by Pete Clemons
Like most youngsters born before the 1960s Jeff Beck grew up with the radio. It was one of the few forms of entertainment and music was all important. Jeff was attracted to the guitar from an early age and he would love to analyse the sound. He has also cited the film ‘The Girl Can’t Help It’ and the sounds of Les Paul and Mary Ford as being early influences.
At around the age of 14 Jeff’s sister gave him the phone number of someone whom she thought was a like-minded individual, as they had both built their own homemade guitars. That phone call led to Jeff meeting Jimmy Page at Jimmy’s parents’ house. The pair clicked instantly listening intently to guitar solos on the music of the 1950s. This was the beginning for Jeff as he began searching for that innovative sound.
After leaving school Jeff became an art student at Wimbledon College. At the same time he was gigging in various bands. Jeff loved art school but the music took over.
The Yardbirds had been searching for a new guitarist. It wasn’t that their current guitarist, Eric Clapton, was not good enough. It was that they were after a new direction and looking for a hit record. And it was through Jimmy Page, who had been approached first, that Jeff hooked up with The Yardbirds during early 1965. In fact Eric Clapton went to check Jeff out, who was then playing with his band The Tridents, to ensure they were getting the right man.
At around the same time Jeff and Jimmy had become inspired by Indian music. They were listening intently to a lot of the Ragas of Ravi Shankar. Jeff was convinced he could interpret a version of the sound on his guitar.
Beck’s ‘sitar’ like sound that he got out of his guitar helped transform The Yardbirds and achieve the chart success they desired. Within a month of joining the band Jeff was touring America.
With the money that he earned Jeff invested in a 1963 Corvette. You see, Jeff Beck’s other interest was cars.
After less than two years however Jeff Beck was fired by The Yardbirds. The way Jeff explains it is that the band had been added to a package tour called the ‘Caravan of Stars’. It was an odd tour as it meant a lot of travel and The Yardbirds had a 15 minute slot where they got to play 2 or 3 songs. This was not what Jeff wanted and simply walked away and returned home after 2 gigs.
Jeff Beck was now, in his own words ‘free to dream again’ and back in the U.K. Jeff set about forming his own band.
To begin his quest Jeff visited the Cromwellian Club in London. It was a meeting place for musicians. This particular night it was unusually quiet. In fact the only other person in there was an out of work singer called Rod Stewart. They got chatting and during the conversation Rod mentioned Ronnie Wood. Jeff knew of Ronnie as they had met in Sheffield when Ronnie was touring with his own band The Birds and Jeff with The Yardbirds.
The first year or so saw a succession of musicians joining and leaving the core trio of the new Jeff Beck Group. They also found themselves under the guidance of producer Mickie Most. It was a real miss-match as Mickie was trying to steer the band in the direction of chart success. Jeff loved Rod Stewarts voice and specifically asked for Rod to sing on the hit single ‘Hi Ho Silver Lining’. But Mickie didn’t care for it and this was evident during the singles recording. Jeff likened the ‘Hi Ho’ period to wearing a pink frock in Oxford Street. It had all been too uncomfortable for him.
Eventually though the Jeff Beck Group settled with Nick Hopkins on piano and Micky Waller on drums. A gruelling tour of America followed and they were getting rave reviews. It was reported heavily, for example after a gig at Fillmore West, that the band had blown away headline bands such as the Grateful Dead.
Back in the U.K. the band recorded the ground breaking ‘Truth’ album which was released during 1968. Needless to say that ‘Hi Ho’ never made though its B side, the magnificent ‘Becks Bolero’ - actually recorded in 1966 - did. Rock music had not heard anything like this before. Several more U.S. tours followed along with a second album ‘Beck-Ola’ released in 1969. But it was also being reported that a rift had developed within the band. Days before the band were due to fly out for a scheduled slot at the Woodstock Festival, Jeff disappeared and the band disintegrated. During a recent documentary Jeff was still convinced it was the right thing to do. And reluctantly Rod Stewart agreed.
By the end of 1969 Jeff Beck was back at his Mother’s house. Another film that had inspired him as a youngster was called ‘Hot Rod Gang’. Jeff still has a vivid memory of a particular scene showing 2 hot rods, one on either side of the road, with their wheels up on the kerb stones. While Rod Stewart and Ronnie Wood were joining up with rock band, The Faces, Jeff lost himself in his cars.
That was until early 1971 when Jeff resurfaced with an all new Jeff Beck Group featuring Max Middleton on piano, Cozy Powell on drums, bass player Clive Chaman and vocalist Alex Ligertwood. By the time this new band recorded the ‘Rough and Ready’ album Ligertwood had been replaced by Bobby Tench. A second album, affectionately known as the Orange album, kind of kicked off from where the previous ones had finished. Although, the albums final track called ‘Definitely Maybe’ kind of set the scene for future and more instrumental, Jeff Beck albums.
Before that though, Jeff had met up with Stevie Wonder when he had been offered some studio work. A collaboration between the pair led to the single ‘Superstition’ written by Stevie but Jeff played on. Jeff then formed the short lived Beck, Bogert and Appice with bassist Tim Bogert and drummer Carmine Appice. And this power trio included a heavy version of ‘Superstition’ on their only album release. A writing block apparently prevented this trio developing further.
After this venture Jeff retreated to his workshop once more. He remembers that on one occasion while working on a car he had the radio on and heard this instrumental. It was Miles Davis and John McLaughlin performing on the Jack Johnson tribute album. Immediately a door opened within his mind to a host of new ideas that would lead to the million selling ‘Blow by Blow’ album. The album contained tracks from his association with Stevie Wonder along with collaborations with Max Middleton who Jeff had once again teamed up with and between them came up with tunes like ‘Scatterbrain’. Produced by George Martin the instrumental ‘Blow by Blow’ was an altogether, more jazzier album, and it was clear to hear that new avenues were opening up.
During this time Jeff would see the Mahavishnu Orchestra play live and get to meet up with them. He immediately bonded with the bands keyboard player Jan Hammer. With George Martin unavailable, Jan agreed to help complete Jeff’s next album ‘Wired’. In fact they paired up for one of the albums highlights ‘Blue Wind’. The amazing relationship between Jeff and Jan would continue until the beginning of the 1980s.
The 1980s were was a time that felt alien to Jeff. He has mentioned that it was a push button time, uninspiring and no place for him. So for the majority of that time he was either building cars or guesting on other artist’s album. That said, during the middle of that decade he released an album title ‘Flash’ that seemed to draw on all his previous experiences. And it saw a reunion with Rod Stewart. ‘Flash’ also earned Jeff his first Grammy award.
Another relative period of quiet followed. That was until, out of the blue, he received a picture that would adorn his next album. Jeff took one look at it and thought ‘they hit the bull’s eye - that is me’. Inspired by the painting Jeff set about forming another power trio. This time however, there would be no bass. Its replacement would be keyboards. Together with Tony Hymas, who had worked on ‘Flash’ and Terry Bozzio they created the classic powerhouse album ‘Guitar Shop’ that was chock full of aggression, melody and attack. Released in 1989, ‘Guitar Shop’ earned Jeff his second Grammy award.
Despite gossip to the contrary, whenever I have seen Jeff live or giving interviews on TV, he always seems to come across as a humble kind of guy who simply wants to follow his own path. He has been described as a maverick, a risk taker, he is exciting, and he is out there. And he will say no if he is not happy. Also, and I think most importantly, he doesn’t appear to give a monkeys about the trappings of success.
Yes he has had his moments. George Martin, for example, recalled a time when he witnessed Jeff throw his guitar across the studio in total rage. But don’t we all have our moments? A recent interview showed him totally grateful that he has had been given the chance to have appeared at places as revered and diverse as The Hollywood Bowl and Ronnie Scott’s club.
Nowadays Jeff is, in the main, reflective. He has gone out with band’s that includes singers such as Imelda May, Joss Stone and Beth Hart. The occasional new album is released, Jeff even went right back to his early influences recently, and still finds great success with them. And he even seems to be at peace with ‘Hi Ho Silver Lining’ – well, the fact that it has given so many people a lot of pleasure. As for Rod Stewart, well he has stated that he has not given up hope of ever performing with Jeff again.