Friday, June 13, 2014

Jeff Beck's "Truth"

Try as I might, I can't seem to get excited about the latest batch of Led Zep reissues. I'm the right age (b. 1957) to be a Zep fan, but back when I was a snotnose and all of my cohort were heavy into Zep, Grand Funk, and Black Sabbath (who'd have guessed that they'd be the most influential band o' the day, 40 years down the road?), I preferred the Yardbirds and the Jeff Beck Group. Yep, I'm one of those.

Today, I realize the folly in this, and acknowledge that only a fool would say that the Yardbirds or the JBG were better bands than Zeppelin (forgetting for a moment that Beck's Truth provided the template for Led Zep I in the same way as Mayall's Bluesbreakers with Clapton provided the template for Truth). Man for man, one could reasonably argue that the JBG that recorded Truth was as strong as Zep. But in terms of (forgive me) psycho-social dynamic, Led Zeppelin was a band where the JBG was a leader and a bunch of sidemen who were constantly reminded of it -- which means that you have to go to Rod Stewart's Every Picture Tells A Story to hear the full fruition of a unit boasting the talents of Stewart, Ron Wood, and Micky Waller. And while poor old Keith Relf and Jim McCarty might have had the big ideas, either Stewart-Waller or Plant-Bonham left them in the dust in terms of ability to execute.

More to the point, as Charles Shaar-Murray points out in a 1973 NME piece that just resurfaced online in The Guardian, while Beck's boyhood pal Jimmy Page was a composer-producer-arranger in addition to being a shit-hot axe-slinger, Beck himself was a superior technician, period. A one-idea man, even if the idea was "How in hell did he do that?" As such, he was only as interesting to listen to as the context in which he was placed. And in the early JBG, with a Bohemian folksinger wannabe-cum-Sam Cooke enthusiast up front, a demoted guitarist from second-division R&B bands on bass, and what someone I know once referred to as "the world's greatest sloppy drummer," Beck could play a more fully realized version of the amped-up Chicago blues he'd been playing at with the Yardbirds.

At the point in his career (1968) when Truth appeared, Beck suffered from the misfortune of having signed a contract with producer Mickie Most, a failed South African Elvis Presley wannabe who'd had the good fortune to record the Animals' version of "House of the Rising Sun" in a single take and seen it top the charts in both the UK and the US. Most had gone on to further success with Herman's Hermits, Lulu, and Donovan, but failed to hit pay dirt with the post-Beck Yardbirds, whose stage act in '67-'68 was the foundation for Zeppelin's first LP (which might appropriately have been titled Take THAT, Mickie Most!) while, in the studio, Most forced them to record pop drivel that wouldn't have even been successful a couple of years earlier.

So while the nascent Beck Group was playing storming live shows (I'm listening to a bootleg of an August '67 show at the Marquee Club as I write this), Most had them recording horrors like "Hi Ho Silver Lining" and "Tallyman" with Beck singing while Stewart warmed the bench, and nadir of nadirs, a cover of Paul Mauriat's "Love Is Blue" that must have had the punters who'd witnessed the band live scratching their heads. In the fullness of time, of course, Beck would discover his forte as a melodist, playing stunning versions of everything from Motown hits to Italian opera. But that was in the future; first, he had to invent Heavy Blooze, then freak himself right out of the competition at the moment when fans like your humble chronicler o' events have been speculating for years that he Might Have Been Huge. (Why, he even pulled out of the Woodstock festival to fly back to England and record Beck-Ola, an album made in great haste by people who really didn't like each other that sounded like it. Duh.)

Given the circumstances surrounding its creation, Truth could have been terrible, but there's also this: By '68, the JBG was as bulletproof a live act as the MC5 were around the same time, the Who would become while touring Tommy, and the Stooges would be for a minute in '70; I've got the bootlegs to prove it. So while its ten tracks include a re-recorded Yardbirds hit, a cover of a Jerome Kern tune from Show Boat, a solo acoustic version of "Greensleeves," a re-recorded single B-side, and another B-side that was recorded in 1966, when these guys got to do in the studio what they'd been doing in clubs and they'd go on to do on tour in America, the results were impressive.

The Yardbirds' "Shapes of Things," f'rinstance, is slowed down from a martial clip to a molasses-slow grind that's jazzier and sexier than the 'riginal. Stewart's rasp, drawing out every phrase, is an improvement over Keith Relf's earnest bleat. Wood is busy enough to fill the space a rhythm guitar would occupy, but rhythmic enough not to be obtrusive, while Waller is as busy, but not as flashy, as Moon and Mitchell. Beck's phrasing is uniquely idiosyncratic and he uses a Les Paul, Marshall, and Tonebender to create a sound that's dark and full of menace, overdubbing crazy glisses on a Sho-Bud steel.

"Let Me Love You" is a slower, groovier take on Buddy Guy's shuffle. Stewart dialogues with Beck's guitar in the same way Junior Wells did with Guy's on their collaborations. The gravel-throated singer is center stage again for Tim Rose's "Morning Dew" (also covered by the Grateful Dead), with bagpipes on the intro and outro, and Beck making wah-wah/slide interjections in the manner of Earl Hooker. Fun fact: Hooker played on Muddy Waters' original version of "You Shook Me," which here features help from sessioneers Nicky Hopkins (who'd tour with the JBG in '68-'69) on piano and John Paul Jones (who'd remember the arrangement when Led Zep covered the same tune on their first LP) on organ over the sound of Beck torturing his guitar with a wah and Tonebender. Jones also plays organ on "Ol' Man River," another feature for Stewart, with Beck overdubbing bass and guitar and Keith Moon (credited as "You Know Who") on tympani.

"Rock My Plimsoul" is a slowed-down (do you begin to detect a theme here?) and uncredited version of B.B. King's "Rock Me Baby." The version on the "Tallyman" B-side had Aynsley Dunbar on drums, who must have wound his watch too tightly that day. On the Truth version, Wood's bass phrases just a little behind Beck's guitar on the riff, giving the shuffle a loping feel. "Beck's Bolero" -- which Beck still plays live to this day -- was recorded at a moment when Keith Moon was considering jumping ship from the 'orrible 'oo, with Moon on drums, Page on 12-string, Jones on bass, and Hopkins on piano. The LP version is missing the little snippet of feedback guitar that appeared on the "Hi Ho Silver Lining" B-side.

"Blues De Luxe" -- another B.B. steal, this time from "Gambler's Blues" -- is the album's tour de force, overdubbed bullfight cheers and all, with relaxed performances from Stewart and Hopkins and a Beck solo with crazy, vocal-like phrasing that sounds like an angry tirade, complete with imprecations. Howlin' Wolf's "I Ain't Superstitious" takes it home with slide-wah animal imitations, culminating in the sloppiest drum solo since Hughie Flint's with Mayall on "What'd I Say."

As great of a listen as Truth remains, the problem (besides the JBG's interpersonal dynamics) is clear: there's no songwriting here. As it turned out, Stewart and Wood had plenty of songwriting ability, but they chose to withhold it until they were away from Beck's ego. After torpedoing the original JBG and getting sidelined by a car crash, Beck returned in 1971 with a similar lineup that emphasized the jazzy R&B that was always lurking under the original JBG's blues-rock surface (dig the Motown covers that band recorded for the BBC, besides the version of "I'm Losing You" that Stewart and Wood exported to the Faces). Since then, he's largely relied on keyboard players (Max Middleton, Jan Hammer, Tony Hymas, Jason Rebello) to provide him with grist for his melodic mill. When Blow By Blow appeared in '75, I remember my teenage guitar mentor and I thinking we'd have to learn how to play good now. We were wrong, of course, but still. These days, Beck is something like a Zen master of the guitar. But he's never made a record better than Truth.


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