Rock Hall Class of ’09: ‘Who Else’ but Jeff Beck? Part 3

By  Dave Thompson

(Rob Simeon)

(Rob Simeon)
Instrumentation takes center stage

The tours which followed through the mid-1970s did more than feed Beck’s ego, however.

They also pinpointed a musical direction he had never seriously considered, one in which the instrumentation was the star, and the instrumentalists were simply the vehicles which carried it to the stage. And once he was joined by Dutch percussion genius Jan Hammer, early into the Wired sessions, suddenly the sky was the limit.

Credited to Jeff Beck with the Jan Hammer Group, a 1977 live album (the adventurously titled Live) remains one of those albums which one either loves with scientific passion … or loathes with the hatred normally reserved for watching a couple of computer geeks discussing the best way to upgrade their operating system. Technically it’s brilliant. But it ain’t rock ’n’ roll.

Beck acknowledges this, but only gently. 

“The ’70s were the perfectionist times, where everybody did spend months and months of time doing ridiculous amounts of tweaking and preening the record, and it didn’t really appeal to me, that stuff,” says Beck. “We made Truth in two weeks, Beck-Ola in four days, and I do miss that kind of schedule now. I loved it, because the hysterical pressure is what’s lacking nowadays.

Everybody’s in slippers and pipes, and they can take five years over one guitar solo, and that’s not my cup of tea at all. If Little Richard had done that with ‘Lucille,’ ‘Lucille’ wouldn’t have existed. Or ‘Hound Dog.’ I know Elvis used to do 25 takes, but it was 25 takes all in one day, not spread out over six months. I like the danger and excitement elements, and that’s very hard to get.”

Three new albums over the next 10 years saw him inching back toward that kind of ideal, and the Gene Vincent tribute, Crazy Legs, at least gave the impression of manic spontaneity. But Beck is convinced that Who Else! — despite its decade-long gestation — was the album that truly returned him to basics.

“There’s more of me on Who Else! than on any other album I’d ever made,” he insists. “There was more decision making, more packing and slicing, more saying yes and no than I’ve ever done before. In the past, you see, I was playing with great players, and …” and with the specter of the Jan Hammer era again looming over his shoulder … “I was letting them have the run of the show. There’s a certain code within me; I can’t just turn around and tell them to shut up and do what I want them to.” 

But now, he could. “This time around,” he says, “it’s my turn to run things, and I’m making the most of it.” It was Beck who thought of adding a vacuum cleaner to the intro of “Psycho Sam”; Beck who came up with the 7/8 time signature which powered “Blast From The East.” But his incentives were not wholly musical. 

In an unguarded moment, he admits that money isn’t quite as plentiful as it might be; that a succession of dodgy contracts during his youth have ensured he sees very little from the succession of hits (and subsequent hit compilations) he enjoyed with The Yardbirds and in the first flush of solo success. Indeed, one early contract was so lopsided that Led Zeppelin manager Peter Grant actually had it hanging on his office wall, “framed as a joke … he’s dead now, but it’s probably still lurking around somewhere, as a warning to other aspiring young musicians.”

Peter Frampton, one of Beck’s ’60s/’70s superstar contemporaries, once explained, “When you’re young, someone wants to give you money to make music — of course you’re going to say yes. You’re not thinking of this as a career; you’re not thinking, ‘Ooh, will I get paid for these records when I’m old and gray?’ And neither were the people you were signing with. It was something which was happening at the time, in the moment; nobody knew that in 30, 40 years time, people would be reissuing all those records on CD, and if you’d told them, they wouldn’t have believed you.  Now, of course, it’s happening, and people are making money off those records, and it can be galling. But you have to put it behind you, and get on with what you’re doing now, making money in the present, rather than trying to live off your past.”

Wise words, and — peering out from behind a mountain of Yardbirds compilations, repackaging and recycling three years worth of devastating creativity, with very little reward for its builders — Beck not only agrees with them, he’s living them. 

“A lot of people think of me as being something from the ’60s,” he explained, and he hasn’t played with The Yardbirds since 1966. “I doubt I’d even remember how to, anymore. I’ve moved on so many times since then.” Who Else! was the sound of him moving on even further.

Stay tuned for Part 4!

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