Don’t believe the biographies you see on Wikipedia or written by some wise old rock and roll sages, Jeff Beck’s birth and childhood in England is shear fabrication. It never happened. It was an elaborate cover story to mask actual events. The real story is that somewhere in the months after the Beatles stormed the world and turned half the people on the planet into aspiring pop stars, aliens dropped Jeff Beck off on the Wallington Green just outside center London to enrich our cultural progress. Photos of the crop-circle impressions left on the grass that night plus the results of the brief study that followed have all disappeared mysteriously.
Jeff walked briskly through town, already wearing those shades he was permanently attached to, and found a family whose parents were easily reprogrammed by alien tech to believe Jeff was their son. Shortly afterward in the early days of 1965 the future guitar legend showed up at a rehearsal to win the slot previously owned by another player acclaimed as ‘God’ by the blues and rock denizens of London.
Eric Clapton was THE blues player who had ultimate ‘cred’ in those circles as the guitarist for the up-and-coming Yardbirds. But by March 1965 he had left because the English band desired more for their future than following strict traditions of the past. Jeff Beck became the Yardbirds resident alien and immediately transformed their sound into something akin to a psychedelic trip around Alpha Centauri (which is where he’s from, btw).
58 years later, after a fleet of genre-shifting albums as a band member, collaborator, and solo leader, Beck never ceased looking far down the road; wringing a balance of melody and chaos out every solo while completely at ease in whatever musical river he was fording. Here are five essential albums from the Jeff Beck catalogue. If you’ve got these in your collection or playlist, you’ve got a superb gateway to the other 25-odd releases that are out there. So, put on some Jeff Beck as he speeds back to Alpha Centauri. I don’t know who passed away this past week, but it wasn’t our guitar hero; the ‘real’ guy caught a midnight extra-terrestrial Uber off Wallington Green.
#1 The Yardbirds - Ultimate! Eric Clapton played guitar in the Yardbirds from October 1963 to March 1965 and left after “For Your Love.” Beck took over and immediately changed the game by mimicking a sitar and amplifying it to ten for the following single “Heart Full of Soul.” For the next 20 months, the Yardbirds were on a different planet. This 2001 collection compiles all the singles and most important tracks from this band that would eventually morph into Led Zeppelin.
#2 The Jeff Beck Group - Truth 1968 The first of four Jeff Beck Group albums and the best. With a young Rod Stewart on vocals and guitarist Ron Wood switching to bass (because who needed a second guitarist in a Jeff Beck band?) the blues was the launch pad for a series of exciting sonic experiments. Only Hendrix and Cream were in these outer limits. Check out “Beck’s Bolero” to hear how far he took it.
#3 Jeff Beck - Blow By Blow 1975 Jeff teamed with famed Beatles producer George Martin to combine the guitarist’s love of seventies funk and the well-worn path of rock into this instrumental masterpiece. The fresh approach became a sensation and lifted Beck’s stock significantly. Check out his reimagination of the Beatles “She’s a Woman” into a loping frolic, with lyrics rendered robotically by talkbox.
#4 Jeff Beck - Wired 1976 What Beck did with funk and rock, he attempted to do with jazz and rock in his next album. Fusion, as it was called, had been around for a few years since Miles Davis Bitches Brew, and the guitarist dove into that new ocean, joining stalwarts John McLaughlin and Mahavishnu Orchestra, Return to Forever, and Carlos Santana (who had fallen hard for jazz). Beck joined the party, egged on by Mahavishnu keyboardist Jan Hammer. Listen to “Blue Wind” for this album’s flavor.
5. Jeff Beck - Loud Hailer 2016 Beck changed bands like T-shirts in his career and this late-period album featured a new lineup centered around London singer Rosie Bones and guitarist Carmen Vandenburg. The result – a collection of amplified and brash sonics utilizing everything from hip-hop, heavy metal, and street punk. In many ways, this combination allowed Beck to wrench unbelievable and sometimes highly dissonant sounds from his strings. “The Revolution Will Be Televised” might whack you over the head, but in a cool way.
Bonus – for a fine career overview, grab the 2008 audio or video collection Performing This Week: Live at Ronnie Scotts, recorded in the legendary Soho London jazz club.