By Dave Thompson
Even today, a decade after its release, Who Else! is an astonishingly contemporary-sounding record, the kind of disc that, had it come spinning out at us from among the wunderkind godheads of modern techno (whoever they may be in these dark and faceless days), would be held up as one of the sonic achievements of the age.
Yet Beck had only just started, as he then put his mind toward devising a live show that could do the album justice, working out “some sort of presentation which is not twee or naff,” he said at the time, “but which looks good and enables me to get the point across visually and musically. Really, I can’t imagine anything worse than sitting in the back row of some huge auditorium, hearing this big noise coming out of the speakers, which is totally out of scale with the size of the guy on stage. It must get very boring after a while.”
It must. It does. But somehow, Jeff Beck has never, ever, fallen into that trap. Even while the paint was drying on the Jan Hammer live album, there was that sublime slide through The Beatles’ “She’s A Woman” to blast all the cobwebs into oblivion; even during the screeching sub-Creamisms of the Beck, Bogert & Appice shows, there’d be a “Morning Dew” or “I’m So Proud” to remind you why you bothered going in the first place.
The second Beck Group album was a bit of a stinker, but Truth remains one of the greatest LPs ever cut. And across Who Else!, and the two albums that succeeded it, 2001’s similarly beats-laden You Had It Coming and ’03’s Jeff, there were moments when the mood changes so abruptly, so completely, that you wondered whether you’d ever become accustomed to everything that was going on.
Some things, of course, do remain the same. “If the voice don’t say it, the guitar will play it,” rapped Saffron on Jeff’s “Pork-U-Pine,” a message that not only held true across that album, but which also underpins every other record Beck has ever made. In fact, the only regret is that Beck has still not followed up on this remarkable triumvirate; has now kept us waiting six years for his return to the studio that he so effortlessly transformed into his own electrifying playhouse.
His last three albums have been live — 2006’s Live Beck (recorded in 2003), 2007’s Official Bootleg USA 2006 and last year’s Performing This Week … Live at Ronnie Scott’s. All three, of course, are majestic, with the latter blossoming even further over the course of a just-released DVD. Beck may look a little older than you wish he did (although he’s a lot better preserved than some of his peers), and maybe his playing isn’t quite as spontaneous as it used to be … from a purely academic point of view, it’s worth pointing out that Official Bootleg and Performing This Week have no less than 11 songs in common, ranging from old favorites “Beck’s Bolero” and “Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers,” through to the Who Else! masterpiece “Angel (Footsteps).”
But still it’s undeniably Geoffrey Arnold Beck, and simply being in the presence of the master reminds us how important he is. For, beyond the powers of any other living guitarist, and above the reputations of any dead one, Jeff Beck remains the only guitar player whose prowess you could stake your life on. And all we can say to the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame is — what took you so long? He should have been inducted on day one.