In light of the curcuimstances surrounding the making of the first two — now classic — Jeff Beck albums, it's not only amazing just how good they turned out, but that they were even made at all.
Jeff Beck, considered even back then a Guitar God on a par with Hendrix, Page, and Clapton, had just left an eighteen month stint as guitarist for the Yardbirds. His time with the Yardbirds just happened to coincide with the band's most commercially successful period.
The most notable single from that period, "Shapes of Things," shows up as the lead-off track to Beck's first solo record, Truth, in a much heavier, rocked-up version highlighted by the throaty vocals of a then unknown young singer named Rod Stewart.
Jeff Beck's original vision of his new group was to make as heavy a noise as humanly possible. But not everyone involved agreed with Beck's idea. Record Producer Mickie Most, who saw dollar signs in Beck's good looks and already established "name," wanted more of a pop direction for the Jeff Beck Group, and there are some hilarious examples of that "direction" included here as bonus tracks. Not fond of "that poof" as well was Rod Stewart.
But there was also the little problem of actual songs. Without a clearcut songwriter in the band, finding enough material to fill a single disc, let alone the two they eventually made, would prove no small hurdle for Jeff Beck's first recordings as a solo artist.
Amazingly, not only did both records eventually get made and released — they have also stood the test of time remarkably well. 1968's Truth is, in fact, today considered something of a classic. The newly enhanced version of Truth, which is to be released next Tuesday, along with 1969's followup Beck-Ola, sounds just as good now as it did way back then.
Before Led Zeppelin became the biggest band in the known universe, most of the industry's and critics' buzz was already on Beck (with Stewart on vocals) to be the next big thing in what would later be termed "heavy metal." It's not hard to see why here. Although I still prefer the Yardbirds' original version over the one found on Truth, "Shapes Of Things" starts things off with a nice burst of power as Beck expands the dimensions of the guitar sound and Stewart turns in a vocal performance which quickly establishes him with his own credentials.
It's actually amazing just how good Rod Stewart sounds here. Young and obviously hungry, Stewart's performances on songs like "You Shook Me" (later covered on Led Zeppelin's debut album) and "Blues Deluxe" display a range of raw emotion that quickly served notice to the rest of the British Rock world just who the new young lion on the block was.
That Stewart pushes his limited range to the max throughout this disc (something Beck himself has complained about) is of no small consequence. The bottom line is the young blues shouter who belts out the songs on Truth for all their life, bears little resemblance to the man we find pimping his soul to everything from Disco to Broadway today. Stewart's now trademark whiskey rasp sounds rawer and dirtier here than ever.
As with Stewart, Beck's guitar is much rawer and guttural sounding here than the jazz-fusion technician he would evolve into in later years. The sustained notes, which open a fine cover of Willie Dixon's "Ain't Superstitious," give the song a feel of dark menace right away. This soon gives way to growling wah-wahs that prowl alongside Stewart's own black cat moans. Future Rolling Stones guitarist Ron Wood, relegated to bass duties here, rounds out the rock steady rhythm section with drummer Micky Waller.
Of the few originals included here, however, none have stood the test of time like the brilliant instrumental showcase for Beck's guitar prowess, "Beck's Bolero." Recorded with an all-star lineup that includes Keith Moon and what would become half of Led Zeppelin (Jimmy Page on twelve string guitar, and John Paul Jones on bass respectively), "Bolero" is one of rock's all-time instrumental classics. In its roughly three minutes, "Bolero" goes from classical staccato to a hypnotic, almost Hawaiian-like twang, to a full throttle rock assault and then back again. It remains just a gorgeous piece of music.
Moon shows up again banging the tympanis on "Ol' Man River" in a way that anyone who has ever heard The Who's rock operas will instantly recognize. Session giant Nicky Hopkins turns in some fine piano work throughout the album.
As for those bonus tracks? There are alternate takes of "Bolero" and "Blues Deluxe" as well as those previously mentioned "poppier" tunes — issued as singles — that Mickey Most wanted Beck doing full-time. The less said about "Hi Ho Silver Lining" and "Tallyman" the better — though their inclusion here pretty much brings home the point that we can thank Jeff Beck for standing his ground, and winning the argument against Mickie Most way back then.
Not everything on Truth is perfectly executed, however. The canned audience noise on "Blues Deluxe," for example, sounds a little corny here. But for an album recorded so quickly, with a lack of original material to boot, the classic status of Truth over time is a deserved one.
1969's followup record, Beck-Ola, doesn't work quite as well. By this time, Rod Stewart and Ron Wood were already halfway out the door to form Faces with Ian McLagan, Ronnie Lane, and the rest of the leftovers of the Small Faces. The band would later end up essentially blowing off a potentially star-making appearance at the Woodstock festival. And the lack of a principal songwriter was also still a big problem.
As a result, Beck-Ola, in ways, sounds like a largely pieced-together effort tying raucously played Elvis covers, like "All Shook Up" and "Jailhouse Rock," with a few originals like "Plynth (Water Down The Drain)." The good news is the band sounds looser than ever, and, especially on the Elvis covers, they rock far harder than they do on the bluesier sounding Truth.
For all the in-fighting said to have been going on within the band at the time, Beck, Rod, Woody and the rest of the boys sound like they are having a great time in the studio here. Of the few originals included on Beck-Ola's seven tracks, "Plynth" is the clear standout, anchored by a great Jeff Beck guitar riff and some nice piano work from Nicky Hopkins.
Hopkins, who had by this time been recruited as a full time member, actually bangs the hell out of the keys throughout. Beck, for his part, displays more of the pyrotechnics that would later help earn him the nickname "guitar mechanic." Perhaps reflecting the looser feel, Ron Wood even gets to shine for a brief, but tasty, bass solo on "Spanish Boots."
Bonus tracks on Beck-Ola include early versions of "Jailhouse Rock" and "All Shook Up," as well as a cover of B.B. King's "Sweet Little Angel." On the King song, mysteriously left off the original album, they pick up the blues explorations right where Truth left off and expand upon them. Although the track might have been a little out of place on Beck-Ola, it could stand alongside any of Truth's great blues-rock workouts.
Both of these discs also feature extensive liner notes from U.K. journalist Charles Shaar Murray, and, in the case of Beck-Ola, extensive commentary from Jeff Beck himself.
Although, today, these two albums can probably be looked upon as springboards for a group of guys who would later go on to bigger, better things — Beck as a guitar legend, Wood as a Rolling Stone, and Stewart as, well, Rod Stewart — they shouldn't be overlooked in their own right. The original Jeff Beck Group could more than hold a candle to the other British blues rockers of their sixties heyday.
Hell, in another life they could have well turned out to be Led Zeppelin.