Jeff Beck, the guitarist revered by guitarists who gave up pop success

Jeff Beck, the guitarist revered by guitarists who gave up pop success

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The concept ‘guitarist’s guitarist’ is one of the most recurring clichés that roam the world of rock (a world, by the way, where clichés grow like mushrooms). A Jeff Beck, however, the label fit him like a deerskin glove. You just have to see the deep and sincere devotion emanating from all the farewell messages that his peers have dedicated to him after hearing the news of his death, which occurred on Tuesday as a result of bacterial meningitis. “The best guitarist on the planet”said Aerosmith’s Joe Perry. “There will never be another like him,” said Black Sabbath’s Tommy Iommi. “His technique of him was unique. His inventiveness knew no bounds,” she wrote. Jimmy Page.

It was precisely the Led Zeppelin guitarist who in the mid-60s recommended Jeff Beck for the position that would propel him to the first division of British rock. It was not just any job. It was about replace Eric Clapton as lead singer of The Yardbirds, a band that in those days was desperately looking for a place in the pop charts without giving up their passion for the blues. Beck could play blues like the best, but purism was never his business, and on songs like ‘Heart full of soul’, ‘Evil hearted you’ and ‘Shapes of things’ he led the Yardbirds towards much less hackneyed and more interesting sounds. His peers rewarded his contribution with a thankless kick after just 20 months, shortly after Page agreed to become a member of the group himself.

ahead of its time

Born in 1944 in Wallington, on the outskirts of London, Geoffrey Arnold Beck became interested in the electric guitar after hearing Les Paul and, while still a boy, began playing on a borrowed instrument. After briefly passing through an art school, in 1962 he joined the band of Screaming Lord SutchHe put together a couple of groups with no luck and worked as a studio musician until March 1965 when he received an invitation to join the Yardbirds.

His experience in the band was as brief and stormy as it was fruitful (crowned, moreover, with a shocking appearance in Michelangelo Antonioni’s film ‘Blow Up’), and Beck came out of it with a reputation for being a highly imaginative guitarist ahead of his time. In fact, the first LP he published under his name, ‘Truth’ (1968), was almost six months ahead of Led Zeppelin’s debut and anticipated, with its mix of blues, epic and incendiary virtuositythe course that rock was going to take in the following years.

with the complicity of Rod Stewartwho had participated as a vocalist in ‘Truth’, Ronnie Wood and Nicky Hopkins, the guitarist took a new step forward by forming the jeff beck groupa band with pretensions to stability whose record debut, ‘Beck-Ola’ (1969), repeated the sonic achievements of the previous LP and seemed destined to grant its authors the status of world stars already enjoyed by the aforementioned Zeppelin or the Who. If that did not happen, it was due in part to the continuous staff changes (Stewart and Wood defected after the publication of ‘Beck-Ola’ to form the Faces and Hopkins left shortly thereafter) and, on the other, to the stylistic changes imposed by Beckwhich in the group’s next two installments ventured into fields such as funk, jazz and soul.

artistic search

By then it had already been amply demonstrated that Jeff Beck was embarked on an artistic adventure in which pop success had no place. This need to seek new paths marked both his forays with bassist Tim Bogert and drummer Carmine Appice such as his brief association with John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra, an encounter that determined his enthusiastic commitment to jazz fusion in ‘Blow by blow’influential 1975 album produced by George Martin that Beck ended up reneging on.

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From there, the guitarist seemed unable to settle in one genre long enough to record two similar discs. From the mix of pop and heavy metal of ‘Flash’ (1985) he jumped to the blues of ‘Guitar Shop’ (1989) and, from there, to vintage rock and roll a la Gene Vincent of ‘Crazy legs’ (1993) and the ambient electronica from ‘Who else!’ (1999). A carousel of styles that alienated casual fans but consolidated its prestige as a all round instrumentalist; a full-fledged ‘guitar hero’ whose passionate virtuosity influenced a host of six-string warriorsfrom David Gilmour to Joe Satriani, from Brian May to Kirk Hammett and from Gary Moore to John Frusciante.

Beck’s latest project was a surprising twist but very consistent with his elusive trajectory: ’18’, a Half Cooked LP with Johnny Depp in which the actor’s original compositions alternated with versions by classic artists such as Marvin Gaye, the Beach Boys and the Velvet Underground. The record was released just after Depp’s stormy defamation trial with his ex-wife Amber Heard, which did little to contribute to his business career. Pure Jeff Beck.

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