Legendary British guitarist Jeff Beck returns with his latest album! Full of the same rock and roll bombast of his past solo albums but with added participation from several up and coming vocalists to balance out the shredding, it is nonetheless Beck’s album. With his mastery of the guitar, how could it not be? While Beck is respected and well-known among musos for his guitar work, his relatively low public profile has long puzzled many fans, who recognize Beck’s vast accomplishments and innovative techniques but puzzle over his career choices.
Where contemporaries such as Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page are much more famous, yet arguably no more talented or creative, Beck seemingly toils in the background, emerging every few years with an album that blows everyone’s mind, then retreating back into the ether content to fix his roadsters while the spotlight shines on other, mostly lesser talents rendering his reutation as that of an also-ran, while he should have been a leader, a star. While his regular hiatuses are a big culprit in that regard, possibly the most glaring reason was and is the lack of a strong vocalist throughout his career to augment his music. Where Jimmy Page had Robert Plant and Eddie Van Halen had David Lee Roth, Beck had Rod Stewart but only for two years. After Stewart split to join the Faces, Beck either used lesser talents or no one at all. For those who say a lot of jazz guitarists and newer phenoms like Eric Johnson have succeeded without vocalists, I would posit that while semi-famous, none are held in as high regard in the rock pantheon as Clapton, Page or Van Halen. And before anyone says it, Hendrix was his own vocalist (as is Clapton), so he’s in a different strata. Truly, while Beck has certainly not squandered his career, it is safe to say most would agree he has not had the career fitting an artist of his talent and inventiveness.
In fact, when his career was just starting, Beck was poised to become one of the biggest stars in all of England.
Beck first became known when he replaced Eric Clapton in the Yardbirds, at that time one of Britain’s most populaqr rock bands. After years of playing the club scene but scoring no hits, the Yardbirds and their manager Mickie Most had decided to deviate from the band’s hardcore blues beginnings to become more of a commercial rock band. When blues-purist Clapton ran screaming, Beck joined and was more than up to the musical challenge and decided to use the situation to make a name for himself. He stayed with the band for the next two years, far and away their most succesful period as they scored several hits during this time and would have none post-Beck. Beck’s personal management eventually convinced the guitarist to go off and start a solo career, which took off in England thanks to a hokey hit Beck himself disavows today, “Hi Ho Silver Lining”. Realizing he did not like to sing despite having a hit on his hands, Beck next formed the Jeff Beck Group with Rod Stewart on vocals, an almost too-young Ronnie Wood on bass and a succession of drummers. Unbeknownst to Beck at the time, the band would not only be an inspiration to Led Zeppelin (the Zep were half-Yardbirds inspired and half Beck Group – fitting since Jimmy Page played along with and later replaced Beck in the Yardbirds) but also to a legion of heavy metal bands, who copped the Beck Group’s approach to creating loud rock songs with pounding riffs and prominent vocals. Despite two albums which sold respectfully and plenty of touring, in-fighting led to the break-up of the band. Stewart and Wood left to form the Faces while Beck formed a new band and released two lackluster albums which weeren’t successful critically or commercially. When the band Cactus disbanded, Beck grabbed Carmine Appice (drums) and Tim Bogert (bass) from the band’s rhythm section and released a trio album which was universally panned as being plodding and uninspired. Beck vanished from the scene for close to two years, re-emerging with Blow-By-Blow, an album featuring a new sound owing more to jazz fusion than the straight ahead rock sounds of his earlier efforts. Produced by Beatles producer George Martin, the album was almost unanimously praised and Beck’s comeback had begun. Beck followed it up almost immediately with a similar sounding album named Wired and a live album with keyboardist Jan Hammer. Following this spate of activity, Beck took three years off only to re-emerge with There and Back in 1980 and Flash in 1985, continuing Beck’s preference with taking a few years off between projects to re-energize himself, occasionally emerging to do session work or make a cameo during a band’s live show. A return to form after the lackluster Flash, Beck’s Guitar Shop was issued in 1989, followed by Crazy Legs in 1993, a tribute to the rockabilly stylings of Gene Vincent, one of Beck’s heroes. Since then, there have been another handful of albums, all with spacings of three to five years between each, allowing Beck to retrench and re-emerge with a new conmcept, if not always a new sound.
Suffice to say, this album proves Beck is still at the top of his game. With more vocalists present on this new disc than on most of his outings, Beck finds the perfect balance between playing his usual balls-to-the-wall style and framing his guitar work tastefully around his chosen singer. Joss Stone, Imelda May, and opera diva Olivia Safe serve as Beck vocal foils on this disc and each one adds her own special way with a song to the proceedings, while Beck is content to work his magic around them on their songs and go for the throat on the instrumentals. Using the vocalists is but one of the ways Beck shows his versatility. He also shows his varied palette of tones and textures by employing a 64-piece orchestra on a cut or two and exhibiting a great taste in covers, from Screamin’ Jay Hawkins I Put A Spell On You to two songs from cult songwriter Jeff Buckley. Those who expect a wall-to-wall shred party may be taken aback by the lyrical mood of Beck’s playing on this one. Beck has always been a tasteful player, even when he was shooting for the sonic stratosphere, but he takes it to a new level here and the production by Trevor Horn and Steve Lipson frames his elegant and graceful playing perfectly. Those who expected the futuristic electronica-influenced textures of his last album will no doubt be pleasantly shocked by his return to the full-bodied, tasteful progressive rock of his earlier solo years.
While never much for guitar wank-fests, I like this disc. Not only does Beck play his ass off (did you see his performance on this year’s Grammy Awards telecast where he did How High The Moon with a girl singer (Imelda May) in tribute to Les Paul? Whew, Beck can still burn with the best of them, no studio tricks needed.) but he balances the album with the perfect ratio of instrumentals to songs with vocalists. While, to my ears, his choice of vocalists could be more inspired, the vocals are fine and serve their purpose – to frame and augment Beck’s guitar work and providing a brief break from the next instrumental. That Beck has decided to stay away from trends and stick to the kind of playing that brought him to the dance back in the ’70’s is refreshing as well. This new Beck (same as the old Beck) is a great listen I will be enjoying for a long time – probably at least as long as it takes Beck to reappear with his NEXT CD.