In October 1966, guitarist Jeff Beck suddenly quit the English band the Yardbirds in the middle of a U.S. tour. "We were doing 600 miles a day in a bus, choked with people," Beck, 71, recalls with a bitter laugh. "And then we'd do three songs. I thought, 'We're being crushed.'" On August 10th, Beck – currently on the road with his blues hero Buddy Guy – marks his 50th anniversary as a solo artist with a retrospective concert at the Hollywood Bowl, complete with an orchestra. He also celebrates that milestone with a new book, BECK01 – a lavish, pictorial account of his twin passions for guitars and restoring vintage automobiles – and a politically charged new album, Loud Hailer, out July 15th and made with new collaborators: guitarist Carmen Vandenberg and singer-lyricist Rosie Bones. Beck is writing an autobiography as well that he hopes will become a feature film.
"The fun that I've had needs to be seen on the screen," the guitarist insists near the end of our conversation for Rolling Stone, which took place during tour rehearsals at his longtime home in the Sussex countryside outside London and is presented here in an extended version. "I like the thought of a bunch of people laughing at what I laughed at. Because my life is surreal, completely wacko," Beck notes with his own hearty laughter – something he does often during this interview. "I have to pinch myself that I'm still alive."
In recent years, you have collaborated a lot – and really well – with women: the bassists Tal Wilkenfeld and Rhonda Smith, singer Imelda May and now Carmen and Rosie. What do you like about working with women instead of men?
They look better for a start [laughs]. I met Carmen at a birthday party [for Queen drummer Roger Taylor]. Somebody told me she was a guitarist. I didn't expect what I heard. She said, "Oh, I like Buddy Guy, Albert Collins." I thought, "Wow, that's pretty cool for a 23-year-old ... chick. [Laughs]
Are women less argumentative than guys?
No, no. There is a certain atmosphere they create. It is a well-balanced outfit. Let's not forget that you do get opinionated women as well. As long as I'm the boss, so be it. Either obey or get out [laughs].
There is a surprising, topical anger in new songs like "The Revolution Will Be Televised" and "Thugs Club." Are you a news junkie?
It's a recent thing. A lunatic lifestyle on the road doesn't permit you to get too hip to stuff as you should. I had a concept for the record. And it was a daily thing. I would go online and find something disgusting that was going on in the world. I was feeding Rosie with the vibe, and she ran with it.
I go on YouTube. I look for lies, and I look for the truth. When you examine facial expressions – politicians, commentators – you can replay the clip and see the lines in their faces. I've become very conscious of how easy it is for people to lie.
I would show Rosie what I wanted to say, and she would sit there quietly writing away. She didn't show me anything for the first couple of days. Then she put a guide vocal on one of the tracks that blew me away. It was exactly what I was going to say.
It sounds like we actually spent some time on the album, but it came together very quickly. The construction of the songs was about two weeks, maybe less. The rest was all messing around with other things. The core of the album was done in about three or four days.
One song, "Scared for the Children," has strong echoes of Jimi Hendrix.
It inadvertently came out. It's [Hendrix's] "Angel – four notes [hums the lick]. There's no escape. I've never loved Hendrix more than I do now. I've been listening to some excellent stuff that I'd never heard before, a Royal Albert Hall show [in 1969] – same songs like "Red House" but unbelievable playing. Ever since I learned the chords to "Little Wing," nobody can shut me up.
When did you first see Hendrix perform?
It was probably one of the first shows he did [in London]. It was in a tiny downstairs club in Queensgate, It was a fashion club – mostly girls, 18 to 25, all dolled up, hats and all. Jimi wasn't known then. He came on, and I went, "Oh, my God." He had the military outfit on and hair that stuck out all over the place. They kicked off with [Bob Dylan's] "Like a Rolling Stone," and I thought, "Well, I used to be a guitarist."
Did you get to know Hendrix well?
As well as you could in the fleeting moments. When the Jeff Beck Group played the Scene [in New York in 1968], he was there most nights. What an education, having him come in with his guitar. One night he played mine. He didn't have his guitar. I ended up playing bass. There's a photo. Jimi's in the shot, [bassist] Ron Wood is in the background. You don't even see me in the picture.
Everything I've read about your exit from the Yardbirds in the fall of 1966 suggests it was an impetuous decision.
It was. I got tired of getting sick. With all those changes in climate [on tour], my throat was in havoc. It was the sore throat from hell. I couldn't swallow. And the tonsils kept getting ulcerated. I had them out in L.A., and they carried on with Jimmy [Page].
Also, we were being crushed into this ridiculous package show. If you didn't have a hit, you just had to do what you were told. Jimmy had just joined, so it was a bit of a blow when I left. I went back to L.A., and the girl I was with looked after me for awhile. My mum said, "What the hell are you doing, staying on?" Well, sunshine. [Laughs] But I ran out of time on my visa. I got a telegram from the U.S. government, saying "Get out of the country."
Did you have any idea what you wanted to do next, as a solo artist?
All of a sudden, you're a nobody. You're not a Yardbird anymore. Maybe a couple of places in the papers said, "Jeff Beck's left." But because the band was able to carry on [with Page], it was almost like I was airbrushed out of it. I had to find Stewart, and that's when it started up again.
There are fantastic photos in BECK01 of the Jeff Beck Group with Wood and Rod Stewart. Have you tried to reunite that band?
It's the biggest comedy of errors. I see Woody at a lot of Christmas parties – at Mick Jagger's and some friends of ours. I said, "There's a big opportunity coming up next August." He went, "Wow, I'll tell Rod." He said, "Rod is thrilled." Months go by, and he's playing Vegas on that night [laughs].
Rod did want to do it another time. But I think he just wanted to do a quick album on a weekend. I wanted to do a meaningful move forward in blues-rock. But it would have taken too much time for him.
What is it with you and singers? You've worked with great ones like Stewart and Mick Jagger but never for long.
I did once say singers were all a pain in the ass. Of course, they aren't. But they weren't central to the concept. I wanted to play the guitar. Someone once said to me, "Your show is not a rock concert. It's a recital." But I like having vocalists to play off of. Somebody said it was like a [Harold] Pinter play with the rapport going on between Rod and the guitar. It's thrilling. With a vocalist, you're part of the concert, and you're an audience as well.
You've always had an animated, vocal quality to your guitar playing. Do you find that there is only so much you can express on the instrument?
No, especially with a Stratocaster. There is so much variable in the tone, especially because of the whammy bar. Originally, it was intended for maybe the last chord of a song [makes rubbery-chord sound and laughs]. But little did Fender know what was going to happen. The spring-loaded bar became a part of me. It enables me to do unlimited bends, like having a pedal-steel guitarist.
But I've always liked to play melodically. Otherwise, there's nothing there, just an ugly sound. Listen to the great guitarists of the Fifties. They didn't do that nasty sort of industrial distortion. They played musical compositions as solos – Scotty Moore, Cliff Gallup, Django Reinhardt. There wasn't a bad note in any of those solos. I listened to that and stayed with those rules.
BECK01 documents your double life in guitars and classic cars. Aren't you worried about doing harm to your hands when you get under the hood or a chassis?
I am more dangerous in the kitchen. I was cutting a carrot length-wise, and it rolled to the left. The knife went sideways on my finger. I'm not allowed to cut carrots anymore. Grinders – no problem. It's second nature to me. I've picked up the wrong end of a welding rod, burned holes in the hands. I just get on with it. I've been doing it since I was 16.
What got you started?
My uncle used to take me out on weekends in this sporty car, an MG. It was the biggest thrill – not so much in the winter, because I froze. He refused to put the top up. But when you're six or seven, you need to be hardened. If he was overhauling an engine, he'd say, "Right, I'm pressing this spring. You press that spring, and push the can in." When I bought my first car and it konked out, I knew straight away what to do.
The fun started when you buy tools. You build up a tool collection and feel a sense of empowerment. It saves you money, and you get a kick out of that. Then I got into cutting and welding, and it built up from there.
Is it purely the mechanics of the car? How much do you enjoy the driving?
When I know they run well, that's it. It's a bit of a sad ending. That's when I'm finished. When a car handles real well, I will drive it. The fun is in the build.
On the new album, in the song "O.I.L. (Can't Get Enough of That Sticky)," you actually play a solo on an oil can. Please explain.
It's a guitar made out of an oil can, a metal old-style gallon can. It was standing in a dressing room when I came back from a gig. There was nothing there except a sofa, the drinks cabinet, some refreshments and right slap in the middle of the floor was this oil can with a neck on it. I went, "Oh, my God, that's gotta be Billy Gibbons [of ZZ Top]." And sure enough, the note said, "Enjoy. Love, BFG." I thought, "Is this playable?" I plugged it in, and it played like a charm.
It's gotta feel weird to a guy used to Strats.
The neck is braced so that when you tighten the strings, it doesn't flex forward. It plays great. I tuned it to a regular chord, and played a regular slide on it. The song was about Texas oil – we were having a little dig there [laughs].
Another thing I noticed in your new book was a letter from the great jazz bassist Charles Mingus. He was congratulating you on your version of his composition "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat" [on Beck's 1976 album Wired]. Have you kept a lot of memorabilia from your career?
I am a hoarder unfortunately. And the bigger the house, the more stuff you can put in it. That letter – I had it and knew I wanted to keep it. I stuck it in a photograph album, so it survived. But a lot of other stuff, all these pictures and treasures, things that only mean anything to me – it just gets put away somewhere. Like, I've got a letter from Barbara Streisand.
What did she want?
I can't tell you [laughs].
Oh, c'mon. It's gotta be good.
It was very complimentary, very nice.
You keep touring regularly. Do you have health concerns? Eric Clapton recently told me about hand and back issues that may affect his roadwork.
I'm fit as a fiddle. Eric's got a nerve complaint. It sounds horrible. It would be so sad if it impairs his playing. I did sprain my wrist, carrying something heavy. And I have a bad back. They had to operate in the lower back. As long as I rest every so often – lie flat – I'm fine. But I keep lifting stuff.
Like engine blocks?