Jeff Beck Was One Of Rock’s Great Iconoclasts
As a young music journalist, Jeff Beck was on the short list of icons who I really wanted to interview. I knew he had a repuation of being somewhat curmudgeonly so I wasn’t even sure if I really wanted it to happen. But in 1999 he was doing some interviews around his album Who Else!, and I took my shot and to my surprise, was approved.
When I interviewed legendary rockers – particularly ones who have collaborated with a lot of other artists – I would always ask about the different interesting things that they did. In Jeff’s case, I was kind of fascinated by the things he didn’t do. This was a guy who pulled out of Woodstock just days before the legendary 1969 festival, breaking up his amazing band in the process. I didn’t ask about that – I generally avoided Woodstock questions as a rule. But here were some things I needed to know about:
“When your band announced a co-headlining tour with Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble, fans were told that you guys would do separate sets and then one set together. But you just played one song – ‘Goin’ Down.’ Why didn’t you do more?”
Jeff laughed and chalked it up to his laziness. He said he was just too lazy to rehearse that much. I couldn’t believe it. So I asked about his more recent co-headlining tour with Santana. When I went to the show in New Jersey, Santana said from the stage that he knew that the fans wanted to see him jam with Jeff. He noted that he wanted to as well. But Jeff wouldn’t do it! He kind of laughed and shook his head – almost as if even he didn’t believe some of his own antics – and said, “Same deal.”
So, I wanted to know about the Mick Jagger solo tour of Japan in 1988. Jeff was supposed to be the guitarist in his band and pulled out at the last minute (a hot new guitarist named Joe Satriani filled in). What was up with that? “I had a reason!” he laughed. He had played guitar on both of Mick’s solo albums, She’s The Boss and Primitive Cool. And that was what he wanted to play at the shows. He was OK with doing a few Stones songs, but every day in rehearsals, Mick was ditching more solo songs and adding more Stones numbers. “I’m not Keith Richards’ stand-in,” Jeff told me. I later learned that the Stones asked him to join the band – twice. Both to replace Brian Jones and then Mick Taylor. He turned them down both times. His accountant must have been appalled, but the guy followed his own muse.
What I really wanted to know was: would the original Jeff Beck Group (Beck, Rod Stewart and Ronnie Wood) ever do anything again? He laughed, “Maybe!” He was probably surprised that a 20-something was so interested in every aspect of his career. Jeff was really cool about fielding my barrage of questions. I asked him about his collaborations with Roger Waters, Tina Turner and even Jon Bon Jovi. The solo on “Blaze Of Glory” was killer, and you know exactly who it is when you hear it. It’s one of the reasons why he’s your favorite guitar player’s favorite guitar player. In fact, that’s how I got into him.
When I was first getting interested in music and reading every magazine I could find, I noted that Jeff Beck was name-dropped by a lot of guitarists who I loved. An album that was often mentioned was Blow By Blow. I had no idea what it would sound like but I asked for it at the mall’s record store. The cover was a sketch of Beck playing a Gibson Les Paul, so I assumed it would be rocking. I was in for a big surprise. Blow By Blow was Beck’s first of many instrumental albums. More specifically, it was a jazz fusion record. At first, I didn’t get it at all, but I was determined to understand it. Eventually, it became one of my favorites.
The song that got me was “‘Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers.” I learned that it was a Stevie Wonder song. I marveled at the sad title, and how, even without lyrics, Jeff Beck’s playing conveyed a real sense of a loss that I was too young to even understand. I soon fell for “Freeway Jam,” then the Beatles cover “She’s A Woman” and eventually, the whole album.
A couple of years later in 1985, he released his first album in five years (which was an eternity back then), Flash. It wasn’t really great – except for one song. “People Get Ready,” featuring Rod Stewart would be Jeff’s biggest hit, ever. I’d later learn that it was a cover of a song by the great Curtis Mayfield. And I learned that Beck and Rod had a long history (hey, this was before the internet, you couldn’t just look an artist up and go down a rabbit hole). Apparently, they were in a hard rock band together.
That’s how I learned about the original Jeff Beck Group. 1968’s Truth and 1969’s Beck-ola were hard to find, but I taped a friend’s copies and my mind was blown. I’d read that Led Zeppelin had, at one point, been referred to as “the next Jeff Beck Group.” After I listened to their two albums, I got it. Both albums are flawless, they are essential and if you like hard rock, you need to hear both of them. If you haven’t experienced them yet, I envy you. You’re in for a treat.
I knew he’d been in the Yardbirds, as had Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton. But the Yardbirds catalog was one of the messiest in rock history (and still is). And pre-internet, it was intimidating. There were so many titles, which were the legit ones? Eventually, Rhino Records organized it pretty well on a collection called Ultimate! (it’s now out of print, sadly). But on it, you can compare the Clapton, Beck and Page eras. For my money, Jeff’s era was the best and most creative. If you want to check out an amazing record, find yourself Roger The Engineer.
When I started following Jeff Beck’s career in earnest, I realized that this really was a guy who didn’t follow the money. At any time, he could have put together a band of hard rock dudes and played jams from the first Jeff Beck Group and his Yardbirds era. That would have fit in perfectly in the ‘80s, given the popularity of commercial hard rock. Instead, in 1989 he emerged with a sample-heavy electronic music sound with his new band Jeff Beck’s Guitar Shop. They were a bass-less trio featuring keyboardist Tony Hymas and former Missing Persons drummer Terry Bozzio. It was really ahead of its time.
That went over pretty well, so of course, he did a complete 180. Four years later, he returned with Crazy Legs, a rockabilly album featuring all Gene Vincent covers… except, of course, for his most popular song “Be Bop-A-Lula.” A record like this might have made sense when the Stray Cats were popular. But nope, he waited until 1993.
Over the next few years, he kept experimenting with combinations of guitar rock and electronic music and often collaborated with some really talented women: bassist Tal Wilkenfeld, guitarist Jennifer Batten and a number of singers including Imelda May, Joss Stone and even Kelly Clarkson (check out their version of Patty Griffin’s “Up To The Mountain”). But some of his greatest moments were his instrumentals: his cover of the Beatles’ “A Day In The Life,” the opera piece “Nessun Dorma” and “Somewhere Over The Rainbow.” His final album was a collaboration with Johnny Depp – 2022’s 18 – which featured a lovely instrumental take on the Beach Boys’ “Caroline, No.”
Even as a big fan, I won’t try to tell you that all of his albums are essential… but he never took the easy way out. And he was great up to the end. His last solo album, 2016’s Loud Hailer, was his loud guitar/electronic hybrid. Again, he found a great female singer to collaborate with: Rosie Bones. Check out “Live In the Dark.” More recently, he joined Ozzy Osbourne for two songs on 2022’s Patient Number 9, which was some of his heaviest playing ever.
It’s a shame that his music wasn’t more fully embraced by pop culture, but if you knew, you knew. It’s a bummer that we never got to see him, Rod Stewart and Ronnie Wood rock out as the Jeff Beck Group one more time. But maybe fans who saw his shows over the past few years got something even better. They saw a guy in his 70s, still at the top of his game as a guitar player, playing exactly what he wanted to. And isn’t that how all of us should go out?