British rock guitar hero Jeff Beck is going strong 50 years on -- and he is not about to head quietly into that good night.
The cover of the first new album in six years from British guitar hero Jeff Beck shows a megaphone with a finger on the trigger, ready to let it blast. It’s an immediate indication that 50 years into his career, Beck is not about to head quietly into that good night.
Indeed, the album is packed with songs, written by Beck and members of his current band, in which outrage at various political and social targets is palpable, emotions made all the more visceral by the scorching guitar work that’s been a hallmark of his music since he took over the lead guitar post in British Invasion band the Yardbirds from one Eric Clapton.
He’ll be drawing from the new album, “Loud Hailer,” and others across the varied turning points of a long and varied career when he takes the stage Wednesday at the Hollywood Bowl for a 50th anniversary concert. Given his entry into the Yardbirds came in 1965, the “50th anniversary” tag is applied somewhat loosely, although it was 1966 when the first Yardbirds album with Beck aboard, “Having a Rave Up with the Yardbirds,” made its mark.
The reigning mood on “Loud Hailer” comes through in song titles such as the heavy rock workout “Thugs Club” (about political power brokers who pay no heed to the damage they inflict), the sublime and haunting ballad “Scared for the Children” (the legacy his generation is bequeathing to their offspring), the hard-driving rocker “The Revolution Will Be Televised” (frustration over technological distractions provided by television and video games) and the self-explanatory political rant in “O.I.L. (Can’t Get Enough of That Sticky).”
Time’s ripping by and people are not being brought to justice. People living on a high echelon, and they think they’re above it.
“There was deep concern about things in general that have been upsetting me, and the more I delved into it, the worse it was getting,” Beck, 72, said as he sank back into a corner bench sofa in the lounge of his West Hollywood hotel on Monday.
“I think it was my time to speak out. It definitely felt like I can’t deal with it any more. … Time’s ripping by and people are not being brought to justice. People living on a high echelon, and they think they’re above it.”
Yet Beck isn’t consumed by vitriol or anomie.
The album-closing “Shrine” includes the lyric “I’ll never lose my faith in rock and roll/Never let hate make a home in my soul.” It’s a song Beck refers to as “a ray of hope” to counter much of the anger and frustration he and his collaborators from the young British band Bones — singer Rosie Bones and rhythm guitarist Carmen Vandenberg, supplemented by the rhythm section of drummer Davide Sollazi and bassist Giovanni Pallotti drafted by album co-producer Filippo Cimatti— are expressing in other songs.
In conjunction with his new solo album, Beck and high-end literary publisher Genesis Publications have just issued “BeckO1,” a large-format coffee table book priced at $500 showcasing his dual lifelong passions for rock ’n’ roll — specifically electric guitars — and vintage cars.
“America gave us the hot rod, the B-movie, the drive-in, rock ’n’ roll,” he said shortly before leaving his hotel, hopping in his immaculately restored 1932 Ford painted vibrant orange and driving down Sunset Boulevard to Mel’s Drive-In to a book release party. In line were about 50 people who had ordered copies of the book.
Among the crowd were a few celebrities, including actress Candy Clark, one of the stars of George Lucas’ 1973 breakthrough film “American Graffiti,” and George Harrison’s musician son, Dhani Harrison, both of whom spent time chatting with the evening’s honoree.
“Just about everything I was interested in was not in England,” he said. “My mother took me to the movies — that was in ’58, I think — and the support feature was ‘Hot Rod Gang.’ It was outrageous because they were racing along the curbs. My mum said, ‘No, we’ll come back when the main feature starts.’ I said, ‘No we won’t!’ Thanks, Mum!”
The text Beck has written to accompany the multiplicity of photos is often poignantly revealing, especially where he discusses his hardscrabble youth in postwar England.
“As a child, I liked building spaceships out of Oxo [beef bouillon] tins. I also used to make buildings by piling up some ancient deckchairs. … I knew where I was headed.”
It also taps his self-deprecating sense of humor. Accompanying a photo of himself with Rolling Stones guitarist Ron Wood, from a 1990s recording session at Wood’s house in Ireland with Elvis Presley’s venerated lead guitarist, Scotty Moore, Beck notes, “I started getting a bit too extravagant and Scotty said, ‘Cut that guy’s fingers off!’”
The Hollywood Bowl show is also slated to feature Aerosmith lead singer Steven Tyler, Czech rock keyboardist Jan Hammer, blues singer Beth Hart and an opening set from one of Beck’s own blues guitar heroes, Buddy Guy.
Over half a century, Beck said, if anything he’s become more committed to “keeping good rock ’n’ roll alive, and good blues. As Buddy will tell you, he’s sometimes in fear of the blues fading away. But I can tell you, when people go and see him, they won’t have any fear of it fading away. He’s still amazing. I think the resurgence of vinyl is encouraging as well. It means people have got a keen ear, and they’re attuned to quality sound.”
The people at Fender asked me what they could do to improve the guitar, and I said ‘Nothing.’ Just give me an in-the-box guitar from 1954, that’ll do.
— Jeff Beck
Although Beck hasn’t generated as much public recognition over the years as other rock guitar gods such as Clapton, Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page, he’s widely regarded to be among the most talented to ever pick up the instrument. He’s a two-time inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — in 1992 as a member of the Yardbirds (the band that launched the careers of Beck, Clapton and Page), and again in 2009 for his solo career.
Rolling Stone’s 2011 ranking of the 100 Greatest Guitarists placed him at No. 5 (behind the Stones’ Keith Richards, Page, Clapton and, at No. 1, Hendrix.)
“Jeff is quite simply a ‘born’ guitarist,” fellow guitar master John McLaughlin writes in his foreword to “BeckO1,” after citing Beck as “my all-time favorite electric guitarist.”
“Not only does he have the mysterious talent that is innate,” McLaughlin continues, “he has not stopped evolving over the years. He has forged a unique and wonderful style of playing that is instantly recognizable. He has the most fluid style of playing I’ve ever heard.”
Beck’s goal over a lifetime playing music has been toward more human emotion, less reliance on any of the myriad technological gadgets available to him and other musicians.
“There are unlimited technical aids and stuff, which I’m not the slightest bit interested in,” he said. “I will be interested in quality reverbs, because if you want to get the sound that’s on ‘Scared for the Children,’ that’s a beautiful sounding reverb.
“Other than that, when you get the plug-in, you sound like everybody else,” he said. “I don’t like the idea of any other device covering up the touch, and they do that with the compression, and distortion covering up a multitude of sins. Also it gives you a cookie-cutter sound.”
What about all the advancements in guitar-making techniques in the six decades since pioneers of the instrument such as Leo Fender and Les Paul created the first generation of mass-produced electric guitars?
“The people at Fender asked me what they could do to improve the guitar, and I said ‘Nothing.’ Just give me an in-the-box guitar from 1954, that’ll do just fine,” he said with a hearty laugh. “They said ‘We need to add something to make it yours,’ so I said, ‘Just put a push button on/off switch or something.’ When you get something perfect, you don’t try to improve it.”