Jeff Beck: Beck to the Future
GW Tonally and melodically, your playing entered a new phase with Blow by Blow.
BECK Well, Blow by Blow is when I started messing with the Strat. I thought, I can’t be dicking around with a lot of different guitars, ’cause it was a totally different feel from one to the other. I wanted to be absolutely comfortable. And the Strat is what I started on. I became interested in going back to that again.
GW “Freeway Jam” became one of your signature tunes, one that almost every guitarist learns at some point. Yet it was written by your keyboard player, Max Middleton.
BECK Actually, I hate that tune! It’s pretty awful. I could care less if people still like it. It felt like a slowed-done Irish reel to me.
GW Was it your idea to record the Beatles’ “She’s a Woman”?
BECK No. Max Middleton was playing in a band for Linda Lewis. She was the wife of Jim Cregan, who is Rod Stewart’s guitar player. And she started making waves, playing Ronnie Scott’s jazz club. And Max said, “She does this song, ‘She’s a Woman’ and people go crazy.” They loved her version. And I turned it into a reggae, and that really seemed to make it take off.
GW That’s one of the best-known tunes where you employ the mouth bag [a precursor to the Heil Talk Box that consisted of an airfilled shoulder bag with cables and tubing emanating from it. Created by Kustom Electronics and marketed as the Bag, it allowed guitarists to create vocal-like sounds with their guitar]. How did you get into using that?
BECK There was a guy called Mike Pinera [guitarist for Iron Butterfly, among other acts] who had one, and he used to do just bass-riff noise and guitar lines with it. It took me about three or four days to get some of the vowel sounds out. Amplified through a mic, it gives you even more flexibility, because the mic reads certain frequencies more accurately. It would just floor people. They’d go, “What the hell’s that?” Then they’d see this sort of colostomy bag stuck to me. In fact, there was a [concert] review where the [writer] thought it was a bladder.
GW Did the mouth bag become a burden in the same way that “Freeway Jam” did?
BECK Yeah. Years ago, I checked into a hotel and the radio had been left on in the room. And I heard the bag being used, and it was Frampton Comes Alive they were playing. [Frampton reportedly used a Heil Talk Box on the recording.] I thought, Wait a minute, someone’s bootlegged my album, ’cause no one else was using that thing at that time. But it was Peter Frampton. And that was the abrupt end to my use of the bag. From that night on, I never used it.
BECK BOYCOTTS THE EIGHTIES
Released in 1980, There and Back provided a neat transition into a new decade for Beck—a bridge between his past and future. Jan Hammer was involved in three of the tracks, but the remaining four were done with keyboardist Tony Hymas, who would become a frequent Beck collaborator.
The Eighties, however, were not one of Beck’s favorite decades.
“For most of the Eighties, the business just went to a place where I didn’t want to go,” he says. “The clothes were more important than the music at one point, I think. The video prerequisite is something I wasn’t interested in, and the domination of synthesizers in the Eighties made me very depressed—to think that they could possibly overshadow real playing. They did for a while, but lo and behold, real playing came back.”
Beck’s reputation was so solidly cemented by the Eighties that he could afford to retreat to his English country acreage. The legend goes that he’d rather work on his cars anyway. But it’s not like he became a hermit. In the company of fellow British rock royalty like Clapton, Page and the Stones, Beck surfaced for high-visibility charity events like the Prince’s Trust and ARMS. He also laid down his wrenches long to play guitar on Mick Jagger’s solo albums, She’s the Boss and Primitive Cool, and to tour with Stevie Ray Vaughan and Carlos Santana.
Beck also received long-overdue recognition in the Eighties. He won a Grammy for “Emotions,” a single off his 1985 Flash album, a synth-driven R&B effort produced by Chic guitarist Nile Rodgers. Grammy honors were also bestowed for 1989’s Jeff Beck’s Guitar Shop with Terry Bozo and Tony Hymas. And in 1993, perhaps as a way of regrouping after the Eighties had safely passed, Beck went back to his earliest roots. Working with London rockabilly purists the Big Town Playboys, Beck recorded Crazy Legs, an album that paid tribute to Beck’s boyhood rock heroes Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps.
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