Jeff Beck: Truth and Beck-Ola

Jeff Beck

Once upon a time, Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, and Jeff Beck pretty much represented the holy trinity of British guitar. The three were intertwined early in their careers when they succeeded each other on a little farm team known as the Yardbirds, but their paths split after that. Clapton left to join bands like John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and Cream before forging a successful solo career. Beck followed him, playing in the Yardbirds until health reasons reportedly forced him out. Page, the last of the Yardbirds guitar heroes, went on to form Led Zeppelin.

From the start, Beck may have been a more accomplished guitarist than either Page or Clapton, but Beck’s playing lacked the carnal groove of Page’s, and while Clapton may not have turned out to be God, he rightfully gained a reputation for channeling his personal pain into the blues. Beck could play pretty much anything, but the fates conspired to keep him from reaching the commercial heights of his Yardbirds brethren.

As Beck’s post-Yardbirds career was gaining steam, he lost a year recovering from a head injury suffered in a car crash, backed out of playing Woodstock, and lost vocalist Rod Stewart and bass player Ron Wood to the Faces. At times, Beck seemed the victim of bad luck; other times, he seemed to go into self-imposed exile. So whatever momentum he built for himself tended to find a way to get derailed.

But the Jeff Beck Group burned bright and brief; the lineup of Beck, Stewart, Wood, drummer Micky Waller, and pianist Nicky Hopkins lasting only two albums: Truth and Beck-Ola. After Beck-Ola, Stewart and Wood would defect to the Faces, and Beck would turn his group into a more subtle but less satisfying beast. Still, it’s hard to imagine Zeppelin, Cream, or any host of British “blooze” acts ever being the same without the template Beck and company laid down.

In fact, legend has it that Beck was furious with Jimmy Page when Led Zeppelin followed Beck’s version of Willie Dixon’s classic “You Shook Me” with their own version. Beck heard Led Zeppelin I as proof that Page had stolen his ideas. And who could blame Beck? The two bands followed remarkably similar blueprints, right down to an emotive, slightly androgynous singer.

The year 1968 also saw Cream release Wheels of Fire and Hendrix release Electric Ladyland, so a few people were nosing around the same ideas for a new blues sound as was Beck, but Beck’s sound was probably the most immediate, relying as it did on pure, uncomplicated power. Some credit Truth and Beck-Ola with laying the groundwork for heavy metal; whether or not that’s the case, there’s no denying his early influence. Several techniques that we take for granted now — call-and-response between singer and guitar, phased guitar effects panning back and forth in the listener’s headphones, distortion — sounded fresh at this time, and Beck put them to good use with his new band.

Right out of the gate on 1968’s Truth, Beck signals this new approach with a remake of the Yardbirds’ “Shapes of Things” that ramps up the blues quotient. The guitars, bass, and drums are on overdrive, competing with Rod Stewart, who wails over everything (yes, despite his recent attempts to woo our grandmothers with his standards records, Stewart used to be not only young, but one heck of a rock ‘n’ roll singer).

So that’s what you notice first about Truth: that sledgehammer approach to the blues. But Truth also holds a few surprises and left turns, in the form of a nimble rendition of the traditional “Greensleeves”, the blues / jazz hybrid of “Beck’s Bolero” (ironically, written by Page), and a slow blues cover of “Ol’ Man River”. Some of this was due to the fact that the group had very little original material, but it also represented the constant power struggle between Beck, who wanted to follow his own vision, and producer Mickie Most, who saw anything other than mainstream pop as a dead end.

In the short amount of time it took to release the follow-up, 1969’s Beck-Ola, acts like Zeppelin and Cream had begun to dominate the charts. So it’s no wonder that Beck-Ola ditches some of Truth‘s eclecticism in favor of cranking the amps up even louder. The sound here is even heavier, placing more emphasis on guitar power. Elvis’ “All Shook Up” is a mix of screaming guitar and rollicking piano, while “Jailhouse Rock” is a workout featuring slinky, funky guitar / piano interplay. “Plynth (Water Down the Drain)” boasts a riff that sounds for all the world like primo Zeppelin. On the one hand, Beck-Ola isn’t as satisfying as Truth — Beck himself admits that they were just winging it, trying to get something on the shelves — since it’s shorter and less varied. But there’s a certain charm to the bash-it-out style with which they attack these songs. It’s fun, but it’s also a reactive album, spurred by flagging attendance at shows and by the attention other bands were getting, rather than a visionary one like Truth. It’s a shame the band could spend only four days on it. An instrumental like “Girl from Mill Valley” just begs for the sweet kind of vocals that would earn Stewart his millions later on.

These 2006 reissues are notable for a couple of reasons past their clean remastering. They share a dozen bonus tracks between them, and the liner notes offer Beck’s revealing track-by-track opinions on the albums, roughly 30 years later.

The bonus tracks for Truth consist of Beck’s three pre-Jeff Beck Group singles (and their b-sides), as well as a piano-less take of “You Shook Me” and a take of “Blues De Luxe” noticeable for its lack of fake crowd noise. Those early singles, even though they were hits at the time, might come as a revelation to some listeners (“I’ve Been Drinking” is a nice blues groaner that was tucked away as a b-side to the harpsichord-laden chamber pop of “Love is Blue”). They certainly offer a glimpse into an alternate reality where Most had his way, transforming Beck into a pop artist. The enormously popular “Hi-Ho Silver Lining”, in particular, seems to weigh on Beck — he once compared the song’s success to having a pink toilet seat hanging around his neck, and hasn’t grown more charitable towards the song since.

Beck-Ola gets early versions of “All Shook Up” and “Jailhouse Rock”, as well as B.B. King’s “Sweet Little Angel” and Hank Marvin’s “Throw Down a Line”. For the most part, they entertain in the way that good blues workouts should. If anything, though, the leanness of the bonus materials here underscores the no-frills circumstances that surrounded the album’s creation. Beck recalls “Throw Down a Line” as an example of Most’s pop leanings, but admits that the song held potential, if only the band had found time to do it justice.

The liner notes are refreshingly frank in that way; Beck minces no words about the growing strife within the band, or with Most. Even though these albums were recorded decades ago, Beck’s memory is impressive. He remembers instrumentation and circumstances — things that you’d think would blur with time — just as well as he remembers Keith Moon screaming over his drums as the band kicks into high gear on “Beck’s Bolero”. He’s also honest about the business realities that drove some of the band’s decisions, even though 20-20 hindsight reveals some of them to be mistakes. Even so, he comes across as undeniably proud of the band’s accomplishments, as he should be.

RATING 8 / 10