After a dazzling debut with the Yardbirds, this gifted man revered by Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page, partner of Rod Stewart and pioneer of jazz-rock, led a career that was up and down, full of flashes and renunciations. He passed away at 78.
Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck. Of the Three Musketeers, British electric guitar giants, who is the sharpest blade? Without hesitation, the first two, guitar heroes supreme, will answer in unison: Beck. The elusive virtuoso, pure musician who, always seeking to flee fame rather than court it, died of bacterial meningitis on January 10, at the age of 78.
A model of originality and creativity, the musician has been cited as an absolute example by most six-string monuments (from David Gilmour to Joe Perry via Johnny Marr and John Frusciante), solicited and respected by the tenors of soul (Stevie Wonder) and jazz-rock (Jan Hammer). His name is certainly known, but his personality has remained, like his heterogeneous discography covering more than five decades, difficult to define.
Allergic to compromise
Still on the run (“Always on the run”) was the title, in 2018, of a fascinating documentary which had tried to seize the animal, never very difficult to locate. Because Jeff Beck, when he was not fiddling with the neck of his instrument, spent most of his time at home, in Kent where he grew up, his hands in the grease and his nose in the engine of one of his many hot rods, collectible cars refurbished and customized by him. A real obsession, so much so that he had placed a guitar in each room of his house, garage-workshop included, so as not to completely forget that he had “another job”.
A first occupation, music, to which he devoted the most extreme of passions, both physical and spiritual, a source for him of constant conflict with the demands of showbiz and commercial success. Rarely has the career of a universally celebrated musician looked so much like a succession of voluntary, self-assured self-scuttling.
“Jeff Beck is a genius, the guitarist I respect the most in the world. The problem is that no one can get along with him. He is afraid of success. The last time I took him on tour, he ran away. » Thus Rod Stewart, at the end of the 1980s, evoked his enemy brother, between tenderness and spite. The hoarse singer, the “ideal and therefore irreplaceable voice”, according to the guitarist, who contributed to making the Jeff Beck Group the prototype of a blues-rock as powerful and heavy as stratospheric, in two essential recordings (Truth1968, and Beck Ola, 1969), knew what to expect. Jeff Beck had already done it, to him as to others.
Dissatisfaction, frustration, instability? The origin of Beck’s asociability remains a mystery. Unless it simply boils down to a chronic allergy to any compromise. Music can only come from within, obeying no external rules. The six-string virus came to him early. An obstinacy born of two revelations which imposed themselves as evidences in the young boy. The first, that the piano was not the right choice. “Once you hear Art Tatum, you know you can’t get behind such a genius,” he confided. The second ? The discovery on the radio of Les Paul, pioneer of the electric guitar with a strange and fascinating sound. All it took was for young Jeff’s mother to let go that it was just a show, nothing tampered with in the studio by a crook, for the kid, enchanted, to say to himself: “Eureka, I found it! »
Like an alchemist, you can invent new, mysterious sounds thanks to this instrument. Like all his contemporaries of the fifties, the teenager learns to master it by ear, trying to reproduce the solos on the records of Elvis Presley, Ricky Nelson or Gene Vincent.
“We couldn’t even hear the voices, we were so focused on the guitar. ” ” We “at the time, it was Jeff and a certain Jimmy Page, another local kid with whom he shared the same passion. ” Lack of means, says Page, I had a hand made instrument and I was told about this guy. I showed up at his house. He too had a DIY guitar, but also an incredible disco of blues records. » Jeff and Jimmy challenge each other. “It was a question of who could best reproduce the solos of Cliff Gallup or James Burton”. A deep and complicit friendship is established between the two gifted.
When, in the early 1960s, Beck, on the sidelines of his art studies, began to play in London clubs, his reputation as a prodigy grew rapidly. So that when the Yardbirds, the most credible and purist of the rivals of the Stones, thanks to their luminous guitarist Eric Clapton, say to themselves that it is time to go up a notch, they solicit Beck. Eric Clapton, discovering it on stage, can’t believe it. “I was ready to throw down the gauntlet, to stop everything. This guy was amazing; in front of him, I was only a poor beginner without talent. »
A ball of frustration
Ironically, the Yardbirds, with their new guitarist, finally land the hits they dreamed of (Heart full of soul, Shapes of Things…), but this success only serves to firmly anchor in Jeff Beck’s head everything he will never want: to please the greatest number at the expense of his artistic integrity. And if he contributes to enriching the band’s sound palette through his incessant research and stylistic inventions – to use Clapton’s analysis, “Beck is one of the rare rock musicians to have understood jazz” – he quickly turns into a ball of frustration.
In a memorable scene from Blow-up d’Antonioni, we see him coldly destroying his instrument on stage with rage (alongside Jimmy Page, who in the meantime has become the second guitarist of the Yardbirds!). It will not take long to take the tangent. In the middle of the American tour, Beck calls Page in the night: “Tomorrow and from now on, you’re in charge, I’ve had enough of this commercial circus. »
Jeff Beck returns home, rediscovers the tranquility of his countryside and the company of the gleaming Corvette that he offered himself with the stamp of Antonioni’s film. Until he meets an old acquaintance, Ron Wood, also idle since the split of his Birds. And as he has a friend, Rod Stewart, with the fabulous croaking throat, Beck finds the desire. That of inventing a modern blues that will tip the genre into another dimension, where the sonic explosion would marry with the rawest emotion. It will be Truth, of the Jeff Beck Group, the album which gives direction to his old comrade Page, who has just founded Led Zeppelin.
The same pattern, however, is repeated. The success of the Jeff Beck Group, particularly in the United States, quickly upset the unstable guitarist, whose love-hate relationship with Rod the Mod did nothing to help matters, and pushed him to ring the bell again, without to warn you, the end of the game. This time, it is a planned participation in the Woodstock festival that decides Beck. “Perhaps the best decision I have made in my life”, he says today, without an ounce of regret or irony. The glory that fell on so many participants in the greatest musical gathering of the time would have been nothing but a nightmare for him. Just like this cursed Hi Ho Silver Lining, imposed by his manager Mickie Most: a pop tube in which he sings and which he will never stop denying.
The following ? A legendary collaboration on innervisions with Stevie Wonder, with whom he had composed Superstition (the riff and the rhythm are his). Then a metal funk power trio as explosive as it is ephemeral, Beck, Bogert & Appice, assembled with the backbone of Cactus and Vanilla Fudge… But in 1974, Jeff Beck was still struggling to find a voice that inspired him as much as that of Rod Stewart. Fascinated by the Mahavishnu Orchestra of John McLaughlin, he then turned to instrumental jazz-rock, a freer territory, open to all possible experimentation. He forms a bond with the Czech musician Jan Hammer on keyboards. With his refined and audacious albums (Blow by Blow and Wiredin particular) for lovers of felt virtuosity, Beck becomes above all a “musician for musicians”away from a rock world to which he nevertheless returned occasionally, faithful to his first emotions (The Honeydrippers with Robert Plant and Jimmy Page, sessions for Mick Jagger, Kate Bush or Roger Waters, a rockabilly album devoted to his model Cliff Gallup…).
Jeff Beck will remain this authentic eccentric genius, never stingy with flashes, from whom you never know what to expect. And of which we have always listened, at least out of curiosity, intrigued, each new disc to hear from him, to reassure ourselves. And to think that if his production, for thirty years, not forbidding himself any experience (from nu-soul to electro), has often passed over our heads – his recent clumsy collaboration with Johnny Depp in particular – at least he will always have done only what he wanted. Integrate to the end.