He reinvented rock guitar, now Jeff Beck's back with a new album, group and tour
New band. New album. New book. New tour. Musical chameleon Jeff Beck is back with new album Loud Hailer, and he's not showing any sign of letting up
With his thatch of black hair, white T-shirt, boots and baggy khaki combat trousers combo, it’s difficult to believe that Jeff Beck is 72. And, notwithstanding the endoscopy and short hospital procedure he endured in 2014, by all accounts the legendary guitarist is in peak physical form. “I’ve got the lungs of a twenty-three-year-old,” he boasts breezily after watching me almost pass out in his kitchen-diner from the exhausting four-flight trudge up the stairs to his flat in an elegant vintage building in leafy West London. He recently had a health check, during which he nearly blew the ball out of the top of the breath-measuring gadget. Still, fit or not he always takes the tiny, somewhat rickety lift.
While he’s making tea, the buzzer goes – it’s two guys from his label. One is full of praise for Beck’s excellent, powerful new album, Loud Hailer, his first for six years. Which seems to please the guitarist no end. The other arrives with a manuscript, which he plonks down on my lap. Published concurrently with the album, Beck01 is a biography-cum-pictorial survey of his mercurial, wayward career, from his stints with The Yardbirds, the Jeff Beck Group, Beck, Bogert & Appice and solo, through his many musical changes, plus his famous passion for hot rods. It’s a hefty tome, a lavish, limited-edition affair, hand-bound in leather and aluminium with each copy numbered and personally signed by the author. Even the foreword, by John McLaughlin, is grandiose – in it, the Mahavishnu Orchestra virtuoso proclaims Beck his “all-time favourite guitarist”.
Beck notices that I’m listening intently to the conversation, and only distractedly leafing through the book – and have it on my lap upside-down. Cue guffaws all round.
“Actually it’s par for the course with my career,” Beck notes drily. “Makes perfect sense upside-down.”
In which spirit it makes sense to start at the end, or at least the present, with an examination of the new album. Loud Hailer is Beck’s first record with singer Rosie Bones and guitarist Carmen Vandenberg, two young musicians he met by chance via Roger Taylor. It was at a birthday lunch for the Queen drummer that Beck was introduced to Vandenberg. Later he went to see her in concert with her musical other half, collectively known as Bones, and he was “blown away”. He knew immediately that they would form his latest band. With Bones’s ferocious blues wail and Vandenberg’s fierce guitar playing in place, the line-up was completed when Bones associate Filippo Cimatti brought in Giovanni Pallotti (bass) and Davide Sollazzi (drums). Production on the album was by Cimatti and Beck.
The results are viscerally impactful: Loud Hailer is a riot of sci-fi shredding and future-blues atop a range of primal but electronically enhanced beats – Beck is no stranger to the technoid pulse, having made Who Else!, You Had It Coming and Jeff between 1999 and 2003, aka The Prodigy Years. Vandenberg and Bones co-wrote, with Beck, its 11 tracks, which include two instrumentals and range from wah-wah freak-outs and heavy electro-rock to eerie atmospherica, with solos both elegiacal and electrifying.
So much for the sonic footings. The lyrical content for Loud Hailer came even more easily than the music, nudged along by a fascination with the events of September 11, 2001 and the web of claims, counter-claims and conspiracies that emerged afterwards.
Beck appears to have spent much of the six-year lay-off between 2010’s Trevor Horn executive produced Emotion & Commotion (incidentally, Beck’s highest-debuting US album ever) and Loud Hailer glued to YouTube. Having outlined his intentions for the album’s subject matter to Vandenberg and Bones, last December they “sat down by the fire with a crate of prosecco and got right to it”.
“The songs came together very quickly – five in three days,” he adds of such incendiary politicised numbers as album opener The Revolution Will Be Televised, the finger-pointing Thugs Club and The Ballad Of The Jersey Wives, about the widows of 9/11 victims.
Talking about it today, Beck sounds calm and lucid, less like a deranged conspiracy theorist than like a man on a mission. He spends a good 30 minutes elaborating on the subject, with digressions on, variously, Donald Trump, TV presenter and structural engineer Fred Dibnah and Prince. Jeff Beck: guitar pyrotechnician, psychedelic and heavy metal pioneer, destroyer of amps… and now agent of subversive political truth? It’s a long way from Heart Full Of Soul.