I have read many accounts of musicians and non-musicians over the years of the moment when their paradigm was shifted, their mind blown, the door opened by hear a particular song or artist. Some of these are typical while others are more obscure. The Beatles, Coltrane, Hank Williams, Miles Davis, Hendrix… they all end up being mentioned a lot. I was raised in a drummer’s home and actually went to school to be a drummer; you’d think that the person who did it for me would be one.
Actually, I have to admit the person who did it for me was Jeff Beck.
In 1976 I was listening to either WCCC or WHCN out of Hartford, CT, the two rock stations we could pick up in Western Mass. They played classic rock and as it was in those days, the formats were a lot looser…as were the DJ’s and the program directors. They would on Sunday mornings play 4 blocks of a half hour between 10am and noon of an artist, uninterrupted. Sure, it might be Lynyrd Skynrd or Led Zep but sometimes it was something new, different and really good. I was exposed to NRBQ, Nils Lofgren, Chick Corea (with Steve Gadd no less!) and other acts you will never hear on American commercial terrestrial radio again.
I can’t remember the song that was first but I would have to bet it was “Blue Wind”, the duel between Jeff Beck and Jan Hammer. These guys were fierce, loud and apparently from another planet. It was actually in rotation, a guitar instrumental with trading solos, Jan’s jagged yet perfect drumming, outer space synths and that guitar, that guitar that didn’t sound like any other. I bought “Wired” probably at White Knight Records in Great Barrington and brought it home.
The songs and performances of that album are part of my DNA. The liner notes, the photos, the Epic logo… they all are as fresh now as they were then, my comprehension a little better now of the technical aspect of it but the visceral, emotional, primal connection was there from the get go. This guy had attitude, attack, delicacy and recklessness in spades. The album “Jeff Beck Live with the Jan Hammer Group” came next and might have come off my turntable once or twice in the next 2 years. I actually wore that one out and bought a second. His breaking into “Train Kept a Rollin’” in “Blue Wind” was so fucking gnarly I want to play it for every young guitar player who thinks he’s a bad ass to show him what a Strat can do.
I was lucky enough to see him the first time on the “There and Back” tour in 1980 at the Curry-Hicks Cage/ University of Mass in Amherst. That album and particular quartet was a pretty serious extension of the direction that “Wired” and “Blow by Blow” started, maybe a bit more slick but still a sight to see. The Cage was an old hockey rink which the local fire marshals didn’t allow smoking in probably due to its flammable appearance. They had college ushers running around with little sand buckets grabbing cigarettes and joints away from the crowd. The thoroughly mundane Michael Stanley Band opened and then there was a lengthy delay until Beck hit the stage. I know it was long because they played 3 entire albums before the lights went down and, despite my ingestion of pollutants, I remember all of them: Little Feat “Down on the Farm”, UK’s debut album and their second, “Danger Money” (funny what we remember and forget, isn’t it?)
The lights went down and out they came. I was already a huge fan of the drummer Simon Phillips and have continued to be intrigued by Beck’s relationship to drummers. They seem to fuel his fire and the good ones send him into the upper atmosphere. It was loud. Anyone who has seen Jeff play know that his presence is a combination of limitless swagger and indifference, so many of the licks and moves he created, if not modified for his generation and beyond. The term “Reckless Precision” I first heard as an album title for Tuck Andress but it sums up Jeff’s approach sometimes. He’s not infallible or perfect, he reaches, he pushes his guitar to the limit and coaxes and thrashes the most delicate notes and the most obscene wails and crashes out of it.
What would be considered a show off move ends up being the perfect punctuation for a phrase, like finishing the line on “Freeway Jam” by bouncing the butt of his Strat off the floor for a tone like a 4 car pileup. He also knows as many ways to bend a note as anyone I’ve ever seen, between his mastery of the whammy bar, using his palm to move the floating bridge, his able fingers, the slide or inverting the guitar, sticking the headstock into the floor and leaning into it (don’t try this at home!!!).
In the hour and a half he played that night he did it all. But the funny thing is this memory from 29 years ago was nearly 20 years into his career and kids, he ain’t done yet.
As the music business began to bloat and then whither, Epic would release a record every now and then, a strange anomaly akin to the old roster at Warner Brothers, when Mo Ostin and Lenny Waronker kept prestige creative acts on their roster despite their limited sales. Jeff’s album “Flash” was an attempt to commercialize him in an era of MTV, while he made appearances with Tina Turner and Rod Stewart, produced by Arthur Baker. It didn’t really appeal to either side of the fans, the fusion nuts or the music video pariahs. It still had glimmers of his fire, though heavily coated in 80’s dreck.
When “Jeff Beck’s Guitar Shop” came out, all was then well with the world. A trio album with drummer Terry Bozzio and keyboard player Tony Hymas, it left the space that his guitar needed to breathe, twist and burn. The monster riffs of “Big Block” still kick the ass of anyone in its way. The real find was a track called “Where Were You”, his take on a melody he became infatuated with after hearing the Bulgarian Woman’s Choir Le Mystere des voix Bulgares. The most vocal of his performances, the trem bar that is so overused and dive bombed by others becomes the breath and pain of his ethereal voice. For guitar players, it’s a master lesson in the virtually impossible. He was still showing the youngins who was boss if they had the brains or the balls to listen. The tour with the bass-less trio was a double bill with Stevie Ray Vaughan, a classic pairing that I sadly missed in LA as it was the only day in 3 months I had a gig.
They say if you want to get Jeff to walk away from a conversation, start talking about guitars. If you want to get his attention, bring him a part from a 1932 Ford. He loves cars, old hot rods, working on them and getting his hands dirty. He has nearly damaged those amazing hands doing it and to me, it would be a tragedy except he would have been doing what he truly loves when he’s not onstage.
He has taken his interest in electronica and made some records which sound modern and purely Jeff at the same time. He has been touring a bit more often and has had some rather amazing band line ups from a musician standpoint, people like Jennifer Batten, Pino Palladino and Vinnie Colaiuta have had the chance to tour with him. His current band is remarkable, with Vinnie, the young Australian female bassist Tal Wilkenfeld and Jason Rebello. A recording taken from a week of shows in London has been released called “performing this week…live at Ronnie Scott’s” which shows he has just gotten better and better. There is now also a DVD from the same club run which includes some guests like Eric Clapton, Joss Stone and Imogen Heap. The real attraction here is getting to see what Jeff can do with the guitar, stuff that mere mortals can attempt to do but never will flow like the beautiful liquid fire that seems to emit from his fingertips.
I highly recommend either or both of these documents to musician or just plain listener alike. If you don’t like instrumental music or “jazz-rock fusion”, don’t let it stop you. There is something for everyone… unless you don’t like electric guitar. And in that case… there’s nothing I can do for you.
On the weekend of April 4th, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, OH. A ceremony of presentations and performances occurred that night and was broadcast live on Fuse TV. I was fortunate enough to be there for the rehearsals and the event. It was amazing to see my employers inducted and to be a part of the show, but to me, being able to watch and listen to Jeff that close was one of the highlights of my career. If any guitar player besides Hendrix ever deserved to be in the Hall of Fame, it would be Jeff Beck. And now it’s official.
But we already knew that.