Jeff Beck, British guitar hero, dead at 78

Jeff Beck, one of the most influential guitarists of the 20th century, died Wednesday at the age of 78. The cause was bacterial meningitis. Beck had been in good health recently, touring with Johnny Depp following the recording of their (mostly) covers album, “18.”

While Beck himself never achieved the household name status of his peers like Eric Clapton or Jimmy Page, those in the know would cite him as just as foundational. He also spanned genres, from British Invasion pop to hard rock to jazz fusion to whatever kind of jammy six-string concrète was laid down on the 1989 “Guitar Shop” album or 1999’s “Who Else?!”

In 1965, at the age of 21, Beck joined The Yardbirds, a blues-y pop-rock outfit, replacing the exiting Eric Clapton. There could be no bigger shoes to fill at the time, as British fans of the period idolized Clapton to the point of public nuisance—the phrase “Clapton Is God” was an oft-seen work of graffiti that caused a bit of controversy in its day. Beck’s use of distortion on the electric guitar was heard on a number of hits with the band, among them “Over Under Sideways Down” and “Shapes of Things.” Even if you think you’ve never heard these songs before, you have. What’s more, the use of electric guitar on these tracks was met with great enthusiasm by Beck’s contemporaries.

He and the Yardbirds eventually broke it off, and he was replaced by Jimmy Page, though there was a period where both were in the group. (And this is what was captured on the tune “Train Kept A-Rolling” in Michelangelo Antonioni’s film “Blow-Up.”) In 1966, he recorded the track “Beck’s Bolero,” a wildly influential instrumental that mixed classical music with proto-heavy metal, with The Who’s Keith Moon on drums, his old pal Jimmy Page joining him on guitar, and future Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones and the ubiquitous Nicky Hopkins on piano. This session led directly to the creation of Led Zeppelin (even its name, which was a joke Moon made about a possible collaboration’s chances in the marketplace).

Beck then formed his first of many bands, with future superstar Rod Stewart on vocals, Aynsley Dunbar (later of Journey) on drums, and eventual Rolling Stones member Ron Wood on rhythm guitar and then bass. Rod Stewart and Ron Wood left Beck’s orbit to join the Small Faces, changing the name to just Faces. A lot of great early tracks you think are Rod Stewart tunes are actually Faces tunes. Look ‘em up.

In the early 1970s, Beck recorded with Stevie Wonder on the “Talking Book” album (check out the solo on “Lookin’ For Another Pure Love”) and Wonder actually wrote his huge hit “Superstition” for Beck. Beck recorded it with his short-lived power trio Beck, Bogert, and Appice (two alumni of Vanilla Fudge.) While Wonder’s version is, of course, the classic, the BBA recording has a quality all its own. He also used the “talk box” live in concert years before Peter Frampton ever did. 

All of this is leading to an unexpected turn the maestro took in 1975, which found him at the forefront of the jazz fusion movement. Two instrumental albums produced by the BeatlesGeorge Martin, “Blow by Blow” and “Wired,” were Platinum-selling hits for Beck, and grabbed listeners who don’t like popular music to be put in a box and shook them to their core. Originals with unusual names like “Freeway Jam,” “Constipated Duck,” and “Head For Backstage Pass” were tightly composed but offered launchpads for technical fury. (There are also songs on there based on compositions by The Beatles, Charles Mingus, and Stevie Wonder.) What’s more, the two albums really work as a diptych, even though the personnel is completely different on each one. Richard Bailey is the drummer on “Blow By Blow” and Narada Michael Walden is on “Wired,” but they are both doing the same incredible thing. When Beck took this show on the road Bernard ‘Pretty’ Purdie sat behind the kit. Good luck picking a favorite.

Beck’s jazz-rock work in the 1970s continued (he joined forces with the Jan Hammer Group for a while) and then he veered back toward pop in the 1980s. He had a huge hit with a cover of Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready” with his old chum Rod Stewart on vocals. He continued making instrumental albums, ultimately winning eight Grammys off of 17 nominations. Just before the COVID-19 pandemic, he joined forces with Depp to record an unusual group of cover tunes, eventually hitting the road together. 

In 2015, he was listed fifth in Rolling Stone’s list of 100 best guitarists and remained someone that other guitarists always crowed about as a primary influence. 

If you had to pick just one tune to summarize just what he could do, check out “Sophie” from the “Wired” album.

 

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