History, Mystery, Music and Pop…

Random thoughts on books and events.

Month: July, 2012

Hot Wired Guitar: The Life of Jeff Beck by Martin Power

Jeff Beck is the consummate electric guitarist. No-one plays guitar like him: he regularly tops ‘Best Guitarist polls’, and his inventiveness, musicianship and sheer ability on the guitar is pretty much untouched. This very fine book is a record of Beck’s life. It has some flaws, but it raises some interesting questions. Martin Power has done a fine job in introducing the wider world to one of the more difficult characters.

Beck, like so many of the English Blues revival, grew up in the South of England (Surrey). He had a rather unremarkable childhood, though he was, apparently, somewhat of a chess adept. Power describes post-war Britain quite evocatively. Young Geoffrey Beck (he was to change the spelling later) was born towards the end of the war (1944, just after D-Day), to Arnold (an accountant) and Ethel Beck (a factory worker). Young Beck (the second child), fell in love with rockabilly – particularly the guitar playing of the elusive Cliff Gallup. A trip to the movies with his mother led to an abiding love for hot rods.

Beck’s brilliance is tempered by some bad luck, some bad decisions, some personal failings (or at least perceived personal failings…) and just sheer stubbornness. An early stint in the Yardbirds (after Eric Clapton had left in somewhat of an elitist snit) cemented Beck’s reputation as a great guitarist. After then, other guitar players, particularly Hendrix, inspired him to become more or less better. Beck pioneered Zeppelinesque groups (The original Jeff Beck group featured Ronnie Wood on bass and a young, highly talented Rod Stewart on vocals). He formed one of the great power trios (Beck, Bogert and Appice). He also did that rare thing: recorded an accessible fusion album (two, actually), and after a period (one of many) of inactivity and seeming irrevelance, returns to the scene with instrumental albums and lucrative guest spots.

Certainly, there’s a sense in which Beck should be better known: most casual music fans would know him as a great guitarist – some might even know his records. Yet, when it comes to great solos, very rarely does a Beck performance make the list. I suppose after the Hendrixes, Mays, Claptons, Van Halens, et cetera, no Beck piece is seen as iconic. It is somewhat of a cruel irony that Beck’s most famous song in the UK is ‘Hi Ho Silver Lining’, a piece of pop that, while catchy, is not really representative of his work.

Power does suggest reasons why Beck isn’t more renowned. Let’s be fair though, he has managed to earn enough to live in a castle and sustain a hotrod collection. Yet, Beck can be difficult. Power documents Beck’s stubborn and at times, seemingly self destructive behaviour disinterestedly (not uninterestedly), and one wonders: what makes up such an artist? He is seemingly cavalier about equipment (at one time in the 60s, forgetting his guitar for a lead guitar session; another time he leaves a new Fender Stratocaster in the back of his pickup, and is surprised when it’s gone when he comes out). He uses few effects, suggesting the maxim that 90% of your tone is based on your fingers is correct.

Beck was a headache to his bandmates (the Yardbirds collapsed in part because of what they saw as his unreliablility and what he claimed was illness); a nightmare for producers (he and George Martin argued over the direction of the second album they did together); a pain for other artists. Yet, the seeming bad luck that plagued his career has not helped. Nile Rodgers can’t focus on Beck as he is focussing on his own career, leaving a disjointed and unfulfilling album (many of Beck’s albums have been described this way). Mickey Most forces him into a brief career as a pop singer, despite Beck hating pop and singing. BBA break up. Beck sustains a car accident which puts him out of action for months. Jimi Hendrix appears….

Power relates all this: sometimes it’s a little too hagiographic, but on the whole it’s pretty evenhanded. What Power doesn’t say, but what became clear to me is that Beck seems to have had, more or less, the musical progression that Hendrix might have followed. In pushing the electric guitar to its limit, Beck has shown what a diverse, and marvellous instrument it is. Power rightly points out ‘Where Were You?’ as Beck’s highlight (though it’s possible that his version of Nessun Dorma is just as important.). ‘Where Were You?’ utilises the tremolo bar in such a way that it becomes much less of a flashy gimmick and far more a tool for deep musical expression.

Jeff Beck’s odd career is paradoxical: most people who followed his lead would find themselves out of the industry. Yet he has managed to maintain a 45 year career with the deep respect and regard of his colleagues. I suppose that when one has such a unique approach, the industry can sustain a little bit of true rock star behaviour. Power’s book is a worthwhile and enjoyable addition to the literature of rock music.

Queen: the complete works, by Georg Purvis

One of the greatest concerts I had the good fortune to see was Queen, with Freddie, at the Sydney Entertainment Centre – my first international rock concert. And, yes, it was incredible. I still (some *numbers redacted* years later) use it as the benchmark for concerts I’ve seen since. I loved (and still love) Queen’s oeuvre: from the bold statement that makes the first eponymous album, through the glory which is Queen II, the stripped back (? really?) Sheer Heart Attack, the magnificent Night at the Opera, the underrated (but not by fans) Day at the Races… And on…. I knew all the songs, by heart, all vocal parts, and could sing along with guitar, bass, drums and keys… I’m too young to have bought all except those albums from The Works onwards on release. This diversion is meant, in some way, to show my especial qualification to critique the very well done indeed book, Queen: The Complete Works

Purvis has listened to and examined every recorded track that the members of Queen participated on: from their early bands, right through to the various solo projects (both during the original quartet’s run, and after Freddie’s death). This is no mean feat: the music of Queen is superficially inconsequential – fist pumping arena rock, metal, some synth pop, some ballads. ‘Superficially, in that the music and lyrics often betray a depth and complexity which are as elusive to discover as they are rewarding on their discovery. Purvis digs deep into the stories around the music, and a revealing biography of the band appears. Purvis actually finds the story of the band, in a perceptive and almost unconcious way. (Like the band, the book is full of seeming contradictions. This is a good thing.) He examines singles, albums, live concerts, videos, in a probing and intelligent fashion

When you think about it, there are very few bands or artists who really warrant the type of attention that this type of book requires. The Beatles have been well served by Ian McLachlan’s Revolution in the Head. Clinton Heylin’s examination of Dylan’s songs Revolution in the Air is as definitive, if not more so. There is a poor one on the Rolling Stones I have lying around somewhere (and the Stones deserve better, even if you finish with Tattoo You). David Bowie has had one done (rightly). A study like this would be an excellent companion piece to Charles Shaar Murray’s definitive book on Hendrix, Crosstown Traffic. Perhaps Michael Jackson could sustain one. Zappa seems to disqualify himself from a complete works, just from the sheer impossibility of it. Prince would seem to be a candidate. Jethro Tull would as well. Perhaps some of the more progressive bands: Rush, Dream Theatre. Metallica? Slayer? Megadeth? Perhaps. The articles at The Band’s website should be collated and put into a book (Declaration: I actually wrote one of them, but the majority were written by Peter Viney. Others though have also contributed.) Possibly Elvis? Maybe early Elton John (say, up to Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, certainly: after then, Elton gets a bit patchy..). Velvet Underground? Radiohead: certainly. REM? U2? I’m not sure… Other suggestions of course always welcome.

Heylin actually traces the development of Dylan’s songwriting, but Purvis is closer to Mclachlan. The main difference between McLachlan’s approach and Purvis’s approach is of course the nature of each band. Whereas the Beatles were longstanding friends who grew up and matured in each others company, and who were a tight-knit, protective circle, Queen were not quite like this. Queen formed later in life: all members had been in less successful bands: May and Taylor had been in Smile, Freddie had been in Wreckage, and John Deacon had been in several groups.

By the time Queen had coalesced, they had passed that age where young men naturally hang in a pack – while close friends, they were a business entity. They learned some harsh lessons about the business (mostly thanks to the Sheffield brothers, and, in a personal slump, with new management, pulled their masterpiece Night at the Opera out of the air – and powered by the unlikely, yet in retrospect, unquestionable, classic ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, the band moved in to real, sustainable superstardom. Changes of direction followed, and the story of their ‘death’ and ‘resurrection’ – Freddie’s encoded, yet obvious homosexual appearance; the difficult and uneven album Hot Space, the ill advised and politically mishandled trip to South Africa, and the release of the ‘I Want to Break Free’ video: showing the band in drag, turning the American audience off. This is all redeemed by the iconic and incredible ‘Live Aid’ performance, in which Queen stole the day (watching it as a teenager, I remember feeling quite sorry for the act who followed). Of course, the return to success is tempered by Freddie’s death from AIDS (long rumoured, there was no announcement until the day before he died).

Purvis sheds new light on these, and also introduces new perspectives. Queen of course open up new markets in South America (having been shabbily treated in Australia at the Sunbury festival, they only visited as a band once after 1972, well into the 1980s). And of course, the Queen back catalogue always sells. Queen’s Greatest Hits collection is second only to the Eagles greatest hits in terms of sales. Queen struggle to change and develop with the fans (although they do much interesting stuff as they grow: their later stuff seems to me to be as well-crafted and creative as their early efforts. (I must admit, I prefer the early efforts, but there are some magic moments.))

Purvis has robust and firm opinions. Most of them I agree with: those I don’t are subjective, so I’m not going to argue with him. (I will say I thought the Miracle was their worst album, which Purvis seems to say as well). Purvis shows a band which is professional, unified (if not united) and always willing to push its own boundaries. It is a band with four exceptionally talented and highly intelligent men, driving the band to where they believe the band is best served. The background and personality of the four are slowly revealed: but Purvis avoids the tabloid revelations which might have marred such a work (the marriage breakups, Freddie’s Farsi background and personal life, the children etc are not ignored, but only mentioned in context of albums and songs).

A couple of things might have improved the book. A bit more musical analysis would have helped. (one of the things I really like about McLachlan is his index of songs, which has not only the page number they appear on, but the original key they were written in.) To take Bohemian Rhapsody, for example, there’s a real sense of recontextualised rock and roll, as well as an Italian opera. I assume the licensing for pictures was too expensive, explaining lack of pictures To be fair, there’s not exactly a lack of photos of Queen. I suspect there are minor recordings which are missing, and my setlist of the Australian show differs slightly from Purvis’. (Mine of course, was done in an adrenaline-filled rush the day after, as I relived as much of the concert as I could remember. So I might be wrong.)

These are minor issues in a marvellous book. You can read it as a narrative, use it as a research tool (maybe even a definitive one) or, best of all, browse through it. If you are a fan of the band, a fan of popular music, or even of pop culture, I would recommend this.

A Blog – that’s so 2000s..

I’m not a huge fan of blogs; I am a fan of reviewing. A successful culture engages with itself, argues, discusses and makes judgements. At no time has more material been released, yet, reviewing in serious places is slowly dying. We need critics: not to destroy, but to build. My friend Peter Viney (a more prolific blogger than I ever hope to be), writes gems of reviews on his blog. (Do chase it up).

As reviews get harder to place, I thought I’d jump on the horse (way, way too late, I know) and write some reviews I think I’d like to do. I’m going to write on my passions, as the mood takes me. Being a blog means I can have anything from random short thoughts to more complex deep thoughts.

My interests are broad, and occasionally deep: popular music, popular culture, politics, history, folk traditions, crime fiction (particularly from Sherlock Holmes through to Chandler), drama, comedy, musicals

I promise, though: not to be too self-indulgent. Occasionally, I might comment on politics. None of that Sydney Morning Herald ‘personal, suburban life’ stuff which I can’t stand (and which I like to think is contributing to the decline of Fairfax). I promise to try and keep it a bit literate, a bit clear, a bit free of poor writing, and maybe even a bit good. I’ll not feed the trolls, and expect no-one will read this anyway.

But, somewhere on the web, I sit, surrounded by virtual books, music, films and other things. Should you see me on your virtual travels, stop by… you never know: I might be there.