sounds like everything. But somehow with room to spare. Beck crams things in but never crowds the song.
In fact I’ve Been Drinking is probably the earliest example of Beck’s voice on the guitar; his voice through the guitar. He just happens, still, to be sharing the stage with a lead singer.
The work he would go on to do, with Jan Hammer, electric piano and electric guitar roaming out through the fields, way past jazz and rock and off to explore their own space is where things really get going. It’s where it really gets good. It’s also where Beck lost a lot of people.
I admire him for charging on, oblivious to fashions and trends, uninterested, incapable of slotting in, fitting in, flitting about with the in-crowd.
And I love it that you can always spot his playing. The mangled guitar solos for Mick Jagger and Tina Turner (Mark Knopfler referred to Beck’s playing on Private Dancer as “the word’s second worst guitar solo” – it’s ugly and beautiful in equal measures), the searing, searching lines that open Roger Waters’ best solo album (Amused to Death).
I loved Jeff Beck for a long time before I ever got to speak to him. But then, one morning, we turned our 10 allocated minutes into 20 and I got to tell him that Blow By Blow blew my teenage mind, I’d bought it on cassette tape in Gisborne. Almost on a whim, I knew his playing in the Yardbirds, I’d read so much about him in the pages of Guitar World. Hearing Blow By Blow was the real start of my journey with Jeff Beck’s music.
People can choose to not enjoy his tone, can be unimpressed with some of the song selections or the garish “gear-changes” when he really revs up that guitar. But if anyone tries to tell you that Jeff Beck’s not one of the world’s very best then their ears are painted on. Simple.
This was originally published as part of a series on the Phantom Billstickers Facebook page.