Interviewing Jeff Beck, the world’s greatest living rock guitarist

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ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, FEB. 15, 2001

By Steve Newton

Like most teenage guitar-rock freaks in the ’70s, I was big on Aerosmith. I made every effort to see them if they got within driving range of Chilliwack; I even hauled my skinny hick ass out to Seattle when they played the cavernous Kingdome on the 1976 Rocks tour. That was a strangely memorable bill, in that it included a support performance by Jeff Beck, with the Jan Hammer Group. What I recall most about that gig—apart from how wasted Steven Tyler and Joe Perry appeared—is seeing Beck, halfway through “Blue Wind”, launch into a few bars of the old Yardbirds rave-up “Train Kept a-Rollin’ ”. The mostly teenaged crowd went nuts, but not because they recognized Beck’s raunchy reenactment of the British Invasion. The majority of the kids thought he was paying impromptu tribute to the show’s headliners, who’d covered the song two years earlier on the Get Your Wings album.

When I reach Beck by phone in London, England—where he’s been madly rehearsing for a North American tour that opens at the Commodore on Saturday (February 17)—the “exhausted but fine” rock legend admits to having his own vague memory of the Aerosmith fans’ response to “Train Kept a-Rollin’ ”.

“That’s just one of those things you have to put up with,” he says of the days when he was touring as a warm-up act in support of the extraordinary Wired album. At that point, he and “Blue Wind” composer Hammer were a potent team on-stage, exchanging breakneck, “I’m faster than you” solos on guitar and keyboards, and conjuring realistic traffic noises in the intro to “Freeway Jam”. Beck hasn’t collaborated with Hammer since 1985’s Flash album, but he called him up a couple of years ago, when Beck’s band was coming through New York. “He was just adamant that he didn’t want to play on the road anymore,” Beck explains, still sounding slightly dejected. “His wife was not too well, and plus he’d made a lot of money from, I guess, Miami Vice, so the underlying desire was not there to go out on the road. But he’s too good to sit around, I’ll tell you that.

“I wanted to find out if he had any tunes,” he adds, “because he writes great stuff for me. He was already involved in a project, but he did give us a couple, and one of them [“Even Odds”] was on the last album. But I could see that he was tied up in another world, you know, so I didn’t push it.”

Hammer may be out of the picture for now, but Beck has no complaints about the virtuoso instrumentalist that he is trading riffs with at the moment. He discovered eye-opening guitarist Jennifer Batten when she was touring in Michael Jackson’s band. “She was the girl with the big hair,” he remarks with a chuckle, “and I thought, ‘God, you know, I could use a fiery guitar player in the band.’ She’s a star, and also being a girl, that puts a whole different spin on things, you know.

“I don’t know why she wants to waste her life with me,” he adds with a laugh. “But she sort of dragged me out of retirement in some ways. I mean, I would have formed a band eventually, but she actually got me off the ground quicker.”

Although Batten played guitar and MIDI guitar on Beck’s 1999 CD, Who Else!, and toured with him extensively after its release, there’s little of her recorded work on his new disc, You Had It Coming. That album is mostly the work of Beck, programmer Aiden Love, and producer Andy Wright, but Batten does get credit for writing the opening track, “Earthquake”—originally titled “Gnasher”—and she snuck a few hot licks in there for good measure.

“She does some really raving stabs on the opening song,” explains Beck, “but the whole idea of the album was that we didn’t want to use any prewritten songs—they were all brewed in the studio, in an editing suite, which was a part of the writing process. What I wanted to get away from was the sort of formulated, contrived sound. I wanted kind of a wild house party, you know.”

The devastating “Earthquake” starts things off on an intense note; tracks like the gnarly “Dirty Mind”—and a feverish, tribal version of Muddy Waters’s “Rollin’ and Tumblin’ ”—further display Beck’s innate heavy-metal capabilities. But he’s always been one to balance fury and finesse, so it’s no surprise when, in the midst of all this techno-tinged cacophony, he sets a tune like “Blackbird”, which sees him playfully jamming along for 90 seconds with the recorded chirps of an unnamed feathered friend. And then there’s the spirit-lifting version of Indian musician Nitin Sawhney’s “Nadia”, which Beck considers the standout track on the CD. “It’s got a flowing Indian melody over a very very hip groove,” he says, “which I thought was very attractive. It was also the hardest thing to learn. To try and copy a traditional Indian vocalist was a real challenge.”

While Beck’s recent explorations in what he calls “an oddball sort of music” obviously limit his likelihood of topping the charts, the Who Else! CD did garner him a Grammy nomination last year. He didn’t feel burned, however, when that trophy—along with a suitcaseful of others—went to the long-overlooked Carlos Santana. “It went to the best,” affirms Beck. “I mean, Carlos, just for his longevity and the way he’s stayed loyal to everybody in music, and the way he’s passionate, deserves a Grammy just for that alone.

“And I didn’t feel that my album was really justified [in being nominated],” he adds. “It was just a smudge, you know, a bootprint of me comin’ back, that was all it really was.”

As one would expect of a player of Beck’s stature, he’s had the opportunity to play with some of the most revered rock guitarists in the world. In the booklet for the 1991 boxed set Beckology, he is pictured on-stage with Eric Clapton (whose place he took in the Yardbirds in 1964), Jimmie Page (who joined Beck in that band for a brief time in ’66), and Stevie Ray Vaughan (they shared the stage in ’89 on the legendary Fire & Fury tour). But when I ask Beck to name the one living player he’d most love to jam with, he doesn’t hesitate.

“I still favour John McLaughlin as probably the greatest player around,” he says. “All the others are just huge stars that everybody loves because they’re fantastic, you know, but I think John needs a mention because he just stays underground. He doesn’t encroach on rock ’n’ roll or the blues as much; he plays wonderful jazz guitar in his own style. And then the next minute he’s playing with Indian guys with tabla and clay pots. He’s just amazing.”

Beck’s been known to amaze people himself. And to dazzle, bewilder, and confound. If you saw him pull off the rapturous “Cause We’ve Ended as Lovers” at the Queen E. on his 1999 tour, you know what I’m talking about. They used to claim that Clapton was God, but I’ve always had faith in a higher power. Still, it’s not as if the guitar is Beck’s sole passion in life. When he isn’t getting scary on the frets, he’s been known to spend days and months holed away, tinkering with his collection of vintage cars. And even though he’s regarded as one of the pioneers of distortion—and has a serious case of tinnitus to show for it—the roar of a well-honed engine isn’t what draws Beck to the garage.

“Of course, everybody who’s into cars loves that,” says the 56-year-old rocker, “but from my angle it’s not necessarily the finished product of the powerful hot rod, it’s more the privacy of my situation. I’ve got a full workshop with everything to facilitate building a car, and it’s a way of getting away from everything, really. It’s more of a peaceful thing rather than noisy for me.”

The serenity of Beck’s private auto shop has been broken by his own howls of pain, however. He nearly lost a thumb working on his vehicles in 1987, and more recently took a big chunk of skin off the back of his hand with a sandblaster, which he says was “a nuisance”. Hopefully, he’ll keep his mitts intact, because the electric-guitar freaks of the world would sorely miss them. As long as he’s got those magic fingers, you can bet that Jeff Beck will be searching for fresh ways to communicate through six strings.

“I’ve got a cutoff point,” he relates. “When I can’t play any more or any better, I just go look for new sounds.”

Jeff Beck sounds off on the things that enquiring minds want to know.

On his new touring drummer, Andy Gangadeen: “When I was auditioning he was the number one recommendation, but he was with the Spice Girls at the time, which is hard to believe when you hear him play.”

On his current interest in Indian music: “I think everything comes from Indian music. If you listen carefully to the way they play quartertones… You know, you can pretty much find any kind of music you want in Indian music, especially the new stuff that they’re comin’ out with.”

On seeing Roy Buchanan, to whom he dedicated “Cause We’ve Ended as Lovers”, play a ’70s concert in London, England: “He was with a band that seemed to be like a pickup band, and they were all drunk, and they didn’t do him any favours, really. Poor Roy, he was so kind and nice, he didn’t realize who he’d got in the band, I don’t think. He had his back to the audience most of the time. He was a troubled guy.”

On being afflicted with tinnitus: “I live in a very quiet house, and the tinnitus plays havoc sometimes. It’s murder, it is, because it’s only a psychological thing that is in there, but it’s there. Some people don’t care about it, and it goes away. It’s when you do care about it that it doesn’t seem to go away.”

 

To hear the full audio of my interview with Jeff Beck subscribe to my Patreon page, where you can also eavesdrop on my uncut, one-on-one conversations with:

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Kenny Wayne Shepherd, 1995
Justin Hayward of the Moody Blues, 1986
Elliot Easton from the Cars, 1996
Wayne Kramer from the MC5, 2004
Bob Rock, 1992
Nick Gilder, 1985
Roy Buchanan, 1988
Klaus Meine of Scorpions, 1988
Jason Bonham, 1989
Tom Johnston of the Doobie Brothers, 1991
Joey Spampinato of NRBQ, 1985
Patterson Hood of the Drive-By Truckers, 2003
Andy Powell of Wishbone Ash, 2003
Steve Kilbey of the Church, 1990
Edgar Winter, 2005
Johnette Napolitano of Concrete Blonde, 1990
Randy Hansen, 2001
Dan McCafferty of Nazareth, 1984
Davy Knowles of Back Door Slam, 2007
Jimmy Barnes from Cold Chisel, 1986
Steve Stevens of Atomic Playboys, 1989
Billy Idol, 1984
Stuart Adamson of Big Country, 1993
Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull, 1992
Warren Haynes of Gov’t Mule, 1998
John Bell of Widespread Panic, 1992
Robben Ford, 1993
Barry Hay of Golden Earring, 1984
Jason Isbell, 2007
Joe Satriani, 1990
Brad Delp of Boston, 1988
John Sykes of Blue Murder, 1989
Dave Mustaine of Megadeth, 1998
Alice Cooper, 1986
Lars Ulrich of Metallica, 1985
Shannon Hoon of Blind Melon, 1992
Myles Goodwyn of April Wine, 2001
John Mellencamp, 1999
Mike Campbell of Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, 1999
Kenny Aronoff, 1999
Jon Bon Jovi, 1986
Dickey Betts of the Allman Brothers, 1992
Little Steven, 1987
Stevie Salas, 1990
Joe Bonamassa, 2011
Rob Baker of the Tragically Hip, 1997
Tommy Emmanuel, 1994
John Petrucci of Dream Theater, 2010
Eric Johnson, 2001
Stu Hamm, 1991
Gene Simmons of Kiss, 1992
Ace Frehley from Kiss, 2008
David Lee Roth, 1994
Allan Holdsworth, 1983
John Mayall of the Bluesbreakers, 1988
Steve Vai, 1990
Tony Iommi of Heaven and Hell, 2007
Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, 1996
Geoff Tate of Queensryche, 1991
James Hetfield of Metallica, 1986
Stevie Ray Vaughan, 1990
Rick Richards of the Georgia Satellites, 1988
Andy McCoy and Sam Yaffa of Hanoi Rocks, 1984
Steve Morse, 1991
Slash of Guns N’ Roses, 1994
Brian May from Queen, 1993
Dickey Betts of the Allman Brothers, 1991
Jake E. Lee of Badlands, 1992
Rickey Medlocke of Lynyrd Skynyrd, 1997
John Fogerty, 1997
Joe Perry of Aerosmith, 1987
Rick Derringer, 1999
Robin Trower, 1990
Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top, 1994
Mick Ronson, 1988
Geddy Lee of Rush, 2002
Buck Dharma of Blue Oyster Cult, 1997
Michael Schenker, 1992
Vince Neil of Motley Crue, 1991
Vinnie Paul of Pantera, 1992
Joan Jett, 1992
Steve Harris of Iron Maiden, 1988
Sebastian Bach of Skid Row, 1989
Rob Halford of Judas Priest, 1984
Bill Henderson of Chilliwack, 1999
Paul Rodgers, 1997
R.L. Burnside, 1999
Guthrie Govan of the Aristocrats, 2015
Mick Mars of Mötley Crüe, 1985
Carlos Santana, 2011
Walter Trout, 2003
Rudy Sarzo of Quiet Riot, 1983
Tommy Aldridge, 2001
Donald “Duck” Dunn, 1985
Mark Farner of Grand Funk, 1991
Chris Robinson of Black Crowes, 1990
Jennifer Batten, 2002
Mike Fraser, 2014
Leo Kottke, 2002
Lemmy Kilmister of Motorhead, 2002
David Gogo, 1991
Booker T. Jones, 2016
Link Wray, 1997
James Reyne from Australian Crawl, 1988
Mike Rutherford of Genesis, 1983
Buddy Guy, 1991
Country Dick Montana of the Beat Farmers, 1990
Mike Cooley of the Drive-By Truckers, 2016
Gary Rossington of Lynyrd Skynyrd, 1986
Lindsay Mitchell of Prism, 1988
Buddy Miles, 2001
Eddie Money, 1988
Tom Hamilton of Aerosmith, 1983
Gaye Delorme, 1990
Dave Murray of Iron Maiden, 1984
Graham Bonnet of Alcatrazz, 1984
Mick Fleetwood of Fleetwood Mac, 2016
Doc Neeson of Angel City, 1985
Rik Emmett of Triumph, 1985
Sonny Landreth, 2016
Tosin Abasi of Animals as Leaders, 2016
Jeff Beck, 2001
Albert King, 1990
Johnny Ramone of the Ramones, 1992
Peter Frampton, 1987
Otis Rush, 1997
Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip, 1989
Leslie West of Mountain, 2002
Steve Howe of Yes, 2017
Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden, 1983
Uli Jon Roth, 2016
Poison Ivy of the Cramps, 1990
Greg Lake of ELP, 1992
Robert Plant, 1993
Malcolm Young and Brian Johnson of AC/DC, 1983
Warren Zevon, 1992
Tal Wilkenfeld, 2016
Steve Clark of Def Leppard, 1988
Roy Buchanan, 1986
Gary Moore, 1984
Ronnie Montrose, 1994
Danny Gatton, 1993
Alex Lifeson of Rush, 1992
Ann Wilson of Heart, 1985
Yngwie Malmsteen, 2014
Chris Cornell, 2008
Long John Baldry, 1985
Allan Holdsworth, 1983
Kim Mitchell, 1984
Warren Haynes of the Allman Brothers, 1994
Derek Trucks, 1998
Susan Tedeschi, 1998
Joe Satriani, 2018
B.B. King, 1984
Albert Collins, 1985
Ronnie James Dio, 1985
Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath, 1984
Dick Dale, 2000
Greg Allman, 1998
Dickey Betts, 2001
…with hundreds more to come

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