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The Jeff Beck Group: The Story Of Truth

In the late 60s, Yardbirds alumnus Jeff Beck formed The Jeff Beck Group. Here's the remarkable story of the making Of Truth, their debut album

On July 29, 1968, Jeff Beck, along with a kick-around vocalist, a future Rolling Stone, and a drummer with a lot of bash released Truth. The album was a miracle of fury and berserk beauty, a testament to the jaw-dropping chops of a 24- year old guitarist who, over the course of 10 tracks and around 40 minutes, ran the gamut from electric blues and modified R&B to psychedelically influenced rock, classical, and even a little heavy-metal instrumentalism. With Truth, released just months before Led Zeppelin’s debut – and with songs and personnel in common – Jeff Beck, singer Rod Stewart, bassist Ronnie Wood, and drummer Mickey Waller (the core band) made an album that would become every guitar player’s bible and every hard rock band’s Holy Grail.

But Beck would laugh at such grandiose observations. For the guitarist, the moment had come for the Jeff Beck Group to make an album, and in his head that’s all it was: “We decided it was about time that we recorded some of the rubbish we’d been playing on stage. And we didn’t have an album.”

With the release of Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland, Cream’s Wheels Of Fire, Free’s Tons Of Sobs, the Stones’ Beggars Banquet and The Beatles' seminal White Album, 1968 was a watershed year for rock music. Britain was a fertile stomping ground for players seeking like-minded musicians. Electric rock was in its infancy, and people were willing to embrace the daring and the different.

With Beck having established himself as a guitar player of the first degree on a quartet of bold and wickedly wonderful Yardbirds albums in 1965 and 1966 (For Your Love, Having A Rave Up With The Yardbirds, The Yardbirds [Roger The Engineer] and Over Under Sideways Down), producer/manager Mickie Most, thinking to capitalise on the guitarist’s visibility, conceived the notion of turning Beck into a pop crooner. All but forgetting that Beck was first and foremost an instrumentalist, Most shackled him with a series of less-than-guitar-focused songs. In fact it turned Jeff into a Top Of The Pops insta-celeb. But you can’t deny the producer’s instincts: Beck’s ditties Hi Ho Silver Lining and Tallyman bounced up the UK chart to No.14 and No.30 respectively in mid-1967.

In 1968 Beck recorded another Most selection, an instrumental version of the ballad Love Is Blue. But by now he’d had enough. Even while preparing to record that single, he had already been making moves towards forming his own group, like two other ex-Yardbirds guitarists. Cream, with Eric Clapton, were only a year away from extinction; Jimmy Page was commandeering his own juggernaut; Beck was determined not to be left out of the race.

“I always kept my fingers on players,” Beck commented in the 70s. “Every musician around London always knew what the other one was doing. All groups used to come and see each other play, and it was really nice. There seemed to be a purpose. It was like a competition: ‘They’re doing that in their act, so we’ll have to cut that out'. It was great fun; nice, hot competition. I really liked the scene then.

“I had to round up a singer,” he continued. “I couldn’t think of who to get. I always liked Rod [Stewart], I dug him, with the teased hair and all the rest of it. His hair wasn’t like it is now, it was kind of curled under at the back. It was just like a piece of molded fibreglass; it looked like he’d put a helmet on, it looked so bad. And I said: ‘Rod, please, get rid of that hairstyle!’.

“He was out of work at the time. He was hanging around a [London] club called The Cromwellian. I asked him if he wanted a job and [thinking Beck was drunk] he said: ‘Yeah, but I don’t believe you. Ring me tomorrow'. And I was more sober than I’ve ever been that night. And I couldn’t believe that he said yeah, because I thought he was a snob.”

With a singer in tow, Beck then set out to look for a bass player. Ronnie Wood continues the story: “I knew Jeff, but I’d never had a chance to go and sit through a whole show. I’d just heard little bits of him when he used to play with a band called The Tridents [Beck’s pre-Yardbirds band]. I suppose Jeff was one of my best friends, even though he was in another band.”

After the relative ease of getting the first two band members, finding a drummer was a nightmare. Beck went through Ray Cook, his former bandmate in The Tridents, the Pretty Things’ Viv Prince, ex-John Mayall drummer Mickey Waller (we’ll come back to him), Rod Coombes (later of The Strawbs), and another former Mayall graduate, Aynsley Dunbar. Although the last namedheld real promise, it resulted in yet another drum debacle. “I played with Jeff for four months,” Dunbar told me years ago. “I led his band in the end, that’s what happened. I was also looking after Jeff as far as that was concerned. So I felt, seeing as I’m doing that, I might as well be running my own band and making some cash, because we were on a paid wage routine with him.

“He was a bastard,” Dunbar complained of Beck. “He was so loud I couldn’t hear. I didn’t have any mics on my drums; the band had 100-watt Marshall amplifiers blaring; no monitors. You try and play something nice and subtle with 100 watts of amps blaring in your ear. Any little subtlety disappeared. It never had a feeling of being a band, it was always Jeff Beck and his sidemen.”

With drummer Mickey Waller re-hired, and after several months of gigs, the quartet went into Abbey Road Studios on May 14, 1968, to begin recording an album. Mickie Most gave the green light to the recording sessions, although he had little, if any, faith in the band coming up with an album of any real merit (read: commercial potential), and he tended to avoid the sessions.

Even the label itself was not quick to instil confidence in the project. “The Columbia [Records] promoters were confused,” Beck recalled years later. “They said: ‘We always knew Beck would make it. By the way, who’s the fellow on guitar?’. They said that. I’ve still got those words ringing in my ears.”

With that dubious stamp of approval, the band set to work. “It was one of the first independent sessions that was allowed in Abbey Road,” recalled Truth engineer and in-house resident Ken Scott, who was already a veteran of many of The Beatles’ albums.

“I think it must have been Mickie, sort of pulled some strings. But there was no producer there; any interaction that occurred was with Peter Grant [who would go on to manage the Jeff Beck Group and Led Zeppelin]. He was there for the entire recording session, and then Mickie just came in for the mix.”

The material the group recorded was a combination of the live set, reworkings and some odds and ends. The album opens with a devastating slow version of the Yardbirds’ hit Shapes Of Things, with Beck turning in a virtuoso performance. Let Me Love You was part of the stage set and one of the few self-written pieces, setting up the call-and-response sequence between guitar and voice that Beck and Stewart had perfected live.

Morning Dew, another song from the touring circuit, is a pulsating interpretation of Tim Rose’s classic, and it’s given a dirge-like solemnity from Beck’s breathtaking mastery of the wah-wah pedal. Here (and on closer I Ain’t Superstitious), Beck demonstrates amazing prowess with the then-new effects pedal.

Then there is the great catastrophe of You Shook Me, the old blues chestnut written by Willie Dixon and originally recorded by Muddy Waters. The song was on Truth, and was then re-fashioned by Led Zeppelin for their debut album some months later.

Rod Stewart has said that on more than one occasion Jimmy Page and Robert Plant would be in attendance at a Jeff Beck Group concert, and that this is where they stole the idea for the song. Whether Stewart’s claim is weighted with no small amount of professional jealousy is open to question. Jimmy Page, however, has his own explanation for why the Jeff Beck Group’s You Shook Me and Zeppelin’s version appear to have the same DNA.

“You’ve got to understand that Beck and I came from the same sort of roots,” he said. “The fact that our first albums were akin was true, but not necessarily in terms of keeping an eye on each other. If you come up in the same roots, you’ve got things you like and you want to do them. To the horrifying point where we’d done our LP and done You Shook Me, and I’d heard he’d done You Shook Me. I was terrified that they were going to be the same. And I didn’t know he’d done it, and he didn’t know we’d done it.”

According to the sleevenotes on Truth, written by Beck himself, he talks about “smashing your guts for 2:28” at the song’s finale. Indeed he did some smashing, of guitars, in those days.

“Yeah, I just whopped it. Because I was a right little fucker then,” he has admitted. “I used to get a really bad temper. I just rammed it straight into the speaker and it stayed there. Then Townshend came along and did the whole thing with fire and everything [probably meaning Hendrix], smashing up Strats. The thing is, nobody saw me do it; I was just playing small clubs then.”

Ol’ Man River, the Oscar Hammerstein II/Jerome Kern standard is an odd little creature. With Beck on bass, John Paul Jones on Hammond organ, and tympani by ‘You Know Who’ – actually Keith Moon – it is one of the album’s lesser moments. But it did prompt Truth engineer Ken Scott to recall The Who’s drummer living up to his ‘Loon’ nickname.

“One has to remember Mr Moon playing tymps. The neighbours always hated Abbey Road Studios. And it didn’t help when Moony was leaving there in his Rolls-Royce. It had a pair of Tannoy speakers on the roof of it. There was this little old lady walking her dog, and he almost ran her over. She passed some comment, and he just turns on the Tannoys and he’s like: ‘You fucking cow. Get outta my fucking way’. Of course, it was so loud everyone heard it. I remember that one very well.”

On vinyl, side two of Truth opens with Beck having picked up an acoustic for a shaky but stirring version of the classical... er, classic Greensleeves. “It was just an idle mess around in the studio while I was waiting for Mickie,” he said. “Why not? It was the vital last track of the album, and nobody could think of what to play, so I just played it. That’s why there’s all the plinking and plonking and bad notes in it. I can’t play acoustic guitar very well.”

Rock My Plimsoul is a track Beck recorded back during his Mickie Most/solo career period. That staggered little drum lick from Aynsley Dunbar (who is uncredited) sets the song in motion, and provides a rhythmic trampoline on which Beck’s guitar jumps and twirls. Here, the sense of what the Jeff Beck Group may have sounded like with Dunbar on drums comes to mind.

And then there is the timeless and epic instrumental Beck’s Bolero. Recorded in May 1966, this rendition of Ravel’s famous Bolero was the B-side of Hi Ho Silver Lining and was meant to serve as the launching pad for Beck’s idealised supergroup. Players include Jimmy Page on electric 12-string, Keith Moon on drums, John Paul Jones on bass, and Nicky Hopkins on piano.

If Beck and Page toss dazed and confused looks at one another trying to explain why they recorded the same track on their debut records, when it comes to unravelling the mystery of who wrote this monster instrumetal, total amnesia sets in.

“No, Page didn’t write that song,” Beck has insisted. “We sat down in his front room once, this tiny, pokey room, and he was sitting on the arm of a chair and he started playing that Ravel rhythm. He had a 12-string, and it sounded so full, really fat and heavy. And I just played the melody. And I went home and worked out the other bit [the up-tempo section].”

When I interviewed him, Jimmy Page had a different recollection of how Beck’s Bolero took shape: “Even though he said he wrote it, I wrote it. It was just left to me and Jeff, because the producer, [Simon] Napier-Bell, just pissed off. He wasn’t seen. So, Jeff was playing, and I was sort of in the box [control booth]. I’m playing all the electric and 12-string, but it was supposed to be a solo record for him. The slide bits are his, and I’m just basically playing around the chords. The idea was like Ravel’s Bolero, it was built around that. It’s got a lot of drama. It came off right. It was a good line-up, with Keith Moon and everything.”

John Paul Jones also recalled the chaos of that recording session: “The group that played on Beck’s Bolero was going to be called Led Zeppelin,” Jones remembered. “We were thinking of going out on the road – can you imagine this bunch of loonies? I remember that Moon did this amazing fill around the kit and a U47 [mic] just left its stand and went flying across the room; he just cracked it one. And the engineers were going: ‘Uh, Keith, we don’t seem to be getting your top kit too well'. It was fun.” It is an astounding track and one of the truly remarkable pieces on the album. Even John Paul Jones, a veteran session man who had played with all the great guitarists of the day including Page and Ritchie Blackmore, was mesmerised by Beck’s performance. “He could have been as big as Led Zeppelin but he’s not consistent enough,” Jones has said. “He’s funny though, he’d play a wrong note and go and kick the amp or start shouting at a roadie.”

The shouts and screams on the next track come not from an angry Beck but from an enthusiastic crowd. Blues Deluxe is a straight blues rigged up with a live-audience ambient backing track to give the feeling of a live performance. “Yeah, I faked that up. It was good fun,” Beck laughed. “We just added a bit of The Beatles’ reception at the Empire Hall, Wembley.”

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With the album in the can, producer Mickie Most talked to Columbia about a release date. Not only did they not have a date in sight, they were reluctant to even assign one. Here Beck was, sitting on an album that could launch his band as the next Cream or pre-empt Zeppelin, and he was exiled to a hellish limbo. Ultimately, Peter Grant intervened and set about undoing Mickie’s mistakes.

Grant’s first move was to fly the group to the US to play some dates – a typically bold and incisive decision. It paid off. American audiences were astonished by what they saw and heard on those trailblazing Jeff Beck Group shows. The band had struck gold.

The following day The New York Times ran a stunning review, and Grant realised that he was sitting on a gunpowder keg and the fuse had just been lit. He immediately wired the review to Epic Records, and they responded with the offer of a deal. Amazingly, given that Beck has never been a man of constant... well, anything, he remains with the same label to this day. In fact, he is the label’s longest-serving artist. The label, desperate to capitalise on the Jeff Beck Group’s triumphant tour in the US, accelerated the initial release date of the album there. On July 29, Truth shipped out to America; Britain and Europe wouldn’t receive the album until October 4. It got to No.15 on the US chart – a true victory for an essentially unknown English rock band. In the UK the record never even charted.

Almost 40 years after it was conceived, Truth still has the ability to make you long for a time when such albums were being made.

Of course, 1968 will never come again, but Jeff Beck is still here recording. “Well, I think I try about as hard as anyone. All I want is to try and put something together and present it to the audience’s attention. I’m not gonna cram anything down anyone’s throat. It’s a waste of time. Like trying to pull a chick that ain’t into you.”


THE BIG TIME

How just one Jeff Beck Group gig conquered America.

By the summer of 1968, when manager Peter Grant took the bold decision to take the Jeff Beck Group on their maiden voyage across the Atlantic, America had not yet succumbed to the machinations of the media – radio, television, print – and entire careers were being kick-started by a single performance, a one-nighter at a local club. Word of mouth was a valuable currency, and Grant was certain the Jeff Beck Group, even though they were unknown, could cash in. Where their British record label had embraced the band in less than passionate fashion – had registered only mildly Beck’s stunning and flawless guitar work, and Rod Stewart’s astonishing, blues-bruised vocals – the Americans welcomed them to their collective bosom. They treated them like conquering heroes, like melodic messiahs, like the greatest rock’n’roll band they’d ever heard.

On the nights of June 14 and 15, at the hallowed Fillmore East in New York, Jeff Beck crossed the threshold and went from being a good guitarist to being a great guitarist. On that opening date, the Jeff Beck Group had been pencilled in as headliners (the Seventh Sons opened), but a last-minute promoter panic resulted in the Grateful Dead booked to close the show. They needn’t have bothered.

“Immediately when we hit the stage, people knew that there was no hanky panky, no hype,” Beck recalled with palpable enthusiasm. “And they just took us in and we felt we belonged to the American scene. And later, when we played the Fillmore West, we belonged to the San Francisco scene.”

Here, the group found its identity, its character. Stewart stopped retreating behind the wall of amplifiers and began to focus on controlling the audience, manipulating the microphone and its stand in a synchronised dance which would eventually become his signature. Beck was strangling his Gibson Les Paul and coercing sounds out of it that US audiences had never experienced before.

With that single performance, Beck was immortalised. The mythology was truly being etched – finally. The Who and Jimi Hendrix had their Monterey; Alvin Lee had his Woodstock; The Beatles had their Ed Sullivan Show – signature nights; crucial moments; seminal performances. Now, Jeff Beck had his Fillmore. And Peter Grant was fuelled more than ever with the mandate of launching his young virtuoso’s career, building Jeff a bridge over any troubled waters, a safe passageway to the other side. A stairway to heaven... or at least to a record deal.

WHEN THE MUSIC'S OVER

What happened next to the JBG?

JEFF BECK: In 1969, Beck recorded Beck-Ola, the second and final album with Rod Stewart and Ronnie Wood. Nicky Hopkins was now a permanent member. He moved on to his R&B period with the JBGII and a pair of albums titled Rough And Ready (1971) and Jeff Beck Group (1972). A studio album (1973) with ex-Vanilla Fudge rhythm section Tim Bogert and Carmine Appice called Beck, Bogert & Appice and a Japan-only live album release followed. In 1975, Jeff entered the instrumental phase of his career with the wondrous Blow By Blow, followed by 1976’s Wired and 1977’s Jeff Beck With The Jan Hammer Group – Live! There And Back [1980], the shaky vocal/instrumental Flash [1985], and Guitar Shop [1989] formed the next group of releases. In 1992, Epic released the three-CD Beckology set. Jeff continues to record mainly guitar records to this day.

RONNIE WOOD: Appeared on Beck-Ola and then quit to join The Faces with Rod Stewart. He began recording solo albums in 1974 starting with I’ve Got My Own Album To Do, Now Look (1975), Mahoney’s Last Stand (1976), and Gimme Some Neck (1979). He officially joined the Rolling Stones in 1976 and continues to record the odd solo album.

ROD STEWART: Sang on Beck-Ola and simultaneously pursued a solo career while joining The Faces with bass buddy Ron Wood. Recorded Rod Stewart (1969), Gasoline Alley (1970), Every Picture Tells A Story (1971) and Never A Dull Moment (1972) as a solo artist. As a member of The Faces, he recorded First Step (1970), Long Player (1971), A Nod’s As Good As A Wink... To A Blind Horse (1972), and the swan song, Ooh La La (1973). Became solo superstar; currently sells crooning compilations to grannies.

NICKY HOPKINS: One of the most in-demand session men of the 1960s, Hopkins played with everyone from The Beatles, The Kinks and the Stones to Quicksilver Messenger Service, Jefferson Airplane and on his own solo albums. He died in 1994.

MICKEY WALLER: Played with many bands including Georgie Fame, Charlie Watts’ Rocket 88, recorded with Paul McCartney in the noughts, but died in 2008.

This feature was first published in Classic Rock Special No.2: The Blues

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