By Dave Thompson
The first, back in 1988, saw him become part of an all-star band (the Stones, Dylan, Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, George Harrison and more) that jammed somewhat discordantly through a clutch of sainted oldies. It was, Beck later shuddered, “horrendous.”
The second time came when The Yardbirds were inducted in 1992, but when the remainder of the decade passed by without a third knock on the door, Beck — and his fans — could be excused for thinking that the boat had sailed. If he wasn’t going to be honored then, with so many magnificent albums already behind him, he was hardly likely to come to the nominating committee’s attention now.
Nobody could have guessed that he was about to launch his most astonishing sequence of albums since his mid-1970s peak; nor that, a full 17 years later, Beck would again be preparing to make the journey to Cleveland.
Beck will finally receive that long overdue induction April 4, but he does so not as some fossilized relic of the audience’s misbegotten youth. He does so as an artist who, not content with having cast such a foreboding shadow over the last third of the 20th century, then extended that into the 21st as well. And there really are not many other artists of his — shall we say — vintage (he is 64) of whom the same can be said.
It was not the first time, of course, that Beck so dismantled everybody else’s predictions.
In the late 1960s, while he and Rod Stewart led the first, and greatest, incarnation of the Jeff Beck Group to proto-metal bluesbreaking glory, Beck alone doubled as a teenybop pop idol, taking the likes of “Hi Ho Silver Lining” and “Love Is Blue” to the toppermost of the British chart poppermost.
Through the 1970s, when the world was crying out for the raw rock electrics which he, alone, was capable of wringing out of a guitar, he meandered off into jazz-fusion territory.
And in 1999, while peers as venerable as Paul McCartney and Eric Clapton foundered toothlessly in the comforting armchairs of their reputations, Beck emerged with a new album that made The Prodigy sound like they were queuing for their pensions, and left Underworld in the undergrowth. He called it Who Else! and, being as there was probably nobody else who could have pulled it off so well, it was very aptly named. Who else, indeed?
“I wanted to make an album that would salute everything that I’d absorbed from people like Bjork and the Prodigy,” Beck admits. “That was the starting point. There was a lot going on in the techno field, a lot of great stuff, but a lot of it … I was hearing some fantastic rhythm tracks, but that’s all a lot of it was, great rhythm tracks with nothing on top. So I decided to do something about it.”
Recorded with keyboard player and longtime sideman Tony Hymas, guitarist Jennifer Batten (best known at that time for her onstage stint with Michael Jackson), bassist Randy Hope-Taylor and sometime Duran Duran drummer Steve Alexander, Who Else! was born out of a single question that has haunted Beck for most of the previous 20 years, and that still underlines many of his more bizarre career moves as well.
“What the hell do you do to impress anybody these days? That’s what kept Tony and I going in a way, trying to come up with something fresh and exciting, which would make people go ‘wow,’ but which wouldn’t just appeal because it was clever, or because no one had done it before. It had to be alive,” explains Beck.
Who Else! was certainly that. Filmmaker Peter Richardson heard it, then told Beck that he thought it was precisely the kind of record that Jimi Hendrix would be making, if he were alive today. And an overjoyed Beck admits, “I thought that was the ultimate compliment, because when Hendrix first came along …”
When Hendrix first came along, in London in 1966, Beck was the king of the hill. Up there with Clapton, his predecessor in The Yardbirds, and Jimmy Page, his successor, Beck was the proverbial cat’s pajamas, the fastest, the flashiest, the greatest thing on six strings in the country. In fact, one night at the Saville Theatre in London, he came onstage with 12 strings, a Telecaster tuned to the unplumbed depths of D, “ … and afterwards, Pete Townshend came back and said, ‘the best thing about tonight was the sound of your 12-string Tele.’ No one had ever done that, it was very low and gritty, a real f**k-off sound. It was like a bloody 10-piece orchestra; it was so powerful, and so absolutely happening. Townshend was watching, and he was wetting himself!” says Beck.
But when Hendrix turned up, “for someone like me, he was a bloody disaster, for no other reason than he took over the guitar, lock, stock and barrel, and ‘you lot can all piss off, I’m doing this gig now,’” recalls Beck. “And for me, it was my gig he took away! I couldn’t do any fancy stuff on guitar, for fear of being called a rip-off of him, and that had to be considered big time.
“But when he and I became sort of drinking partners in New York, and playing together a lot, I realized that if he could say he enjoyed what I did, that was enough for me. So it was kind of with his blessing that I carried on. Which is why when Peter [Richardson] said that about the album, it meant so much.”
Who Else! broke what had been an absurdly fallow time for Beck fans. All three of the albums he released during the previous decade were either soundtrack (1993’s Frankie’s House), tribute (the same year’s Gene Vincent-inspired Crazy Legs) or odd cooperatives (1989’s Guitar Shop). And Beck was among the first to admit that was a fairly shoddy return for 10 years.
“I get recognized, infrequently, when I’m out in London … I go ‘oh yeah, I’m Jeff Beck. I’d better go home and do something about it.’ There were many reasons for doing Who Else!, and it was no mean feat to get it done, I can tell you that. But I think the main thing was, I realized that if I didn’t do something soon, it would be too late. They say it’s never too late to play, but in this game, once you lose your grip, you lose it. I don’t think you can scrabble back.”
At the same time, though, he acknowledges that sometimes, the very motivation to play is away on vacation.
“I do get fed up with playing, sometimes, although I try not to let it get me down, because if that goes, I’ve got nothing,” says Beck. “I can’t make money doing anything else! And I do get depressed when I see hundreds of guitar magazines, and I’m not in them. The office has a habit of leaving them lying around when I’m there, and I’ll flick through them and … ‘this bastard’s got no right to be on the front cover!’ It’s just one of those funny things.”
Work on Who Else! was completed, fittingly enough, on Christmas Eve, 1998. “Unbelievable! What a Christmas present! I actually got the first pressing back on Christmas Eve.” But Beck actually began thinking about it, in some form at least, long before that.
“If you want to take it all the way back,” Beck explains. “I started — restarted — the momentum in 1989 with Terry Bozzio, and the Guitar Shop album, which got a lot of response. But we missed the boat with the album a little bit, and even more sinful was not following through with another one sooner, which meant that we had to go out in 1995, 1996, without a bloody album, on a monstrous long tour with Santana.”
That tour, across America through the summer of 1995, was generally regarded as an absolute triumph. The New York Daily News review, which Beck’s record company probably still has pinned to the wall, insisted that Beck’s solos, “at one moment glistening and sweet, at another ruthless and fleet … communicated the fullness of a human voice.” Beck, however, has less than fond memories of the excursion.
“It went down really well, but if it hadn’t have gone great, I think I’d probably have packed it all in then. From my point of view, it was very pedestrian, the whole thing. We were double headlining — I was headlining one night and opening the next — and in all of those 46 gigs, no one came across with a single new riff. And then, after the tour finished, everybody disappeared into the woods. Tony [Hymas] was so sick of hearing me belly-aching about new material that he went off and did some jazz thing, and when I nailed him about two years after that, I said, ‘come on, let’s have some tunes.’ He wrote some fantastic things and some junk, but there was not an album there. I just couldn’t see going into the studio on day one with a game plan, so we still have a load of stuff lying on the floor that will never be used.
“The other thing was, my tastes were changing rapidly.” Speaking shortly after the album’s release, he explained, “In the last year even, they’ve changed a lot; they focus more on what I could get away with in outrage. I’m fed up with mediocrity. I don’t care if I use great chunks of grooves from some other records in samples, if it drives me to play more, in a different way or in a special way, then that’s the way it’s done.”
In fact, there was only one outside sample to be found anywhere on Who Else!, a snatch of dialogue from the “It’s A Mad Mad, Mad, Mad World” movie, incorporated into the opening “What Mama Said.” But the overall feel of the album was indeed of electronics gone mad, a driving techno frenzy smashing itself against the walls of Steve Alexander’s live drumming and Beck’s paint-blistering guitar.
“Technology is the gauntlet which the last few years have thrown down to musicians,” Beck believes. “But really, it’s the same as it’s always been. Get past the gimmicks, get past the funny noises which everyone knows you can make, and find the core sound. Once you’ve got that, you can do anything.”