Rock Around the World
Newspaper Articles – Issue 6
SEARCH FOR HIMSELF
by Jim Kozlowski
“Everyone in the music business is sayin’ `I know where I’m at all the time, but they don’t know where they’re at. I’m admittin’ it, and I’m just searching all the time.”-
– Jeff Beck
Jeff Beck is one of a very few musicians today whose name can conjure up images of a variety of groups with a variety of sounds, a testament to both his versatility as well as his reluctance to settle down with a band. Jeff’s history is strewn with the ashes of groups, combinations that glowed for only a short time before burning out; The Yardbirds, Jeff Beck Groups Mk. 1 & 2, Beck, Bogart & Appice, and on to the present, Jeff has always managed to surround himself with talented players (given the field he was working in at the time), while managing to just miss creating the perfect record with those players. A third album from any of the bands he was in could have been the one he’s seemingly always looking for.
After leaving The Yardbirds, the last group of which he was just a member, The Jeff Beck Group came together, and several legends were born. “Truth” was recorded in eleven hours, unleashed on an unsuspecting public, and The Jeff Beck Group Mk.1 hit the road. Unfortunately, the problem of being a guitar hero cropped up for Jeff again, with his record company playing up that aspect of the band more than any other; “Beck-Ola” was recorded in an atmosphere resembling a gathering thunderstorm. The last line of ‘Rice Pudding’ is abruptly sliced in mid-note as if the storm was just breaking, and indeed it was. Shortly afterward, Jeff sacked Ronnie Wood, Rod Stewart left with him to become Faces in the crowd, and the original JB Group ceased to exist.
Many people are convinced that this particular collection of musicians never approached on record what they were capable of. Citing songs like ‘Drinkin’ Again,’ which never did make it onto an album, these people maintain that internal tensions were a debilitating factor in the studio. In actual fact, however, the personalities who comprised the Beck Group; led by Jeff, seemed rather to thrive on struggle. If everything had become a mutual admiration society, there wouldn’t have been much spark in the studio; everything would’ve been too laid back, and that would’ve driven Jeff, in particular, up a soundproofed wall. Tension, however, existed on many levels: Rod Stewart had kind of a Keith Relf-esque complex about lead guitarists dominating the stage, Ronnie Wood was a frustrated lead player demoted to bass, and Jeff was uncomfortable with a lead singer. To solve the problem, Jeff simply tried to play longer and longer breaks which may have helped ease his discomfort, but did absolutely nothing for either Rod’s or Woody’s hang-ups. Ashes were burning for the Jeff Beck Group. . .
Contemplation time came for Jeff as he sat back and assessed what he had done up till then. For his entire professional life, he’s played London-coloured, Chicago bluesy rock ‘n’ roll; he’d done it well, to be sure, and he’d been innovative, individual. But satisfaction had eluded him, and he sat back and wondered why.
There was talk, speculation, rumors, all about Jeff. Some interesting combinations came up (like Beck, Bogart, Appice & Stewart under the name ‘Cactus’), but nothing ever came of them because one fine day, Jeff almost wrote himself a one-way ticket to The Great Gig In The Sky in a car crash and musically, he was irrelevant for two years.
Towards the middle to latter stages of his recovery period, Jeff sat and slowly focused his thoughts on a new direction. He’d always been an ardent fan of r&b, Tamla Motown, and just soul music in general. (In fact, one of the musical links between Jeff and Rod Stewart was an admiration for black music and artists like David Ruin and Booker T.) Jeff decided to completely follow his instincts and desires for once, and The Jeff Beck Group Mk. 2 was formed, including Bob Tench (vocals and 2nd guitar), Cozy Powell (monster drums), Max Middleton (keyboards and literal key figure for some time to come), CIive Chaman (bass), and our shy lad Jeff. The music was, as the first album stated, rough, but it was ready, ‘cuz Jeff was ready. For openers, he sported a black singer (quite a shock for Anglophiles), dressed even duller than before, and just leaned back and slid into that Motown-cum-jazz feel, playing musical tag with Max and follow the leader with Cozy. “Rough And Ready” got maybe more polarized reviews than anything Jeff had ever done. His record company was nervous; they know the enormous popularity Jeff commanded as a rock player, but they couldn’t estimate what it would be if he stayed in the same indefinable vein “Rough And Ready” flowed in. Jeff remained stubborn (that’s our Jeff), but ultimately compromised on the second album, playing more rock and less soul. Sharpie that he is though, Jeff recorded that second lp in Memphis, home of Stax, and landed the legendary Steve Cropper as producer.
Both albums did well, but during the second tour, you could see Jeff fighting the battle between what he had intended to do, and what he found himself actually doing, night after night. So concerned with this new dilemma was he that he didn’t at first see that the same two guys kept coming back to see him play–Tim Bogart and Carmine Appice.
Tim and Carmine were another turning point for Jeff. New York bred on hard-driving rock and roll, and both Tim and Carmine had been admirers of Jeff’s for years, and ultimately hit on the pulse of Jeff’s frustration when they invited him to jam. In a way, it was really weird, `cuz Jeff had convinced himself that the friction of “Rough And Ready” was at least the right path for him, and now he found himself, to his surprise, wanting to rip off thousands of notes in the traditional rock’ n’ roll manner. The search had taken another twist . . .
Beck, Bogart & Appice were the core of Jeff’s power trio experiment. At first, Max was retained on Keyboards, and Kim Milford (from the Broadway production of ‘JC Superstar”) . . . ahem . . . handled the vocals in a manner that convinced both Jeff and Carmine to attempt to drop Mr. Kim out a hotel window. It was rowdy rock’ n ` roll time, and Max was having none of it. He left, but didn’t disappear; pared down to the terrible trio, BBA powerized its way onto the charts.
Looking back on it, nothing that happened should have been surprising; Jeff had seen old mates Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page become rich and famous in a remarkably short period of time. As much as anything else, BBA was Jeff’s way of saying “Why not me, too?” Of course, the dual facts that Tim and Carmine were every bit as inflammable as Jeff, and refused to live in Britain when Jeff refused to live in America, made for an ideal situation–everyone fighting. Creatively, one and all thrived on the internal pressures, with the predictable result that some of the racks on the BBA album make the tonearm sizzle, while in concert, they were overpowering.
Of course, too, it couldn’t last; this wasn’t the real Beck, this was and exploding copy. Bitter fighting broke out during the recording of the second album (Jeff reputedly burned all the masters one night), and like a gigantic comet, BBA blew up.
If nothing else, BBA demonstrated to Jeff which direction wasn’t correct for him. Early last year, Jeff told me that he regretted splitting up the JB Group MK. 2 because he thought it was capable of a lot more, and it was turning him on. Outside pressure proved too much to resist, however, and BBA rose from the ashes of “Rough And Ready.” But after the break-up of BBA, Jeff went into a deep seclusion to contemplate his music once again. It would be a long time before Jeff returned to his art. When he did, he shook the music industry by its corporate and artistic jowls–and he did it with a smile on his face.
“Blow By Blow” was the end result of a series of decisions by Jeff: first, it was all instrumental, thereby eliminating the singer-guitarist conflict, second, it had an unmistakable r&B/jazz feel to it, completely unlike anything Jeff had done before, and third, it was produced by George Martin, who without question an expert at recording what an artist really wants even when the artist himself isn’t able to define exactly what he’s after.
Another decision that Jeff made about this time wouldn’t become evident until this year, but it was a decision that would profoundly affect the very structure of his music; quite simply, he decided that part of the problem with his music had been the trap of public expectation as to what his group would do next. Whenever he formed a band, the first recorded album from that band would define that particular band’s `sound.’ The only way that Jeff found to solve this problem was to do only one album with a given group of musicians, then change everyone around. In this way, he could prevent any outside influence as to what he would be playing; at the same time, he would be constantly turning himself on with new players, musicians full of surprise and invention.
Accordingly, then, “Blow By Blow” featured an 18 year-old drummer, a steady bass player who’d made his living in the studio, and old reliable Max Middleton returning on keyboards. Co-writing a great deal of the material on the album with Jeff, Max proved the catalyst that propelled Jeff in this new, untested direction. The album, significantly, leans heavily towards jazz-funk, but retains a tangible rock flavor. Jeff indulged his desire to pay homage to a couple of his idols, Roy Buchanan and Stevie Wonder, and in general seemed to finally be doing what he really wanted. In fact, the only real problem with “Blow By Blow” was that some of the material was a bit riffy; as immaculate an arranger and player as Jeff Beck is, he’s not a very good songwriter, a shortcoming of which he’s quite aware. Yet the mood and intent of “Blow By Blow” almost required that Jeff have a heavy involvement with the writing. And even at that, some of the songs Jeff either wrote or co-wrote contain the essence of what Jeff Beck on stage is all about. (‘Scatterbrain’ and ‘Constipated Duck’ are probably the two best examples of this.)
“Blow By Blow,” when released, sold more units faster than anything Jeff had ever recorded previously, and the question of’ his return to the stage now hung in the air. At this point, it’s important to note that Jeff has never been completely sure of his audience; given the wide range of styles he’s played, it’s almost impossible to define just why a particular audience has turned up to see him. But the urge to perform was on him again, and he set about forming a band to tour and support the album. He gathered up Max (of course), Bernard Purdie (drums), and Wilbur Bascomb (bass), and made ready for the road. I was fortunate enough to witness a rehearsal of this band just before their first date, and while Jeff looked ready, he admitted afterward that it would take a bit of luck to put the album across successfully on stage.
The results, as they say, are history; Jeff astounded both audiences and critics alike, and everyone was happy. Except Jeff. He wasn’t totally enamored with being co-billed with John McLaughlin, even though on the surface it seemed a good idea. And, of course, he was worried about a follow-up to “Blow By Blow”; after all, “Blow By Blow” had been his first gold album, and the old spectre of having a certain something expected of him next time ’round was haunting Jeff again.
However, having made the decision to seek fresh input more frequently, and also finding himself moving closer to jazz, Jeff looked for both new people and new directions for his next album. The inspiration came from Jan Hammer and Michael Walden, players who both challenged and excited Jeff. Jan wrote one number for Jeff, ‘Blue Wind,’ but was a bit reluctant to join Jeff on the road. He confessed to feeling a mite uncomfortable with the material on “Blow By Blow,” and not at all sure he wanted to play that style. This suited Jeff just fine, who, after all, was after a new direction; Michael Walden had written four numbers for “Wired,” and all were more away from rock and closer to that fuzzily-defined area known as ‘jazz-rock.’
For “Wired,” Jeff concentrated exclusively on arranging and playing, writing nothing. Again under the guiding hands of George Martin, “Wired” presented yet another new Jeff Beck to the world, a Jeff Beck as different from the one on “Blow By Blow” as the one on “Rough And Ready” was from the one on “Beck-Ola.” Exhibiting a much greater empathy for jazz-rock, Jeff made use of Richard Bailey, Max Middleton and Wilbur Bascomb from “Blow By Blow,” but it was his playing with Narada Michael Walden and Jan Hammer that proved the spark.
Jan Hammer’s group had just released their own album, but were having some difficulty getting gigs. Jeff solved both their employment difficulties and his own live band problem by joining forces with Jan’s band. The combination clicked; they’ve been working steadily (and winning smash reviews) since June, all of which is getting Jeff off tremendously, and may even produce a live album.
It’s become a well established fact by now that predicting Jeff Beck is a futile task; how can one determine in advance what an individual is going to do when the individual himself hasn’t a clue? I spoke with Jeff recently after his concert here in Boston, and he kinda surprised me by saying that even now he’s still not completely sure that he’s playing exactly what he wants. He did say that further exploration of the jazz-rock fusion is the way he feels inclined to go, but on the other hand, at the concert earlier in the evening, he returned for his encore and told a cheering crowd, “I guess there’s no getting away from it. I’m still a rock `n’ roll guitarist.”
So who can tell where Jeff’s notes will lead him next? He’s finally managed, after more than ten years time, to sort out his priorities musically, and at least now he’s got some kind of bearing. He’s unique in that he will remain popular with a public that has now come to expect only excellent music from Jeff, nothing more. Fair enough, it’s the very least Jeff expects from himself. There won’t be any more cold ashes of broken dreams/bands around Jeff; instead, there’s only the glowing coals of a creative fire that now seems self-feeding. Jeff’s private search for himself will continue, and I, for one, hope that it will be a long search.