2/25/2011

Jeff Beck and Rod Stewart: Too Many Years Apart

At the beginning of February, 2011, it was reported in Rolling Stone that Jeff Beck and Rod Stewart, two of the most famous and most accomplished figures in the history of British rock, had begun to record a collection of new tracks together, with the stated intention of later releasing them as an album. It was the first confirmation that the two musicians, who excelled as members of The Jeff Beck Group in the late 1960s, had finally decided to work together again, after too many years apart. "Jeff and I had lunch together just before Christmas," Rod Stewart was quoted as saying. He also said, in reference to the process of recording new tracks, that he and Jeff Beck were "making progress."

Jeff Beck first gained fame with his guitar when he was asked to join The Yardbirds in 1965, stepping into the lineup after the hasty departure of Eric Clapton, who was patently unwilling to play anything that strayed from the authentic purity of the blues. As soon as Jeff Beck got his bearings within The Yardbirds, he quickly displayed the unusual range and stunning inventiveness of his talent in their recordings. The extraordinary sounds that he created with his electric guitar on "Heart Full of Soul," "Evil Hearted You," "I'm a Man," "Shapes of Things," and "Over Under Sideways Down" thrilled a young generation of hip listeners, and set a groundbreaking standard for other guitarists. When Jeff Beck parted from The Yardbirds in late 1966, he chose to form his own band, known as The Jeff Beck Group.

Rod Stewart, who had established a strong reputation for himself in London as a singer with Long John Baldry and The Hoochie Coochie Men, Steampacket, and Shotgun Express, was chosen to be the vocalist for The Jeff Beck Group. He joined a band that included, in addition to Jeff Beck himself, Ron Wood on bass and Micky Waller on drums. The first album by The Jeff Beck Group, Truth, was released in 1968. Among the standout tracks on Truth are "Shapes of Things" (a high-powered cover of the song that Jeff Beck already had recorded with The Yardbirds), "Morning Dew," "You Shook Me," "Ol' Man River," "Greensleeves," and a boldly frenzied rendering of Willie Dixon's "I Ain't Superstitious." Truth features a deliberately heavy mixture of rock and blues, and was regarded as a milestone in rock'n'roll at the time of its release.

Beck-Ola, the second (and last) album by The Jeff Beck Group, was released in 1969. By that time, Tony Newman had taken over for Micky Waller on drums, and Nicky Hopkins (a skillful musician who was constantly in demand at recording sessions with The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, the Kinks, The Who, The Pretty Things, David Bowie, Cat Stevens, Dusty Springfield, and Donovan, among many others) had joined on piano and organ. Beck-Ola has a powerful sound that ably continues the mode of extreme heaviness that was evident on Truth, and features, among its strongest tracks, "All Shook Up" and "Jailhouse Rock," two songs that had been hits for Elvis Presley in the 1950s, and "Rice Pudding," a frantic instrumental that allows Jeff Beck to display most of his tricks in the space of seven minutes.

The Jeff Beck Group broke up shortly after the release of Beck-Ola. (As a result, the band missed an opportunity to appear at the Woodstock Festival in August of 1969.) Rod Stewart and Ron Wood soon joined with three members of The Small Faces to become The Faces, and Jeff Beck formed a new band with different musicians, a band that also was known as The Jeff Beck Group. Since those days, both Jeff Beck and Rod Stewart have remained in the musical forefront, but among longtime fans there always has been a feeling that the two musicians could have, and should have, done more together in the 1960s. In 2011, the sudden prospect of hearing new music from them, decades after the end of their short-lived alliance, provided their fans with a cause for surprise and excitement.