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Jeff Beck, Death of a Guitar Hero

By Marc Zisman |

Stratocaster in hand, the Briton was an eclectic genius capable of shining in the most brutal rock as well as the grooviest jazz-fusion. He was as essential a player as Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton or Jimmy Page in the history of music.

The history of rock is full of aliens. Extraordinary creators. Lonely geniuses... Even if we can easily classify Jeff Beck as a guitar hero, the Briton, who died on January 10th 2023 at the age of 78, victim of a devastating bacterial meningitis, was much more than that. An alien, to be sure, but above all a free spirit. The opposite of a follower. The true creator. The one who blows up codes and stylistic boundaries and doesn't care about fashions... Jeff Beck succeeded in imposing himself as much on the front of the British 60's rock scene as on the jazz-fusion planet. All this without ever forgetting to kneel before blues, rockabilly and even soul music.

First there was the Yardbirds era, a mythical combo that from '62 to '68 was home to the UK's three finest guns: Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and Geoffrey Arnold Beck, born on June 24th 1944 at 206 Demesne Road, Wallington, Surrey. Although the three virtuosos did not all operate simultaneously, the band did more than play the basic blues/rhythm'n'blues card like most of their competitors. Released in the summer of '66, Over Under Sideways Down (also known as Roger the Engineer according to the tracklisting) marked the departure of the bluesy Clapton and the arrival of the mad Beck (in March 1965, at only 21!) symbolised by Jeff's Boogie. With the good Beck, the Yardbirds moved away from the classic British electric blues swamp to sniff out psychedelia and the sonic, and especially guitaristic, experimentation that would lead them to the doorstep of what would become hard rock. These Yardbirds even dared to experiment with Indian influences, as well as a kind of avant-garde noise! Apart from the early Who, there are hardly any other 60's combos as carnivorous...

The Yardbirds Springboard In his twenties, with a passion for guitarists named Les Paul, Cliff Gallup (guitarist of Gene Vincent's Blue Caps), B. B. King, Steve Cropper and Lonnie Mack, Jeff Beck is simply breathtaking in Blow-Up. Pop culture has remembered this mythical scene from Michelangelo Antonioni's 1966 film where Beck, backed by Jimmy Page in a London club, smashes his guitar on stage against an amp and then on the floor, in front of an astonished audience. "Antonioni wanted me to destroy my guitar! I told him it was out of the question, so they found me a cheap model so I could shoot the scene." He left the Yardbirds in 1967 to go solo and found the Jeff Beck Group with Rod Stewart on the microphone, Ron Wood on bass, Nicky Hopkins on piano and Aynsley Dunbar on drums, soon replaced by Micky Waller. Two marvels would follow: Truth in 1968 and especially Beck-Ola the following year.

At the end of the '60s, the roars of Zeppelin and the biceps of Cream placed rock'n'roll in a heavyweight category that was becoming increasingly popular. With Beck-Ola, Jeff Beck and his Group hardly skimped on the decibels and... invented hard rock? The former Yardbirds artificer, a crazy all-rounder on the six-string, deploys here a powerful and very inspired playing that partners Rod the Mod's brilliant rales with the dream teammate. And since these people have values, they pay tribute to the King (Jailhouse Rock and All Shook Up in azimuth versions). In this madness, Beck dares to play groovy funk blues (Plynth (Water Down the Drain)) and even lets the great Nicky Hopkins launch into a sublime solo piano ballad (Girl From Mill Valley). An uncontrollable record with Magritte's 1958 painting of The Listening Room on its cover, Beck-Ola shows above all how the British blues scene has matured nicely.

A Free and Coveted Guitarist Jeff Beck was a genius who attracted a lot of attention, but who was also frightening. Legend has it that Pink Floyd thought of him to replace Syd Barrett, and the Rolling Stones to do the same after the death of Brian Jones... During the '70s, Beck breathed more groove into his playing, playing with the Funk Brothers (studio musicians from the Motown label) as well as the Vanilla Fudge rhythm section (bassist Tim Bogert and drummer Carmine Appice) or drummer Cozy Powell. A funky flavoured orientation that was to be tasted on the album Rough and Ready (1971) and Jeff Beck Group (1972). The British guitarist remained at the top of the charts between 1972 and 1974 thanks to the power trio Beck, Bogert & Appice, with whom he recorded a mythical album of the same name, which was released in the spring of 1973 and once again asserted his passion for soul through two covers: Stevie Wonder's Superstition and Curtis Mayfield's I'm So Proud.

The rest is just like the man himself: surprising and stunning! Jeff Beck became even more passionate about groove and, with the times, jumped on the jazz-fusion bandwagon. With Blow by Blow in March 1975, he signed a jazz-rock masterpiece in the company of Max Middleton on keyboards, Phil Chen on bass, Richard Bailey on drums and George Martin, orphan of the Beatles, on production! Even better: Stevie Wonder is on the Clavinet on Thelonius and helps with writing on Cause We've Ended as Lovers! Jazz-rock again and again, a year later, with Wired (concocted with former Mahavishnu Orchestra drummer Narada Michael Walden and keyboardist Jan Hammer) and Jeff Beck with the Jan Hammer Group Live in 1977. Other more anecdotal but interesting records followed (There & Back in 1980, Flash in 1985 and Jeff Beck's Guitar Shop in 1989) before Beck surprised his fans once again in 1993 with Crazy Legs, an album entirely dedicated to the idol of his youth, Cliff Gallup, the great rockabilly artificer of Gene Vincent's band, Blue Caps.

Later, Jeff Beck would do everything (and sometimes anything) but invariably retain the integrity of his freedom. In addition to his own albums, he was regularly invited to perform and record by all the biggest stars: David Bowie offered him as a guest at certain concerts, Mick Jagger entrusted him with the guitars on his first two solo albums (She's the Boss in 1985 and Primitive Cool in 1987), Stevie Wonder did the same on Lookin' for Another Pure Love on Talking Book (1972), as did Stanley Clarke, Buddy Guy, Rod Stewart, Seal, Duff McKagan, the Pretenders, Tina Turner, Kate Bush, Jon Bon Jovi, Roger Waters, Morrissey and Dion. Not forgetting, a few months before he left us, an improbable duet album with the actor Johnny Depp, 18, released in the summer of 2022. A legend who is gone, but will never be forgotten.

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