Too Much Talent, Not Enough Taste or ‘The Unfortunate Music Of Jeff Beck’

10 10 2007

The Top Five Worst Jeff Beck Albums

1. Jeff Beck with the Jan Hammer Group Live
2. Flash
3. Rough & Ready
4. Beck-Ola
5. There and Back

Jeff Beck is one of a handful of 1960s guitarists credited with expanding the role of the instrument, a true original Guitar Hero. Along with fellow Yardbirds alumni Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page, Jeff showed that the guitarist could and should receive as much attention as the singer. Indeed, The Jeff Beck Group featured Rod Stewart on vocals, effectively relegating one of the greatest Rock voices of the age to the role of Jeff’s sideman.
There is certainly no doubting the innovation of Jeff’s playing with The Yardbirds. Not shy of using wacky effects, singles like Shapes of Things still sound extraordinary. I am also happy to concede that his blues playing displays all the subtlety of a master. However, having recently plunged headlong into listening to his Jeff Beck Group and solo work, I can only conclude that it’s almost all irredeemably rubbish.
Don’t get me wrong, we’re talking about the highest calibre rubbish here, the kind that only a finely assembled group of virtuosos could produce… Also, one can’t reasonably complain that Jeff has spent his career stuck in a rut – we have “heavy blues” rubbish, we have funky rubbish, we have (god help us) fusion rubbish, we have MOR instrumental rubbish, and finally we have ambient techno rubbish.
The first album, Truth, is the high water mark. With Led Zep et al so firmly established in the popular canon, it is easy to forget that there was a time before people had heard Willie Dixon blues standards mangled at top volume by Englishmen in loon pants. Rod’s wailing is top notch; Jeff’s playing setting the tone for Hard Rock to come.
Woefully however, this formula already palls by the time of Beck-Ola. The sleeve actually features this quote: “”Today, with all the hard competition in the music business, it’s almost impossible to come up with anything totally original. So we haven’t. However, this disc was made with the accent on heavy music. So sit back and listen and try and decide if you can find a small place in your heads for it.” Oh. My. God. What we have here is the classic mistake made by musicians emerging from the Pop market of the mid 60s into the late 60s Rock arena. Where once the songwriters in bands had conspired with producers to make daring slabs of brilliance on 45s, the industry now turned it’s attention to the instrumental prowess of people like Jeff Beck, feting their long solos and excusing their lack of DECENT MATERIAL on drab noisy albums. Beck-Ola is chock full of bad Elvis work outs and blues jamming.
I wouldn’t wish a car accident on anyone, but Jeff’s misfortune in ’69 at least allowed Rod and Ron Wood to decamp to the infinitely superior Faces.
Various artists have used their come back from this kind of absence from the music scene to re-establish a new version of themselves; the classic example being Dylan after the motorbike accident. Indeed, Jeff Back came back with a very different Jeff Beck Group. A very much WORSE Jeff Beck Group.
Rough & Ready is just awful. Unfocussed, it is half  jazzy instrumentals, and half naff AOR with Bob Tench’s awful singing. Who could have seen the Funk coming? Or it sounding so bad?
1973’s Jeff Beck Group – ah, the temptation of the self-titled album to draw a line under what has gone before and set out one’s stall anew. Just dull. Poor production; lord only knows how Steve Cropper has ended up with his name attached to this.
Then a mysterious backwards step – the Beck Bogert and Appice album (when you have names that catchy, why think of a proper name for your project?) is back into Blues Rock. Oops, still forgot to write any decent material.
Blow By Blow, the first “solo” solo album, is at least unusual. Entirely instrumental, Jeff gives up the pretence that music bearing his name is about anything else other than marvelling at his guitar playing. It sounds quite good, in no short measure due to the George Martin production, but it is still stupefyingly cheesy.
Enter the titans of Fusion! It was the mid 70s, Jeff had parted company with taste nearly a decade before – what to do? The obvious answer was to rope in Jan Hammer, keyboard maestro from the Matavishnu Orchestra (still a decade away from writing the iconic theme tune to Miami Vice). The Wired and There and Back albums are the most derivative Fusion bollocks one could have the misfortune to imagine, only topped in terms of worthlessness by the live album released in their midst. Noodling, self-important, pointless workouts. God did not intend for us to suffer their version of Pork Pie Hat.
The one thing in favour of Jeff’s 80s and 90s output is that there is less of it. Some record exec in the mid 80s must have thought it criminal that Jeff hadn’t had a “hit” in such a long time. The resulting album, Flash, is noteworthy for the excellent Rod Stewart vocals, and the “of-it’s-time” Rodgers/Baker production. This was a time when the “classy” use of synths on People Get Ready would have matched the “classy” suits everyone wore to the studio with the rolled up sleeves. This is that particular use of the word classy to mean shit.
And then the final phase. Working with ever more technologically-minded producers and programmers, the run of albums from Jeff Beck’s Guitar Shop onwards seem directed no longer at the chin-stroking Fusion market, but at the chin-stroking guitarist market. These are exhibitions of guitar derring-do, to sit comfortably next to release by Joe Satriani. The backings are diverse (Reggae, techno, all sorts), but ultimately irrelevant.
So, there we have it: one man’s mission to produce almost every type of music I don’t like.