Steve Rosen unravels more of the mystery surrounding Beck.
Jeff Beck, perhaps more than any other guitarist who came out of the late sixties in England, has carried on that great tradition of viable and creative guitar work. From the debut Truth album to the most recent Blow By Blow, his playing has been typified by elan and disregard for convention. Like his playing, the Beck personality is one which has created considerable dialogue over the years; moody, and never satisfied with a finished project, Jeff is a difficult man to talk with. But in this conversation he proved to be an accessible and honest character and while he may still remain a puzzle to many, at least we now have a few more pieces to work with.
Did you specifically set out to do an all-instrumental album?
I realized that another vocal album would be out of the question because there weren't any vocalists available, none that I liked, and I also wanted to go directly onto an instrumental guitar album. Max (Middleton) became available after working with different groups. He was working with Jack Bruce, and he and I got together. He came down and we put down a track in a little studio by my house and it worked, it clicked just like that.
I was fresh from BB&A and violently on top of the thing and Max was putting his lush chords behind it and it seemed to go off. I said, 'Why don't we put an album together?' He said yeah and I said 'Where we gonna get a drummer suitable for recording... not one of these basher stage drummers'. And he said 'I know a great guy (Richard Bailey)' and he turned up and he was great. We used a bass player who sort of cemented the three things together (Phillip Chenn) without shouting and trying to be too out-front all the time.
Which of the material came together first?
Well I had 'Scatterbrain' in the can for about two years but it was only the melody; I used to do that as an exercise and we just moved up the same figure and put different chords to it. I wanted to do it as a disco song with a really James Brown rhythm because I love the way that guy on the rhythm guitar sounds. And before we knew it, we had three tracks and they were really nice sounding and it just sort of materialised from there. It didn't look like much was going to happen until a week had gone by and then things started to fall into shape. We didn't plan out the album at all... that's the way I like to work. I figure if a player's not contributing what he should be then something's wrong. I think that's the way to do it, go into the studio and play it better.
Is most of the material on Blow By Blow a first-take?
Most of the stuff on the album is first-take. Some of the solos are; the one on 'Freeway Jam' is a total mono, boom, straight down with the exception of a piano dub on the fade because the fade got a bit messy so we cleaned it up. I did several takes on 'Scatterbrain'; the reggae one ('She's A Woman') was right off the cuff, that was a first take.
How did you like working with George Martin?
Excellent, really good, a very objective person to have around. I wouldn't say he completely comprehended what I was doing but then I didn't either. He put the album in perspective and I think that's what a producer should do; he controlled any wild ideas we had and pushed them out the window if they weren't going to be conducive to what we already had down there.
Weren't you originally going to do all the parts yourself?
Yeah. I've done half of another album but I really don't want to release it. When there's players like Richard Bailey and Phil Chenn around I just don't want to scrap around on the drums. I want to wait until I get really good on the drums; I can play the bass but I can't play very good drums. I'm gonna get a drum kit when I move into my new house and spend a year practising the drums. I know what I want to do but I just can't tell the drummer. It's like Stevie Wonder, his songs are conceived and then they're executed just the way he wants them. And that's the way you should hear 'em, because if there's any breakdown of communication between the players during the cutting of the thing, it's not what he wanted, is it? You're settling for second best then.
Was 'Thelonius' the song Stevie had written for BB&A?
No, he wrote that for me when I was with the old Jeff Beck Group with Cozy (Powell). But I put it on the shelf... saved it for a rainy day, a rainy day album. As a matter of fact, I'm due to go back and play some more with him on his new album. He's got a really good song for me to play on.
Were you surprised with the success of Blow By Blow?
Absolutely flabbergasted! I expected it maybe in the 30's but it went mad, it went to number four in Billboard. It's outsold all the other albums I've done in about six weeks. The others are taking off as well; the Truth album is still selling, it's still listed and marketed and Beck Ola is still selling.
Do you think your playing on the album is some of the best you've done?
Yeah, yeah, oh yeah. I couldn't play much better than that at the time. I'm using my Les Paul and Strat on the album; I use the Strat on 'Freeway Jam,' for the vibrato arm. And that's good on stage because you can whang it and really get things going. I like to frighten people, frighten myself with the noises coming out. But that's what it's for — the guy that designed that guitar had that in mind.
Where does all the funk and jazz and country influence come from? The album has a little bit of everything on it.
They're just past influences, I don't know. I tried to vary the album, it didn't take much to do it because I just didn't want a concept album. I didn't want to do a theme and have one side almost the same and then the other side... I wanted to hear a lot of different medias and textures. I just dragged out everything I could do at the time. I enjoyed making it... there was an air of importance about the project. But it wasn't, 'C'mon you bastard, two years we've been waiting.' I just sort of developed this nonchalance towards responsibility which is terrible but at the same time if I can work better without the pressure, then I will. Now I've got the responsibility around my shoulders, it's going to be a bit weird. I'm really looking forward to the next album if it's going to get this kind of attention.
Another instrumental album?
Yeah, oh yeah, why not? I fail to see the purpose of putting a singer on my stuff.
You didn't make Blow By Blow just to prove to people you could do it?
Not at all, no, I did it because I wanted to do it. I wanted to hear something other than raw chords. Max has probably got the most comprehensive knowledge of chords that I've ever heard anywhere; he can place a note in a chord and change the whole feel of it, the whole meaning of it.
Whose idea was it to put Beck and Mahavishnu together on the same tour?
Nat Weiss handles John back in New York and he's a close friend of my manager and they're always talking about what I'm doing and what John's doing and they said, 'Would you fancy a double-bill tour?' and I just leapt at it because I was just on the verge of getting into that stuff. There's no way that the two musics are compatible but that wasn't the idea of the tour; the idea of the tour was to try in the worst way to break away from the white cop-out rock and roll licks. The audiences aren't in conflict though; he's never had a really rough time and we've had a great time. Either we've both had a sort of poor show or both had a great show. Some people leave during his thing because they enjoy it, but they hear a half-hour of it and that's enough. If you're really into it, you can stay and watch an hour. Our numbers are a lot shorter and a lot less involved, so the time seems to go a lot quicker.
How do you think people's impressions of you have changed after this album?
Well, I've been whirling around in aeroplanes most of the time, though I've had some nice vibes off it.
The band you work with on the road is different than the one on the album.
Yeah, there's Bernard Purdie on drums, Max, and Wilbur Bascombe on bass, they're just backing me up — it's purely featuring the guitar really. This is the way it's got to be for the promotion of this album; you know I couldn't get strings on the road, it's worthless to take ten strings on the road for just one number. So I think we've done a great job in picking up the licks from the arrangements in such a short time. I mean there's acres of room for improvement and I'm going to make the improvement but under these circumstances, the tour is going very well.
Is Carmine Appice on some of the original takes on the album?
Yeah, but then his manager got silly and wanted his name in bigger letters all over the front of the cover. I couldn't understand, he blew it; it was my solo album and I was asking him to play drums as a guest drummer and they just got silly.
What was the story about you joining the Stones?
Well, I got a call from Keith Richard and he acted like he had known me for twenty years. And he asked me to come over and play and I thought it just meant kill a weekend. So I thought, 'Well, it would be nice to spend a couple days in Rotterdam'. I went over there, and I found out they wanted me to join. I couldn't believe that. I mean, the money was tempting, I could have made a fortune and never have to work again but I would have been half dead and my reputation would have been shot. I think things have worked out better this way... I couldn't be happier really.
How did you come to play with Billy Preston and Buddy Miles on that In Concert show?
Well, I met Billy with the Stones over in Rotterdam and I played with him for about half a minute and he just got off the synthesizer and started boogeying around and laughing. And he left and I thought, 'Perhaps I wasn't playing too well'. Apparently he was knocked out and went away to the phone and he rang up somebody and wanted to use me on the show. So he flew me and Max out here first class. And I wanted to see what this black thing was all about, I wanted to check it out.
Recently they also showed the David Bowie special on television, with you playing with him in England.
I'm suing him at the moment. They said 'We are filming but you have the right to refuse any use of the film'. And I said 'I'll see what it turns out like', and I went to the viewing and I thought, 'Oh, God'. I never saw my bit because there was about five reels before it and I said, 'Please don't use it'. They said, 'OK, if that's your attitude', boom, and I thought because they were upset and all very abrupt that they weren't going to use it. You know what I mean, they sounded like they were really pissed off because they couldn't use it. And the very next weekend it's gone out. What can you do?
I mean there's a law that says you have the right to refuse any film that's been made of you. I mean, it could be detrimental to my career. I didn't think it was that, but I didn't think it would be any advantage to me at all. There again I've been used. He just thought, 'Mick Ronson likes Jeff Beck's playing', and as a good gesture to Ronson, he said, 'I'll get him along'. It wasn't for my benefit, mate, no way. Ronson is potentially good but he can't make up his own things, he's always... he sounds a bit like me. But then anyone with a Les Paul who bends strings and plays loud... I've been doing it for ten years, twelve years.
Have you started work on your next album?
I've barely scratched the surface because I've been busy rehearsing this material. But I'd like to have it done by about the middle of September, or at least well underway.
What do you think of Jimmy Page's work?
I'm sorry I can't help you... I wouldn't be fair to myself if I made any excuse for him. I saw the show and I thought they were filth. It sounds like somebody paralysed his arms or something but it don't matter if he plays anymore. If he's there and the occasional foot stomp come out...
Do you talk to Rod Stewart at all?
No, not interested. He's gone right round the bend... silk trousers and silly hats. It seems like they all have, the Faces, the Stones — not so much the Stones, because I have an affection for them in a funny sort of way.
Do you still remember Eel Pie Island?
Yeah, I remember that, that was good. That was my first introduction to this dreadful scene. I had a little combo from Richmond but they were good though; we had a guy who used to play the harmonica like Little Walter, an unbelievable Blues player. And a little drummer who was seventeen or eighteen or something. Every group knew every other group by name and by every sort of detail. There was a hot interest then. I suppose it's like if you invented something now and it swept the nation you'd be hot for it because it's something you were part of from the beginning.
Have you seen Eric Clapton recently?
No, not at all, I haven't seen Eric since three years ago, at the Reading Festival where he was just wandering around in the dark. I haven't seen him in concert for four or five years. I heard 461 Ocean Boulevard, but I always seem to be involved with somebody at the time and never seem to get to listen to him.
Do you think your album will have much impact on the music scene?
Can't tell really, can you? On other players? In this country maybe, but certainly not in England; there's no channel in which I can fit into in order to elevate my music. There's just simply no outlet; you've got one programme which deals with rock and the guy's pretty well misinformed about everything. He just swats up on it immediately before the show, the usual old crap, he doesn't know anything about people's roots. And it's rather sad... unlike the jazz days, when everybody used to rally around, and when they'd be interviewed the interviewer would probably know as much or more about this player... 'Say, what about the time you played with so-and-so?'
You don't get those conversations anymore, merely because most of the groups are factory made or as good as... they're dreamed up over some desk in an office. The Bay City Rollers, ahh. Why do they have to play music? Why can't they just go and be idiots somewhere else and go join a circus? Because they would be just as popular with girls, but just don't drag music into it. Please.
Is there anything new that you like?
Oh, I like Stanley Clarke... there's just some great players around and I'm just keeping track on them. Jan Hammer from the Mahavishnu Orchestra; not that album (Hammer/Goodman album), I don't particularly like his album but the stuff he does with McLaughlin is unreal. And Billy Cobham, Kool & The Gang... that sort of stuff is OK on the radio but I wouldn't go see it in concert.
So you're really not into the white English rock scene at all?
No, I never have been. I had to be involved in it because they dictated that you go on the same bill and everything but I've always been leaning towards black and R & B music. Because after all, that's where most of the music comes from, most of my type of music. Trace it back about two steps and you'll find a Blues player is involved somewhere, usually Chicago blues players.
Would you like to go back and record at Chess Studios?
One day... not right now.
Have you been to Europe with the band?
No, I haven't yet and I'm not sure I will. I just never felt any common relationship with them. The people over here the things that knock me out seem to knock them out. What does my music have in common with Germans; or Swedes? All they are are sort of overseers; they just see what goes on in the rest of the world... I mean, I'm not saying they don't have any rights to enjoy it but they have no heritage in it, no roots. So how can they possibly appreciate it as much?
Do you think you're more popular in the States than you are in England?
O yeah, much, much more. I'm known but I never play there. And if you don't plug, plug, plug all the time or have a hit record, people just don't think you're any good. That's how narrow-minded they are; the working class people that buy the records and make up the numbers that make a hit would say to me, 'Yeah, you used to be big one time when you had 'Silver Lining' out'. I mean, 'Silver Lining' in itself was a failure to me, but that was the height of my career to them. It's absolutely ridiculous. So why am I gonna waste my life trying to convert them?
You liked working with George Martin a little more than Mickie Most?
(laughter) A little more, yeah; it's nice to work with somebody who knows a Gb from an A minor. I hear all the little things in the album because I know how it's done but on the whole it doesn't sound too bad.
Here's a candid question: do you think you're one of the more...
(interrupts) Oh, I don't know — if you think so then I'll be happy. I think I try as hard as anyone tries. All I want is to try and put something to the audience's attention so they can either take it or leave it. I'm not gonna cram anything down the audience's throat. It's a waste of time, it's like trying to pull a chick who ain't into ya.
Was Blow By Blow your title?
No, actually, I don't know where that came from. I think George (Martin) had something to do with it. I didn't like it at first but when you hear it over and over again it starts to make sense.
Interview by Steve Rosen
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