They say that
the army is like a society within a society, a state within a state. And you
could say that the guitarist community is much the same. It's a tiny world in
which everyone knows one another. Be it in the bar, in the market or up on the
stage - sooner or later, our paths cross. Jeff Beck forms a part of this world's social elite, of the 'nomenklatura'. He
may be the enfant terrible, but he is definitely one of ours. And possibly one
of the most gifted.
There will be those that think – and they would be right – that he has failed to take full advantage of his prodigious fingers and prolific mind. Without doubt, the size of his current account is by no means comparable to the greatness of his art and creativity. But this is precisely what makes him so powerful. Nobody can accuse Beck of having interests beyond his six strings and amp. His mind set on developing his genius, Beck has never shied away from a challenge. Obsessed with seeing how far he could go, he began his magical journey on the back of a Stratocaster and from it conjured up unimaginable sounds. Beck set himself impossible objectives. And beat them.
One man sows while another man reaps. Beck always cultivates his own sounds, sometimes disconnected from the current musical trends and sometimes hand in hand with them - depending on his interests. If he jumped on the techno bandwagon back in the 80s, it was to prove he was capable of finding the same musical pentagrams he shared with heavy metal; if he decided to opt for the elegance of jazz brushes for the drums in 'Emotion and commotion', it was because he knew his guitar could make them sound like the ladies of honour invited to a fireside rock session. And even create the snap of the burning wood.
And he can do so because right from when he was a little boy, he showed the world that he was a master of raw blues. Pure power, he half closes his eyes, mopping his brow while he does his work. Done and dusted, the next guy can pick that up; I've got better things to do.
Born in Wallington on the outskirts of London, of all the bluesmen, if there is one that is a true Brit, it is Jeff Beck. However ironic this may seem given his innate ability of arriving too early…or amazingly late, somehow always missing the limelight. This suburb of Britain's sprawling capital, whose name in ancient Anglo Saxon means 'village of the Britons', was the town that gave Beck his wandering spirit, a spirit that rode out on the back of a guitar body, hands gripping its neck tightly but lovingly, beginning a long journey in which many times he would set up shop before the locals were ready for such as show, or others where he would finally turn up once the other guys had already basked in their glory, the flashbulbs spent and the headlines written, only in time to help the roadies getting their things together in order to set off for the next gig.
Jeff Beck, fifth all-time greatest guitarist according to Rolling Stone's much-revered listing, has paid a heavy price for his purity and determination. Together with Clapton and Page, he was one of the three aces that at one time or another led the Yardbirds and soon amazed with the impossible sounds that his frantic fingers managed to get out of a six-stringed wooden box and a wah-wah pedal. Just when things were getting good and the band looked to be all set for stardom, Beck grabbed his Fender Squire, got off the train and took a hike.
They all want to play with Beck. Armed with his Stratocaster 'signature', Gibson Les Paul or Telecaster, he has recorded and gigged with the best of them. Names that have managed to reap the benefits of what was sown much better than he has, the millions of fans and wide-eyed groupies, all with wallets waiting to be harvested.
Many big birds have flown alongside Beck, from Rod Stewart to Mick Jagger. Many, such as Jimmy Page or Ronnie Wood, owe their wings to him. These men, who have been selling records for centuries – box sets, collector's editions, gold and platinum, success after success, all started their days suckling from the teat that was the Jeff Beck Group..
One of his greatest commercial successes was 'Blow by Blow', produced by George Martin. With this fifth Beatle working his wonders from the other side of the globe, there came a creation of blues guitars over a backdrop of funky percussion and bass. Was this the fashion back in 1975? Well, no: Once again, Beck was ahead of what would become tomorrow's top ten. This was one of his greatest talents: to always be sensitive to the new sound round the corner, to be one of the first up riding the new wave.
Many great artists have supped from Beck's cup, including Joe Satriani and Eddie Van Halen. Others, such as Roger Waters and John Bon Jovi, have looked to him when in need of coming back from the ashes. All of them, even B.B. King himself, who invited him up onto the blues king's altar in 2003, have bathed in the genius's magical light and have benefited a good deal more than the guitarist himself from the radio-formulaic beats that bring in the royalties and open the doors to stardom.
Musically, Beck is also lauded as the man that built the foundations of heavy metal, travelling alone to the other side of the Atlantic, to the highest peaks of high-pitched shrieks and rugged echoes, to the humid fields rocked by the warm breeze of the Delta blues.
Five fingers, six strings and one pedal after Jeff Beck's arrival, rock took shape, quickly becoming the eternal wall of sound screamed out by Marshalls and Fenders. And like the English gent that he is, he knew that this alone was to be his golden paycheck, and was happy with it. Not making a song and dance about the issue, he left his glass on the thirty-times over varnished woodwork, straightened his jacket collar, paid the man and walked through the club door into the cold darkness that exists between a gig and a review. Few gossip about him, but everyone he leaves behind owes him the air they breathe.
The barman takes the glass, gives it a quick wipe, puts the pennies in the till and presses 'play'. And there he is, a member of the Chief of Staff for many a decade. The 'Beck-Ola' blasts out his word.