Perfect Sound Forever

JEFF BECK


Early Solo Years
by Ryan Settee
(February 2012)


Generally, bands and musicians get better over the course of time, as experience and wisdom tempers their output. The ideal, and perhaps expectation, is that one always gets better at their skill, trade, or craft. Occasionally though, there are acts that start off better than they end up being later on because they're not afforded the time or slanted perspective that can be colored by even a short time in the industry, from managers, labels and bandmates disagreeing on a direction to head in. Regardless of which band we're talking about, I'm sure that most of us could agree on an ill-fated decision regarding an album or era of some of our favorite artists. Some of the material can be interesting even if it fails to impress; some of it can admittedly be downright embarrassing. In a lot of these cases, I've found that musicians deride their own work, due to them being "naive" or seeing the error of their ways later on. Or sometimes they choose to abandon it for other reasons. The original Jeff Beck Group had chosen to abandon the presciently heavy version of itself for whatever reason; the Truth/Beck-Ola version.

Often times, it tends to be the innovators themselves that leave behind a certain style or direction that later gets wholly adopted by other bands or acts that focus in on it as a particular sound later on. Back in the '60's, especially towards the mid to later period in the decade, bands were changing up drastically-- some out of necessity to continually forge ahead out of boredom; others out of sensing the inevitable falling out of certain sounds that were destined to soon become dated; others changing because of following the herd. Out of many evolving sounds and songs, there were inevitably certain tracks that bands had focused in on as the starting point for their whole sound. There was a fairly quick transition from straight ahead garage, to psychedelia, to long drawn out jams and louder music that utilized more volume--stacks of amps and fuzz pedals. Blue Cheer comes to mind in that the more studied that they had got later in their career, the less interesting that they became. The sheer brute force of decibel waves masked some inability on their part, but in the process, they'd created a cruder form of music--the basis of heavy metal and the roots of deliberately heavier music for heaviness' sake.

It's interesting to note that like Blue Cheer, the further that Jeff Beck had got from his Truth and Beck-Oladays, that the more technical and skilled that he had got, that he too had fallen victim to abandoning the pioneering style that he had established in heavy music and hard rock; eventually usually trading volume for instrumental, fusion, and jazz influenced rock. Like Clapton, who had tired of the extended soloing and heaviness in Cream, it seems that by the time Beck could really define his own sound as one that was to be a definite template, that there were other similar aggressive bands that were either around in some capacity or, perhaps saw the genesis of what they needed to do to either refine their attack or one-up the competition. Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and Mountain all had members that were gigging around in those bands or in other bands making the rounds on the circuit (or in Mountain's case, Felix Pappalardi produced Cream records), and by that time Beck wanted nearly nothing to do with the outright decibel wars.

Like somewhat of a missing link in hard rock's evolution, Truth and Beck-Olacertainly don't sound as extreme as they once were back then, as bands kept up ratcheting up the energy level and quickly eclipsed Beck's vision so as to make it somewhat tamer in comparison. That sort of thing usually happens in the initial stages of any genre, because you usually have the pre-genre pioneers, the ones that are held up as the influences to the direct influences. Between the disintegration of Cream and what with Beck leaving behind the straight ahead loud blues, it was clear that the pioneers were almost disowning the phase as youthful ignorance. You do, however, wonder what would have happened had those bands stuck it out for longer, enough to capitalize on what they'd created, because it's clear that they never had the time to revel in finishing what they'd started; instead, it seems a bit like they became disinterested or disillusioned enough that there was no real reason to stick it out, anyways. It's sometimes easier to leave something behind, when there seems like there's no future with it. In the case of Hendrix, some of the pioneers of heavy music had physically shuffled off of this mortal coil in which they could not fully catch up to the point where they had a long term career off of their contributions to what were extreme and radical sounds back then.

Giving perhaps a tad more context for Beck's abandonment of the heavy direction, perhaps one could look at Beck's early singles right after the Yardbirds, when I suppose that he and managers were trying to use the momentum of his star power in the Yardbirds to launch his own career as a viable solo artist. One gets the sense that on those early Beck singles, that there was a bit of dissention or confusion as to which direction to pursue. Beck's producer Mickie Most apparently pushed the pop appeal of songs that were easily identifiable in the current pop landscape back then, before heavy psychedelia became an option to orphaned pop-oriented groups that became disenchanted with following the traditional puppet string way to stardom while only moving marginally up the charts (see: Deep Purple, MK1 without Ian Gillan). Early Beck singles such as "Tallyman" and "Hi Ho Silver Lining" were in a very overt Beatles style and only had perhaps escaped any sustained knife of scrutiny from Beck, likely because you'd think that because it was for such a short period of time. YouTube or online resources nowadays would be the main or only proving grounds that Beck actually was groomed for pop song/singer stardom; in past decades, perhaps that material only really lived on in hard to find singles and bootleg comps. Those singles are great in their own right, albeit in a much different direction.

As it stands, Truth and Beck-Olaonly fare slightly better as fossils in the hard rock excavation for future generations. When Beck decided to fully go the heavy rock route, I get the sense that the extremes that those musicians and bands had taken the music to back then wasn't appreciated initially then like it is now.

Perhaps the greatest indicator of what could have been is "Beck's Bolero"--an instrumental, with Beck and Jimmy Page on guitar, John Paul Jones on bass, and Keith Moon on drums (listed as "you know who" out of possible label contract problems). Beck and Page were in the Yardbirds together, John Paul Jones was around from his affiliation with being a studio player with Page on many sessions; Moon was inescapably the infamous Keith Moon. It's the only track on Truth that bears that lineup, but one really wonders what else could have happened in musical history, had those four been able (or wished) to continue on for an album or more. It could have been an intentional one-off lark, or maybe egos just dictated that the collaborations were to go no further. I'm inclined to believe the latter, since the talents of Beck and Page lasted only a very short time in the Yardbirds with them simultaneously in the same band. Beck reportedly preferred a more spontaneous, organic style, and Page apparently preferred a more structured, layered studio sound that would--if logic dictates--come from his background in studios, and future Led Zeppelin recordings would verify this. Moon may have been right, when the suggestion of this supergroup continue on, that such a thing would go down like a "lead zeppelin" (though accounts vary about that). But Page was taking cues from the "Beck's Bolero" session, and he certainly took notice on Truth's "You Shook Me", appearing nearly in the same loud, fuzzy manner that Zep's would quickly surface in.

In the infancy of the crossover from the Yardbirds to what lie next after leaving the band (solo careers, other bands, etc), this collaboration on "Beck's Bolero" gives me the best indication of what a few similar intentioned buddies had created in unison; some sort of heavy music bastard child where each member may have shrugged their shoulders in amazement afterwards, not really knowing what to make of it other than something special had happened when the tape stopped rolling. Going from a Spanish tinged guitar line, the track gets subsequently heavier later in the track; chaotic and rumbling, in all its fuzzy trancendence. It takes the Yardbirds' growing exoticism and guitar-as-sitar cues to an extreme--a whole new sound in the process. Reports conflict as to the track's origin and history--some say that Beck wrote it and Page got the credit for it (and that Beck was angered at Page taking credit; after all, it's "Beck's Bolero", not "Page's Bolero"); others say that the Page credit is rightfully due. Either way, it seems to be more in keeping with Page's foreign music fetish that was to surface later on in Zeppelin, after they'd done the straightahead blues thing for a couple of albums.

Truth is largely a covers album, but the versions are unmistakably theirs; though even the "originals" are reworkings of established blues songs. With future Stones and Faces guitarist Ron Wood serving as bass player as well as drummer Mick Waller, the covers stretch out a bit longer, sometimes into jam territory, and the "heavy jazz" loose-limbed drumming that served well for Hendrix and Cream was in full force here. Bands were starting to color outside the lines a bit more, as opposed to following the 4/4 verse/chorus/verse template that was often rigidly held to in the mid '60's. Plus, you have alot of crazy panning--guitar across both channels, drums in one channel, bass in the other, etc, all to take advantage of the then new stereo technology. Singer and future rock star Rod Stewart was in fine form on this record, a great frontman with charisma, sex appeal, and a uniquely raspy voice (himself, ironically, never again as prescient or heavy as he was here); Beck tapping Stewart before he was a superstar in his own right. As was popular on albums in the '60's and '70's, where you'd get a big writeup on the back sleeve, Truth boasts this for "Shapes Of Things":

"Rearranged, but the same Yardbirds hit. This must be played at maximum volume whatever phonograph you use. Makes very appropriate background music if you have Vicar over for tea."

"You Shook Me" has a similar theme on volume; attesting to the band attempting what they considered to be the loudest possible racket at the time in 1968:

"Probably the rudest sound ever recorded, intended for listening to whilst angry or stoned. Last note of song is my guitar being sick-well so would you be if I smashed your guts for 2:28"

Beck-Olacontinued on in the same heavy blues direction, this time slightly harder edged than Truth, but still continuing on with some covers and R&B standards; most notably a cover of Elvis' "Jailhouse Rock." This album feels a bit more like a live band effort, a bit more cohesive in their direction (in fairness, Truth had some songs like "Rock My Plimsoul" and even "Beck's Bolero", which were going back to '67, on sides of the earliest Beck singles, when Beck, himself, sang on songs like "Tallyman" and "Hi Ho Silver Lining"). "Plynth (Water Down The Drain)" and "The Hangman's Knee" lumber along loudly, and "Rice Pudding"--though an instrumental--makes its statement with the timing of the riff and the vaguely awkward groove. It's reminiscent of the sort of riff that would form the signature of Zep songs like "Heartbreaker," "Moby Dick" and perhaps even moreso "Black Dog"; forward lurching riff patterns almost seemingly based on horn arrangements, but transcribed for guitar. Strangely enough, it's pianist/ keys player Nicky Hopkins' "Girl From Mill Valley" that provides a nice curveball from the rest of the album; a slower, beautiful piano based instrumental ballad. One thing that was established on Truth and Beck-Ola is that instrumentals were very important, and the group seemed free from the usual shackles of pop-based hits.

The band were supposed to play Woodstock, but the usual band tensions had made Beck part ways with Stewart and Wood (who would later regroup together in the Faces) and the band was never the same. Though it still continued on as the Jeff Beck Group, the band became a vehicle for Beck as the official main creative leader. Though since then, he has most likely suffered from the syndrome of what happens when a guitarist or other non-vocalist member assumes the key leadership and star role. That situation usually ends up in one of two ways: 1) guitar god gone lower range of Billboard success with either intermittent or sporadic singing around guitar based instrumentals and/or with not enough star power in a frontman when there is one (see: Satriani, Vai) or 2) the constant turmoil of an ego dictating no place on the stage for any other conflicting star for any sustained period of time without issue (see: Van Halen).

The louder hard rock returned on Beck, Bogert and Appice in a noble effort a few albums after Beck-Ola, but it perhaps came out too long after similar bands had come (and essentially already creatively peaked--and therefore unofficially gone in spirit-- in the case of Mountain), and suffered from the lack of having a real frontman or sex symbol of the calibre of a Stewart or Robert Plant. By then, Beck had walked away from Beck, Bogert and Appice, again apparently in frustration, and gave up the ghost and dropped the "group" from the Jeff Beck Group name, and it was "Jeff Beck" from then on.

Yeah, in Beck's case, you really wonder what could have been.


Also see our article about Jeff Beck in 1970s


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