“All I can tell you is that I never dwell on anything that’s been reasonably successful,” guitar legend Jeff Beck says as we begin the first of two lengthy conversations, focused on his new album, Loud Hailer, out July 15th, and his deluxe photo memoir BECK01, out now from Genesis Publications.
“I guess it’s my sense of inquisitiveness and maybe boredom, a mixture of the two. I always look for tomorrow in today. Whoever’s involved with my music at the time, I go along with them, hand-in-hand, to find out where I can go. The answers are always there if you look carefully enough.”
Unlike his contemporaries, Jeff Beck has only ever followed his muse. It’s frustrated many of his most ardent followers, but in hindsight it’s liberated Beck. At 72, he isn’t forced to tour the world playing his greatest hits, and Loud Hailer is proof positive.
After meeting rhythm guitarist Carmen Vandenberg and vocalist Rosie Bones at a party thrown by Queen’s drummer, and longtime friend, Roger Taylor, Beck caught the duo at a London club. Taken by both the pair’s charisma and lyrics, he invited them over for an evening of Proseco by the fire – as you would if you’re Jeff Beck. They began a collaboration that night that inspired Beck, and the resulting album is a smart social commentary from an artist whose guitar usually does the talking for him; a sort of Jeff Beck Group rebooted for the 21st Century.
“I’m glad you spotted that, because I can’t think of a better alignment than to have the 2016 JB Group,” Beck says when I mention this. “That’s what it really is. I’ve simplified my playing, and it’s ended up possibly being the closest you could get to a Truth album, with the state of my playing and where I’m at now. I simplified it on purpose, to get to the melodies in the best way possible.”
It serves the songs, full of intense imagery of the post-9/11, technologically obsessed world, well, especially on Live In The Dark, which boasts a gorgeous melody juxtaposed against some of Beck’s most tasteful guitar theatrics in recent memory, and the fantastic album closer “Shrine.”
It’s also a bold move for Beck, whose never been known by his fans as a musician prone to social commentary.
“I didn’t want to be stuck with the constraints of the general opinion of what it should be and what I should be doing,” Beck tells me proudly of the album. “I had to take leave of that. I had to do what no one expected, I think.
“I’ve always turned my back on what happened before, because I don’t think it does you that good to reflect on whatever success you had, or failure for that matter,” Beck continues. “It’s better to get that big old drill out and keep drilling the tunnel you’re going through.”
He was also inspired by a dear old friend from London’s swingingest days, David Bowie.
“I’d been digging into the sidebars of the tragedies of 9/11 and the aftermath, and realized that somebody had to do something positive out of that,” Beck explains. “It wasn’t just one particular aspect of it, though. Because there are so many unanswered questions. But mostly, for me, it was, ‘Where are we headed?’ I remember when I first heard the David Bowie song, Where Are We Now?, it really touched me. I became super strung-up, thinking about everything that’s happening in the world. So meeting these two girls, especially the singer, who is incredibly expressive and also wrote the lyrics, was more than I could wish for to help unfold some of it.”
The result is hardly the Jeff Beck album you might expect.
“It’s allowing someone to be central to the issue, the singer, and the music’s built around that,” Beck says. “That’s what I wanted: To be a lead guitarist. I knew it would be more effective that way, rather than if it was just an instrumental album, with me playing the melody and then taking a solo, even if it was built on the same ideas, at least in my head. Here, in effect, I let someone else take the solo. Besides, come on, how much longer I could do that? I needed a human voice. And the lyrics were so good, I thought, and pertinent, that I just felt it was the most dangerous thing I could do. I knew it could either be toast or it could be a huge album. But I’m prepared to take that risk. I can afford to take that risk, I think. Who cares if I get stoned to death about it? This is where I am now and what I wanted to say as an artist.”
Beck also took his time making Loud Hailer, his first studio album since 2010’s Emotion and Commotion, and Beck, and avid auto enthusiast, likens the process to building a car.
“In terms of building a car, although I’m becoming more proficient at it, you’re always waiting for it to bite you in the nuts,” Beck says with a laugh. “If you didn’t tighten that brake line or fuel line up, you’ll find out. I tested a car I recently built up for 600 miles. That’s the magic number of miles, for me. When it passed the test of 600 miles and nothing went wrong, I knew it was alright. It’s the same with music. I listen to anything I’m working on in 600 different places. And I’ve got a couple nuisance friends who decide to turn up just when they shouldn’t, when the car’s outside half-built, or my music isn’t quite finished. But that input is helpful, too. Then, after all is exhausted, I let it go. I know I can’t do any more and I’ve just got to let it go.”
Beck also has an exquisite new limited edition book, aptly titled BECK01, from high-end U.K. publishers Genesis Publications. It combines images that illustrate the story of Beck’s remarkable career, as well as some of his favorite guitars and cars that he’s owned over the years, held together by Beck’s memories of the remarkable times he’s been such a significant part of.
“I just love photograph albums of movie stars from the ’30s and ’40s, right up until about the ’60s, when they used those old, really big plate cameras,” Beck says of the inspiration behind BECK01. “People sort of know what I do – fans know my story right from when I got out of school – but there are millions who don’t. So even if they’re not interested in the music, the book shows an evolution, not just of me but the times, as well. In pictures. Pictures are amazing. Even just blurred pictures tell a story. So we chose the ones that are the most pertinent to the particular era we were trying to illustrate. And, of course, along the way we show how many bands I’ve been with and the musical diversions I’ve made.”
When I ask if the process changed Beck’s impression of his own life, he laughs.
“It showed me how utterly ugly I was,” Beck tells me, and roars with laughter. “Fucking hell!”
But, mostly, Beck says, he kept asking himself one simple question: “How can I still be here?”
The text goes a long way to answering that question. Beck comes across as witty and insightful, showing a side of himself most fans have never been privy to.
“That text shouldn’t have been there,” Beck admits. “The Genesis folks got me talking, and they were very good listeners. A good listener is the worst thing, because they get you talking too much. They got so much information. I wanted a book where every page was a full-page picture and just left the viewer with their jaw dropped, wondering, ‘What’s going on here?’ But they wanted something to outline each story and make the book flow a little bit, and I think they’ve done a wonderful job.”
One of those stories, and a true highlight of BECK01, is Beck’s memory of his aborted pilgrimage to visit the Fender factory in California, while on tour with the Yardbirds back in the 60’s.
“We stopped at a freeway gas station, and called for directions, and were told not to bother,” Beck remembers, still incredulous and a little hurt at the memory. “We were told, ‘Leo doesn’t want long hair anywhere near his factory. He found out you’re with the Yardbirds, and he hates long hair, so don’t bother to come.’ We turned right around. Of course all these years later I’m here selling Fender guitars for them!”
What was Beck looking for from the inventor of the Stratocaster and Telecaster?
“The Fender Tele and Stratocaster were the holy grail. So what could be better than to go see them being made?” Beck asks, rhetorically. “Maybe not so much now, but then, who wouldn’t want to see the origin of them? My school friends and I used to look at a dog-eared catalog of Fenders when we were growing up. They were full of these old lithos, with hardly any decent photos. Just touched-up drawings. And the catalog said ‘Santa Ana’ on the back. We wondered, ‘Where the hell’s Santa Ana?’ So, on tour with the Yardbirds, we kept seeing these signs that said, ‘Santa Ana.’ It was like an unfolding dream, but for real! Then, to be told by the man himself that we weren’t wanted…”
Beck trails off at the memory, still clearly feeling its sting.
Another significant thing you come away with from BECK01 is that Jeff Beck is a real music fan. Whether it’s heroes like Little Richard and Gene Vincent, or friends and collaborators like Stevie Wonder and Ronnie Lane, his love of anyone who has touched him with their art is obvious. Beck puts that down to his mother.
“She would say, ‘Never, ever underestimate people. Never put yourself above anybody. Don’t ever get delusions of grandeur,’” Beck recalls. “That was something she felt really strongly about, and it was even one of the last things she said to me. I said to her, rather thoughtlessly, ‘Can I have just a couple of delusions?’”
With Loud Hailer and BECK01 complete, Beck is back out on the road this summer, with a major show – 50 Years of Jeff Beck – planned for the Hollywood Bowl on August 10th, and Beck promises surprises, even if he’s still not quite sure what they are.
“I’ve got to figure out how I’m going to put that show together,” Beck admits, as we wrap up. “I’ve got to come up with a way to do in two and a half hours all that music, taking one or two songs from each notable part of my career: i.e., the Yardbirds and the Rod Stewart days, onto Blow by Blow, BBA, the Stevie Wonder period, on through to the techno stuff and now to the new stuff. Somehow or other I’ve got to make sense of it, and it’s going to be quite a learning curve for me.
“Plus, I’ve got to figure out whether I keep the same band throughout and mimic the different periods, or whether we get the same players from those times. It would probably cost me everything to do that, and there’s not much space on stage at the Bowl, but that would certainly be something.”