A dizzying array of genres at his Beck and call

The legendary British guitarist is using Tel Aviv as his rehearsal space ahead of his world tour next month.

Jeff Beck (photo credit: Robert Essel)
Jeff Beck
(photo credit: Robert Essel)
Stop the presses! Jeff Beck is coming to settle in Israel! The legendary British guitar wizard is probably not up to snuff on our regional jargon, having his head usually burrowed either near his guitar fretboard or under the hood of one of the many vintage Ford hot rods he owns and restores himself. So when he told me that his all-star band is arriving here a few days ahead of the launch of a world tour to prepare for the debut on October 4 at Reading 3 in Tel Aviv and the next night at the Caesarea Amphitheater, he said without a hint of irony, “We’ve chosen to rehearse in Israel and settle there for a few days rather than rehearse in England and get off the plane. We want to acclimatize ourselves.”
So, all right, keep the presses going. The 65-year-old Beck isn’t going to join the hilltop youth and provide musical accompaniment for Council for Judea and Samaria radio ads anytime soon. But don’t put it past him because Beck has spent a great part of the last 45 years confounding the expectations of his fans, his fellow players, and even himself as he forged one of the most diverse careers a guitar hero has ever boasted of.
Along with Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page, Beck is one of the British triumvirate who emerged from the British blues scene of the 1960s, all launching from the position of guitarist with The Yardbirds at various times, before taking on the world in their individualized blueprints and exploding the set concept of what a rock guitarist is capable of.
Page and Clapton cashed in on their ability, playing guitar gods to the hilt – Page with Led Zeppelin and Clapton leap frogging from Cream to Derek and the Dominoes before hunkering down for a long, comfortable career as a part-time bluesman, part-time pop craftsman.
But Beck, ranked No. 14 in Rolling Stone’s list of the greatest guitarists of all time, was always too impulsive and curious to stick around in one musical place for too long, and instead of exploiting his musical prowess to the hilt by venturing down a familiar hard rock or blues path, he chose to become a chameleon.
“I guess I enjoy turning the expectations of me on their head, but I do it in a healthy way. I don’t see the sense in letting people get too familiar or too close to a given style,” he said on the phone from his home in England last week.
“To do that wouldn’t be my cup of tea. I think the mantra is to please myself first and judge whether what I’ve just done is worth releasing. It’s a gamble. Sometimes people take a long time to latch on to what you’re doing.
On the other hand, sometimes they get it right away. I prefer the slow burn. People appreciate it further down the line and stay with it. And that seems to be working well with me rather having a quick hit with a single.”
GOING BACK to his post-Yardbirds band, The Jeff Beck Group, featuring a then-unknown singer named Rod Stewart, and carrying on through a myriad of musical changes, hit singles were never at the forefront of Beck’s mind. Much of his output consisted of challenging instrumental work that dizzyingly spanned genres ranging from blues-rock and heavy metal to jazz fusion, classical and even electronica.
Beck’s career pinnacle was arguably reached with his groundbreaking 1975 album Blow by Blow, a best-selling jazz-fusion instrumental classic, produced by George Martin. Beck acknowledged that he wasn’t even aware at the time that the band he had assembled, including an uncredited Stevie Wonder on keyboards, were involved in making history.
“All I knew was that with George Martin’s input, there was going to be a quality to it that I wouldn’t have gotten anywhere else, as well as that sonic fidelity,” he said.
“Some of the playing is amazing, too. The drummer [Richard Bailey], who was 19 at the time, played like a real seasoned jazz pro. We just didn’t realize at the time that we were forging almost a new musical style. Apart from playing just nice compositions, we were involved in making a new form of music.”
The decision to record that enduring album presented a dilemma for Beck, who at the same time was being wooed by The Rolling Stones to join up as lead guitarist following the departure of Mick Taylor. And his choice, to follow his muse and not the dollar signs, set a precedent that he still follows today, with little regret.
“Obviously it would have been interesting to see how life with The Stones would have changed me and my playing. Of course, I couldn’t drink as much as I would have had to or do other stuff,” he laughed. “It was a fantastic opportunity, but the other option with George Martin was so powerful… and the idea of having a career for myself. I suppose it’s selfishness, but it enabled me to be on the ticket myself rather than a member of The Rolling Stones.”
That’s not to say that Beck hasn’t subsequently shared his gift with other artists. A short list of who he’s collaborated with demonstrates that Beck – a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee both on his own and as a member of The Yardbirds – isn’t bowing to any format radio overlord: Kate Bush, Roger Waters, Stevie Wonder, Les Paul, Zuchero, Cyndi Lauper, Brian May and ZZ Top, to name a few.
“Thankfully, I can adapt my style to who I’m playing with,” said Beck. “I tend to accept challenges rather than the easy stuff. I played with Kate Bush, right across to Stanley Clarke and Stevie Wonder. I’ve had a rich time. And it’s all applying what you can do and twisting it to fit. It’s a bit like customizing one’s style. And because I studied different rockabilly styles, it’s also helped, as well as Chicago blues and some classical melodies. The end result is who I am today.”
“Is that really Jeff Beck?” were probably the words out of many music fans’ mouths who watched the 1988 Danny DeVito/Arnold Schwarzenegger film Twins. Double takes were the norm as a wiry, long-haired guitar player offered a twangy solo while Nicolette Larson sings “I Would Die for This Dance” as Schwarzenegger and DeVito waltz together – another example of Beck’s willingness to perform out of character and without recognition..
“I love Danny Devito for a start,” said Beck, explaining how he ended up appearing in the film. “And I just got stars in my eyes. I had done some music for a TV series and got an award for it. And then it snowballed from there. I got offered the chance to appear in Twins, which meant a week in Los Angeles being in a big movie.
Whether it was a good idea or not, it was very interesting watching it come together.”
Beck’s willingness to appear in the film was partly due to a fallow period in the 1980s and ’90s when, due to his determined uncommercial stance in an era of MTV, he began a low-profile period where he spent most of the time tinkering with his cars. Even today, the pull between a monkey wrench and a guitar pick is an equal one.
“If it’s sunny, working on a vintage car will win out,” laughed Beck. “But obviously you have be sensible. The more you cheat yourself if you don’t practice, the more you’re going to pay for it. There’s sort of a self-imposed discipline necessary,” he said.
“The period when I concentrated on the cars more, well, that was in lieu of the work that wasn’t coming in for some reason or other. We were touring two or three countries over and over again rather than spreading a bit farther afield. Plus it was probably due to the musical changes I was going through. When you pick up one audience, you tend to lose another. It’s a fickle business.
The 1980s weren’t very good for me. But now things are different,” he said.
HERALDED FOR his idiosyncracies and regarded as an elder statesman of rock, Beck is now free to pursue his musical wanderlust wherever it takes him, like the explorations on his new album Emotion and Commotion, his first in seven years.
From the Blow by Blow-like jazz/metal of “Hammerhead” and the ethereal orchestrated “Corpus Christy Carol” and “Over the Rainbow” – a majestic cover of the Judy Garland standard – to the R&B classic scorcher “I Put a Spell on You” with guest vocalist Joss Stone and the classically lush “Elegy for Dunkirk” featuring opera singer Olivia Safe, Beck is in his element, pushing his guitar through glass ceilings and reaching the sky.
“This was a strange album, in terms of me not knowing if I was doing the right thing,” he said. “All I wanted was to hear was a really well put together orchestration, with real strings, and try to do insane things, like “Elegy for Dunkirk” and “Over the Rainbow,” just to see what happens.
And even if I get shot to pieces because it’s too commercial, it still sounds nice and is well performed.”
Audiences here will be able to witness the live representation of the album, along with a long list of Beck classics through the ages, when he performs in October along with his band – Narada Michael Walden on drums, Rhonda Smith on bass and Jason Rebello on keyboards – all indemand players in the world of jazz and rock.
“Rhonda and Narada (who played with Beck on his 1976 album Wired) were emergency calls when I lost my players for various reasons. I never landed on my feet more squarely. They just play together like they’ve been playing for years,” he said.
Delighted with the band, Beck noted that, as band leader, he had to follow the thin line between giving direction and letting improvisation take over.
“There’s plenty of scope for improvisation, but I do like regimented arrangements and sharp presentation and not overindulgence in solos. I don’t care for that,” he said.
“Rock & roll is about sharpness and speed and dazzle – and get it done. It’s a short explosion. I don’t go for 25- minute guitar solos. That’s just my personal taste. It’s a lesson I learned from the classic rock records of the 1950s.
Sometimes there were two solos in a 2:50 single. But what was in there was so dynamic. And that’s what I try to carry through with. It’s pretty tricky, though, when you’re the soloist and there’s no singer. That’s why melody’s so important.”
In addition to fronting his own band, Beck is still up to his old tricks of collaborating with the least likely suspects.
The latest on the list are Sly Stone and David Bowie.
“Working with Bowie is probably 40 years overdue.
Apparently in a documentary, he said that Mick Ronson [Bowie’s guitarist in the 1970s] was his Jeff Beck because he couldn’t get me,” he said.
When asked if there was anyone else he would like to work with in the future, Beck mentioned Prince, but then faltered for a second as he thought. Maybe he was considering the long road he’s taken – the musical loner who enjoys collaborating, the flashy guitar master who prefers tasty jazz to stacked Marshall amps, the adulation and fame of which he’s partaken only a fraction of what he could.
“You know, I think I can afford to skip working with other people for a while and work with myself.”