Dear Guitar Hero: Jeff Beck
Your latest DVD, Performing this Week…Live at Ronnie Scott’s, features a set list that spans your entire career. Does each of those songs have a special meaning for you? —Irene Coco
When I first went out with the band with Tal [Wilkenfeld] and Vinnie [Colaiuta], we were short of new material to play, so I thought, Why not do a “quicky” trip back through time, and put some of the early stuff in there? Albeit without Rod [Stewart]. We did “People Get Ready” and stuff like that. I think it added up to quite a good journey back through history, so anyone that hadn’t seen me got a snapshot of what was going on back in ’66 and ’68. As opposed to bombarding people with brand-new, avant-garde techno, I thought it would be better to establish a foundation for people to hear and it seemed to work.
Two of the songs at the start of the set, [John McLaughlin’s] “Eternity’s Breath” [from 1975’s Visions of the Emerald Beyond] and [Billy Cobham’s] “Stratus” [from 1973’s Spectrum], I played because I want people to realize that music was around, plus it’s still fun to play. I’m just a messenger for John on those songs, because I want people to listen to him. If people enjoy my version of it, then my job is done. John is so far ahead of his time—he really is. He’s not half as well known as I’d like him to be. Those songs are played with the most heartfelt respect. Nowadays, to really sort out the men from the boys, John plays mostly acoustic, which cannot be bluffed.
Billy Cobham’s Spectrum album gave life to me at the time, on top of the Mahavishnu records featuring [keyboardist] Jan Hammer. It represented a whole area that was as exciting to me as when I first heard “Hound Dog” by Elvis Presley. They were inspirational to me to the point that I started to adopt that type of music. Tommy Bolin’s guitar playing on Spectrum is fantastic. What a sad loss; he was on the tour when I was out with Jan in 1976, and Tommy died after the first night of the tour in Miami. I heard the news the next morning.
You are currently on tour with fellow British guitar great Eric Clapton. As the guy that replaced Eric in the Yardbirds, was there ever any animosity or competitiveness between the two of you? —Hilary Franceschi
Playing on this tour with Eric has been a very happy turn of events. First of all, I think he actually likes me after all these years, which is heart-warming. I didn’t realize he detested me quite so badly until he revealed that recently in Rolling Stone. [laughs] He said we were enemies, but that was more on his side. I was subservient to him when I joined the Yardbirds, because he was such a big “face” there. But when I developed my own wacky style with the Yardbirds albums, I didn’t feel in any way that I was encroaching on his patch at all, nor have I ever since then, along with when [producer] George Martin came along for Blow by Blow and Wired. George gave me the confidence to play on an instrumental album, and at that point I was absolutely cleared from any kind of “direct” challenge to what Eric was doing, or anyone else for that matter, in terms of clashing styles. And yet, I think Eric wanted to be the guy associated with the guitar, which he subsequently became. You stop anybody on any street, around the world, and they know who Eric Clapton is. They don’t know who I am! But we’re going to change that, aren’t we? [laughs]
You’ve always played with a wonderful type of aggression, throwing wild sounds at the audience in a way that says, “Deal with this!” Where does that attitude come from? —Angelo Barth
It’s like a tantrum. Those things are outbursts, like exactly what I wanted to do to the teachers at school. It’s a bottled-up frustration that manifests itself in those outbursts, as well as a reflection of my life and my reaction to the difficulties of it. Singers are like that when they start screaming, like Screaming Jay Hawkins [Beck covers Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You” on Emotion & Commotion]: One minute he’s singing perfectly normally, and then all of a sudden he bursts into rage. Love it.
I like an element of chaos in music. That feeling is the best thing ever, as long as you don’t have too much of it. It’s got to be in balance. I just saw Cirque du Soleil, and it struck me as complete organized chaos. And then there was this simple movement in the middle of the show, which was a comedy, and I thought, What a great parallel between the way that I think and the way this circus is happening. It had a special meaning for me, aside from the spectacle of it all. When I came away from it, I thought, If I could turn that into music, it’s not far away from what my ultimate goal would be, which is to delight people with chaos and beauty at the same time.