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Eric Clapton And Jeff Beck: The Death of a Musical Revolution

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On February 18th Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck took to the stage at Madison Square Garden. The long-running rivalry between these two guitar idols has been legendary. The significance of their sharing a stage has brought full circle a battle that began more than 40 years ago when Beck replaced Clapton as the lead guitarist for The Yardbirds.
The website MSG has recorded, in 20 photographs, the historical performance by these two rock and roll icons. In Angela Cranford Photographs Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck at Madison Square Garden, our own Blogcritics photography expert FCEtier discusses the masterful artwork of photographer Angela Cranford.

jeff_beck_angela_cranford The concert at Madison Square Garden, along with an unprecedented joint interview Beck and Clapton gave in the March 4, 2010 issue of Rolling Stone magazine, proves that both men have grown beyond the competitiveness that marked their younger days.

They have finally begun to show one another the respect they deserve as two of the most influential guitarists in the history of rock and roll. It's a credit to Clapton that he has been able to overcome his past rigidness and give Beck the credit he has long been due.

There is, once or twice during their Rolling Stone interview, a feeling of cloying, mutual genuflection; an ingratiating, ego-stroking that feels purely saccharine. Even as they poke one another in humorous fashion a few statements stand out. For instance, after being asked, Clapton admits that there are things Beck can play on a guitar that he can't. When Beck is asked if Clapton can do things on a guitar that he can't his response is "no." Both men laugh, but Clapton replies that "it really is true." Beck responds "No, bollocks" and takes his turn to compliment Clapton's playing. No bollocks, indeed.

eric_clapton_ The one thing woefully missing from this triumphant reunion story is a historical overview of these men, the musically incestuous, and often ugly, relationships between the original members of the British rock explosion and the rift that has now become a part of rock and roll lore.

In the Rolling Stone interview Clapton admits that he was "very disagreeable — intolerant" during the break-up with The Yardbirds. Over the years, mixed reports have accumulated of Clapton's battles with his contemporaries. Couple that with Beck's notoriously violent on-stage temper tantrums, and this reunion would seem unlikely at best. The fact that it happened at all can probably only be attributed to the passage of time and life's lessons hard learned.

Eric Clapton Vs Jeff Beck: The Rivalry Years
In the mid 1960s graffiti proclaiming 'Clapton is God' began springing up all over brick buildings of London. Eric Clapton had recently vacated his position as lead guitarist for The Yardbirds. He let it be known that he had no interest in being in a band that was veering away from hardcore blues into more experimental psychedelic and pop music. Clapton packed his guitar and joined John Mayall's Bluesbreakers. It was during this time that his phenomenal blues guitar playing began spawning a devoted group of followers. These followers would proclaim his holiness by word of mouth and, most famously, in paint across the dirty facade of London's Underground stations. By the time The Yardbirds' single "For Your Love" hit the charts Clapton was already long gone.

The Yardbirds, looking for a replacement, turned to friend and fellow musician Jimmy Page. Page, who was making a name for himself, and a good income as a studio musician, turned them down but directed them to Jeff Beck. It wouldn't take long for Beck to gain his own acclaim within The Yardbirds. He was a fearless innovator when it came to experimenting with new sounds. As The Yardbirds began to rack up hits, Jeff Beck was racking up fans, including worshipful writers from some of London's most influential music magazines. It was during this time that he developed the fuzz, feedback and distortion that would become his trademark, and his legacy.

It's no surprise that a rivalry would develop between Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck. It wasn't only the critical and commercial success that The Yardbirds achieved during Beck's time with the band that drove a wedge between them, these two musicians harbored entirely antipodal views on guitar playing as well. Clapton was always a purist, almost elitist, blues guitarist. The pop/blues/psychedelic musical anomalies that The Yardbirds and others (such as The Beatles' Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and The Rolling Stones' Their Satanic Majesties Request)  were creating held no attraction for him. When Jimmy Page decided to join The Yardbirds, taking a backseat by playing bass and rhythm guitar to Beck's lead guitar, the Clapton/Beck rift was firmly set in stone.

The late 1960's marked a turning of the tides. Clapton found his own commercial success and critical acclaim in Cream. His reputation as a first class blues guitarist had grown rapidly within British music circles. Beck and Page, now playing dual lead guitars, had taken The Yardbirds about as far as they could go. Beck would be fired in the middle of a US tour for being a consistent no-show; his perfectionism and explosive temper were reaping havoc on the band and his own health. After his departure, The Yardbirds were unable to recapture their former popularity. Jimmy Page would leave to form Led Zeppelin and Eric Clapton would move into one of the darker periods of his career, a period that would lead to great commercial success, but would also put him at odds with friends and fans alike.

After the death of founding member Brian Jones Jeff Beck was approached to join The Rolling Stones. Mick Taylor had initially filled that spot but left complaining of poor treatment by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.
jeff_beck Beck's post-Yardbirds project, The Jeff Beck Group, originally started with Rod Stewart and Ronnie Wood, although musically successful, was cementing Beck's reputation for being tempermental and difficult to work with. Stewart and Wood would finally jump ship to join The Faces. Ironically, it would be Ronnie Wood who would take the position that Beck had coveted in The Stones.

The Jeff Beck Group would go on to cycle through impressive line-ups featuring some of the best musicians in the UK. This project allowed Beck the freedom to experiment, to surround himself with other creative artists, to grow at his own pace musically. During his career Beck has been credited with creating the sounds that would become psychedelic rock and heavy metal. He has won five Grammy awards.

At the same time that Beck was becoming renowned for musical combat, Eric Clapton was entering a period of personal turbulence that would prove to intensify his reputation as both an incomparable guitarist and a deeply troubled, often self-destructive, man. If there were a grave marker at the end of each of Clapton's musical phases and I could write the epitaph, this period would read Broken on the wheel, I climbed their corpses to reach the Gods.

eric_claptonThis period would see Clapton vilified for rumors of his mistreatment of Brian Jones just prior to his death. Even as his place as a world renowned musician was secured, his reputation for erratic behavior was growing. He was facing down the dual demons of heroin and alcohol addiction and the implosion of Cream. When his next effort, Blind Faith, failed to rise above mediocrity, Clapton took off for the U.S. He worked on the studio sessions known as Music From Free Creek, as did Jeff Beck, although they managed to avoid one another during recording.

It was also during this period that Clapton was introduced to Jimi Hendrix. As much as he had been critical of Jeff Beck and Brian Jones' musical experimentation, he embraced Hendrix's reverb and feedback-laced acid rock. The fact that Jimi Hendrix was the only guitarist at the time to usurp Clapton's place as the world's greatest guitarist might also have made Clapton more tolerant towards his musical bastardizations.

Whatever the reason, Hendrix was one of the few musicians with whom Clapton never found fault. It has long been rumored that Clapton even went so far as to buy Hendrix a left-handed guitar for his 28th birthday (An extremely thoughtful gift). Hendrix was known to re-string right-handed guitars and play them upside down. A skill born of necessity during the days when he couldn't afford the more expensive left-handed guitars. It would be a birthday that Hendrix would never celebrate, a gift that he would never receive.

Clapton worked with The Plastic Ono Band on the Live Peace in Toronto album as well as recording his self-named first solo album. He also began spending time with close friend George Harrison as they worked on Harrison's album All Things Must Pass. It was during this time that Clapton developed an intense infatuation with Harrison's wife, Pattie Boyd. His unrequited passion would lead him to form Derek and the Dominos and release the song "Layla", written to woo her. The song marked a dynamic change in Clapton's musical style. It was raw, fiery and passionate. It was rock and roll.

With the addition of Duane Allman (The Allman Brothers Band) and his searing guitar work to the Dominos, his growing friendship with Jimi Hendrix and inspiration from his (still unattainable) musical muse, Pattie Boyd-Harrison, Clapton seemed to be overcoming the demons of his past. And then it all came crashing down around him.

The devastating deaths of Jimi Hendrix and Duane Allman, along with public criticism over the discovery that "Layla" was written for Harrison's wife, sent Clapton further into the depths of drug addiction. In a drunken rage he took to the stage in Birmingham England and went on a tirade saying that England was turning into "a black colony" and people should vote for Enoch Powell to "keep Britain white." The media and his fans turned against him. The response from his fellow musicians was the creation of the crusade Rock Against Racism.

His reputation seriously tarnished, he would disappear from the public eye while he fought his heroin addiction and reappear with Pattie Boyd, now divorced from George Harrison, finally by his side. He would release the critically acclaimed album Slowhand featuring "Wonderful Tonight," another song written for Boyd, although it would still be years before she would agree to marry him.

I recall once reading an article after the break up of Mick Jagger and Jerry Hall in which Hall was asked about gifts given her by Jagger. Although I do not recall her exact reply it was something along the lines of 'I always knew when Mick cheated. He would return home with a sheepish look and expensive gifts'.

eric_clapton_pattie_boyd_harrisonI imagine that it was much the same for Boyd. In 1979, after years of public criticism for dumping Harrison and pressure from Clapton, she finally agreed to marry him. During their marriage Clapton would father two children by women he had affairs with. Ruth, whom he did not acknowledge publicly as his daughter until well after his divorce from Boyd, and Conor, whose death after a fall from his mother's 53rd story New York apartment window at the age of four inspired the song "Tears In Heaven." That song earned Clapton six Grammy Awards. It also marked a change in Clapton's attitude. He has become less rigid and competitive over music and musicianship. Willing to give credit where credit is due. For the most part.

Clapton ranked #4 to Beck's #14 on Rolling Stone magazine's list of 100 Greatest Guitarists, published in 2003. The one thing that is consistently said about Clapton's playing is that he plays as if his guitar is merely an extension of his own body. The heights that Clapton has risen to as a musician would be viewed by most as an achievement, but for Clapton it was an obstacle that he needed to overcome. No one can truly appreciate success when they take themselves too seriously. Clapton seems to have found his humor at last.

Jeff Beck's re-emergence into the spotlight is introducing his music, and his unique approach to guitar playing, to a new generation of fans. His determination to dissect every chord and note, to move it, bend it and stretch it until it holds no secrets from him. He knows his instrument intimately. He has explored it like a lover. But it is the precision of his fretwork that still impresses most. His fingers seem to fly in a blur, yet he hits every note distinctly. While fellow guitarists bemoan Beck's lower ranking on the lists of guitar players there really is no one to blame but Beck himself. He has never courted, nor even seemed to care for, commercial popularity.

Eventually Eric Clapton ditched the raw, emotional wailing that has made "Layla" consistently rise to the top of Greatest Songs lists for the more adult contemporary/pop oriented sound that led to heavy radio rotation and record sales, while Jeff Beck continued to work in a different realm entirely, gaining critical praise for his innovative guitar explorations and becoming the sort of guitarist that other guitarists use as a measuring stick. There are few guitarists who can do what Beck does with a guitar. They may be able to emulate him, but the process by which he creates is a secret that lives within him only.

The point where these two artists diverged musically made their 'guitar rivalry' moot. They were no longer competition for one another. They weren't even playing for the same audience any more. But they have now. To sold out audiences in London, New York and Canada.

In a minuscule musical community that offers no more than two degrees of separation between members (that fishbowl known as The British Invasion), Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck have managed to keep their distance from one another for more than forty years. The end of their rivalry leaves a faint ray of hope for future collaborations–and a certain sense of mourning; a nostalgic longing for the good old days of piss and spit, rock and roll rivalries.

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  • Peter Henderson

    I was surfing for info on jeff Beck and your article came up. I don’t think it’s too long. But I don’t think you thoroughly explained why Eric and Jeff would develop either an animosity or a rivalry. Eric left the Yardbirds of his own free will. He had a good following at the time, and I don’t see how the Yardbirds’ moderate success (2 or 3 singles) would threaten his self-esteem. After leaving he made the Blues Breakers album with John Mayall, which was a modest success with the public but a gigantic success with teenaged boys who played guitar. Then came Cream and more adulation. The Yardbirds were not all that successful with any of their guitarists. They continued to be a bluesish, guitar-heavy band without a charismatic singer and without the ability to write original material at least until Jimmy Page came along. (In Cream Clapton was lucky to have the songwriting services of jack Bruce and Pete Brown to balance out the blues covers.) Moreover, Clapton and Beck shared an antipathy to some of the Yardbirds and their management. So i don’t see how the Yardbirds modest success without Clapton would be the source of animosity between Clapton and Beck unless Eric’s ego was more fragile than I thought – maybe that’s the problem. Maybe the guy didn’t realize how good he was, but that’s hard to believe. If the Yardbirds had gone on to be Led Zeppelin it would be different but that transition didn’t happen.

    Frankly I’ve never seen a clear explanation of why the Yardbirds broke up. Their last lineup with Jimmy Page was terrific – I heard them live. My suspicion is that Page in effect kicked everyone else out. Page secured the rights to the name ‘Yardbirds’ but then dropped it in favor of Led Zep. Lawyers and managers may have been willing to help Page wipe the slate clean and start over. The role of these unseen hands is an element in every music business story.

    Another question I have concerns Jeff’s being turned down for a slot in the Stones. Was he turned down or did Jeff turn them down? I would have thought jeff would not be a good match for the Stones because of his status as a guitar hero. In the Stones he would be reduced to a supporting cast member which would feel like a step down.That might not matter if the money was good but maybe they couldn’t come to terms on money. Mick Taylor was being paid less that a fry cook from what I have read.

    Anyway, thanks for a good story. Consider this comment War and Peace Part 2 (-;

  • antonio

    All in all Eric is the best (sales)known guitarist in the planet, even Hendrix has been overshadowed by a man that has evolutionized and aged correctly, never denaying his musical influences, paid tribute to those influences (made rich some of them)and be as genuine as this world allow celebrities to be, and well Page is uncapable of sell one record after Zepp, Jeff has been up and down with jazz, fusion, (he is just missing Bibier)and whatever, and well, revolutionary MaCartney had a not so good trip with M Jackson…

  • AGG

    Dude. I’m taking you shoe shopping. Gah

  • Jordan Richardson

    I think I have a pair of Doc Martins lying around from the grunge days. Do they count?

  • AGG

    I think you should look and tell me what’s coming up that’s good. I could use a trip to the northern climes. Too hot to headbang here. Too hot to eat. Too hot to fuuu… okay, never really too hot for that. But everything else? Yeah. Too hot.

    I’m heading into a punk phaze now. Did you hear the one about the New York Doll who turned into an Atlanta redneck? Heh. You will soon enough. Digging out my combat boots.

    You do have combat boots don’t you? Let’s roll 😉

  • Jordan Richardson

    AGG, find me some sort of jazz-metal hybrid and I’m in. Flop sweat and all.

  • AGG

    Thanks babe. Yeah. Dick.

    Lucky us, we do get the best ticket prices – an article. Photo passes and press passes, too. Come write for blogcritics, your ticket to the stars. Sigh. And speaking of which, when are you jumping into the photo pit with me J.R.? You know I want you like that… all sweaty and headbanging.

  • To the comments editor… whomever you are, thanks for the link fix. Hope you listened with me as well. Duane Allman. Killer, right?

  • Baronius, I remember reading in one of Hendrix’ biographies that he took his clothing inspiration from Brian Jones and Jeff Beck was one of the biggest inspirations for his guitar playing. Now that, my friend, is a compliment!

    Clapton’s whole Crossroads campaign is incredible. That’s probably the best thing to come out of the tragedies in his life. Sorry that I didn’t note it. It is far more important than any musical contribution. It’s about saving lives.

    I’ll cover Hendrix at a later time. Hope you’ll be around to participate. But first Joplin… her biographies rocked my world. The girl from Leonard Cohen’s ‘Chelsea Hotel #2’ (adding that to the playlist). What an incredible contribution she made, and what a tragic story her life was.

  • Brien, I really hate the idea of the enumerated ranking of artists. The guidelines are too ambiguous. Beck isn’t the only one whose contributions have been obscured. I grew up listening to Johnny Winter, Robin Trower, Grand Funk Railroad, Bachman Turner Overdrive. If I graffittied it would read ‘Van Morrison is God’. We should never forget that it’s Thin Lizzy who is credited as first creating the dual guitar harmony that Clapton and Allman used in Layla–and that so many others have since copied.

    I think the most important thing lists do is make us revisit what the artists have accomplished, and re-introduce them to new listeners.

  • Bill, Beck and Page have been friends for a very long time. I had to edit out Page, John Paul Jones, Nicky Hopkins and Keith Moon playing on Beck’s Bolero after The Yardbirds demise and the Wood/Stewart split. That’s not rivalry. That’s deep, supportive friendship.

    The revolution I was writing about wouldn’t include Hendrix. He wasn’t British. And the Beatles hardly sparked a revolution in guitar playing.

    It makes me a little sad to see it end, the revolution that Clapton and Beck both created in guitar playing. They changed everything about guitar playing, mainly the importance of a great lead guitarist to a band. They didn’t keep the melody–they made the songs. The world of rock and roll owes them both a humble thanks.

    Perhaps I should have called it the death of the British guitar playing revolution? Kind of a long title, though closer to the point.

    Thanks for taking the time to comment. Agree with me or disagree, you took the time to read it all and leave a comment. That means a lot to me.

    Listening to Layla right now on my computer headset. God, Duane Allman’s guitar playing blows my mind. Just tears me up.
    Listen with me?

  • Ronbo, thanks so much. I’m thrilled to see Beck fans doing their part to keep his legacy going. You all deserve much credit for keeping him rocking. I’m sure you’re the reason he continues to do what he does, and the reason he played for hours every day in preparation for the concerts. You’re his inspiration.

  • Chip, it initially clocked in at well over 4,000 words. Around 14-15 pages. sheesh
    Boyd helped edit it down.

    Unfortunately, parts about John Mayall, Carmine Appice, Ginger Baker, John Paul Jones, Keith Moon, Ansley Dunbar, as well as more detail on Brian Jones, Mick Taylor, The Beatles and The Stones got the axe in my first round of hardcore editing. It broke my heart to kill them off, but those are stories for another day perhaps?

    Thanks for your great article.
    The pleasure of linking it was all mine.

  • Glen, let me make sure I have this straight. What you’re saying is… it’s long. heheh

    You’re the only one who would know how truly long it was to start with. I know it was a tome, a verbose monstrosity, a treasure trove of useless information, it was… well… very long.

    Thank you for the great editing job.
    Much appreciated.

  • Baronius

    Jeff Beck is an amazing guitarist, but Clapton creates better music.

    I think that Hendrix was comparable to Beck in pushing the limits of the instrument, and could have become as good a musician as Clapton. I remember hearing the story about Pete Townshend and Eric Clapton going to see Jimi Hendrix for the first time. Eric was intimidated by his playing, and Pete was intimidated by his showmanship. That’s about as high praise as anyone could get.

    I’m glad to see Clapton using the Crossroads concerts to mend fences.

  • Brien Comerford

    Jeff Beck is arguably the greatest axeman to ever grace the planet. He’s very eclectic evidenced by his mastery of hard rock, jazz fusion, blues, psychedelia, funk and electronica. With his bare fingers and using very few effects he can coax, caress and strangle a universe of sounds from his guitar. Jeff Beck’s fretboard prowess and whammy bar magic are inimitable and nonpareil.

  • Bill

    If anything, Beck’s rival in rock was Page, not Clapton.
    And I still don’t see how their musical rivalry lead to any musical revolution. It was the Beatles and Hendrix who were the musical revolutionaries of that era that the others followed.

  • I really enjoyed your well written and researched article. These past 2 years have been wonderful in getting Jeff Beck’s name and talent in front of a whole new generation of fans. I’ve been a fan since since I first heard him.

    Eric’s recent mini-tours with Cream, Steve Winwood, Jeff, and his Guitar Festivals do seem to indicate that he’s wanting to have fun with old mates, patch up a few relationships and help others who are in the midst of drug/alcohol dependencies that he once endured.

    I just hope there will be some new guitar heroes to step into the giant footsteps of these gentlemen!

  • Bravo! Thoroughly researched and thoughtfully constructed article. Very cool. You efficiently covered a lot of ground there. Surprised it didn’t take twelve pages!
    Thanks for the links!

  • Nice historical overview of two of the greats AGG. I’d completely forgotten about that whole racist dustup with Clapton.

    The only thing I’d say to you in the way of constructive criticism is just that they don’t all have to Be “War And Peace” though, okay? LOL…

    But again, nice job here.