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.
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.
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.
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.
This 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'.
I 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.