Jeff Beck's reputation as the world's greatest guitarist, the planet's most erratic musician, and the Universe's most elusive character precedes him. With a career full of brilliant rock albums behind him, Beck currently fronts a semi-rock/jazz four-piece which virtually defies categories but certainly doesn't strictly qualify as a rock outfit. Jon Tiven cornered Mr. Beck in Springfield, Massachusetts and popped the question: "Would you like to do an interview." "Not really, but go ahead anyhow" replied Jeff. Do you feel your playing changes when you switch from your Gibson Les Paul to the Fender Strat, and if so, how?
Quite so, the Strat's not so slippery and you can't do so many tricky things on it. The fingerboard is much slower. The Strat has a more wiry sound with less punch.
Why are you using Fender amps?
Christ knows, they just happened to be there. As long as you've got enough level, I'm not worried about what amplifier I've got, as long as they don't blow up. Quite honestly, the sound is pretty much the same. Perhaps an expert can tell the difference but I couldn't.
How do you feel about playing guitar when you know that every budding musician worth his salt is going to listen to whatever album you make and learn every lick?
It's great as long as they don't just play like that. As long as it acts as an encouragement for them to learn how to play, or just to play. I can't see the point in groups playing other guy's songs or solos note for note.
But there are a lot of guitarists around today who play, or try to play just like you, the obvious example being Mick Ronson. How do you feel about that?
Yeah, I know he does. But he appeals to a part of the public that I don't. If he was pulling my audiences I'd be annoyed, but as long as he pulls his own, I'm not.
When you went into the studio to do the new album, did you have songs in mind, or what kind of preparation had you made?
We had some sound tunes to play... I didn't have any arrangements, or all the chords. Like Stevie Wonder goes into the studio with everything, right down to the last topping, but I'm not a believer in that. I like to go in and come out being really knocked out with what I came up with in the studio. Max Middleton found the musicians for the album. The drummer's brilliant, he's only nineteen and plays a 5/4 time signature like he's falling off a log, scary really.
Did Max put this band together, or did you?
No, I did. I've always been a friend of Max because he's very stable, and you can't afford not to have someone like that around. You get a star, a looner, a poseur and right away he's trying to steal the limelight.
What have you been doing in the period between BB&A and this?
Looking for players... looking for a bag to be in. It's very hard nowadays, it's bloody impossible. You've got 500,000 groups in one small area alone all raping around, trying to rape you of ideas. As quickly as you come up with 'em, they rip 'em off. It's like the fuzz-box thing, you get a fuzzbox and all of a sudden there's a factory making fuzz-boxes.
Were you thinking about a band during the making of the Blow By Blow album?
No, the main concern was to get the album finished without having to think about a road band. I just wanted to break away from the business, it's such a big, phoney, rubbishy business. It's not a business, really, a business is when you sit in an office and wear a suit. It's an entertainment.
I heard that at one point you were thinking of joining Sly.
I sussed out the scene and it didn't look good. He was going to produce BB&A, and then I told Sly that I wasn't into the BB&A thing and he dropped his interest in it. He found out that I wasn't interested, so he wasn't interested. I hung around for ten days with Sly, and he said 'Do you want to stay at my house?' and I said 'Yeah' and the next day I got on a plane and went home. That's the story.
Was BB&A a joke from the start?
Of course it was. You don't form a band that's five years obsolete and take it seriously. I wanted to show people that that band wouldn't have made it... some nights it was alright for what it was, but most of the time I was totally frustrated. I couldn't hear myself play because Tim was so loud. Then I was making terrible mistakes and he was just groovin' on not even looking at me. I was just fumbling. I mean, I can be heavier than any guitarist if I want to be but I have to have the push behind me, I can't have people treading on me. You're in a band, you have to fight together and not against each other, you fight and pull in the same direction. Carmine was fine, but Tim's moods and mine were just impossible.
What was it tike working with George Martin?
At that time he was very helpful. I wouldn't say that he'd be of much use on any further albums, not the way he was on that one. When you haven't been on the road for two years you need something really subtle and together to put you back on the track. To get you back in the swing of it. George is a bit of everything, I was very impressed with the way he handled it. At first I didn't think he was doing much, but the album seems to be picking up in sales, so I suppose his job is done well.
It's a very clean album...
You can hear everything. That's what I like, I don't like fuzzy, six billion watt rock 'n' roll riffs that just go in one ear and out the other. It's a real listening album, you can sit and listen and hear something else every time, and it only took twelve days to make. We had a week in a rehearsal studio and we'd gotten five numbers done, a couple of them in the first two days, and it was going so well that it snowballed from there. Apart from the mixing it was an enjoyable album to make; the mix can murder the thing, as everybody knows, because the mix is what people listen to, not the 16 track blasting out.
Did you originally enlist George because of his involvement with the Beatles?
No, that was a very slight attractive point about him. I bore it in mind that he had done the Beatles thing, and therefore assumed that he'd be confident enough to do anything else that came along. But I didn't specifically choose him for that reason, I just wanted someone levelheaded, not a young with-it whipper-snapper who just wants to take the money. He's not a square by any means, he can sit and criticise your music and praise it when necessary and that's what a producer should do, and there aren't many of them about.
For my sort of stuff it's very difficult to find a producer, because I don't come in with sheet music and say 'Right, where's the artist?' and get in and get out. I wait for something to happen and pick up the threads.
How was Don Nix as a producer?
When he was awake, you mean? Most of the time he was fast asleep. Or out on some rocking chair outside a ranch in Dallas with his cowboy hat slumped over his head. He's not a producer.
You did a BB&A album with Jimmy Miller, didn't you?
That rubbish is still in the can. The sound was appalling and the material was shitty, so I didn't see the purpose of releasing it. The first BB&A album didn't do anything for me, it did nothing for my career whatsoever. It sold a lot of albums, but that's about all. We tried to produce BB&A ourselves after the first failure, that time with a bloke called Geoff Haslam. It was equally disastrous.
When did you produce the Upp album?
Slightly before I made Blow By Blow
... actually quite a while ago, really, almost two years ago. They're very amazing, nice voice. It was great, it was the first time I'd been able to lend a hand to somebody that needed it. It was important that they got moving in the right direction. I played down my role as the guitarist, I didn't want to make a big splash about it.
What kind of things do you listen to at home?
I only play about one or two tracks of an album, and then I make up a cassette of my own favourites. Stevie Wonder. I get fed up with just about everybody.
Do you listen to any guitarists?
No, most guitarists annoy me. I listen to Stanley Clarke and Jan Hammer. I like real musicians, not the poseurs who buy suits and fancy guitars. There haven't been any good guitarists around for the past five years, no one really emerging. Mind you, I don't get to see that sort of talent anyway, all I see is rubbish... I turn the TV on and it's rubbish, and we have no radio in England, just a little noise that comes out every two minutes.
The Bay City Rollers...
I don't mind that, there's got to be a market for kids under three. 24 hours a day airplay for the Bay City Rollers... and they can't play a half-hour of good music, even Beethoven or something. And Pirate Radio, the first few weeks they're on the air they play some really way out sounds, and all of a sudden you start getting dropsys from the DJs and the rot starts in. And they think we don't know about it.
One of the things that's always amazed me about you is your ability to stay on top while moving in new directions. What inspires you to play?
It's in your blood, there's nothing like going on stage and blasting away. And to have it enjoyed
. It wouldn't be so good otherwise, if no one liked it, I wouldn't bother. I'm only here because I hope people like it. If I was twice as good and there were a dozen people in the audience that hated what I was doing, I couldn't go on. In a crowd of 20,000 I'd be upset if there was one guy in the front given me the bird. It goes to my heart, I'm a human being. If it's shitty don't boo, just walk out... it hurts a lot more if people are booing than if there's nobody there.
Do you play a guitar a lot if you're not on stage?
Yeah, but there are always things to be done around the house. I've got a bunch of old cars that I play around with. I haven't actually built
any for two and a half years, but I keep them in immaculate condition all the time. It's a masculine side of me coming out, but it goes out the window when I think about music. I just put grease all over 'em and keep them stored away.
Do you have a guitar collection as well?
I used to, but it keeps getting whittled down by these thieves. I've got two old Esquires, one with a neck and one without. I've taken off the old pick-ups and put Gibson Humbuckings on, it's just a bit hard to play, like a Strat. I'll be playing a Strat later on in the tour, but as it's just the beginning of the tour, I thought it would be best to stick with an easier guitar.
Do you ever listen to your records after you make them?
Nyah. Max plays the album all the time, and it gets on my nerves. By the time you've finished it, you've heard it enough times, and then you go through a period when you don't hear it. After that, when you first hear it, it sounds nice. The secondary period you listen to it, and then you don't want to hear it anymore. And then you've got to play it onstage.
This is the first album in awhile where you haven't written most of the material yourself... how does that feel?
Actually on the early albums I didn't always write the tunes myself, we did that for the simplicity of publishing. I'd publish the songs and give them their share... rather than having it split up because they didn't have a publishing deal. Most of the songs were me and Max.
How do you feel about one of your former trainees, Ron Wood, playing with the Rolling Stones?
I don't want to talk about it. There's no music there. As you get older you just don't want to hear that rubbish anymore. The Rolling Stones are finished, as far as I'm concerned, and they admit it as well. If only someone would play on their records and show them how to play some more chords, that's all. It was great when they first started, but ten years later they're still doing the same thing.
Ever hear a guitarist by the name of Tommy Bolin?
Yes. He's very good. Plays really nicely on the Billy Cobham album. Sometimes sounds a bit like me.
A little like you and a little like Ritchie Blackmore as well.
There's always that danger because Blackmore and I were playing the same sort of stuff twelve years ago, when all these other groups were playing at weddings with bow ties. That's why I like that scene, I'm glad it's still around. It's very easy to make records and get all the girlies, but we were doing that before any of them.