Jeff f*#kin’ Beck. Here’s a guy who has had barely a top ten hit, he spent less than three years in any line-up that featured a bust-out lead singer who could have steered fans to an appreciation of his collaborators, and, in addition, a goodly portion of his most celebrated work is heard on instrumental tracks, and, finally, he’s spent seemingly half of his career “officially” and “unofficially” retired or otherwise laying low, not recording and not touring. And yet, the name “Jeff Beck” is so synonymous with guitar mastery and innovation, earning its owner a world-wide following more devoted to his work than many of the (other) members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, that the name is practically an adjective. How is this possible? Well, he’s … Jeff Beck!
To the degree that his work with others has put his name front and center, that began with the Yardbirds. Previous to that gig, due to Beck’s playing with a half-dozen long since forgotten rock bands who starred on the nascent London rock circuit in the early 60s, Beck had already won the respect of his peers. As a result, when Eric Clapton left the band, Beck got the job. The gig lasted just eighteen months, but Beck played on most of the group’s hits. More to the point of why Jeff Beck is Jeff Beck, his innovative style heard on such classics releases as “Shapes of Things” and “Heart Full of Soul” not only gave the group their distinctive sound, but also birthed much of what became the psychedelic sound of 1960s rock & roll.
After leaving the Yardbirds, Beck rolled out several solo singles including “Hi Ho Silver Lining.” He then collected up Rod Stewart (on vocals) and Ronny Wood (on rhythm guitar and bass) to form The Jeff Beck Group. That line-up’s first recording was the album Truth. To this day that release, because of its use of blues within a hard rock frame, is considered a seminal work of heavy metal. Nonetheless, the band only hung together for one more release, Beck-Ola, before it disbanded.
From there ensued a passage of Beck’s life that included a horrific car accident which took him a year to recover. Also, as noted earlier, there was time spent away from music in part, Beck remembers, because he was so frustrated with the then rudimentary technology in recording studios, that what could be produced, “just wasn’t up to the sound I heard in my head.” Regardless, his stature while in self-imposed exile, remained undimmed. It might have gone to the stratospheres had he joined Pink Floyd or the Rolling Stones, two bands who needed guitarists (for the Stones, due to the death of Brian Jones. But, either Beck declined the invitations or, according to one account, the offers were never made. Why? According to Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason, “None of us had the nerve to ask him.”
But, no matter. The years since have seen the release of the 1970’s albums “Blow By Blow” and “Wired.” With those recordings, what was possible in the studio, particularly with the assistance of Beatles producer (Sir) George Martin, had leapt light years from where it had been just a few years earlier. Partially as a result, and obviously also due to Beck’s genius, Blow By Blow is considered one of the ground-breaking instrumental jazz-fusion albums of all-time. Both albums pointed the way forward for generations of hard rockers to follow. Moreover, they became Beck’s most commercially successful solo releases, with Blow by Blow reaching #4 on the Billboard charts.
Interwoven over these same years, Beck has taken the stage or entered the recording studio to collaborate with, among a long list of near geniuses and geniuses, Tina Turner, Morrissey, Jon Bon Jovi, Malcolm McLaren, Kate Bush, Stevie Wonder, Les Paul, Cyndi Lauper and ZZ Top. Not only his list of collaborators been diverse. Over these same years Beck has never been satisfied to stick with a groove, no matter how commercially successful or critical lauded. Proof of this can be found on among others albums, 1980’s There and Back, a jazz fusion and rock release where he collaborated with Jann Hammer. In 1985 the slick, Nile Rodgers produced Flash, which featured Beck’s only hit single, “People Get Ready” with old bandmate Stewart on vocals, as well as Hammer’s “Escape,” which won the Grammy for Best Rock Instrumental.
In the 1990s, Beck, relative to previous output, morphed into a veritable vinyl factory releasing Frankie’s House in ’92, Crazy Legs in ’93 and Who Else in ’99. His determination to experiment and evolve, remained undimmed right through his 14th and most recent release, simply titled Jeff, in which his electronic music riffs continue to take bold new shapes. Ranked number five on Rolling Stone list of the “100 Greatest Guitarists of All-Time,” Beck shows no sign of slowing down, always the perfectionist, and always determined to investigate and refine his sound no matter what the commercial or technical obstacles. This with the possible exception of when, several months after the recording sessions for Blow by Blow, he called Sir Martin to inquire about going back to the studio to re-dub some overdubs. “I’d love to Jeff,” responded Martin, “but the records is already in the shops!”