Jeff Beck Is Back in Action

The British blues-guitar great returns with a new 'Group'

Jeff Beck Credit: Ian Dickson/Redferns/Getty

London — For some time, Jeff Beck had the reputation for being the epitome of English white-blues smartie-pants guitarists. A breed of questionable ethics, it seemed, with Beck the most suspect of the lot. He was cranky, egotistical, he fired musicians, stalked off stages, was moody. A shmoe, and after a while only the groupies cared that he was one of the progenitors in the list of Anglophallics in 1968 Anglophilac America.

There was no denying he had rock and roll sense. And he has had a few rotten turns. He's news now because he's finally, after a two-year lay-off, gotten a new band together. He recorded a week's worth of rock at Island's studios, when suddenly affairs were steeped in intrigue.

A growing animosity seems to be developing between Beck and his managers, RAK. Beck, unhappy with the new record contracts being drawn up, flew to America to negotiate privately with Columbia. RAK, unhappy that Beck was doing things behind their backs and having already paid for the studio time, confiscated the tapes. The last word is that Beck, now even more distraught at losing the tapes, and thinking it unpractical to loose his gang of hoodlums on RAK, is attempting to compromise by offering two per cent of the record money to Mickie Most (who, along with Peter Grant, is RAK), in return for the tapes.

"And that's a fuck of a lot too," growls Beck. "If the album's somehow a million seller, that could mean $20,000."

Conceivably, a guy could get the blues.

* * *

He was rehearsing daily at the Country Club, an old Jewish social hall-turned-rock club in fashionable Hampstead, London. The place has never really been renovated — it's a psychedelic ballroom with overstuffed chairs, chandeliers, murals, committee-chosen wallpaper. Still, in its squalor and pallor, rock bands know that they get an honest shake from the clientele.

"We're not going to throw away the heavy sound," is the first thing Jeff gets off his chest, bouncing up and down. "There's just some things you have to keep. I mean, drummers and bassmen have been working for years to get that sound down, you just can't chuck it all out for acoustic guitars, can ya? Naah, I like it funky."

This is a funky-looking crew. Alex Ligertwood with the bashed-in Glasgow face is the new vocalist; handsome Trinidadian Clive Charman on bass; dumpy, intellectual Max Middleton, wearing an SS leather trenchcoat, on electric piano; and Cozy Powell, an exact look-a-like to Beck, on drums.

Cozy was with Beck when he recorded the Motown tapes last year, a project that everyone was dying to hear, but Beck didn't want released. Here was someone who actually gone in and learnt the secrets of the Kingdom. A skinny English cat, yet.

Producer Mickie Most, looking back on it all, thinks it was strange. "It was another world. Understandably, it was hard for Jeff to get the feel of the music right away. They never heard of Jeff, or me; they just thought we were a couple of English blokes out for a blast. Very strange."

Actually, Motown did know who Most was. This fellow Most is responsible for something like 45 gold records over the last six years, with overall sales around 125 million. One of those legendary Man With A Golden Ear characters and, to be sure, the hits were with sure-fire marks like Donovan, Herman's Hermits and the Animals, but there was a talent. So it was that Motown made overtures to Most to get him on their Rare Earth label, add a little color to the situation, maybe, and thence the label got mixed up with Beck and the nice fat sound. But more on Most later.

"This band is kind of a Motown experiment," says Alex Ligertwood. They do a version of Stevie Wonder's "Show Me to Where There's Music" and Beck often relaxes into some riff like "Reach Out," and of course, there's a hefty brace of Motown cartridge tapes on the dashboard of his Mustang for when he goes cruising.

He's a hotrodder, after all. "He's been down there in Eggerton fucking around with his cars for the last two years," grumbles manager Grant.

At his Kent estate, Beck is working on a custom '32 Ford Coupe, with a 350 Chevy engine and a Powerglide. A Little Deuce Coupe. And everybody's already heard about his Model T, the one with the 327 and the B&M Hydroshift, the one that he crashed most violently on the very same weekend he was to join Tim Dogert and Carmine Appice in that much waited for super charged supergroup from the ashes of Vanilla Fudge that never got moving because Beck was lying in a hospital bed with a concussion.

* * *

They've moved the rehearsals up to a dingy, dusty old dancehall in far north London, behind a pub called—honest — the Fishmongers Arms. This place is even more hysterical than the last. The last time the Fishmongers Arms saw this kind of action ... was when Gene Vincent and his Houseshakers had a rave last year.

The band cooks. It's "heavy," sure, but it's not glue-sniffing heavy, it's mostly thudding Romilar action. Cozy Powell is one of a few drummers who can use twin bass drums and not get lost in them. Max Middleton was a classical pianist student for 18 years and this is his first venture into pop. And he doesn't use all the old stock riffs. And Jeff taps his feet as he plays, a rare sight for guitarists; it's upbeat, crystal-clear chording, then it's all a slide back into Motown Heavy.

Beck has been out of action for two years, and in that time he's not heard too many new groups. After the crash, he lost a lot of interest in guitar. This band is conceivably not a progression, as such, and its roots are in an established energy happening. Then again, London Town, all your bands have progressed so much, progressed on to such other meaningful things, that raw funk stands ... isolated, usually.

Beck used to play in the Tridents in 1965, a semi-pro rhythm and blues band, one of the many but for Beck's echo chamber and his teenage guitar freak-outs during Bo Diddley's "Nursery Rhymes" down at the Hundred Club. "A big old African riff, y'know, where you could play the wrong notes and times and it would still sound great. On the echo, I used to have a half-second, quarter-second and eighth-second delays built in, and I could let it build and build and build. I'd play another note and on-and-on-and-on.

"One night we'd just done a great set when this chap comes out of the audience, smoking a cigar, and asked me if I wanted to join this group. And I said, 'Naah. Fuck off, man.' And then I thought that if I had some more money, I could do more things. Then I found out that the group was the Yardbirds.

"I didn't like them when I first met them. They didn't say hi or anything. They were pissed off that Eric had left, they had thought that the whole Yardbirds sound had gone. That was the impression I had got. They said, 'Can you play blues?' I said, 'Wot, slow blues? Chi-ca-go blues?' They said anything. So I honked around. They said to get rid of the echo ... you don't use an echo in Chi-ca-go blues ... yeah, that's just what they said!"

It was about that time that blues started coming down on Beck personally. As he admits, "I wasn't ready to go from the semi-pro, straight to the glamor." He missed gigs, he started fussing with the sound. He also recorded some very novel tracks with them, including "Heart Full of Soul," "Shape of Things" and "Better Man Than I." In short, he breathed a second life into the band. They were solid avant-garde for the adolescents.

His exit from the Yardbirds was less than graceful. "I had a nervous breakdown, y'know," he philosophizes. "I don't know if you know what a nervous breakdown really is, but I had one. It was in St. Tropez for this concert, and I had fainted and fell down about three flights of stone stairs, couldn't even speak to the doctor, and after he gives me about 3,000 prescriptions, he tells me I'll be alright. I just have meningitis. And I thought, Hoowah, my mother told me meningitis was a bad disease.

"It was when I was convalescing that Jimmy Page joined the Yardbirds. He was the one that got me in the band in the first place as they approached him before me. He said no, but recommended me. Anyway, I really wanted Jim Page on lead guitar with me because I knew it would sound sensational. We had fun. I remember doing some really nice jobs with Page. It lasted about four or five months, then I had this throat thing come on, inflamed tonsils, and what with inflamed brain, inflamed tonsils and an inflamed cock and everything else ..."

Just before the final split, Beck vented his revenge in Antonioni's Blow-Up. "When Antonioni said that he wanted me to break my guitar I had a fit. I said, 'Wait a minute, that's Townshend's thing.' I didn't mind playing a very wild number with lots of violence in it, lots of chords smashing away, but I didn't actually want to destroy the guitar. What a cheat, the first part shows me playing a Les Paul and in the second part I'm smashing up a cheap old $35 Japanese model."

So what did he think when he saw the flick? "I was thoroughly embarrassed. I had a fucking hard-on in the picture, man! This chick I was going out with at the time said, 'Oh my god, don't go see that film, it's so embarrassing, I didn't know what to do, I took my mother to see it and there you were ... this horrible, sinister thing hanging down the side of the screen.' It gets hot under them lights, after all, rupturing myself with those tight trousers."

* * *

A rock & roll star is what Mickie Most wanted to be. "I was like the Elvis of South Africa," he acknowledges. "I had 11 Number One records down there."

Understandably, the kind of rock-flame neo-Buddy Holly act he was doing that transports you to the top down there didn't work in Beatles-struck London, and in 1964, after a series of bill-bottoming debacles, he began producing. His first assignment, lucky enough, was that half-hour session in which the Animals turned out "House of the Rising Sun." The luck began, the hits began, the Product began.

As a "popcorn producer" (Beck's term), Most was incomparable. Whether doing the Yardbirds or Lulu, he used his own restraint and rarely got lost in the excess: heavy or arty. It was later, however, upon release of two relatively bland Terry Reid albums (bland when considering the talent), that Most's ability to keep up with the times was sometimes questioned.

Most built Donovan a heady musical image. He got rid of the old scruff Dylan image and gave him a new up-to-date folk-rock image. "Donovan was a songwriter, and he'd sometimes write up to 30 songs a week, all of which he wanted recorded. I just picked the hits out, such as I picked out 'Mellow Yellow' and I selected 'Sunshine Superman.' Don was surprised at these choices, but they were hits. When we began to grow apart was after his California trip. I wanted to keep building him, make him more powerful, more melodious. He wanted to go backward, into more personal music. You know, flutes and things."

One of the last things they did together was the Donovan-Beck Supersession. "The Jeff Beck Group at that time were a bunch of gigglers. Donovan was, and is now, very serious about things. It was like a monk amongst a load of playboys."

Most's first production of Beck, apart from the Yardbirds, was "Hi Ho Silver Lining," a single of unimpeachable pap, which broke across the airwaves, heading for certain chart success ... all during the 1967 summer of love. Avant-Beck. He had formed his band with Rod Stewart, Ron Wood and Mickey Waller, but his next record out was a cover version of "Love Is Blue." Which, to this day, gives Beck the blues.

"Mickie wasn't the slightest bit interested in recording my sort of music and I couldn't say to him, 'Look, you don't know what's going on,' because he had 20,000 gold disks on the wall saying 'I do know what's going on.' So for a couple of years I wasted my career doing junk tunes."

And then the story turns into the pages that everyone knows so well. They followed Cream to America, but were actually fronting a wave that meant something entirely different from Cream. It was a different image, and it could almost be seen as some obvious formula, some ... taste be damned.

"I wasn't ready for Nicky Hopkins' wistful piano behind me. It took away the raucousness, but that's not what I wanted in my band. I just wanted to lay down all the guitar I could put down without being interrupted."

Mickey Waller and Ron Wood were fired in mid-tour. Ron Wood was rehired. Nicky Hopkins began to get feisty about the band's direction. He was allowed to quit.

"I saw other groups, like Sly ... groups that really floored me, and they made me realize that this group was limited, that there was an end to it, and that's the time to get out, finish it."

It was at the Singer Bowl in New York, summer of 1969, that Beck was doing his encore of "Jailhouse Rock" when members of Led Zeppelin came jumping out from backstage, doing an Aztec two-step, having a drunken goodtime on Beck's stage. A raid. The twin Marshall stacks were split and Page was given a guitar and this kid in the audience was bubbling out of control, "Wow! ... it's like ... the two greatest guitarists in the whole world! Right here in the Singer Bowl!"

"It was funny," says Beck, "because that's when they took over."

* * *

It's all different now, of course. There's specialist bands. Everyone has their own kind of rock release.

And you'd most likely think that Beck and Zeppelin were always good buddies unless you'd seen those old acrimonious interviews with Beck, stating how Zeppelin stole half his act. He won't say it now. "When Jimmy's demo was playing to me, and I heard 'You Shook Me,' the number I did on the Truth album, and I heard the arrangement, it just sort of ... I dunno, it wasn't the same, but the choice, the approach, it was in the same bracket ... the category ..."

Strong vocals and a loud guitar? "Yeah, right. I just thought, well ... I'm quite honored, really. I do wish them the best of luck." No matter what the scene is now, Beck is trying to make a comeback. He's never had the urge to see Rod Stewart and the Faces, probably out of an avoidance for anything discouraging. On the other hand, he did go and see Cactus, the band that Tim Bogert and Appice put together without him. "I liked it ... it was couldn't-give-a-shit music. But they didn't have anything to say musically, they were doing old-fashioned blues."

By the end of June, Beck wants to do a couple of feeler exercises in Germany, then head for the States. "I had a bad complex, y'know, a while ago, and it quietens you right down ... it gives you a nasty fright ... I began to realize I'd turn into a vegetable if I didn't watch it. A fractured skull can fuck up a lot of things. ... This tour could be a disaster, but then it could be great ... this time I have to make it work. There's no room to fuck about, really."