As Jeff Beck celebrates a birthday today, we gathered around the watercooler at SER Towers to discuss his storied solo work as well as career intersections with the likes of the Yardbirds, Stevie Wonder, Carmine Appice, Stanley Clarke and Rod Stewart, among others.
In keeping with the guitarist’s own varied discography, we didn’t always light on the most obvious song choices — though our selections ultimately emerged from each of Beck’s first three decades of music making. Along the way, there emerges within these handful of songs a clear sense of Beck’s frisky sense of imagination, his genre-bursting vision, his eye-popping virtuosity, and his unerring ear for the unusual …
HAPPENINGS TEN YEARS TIME AGO,” (single with the Yardbirds, 1966): Seldom does a day go by when I don’t listen to Jeff Beck’s music, whether it’s the stuff he did with the Yardbirds, the Jeff Beck Group, Beck, Bogart and Appice or his solo work. But picking a track of his to write about actually proved to be an easy job, simply because the Yardbirds are one of my all time favorite top five bands (just in case you’re interested, the Beatles, the Byrds, the Who and Paul Revere and the Raiders also make the list) and “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago” is one of my all-time Top 5 songs.
The track saw the Yardbirds pushing the envelope so far that it ripped right in half, and that’s really saying a lot since they were so incredibly forward thinking to begin with. Having already gained a randy dandy reputation in the blues wailing band as an axe-slinging god, Jeff elevated his status to even heftier heights when this baby hit the stands. Amplified to maximum effects, his guitar produces roll upon roll of menacing, combative and bewildering chords. The supernaturally restless temper of “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago” communicates splendidly with the song’s subject, which is reincarnation. Waves of crashing feedback, partnered with punishing rhythms, add a double dose of hair-raising kicks and tricks to the hard driving psychedelic classic.
Another cool thing about “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago” is that it marked the first record Jimmy Page played on with the Yardbirds. So along with Jeff’s paralyzing stunts, there’s Jimmy flailing away on his six-string, giving us a taste of what was to come in the mighty Led Zeppelin. Much applaud deserves to be showered on the whole band in general on “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago,” as lead singer Keith Relf delivers a positively bone-chilling vocal performance, bassist Chris Dreja turns out loping licks by the score and drummer Jim McCarty beats the tubs straight into submission.
Simply mind-altering, “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago” sounds as futuristic now as it did when it was initially aired. Jeff Beck certainly shines like the star he is here. A truly influential mass of loud and lovely racket, “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago” not only transported psychedelic rock to an entirely new dimension, but it further opened the gates for a yet unnamed genre of music eventually called heavy metal. Ok, Jeff, take a bow! — Beverly Paterson
“GOODBYE PORK PIE HAT,” (WIRED, 1976): There’s not many who can take an ode to a jazz legend (Lester Young) by another jazz legend (Charles Mingus) and make it into a convincing blues-drenched rock-jazz tune, but Jeff Beck can do that with ease.
“Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” is Beck at his impassioned best, bending and wiggling notes, manipulating feedback and alternating back and forth between anguished and sweetly subdued. Discreetly overdubbed, Beck even engages in drive-by back and forth with himself.
Max Middleton on Rhodes and Wilbur Bascomb Jr. on bass give the song a soulful foundation of slow burning funk, but Beck is the one who makes this one of the more unlikely covers that manages to give such a widely loaded original a run for its money. — S. Victor Aaron
“HELLO JEFF,” (JOURNEY TO LOVE, with Stanley Clarke, 1975): When Beck wasn’t putting out his own mind-bendingly amazing solo albums, he was sitting in on similar project by others. Of course, with a title like “Hello Jeff,” this song begs the question of how Clarke came to meet Beck in the first place.
“This is one of the greatest things that happened to me; it was just fun,” Clarke tells me, in an exclusive SER Sitdown. “I had this house on Long Island, and I was living out there with my wife. There was this knock on the door, and I looked out the window and there was this long limousine. This guy got out with this rooster haircut — that’s what I used to call them — and it was Jeff Beck. He knocks on my door, and I didn’t know much about him. I had definitely heard his name, but I hadn’t really gotten into his history. He comes in, and he has this really heavy accent. He’s telling me he was playing in town, and somebody gave him my address. He came over and he wanted to meet me, because he was playing a song from one of my albums.”
That song was “Power,” from Clarke’s 1974 eponymous debut. This chance meeting sparked the kind of friendship — between a died-in-the-wool rocker and a groove-merchant jazz bassist — seldom seen any more. In fact, Beck not only appeared on two tracks from Journey to Love, but also on Clarke’s I Wanna Play for You in 1979, as well.
“You don’t see so much of it now, because there are bigger partitions between the genres of music,” Clarke laments. “I think it has to do with the managers, and the business. They want to keep everything separate. It’s a shame that it doesn’t happen as much now. I don’t want to say that musicians were better back then. Maybe they were, or maybe it was just an attitude. They were more flexible. Who knows? Maybe it will come back.” — Nick DeRiso
“SUPERSTITION,”(BECK, BOGERT AND APPICE with Tim Bogert and Carmine Appice, 1973): Jeff Beck may be primarily known for his rock guitar work, but he also boasts an interest in world music, classical artists, and R&B. No other track better represents his multi-genre talents then “Superstition,” penned by Stevie Wonder. While Wonder may have scored the bigger hit with the song, Beck’s subsequent version demonstrates the huge influence soul and blues have on his music.
Beck and Wonder’s partnership reaches back to the early 1970s; after hearing Wonder’s Music of My Mind, Beck expressed great interest in working with the Motown legend. Beck’s representatives contacted Motown CEO Berry Gordy, asking if Wonder would be open to collaboration. Wonder readily agreed, as he was in the midst of recording the followup album Talking Book. As they were learning each other’s styles, Wonder wrote three songs for Beck, one being “Superstition.” According to Beck, he laid down the original drum groove for the track while Wonder was out of the room. When Wonder reentered the studio, he instructed Beck to keep playing while he joined the guitarist on clavinet. Beck also collaborated on the lyrics, and then the two laid down a demo. Wonder intended for Beck to record “Superstition” as a thank-you gift for his guitar work on Talking Book (notably on “Looking for a Pure Love”); as soon as Gordy heard the track, however, he correctly deemed it a monster hit and dictated that Wonder record it first. By the time Motown released Talking Book in 1972, Wonder’s version of “Superstition” stormed the charts.
The following year, Beck finally got his chance to play the song intended for him. In 1973 Beck teamed with ex-Vanilla Fudge and Cactus members Tim Bogert (bass) and Carmine Appice (drums) to form the power trio Beck, Bogert, and Appice; their self-titled debut album sold well, peaking at No. 12. But the disc may be best remembered for the group’s grungier, blues-heavy take on “Superstition.” Imagine Led Zeppelin giving the song a good thrashing, and you get an idea of the trio’s take on the track. Beck’s sharp notes resound loudly and clearly among his otherwise crunching guitar, Bogert’s pulsating bass and Appice’s pounding beat.
It’s a vastly different perspective on the R&B tune, but it proves to be a perfect showcase for Beck’s heavy yet precise solos. “Superstition” also illustrates Beck’s heavy debt to the blues and his obvious respect for soul music, which he would further explore two years later on Blow by Blow. In the end, this collaboration forever altered his career, as “Superstition” represents the musical crossroads that would lay down the foundation for Beck’s guitar god status. — Kit O’Toole
“PEOPLE GET READY,” (FLASH with Rod Stewart, 1985): Beck has since called this album a record-company goof — owing perhaps to his pairing here with Nile Rodgers. It was, I suppose, a too-obvious attempt to capture the super-producer’s MTV-era hitmaking magic, but Beck never settles for the easy lick — creating something approximating funk-dance-metal on tracks like “Stop, Look and Listen,” before slowing long enough for a very moving reunion with original Jeff Beck Group vocalist Rod Stewart. Even today, that’s worth the price of admission.
Beck and Stewart’s initial collaborations were so explosive, and so symbiotic, across 1968’s Truth and 1969’s Beck-Ola that Rolling Stone magazine’s devastatingly negative review of Led Zeppelin’s debut release actually turned on the fact that the newcomers didn’t compare to the Jeff Beck Group. Upon arriving in America for the first time with Beck, Stewart then received a career-making nod from Robert Shelton of the New York Times, who enthused about “the interaction of Mr. Beck’s wild and visionary guitar against the hoarse and insistent shouting of Rod Stewart.”
Same here, as the duo — propelled by the liquid lines from Beck, in a rare turn on a Jackson Soloist — smartly updates Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions’ “People Get Ready,” In many ways, Stewart seemed to have developed his vocal style alongside Beck, and their collaborative moments have often proved to be high points for both. You hear that all over again on “People Get Ready,” as they recall the long-ago joys found on their covers of “Ol’ Man River” and “Morning Dew” from Truth, even as they resurrect for a new generation one of popular music’s most powerfully redemptive moments.
Beck and Stewart occasionally reconnected, after their 1969 split — notably on the Stewart single “Infatuation,” which went to No. 6 in 1984. By 1994, Beck could be found inducting Stewart into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — but none of it so far has gotten closer to the emotionally direct interplay of their original collaborations as this one did. — Nick DeRiso
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