JEFF BECK INTERVIEW
An affectionate tribute to Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps, Jeff Beck's new album 'Crazy Legs' fulfils a long-held ambition. 'I had always wanted to do something like this but it wouldn't have worked as just one track on an album because it's so radically different from everything else. So it's a long time coming - about thirty years in fact!'
'I saw the Big Town Playboys on the recommendation of a friend and I fell in love with their music. They were really rockin' and they weren't even all that loud - they could get the audience excited without having to use blasting volume. You could hear everything clearly and there was more energy per square inch than any other band. They did have that kind of '50s Blue Caps aura about them even though they weren't playing Gene Vincent material. I just wanted to muscle in and try to help them in some way. So, I had a play with them but it wasn't too successful - I was just blowing too much and playing way too busy. I thought about what sort of music we could play in which I could still do my thing - you know, three solos per song! - but still have cred with them. The Gene Vincent material seemed the perfect solution.'
Along with Scotty Moore and James Burton, Gene Vincent's guitarists Cliff Gallup and later Johnny Meeks were pioneers of rock guitar. Vincent's guitarists might not be as well known as Moore or Burton but Jeff has little doubt as to who made the biggest impact on him. 'When I was learning guitar Cliff Gallup was the biggest influence on my playing - the cut was pretty deep and the scar has never healed! It was just so radical - it probably doesn't sound metally or threatening now but if you were back in June '56 and turned the record right up... Boy! The term "rock 'n' roll" had hardly been bandied about and all the other "rock" records of the time were very polished and audibly nice and round. Then you put on Gene Vincent and had this guy screaming and these raucous guitar solos - it was unheard of and no one has done anything like it since.
'I had the right sort of guitar for when we started the 'Crazy Legs' album - a Gretsch Duo Jet - so I thought if I'd gone this far I may as well try to pick in the same way as Gallup. I remembered reading this interview with Cliff Gallup in a magazine years and years ago ['Guitar Player', December '83] where he talks about his playing technique but I couldn't remember where it was. I had a stack of magazines but I just couldn't find it! In the end I had to get in photocopied and faxed from the States. It was a bit smudgy and right where he was talking about picking the page was blurred! So I still couldn't use it!
'Then something amazing happened - an American journalist who had some of Cliff's picks gave them to me along with a little letter. He used metal fingerpicks on his middle and ring fingers, but to fit them in an envelope to post them Cliff had flattened them out! He also used a huge, triangular plectrum with his thumb and first finger. Now, I tried that but it was hopeless - I couldn't do it at all! I found myself using the pick only and the other two fingers were just hanging around doing nothing. My normal style is using thumb and first two fingers, so I put fingerpicks on my fingers and a thumbpick on my thumb.
'We were roaring away for the first four days of recording and got four or five keepers then it slowed down. We had to fix the rhythm guitar a few times to get the right feel - the guitarist in the Blue Caps wasn't actually playing chords to be heard but for the "chunkiness" to fit with the drums. We did everything live - everyone playing together - and there was a bit of a problem with leakage, so we just had to make sure we got a good take. If there was a problem it was usually with the arrangement rather than the feel. It would take us about three takes to get a track - if you listen to the Vincent master tapes they would sometimes do 14 takes to get a song so I didn't feel so bad. But then again, we were copying rather than making a new song so it was a lot easier.
'The guitar parts were all difficult to get right. Some of the harder sounding things like the triplet runs were not hard at all but it's what you do after the runs that counts. I put myself in Cliff's shoes for a month and I've got to take my hat off to him - if he came out with those solos off the top of his head then the guy was more of a monster than I ever believed. Having said that, I've tried to copy myself sometimes and it's not easy to copy something spontaneous.
'I did see Gene Vincent but I was heartbroken when he appeared onstage without the Blue Caps. I was a naive, trusting kid of 12 or so and he was playing with these guys who looked like they had just walked in from a bar. They were pretty good though, but when Vincent appeared it was amazing. He was so menacing that you forgave him that he didn't have his own band. One always naively assumed that it was Vincent's choice not to have his band but he probably didn't have a say in it. Then, tragically, I watched the demise of Vincent - he got overweight, lost his hair, drank too much... Typical Rock 'n' Roll!
'I'm not pretending that we've done a better job than the original - in fact, I hope people go back and check out the original. This album is my first impression of what rock should sound like - I always mentioned this in earlier interviews but no one seemed to know what I was talking about.
'The original still has this incredible aura about it and we've missed that but we have been able to improve on the quality of the sound, not that that makes it necessarily better. We've got the right atmosphere and the grooves are right. There weren't any electronics to rely on - it's just four guys playing behind Mike Sanchez, the singer. I was the only electric instrument which struck me as quite frightening at first - the bass player was playing double bass. We used some old recording equipment as well - a Fairchild limiter and a battleship grey Pultec with black Bakelite knobs perched up on the desk. I don't know the technical details about how they work, but we used them to try to recreate the warmth of those early records - nowadays everything sounds very brittle, hissy and bright.
'If people are disappointed with the album 'cause I didn't do my own thing then they're missing the point. I wanted to show people what Cliff was doing and I wanted to be Cliff when we were doing it. The solos are so beautifully formed with a beginning, middle and end that they're like small miracles.'
Whilst Cliff Gallup's electric guitar playing broke new ground, Jeff himself is somewhat of a pioneer being one of the first rock guitarists to use a Fuzz box, harmonics and double-tracking.
'On the Yardbirds' 'Heart Full of Soul' I used a Fuzz box called a Tone Bender - I think it came free with a packet of cornflakes! I've still got it - somewhere! - but I haven't used it for years. I've got a box of things like that - I was going to have an album sleeve designed with all the rubbish electric appliances I've bought over the years and make a bonfire of them with flames coming out the top 'cause they're no longer usable or in vogue. I used an Esquire for 'Heart Full of Soul' but it's now firmly embedded in a safe in Seymour Duncan's house.'
Jeff uses harmonics in the breaks of 'Jeff's Boogie', an instrumental recorded with the Yardbirds and based on Chuck Berry's' Guitar Boogie'. 'I had heard Merle Travis and Chet Atkins using harmonics - they would sneak in an extra octave harmonic which would sound great. On Guitar Shop I took harmonics even further on 'Where Were You' and played whole phrases in harmonics with the bar.'
Not one of Jeff's favourite tracks, 'Hi Ho Silver Lining' nevertheless features one of rock's first double-tracked solos. 'One guitar wasn't quite powerful enough and I had heard accurate double-tracking on some early Les Paul records. It was a ten o' clock in the morning Mickie Most session. He said, "Right, we're going to make a smash record. And you can't do it in three days - you've got to do it right now!" I said, "But Mickie, that solo's got the makings of a really classic, memorable solo - let me do another one." So he said "OK - do another one then." It was just like the Gene Vincent things! I grooved away and got it tight but at the end I did this little flick and it just doesn't match. In the mix it sounded OK - a bit nutty! - so we just left it.'
As a well-respected musician amongst his peers, Jeff was asked to join John Mayall's Bluesbreakers in their heyday and the Rolling Stones. 'John Mayall phoned me up and it was so long ago I was still living with my mum. My mother said, "This John Mayall sounds a very nice chap!" I would have loved to play with him but I didn't think I was good enough to take over from Eric. I remember being pestered by a lot of phone calls though - in the end my mother would say, "Answer the bloody phone - we all know who it is!" It would have been a great experience but you can't be two people. Those days were really crazy - every day something new would be happening.
'When Mick Taylor left the Stones I was one of many potential guitarists over in Holland and I didn't really like the thought that I was amongst that - I thought either they want me or they don't, and they only got all the others there in case I turned it down, which I did do. On the phone it sounded like the most incredible offer but being there and getting a taste of the lifestyle was something else. One of them would turn up and disappear, someone else would turn up and go off, then Mick would appear and so on. It would be midnight before they were all in the same place at the same time - by that time I could have recorded an album!'
Although Jeff is known as a solo artist, throughout his career he has worked with top producers and musicians who have helped to bring out the best in him. 'Working on the 'Blow by Blow' album, George Martin brought a certain Beatles-like lightheartedness which made it easier to play in the studio. I would be trying to do these really difficult bits and he would say, "Jeff - you played like an angel this morning but now you suck. Just take a break!" I love that 'cause I hate to be patronised about my playing. I like to have input from Joe Public or from someone I respect if they can explain what they don't like about what I'm doing. What's lacking in a lot of people is that they live in their own little world in a vacuum and eventually the door slams shut and they freeze to death.
'Max Middleton was the first musician I had played with who didn't make me feel embarrassed that I didn't know the names of the chords he was playing. He would go through the notes in the chords and I would learn them. That period simmered me down because when you become musically aware to that degree it's harder to make a wild rock 'n' roll sound! Later on, Jan Hammer was another huge influence on me - he plays better guitar than I do! He would listen to Hendrix and then be able to emulate it on his synth, getting the tone and overtones just right'.
For the '89 'Guitar Shop' album, Jeff teamed up with the formidable talents of keyboard player Tony Hymas and drummer Terry Bozzio. However, working with top musicians can sometimes be a disadvantage according to Jeff. 'Terry's my dream drummer but he's a dangerous machine to have around if you haven't got finished songs - he'll plug into a groove within the first five seconds and make a simple jam sound great. So, in some ways it's better to have a more basic drummer there so you can get a clearer sight of the actual music.'
After playing a number of dates with the Big Town Playboys to support the 'Crazy Legs' album, Jeff hopes to put a band together with Terry Bozzio and Jennifer Batten. 'The others look like they've walked in from Mars so we're still gonna look great even if we sound like shit!' Judging by Jeff's past achievements, there's very little chance of that...
© Douglas J Noble 1993
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