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Jeff Beck: June 24, 1944 – January 10, 2023

Jeff Beck: June 24, 1944 – January 10, 2023

Photo by Steven Stone.

Although Jeff Beck was 78 years old when he passed away on January 10th, the news was not only sad, it was jarring. After all, the guitarist had only recently finished a tour that drew a lot of attention due to a number of shows featuring the surprise pairing of the guitar great with the actor Johnny Depp. Anyone who attended one of those concerts could tell you that these performances had none of the earmarks of a farewell tour, for along with being as animated as ever, Beck generated as much friction as ever on the fretboard.

As fate had it, that tour capped a career full of unpredictable twists and turns. People who draw musical trees would need extra pages in order to capture all the projects Beck got involved in during the 60s and early 70s. The Yardbirds were the band that brought him into the limelight (along with, of course, Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton), and let’s not forget that scene in Michael Antonioni’s 1966 film Blow-Up where, in a short-lived version of the Yardbirds that also included Page, Beck rams his guitar against an amp, throws the guitar down, and starts smashing it with his boots, earning all sorts of rock ’n’ roll creds in the process.

After the Yardbirds, Beck was constantly trying new things, and here his collaborations with Rod Stewart (1968’s Truth and 1969’s Beck-Ola) deserve special mention both for the music they made together and the sense that so much more could have been accomplished if the bandmates could have gotten along better. At times Beck seemed to struggle to find the right context for his guitar playing, but with 1975’s Blow by Blow—which stylistically was a left turn, venturing into more jazz-influenced territory along with a healthy dose of funk—he clearly found terra firma. His follow-up, 1976’s Wired, was equally impressive. While jazz fusion can err in the direction of slickness, Beck had a scrappiness to his style; indeed, it seemed the ex-Yardbird who once rammed his guitar into an amp was never far below the surface. That said, he could also sound pretty, as his sultry interpretation of Charles Mingus’ “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” on Wired made clear.

After Blow by Blow and Wired Beck played his cards almost perfectly. He made albums when he felt like it—bear in mind, building custom cars in your own garage takes time—and the only record that smacked of corporate influence was 1985’s Flash. Even some of that is good, and 1989’s Jeff Beck’s Guitar Shop ended the decade on a high note. Again adding his own spin to a musical genre that might not seem to call for a Stratocaster, Beck successfully threw some raunchy guitar into a soundscape that included synth sounds and weird effects. On later career highlights such as the rockabilly-influenced Crazy Legs! (1993) and Emotion & Commotion (2010), Beck sounded as confident and cocky as ever.

As Jeff Beck fans who’ve seen him in concert can testify, his studio albums only tell part of the tale. Partly that’s because he sometimes toured with lineups that never met in the studio. Although I was already a fan, a 1993 show where Beck opened for Santana deepened my appreciation of his artistry considerably. As a result, I attended some of his other concerts, including a show that took place last October. The collective sigh that took place when Johnny Depp appeared on stage late in the show was in its own way entertaining, but musically it’s safe to say that the high points of the evening came before and after Depp joined the band. Beck was all smiles as he tapped, hammered, bent, and did everything else you can do to a guitar string (how did those string not break?), the whole time exhibiting a technique that was totally unconventional, yet somehow it registered as rock and roll.

Beck’s performance that evening included highlights from different phases of his career, and there was plenty of excitement. One song was more than exciting, it was exhilarating. During an impassioned reading of the Mahavishnu Orchestra’s “You Know, You Know,” Beck played a scorcher of a solo that was followed by equally incendiary solos by ex-Prince bassist Rhonda Smith and the German drummer Anika Nilles. While the friend beside me tried to figure out the meter to “You Know, You Know” (good luck with that), I stood there amazed at how a John McLaughlin composition which first appeared on The Inner Mounting Flame a half-century before could still generate so much heat. Sadly, Jeff Beck has passed away, but his flame still burns.

Tags: IN MEMORIAM MUSIC ROCK

By Jeff Wilson

This will take some explaining, but I can connect the dots between pawing through LPs at a headshop called Elysian Fields in Des Moines, Iowa, as a seventh grader, and becoming the Music Editor for The Absolute Sound. At that starting point—around 1970/71—Elysian Fields had more LPs than any other store in Des Moines. Staring at all the colorful covers was both tantalizing and frustrating. I had no idea who most of the artists were, because radio played only a fraction of what was current. To figure out what was going on, I realized that I needed to build a record collection—and as anyone who’s visited me since high school can testify, I succeeded. Record collecting was still in my blood when, starting in the late 1980s, the Cincinnati Public Library book sale suddenly had an Elysian Fields quantity of LPs from people who’d switched to CDs. That’s where I met fellow record hawk Mark Lehman, who preceded me as music editor of TAS. Mark introduced me to Jonathan Valin, whose 1993 detective novel The Music Lovers depicts the battles between record hawks at library sales. That the private eye in the book, Harry Stoner, would stumble upon a corpse or two while unraveling the mystery behind the disappearance of some rare Living Stereo platters made perfect sense to me. After all, record collecting is serious business. Mark knew my journalistic experience included concert reviews for The Cincinnati Enquirer and several long, sprawling feature articles in the online version of Crawdaddy. When he became TAS music editor in 2008, he contacted me about writing for the magazine. I came on board shortly after the latest set of obituaries had been written for vinyl—and, as fate had it, right when the LP started to make yet another unexpected comeback. Suddenly, I found myself scrambling to document all the record companies pressing vinyl. Small outfits were popping up world-wide, and many were audiophile-oriented, plus already existing record companies began embracing the format again. Trying to keep track of everything made me feel, again, like that overwhelmed seventh grader in Elysian Fields, and as Music Editor I’ve found that keeping my finger on the pulse of the music world also requires considerable detective work. I’ve never had a favorite genre, but when it comes time to sit down and do some quality listening, for me nothing beats a well-recorded small-group jazz recording on vinyl. If a stereo can give me warmth and intimacy, tonal accuracy, clear imaging, crisp-sounding cymbals, and deep, woody-sounding bass, then I’m a happy camper.

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