Truth (Epic ‘68, '06) Rating: A
Jeff Beck’s pioneering mid-60s accomplishments with The Yardbirds
dwarfed those of Eric Clapton
and Jimmy Page, and though his former band sometimes had a "dated" '60s sound, the best of those performances can still startle. Though now credited solely to Jeff Beck, way back when Truth was the debut album from the Jeff Beck Group. Which is fitting, for stellar contributors such as Rod Stewart (vocals), Ronnie Wood (bass), and Mick Waller (drums) were no more a mere backing band than the early ‘70s Alice Cooper or Santana groups. Of course, Beck was the star, which he proves on the gorgeous acoustic instrumental interlude “Greensleeves,” the majestic “Beck’s Bolero” (i.e. Beck's metallic take on Ravel's "Bolero"), and “I Ain’t Superstitious,” which Beck himself admits was “more or less an excuse for being a flash on guitar.” Elsewhere, a young and hungry Rod Stewart shines on a soulful, psychedelic version of Bonnie Dobson/Tim Rose’s “Morning Dew” (one of my favorite cover versions ever) and the traditional hymnal "Ol' Man River," which likewise all but oozes soul, while the whole band burns on the tasty, aptly titled “Blues De Luxe,” which lasts for over 7 long minutes and features a fabulous piano cameo from session ace Nicky Hopkins. Granted, the songwriting isn’t always up to the standards of the band's spectacular playing (and singing), and an abundance of cover songs and the fact that Beck felt the need to redo The Yardbirds’ classic “Shapes Of Things” demonstrates that the group hadn't really written enough songs for a full album before entering the studio (ironically, while the rest of the band shines, it is Beck himself who fails to match his incredible previous performance on this song, though it's still a very notable rendition in its own right). Still, the spontaneous excitement that went into these incredibly powerful performances is always apparent, and the band’s heavy take on the blues, particularly on excellent tracks like "Let Me Love You" and the aforementioned "I Ain't Superstitious," was an important precursor to what would soon become known as “heavy metal.” Note: Beck was allegedly miffed by the popularity of former bandmate Jimmy Page's new group, Led Zeppelin. After all, their styles (circa '68) were very similar, and Zeppelin even covered Willie Dixon's "You Shook Me," which resides here as well, though this much shorter version (also featuring Hopkins) swings whereas Zep's plods. I personally think that Zeppelin was easily the superior band, but the comparison isn't without merit as the original Jeff Beck Group were great in their own right. Note #2: Aside from containing one of the all-time great riffs, "Beck's Bolero" is notable for several reasons. For one thing, the song was actually recorded during Beck's Yardbirds days with a "supergroup" that consisted of Hopkins, Who drummer Keith Moon, and future Zep members Jimmy Page (guitar) and John Paul Jones (bass). Obviously the song wasn't released until much later, and there's also much debate about who wrote the song, Page insisting that he "wrote it, played on it, produced it" (needless to say Beck disagrees). Lastly, Beck's unorthodox slide playing on this exotic song was so innovative that Duane Allman became obsessed with it and Gregg said that Duane (perhaps the all-time slide guitar master) had never even thought of playing slide guitar before hearing it (Jeff's playing was not in a traditional blues or country style, which was unique). Note #3: I prefer the mono single version of "Rock My Plimsoul" to this still-good album version. Note #4: The reissue includes eight bonus tracks including one of my absolute favorite Rod Stewart performances on “I’ve Been Drinking,” which also features another prime performance from Hopkins on piano; naturally Beck is no slouch as well.
Beck-Ola (Epic ‘69) Rating: A-
With drummer Mick Waller out and his replacement Tony Newman in along with the addition of Nicky Hopkins as a full time band member, Beck and company (including Wood who was also fired but then rehired) didn't tinker with the formula of Truth too much. If anything, the album is more heavy and one-dimensional, and at a padded out 31 minutes the album doesn't give consumers much bang for their buck (be on the lookout for relatively rare 2-for-1 compilations with Truth). Still, though these aren't great songs per se, the band plays and Rod sings the heck out of them. To quote Beck about the album: "In four days we nailed together Beck-Ola...That whole album was pretty much made up on the spot...It was made in desperation to get product out...We just got vicious on it, because we were all in bad moods, and it came out quite wild." That's pretty much the appeal of this album, as despite the thin production by out-of-his-element producer Mickie Most, these heavy blues-based numbers rock hard, with a raw immediacy and a spontaneous excitement. I mean, "The Hangman's Knee" was incredibly heavy for 1969, with Beck's screaming guitar playing of course being the primary selling point. "Plynth (Water Down The Drain)" is another rumbling, raging, funky rocker, while "Spanish Boots" delivers more heavy blues-based goodness. Saving the best for last, the 7+ minute instrumental "Rice Pudding," basically a jam session captured on tape, is a perfect example of the band's combustible chemistry and explosive ensemble playing; particularly notable is Beck's spectacular guitar slide guitar playing. Whether with Waller or Newman/Hopkins, the Wood/Stewart version of the Jeff Beck Group had that special "it" factor, simple as that, and the album's only real weakness is in the songwriting (always Beck's Achilles heel along with his inability to keep a band together due to his notoriously difficult personality). After all, though their high-energy makeovers of Elvis Presley's "All Shook Up" and "Jailhouse Rock" are smoking examples of how to completely reconfigure someone else's song as your own, covering Elvis instead of Willie Dixon is hardly my idea of creative growth, and Hopkins' piano/organ interlude "Girl From Mill Valley" is pretty but sounds out of place (variety really wasn't this band's strong suit). Still, though this was a less innovative and inspired effort overall than the epochal Truth, fans of that album will likely also enjoy Beck-Ola, which for all its faults is still one of the cornerstone albums of Jeff Beck's discography. Note: After Beck-Ola Stewart, who is in fine form throughout the album, then departed the band for a tremendously successful solo career (far more commercially successful than Beck’s, actually), taking with him Waller and Wood. Wood also joined Stewart in his simultaneous "other" gig fronting The Faces.
Rough and Ready (Epic ‘71) Rating: B+
Jeff Beck was enamored with Vanilla Fudge, in particularly their rhythm section of bassist Tim Bogert and drummer Carmine Appice, who he planned to record with (Vanilla Fudge having called it quits). When Beck had a serious car accident Appice and Bogert formed Cactus, though they would all meet up again soon enough. In the meantime, upon recovering from his accident Beck reassembled an entirely different Jeff Beck Group comprised of a young Cozy Powell on drums, Clive Chaman on bass, Bob Tench (like Chaman a Trinidadian) on rhythm guitar and vocals (Epic made Beck get rid of original replacement Alex Ligertwood who later found some pop success with Santana), and Max Middleton on piano and keyboards. Unsurprisingly given the completely different cast of characters, Rough and Ready was far removed from the two original Jeff Beck Group albums, and this version of the group remains critically maligned and somewhat underrated, even by Beck himself who only included one song from this album on his Beckology box set. Composing most of the songs himself and self-producing, Beck largely dispenses with aggressively raw amped up takes on the blues and instead delivers a less exciting and emotional but still potent mix of funk, soul, and jazz (the latter influence coming largely from Middleton). On the whole, the songs aren't all that special, and the smooth-voiced Tench (who mostly gives good performances but who tends to over emote) is certainly less distinctive and less powerful than Stewart, but the playing is still pretty great, even if Beck shares the spotlight a little more than I'd like (ironic given his more technically proficient but more anonymous accomplices this time). The album peaks early with "Got The Feeling," a funky wah wah led hard rocker with elements of jazz; the group interplay is inspired and Tench gives his best performance on the album with his melodic, soulful vocals. "Situation" features more great playing, Beck (natch) and Middleton in particular shining, plus the overall groove is really good, while "Short Business" is indeed comparatively short (2:34) but sticks around long enough for Beck to deliver some hot slide guitar. The album slows to a crawl on "Max's Tune," a slow, moody, and quite long and boring Middleton showcase, but "I've Been Used" delivers Motown influenced hard rock on which Beck unearths a great exotic guitar tone a la "Beck's Bolero" only the actual song isn't nearly as memorable. I still like it a lot, however, and "New Ways/Train Train" (the lone Beckology entry previously mentioned) is another forgettable composition that's redeemed by good soloing, while "Jody" effectively closes this short 7-song album with a big epic ballad with more melodic guitar soloing. Again, most of these songs aren't great compositions, and this is definitely a "repeat listens" kind of album, but now that I've warmed up to it I really like the majority of Rough and Ready, though I can understand why fans of the original Jeff Beck Group were disappointed (as was Epic I'm sure when this album became a comparative commercial failure).
Jeff Beck Group (Epic ‘72) Rating: B
Bringing back the same unheralded lineup, this album is a bit more hit and miss than the prior album but has some notable highlights nonetheless. Produced by Booker T. & The MG's guitarist Steve Cropper, this album brings back the blues and unsurprisingly puts the emphasis on soul music (female gospel backing vocalists appear in several instances, most notably on the hooky, energetic Stevie Wonder cover "I Got To Have A Song"), though other genres are broached as well, as the album lacks any unified sense of purpose. Also, Tench's vocals are erratic and sometimes weak, and Beck is too often restrained and in the background; for crying out loud, this is a guy who is a serious contender for "greatest guitarist ever," shouldn't he always be showcased? Anyway, some songs here ("Glad All Over" and "Sugar Cane," for instance) I can take or leave, but I really like their cover of Bob Dylan's "Tonight I'll Be Staying Here With You," here remade as a soul ballad with a strong Tench vocal and a classy arrangement. "Highways," a good guitar heavy soul ballad, shares similar virtues, and their cover of Don Nix's "Going Down" is probably the signature song from the Jeff Beck Group Mark II. Like most of the other songs here this boogie-based blues groover isn't what I'd call a great composition, but the band burns throughout, particularly Beck whose guitar is on fire. Also notable are a pair of instrumentals on which Beck hints at his future direction; there isn't all that much to "I Can't Give Back The Love I Feel For You" but it's still a fine guitar showcase, while "Definitely Maybe" is a definite highlight, no maybes about it. This clear precursor to Blow By Blow is melancholic without being boring (unlike "Max's Tune"), as Beck introduces the crying guitar tone that he would later perfect on “Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers.” Some of the other songs here have their moments as well, for example Powell's drum intro and Beck's soloing on the raggedy blues "Ice Cream Cakes," but on the whole this album is solid but somewhat lacking in direction and character.
Beck, Bogert & Appice (Epic ‘73) Rating: B
Well, better late than never. After both the Jeff Beck Group Mark II and Cactus had run their course came the belated union of Jeff Beck with former Vanilla Fudge/Cactus members Carmine Appice (drums) and Tim Bogert (bass). And with each man a formidable virtuoso on their chosen instrument, the term "supergroup" was bandied about, and with that came unrealistic high expectations. Like similar supergroups (Blind Faith comes to mind), their lone resulting studio didn't quite live up to expectations but neither is it the dud that many tout it as being. Fact is, the group had issues from the start; none of the band members was a great songwriter, Bogert tended to overplay his hand (not unlike Jack Bruce) and sometimes is more prominent than he should be (i.e. more prominent than Beck), and the album lacks a strong vocal presence though the singing (mostly by Appice and Bogert) isn't nearly as bad as is often reported. Beck actually sings the opening cut, "Black Cat Moan," another Don Nixon cut, one of two on the album which Nixon also produced. Predictably, Beck's vocals are weak, but the song has a good chugging mid-tempo groove and some excellent slide guitar playing from Beck. Actually, the playing is powerful throughout the album, particularly on heavier hitting numbers such as the Cream-like "Lady," their energetic Ray Kennedy cover "Why Should I Care About You Now" (I like the lyrics on that one as well), and "Livin' Alone," which features another good fast paced groove on which all the instrumentalists shine. Elsewhere, not bad but hardly inspired soft rockers "Oh To Love You" and "Sweet Sweet Surrender" (featuring backing vocals from Three Dog Night's Danny Hutton) have too much sweetening and see the band veer away from their best style, which is blues-based hard rock not far removed from the first Jeff Beck Group. Elsewhere, "Lose Myself With You" isn't much of a tune but it does have some good wah wah guitar, while an explosive "Superstition" and a seemingly sincere "I'm So Proud" are enjoyable but pale when compared to their better known originals (by Stevie Wonder and The Impressions, respectively). Actually, Wonder originally had written "Superstition" for Beck (who had provided a notable guest appearance on his "Lookin' For Another Pure Love") but he wisely took it back when he realized it was a smash hit and too good to give away. Anyway, on the whole I enjoy this album, which though largely forgotten or dismissed today was actually successful at the time (#12 in the U.S.). Again, it has its flaws, mostly with the vocals (they should've hired a singer) and the material, but if you want to hear a "power trio" playing powerfully you'll likely enjoy the majority of this album.
Blow By Blow (Epic ‘75) Rating: A
After revisiting the power trio format on Beck, Bogert & Appice Beck felt that a change in strategy was needed. Excited by the possibilities of mixing jazz and rock (i.e. "fusion") while adding funk to that familiar recipe and doing away with those pesky vocalists, Beck released Blow By Blow, a legendary guitar album, though in the hierarchy of Beck's work I'd rank it slightly below his best Yardbirds and early Jeff Beck Group stuff on the grounds that it's less groundbreaking. Still, Blow By Blow, technically his first solo album, is at the very least a minor classic. Comprised entirely of instrumentals, this was an influential album that surprised both listeners and critics alike, as Beck’s playing and song arrangements are almost always tasteful and melodic. Meanwhile, Beck’s backing band supplies Stevie Wonder-ish piano work and keyboards (Max Middleton again who also writes or co-writes four songs) and funky rhythms (bassist Phil Chenn and teenage wunderkind drummer Richard Bailey round out the lineup), laying the strong foundation for Beck’s outstanding guitar playing to shine. This richly textured album also features big synthesizer swooshes, and classy string arrangements by ex-Beatles producer George Martin, who in that same capacity here helps provide the album with a warmth, restraint, and elegance that's often lacking in fusion. As for the songs, "You Know What I Mean" is perhaps the best of several funky numbers, while "She's A Woman" (a Beatles cover) is a melodic reggae-tinged tune on which Beck makes his guitar talk a la Joe Walsh and Peter Frampton but more subtly than either. On the more rocking front, “Scatterbrain” is a relentless groover that builds powerfully and showcases the group’s virtuosity (Beck attracted great drummers in particular and Bailey's splashy drum fills really stand out here and elsewhere as well), while Beck biographer Annette Carson accurately described the excellent “Freeway Jam” as a "high powered shuffle." Fine though these up-tempo tunes are, however, Beck is at his absolute best when he opts for raw emotion over flashy embellishments, and as such the album’s most enduring songs are arguably both ballads. “Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers” (inspired by and dedicated to Roy Buchanan) and the nearly 9-minute “Diamond Dust” are both slow and long songs on which Beck’s understated playing is incredibly soulful and emotional; never again will I doubt the beauty capable of being produced by an electric guitar. “Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers,” one of two Stevie Wonder covers, in particular features phenomenally expressive playing that shows off his talent for note bending, and you could argue that this song is now recognized as his signature number. In summary, despite some dated elements (mostly with Middleton's keyboards, though you could say the same thing about Stevie Wonder's classic '70s albums from around the same period) and a few less than exciting moments, the stylish, filler-free Blow By Blow remains an eminently appealing instrumental album that's easily among Jeff Beck's very best.
Wired (Epic ‘76) Rating: A-
Recruiting talented bass player Wilbur Bascomb along with ex-Mahavishnu Orchestra band members Jan Hammer (synthesizers) and drummer Narada Michael Walden (who also wrote half the album and who later became a hugely successful producer), Wired is unsurprisingly a harder-edged, more fusion-y, more rocking, less lovely and funky continuation of the all-instrumental style first introduced on Blow By Blow, and it’s of a similarly high quality even if its standout songs don't stand out quite so obviously. Again the main selling point is the outstanding musicianship, as Beck didn't even bother writing any songs this time out, though he inevitably places his stamp on every song due to his amazing guitar playing. Not one to shrink into the background, Hammer often steps to the forefront as well, and his synthesizer sometimes actually sounds like a guitar or even horns. Middleton is still around but is less prominent, and Bailey drums again on a couple of tracks, while George Martin is still listed as producer, though I suspect he had less to do with the overall sound on this album than the prior one. On the whole, though I need to be in the mood for this type of album, the consistent quality of it is impressive, starting with Middleton's "Led Boots," a hard hitting funk rock beast that's an obvious homage to Zeppelin. "Come Dancing" features more excellent if less flashy guitar playing, and their cover of Charles Mingus' "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat" is an intensely emotional and melodic interpretation that’s often considered among Beck’s signature guitar pieces. The short "Head for Backstage Pass" features some blazing solos, while "Blue Wind" is an obvious highlight on which Hammer completely wails on drums (the only track he plays drums on but an impressive showcase for his multi-instrumental skills). Beautiful, melodic, and energized, this track best exemplifies the Beck/Hammer "duels" that are such a major part of what makes this album appealing, and "Sophie" continues the high quality with an alternately mellow and explosive entry. The funky "Play With Me," with its unique horn-like synths and Beck's lovely, lyrical lead guitar, is another favorite of mine, before "Love Is Green," a short yet lovely ballad on which Beck shows off his rarely showcased acoustic guitar work, provides a nice low-key finale. On the whole, Wired was not quite as successful as Blow By Blow, and it will likely always stand in the shadows of its more popular predecessor, but again it’s of a similarly high quality (perhaps a notch below) and both are benchmark seventies fusion albums that have held up extremely well and should appeal to guitar lovers everywhere.
There and Back (Epic ‘80) Rating: B+
After a lame live album with Hammer, Jeff Beck with the Jan Hammer Group Live, Beck came back with a retooled band after a four year absence between studio recordings, though Hammer wrote and prominently plays on the strong first three tracks, including the flashy blazers "Star Cycle" and "You Never Know" as well as the mellower, melodic "Too Much To Lose." "Star Cycle" in particular is a highlight, featuring a percolating techno groove, fantastic guitar playing, and hooky synths all wrapped up in a futuristic aura. The funky, groovy "You Never Know" likewise wails throughout, before "The Pump" arrives as the first of four consecutive songs written by new keyboardist Tony Hymas with new drummer, session ace Simon Phillips (Mo Foster fills out the lineup on bass). The lone track included in Beckology, likely due to its inclusion in the popular Tom Cruise movie Risky Business, "The Pump" doesn't have much to it but it is pleasantly melodic, and "El Becko" delivers more flashy guitar hijinks matched to a not particularly memorable melody. "The Golden Road" is a bit slow going but contains some more stellar playing, while the aptly titled "Space Boogie" provides another furious album highlight, with Phillips the percussive powerhouse in particular shining (along with Beck of course). "The Final Peace," the lone track on which Beck receives a writing co-credit (with Hymas, who would become a longstanding collaborator), then provides another pretty, low-key finale. On the whole, this is a good album but one with obvious problems, as the Hammer vs. Hymas tracks give the album a less than cohesive feel, plus this is clearly the weakest entry within his all-instrumental fusion trilogy. Also, the album is more modern and electronic sounding, meaning more '80s sounding, meaning that it actually sounds more dated today, and the production, handled by Beck with Tony Scott, could be grittier on the whole. Problems aside, I do generally like listening to There and Back, though like its two predecessors it's something of a mood album.
Beckology (Epic ‘91) Rating: A
After There and Back came some unproductive years that saw only the release of the underwhelming Nile Rodgers produced Flash, which had too many synths and pop attempts but at least contained his excellent re-collaboration with Rod Stewart on "People Get Ready," and the very good Jeff Beck's Guitar Shop (with Hymas and drummer Terry Bozzio), which featured another signature guitar ballad in "Where Were You." Both of those tracks and much more are included on the 3-cd box set Beckology, which attempts to do for Beck what Crossroads did for Clapton and succeeds in similarly spectacular fashion. It's not perfect, in part because no Jeff Beck album ever has or even could be, but Beckology makes a convincing case that Mr. Beck is not only a great guitar player (inarguable) but that despite all his shortcomings as a solo and group performer he was indeed worthy of his 2009 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame. I would've liked to have seen less Yardbirds material (given the many Yardbirds compilations you can get elsewhere), more rare/unreleased/live stuff, and some examples of his often-exemplary session work, but what is here is mostly terrific, and on the whole I think that the compilers did a very good job here. Disc one covers 1963-68 and is primarily devoted to his seminal Yardbirds work (including four live BBC tracks), but it also includes three previously unreleased tracks from his first band The Tridents as well as his first post-Yardbirds solo efforts (the ridiculous yet ridiculously catchy hippy pop of "Hi Ho Silver Lining" and "Tallyman") before concluding with "Beck's Bolero." Disc two covers 1968-74 and contains Jeff Beck Group (both versions) and Beck, Bogert & Appice material, with some great unreleased live material. Finally, disc three covers 1975-89 and provides a look at his all-instrumental fusion period and '80s excursions, including a pair of soundtrack-only songs ("Sleep Walk" and "The Stumble") and the "Wild Thing" single. Note: 1993 saw Beck release Crazy Legs, his tribute to Gene Vincent that's strictly for people born before 1950 or Brian Setzer. Who Else! (1999), You Had It Coming (2001), and Jeff (2003) followed, all of which are admirable works with a techno-like underpinning; Emotion and Commotion was later released in 2010 but I haven't heard it yet. Given that he's arguably rock's greatest guitarist you can certainly make a case that he's underachieved, but Jeff Beck has also released his fair share of stellar stuff, plus he's never played it safe and I give him a lot of credit for that.