Just by the margin of Nonsuch Park, Geoffrey Arnold Beck (the guitarist’s guitarist that we now recognize as the internationally famous JEFF BECK) was born. He and I shared a comparable upbringing (though ten years apart) in that we were both raised in that urban area of Surrey (in his case, Wallington and, for me, Carshalton) that developed, by default, into a borough of London. He lived in Demesne Road. (The prominent English jazz pianist and composer, Neil Ardley, lived nearby.) I was at Rose Hill.
As a ten-year-old boy, Beck chanted in his local church choir. He passed his time by glueing bits-and-pieces together in a valiant attempt to construct a guitar. This was an ongoing therapeutic ‘Blue Peter’ style project for Beck (he would have been 14 when Blue Peter began.) He struggled his whole life trying to fabricate home-made instruments out of bits of string and sticky-backed plastic. At this age, Beck was also extraordinarily keen on art — manufacturing artworks occupied as much time as experimental guitar-work.
After leaving school, he attended the Wimbledon School of Art, near Merton Park. This is the same college that ‘The Snowman’ author & illustrator Raymond Briggs attended in the late 1950s, before being called-up for National Service.
In 1963, Beck joined the Croydon based covers band ‘The Rumbles.’ He demonstrated great prowess as their lead guitarist and it immediately became obvious to everybody that Beck could readily mimic the guitar-parts from the famous ‘Gene Vincent’ and ‘Buddy Holly’ numbers they habitually asked him to play. His natural mimicry became a valuable and marketable commodity. It meant Beck could try his luck as a session musician in the busy London studios. In 1964 Beck appeared as a session guitarist on ‘I’m Not Running Away’ a song recorded at Pye, by the Manchester-based ‘The Fitz & Startz.’ Although it was a one-hit wonder, it marked the dawn of Beck’s profitable career as a session man.
When we look back at the backgrounds of both Beck and Page (sought-after session players) we can observe how living close to London, on the fringes, and being able to commute to the studios, facilitated these musicians in building formative careers. This was an advantage of being brought up in Surrey. It was not as if you felt isolated from the London version of ‘Tin Pan Alley.’ Charring Cross was just a short train ride away! But you could retreat back to the safety and monotony of the suburbs when events got too hot to handle.
Modest prosperity and a secure family life helped Beck and Page, and other Surrey artists, to do more-or-less whatever amused them! This is still the case for Surrey’s kids. If you lived in Surrey, you could be fairly confident you would not be not be forced into a factory, dragged down a mine, or pushed onto the dockside. The probability was that your parents were moderately well off, and they allowed you a steady pocket-money income. A Surrey youth, you could live off of ‘the bank of Mum and Dad’ for several years, without suffering guilt. Both Beck and Page experienced this privilege. They could embrace ‘art school’ life over the drudgery of industrious toil.
While attending Wimbledon College of Art, Beck played in a string of groups, including with Screaming Lord Sutch and the Savages, when they recorded ‘Dracula’s Daughter’ / ‘Come Back Baby’ (produced by Joe Meek.)
In 1963, after Ian Stewart, the keyboardist with The Rolling Stones, introduced Beck to R&B, he formed the Nightshift with whom he played at the 100 Club, in Oxford Street. Beck recorded a single titled ‘Stormy Monday’, a 12-bar blues number first recorded by T-Bone Walker.
In March 1965, Beck was enlisted into the Yardbirds, brought-in to succeed fellow Surrey instrumentalist Eric Clapton, upon the endorsement of Jimmy Page, who had (actually) been the band’s initial choice. Beck was with The Yardbirds for twenty months. But, oh, what a joyous hayride it was!
Folklore has it that they named the band after Clapton, Page, and of course Beck, who were part of a collection of budding musicians who used to hang around the yards (in particular, the venue backyards at Kingston-on-Thames) while the crew’s were preparing to play inside. They hung around the yards hoping to meet musicians and/or management and ‘get themselves a gig’ or session work. In this respect, these three Surrey guitarists were the authentic yardbirds!
In 1966, Beck recorded his instrumental ‘Beck’s Bolero’, backed by Jimmy Page on rhythm guitar, and with Keith Moon on drums, and John Paul Jones on bass.
In 1967, he recorded several solo singles for pop producer Mickie Most, including the disco favorite ‘Hi Ho Silver Lining’ played in dance-halls around Britain. (When I was Surrey D.J. in the mid 1970s, this number was always requested by our audience!) At about the same time he recorded the equally ubiquitous ‘Tallyman.’ He later formed The Jeff Beck Group, which included Rod Stewart on vocals, Ronnie Wood on bass, Nicky Hopkins on piano, and Aynsley Dunbar on drums. Musicologists connect Beck with popularising the usage of guitar distortion and auditory feedback during this period.
The neat, sharp and sparkly sounds of those early 1960s British Invasion bands, or the bluesy style of 1950s African-American musicians like Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley, were the norm for all rock guitar players prior to the arrival of Beck’s darker and grittier style. Beck’s experiments with feedback, distortion, and fuzz during his 20 months with the Yardbirds pushed into paths that would open the way for psychedelic rock. And, while it’s true that Beck wasn’t the first guitarist to explore distortion, he certainly contributed to redefining the tone and function of what we now accept as the place that heavy guitar has in rock. Most metal proponents agree that their sounds were influenced by Beck’s achievements with the Yardbirds and fellow musicians often cite the Jeff Beck Band album, Truth, 1968 as a major milestone in heavy metal.
Jeff Beck died from a bacterial meningitis infection at a hospital near his estate in Riverhall, Wadhurst, East Sussex, UK, on 10th January 2023. The musician was aged 78.
Words: @neilmach January 2023 ©
Main photo: Chris Hakkens