An Audience With… Jeff Beck
Original Yardbirds members Jim McCarty and Chris Dreja take us through their career in pictures in the latest Uncut, dated April 2013 and out now. Jeff Beck, perhaps the band’s most explosive lead guitarist, took on questions from Uncut readers and famous fans in our March 2010 issue (Take 154), answering queries on haircuts, hot rods and playing with, er, Beverley Craven… Interview: John Lewis
A few things become clear during a conversation with Jeff Beck. He really does look like Nigel Tufnel from Spinal Tap (strutting around in his trademark black jeans and cap-sleeve T-shirt). He doesn’t swear much (just two “shits” in an hour). There’s still some unresolved anger about being chucked out of The Yardbirds more than four decades ago (“imagine that – you’re off ill and you come back and find that they’ve kicked you out!”) and a prickliness about former bandmate Chris Dreja (“he called me ‘Neanderthal’, did he? Oh yeah? Where does he live?”). There is a faint regret about not being a part of Led Zeppelin or The Rolling Stones, who both requested his services (“who wouldn’t want to have a private jet with a fireplace?”). But he seems happy spending hours in his garage, customising cars (“it’s a terrible obsession”).
Now he’s going to play to a quarter of a million people in a couple of weeks, sharing the bill with his old adversary Eric Clapton on a string of enormous arena dates. The show is billed “Together Apart”, as both will be fronting their own bands as well as trading licks on a series of collaborations. Clapton might have been dubbed “God” by some, but it’s Beck who wins hands down among six-string aficionados, mixing a bad-boy swagger with a fearsome set of jazz chops. “You’ve got to be careful playing jazz to a rock audience,” he says. “Too many chord changes and their eyes start to glaze over. You’ve got to keep that fire going. You’ve got to keep them hooked, innit…”
It was fab to see you perform and also spend time with you in Australia earlier this year. Now – have you ever played “Apache”?
Hank! I invited him to my show in Australia, where he’s lived for a while, and he graciously attended. Actually, I did play “Apache” recently. It was a rockabilly party thing, with Imelda May, and you can’t celebrate the 1950s without a salute to Hank. The audience just went berserk after the first few bars! Hank has such a dangerous tone, which is only safe in the hands of a master. You can see why he spends so much time tuning up because, when you play the way he plays, you simply cannot make any mistakes. There’s no bullshit runs – it’s always straight-ahead, simple solos, every one a beauty. I’ve never heard him make a mistake. He’s very different from me. I crash and burn, like a drunken trapeze artist!
You’re touring the world’s biggest arenas with Clapton – what was it like taking his place in The Yardbirds?
Les Wells, Grantham
At first, some fans were grumbling, but I got a standing ovation after an instrumental that I played at The Marquee. So that kicked that shit into touch right away. From then on I had no problem with any audience. By the time I joined, Eric was long gone. I never even met him for about a year. We’d been on the road for months and I was in a club called The Cromwellian. I heard he was there that night, so I thought, well, I’d better talk to him. I thought there was going to be a massive punch-up, but he was really sweet. And we’ve been mates ever since, really.
I saw Jeff’s jazz project at Ronnie Scott’s, which I loved, but my favourite stuff is the Jeff Beck Group period with Rod Stewart, like “Throw Down A Line”. What was it about that band?
You’re joking! Johnny Rotten? In a way, I can understand why he liked that group, ’cos we were quite punky. We were the best unrehearsed band on the planet! That was because, a) we couldn’t afford anywhere to rehearse, and b) we got thrown out of most places after five minutes for being too loud! I remember us doing our first-ever gig at The Marquee without having rehearsed, and we were quite rightly roasted. Ha ha! But we did believe that what we were doing was fantastic. The only way to describe it is super-charged blues: Howlin’ Wolf and Buddy Guy put through this psychedelic filter, with changing tempos in the middle of songs, and Motown basslines.
How does it feel to be the role model for Nigel Tufnel in This Is Spinal Tap?
Fred Rudofsky, Delmar, NYC
I went to see the film at Westward Village in Los Angeles when it came out, and I sat in the cinema with a bottle of champagne, not knowing what to expect, and I think I was the only one in the audience laughing! Sobbing with laughter. All these people were shooshing me! I’ve since become friends with Christopher Guest. Boy, does he do his research. He spent a year going around dog shows before he did Best In Show! And he and Rob Reiner went through tons of footage and followed lots of rock bands for …Spinal Tap. Apparently, Nigel Tufnel was modelled on a heavy metal star – I can’t tell you who – but Chris adopted my look, because he could do me better! Obviously, I never had anything to do with metal, as such. However, I’ve also become good friends with Peter Richardson, who did Bad News. Another fantastic parody, absolutely spot on.
What’s the weirdest session you ever played on?
John Paul Jones
Oh God, there’s been a few. I did one for Beverley Craven. I don’t know how that came about. But I let go in one of my solos, and she said, “Christ, you made my record sound like a tower block being blown up.” I said, “Thank you very much.” And walked out. I dunno whether she used it or not. I don’t even know what the hell I was doing there.
Any chance of rejoining The Yardbirds?
Byron Lewis, Barry, Wales
Never. Never ever. Once the lead singer is not there, you can’t really revive a band. And that goes for Queen as well. I understand the box-office attraction, but it just isn’t Queen, is it? It’s like replacing Elvis Presley with a lookalike. I’m not putting down the current Yardbirds [featuring Chris Dreja and Jim McCarty]. Good luck to them – and the fact they’re around is cool – but they’re not gonna come up with anything as groundbreaking as anything we did, ’cos Keith [Relf, lead singer who died in 1976] is not there. It was the chemistry between Keith and the rest of us. He came up with crude ideas and the rest of us would develop them.
What cars are in your dream garage?
Garry Lansdowne, Glasgow
I’m lucky enough to own most of my dream cars! The new Corvette is the only contemporary car I have. Everyone should have one of those. The rest are vintage. I got bitten by the hot-rod bug in 1950. My mum made a mistake of buying me a Hot Rod magazine to keep me quiet one day. And, once that sets in as a six-year-old, you’ve had it! Hot rods were basically rusty old cars from the 1930s – the 1932 Ford Roadster was the iconic one – and in the 1950s people started to scrub them up, paint them candy apple, put chrome on them and race them. I was obsessed. And, when I started work in the paint shop of a garage in the early 1960s, I began to do up old wrecks. Then I spent all my advance with The Yardbirds on a 1963 split-window Corvette Coupe, which I sold for 800 quid – what a twat. But I did reinstate one in my garage lately. I now have 14 hot rods and four Corvettes!
When did you stop using a plectrum? Does this mean that someone who gave me a plectrum 35 years ago, claiming it was yours, was lying?
It could well be mine. I started phasing out the plectrum in the 1970s. I was studying Chet Atkins: country players used metallic picks on three or more fingers, including the index finger. So I got into playing with picks on my fingers, but played with a plectrum on stage. Then when the booze hit in the early 1970s, I started to drop my plectrum when drunk! Rather than fumble around in the dark, I carried on playing with fingers. And I thought, this is amazing. It was like having another turbo charger in your engine. Because you can do a lot more with bare fingers than with a plectrum. You don’t get that clunking sound on a heavily amplified guitar. It’s also a more personal sound, with more control.
The Jeff Beck Group were managed by Peter Grant. As big a monster as he’s made out?
Chuck, Baltimore, Maryland
He was fantastic. What he realised, long before the others, was that there was a sizeable audience for an underground scene away from the Top 40. We’d been playing shitholes in England for two-and-a-half years, and he took us to America. Within months he had us selling out 12,000-seat arenas without having a record in the charts. I never really saw any threatening side of him – he was ultra-professional with us.
Dear Jeff, if I knew how you play the guitar, I’d steal everything you do, but I don’t. Can you help me?
Oh man, stop there. I can die happy. Johnny McLaughlin has given us so many different facets of the guitar. And introduced thousands of us to world music, by blending Indian music with jazz and classical. I’d say he was the best guitarist alive. When the band I had with Rod Stewart broke up, I was left wondering what to do. While the charts were full of stuff like “Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep”, I became aware of this underground music scene. And what hit me right between the eyes was John’s playing on Miles Davis’s A Tribute To Jack Johnson. That changed everything. After that, a new chapter of rock music was formed, with his blistering performances with The Mahavishnu Orchestra and everything else. And John’s been at it ever since. He’s a hard one to keep up with!
What was Keith Relf like?
Rick Barnes, Lebanon, Connecticut, USA
When I first met him, I remember thinking, who is this little shrimp? Ha ha! He looked great on screen, but I thought, surely girls can’t scream at him? I thought, I look better than him, even if I have got more spots! Keith was vitally important, but unfortunately he wasn’t that fit. He had breathing problems. He wasn’t the classic strutting, macho frontman. But if you listen to him singing on the records, he means it. He made up for lack of vocal gymnastics with sheer belief in what he was doing. And that’s all it takes, really. The worst thing about him was his drinking problems. It’d be 12 noon and we’d be on the road in America and you’d hear a “fizz” as he opened a can of beer. And then, five minutes later, another one. And another. You’d think, come on Keith, leave it out. And it led to him hating everyone. I think he needed hands-on help at the time, but no-one gave it to him.
Did learning to play “Nadia” further your interest in Indian classical music or was this already a fascination? If so, what Indian classical musicians were most inspiring?
I was listening to Nitin’s Beyond Skin, and that track “Nadia” really caught my ear. I spent ages learning to play the melody, as sung by the Indian classically trained singer. But I’ve been interested in India since the 1960s, when the BBC let us in to watch a recording of a concert with Ravi Shankar. Obviously, George Harrison was a big fan; he was brilliant at interpreting Ravi’s vision of the sitar and modifying it to fit in with Beatles music, and remaining very melodic, too. And later John McLaughlin was brilliant at adapting those Indian scales. So both George and John turned me on to Indian classical music, and now Nitin’s doing the same. He’s a tremendous talent.
Picture: Ross Halfin