Graded on a Curve:
Jeff Beck, “Hi Ho
Silver Lining” b/w “Beck’s Bolero”

If ever they mold a Mt. Rushmore of Classic Rock guitar wizards, it will surely include the chiseled mug of Jeff Beck, his career so lengthy and varied that it’s basically a bottomless reservoir of inspiration for articles in Mojo magazine. Along with his work in The Yardbirds, rock listeners persist in celebrating him for the two distinct Jeff Beck Groups and for his many solo albums. Sometimes overlooked is the pair of singles Beck recorded in ‘67, and “Hi Ho Silver Lining” b/w “Beck’s Bolero” is the better of the two.

For a certain breed of rock fan, the various permutations of The Yardbirds are a gift that keeps on giving. Whether it’s the early blues purist period with Clapton and the smash “For Your Love” (which sent Eric reeling into the tastefully bluesy embrace of John Mayall), the copious top-notch material and numerous hits produced by the post-Beck rave-ups and experimentation, and the brief pleasures to be had from the short-lived Beck/Page lineup; really, it’s only the culminating quartet that’s patchy, though there’s more quality to be found there than many think.

Of course, scores of folks only recognize The Yardbirds as the group that begat Led Zeppelin, since it was the four-piece fronted by Page that was contractually bound to tour and slowly transmogrified into what we now know as Zep. Similarly, there’s a smaller but significant number of ears that neglect the 45s Beck cut directly after departing the ‘birds. This omission is either purposeful, due to the a sides’ unabashed pop ambition (i.e. the discrete odor of Mickie Most) or purely accidental; for decades, they were most easily discovered in Best of Beck packages. I don’t recall hearing them on the radio.

Those songs were available elsewhere, however. In fact, I first heard “Hi Ho Silver Lining” in the ‘80s on a 2LP import various artists compilation titled Formula 30, and I’ll acknowledge the initial taste proved a tad befuddling, mainly because Jeff Beck was considered, with Clapton, Page, and the departed Hendrix (the only one insured not to fuck up his own legacy), as a true deity of Rock Guitar. And of the three still living, Beck has displayed the greatest ambivalence over the commercial expectations of hard rocking power blues.

In 2006 Legacy Recordings put together a double CD edition of Truth, the fitfully excellent ’68 debut of the Mk 1 Jeff Beck Group, that sensibly gathered both “Hi Ho Silver Lining” and “Tallyman” (Beck’s other ’67 a side) amongst the additional tracks. Those cuts were crafted by largely different personnel with diverse objectives from the assorted players on Truth, so it’s understandable why neither was included on the ‘68 pressing.

Continuing to be a bit flummoxing is how Most, who had Beck in the clutches of a personal management contract, apparently cared not a whit for the whole Group concept, which in addition to oozing the guitarist’s immediately observable skill as a bandleader/ member, was loaded with talent including future chart biggie Rod Stewart. Instead, Most was intensely focused upon Beck as a pop-focused solo act.

But credit should be paid where it’s due. If Most was disinterested in his hot young property’s strong suit(s), he also wasn’t necessarily misusing him; while Beck may be nobody’s idea of a great vocalist, I quite enjoy hearing him sing (and I doubt it’s just me), and if limited in that role (as was Jimi) he can be very effective. I actually highly prefer Beck to Stewart, whose susceptibility to caterwauling rears up on Truth, though I do rate that one and the lesser but still interesting follow-up Beck-Ola as two of Roderick’s stronger (not the word, really) efforts.

I digress. Again, on first listen to “Hi Ho Silver Lining” I was struck by the lack of rock heft from a guy whose rep was immense in rock terms. In its place was a mixture of pop, baroque and psych elements; odd initially, but as the period production helps to indicate, it was 1967, babe. And in combination with his other talents, Most had an ear for a tune. Due to either nefariousness or coincidence, Beck’s version of the song (written by Scott English and Larry Weiss) usurped the hit potential of the one issued roughly concurrently by star-crossed Freakbeat outfit The Attack.

The Attack were a fine band; along with the original recording (by a couple days) of “Hi Ho Silver Lining” they are perhaps most well-known for dealing Davy O’List to The Nice. They released four 45s while extant (“Hi Ho…” was the second) but Complete Recordings 1967-68 holds 15 tracks and includes worthy moments in abundance; interestingly, the song shared with Beck isn’t the highpoint, though it does have its charms.

It pains this obscurantist to admit it, but “Hi Ho Silver Lining” needed the resources Most was able to throw into it, though The Attack were signed to Decca and weren’t beset by dire audio circumstances; their take comes through with clarity and even features smart use of clarinet. But their debut single stiffed, and it was very unlikely anybody at Decca was going to pour the money and labor required to vault “Hi Ho…” to a gemlike state into an act with one unsuccessful 7-inch behind them.

Beck’s reading benefits from more than invested pounds, though. The production wisely doesn’t go overboard, as the possibly (probably) Sgt. Pepper’s-inspired opening sonic upsurge gives way to the guitarist’s solid vocalizing and punchy strumming while the rhythm’s delivery is appropriately crisp. It’s when the strings drift in that the proceedings begin shaping up as classic.

Sturdy but not too thick, the baroque restraint reinforces the intelligence of construction as Beck recites some truly bizarre lyrics; over the years “Flies are in your pea soup baby/they’re waving at me” has consistently filled my head with strange imagery. And it’s only when one dwells upon the words Americans English and Weiss wrote that things start formulating as comparable to “Judy in Disguise (With Glasses),” which came out later the same year.

I dig that John Fred oldie just fine, but there’s also little doubt that in the wrong hands “Hi Ho…” would’ve been a disaster. In this case a Brit touch was necessary, and that’s what it received (twice, even). The choruses are so frothily spirited it’s become a football club staple, and if not especially rock inclined, Beck does toss off a dandy little solo.

And it was mighty nice of Most to allow Beck to explore that rock jones on the flipside. “Beck’s Bolero,” long familiar to fans of Truth and featuring an almost ludicrously star-studded aggregation (Page on rhythm guitar, John Paul Jones on bass, Keith Moon on drums and Nicky Hopkins on keys), is an outstanding achievement in late-‘60s rock heaviness. Written by Page (though Beck has also been credited) and based on Ravel’s “Bolero,” it’s a major flash of hard rock gumption captured early and lean before the inevitable bloat and rot set in.

The 45 offered the longer mono mix of the tune; for the LP it was subsequently shortened and rechanneled for stereo. And prior to the expanded 2006 Truth I’d not heard the mono, though after familiarizing myself with both I do slightly prefer the single version (length matters, at least in this instance).

My admiration for Truth has grown over time, though it’s an imperfect specimen. For starters, there’s Stewart to consider, plus some of the most blatantly fake-assed dubbed applause I’ve ever heard on “Blues Deluxe,” and finally the all-over-the-place song selection; two Willie Dixon covers makes total blues-rock sense, as does a revamped “Shapes of Things” by the ’birds. “Greensleeves” is a mildly offbeat choice, but Jerome Kern’s “Ol’ Man River,” widely associated with Paul Robeson (handled surprisingly well here by Stewart), arrives from out of the left field bleachers.

Once more I wander from the subject. “Hi Ho Silver Lining,” if not representative of what Jeff Beck is most celebrated for, is still an utter peach of a tune, and “Beck’s Bolero” succinctly expresses his rocking late-‘60s personality. Rather than schizophrenic, these two songs form a killer 45.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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