Friday, 23 October 2009

Had I heard Led Zeppelin before the first album from the Jeff Beck Group maybe I’d have been more Led Zep-friendly. As it is, given the sequence I heard them in I prefer the blueprint to the eventual mass market heavy metal juggernaut...

Rear View: "Truth"


Of the three top line guitarists that emerged from The Yardbirds, my favourite has probably always been Jeff Beck.

Not that I've bought everything that the man has put out. Beck's output over the years has been sporadic, and much of it has slipped unnoticed, at least by Yours Truly.

Unlike his more notable Yardbird guitar-slinging peers, there was a period when Beck's playing was characterised by sparks of what I used to describe as rampant erratic lunacy and it's that element that has Truth, the first album by the Jeff Beck Group, firmly entrenched as one of Hughesy's all-time favourites.

Beck's predecessor in The Yardbirds was Eric Clapton, who went on, through John Mayall's Bluesbreakers and Cream to become God, while his successor was Jimmy Page, whose rise to prominence with Led Zeppelin was achieved by taking elements of the post-Yardbirds Jeff Beck Group and extrapolating them to the point where they became a sort of heavy metal Valhalla.

That's the mental image I get on the infrequent occasions when I hear something like The Immigrant Song, anyway.

Clapton and Page seemed to have some sort of career path in mind, but one gets the impression that Beck didn't give two knobs of goat excreta for the notion of a conventional long-term career.

Clapton's departure from the Yardbirds was fuelled by a purist urge to play the blues, while Page went on to form The New Yardbirds (subsequently renamed) with himself rather than Keith Relf (or anybody else) as head honcho.

Beck, on the other hand, according to vaguely remembered press reports possibly departed to chase California girls and race hot rods two gigs into a tour of the U.S. A check in Pete Frame’s Rock Family Trees, on the other hand, has Beck taking time off due to tonsillitis and subsequently being sacked. A reference to inflamed tonsils, an inflamed brain and an inflamed cock suggests that the cars and girls explanation might not be too far wide of the mark.

Andy Neill's biography of The Faces (Had Me a Real Good Time: The Faces Before, During and After), on the other hand, paints a picture of a band dogged by lack of sleep and bad food on the road, inept management, frequent gigs missed through illness ready to fall apart at the start of a six-week Greyhound bus excursion around the USA (the Dick Clark Caravan of Stars).

Jimmy Page allegedly entered the dressing room at a show in Texas to find Beck about to take to singer Relf's head with his guitar.

Chasing California girls and hooning around in hot rods, however, aren't exactly conducive to generating income, so in early 1967 Beck was back in London, coincidentally around the time Jimi Hendrix arrived on a scene in the process of changing from Mod-influenced R&B and soul to the early stages of psychedelia.

Signed to a record deal with independent producer Mickie Most, Beck set about putting a band together and recording singles, the first of which, Hi Ho Silver Lining, seemed like the start of a solo career.

Significantly, on the flip side of Hi Ho Silver Lining's jaunty little pop tune there was an instrumental titled Beck's Bolero, featuring the man himself and a certain Mr Page on guitars, John Paul Jones on bass, Nicky Hopkins on piano and Keith Moon (credited as You Know Who) on drums.

In my circle of acquaintances the flip side received much more attention than Hi Ho Silver Lining, which was, as stated, an inconsequential jaunty pop numberwith vocals from a presumably reluctant Beck.

Beck's reluctance to tackle vocal duties was neatly solved by enlisting Rod Stewart for the role in the Jeff Beck Group, the touring entity which was going to generate the income to cover day to day expenses after the Graham Gouldman penned Tallyman, another pop tune cut from the same cloth as Hi Ho (which reached #14 on the UIK charts) failed to repeat its moderate success.

The plan seems to have been a Yardbirds-like lineup with Rod Stewart on vocals, Beck and Ronnie Wood on guitars and a rhythm section. A succession of bass players and drummers were tried before Wood switched to bass and Mickey Waller, who'd been a member of Steampacket along with Stewart, Long John Baldry, Julie Driscoll and Brian Auger, took over behind the drum kit.

Despite the presence of a singer destined to become huge in his own right Most wanted to persist with Beck's undistinguished vocals in pop mode, although the outfit's live performances (I've managed to track down a couple of bootlegs) presented a heavily Anglicised Chicago-style blues band with plenty of flash guitar-vocal interplay.

Hughesy's memory may be playing tricks here, but I seem to recall an article somewhere stating that Stewart's shyness meant that the microphone was located out of sight of the audience on early Beck Group gigs, producing bewilderment among audience members who couldn't work out where the vocals were coming from.

Had Me a Real Good Time, on the other hand has the Beck Group starting a two-night gig at the Fillmore East opening for the Grateful Dead where Stewart's vocals went missing (as in nothing came out), requiring a generous application of medicinal brandy behind the speaker stacks.

Ah, well, that shyness bit always seemed totally out of character...

Beck's third single, an acoustic instrumental cover of Love Is Blue, was a major hit, but presumably failed to find a spot in the Jeff Beck Group set-list.

At this point things get rather quirky.

Peter Grant, a road manager who'd worked in the States with the Animals and The New Vaudeville Band and reckoned he'd spotted an alternative career path for an up and coming act booked a short U.S. tour for the Beck Group and tried to buy Beck's contract from Mickie Most, figuring that live work and the new FM radio format meant that you could break a new act in the States without a hit single.

When things didn't quite work out as planned with Mr Beck and friends, Grant turned his attention to Page's New Yardbirds who'd borrowed the monicker suggested by Keith Moon for the Beck's Bolero lineup.

Led Zeppelin.

The initial Jeff Beck Group tour of the States started with four shows at Fillmore East, opening for and apparently upstaging The Grateful Dead and finished on the other side of the continent at the Fillmore West, by which time Grant had negotiated them an album contract with Epic.

An album contract, of course, means that you need to record an album, and the basic tracks for Truth were recorded over two weeks, with overdubs going over the top in more ways than one the following month.

Mickie Most was more concerned with other projects at the time (and probably hadn't appreciated what Grant was aiming for) so production duties were largely left to Ken Scott who set about recording Beck, Stewart & Co. playing their live set in the studio.

Looking at the album's track listing, it's fairly obvious Beck's live set had been cobbled together from a variety of sources.

The album opens with a cover of the old Yardbirds number Shapes of Things, but where the original version was a fairly polite inquiry as to whether time would make men more wise Beck's version, launched off a thunderous riff, has Stewart demanding an answer. If the Yardbirds original was a group of folkies linking hands and singing Kumbaya, the rendition on Truth is standing on the barricades, fist raised and demanding action.

Up against the wall, in other words...

And, on my first hearing, if the riff and the vocal attack didn't pin me to the wall, Beck's two-part solo certainly did.

There's no mucking around on the second track, a Buddy Guy & Junior Wells cover, either. Let Me Love You mightn't have the whammo riff to start off, but as soon as Stewart's finished the first line there's Beck back in full nail the listener to the wall mode.

The tempo drops on track three, Tim Rose's Morning Dew. There are skirling bagpipes as Stewart starts the request to walk me out in the morning dew, my honey but Beck's there lurking behind the vocal line, restrained but punctuating the vocal line with bursts of effects pedal enhanced notes, dropping back to the same melody line that started it off.

Willie Dixon's You Shook Me is up next, two and a bit minutes of straight-ahead twelve bar that ends with Beck's guitar having an attack of the up and unders (that's from the liner notes, by the way, and not the product of Hughesy's fevered imagination).

Over the years I've had a lot of fun with Side One's concluding Ol' Man River. Moody organ from Zep's John Paul Jones over a walking bass line and timpani from You Know Who leads into Stewart's fairly straight (still soulful, but pretty straight) rendition of the lyrics. Beck's guitar contributions are limited to single notes punctuating the vocal as the timpani rolls thunder somewhere over towards the horizon.

Over the years, as stated, keeping the cover carefully concealed, I'd slip the album into the player, select track five and ask some unsuspecting guest to guess the identity of the singer.

Dunno, has been the usual response. Sounds like Rod Stewart.

As stated, Beck's involvement is minimal until Stewart gets to I'm so weary... Wham! I'm sick of trying... Four notes from Beck. I'm tired of living but afraid of dying... Another little flurry from the guitar, and back into the rolling timpani and organ for a spell with a raving vocal play-out to wind up proceedings on Side One.

That first side is a succession of strong performances, nary an original in sight, but, presumably when they started putting the group together it was a case of What about this one? as Beck, Stewart and Co. worked through some favourite numbers they thought might work.

Though the basic tracks were laid down over two weeks, I'm inclined to guess that there were sporadic sessions over the fortnight rather than fourteen days of nine-to-five (or the nocturnal equivalent) studio time. Side One, works as a whole, the way that a live set might go down. The second side is a mixed bag, seemingly throwing together whatever else they happened to have to hand.

It opens with an acoustic rendition of Greensleeves, a track presumably recorded around the same time as Love is Blue and intended as a pop chart possibility rather than an album track.

The side also includes Beck's Bolero, recorded before the rest of the album (we need a B-side for the single territory) and tends to support the use what we've got on hand to fill out the album hypothesis. Not that there's anything wrong with the track itself, a bolero rhythm with cascading guitars and a thunderous play-out, forty-two years later it's still one of my all-time favourites.

In between those two there's Rock My Plimsoul, a Beck/Stewart original that's a straightforward twelve-bar, albeit a twelve bar sung by a great vocalist with a bloody good guitarist working in call and response tandem.

Again supporting the fill it out on Side Two theorem, Blues De Luxe is a live exposition of a group of old blues themes with some classy interplay between Stewart and Beck. At a touch under eight minutes some might question the length (I don't). Nice piano from Nicky Hopkins in there too.

But the killer punch is still to come. I Ain't Superstitious is the old Willie Dixon/Howlin' Wolf number worked over and pummelled, along with the listener, into submission. A swaggering vocal from Stewart, an abundance of wah-wah action from Beck working around the stop-start riff, a mini-drum-solo and a further flurry of wah-wah and we're done. Magnificent.

If you take the album, drop out Greensleeves and Beck's Bolero and play the rest in sequence, you've got, arguably, the equivalent of a well-balanced live set. A heavy introduction through Shapes of Things and Let Me Love You, a slight breather for Morning Dew, back to full-on for You Shook Me, then the mid-set slowdown through Ol' Man River. Back into rockin' mode for Rock My Plimsoul, a vocal/guitar showcase on Blues De Luxe and a stomping finish with I Ain't Superstitious.

Cop that, young Harry!

In that context, sans repeats and filler, it's a magnificent album. With them in it's still, for Hughesy's money, an outstanding one.

And, with every repeat listen there's a reminder of what a great vocalist Rod Stewart used to be. Admittedly he went on to mega-stardom, but there's a chemistry on Truth that I'd argue is missing from much of his later work.

It's fairly obvious that most of that chemistry comes from Beck and Stewart sparking off each other, which is even more remarkable in the light of Stewart’s suggestion (in Rock Family Trees) that he spent two and a half years in the Jeff Beck Group without once looking Beck in the eye.

Regardless of the question of eye contact, and while the results were quite remarkable it’s not the sort of thing you'd expect to last too long.

There are many of the same elements on the follow-up, Beck-ola, though there's one significant difference. Where Truth was, largely, composed of covers Beck-ola, barring Jailhouse Rock and All Shook Up is mostly group-composed heavy metal with piano rave-ups. There’s a slight bit of relief on Girl From Mill Valley, but otherwise it’s high octane supercharged rifferama. Most tracks are OK in their own right but the album as a whole didn't have the same earth-shattering affect as my first taste of Truth.

Bearing the presence of Peter Grant behind the scenes it's no surprise to find many of the same elements that run through Truth present in spades throughout Led Zeppelin. The Jeff Beck Group had toured extensively in the States, which was where Grant and Jimmy Page had squarely aimed the New Yardbirds, Having sent a prototype out, with the benefit of experience they were able to tweak the formula and the result was the heavy metal behemoth we know as led Zeppelin.

For some reason, probably the many similarities between Truth and Led Zeppelin, but quite possibly a sense that there's something in there that ain't quite right, I never really got into Led Zeppelin, and the basis of that attitude was formed before Led Zeppelin II, Whole Lotta Love and Stairway To Heaven shot Plant, Page & Co. into the stratosphere.

Beck went on through the years, changing lineups as he went and while there's some very tasty stuff along the way Truth is, as far as Hughesy's concerned, close to where it's at when it comes to Jeff Beck (or, for that matter, Rod Stewart) releases...