Graded on a Curve:
The Jeff Beck Group,
Beck-Ola

I’ve never been a fan of Jeff Beck. I was indifferent to his work with the Yardbirds, and downright loathed the jazz-rock fusion he pawned off on suckers (yours truly included) in the mid-seventies. My basic feeling is this: tons of talent, too little great music. But there is an exception: 1969’s Beck-Ola, which he recorded with The Jeff Beck Group, which was essentially a supergroup consisting of Beck on guitar, Rod Stewart on vocals, Ronnie Wood on bass, Nicky Hopkins on piano and organ, and Tony Newman on drums.

Beck-Ola is a much better—despite its lack of critical plaudits—LP than the first album recorded by the group, 1968’s Truth. The difference between the two is that Beck decided he wanted to play harder rock, and Beck-Ola, with a few exceptions—for example, the lovely Nicky Hopkins instrumental “Girl From Mill Valley,” on which he shows off both his piano and organ chops—is a much tougher LP than Truth.

What I love so much about this 2-LP lineup is how much it lays down the groundwork for the Faces, which both Stewart and Wood would join after Beck, always an explosive and difficult individual, basically tested their patience too far. As for Beck, he blew it in epic proportions following the breakup of the group, declining an opportunity to join The Rolling Stones in the wake of the death of Brian Jones.

But that’s just history. What Beck-Ola happens to be, in the end run, is a seminal heavy metal album, with Beck demonstrating his chops (along with the rest of the band) on such head-banging heavy cuts as “The Hangman’s Knee” (superb guitar solo, titanic cymbal crashing, we’re talking Led Zep country here); and their hard-charging take on Elvis Presley’s “All Shook Up,” on which Stewart shines and Beck plays some really fucked-up guitar, and I’m talking fucked up in the epic sense. Beck squeezes out notes, plays wild runs, revs up his guitar like a funny car, makes funky scratching noises, and generally makes me concede that, despite my dislike for most of his oeuvre, he is a truly brilliant axe-slinger.

“Spanish Boots” is another stellar cut; its riffs are barbaric, Beck’s guitar runs riot, and Hopkins fills in the background with some great piano playing. Beck in particular goes commando in the song’s closing moments, while Wood demonstrates that in addition to being a great guitarist he had mad bass skills. I don’t care much for their take on “Jailhouse Rock,” in part because I’ve never liked “Jailhouse Rock,” and in part because I don’t think it benefits from the heavy metal treatment. The song, which should move like quicksilver, just gives Beck another opportunity to show off, after which Hopkins takes a rather dissonant turn. Then again, I’d be lying if I said Beck’s distorted guitar doesn’t move me; I don’t know what he’s doing, but whatever it is, he should have kept doing it instead of going the horrifying fusion route, as he did on 1975’s Blow by Blow and 1976’s Wired.

“Plynth (Water Down the Drain)” opens with Hopkins tossing off an English music hall riff, only to burst into one very funky tune. And with big riffs that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Ted Nugent album to boot! Stewart shines, as does Newman on drums, but it’s Beck’s guitar that will leave you slack-jawed as he chews up the scenery with lots of sweet, sweet, guitar-slinging, concluding in a mad flurry of heavily distorted notes.

As for the closing instrumental “Rice Pudding,” it comes at you as hard as anything Led Zeppelin ever turned out, then twists and turns its way along, until Beck turns in a simply ace guitar solo, while the drums bash and Wood plays distorted bass. Hopkins plays some cool piano while Beck plays notes that flutter overhead like big old dinosaur birds, and while there may be a tad too much Hopkins on the tune—he tends to quiet things down—Beck always makes certain the caterwaul returns, tossing off barbaric power chords before returning to the song’s basic riff, which as I’ve noted has Led Zeppelin written all over it. And just when you think the tune is finis the lads return to play a climax that ends as abruptly as any piece of music I’ve ever heard. I mean, it’s like somebody shot the band with a space age vaporizer, turning them into instant ether.

As I said earlier, the critics weren’t crazy about Beck-Ola, and neither was the public, which bought it in smaller quantities than Beck. I don’t know how to respond to that except by saying listen to the damn album and tell me it isn’t great. Or near great anyway. Beck went on to a career that was not as successful as those of his guitar-slinging compadres, but Beck-Ola is proof he had the stuff of genius.

Maybe if he hadn’t been so damned hard to work with. A perfectionist, he was still pushing to rework a solo, as producer George Martin recalls, after the record was on the racks in stores. And his acceptance speech after the Yardbirds were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992 basically consisted of his saying, “Someone told me I should be proud tonight … But I’m not, because they kicked me out. … They did … Fuck them!” Call him Mr. Happy, but listen to Beck-Ola. You’ll be glad you did, and it’s not a good idea to get on his wrong side.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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  • Robert Sharpe

    I’m wondering if you are familiar with the fine music Beck has consistently produced over the past three decades. I agree with the implication that too often, Beck’s songs — notably the 1970s stuff you loathe – are basically one long repeated riff. But just as much of his subsequent music is breathtaking, and what’s more, a style that evolves from album to album — a tad techno, then bombastic hard rock, some funky stuff, and a mix of various vocalists. You don’t have to be a guitar nerd to appreciate him.

    • Michael Little

      Hey Robert: I replied to this on Facebook, so I won’t reply here. But thanks so much for the input. I consider you the loyal opposition, and your thoughtful comments are always appreciated, my friend. Rock on!

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