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

by David Lewis

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.