“I was going to write an autobiography once,” Jeff Beck says with a laugh. “I started writing it, and then I thought, ‘No, let them dig around when I’m dead.'”
It’s a late-April day, and the guitarist, 73, is reclining comfortably in a black chair in his Tribeca hotel suite. It’s a big room with a fireplace and a table with bowls of fruit and candy bars on it. He’s dressed casually in a striped hoodie-like shirt and alternates between drinking cappuccino and Evian. It’s good to be Jeff Beck, and he has the proof.
He might not be writing his memoirs, but he recently participated in a feature-length documentary about his life, Still on the Run: The Jeff Beck Story, which tells his whole history, from strumming a homemade guitar as a teenager with his chum Jimmy Page to joining the Yardbirds and becoming a solo phenomenon who plays with a unique voice. Depending on the song, Beck can emulate a human voice on his instrument (“‘Cause We Ended as Lovers,” “Nadia”), add exotic flair to otherwise straightforward pop songs (the Yardbirds’ “Heart Full of Soul”) or make his six strings screech to high heaven (“Beck’s Bolero”). Helping him reflect in the film are Page, Eric Clapton, Rod Stewart, David Gilmour, Ron Wood, Slash and a host of other artists he’s performed with over the years. It chronicles his artistry, his erratic temperament – such as quitting the Yardbirds and breaking up the Jeff Beck Group when they were both on the verge of success – his notable collaborations (like working with Stevie Wonder) and, of course, his legacy as a guitar idol. And it touches on why he never achieved the same broad level of fame as his peers, and the fact that he kept moving on to new ideas and new sounds, from rock to jazz fusion to electro-improv and back again.
Ultimately, he was pleased with how the film came out. “It was like This Is Your Life in condensed form,” he says. “But they left out all the gory bits. I’ll save those for myself.
“What I wanted to do was try to get a major film company in a proper film, maybe call it All the Good Bits,” he says with a smirk. “Because I don’t think anybody that’s had a long career has actually done the comedic side of showbiz, rock & roll, whatever. It’s a shame not to have the Keith Moon hovercraft in this – it’s just gold dust, going to the pub on a hovercraft. It’s the sort of thing that Mike Myers and Dana Carvey could do. [Carvey] would be perfect.”
Although Beck is in New York ostensibly to talk about his upcoming summer tour with Ann Wilson and Paul Rodgers, he demurs at questions about what his fans should expect. “I’d rather let the reveal happen musically, rather than verbally,” he says. Similarly, he’s tight-lipped about the direction he’s taking on the new music he’s working on. All he’ll say is that “the tour will signal the direction of the music.” So instead, the surprisingly garrulous guitarist spends the next hour or so reflecting on his career so far.
How does it feel to watch this film and hear all the nice things Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, David Gilmour and Slash had to say about you?
I must admit there was a tear [laughs], especially with Eric. I never expected him to bother to be in it. I studied his face over and over, just to make sure there wasn’t something else going on [laughs]. But no, it was just overwhelming.
In the film, Eric said that listening to you play has given him a lot of wakeup calls.
Oh, more than one? [Laughs] It’s funny how Eric’s character was emblazoned in my brain as being a real bother boy – like, a force to be reckoned with, someone who’s moody, maybe punchy. And I never met him until I’d been in the Yardbirds and that act had been committed. We’d already upset him immensely by getting to America before he’d had a chance to go, and we were selling records – the two goals that most rock & roll guitarists would look for – and he was playing in a club with John Mayall for eight people [laughs]. I thought, “Well, at least you’re committed in your craft” [laughs]. And then, lo and behold, he comes out with Cream and swipes us all around the head.
Reading old interviews with the two of you, it seems like he felt some professional competition with you. Did you ever feel that?
I remember he invited me to this gig [in 1980] in Guilford, near where he lives, and I thought, “Why is he asking me?” I thought, “Obviously you won’t be playing, so go along and have a beer.” On the way there, he goes, “Do you want to play ‘Blackie’?” And I said, “Uh, I don’t know that song.” He said, “No, it’s my guitar.” I went, “Oh, whoops.” First calamity of the evening. So I said, “I didn’t bring a guitar, so I’ll do that.” Then about a minute later, he turned around and stood at the car and goes, “This is not gonna be one of these blowing-off things, is it?” I said, “Listen, either I play or I don’t.” And there was that, what’s the word, uncomfortable rivalry about it.
I found out later from Pattie, his wife, that there definitely was [rivalry] – especially with the Stevie Wonder stuff. He was not too amused about me doing something successful with Stevie. I think that maybe got under his skin a bit.
Did you feel that way toward him at all?
No, I just thought he’s got the blues covered. And he’s also got some very good pop songs. And I don’t have either, really. I’m not committed to putting myself up for a blues guitarist, even though I love playing the blues.
You’ve always cited early rock & rollers like Gene Vincent and the jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt as bigger influences on you than blues artists.
That’s because they were the first nuclear explosion musically [for me]. It must have grabbed Jimmy [Page] the same way. I believe that James Burton was more important than Earl Hooker, for example, in the first instant. But it was only during the meetings with Jim at his house in our teenage years that we really got into who was playing what. We were like news reporters going to one another’s houses: “I’ve just heard that Buddy Holly didn’t play on ‘That’ll Be the Day.'” And we’d go, “What?” It was somebody else; [Buddy Holly session guitarist] Grady Martin was playing the guitar. This was shocking stuff for somebody who was so incredibly committed to those players and believing of them.
What was Jimmy like when you first met him?
When you watch the film, if you freeze-frame on that picture of me with him, he had a tiny little face and short hair. Maybe a few years later, one knock at the door and there’s a different person standing there with six-foot-long hair, and that’s how the fashion changed. But yeah, he was excited. And likewise, we were two people on a quest to find out how things were done and generally enjoying this thing with 100 percent attention to detail.
Your mother pushed you toward piano, but that didn’t take. What did your parents make of your rock career?
I probably blotted out how it really was because I just don’t care to recall any upheavals in the family, which there were plenty of. But they somehow didn’t prevent me from doing it. They complained, but they didn’t stop me. I suppose they thought, “If he’s got the guitar, he’s not going out stealing.” The only friends I had were pretty low-life; most of them were one step away from jail.
Did they ever appreciate your success?
No, they beat me up.
I meant your parents, not your friends.
Oh, no, they beat me up [laughs]. The funny thing with the parents is the neighbors would complain that I was playing too loud. And then the day I went on Top of the Pops, they were cutting their hedges suspiciously late in the evening when I arrived home, just to say, “Oh, I saw you on television. Very, very good.” I go, “Yeah, a year ago you’d have called the police.”
There was a profile of you that Rolling Stone ran in 1971 where you talk about joining the Yardbirds, and they told you that you couldn’t use echo to play Chicago blues. What do you remember about that?
I vaguely remember Keith [Relf, vocals] being a purist. I thought, “You can be a purist and you can be poor. I’m gonna do what I think is best.” Before they asked me to join, I suppose I was on the path toward completely avant-garde and experimental music – a bit like Eric Dolphy, Roland Kirk. I don’t want to put myself on that musical level, but the mechanics of what I was doing was making all the weirdest noise I could. That’s when Eric [Clapton] came down and saw me, and he realized that’s where the job was going.
Let’s talk about “Heart Full of Soul.” The film explains how you emulated what a sitarist was playing on your guitar. Had you been doing that before?
Yeah, but there was something locked in my head that Ravi Shankar put there. He was playing scales on one thin wire – the rest are drone strings – and he was just doing the speediest scales. I was so impressed with the speed and intonation and the microtuning. I thought, “This could be used. This is a sound that people won’t have heard applied to a pop record, other than the classic Indian stuff.” So I was already on that path; I couldn’t have pulled that riff off in the middle of the session.
The film Blow-Up that you appeared in with the Yardbirds was included briefly in the doc, but it didn’t mention that you had to smash your guitar like Pete Townshend. How do you feel about that all these years later?
Well, clearly the Who was asked to do it and they said no. I wasn’t in the position to argue when they paid us a lot of money, and it was a proper, professional film with an Italian producer-director [Michelangelo Antonioni], and he just said, “You’ll smash your guitar.” And I said, “No, I won’t.” It was a sunburst Les Paul. He said, “We’ll buy you another one.” He didn’t grasp that you don’t do that to most guitars. So they rented six beginner guitars, and they were so cheap they came in a clear plastic bag [laughs]. I remember there wasn’t much left of them when we finished. I thought, “OK, if you want me to be Pete Townshend, I’ll do it. Who’s going to argue when the money was there?” I thought I’d get some stick from Pete, but I never did.
The thing is, I used to smash amps up anyway – out of rage rather than showbiz. If they crackled, they were finished, and they would end up on the floor. Pete may have seen us play. I doubt it, but if he came recruiting from the band, he would have seen me do that – bash the amp and genuinely treat the guitar like a piece of shit.
Did you like Blow-Up?
I thought it was stupid. It was great entertainment, and it’s hard to keep people on the edge of their seats, but if you blow up a film still, they pixelate. It makes it less clear. The whole point of the story was blowing up this hedge where there was a gun poking through it and it would’ve become less clear [laughs]. So forensically, it didn’t make sense. For the sake of entertainment, it was spooky. But they certainly had the right feel for the psychedelic London and how it was.
You left the Yardbirds in the middle of a package tour called the Caravan of Stars. Have you ever regretted it?
No. It was the best thing. I did it at great cost, because I hadn’t realized that by leaving the band I didn’t know where I’d go. I went back to the girl [I was seeing] in Los Angeles. Big mistake. I got a lukewarm reception. I thought, “OK, I’m cramping her style.” When she knew I was coming to town, it was fine.
And then my visa ran out, so I had to go home, and that was probably the worst, because I had nothing. I’d given my guitar to Jim [Page]. And I was living back with Mum with no money. And yet I had no desire to ring [the Yardbirds] up and say, “Do you think I could come back? I feel better now.” I wouldn’t have had the balls to do that. Even if they’d asked me, I probably wouldn’t have. When you get kicked so hard, you realize there’s a serious wake-up call, and then you get up and do something about it. I thought, “OK, you need to get cracking now.”
Yeah, you just get a new guitar and meet some new people.
I could have easily never played again. That’s when I luckily came back with Rod [Stewart].
Speaking of Rod, in the film he said that you worked hard to arrange the songs on your first album, the Jeff Beck Group’s Truth, to be more interesting than standard 12-bar blues. What was your vision with that?
I loved Motown. I loved the musicality and the sound. There were great songs with nuances on every record. And there was the inevitable sound of the drums and [bassist] James Jamerson. I couldn’t ignore it. And I was trying to apply a little piece of the James Jamerson [sound] – that lovely fatback sound he had with the drums – to the group with [Jeff Beck drummer] Micky Waller. We had a little Motown feel going on, but it was harder-edged. If you could get the Motown players slightly out of control, that was what I was after – the heavy blues influence, but with maybe a few more twists in the chord changes.
You broke up the band at a time when you’d been booked to play Woodstock. Why did you think the guys weren’t up to it?
Because most of the gigs were dumps [laughs]. No disrespect, they were valid, but they were pretty lonely places. I mean, there was Luanne’s Club [in Dallas] where you could hardly stand up onstage; you had to bend your head to stop it from hitting the ceiling. Billy Gibbons was in the audience, and he remembers I was trying to put the amps up and there was barely room to plug the cord in at the top of the ceiling. Nobody had ever seen an amp that size.
So we just hadn’t played in front of large audiences. We’d done the Fillmore West, which was a joyous thing, except for the part where everybody started to sniff the smoke in the air, which would make you stoned. But somewhere along the line, when the second tour came along and we were offered to play at Woodstock, I thought there was a bad vibe in the band. It was sort of Ronnie Wood and Rod and that’s it. And I wasn’t anywhere in the picture. They’d go off, and I’d be stuck.
There was no camaraderie.
It had fizzled, for some reason. When they said there was gonna be about 100,000 people at Woodstock and it went up to 200,000, I just blanked off and thought, “I don’t want to do this.” If they’re filming it, it’s too nerve-racking. Let’s at least get to the point where we have a hit and mean something more than a glorified bar band. I hadn’t found my feet.
When did you feel like you’d found your feet?
I’m still looking, mate [laughs]. I suppose it was working with George Martin. When I had the stamp of approval from someone like him, it went a long way.
You mentioned people getting stoned at the Fillmore. You’re one of these artists where you don’t hear stories about alcoholism or drug use.
No, I keep that under wraps [laughs]. I understand how easily one could go down that road. But I’m one of those people that could never even imagine walking on a stage [intoxicated]. I did it one time, albeit in a small village hall, and my legs gave way as I walked up the steps. But I was driven. Somehow I thought, “I can’t turn around. I’ve got a suit on. I’ve just joined this little band.” And when I got up on the stage, I didn’t have to worry because they were screaming at the singer and didn’t notice me. If they were looking at me, I would’ve just run [laughs].
Your Truth album features “Beck’s Bolero” on it – a track that featured an incredible lineup of you and Jimmy Page on guitar, Nicky Hopkins on piano, John Paul Jones on bass and Keith Moon on drums. Who does the scream right before it speeds up?
Keith. Actually, after he did that, he swiped one of the snare mics and you don’t hear the snare from that point on. I just remember this monstrous gargoyle scream, thinking, “That’s what we want. That’s exactly it.” It was just two takes and we had it.
You recorded other songs with that lineup—
[Interrupts] Yeah, that disappeared.
What were they like?
They were on-the-spot ideas I had just so we could squeeze as much recording out of this lineup with Jimmy, John Paul Jones and Keith Moon as possible. I just thought, “We booked them for the day, let’s get this much stuff.” But “Bolero” was the one thing we worked on, and when that was mixed and sounding really good, we just went on a jam a bit. So there’s maybe two or three other things. Heaven knows where they are.
You put together another Jeff Beck Group and, toward the end of that lineup, you got with Stevie Wonder and wrote some music with him and recorded a solo on what became Talking Book. Was it a magical experience working with him?
Yeah. I’d already been to Motown in 1970 with [drummer] Cozy [Powell], which was an education I wouldn’t have wanted to miss. I was sitting there for 10 days watching James Jamerson and all those players. So when Stevie agreed to do this [collaboration], which was an idea that Epic Records came up with, I was into it. I said, “I really love Stevie on the Music of My Mind album.” It was completely a milestone. It was a revolution of what any musical album could be with all the synthesizers, and the songs were great. I was mesmerized by them. And the next thing you know, I’m doing the follow-up album, thank you.
I wouldn’t have cared if nothing had happened. Just to sit there and watch him work and get to know how it’s done was great. The time just ripped by. I think it was three or four days, and it was just incredible. He could sit there and map out a song on the keyboard. It would be the first chorus – perfect – then go and put the drums or bass on.
His hit “Superstition” evolved from those sessions. You were playing drums and he liked the groove and wrote the keyboard part to it. What ever happened to the version you recorded of that song with him? You never put it out because the second Jeff Beck Group broke up.
I’ve got it. It’s on a little three-inch reel. It hasn’t been played since ’72, so I don’t know whether it’s just decayed or not. But all the tapes that I can find are ready to be baked and processed.
Is that a project you’re working on?
I’ve already done the live concert that [Beck, Bogert and Appice] did. We remixed and refined the sound of it. It sounds pretty good. The version of “Superstition” I did with BBA turned out to be a great heavy-metal song.
Moving on to Blow by Blow, which was mostly instrumental, you said in the doc that you’d been inspired by hearing John McLaughlin with Miles Davis. What pushed you into concentrating mostly on instrumental music?
Just knowing that John had done that. The Mahavishnu Orchestra was a clear lesson that there was life after singers. I thought if I could make a more simplified version of that – because there’s no Billy Cobham where I live, I don’t know about you – it would be good. The emphasis on great playing rather than making sensational pop records appealed to me. It was more important to be part of that, what’s the word, inventiveness that was going on musically.
Eric Clapton said in the doc that he felt you were a rock musician who understands jazz.
I was very, very pleased with that, but I don’t understand jazz [laughs]. If you’ve ever seen that clip of Chris Guest from Spinal Tap talking about jazz, where he goes, “Why are they playing so quietly? What are they afraid of?” I just thought, “This is so funny.” Of course, I understand what I’m hearing. But the great thing about rock & roll is it’s simplification between the eyes. That’s what “Hound Dog” and “Rock Around the Clock” was. And don’t tell me that it doesn’t make you want to jump up and down when you hear it.
You didn’t do a whole lot of records in the Eighties. And in other interviews, you’ve said you felt that decade and the Nineties were not the best for you. Why is that?
Because I was listening to everything that came across at the time. I noticed people like Michael Jackson, and I thought, “Fabulous, but it’s not for me.” Then there was the whole Eighties rock & roll metal circus from Quiet Riot, the whole big-hair thing and groupies all with the same hair. Thank God I never went in there. So the doors were closing on the possibility of playing a sizable concert, because that’s what was selling. And it does you good not to be around. You’re refreshed.
Around that time, you also had the guitar shredders like Joe Satriani and Steve Vai coming out. What did you make of that at the time?
I was glad on the one hand that guitar was still king. They were flying a great flag for the guitar. At least it wasn’t a bunch of synthesizers, and the guitar was getting nudged out of the picture [laughs]. I had every respect for Vai and Eddie Van Halen. Great. Let them have that. As long as it doesn’t encroach on my style – and it didn’t – I was happy.
You were doing a lot of guest appearances on albums by Mick Jagger and Tina Turner in the Eighties.
Well, who’s gonna say no when I got the call? I’d be proud that someone remembered I was even alive [laughs].
What do you remember about working with Tina?
It was unbelievable. The producer wouldn’t play the songs louder than just about one dB, and I wasn’t used to that, but the tracks were kickass. “Steel Claw” was very uptempo, and “Private Dancer” was great. But I had to do this solo on a stadium-style song at radio volume, and Tina came in and said, “How’s it going?” I went, “OK.” She said, “I’ll tell you what I’ll do. I’ll do a guide vocal, so you can get the fire.” And then, great. I just sat there. One take. That was it. And she went, “I’ll leave you to it.” And she came back three or four hours later, and I was still struggling trying to get the sound. But it all ended up really well because she liked it and took me out to dinner [laughs]. It was pretty good.
There have been news reports lately of Gibson and Guitar Center having problems. What do you make of that?
Well, who would’ve ever believed that 50 years ago when the Stratocaster appeared in London that it would still be the iconic guitar. I don’t care what anybody says, the Les Paul is close, but the Strat and the Tele are still the tools of the trade. And now you’re telling me that it’s going down. I thought it was still pretty strong.
It’s like records. People’s buying habits are different. Things are changing. The raves, the raps and all that, that’s where it’s all going. The shuffle dance and the trance clubs – there’s 10,000 people in there with just massive speakers and one guy with a set of headphones. It’s inevitable that it will be over. If not now, then not long ahead. I’m just clinging on for grim death [laughs].
Speaking of rave music, I liked a lot of the electronic stuff you worked with on You Had It Coming.
Wow. It needed somebody to produce it that understood how it was gonna be placed and not just swept aside in the record-company warehouse somewhere. The people I played that material to enjoyed it. It just wasn’t picked up sufficiently, so I didn’t do another one. The hardcore guitar followers don’t really want to hear that, and that’s who my audience is. It never got above that. Had we had a hit or something, it would’ve been different. But I sensed that you don’t go up that road too far anymore. I think they’d rather see real playing with real players.
When you put out your last album, Loud Hailer, you were saying you wanted to get away from the “guitar-nerd thing.”
I don’t know. Whenever I would go into the magazine stand in the railway station, I would see great hordes of these magazines with nerd written all over them [laughs]. I don’t mean any disrespect, but I really don’t want to read about forensically going into string diameter [laughs]. Let there be some mystery attached to your craft. And page after page is gadgets and electronics. I suppose in a way it’s healthy, but then the music doesn’t reflect that. I haven’t heard anything that is that far up the scale from what I already know as my favorite sort of music. So is it another box of tricks we’re listening to or is it a player?
What music moves you the most these days?
I’m delving into younger music, that shuffle dance music. I’m studying people not just for inspiration or musically but just their lives. When you see YouTube clips of these girls dancing to their stuff, they just want to go and express themselves. It’s obviously massive over here. They’re not bothered about having a part in it. They’re just jumping up and down and doing this incredible dance and making up their own steps. They’ve probably got, like, four gallons of Red Bull down [laughs]. And I’m fascinated by that.
And they’re into having their ears blown out by billion-watt sound systems. You think, “How embarrassing if we’d turned up with a drum kit? It would be so bad. They would just walk out of the place.” All of the bass rigs and the sheer gusto of the sound systems was not there when we started out. We all wanted that massive, powerful sound, but it wasn’t there. So that’s why we played loud and got big amps. But I keep myself well attuned to what’s going on.
In the doc, Jennifer Batten called you an “unsung hero to the masses.” I was curious what you made of that and whether you’re comfortable with your level of fame.
Well, if she said it, then that’s what it must be. I can’t comment on that. All I can say is that I’ve never made the big time, mercifully probably. When you look around and see who has made it huge, it’s a really rotten place to be when you think about it. Maybe I’m blessed with not having had that. And I have to look at it that way.