Jeff Beck: Beck to the Future
The two guitar titans put considerable thought into the set list. “We had to work pretty hard to get seven or eight tunes that were neutral to both of us,” Beck explains. “Not too much leaning to one side or the other. Eric suggested a couple of [jazz tenor saxophonist] Eddie Harris songs, which I thought sounded really great. ‘Compared to What’ was one of them. We also did a couple of Muddy Waters songs. And we ended up with Sly Stone’s ‘I Wanna Take You Higher,’ which I thought was really great. That was my idea. Eric was most accommodating and very nice to work with.”
So nice, in fact, that Beck says that there are “whispers” of the two guitar heroes reconvening for one or more shows at New York’s Madison Square Garden at some point down the road. Meanwhile, Beck has also started work on a new studio album. The guitarist is notorious for changing his mind, but right now what he’splanning is a power trio disc with Colaiuta and Wilkenfeld as his rhythm section.
“I’d like to get back to that Jimi Hendrix Experience type of approach,” he says. “The way that Jimi played, you didn’t miss the keyboards. It was all heavy and powerful. It just suggested power through the drummer, which I like. I love the sound of a big three-piece.”
At this point, Beck’s done it all, as this fascinating career retrospective interview below makes clear. But at age 64, he continues to be a restless musical seeker, never satisfied to rest on his laurels, always eagerly pursuing his next musical incarnation. No historical account of the guitarist’s highly eventful career can fully sum up the Beck mystique, nor can any technical analysis completely explain his brilliant playing; the magic he works with a guitar transcends both these things. Somewhere beneath that laddish, carloving, Brit exterior lurks the soul of a poet.
1965–’66: WITH THE YARDBIRDS
Beck became Eric Clapton's replacement in the Yardbirds just as the group’s career was starting to take off. They were under the enthusiastic, if somewhat journeyman, management of voluble Euro-beatnik Giorgio Gomelsky, who had managed the Rolling Stones early on and also given the Yardbirds the Stones’ old residency at London’s Crawdaddy Club. Yardbirds’ singer Keith Relf, bassist Paul Samwell-Smith, rhythm guitarist Chris Dreja and drummer Jim McCarty were riding high on the success of their first hit single, the harpsichorddriven “For Your Love.” But the record had prompted the resignation of Clapton, who was reportedly appalled by the disc’s pop appeal and wished to stick to his blues roots.
Jeff Beck was more open to experimentation. Seasoned by gigs with the Deltones, Tridents and Screaming Lord Sutch, he brought new guitar tones and new musical influences to the rapidly evolving Yardbirds. His 18-month tenure with them is generally acknowledged to be the band’s most fertile period. Beck’s fiercely innovative playing found the mystical link between blue notes and the plaintive drone of Indian sitar music just coming into vogue in the mid Sixties. What Beck did with sustain and vibrato seemed like voodoo in 1965. Brilliant Yardbirds singles like “Heart Full of Soul,” “Evil Hearted You,” “Shapes of Things” and “Over Under Sideways Down” drew up the blueprint for psychedelic guitar rock. The authoritative bite of Beck’s Fender Esquire on bluesier Yardbirds numbers like “I’m a Man,” and “Train Kept a Rollin’ ” left an indelible mark on American garage rock.
Suffice it to say that the Yardbirds were the first rock band where the guitar playing mattered more than the singing. The nervous energy of Beck’s guitar lines—terse phrasing and vertiginous leaps from the top of the fretboard down to the low strings and back again—make his Yardbirds-era guitar work distinct from that of Clapton and Jimmy Page. It was Beck who brought Page into the Yardbirds. (Ironically Page had been offered the gig after Clapton left, but declined, recommending Beck instead.) The two guitar titans played side by side for a handful of Yardbirds gigs and three recordings (“Happenings Ten Years Time Ago,” “Psycho Daisies” and “Stroll On”). But then Beck left the group that had brought him worldwide acclaim, his mental and physical health undermined by the Dickensenian rigors of mid-Sixties touring.
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