The Yardbirds’ Stroll On in Antonioni’ Blow Up.
Jeff Beck, 1967, in a very clean suit.
Jeffery Beck was born June 24, 1944, in Wallington, Surrey, England, a fairly typical U.K suburban town. His first musical experiences were singing in a church choir, two years of piano lessons and a few lessons on upright bass from an uncle. In 1958, at age 14, he saw Buddy Holly and the Crickets live and became enthralled with rock’n’roll guitar. His sister was dating a neighborhood pal named Jimmy Page and together they began woodshedding. His first band was called The Nightshift, of whom little is remembered except it was with the Nightshift he was spotted by Paul Lucas, a bass player/vocalist who with his brother John on rhythm guitar and vocals and one Ray Cook on drums had a band called the Tridents. The Tridents lead guitarist Mickey Jopp was leaving the band and Beck was offered and accepted the job. Soon the Tridents had a weekly gig at Eel Pie Island, the scene of the Rolling Stones and the Yardbirds earliest triumphs. The Tridents never landed a record deal, but they did cut a two song demo– Trouble In Mind and Wandering Man Blues, the only other Tridents material that has surfaced is an incredible six minute rave up on Bo Diddley’s Nursery Rhyme (Was the rest of the set recorded? If so where is that tape today?) recorded at Eel Pie Island. These early Tridents tapes show that Beck’s unique style was nearly fully developed by 1964. Beck’s first proper studio session was with Screaming Lord Sutch and the Savages, produced by Joe Meek, a group that both he and Page occasionally played with, the single– Dracula’s Daughter b/w Come Back Baby was typical of Sutch’s early material, the a-side a goofy, horror-rock novelty in the Monster Mash vein, the b-side a killer guitar rocker. Beck’s solo on Come Back Baby shows all the strengths he would later display a few years later in the Yardbirds in all its tasteless eminence. In late 1964 the Yardbirds’ lead guitarist– Eric “No Chin” Clapton left the band, refusing to play on their new single For Your Love, proclaiming it “pop trash”, which in turn became quite a blessing for the Yardbirds who remembered the Tridents’ guitarist from Eel Pie Island and immediately recruited him. With the Yardbirds, Beck would really make his mark on the world of rock’n’roll, his peak moments coming on side one of Having A Rave Up With The Yardbirds (especially Mister Your A Better Man Than I, Heart Full Of Soul, I’m A Man and Train Kept A Rollin’), the best parts of their third album Roger The Engineer aka Over Under Sideways Down (the U.S. title), a disc that my pal Tim Warren (Crypt Records) has denounced in print as “prog rock”, but I beg to differ and think Rack My Mind, Jeff’s Boogie (this is the version from the 45, different from the LP), and Nazz Are Blue (aka Dust My Broom) to be pretty fucking cool. Note, the mono and stereo versions of said LP have different guitar parts on many of the tunes.
Just for the hell of it, here’s another version of Train Kept A Rollin’ from a ’66 BBC broadcast.
Unlike Clapton, who simply stole his riffs from American guitarists from Matt “Guitar” Murphy to J.J. Cale and everyone in between, Beck’s playing rarely showed the obvious influence of other guitarists, rather, he sounded more like he was inspired by the sound of garbage trucks backing up or ducks being stepped on. He phrased more like a horn player, albeit a horn player having an attack of spastic hiccups.
In late 1966, bass player Paul Samuel-Smith left the Yardbirds (to find fortune producing Cat Stevens), rhythm guitarist Chris Dreja switched to bass and Beck’s childhood pal and studio musician extraordinaire (that’s Page on Donovan’s Sunshine Superman) Jimmy Page was added on second guitar. Only three recordings were made with this line up, one single, which was perhaps the peak of U.K. psychedelia– Happening Ten Years Time Ago along with it’s flipside, the wonderfully trashy Psycho Daises (which Beck sang lead on), along with a re-write of Train Kept A Rollin’ called Stroll On which appeared the soundtrack of the film Blow Up (although in the film Page is playing bass, on the recording he’s playing guitar). These three tracks would be the last truly great recordings of the Yardbirds, at least until a live tape of the line up surfaces (a true holy grail, especially since the Velvet Underground’s Waitin’ For The Man was in their set list at the time. There is a live rendition of it, in rather dodgy sound quality, from the post-Beck era, but the fidielty is so bad it’s hardly worth burning to MP3 to include here). By early ’67 Beck, who was burned out from touring, was regularly blowing off gigs, and was finally asked to leave the Yardbirds. They would carry on for another year an a half as a four piece, recording the below par Little Games LP and a live album at New York’s Anderson Theater which was quickly withdrawn from circulation. After a short retirement and a bad car wreck, Beck scored a hit in the UK with his first solo single– Hi Ho Silver Lining b/w Beck’s Bolero, and then put together the first version of the Jeff Beck Group with Rod Stewart, Ron Wood and Nicky Hopkins. Beck had switched from playing a Fender Esquire (an early version of the Telecaster) to a Gibson Les Paul, which seemed to change his style of playing, and helped indulge his tendencies to heavy-osity, and not in a necessarily good way, although I do have a soft spot in my heart for Truth and Beck-Ola albums, probably from hearing them so many times as a young teen, but they’re no match for Stroll On. Beck later admitted without the creativity of the rest of the Yardbirds, especially Keith Relf and Jim McCarty, he felt lost. The rest of his career has been documented many times elsewhere and holds little interest for me personally. Although, for those who care, Beck, Bogart and Appice’s Live In Japan album was one of Lester Bangs’ all time favorites for its shear tastelessness (at that time Beck had added the musical colostomy bag, a plastic bag full of God knows what that had one end plugged into the guitar and the other a tube that the player blew into, most people remember it from Peter Frampton’s Comes Alive, to his ostentatious musical arsenal). Me, while regarding the high spots of his post-Yardbirds career, I can say I admire his Gene Vincent tribute album, for his playing was truly impressive (you try playing Cliff Gallup’s solos note for note), but if I want to hear those tunes, I’ll play a Gene Vincent record.
One personal antidote. Around 1974 I was working for a concert promoter as a “security guard” (aka bouncer) at concerts around South Florida. Jeff Beck, then promoting his fuise-ack
album Wired, was playing at the 4,000 seat Miami Jai-Lai Fronton. I was working the backstage, dressing room door, and watched the show from the side of the stage. Without a doubt, the loudest thing I have ever heard in my life was Jeff Beck’s monitors. When he hit the first note on his guitar I thought my head would cave in. Eventually the sound man turned off the house p.a. system, the monitors alone were loud enough to fill the hall ten times over. Looking into the audience it seemed like at least half the people in the front five rows had their fingers in their ears. I later noticed that when ever someone had to communicate with him backstage they either had to shout or make hand signals, I think he was almost completely deaf. I also think he may have sustained some brain damage in that car wreck.
I haven’t followed Jeff Beck’s career much since those days, although I did hear his rather dreadful rendition of the Beatles’ A Day In The Life on the car radio recently. Lost indeed. These days, Jim McCarty and Chris Dreja still have a band called the Yardbirds that gigs around the U.K, perhaps Jeff should rejoin them.