Despite the fact that Jeff Beck
is one of the triumphant English guitar gods -- perched on Mount Olympus next to Jimmy Page
and Eric Clapton
-- his name recognition isn't as vast among current music fans.
But not only did the slinger replace Clapton in the Yardbirds
, he created some of their most innovative music with his flashy guitar wizardry and the then-nascent use of feedback and distortion. After Beck left the legendary band mid-tour after a bust-up with Page, he quickly resurfaced in 1968 with the Jeff Beck Group, the band that gave Rod Stewart
his first real audience. Their first two albums, Truth
, were among the Sixties classics, laying the groundwork for what would later be called English hard rock. After being laid up for eighteen months due to a car accident, Beck read in the U.K. press that Stewart and Ron Wood had left the JBG to join the Faces
, much to his surprise.
Undaunted, he resurrected his career recruiting new players and recording two albums, Rough and Ready
and the Jeff Beck Group
, before he welcomed in the Seventies with another change of direction. This time around, he combined rock, jazz and blue styles, with the groundbreaking Blow by Blow
, on which he teamed up with innovative jazz pianist Jan Hammer. Beck returned to the charts once again in 1980 with There and Back
, but most of that decade was spent doing session work, on such high-profile projects as Tina Turner
's Private Dancer
, and then working with Robert Plant
on the Honeydrippers album. In the mid-Eighties he hooked up with Rod Stewart once again for a brief tour, but he all but disappeared for much of the Nineties.
In 1999, Beck returned to form on the electronic-fueled Who Else!
, and this month, less than eighteen months later he struck back again with You Had It Coming
. Rolling Stone
caught up with the ageless Beck and asked about his whereabouts for the past decade, his fellow guitar gods, and whether he may return to singing on his next album.
Who Else! was ten years in the making, yet a year later you had You Had It Coming out. Why have you suddenly become so prolific?
I think it's just the fact that one album is not enough to rebuild a career. The fact that we had so much fun playing that stuff on the road, it's a whole different animal live than on the album. There are some bands that sound exactly the same live, but somehow I get a whole different animal onstage, and turn the album inside out to try to make it more entertaining. And it's that what we go for. Plus having warm and loving relationship with a band is so great.
Do you feel that you need less of the spotlight now than you once did?
I don't know. Things are warming up for me. Nowadays music is as disposable as a McDonald's wrapper. And when you think after all this mystique and weirdness over the years, I'm still actually going to have a decent, pretty well-attended tour in 2001, which is absolutely great.
Some people have another run. Look at Santana.
I just waited until the right time. I couldn't see the sense of it getting trampled underfoot of an army of bands that were all forming, and all kind of occupying a massive slot in rock & roll. And to find someplace where I fit comfortably is not that easy. And I suppose it's actually cleared a bit, and it's easier now for people to see what I'm about.
What do you think was in your way?
I suppose part of it disillusionment with the business. It wasn't just that, but it was also management's lack of ingenuity to try to keep me afloat during the Eighties. You need a guy who's a total lunatic to be a manager I think. A guy on the street who knows what's cooking, then you can duck and weave and still perform during those lean years. Luckily I managed to save enough money in the Seventies to live on, otherwise things would have been pretty grim. I'd been an observer. I think you get a lot of wisdom from just observing. It's not all bad news in that sense. I must have been into it [the time off] because I had a sense of contentment during that time, which is a rarity for me. When you attain that, it's very easy to kiss goodbye to a couple of years. You just don't care anything. You just want to be left alone, and enjoy a tree growing.
You were always much bigger in American during your heyday. Have you ever gotten your just dues at home?
Nope, I don't know why I don't work here. I guess people over there must think that there are clubs all over the place, and we're playing blues and heavy rock and we're going out and having fun all the time. It is absolutely not the way it is. As far as I'm concerned, London is a dead duck, as far as innovative new music concerned, unless you want to have your head blown off with some outrageous, rubbish, pounding dance music. That's fine for aircraft hangers full of 10,000 drug addicts -- I'm not into it. I'm into some of the songs, but the culture is alien to me. I don't think people know where they're going anymore. I think they're more interested in designer labels that say how hip they are, but they really don't have a clue. I am really disgusted with the music scene, but that anger and disgust and anger is useful to me. I find it very useful for me, because I can legitimately swear all day long and curse and put the anger into the playing.
Is anger a good motivating force for your music? You always seem so even-tempered.
I've leveled out a lot now. I'm just waiting for the time I'll lose it, because they always say that when people who are very mild mannered and controlled when they do go it's all or nothing. I'm hoping that day never comes.
I had heard that you were going to go on tour with Santana and Eric Clapton this year. What happened?
I had a meeting with Eric last year and it was absolutely dead certain. Eric had committed; the only thing we needed was to work out was Carlos. We had it all planned, when the media got wind of Carlos' album, we suspected that he was probably going to take the tour option, so that's what happened. There's something on the horizon for me, Buddy Guy
and B.B. King
to tour. So I'm really thrilled.
Why did you choose to only have a singer on one song on your new album?
We really planned to do a skeletal version of "Rollin' and Tumblin'." We were going to do a really, really serious cutting edge dance version of it because it's such a driving rhythm. I wanted to have the singer, Imogene Heap keep repeating a sort of frenzied "rollin' and tumblin'," and we got her to do it that way. But she sang so wonderfully that we said, 'Look, we have the CD here of Muddy [Waters]
version. Why don't you try it that way?' We wrote out the lyrics and she knocked us dead singing the song proper. I had felt slightly hollow when I realized we were tearing a really great song apart by not putting the words in. We really didn't want to go any further than that because we were already asking her to do more than she agreed upon in the first place -- which was some vocal shrieks and some jabs here and there to punctuate the track. But now we have a complete track, and it sounded like we should have done the whole album that way, but she has her own career so we left it at that.
How do you stand on the vocals -- or for that matter working without a singer?
I'm sticking with it for this year anyway. Whether there's vocals on the horizon, I don't really know. That would be the great surprise, that I'll have to keep under wraps.
It's kind of like Kiss putting their makeup on again. You could re-release "Hi Ho Silver Lining" and really shock people.
promised to write me some lyrics, and he's the best there is. So you never know.
Wasn't You Had It Coming supposed to called "Dirty Tricks"? Is there someone in particular who crossed you?
I'm not going to tell you. It'd spoil the surprise, I suppose. It's not a surprise; it's probably a chain of events that will happen, if things go well.
You've been in the business for thirty-eight years. How do you manage to look so young and fit?
Thank you. Nature is on my side. I just have a good metabolism, lay off the pizza and the pasta -- I've been a vegetarian for thirty-four years. Generally, if you're not hungry, don't eat. Pretty simple really. What's best is you enjoy your food so much more when you are hungry.
Do you still practice a lot?
Yeah, I do. Before starting a tour you really find it was a good thing to practice because rehearsals are the first time you really have to come face to face with yourself how good you are. When you've got a situation where you have to rattle off a dozen songs it's no use noodling and perfecting the same dumb lick, you've got to put all those ideas back into practice, and if it doesn't fly you have to go home and practice again.
Do you have a regular schedule?
I've got guitars all around the house, but I find it difficult to apply the whole evening to practicing. I just don't think that's a good idea. It's like they say small portions of fruit every day is what makes you healthy. Five small rehearsals a day is what I do. What I was most careful not to do is to get so technically whizzed. It just bores people.
Written by JAAN UHELSZKI
for RollingStone.com News