Jeff Beck and Rock N’ Roll
After a couple of decades where he seemed to surface only for the occasional brief tour and album, guitarist extraordinaire Jeff Beck has been everywhere of late.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member just won three Grammy Awards, he has a new album and DVD – “Rock ‘n’ Roll Party (Honoring Les Paul)” – and he’s touring first with a Les Paul Tribute show, which stops at Boston’s Wang Theatre on March 26, before returning on April 13 to his “Emotion and Commotion” tour, celebrating his acclaimed 2010 album.
In the midst of all this madness, the 66-year-old British guitarist who rose to fame with the Yardbirds, took time out to speak about some of his favorite subjects. Those topics included his deep admiration of Paul (who died in 2009 at the age of 94); Beck’s own work with Eric Clapton; an unforgettable night with Jimi Hendrix; and a potential musical reunion with Rod Stewart, his singing partner from their days together in the Jeff Beck Group, which produced classic late 1960’s albums like “Beck-Ola.”
What’s your earliest recollection of hearing Les Paul?
I was pretty young, six years old, I’d estimate, 1950-ish. And I just remember hearing this incredible intro to “How High the Moon.” And then the compactness of the way the record sounded compared with the way records were going. Then there was this amazing solo, which I didn’t know what it was. My mom explained the electric guitar. Immediately my ears became attuned to it. You don’t forget that. At six years old everything is new and exciting but that never left me, the sound of that.
What do you think Les’ greatest contributions to music are?
I should imagine the most impressive sound he made with a slap echo. Y’know, they take the record and playback and they repeat. And the multi-tracking – the facility that allows people to overdub their voice and many other instruments. It was just completely revolutionary at the time. The only other option was mono, which you have to play, press the record button and that’s it. It was so far reaching into the future with the simplest of notions, I mean stacking the record heads and making wider tape was Les’ idea.
Not only that, he was a fabulous musician. All the records he made were beautiful examples of musicianship with melody, harmony and bass lines all there. Not many drums, it was all guitar based, it was a perfect match for voice and guitar.
How did you meet Les?
He came to a gig in Avery Fisher Hall in the 1970s when John McLaughlin and I were doing a concert. To watch him at the side of the stage when John was doing his (guitar) shreds was quite fantastic (laughs). I’ll never forget what Les said when I walked off the stage. He said “I’ve got to go and get a hot dog but carry on with whatever it is you’re doing.” But he winked so it was all safe.
Then I just seemed to see him more often. Every time I played New York at the Roseland he was there….Then I went to his birthday at the Hard Rock, he was in his 70s then. Sadly, he’s no longer there and he’s bitterly missed.
Four days after you end the tour honoring Les Paul you’re going right back into the Emotion and Commotion Tour on April 13. Is that going to be a weird transition?
It might feel that way when I get there but it’s really just unfinished business at that end of the United States, in Florida, it’s one place that we didn’t get to do, and some other places other than Florida that we didn’t get to do.
If you could go back in time to just one musical moment in your life for just one night where would you go back to?
Wow (laughs). I suppose it would be playing with Jimi Hendrix. That was in, I think it was ’69, Jimi had just bought a new ’69 Corvette and we drove ‘round and ‘round Manhattan until it boiled over. He got out and someone drove it off (laughs). That was amazing. And then we played that night in a club, we just jammed until four o’clock in the morning. Things didn’t get much better after that (laughs).
I know you have a huge guitar collection, when did you play your first Les Paul guitar, do you remember the model?
It was a 1958 or ’59 Sunburst. I loved it. It felt like a really great piece of furniture. But it still didn’t hit the spot that the Fender Stratocaster did. The contour, body and the way it fit me, it was just like wearing a really comfortable suit. The Les Paul was more challenging because of the weight of it, but the tone was there that the Fender will never have and vice versa. So you have to make a decision as to what you’re going to have as your main instrument. After seeing Hendrix I thought, “I’ll stick with the ‘Strat.”
How did you enjoy the concerts you did with Eric Clapton last year and how did those compare with other times you had played together in the past?
There have not been that many times when we did play. There was the Ronnie Lane thing (1983 benefit concert), that was probably a better example because I had my own band but we somehow managed to pull one accord for the charity. (This time) It was, let me say, a little bit worrying, to offer myself up to be compared with Eric because Eric is so loved and so hugely adored by the world at large. I was a bit apprehensive about it, but I think it came off quite well, the fact that we got together at the end and played.
Are you going to release anything from those shows?
I’m not sure, he (Clapton) has control over that, I’m not sure what’s going on with that. Some of the stuff from the (all-star Clapton produced guitar festival) Crossroads shows (have been released) but I haven’t seen anything from The O2 (London venue) or from Madison Square Garden.
The version of “Moon River” at Madison Square Garden was great.
(laughs) That was his idea, I thought he’d gone crazy but he said “Trust me it’s going to work.”
You sent some tracks recently to Rod Stewart, which you’ve described as “sort of Chapter 2 of ‘Beck-Ola.’” There’ve been some varying reports as to whether an album with you two is definitely going to happen, what is the status?
It’s a red hot question at the moment because I’m still auditioning him to see if he’s good enough (laughs). No, I’m kidding. He’s in fine voice. I think to go a bit further now we have to find if we can actually make this happen. After describing it (in comparison to) “Beck-Ola,” we’ve got to deliver. So therefore the material is of the highest importance, to suit the voice that is his now, not to try and re-create what was there. So I need to know the range. Until we’ve selected the material we’ve reached a stop, but it’s in motion, it’s ongoing.
Who else would you like to have playing on the album, as far as other musicians?
Again there are several options open at the moment, it might be my band, it might be a neutral band, it might be just selected players, but until we get the material we can’t make a finite decision on the players.
It seems like you’ve been much more active in recent years? How come?
Well the new management seems to have taken flight with my career – pushed me all over the world. Intensive interview sessions such as the one we’re having now are helping. The whole Harvey Goldsmith system behind it is making it enjoyable but also very exhausting. I was in Russia one minute and then Finland and Perth, Australia. But that’s what I do, I chose that career, I’ve got to put up with it. But it’s producing results. I’d rather do that at this stage of my life and career, then say, had it happened 10 years ago and I’d be, I don’t know, planting potatoes or something (laughs).
You’ve done your own great renditions of classic songs like “Over the Rainbow,” “A Day in the Life,” and even a Barbra Streisand tribute recently. Any more futuristic versions of classic or two that you’d like to perform?
Yes. I’ve got a few I’ve already recorded that didn’t make the “Emotion & Commotion” album. I played them the other night and I thought – this should have gone on the album. But as it was, the powers that be decided that running order would be best not be messed around with because there would have been an imbalance of material, too much orchestral.
What were the tracks?
There was a version of Mahler’s “The Adagietto,” which is one of the best things I’ve ever played I’m much more focused on that…I might keep that. There’s (something by) Holst, one of the tracks, which is just beautiful for guitar. But there again it’s a lit bit more of a “Nessun Dorma” type thing so we’ll put it out to the vote to see whether people like it or not. I don’t want to throw it away, do you know what I mean? I’m very proud of those pieces. I want to make sure they go on the right album.
You recently won three Grammys, not bad at all for a guy who’s been doing this for more than four decades.
I do not have any relationship at all with anybody from the Grammys let me tell you that (laughs).
What exactly does the recognition at this point in your life mean to you?
More than it should perhaps. I’m secretly thrilled. It’s easy to hurl abuse at those awards ceremonies like the Oscars and all that, which we tend to do. We tend to vent our anger at things which we feel are unjust or undeserving. But when you’re the recipient it makes it a lot different. Because it means so much to America, hopefully it radiates throughout the world. I take it with the best spirit with which it is intended. If it enlarges the career, or does anything to spread the word, then it’s good.
When you played with Les Paul on occasion, can you give me an example of something that he could do with a guitar that completely amazed you?
Yeah, the speed. Not so much in the later years because he suffered from osteoarthritis which means your joints are all swollen. But he would pick out melody from nowhere right at the most unexpected point in the solo and that’s what endeared me to him. We all know the speed he could play at. But it was the slow blues that was so rich. He’d play a melody that you thought you’d heard before, then you’d find out that it was genius coming out from a uniquely arranged set of notes. It’s stuff like that which was obviously influenced by Django Reinhardt. He was that kind of a messenger for Django but in a very much more impish way. He played much more sprightly, and with the slap echo he gave birth to rock ‘n’ roll rockabilly guitar.
What are you looking forward to in the next year and beyond that?
…I’m looking at more orchestral stuff provided we get the research into it to make sure that’s what people would like. More wild rock ‘n’ roll definitely, so there’ll be two things going on at once. I can’t do without that.