|Jeff Beck (Wikipedia)|
In the space of just four years, Beck changed the course of rock history several times. His wild and boundless imagination embraced blues, rockabilly, Indian classical and sounds hitherto undreamt of. And he had the technique to usher all this into being.
In the days before Hendrix, Cream or Led Zeppelin, Jeff Beck was the ultimate guitar hero. In many ways, he still is today. And here are the key tracks that started it all.
Heart Full of Soul (The Yardbirds, 1965)
Jeff Beck's first single release with the Yardbirds would become a massive mid-'60s hit and set the pace for the branch of psychedelia known as raga rock - electric guitar emulations of Indian classical sitar music.
The Beatles had yet to release their first sitar recording, "Norwegian Wood," when the Yardbirds assembled in London's Advision Studios on April 20th, 1965. But Swingin' London cognoscenti, including Jimmy Page, had already begun discovering the music of sitar masters such as Ravi Shankar. Yardbirds' manager/producer Giorgio Gomelsky had even hired a sitar player and tabla accompanist for the "Heart Full of Soul" session.
But before East could meet West in cosmic accord, a few technical glitches needed to be ironed out. This would result in the first of many iconic Jeff Beck guitar riffs.
"It was a Graham Gouldman composition," Beck said of the track. "After he wrote For Your Love [The Yardbirds' first hit, with Eric Clapton on guitar] he came out with that. And they got this little Indian man [to play sitar], but he couldn't play 4/4 time. It was totally magical what he was doing, but it just didn't have any groove to it. And I showed him on guitar what I thought would be a good idea, which was that octave with the D string and the octave above, making this riff type thing. And they said, 'That sounds great. Let's just leave that.' And we sent the little Indian man on his way."
Given Beck's early background in rockabilly finger-picking, it was an easy matter for him to play a drone on the open D string of his 1954 Fender Esquire, while sounding the riff on the B string. The harmonically rich and sustained tonality required to emulate a sitar came from a prototype fuzz unit designed by Roger Mayer that Beck had borrowed from his friend since age 12 or so, Jimmy Page. It was plugged into a Vox AC30 combo, which would be Beck's amp for most of his work with the Yardbirds.
Train Kept A-Rollin' (The Yardbirds, 1965)
In September of 1965, during the Yardbirds' first American tour, Giorgio Gomelsky brought the band into two legendary American recording studios to lay down some tracks. It would result in some of the band's greatest recordings. Their first stop was Sun Records in Memphis, where producer Sam Phillips had cut the game-changing early sides by Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison that ignited the rock and roll revolution in the 1950s.
Ten years down the road, the Yardbirds were ready to take rock music to its next stratospheric plateau."We actually banged on Sam Phillips' door on a Sunday morning and said, 'We're coming in. Is that OK with you?'" Beck recalled. "He didn't want to do it. But Giorgio was totally persistent and we got in there."
Beck and the Yardbirds cut two songs at Sun, the protest number You're a Better Man Than I, and the band's own riff-intensive take on the Tiny Bradshaw/Johnny Burnette rockabilly classic, "Train Kept A Rollin'." The Yardbirds arrangement would become one of the all-time ultimate guitar jam songs, covered by everyone from Aerosmith to Metallica. But as a rockabilly purist, Beck had his doubts about the signature chordal riff he and the band had grafted onto the original.
"It wasn't what I wanted," he said. "I suppose I'm guilty as the next guy for bastardizing prerecorded tunes. But we just used to love playing that stuff. And something new sprung from it - a new kind of angle coming out of it, however small, was worth it."
Beck's playing on the track is anything but small, although he may have been more inspired by the location than the material. "I was on air that day," he said. "(A.) meeting Sam Philips and (B.) standing exactly where Elvis and Scotty Moore must have stood. Fantastic. [Philips] loved what we were doing. Went completely crazy. But one terribly embarrassing thing was when [Yardbirds vocalist] Keith [Relf] was standing next to me and [Philips] said, 'You gotta get rid of that singer. Boy he's bad.' And he realized he was standing just out of Keith's line of vision. And I hated him for that. 'Cause I never thought Keith was a bad singer at all. But after Elvis, I guess he did sound pretty bad."
Shapes of Things (The Yardbirds, 1966)
After the Sun dates, the Yardbirds next descended upon the Chess recording studios in Chicago, the site of seminal electric blues and primordial rock and roll recordings by Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Buddy Guy, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Willie Dixon, Little Walter and others. Once again, they came in awe of the studio's history, but would leave the building having made some history of their own.
"That was a very fruitful session - the greatest," Beck said. "Because there was no godfather of rockabilly there to tell us how bad we were. The engineer there couldn't understand why we wanted to go there. It was just a lowly kind of ill-equipped studio. But that was the reason why we went - to get the crude, open sound that we wanted. We heard the playbacks and we were just over the moon. That big, powerful bass drum!"
The Chess sessions would yield the band's raved-up take on Bo Diddley's I'm a Man and their proto-psychedelic masterpiece "Shapes of Things." Performed on his '54 Fender Esquire, Beck's guitar solo for the latter song was another milestone for Indian-flavored raga rock. "Heart Full of Soul" had been a great riff, but this was a full-blown modal guitar solo that stands as an integral composition within the overall structure of the song.
"There was mass hysteria in the studio when I did that solo," Beck said. "They weren't expecting it and it was just some weird mist coming from the East out of amp. Giorgio was freaking out and dancing about like some tribal witch doctor."
Beck's Bolero (Jeff Beck, 1966)
Although Beck was still a member of the Yardbirds when he cut this tour-de-force guitar instrumental, it was really his first step into a solo career that would stretch from the late '60s to the present day and establish him as one of the greatest electric guitarists of all time. "Beck's Bolero" also boasts one of the most amazing all-star lineups in all of rock history.
On the session at IBC Studios in London was Beck's fellow guitar hero Jimmy Page, future Led Zeppelin member John Paul Jones on bass, the immortal Nicky Hopkins (Beatles, Rolling Stones, Who, Kinks, Led Zeppelin) on piano and the Who's Keith Moon on drums.
"We couldn't mention him on the album because of contractual reasons," Beck says of Moon, who became a good friend during this period. "I just couldn't get enough of him," Beck admitted. "A day would go by in a half-hour - just complete lunacy. And genuine organic humor. I'm talking about stuff that was so nuts. I was totally in awe of that guy. You just wanted to have a rest. Your jaw would be aching from laughter. How [the Who] put up with him that long a time I'll never know."
Early pressings of "Beck's Bolero," list Beck as the sole composer of the piece. But it was actually co-written by Beck and Page, as later credits accurately reflect. Page was playing a Fender Electric XII 12-string and at this point Beck had moved from his Esquire to a Gibson Les Paul, which he put through a Vox AC-30 amp.
"It was my melody over [Page's] rhythm," Beck explained. "He came out with the bolero rhythm on the 12-string. But it's my riff in the middle. I'd decided that the Yardbirds' trademark was to stop, break all the rules, break up the rhythm and come into another complete thing. So we used that as the signature - to continue that kind of raw break."
Shapes of Things (The Jeff Beck Group, 1968)
Sam Phillips might have applauded Beck's decision to re-record the Yardbirds hit "Shapes of Things" with a new vocalist. And not just any vocalist. Rod Stewart was an emerging new talent at the time, and his brief tenure with the Jeff Beck Group would help launch him into the upper realms of rock super-stardom.
Re-recording one of his hits from just two years earlier was a ballsy move on Beck's part. So when Rod Stewart proposed the idea, Beck knew he would have to transform the song dramatically in order for it to work. In the process, he would inadvertently lay one of the cornerstones for heavy metal.
"Rod loved that song," Beck said." He thought it would be a great idea to do another angle on it, and I just wrote that complete other riff for it. And it became the precursor to a lot of power rock and roll - that plodding sort of rhythm that we nailed. That's what I wanted to do. And I suppose whenever I get named as a heavy metal innovator, that's probably one of the best examples of heavy metal in embryo."