Beck, Back & Forth
Loss & Rediscovery
On January 10 we lost a musical legend. I'd rather not speculate on why we lost Jeff Beck at 78 years of age, but instead reflect on his career with fresh ears. I will ashamedly admit to having mistakenly slept on the last couple decades of his work. Bad Shiba!
Upon hearing of Jeff's passing I dove head first into his extensive catalogue, starting in 1965 during his time with The Yardbirds. Side note: Beck replaced Eric Clapton in the Yardbirds after the release of "For Your Love". The Yardbird's hit single "Heart Full of Soul" featured a guitar lead which emulated the sound of a sitar, and immediately established a new sound for the band with Beck on board. This was quickly followed up with the 1966 single release of "Shape of Things", which moved the band's sound into the realm of psychedelic rock, setting the stage for the release of Roger the Engineer. Beck wandered off later that year to visit his girlfriend in San Francisco, having left the band during the supporting American tour before officially quitting The Yardbirds.
The Jeff Beck Group
Beck formed the Jeff Beck Group in 1967 with Ron Wood (pre-Rolling Stones) and Rod Stewart (pre-Faces & solo), and proceeded to release in rapid-fire manner, 1968's Truth and 1969's Beck-Ola. The bandmembers tended to fight regularly while touring, leading to the eventual breakup of the first iteration of the Jeff Beck Group. Highlight tracks from this phase include "I Ain't Superstitious", "Rock My Plimsoul", "Beck's Bolero", and "Rice Pudding".
Following the departure of Wood and Stewart for the Faces and recovery from a serious car crash, Beck reformulated the Jeff Beck Group. Featuring keyboardist Max Middleton and drummer Cozy Powell (pre-Rainbow), this iteration of the Jeff Beck Group leaned more toward a Jazz-Rock fusion sound and released two albums during their time together - Rough and Ready (1971) and The Jeff Beck Group (1972). These albums hinted at what was to come in the next phase of Beck's solo career. "Situation", "Going Down", and "Ice Cream Cakes" are my favorites tracks from this time.
Solo Beck - 70's
After an 18 month hiatus , Beck released the George Martin produced Blow By Blow in March of 1975. This all-instrumental release pushed further into Jazz-Rock fusion territory and received critical appraise. Relative to Beck's two prior releases, Martin appears to have helped him focus the overall sound into something far more coherent. Blow By Blow was quickly followed up with the May, 1976 release of Wired, which built on the sound established on the prior album, despite having collaborated this time with Jan Hammer of Mahavishnu Orchestra fame. "You Know What I Mean", "Freeway Jam", and "Led Boots" define Beck's take on Jazz-Rock Fusion. All at once grooving, yet rhythmic and atmospheric in nature.
Solo Beck - 80's
After another lengthy absense, Beck returned with another Jan Hammer collaboration and the release of There and Back (1980). While still retaining elements of Jazz-Rock Fusion, the balance started shifting more towards the Rock end of the spectrum. "Space Boogie" in particular drifts back and forth between the two genres. Upon wrapping up the supporting tour Beck vanished from the music scene for another five years.
"People Get Ready", I'm not going to be kind to what comes next. 1985 brought the release of the Nile Rodgers-produced Flash, which resulted in Beck delivering a Pop/Rock album. The variety of guest vocalists that contributed their voices couldn't save this album. Rod Stewart made an appearance with "People Get Ready", which was fine for a Stewart song. As a collection of tracks, they felt like outcasts from an unreleased Beverly Hills Cop movie. No, I don't like this album at all. The only track I would save from Hans and his Flammenwerfer would be the raucous "Back On The Streets" with vocals by Karen Lawrence.
Beck's next release was worth waiting yet another four years for. In 1989, we were graced with the epic Jeff Beck's Guitar Shop. So good that it almost makes up for the disaster that was Flash. From the groove of "Savoy", the bluesy "Big Block", the soaring "Stand On It", and finally the hilariously funky "Day In The House", it feels like there's something for every Beck afficionado out there. To top it off, the album cover art is amazing in how it juxtaposes guitar repair/modding against auto garage backdrop.
Solo Beck - 90's-00's
I've compressed this timeframe and limited it to the final three, rapid-fire releases, while skipping over the two compilations albums (Beckology & Best of Beck), the Frankie's House soundtrack, and the Gene Vincent trubute album Crazy Legs. I'm going to cover these albums in more depth, and I'll say it once again - Bad Shiba!
This brings us all the way to 1999, and the release of Who Else, which was the first album I happened to go back and review, having missed out on the original release. There's loads of swagger in this album, but still time for a "Brush With The Blues" (live) the serene "Angel", and "Hip-Notica" to give the listener a rest. The swagger is delivered by "What Mama Said", "Blast From the East", "THX138", and "Even Odds" in just the right amounts. Beck's guitar quite literally sings the title of "Space For the Papa" as part of an airy, yet dynamic instrumental arrangement which was the first track I ever heard from this album. It's certainly one of my all-time favorite Beck tracks.
Fast forward to You Had It Coming (2001) which smacks you in face with the first three tracks, but what would you expect from "Earthquake", "Roy's Toy", and "Dirty Mind"? From there we go to the Muddy Waters-written "Rollin' and Tumblin'", which includes edgy vocals from Imogen Heap, and makes for a powerful rendition of this Blues standard. Beck slows things down mid-album with his interpretation of Nitin Sawhney's "Nadia" before cranking it up and unleashing a "Loose Cannon", followed by the sometimes bluesy, sometimes jazzy "Rosebud". This brings us to the final three tracks of the album, starting off with a "Left Hook" which includes equal parts rhythm and distorted lead over top of a frantic drum machine track. Up next is "Blackbird", where Beck exchanges licks back and forth with a series of recorded bird tweets and chirps. We wrap up the album with "Suspension", which has a laid back, lingering, and atmospheric feeling to it. Just let it wash over you and luxuriate in the sound.
I've been struggling with how to describe Jeff (2003), but it really stands the test of time with a fresh listen, almost twenty years after its original release. The opening half of the album is thoroughly contemporary and includes aspects of what Beck eventually brought forth with Loud Hailer (2016). These tracks are primarily guitar driven with strong leads from Beck, combined with a few different female vocalists, and some hints of electronica to mix things up a bit and form a really solid opening to the album. From there we lead into a series of three blues influenced tracks, starting with "Hot Rod Honeymoon", on to "Line Dancing With Monkeys" (big LOL on the visual imagery invoked), ending with "JB's Blues". Beck proceeds to get the funk out with the following pair of tracks. "Pay Me No Mind" is funky with a slight hip-hop feel to the lyric delivery, whereas"My Thing" resonates up and down with vibes of James Brown. From there Beck brings us on a trip to "Bulgaria", a traditional folk piece that he rearranged. This track flows into the bluesy "Why Lord Oh Why" to wrap up the album.
Solo Beck - The Twilight
This brings us to the final two albums released by Beck as a solo artist. After yet another extended time away from his solo career, Beck released Trevor Horn-produced Emotion & Commotion in the spring of 2010. Jeff is joined by a trio of female vocalists on half of the tracks, including the soulful voice of Joss Stone. "There's No Other Me" is the highlight here, featuring Stone and her vocals trading phrases back and forth with Beck's guitar. The remaining five tracks are instrumental arrangements - four of which lead off the album. Jeff wah-wahs his way into "Hammerhead", which abruptly shifts into an almost orchestral-sounding chorus with a blues undertone, before finally wrapping the track up with a sequence of searing leads. Yes, please! The remaining four instrumental pieces are considerably tamer by comparison, yet still full of feeling. A newly arranged, and Grammy Award winning version of Puccini's Nessun Dorma makes its appearance as the final instrumental track.
Screaming and wailing from the rooftops with megaphone and a stack of amps pretty much describes most of "Loud Hailer". Once again featuring female lead vocals - this time delivered by Rosie Bones. The album starts off on quite the quite raucus and bombastic note, opening with "The Revolution Will Be Televised". It was indeed televised, though it wasn't kinetic. I'll stop there and get back to the music. "Live in the Dark" conjures up imagery of either a dystopian future where humans are driven underground, or where their acts must be hidden from the light, or possibly both in concert. I really enjoy the track from a purely musical perspective, but the lyrics bother me in mutiple ways. Up next is the bombastic instrumental "Pull It", which very well might be the heaviest solo track released by Beck. "Thugs Club" describes several world "leaders" and media figures framed against the backdrop of a pending revolution, where "We won't fight your wars no more" before leading into a war march. "Scared for the Children" brings the tempo and energy down, but very much describes "The end of the age of the innocence" and overall decline of the world we find ourselves in at this time. Somewhat saddening, but very much on point, and well worth a listen. Pulling us up out of despair is the upbeat "Right Now", which feels like commentary on a combination of consumerism and the "Famously famous for nothing at all", but it works. The blues-inspired ballad "Shame" is a return to Beck's roots and showcases Rosie's voice in a retro, throwback to the 50's/60's vocal delivery. Buckle up kiddies, we're officially going to head into "conspiracy theory" territiory with "The Ballad of the New Jersey Wives", which tells the story of a New Jersey wife hearing her husband was killed in the 9/11 WTC attack, not believing the official narrative, and plotting her revenge tour. A total mind blower, which hasn't had its lyrics deconstructed on Genius as of yet.