Jeff Beck and The English Guitarist
This last week saw the passing of Jeff Beck, one of my favorite guitarists of all time. I had the pleasure of seeing him perform once, back in 1989. Amazing, there hasn't been anyone who could get the sounds out of a Strat like Jeff Beck. His passing brought to my mind all of the English guitarists of that period, from 1960 to 1970. The list of legendary players that emerged from Great Britain during the 60’s is incredible. There’s Beck, of course, Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Ritchie Blackmore, Pete Townsend, Keith Richards, Brian Jones, Alvin Lee, David Gilmour, progressive rock icon Steve Howe, Genesis’ Steve Hackett, and Tommy Iommi of Black Sabbath, these are just some of the prominent players that emerged during that time. Most guitarists arguably call Beck the GOAT. I hate any ranking poll of musicians, because they are so subjective, because everyone’s taste in music is subjective. For myself as someone who’s plucked away at a guitar since I was 13, all I can say is that there will never be another Jeff Beck, from his time playing the club circuit in England, to his immensely influential stint with The Yardbirds, to a solo career that redefined a genre, to continually making new relevant music until his untimely death, Jeff Beck was a players player. My first real exposure to Beck was in 1974, when he released his “Blow by Blow” album. This was such a departure from anything he had done before. I had heard some of his prior work, with The Jeff Beck Group and Beck, Bogart & Appice, but to me it was too much like Beck trying to be something like what Clapton did with Cream. Don’t get me wrong it’s not bad, after all its Jeff Beck and there’s always some really good stuff on a Beck project. “Blow By Blow” changed the game. Engineered by legendary Beatles producer, George Martin, Beck chose to play other people’s songs. Using his unique interpretive technique, songs like “ Cause We Ended As Lovers,” “Air-Blower”, and “Freeway Jam,” Beck cemented his status in music industry. It’s an album that still stands the test of time, every track is remarkable. After “Blow By Blow” he sealed the deal for me with his next album “Wired”. Beck teamed up with Mahavishnu Orchestra keyboardist Jan Hammer, to record some of the most blistering guitarwork I’ve ever heard, “Led Boots, and “Blue Wind” are tunes that come to mind right away. Those 2 albums were a tipping point in the genre of jazz fusion. The ground breaking 1973 album by another Mahavishnu alumnus, Billy Cobham, entitled “Spectrum” featuring up and coming and future Deep Purple guitarist Tommy Bolin, inspired Beck to explore the emerging genre. Bolin’s improvisational work on the record especially the track “Stratus” (which Beck would play at some of his shows) laid a foundation for Beck to launch the whole Jazz-fusion genre into the mainstream, leading the way for players like Al Dimeola, Larry Coryell, and John McLaughlin to expand their audience. That in turn led to rise of such artists like Joe Satriani and Steve Vai. Beck’s influence on so many of today’s guitarists is undeniable, as I said before he was a players player. He didn’t really care for the trappings of fame, yes, he was famous but he never had a #1 hit song, “Heartful Of Soul” from his days with The Yardbirds was the closest he came. He played with everybody, from Buddy Guy to Johnny Depp. I recently stumbled on a video of him with Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top playing “16 Tons” that will rock your socks off. There is a great documentary about Beck’s career called “Jeff Beck: Still On The Run” that offers fantastic insight into the man and his art. I think one of the most interesting things is that he constantly searched for new musicians in a continuing effort to keep his music and his playing fresh and relevant, a perfect example is his version of the song “Nadia” (check out a live performance of this with the incredible bassist Tal Wilkenfeld at Ronnie Scotts on Youtube) he recorded in 2009. It’s a haunting melody with east Indian roots, that when coupled with his inimitable whammy bar technique, is just incredible. If you’ve bypassed Jeff Beck in your musical explorations you’ve really done yourself a disservice. He was a true musical genius.
The English guitarists from the 60’s had such a profound effect on the direction of rock n roll, and the ascent of rock music had a profound effect on the world. Rock music which included all the different sub-genres from heavy metal, to electric blues, country rock, pop and even disco, provided not just a soundtrack, but served as an inspiration for the 60’s generation that transformed society. You can make the argument whether the change was for the good or not, but you can’t argue that the societal transformation of the 60’s wasn’t a monumental shift in modern society. To me that’s what makes this amazing conglomeration of English guitarists in that small chunk of time so incredible. You had 3 players, Clapton, Beck and Page who for a short period where actually in the same band together. Clapton was called “god” for his work with Cream, Page went on to form what can arguably be called the greatest rock band in history with Led Zeppelin. Beck went on to constantly challenge musical norms until the day he died. Pete Townsend of The Who, while not as technically proficient as those others, gave us the “Rock Opera” with the unbelievable work that is “Tommy”. His song writing skill is beyond compare. Keith Richards, also not the technical master, basically invented the rock star, defined what it meant to be a rock n roll guitar player, and wrote some of the most important songs of that time, tunes that still resonate today, “Street Fighting Man”, “Satisfaction”, “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” the list goes on and on. Deep Purple’s Ritchie Blackmore is a phenomenal player, his solos on Purple albums like “In Rock” or the quintessential live album “Made In Japan”, set a high bar for all would-be guitar slingers. Another of my all time fave’s that emerged from the 60’s is Steve Howe of Yes. I just found out recently that he is self taught. That literally blew my mind! Anyone who has listened to Yes music knows how complex it is, I always just assumed he had to have classical training. Steve Howe deliberately chose not to undergo formal training so that he wouldn’t be influenced by other players. The result can be heard on what has been referred to as the ultimate “prog-rock” piece, the near 20 minute long “Close To The Edge”. All of these artists, whose work still stands the test of time, served as inspiration for the countless others who have followed in their stead, but in my view have never surpassed these pioneers.
The music that came out of the 60’s still resonates today, one of the things I’m most proud of is that all my kids love Zep. After the 60’s the music industry changed, transitioning into what’s become known as “corporate rock”. The great movie “Almost Famous” provides a good insight into this change, and you can’t have any discussion about the music biz and corporate rock unless you’ve seen the mockumentary, “Spinal Tap.” That’s not to say that there hasn’t been any good music since the 60’s, far from it, there just hasn’t been the change in music and the resulting effect that the era provided us. It’s why classic Rock stations still abound, it’s why I still listen to all those old songs, they’re still great, “Street Fighting Man” is still relevant, and maybe even more so today. It does make me sad to hear some of the music being produced today. The technology pioneered by the artists of the 60’s has made it possible for almost anyone to record a song and get it played. Musical talent is not a prerequisite anymore. When I recorded my demo, “Los Tres Perros Loco” (which you still might be able to find on Spotify) the ability of the engineer to shape a song, note by note, beat by beat was astonishing, with technology like Autotune, (which I didn’t use, Its my actual crappy voice doing the vocals), you can engineer someone to sound like a real singer. The lack of real musical talent, especially in the world of pop music has resulted in a degradation of the quality of songs you hear today, both musically and lyrically. I know it sounds like I’m one of those “back in my day” kind of dudes, but really, in my day we had “Blowin In The Wind”, today we have “WAP” by Cardi. B. Don’t get me wrong, there are tremendous players out there, Joe Satriani, Steve Via, John Petrucci, Buckethead, are just a few of incredibly talented and inventive guitarists out there and you can’t go through the videos on Youtube without seeing some 12 year old shredding Eddie Van Halen riffs, but it’s nothing like the musical explosion that happened in the 60’s.
I’m happy that I happened to be around for this musical evolution that started in the 60’s. I was able to see players like Jeff Beck, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Keith Richards, Billy Gibbons, John Petrucci, Carlos Santana, Steve Howe and so many more perform their art live, on stage. In a world where you don’t necessarily have to be technically proficient to be a musician, (today it seems better if you know how to work a computer than an actual instrument), I still feel the magic of music played by real musicians, who play with passion and soul. Jeff Beck epitomized this, his passion and soul are evident in all his works. One of my favorite sayings is “music is life”. I can’t imagine a world without music, when I was working, I had to have a song playing all the time. To me music is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy. It makes us happy because if done correctly it touches our soul, reaffirms our humanity and our individuality. I am going to miss Jeff Beck very much, he never stopped his musical journey, and always continued to surprise and amaze. His path and more importantly his music will always be a source of inspiration for musicians everywhere, so when you get a second, raise your glass and give a toast to a man who was always true to his art, who never stopped exploring and gave the world so much great music. Here’s to you, Mr. Beck, thank you so much for all the enjoyment I’ve had listening to your work, you will be sorely missed.
And this is the reason I always end my blogs with Rock On Y’all, Rock on! Keep on Truckin” and turn it up!