A very English axeman

During the making of his new album, Emotion & Commotion, Jeff Beck suffered an accident with potentially fatal consequences for a rock guitar god: he chopped off the top of his finger while slicing a carrot.

“It was a really non-glam event,” he says. Squeamish readers, look away. “I only noticed it when I put it under a tap, there was this chunk hanging down. I thought, at least it’s joined on, so I folded it back and then I just temporarily lost it. I crumpled to the floor and thought that’s it, I won’t be able to play again.” A surgeon sewed it back on, but he had to finish the album using just three fingers on his fretting hand. “There’re a couple of dodgy solos in there,” he laughs.

Happily, the mutilated digit is now fine: he unfurls a long finger to show me. We are in his manager’s offices in central London; Beck is up visiting from the country estate in Kent he shares with his wife Sandra and his fleet of hot-rod racing cars. Unexpectedly self-deprecatory for someone who ranks as one of the most important guitarists in rock’s history, he sounds surprised when I congratulate him on Emotion & Commotion, his first album in seven years. “You enjoyed it?” he says, doubtfully. Later, he jokingly likens it to the contents of his wastepaper basket. It is hard not to suspect self-sabotage might be part of Beck’s make-up.

Now 65, he cut his teeth in the British beat boom of the 1960s. His break came in 1966 when he replaced Eric Clapton in The Yardbirds, the groundbreaking blues-rock band that remarkably also launched Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page on the world.

Of the three virtuosos, Clapton and Page went on to greater success, but the more adventurous Beck has proved just as influential. In The Yardbirds he pioneered an aggressive, distorted style that inspired psychedelic rock and has influenced several generations of guitarists. His solo work has been astonishingly eclectic, ranging from jazz-fusion and blues to rockabilly and techno. “No one has ever equalled what Jeff has done,” Page said last year when Beck was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

His name is lauded throughout the world of rock, yet his career has oscillated as wildly as his fretwork. Something of a loner, he left behind a trail of discarded bands before going solo in the mid-1970s. There have been a number of breaks from music, several caused by car-related injuries. A head-on crash in 1969 sidelined him for six months; he trapped his thumb under a car while mending it; another time he blew holes in both hands while sand-blasting a chassis. It is a wonder he can pick up a guitar, let alone play it.

He has a reputation for perfectionism, and was infamous in his heyday for smashing equipment: he is shown totalling a guitar in Blowup, Antonioni’s 1966 film about swinging London. “That’s just frustration,” he says. “I don’t know if that’s anything to do with perfectionism. Certain aspects of recording have to be spot on. But perfectionism, it’s like trying to chase smoke, you can’t do it.”

The seven-year gap between Emotion & Commotion and his previous record seems to cause him genuine surprise. “That question [about the periods of inaction in his career] is the old chestnut and I never know what to say to it. I’m shocked that it is seven years. Either it was error on someone’s part that I did that, or I was having fun. You know, time flies when you’re having fun.”

Emotion & Commotion’s range of styles is typically profuse, from the guitar fireworks of “Hammerhead” to a cover of R&B classic “I Put a Spell on You” with Joss Stone. On the whole, however, it tones down the wild axe heroics for a more soothing approach. “It’s for older people who’d like to hear peaceful music,” the former firebrand guitarist says.

Traces of an aborted classical music project remain with a Fender Stratocaster-ed version of “Nessun Dorma”. An instrumental version of “Somewhere over the Rainbow” finds him drifting into golden oldie territory. “It has a Jeff Beck-wackiness to it. Anyone else would probably get arrested,” he says.

He comes across as a very English axe-hero: an eccentric risk-taker with a conservative streak. His description of his trip to the casualty unit of his local Kent hospital after the carrot mishap is pure Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells (“Three hundred snotty babies screaming and single mums. Chav city”). Praise for the “innocence” of 1940s radio leads to a grumpy critique of broadcasting today. “When I listen to modern radio, I get pissed off in about five minutes.” His brow furrows. “DJs who talk over records should be shot.” At such times you can see why he was rumoured to be the model for Spinal Tap’s plain-speaking axeman Nigel Tufnel.

Yet he reveals a different side when he rhapsodises about his favoured make of guitar. “The high harmonics on the Fender Strat have this otherworldly sound. A Fender guitar with a Fender amp is a marvellous thing. And it’s also a marvellous thing with a Marshall amp, they both bring out different qualities.”

His version of “Somewhere over the Rainbow” continues an experiment he began on 1989’s Jeff Beck’s Guitar Shop to make his Fender sing like a human voice. The attempt sums up his peerless command of guitar timbre; it also ranks as a magnificently quixotic undertaking. You cannot imagine Eric Clapton spending hours in the studio trying to alchemise his guitar into a voice.

As for human singers, Beck has forthright views about them. “They’re too poncy and they get in the way,” he says, only half-joking. There is often rivalry between lead guitarists and vocalists, but Beck seems to have had a pathological inability to remain long in a band. He left The Yardbirds under enigmatic circumstances in 1967: “thrown out”, he claims, though other reports cite ill-health and unreliability. Next he formed the Jeff Beck Group with Ronnie Wood and Rod Stewart, but the line-up imploded in 1969. Beck’s failure to hook up permanently with another vocalist of Stewart’s quality is commonly seen to have hampered his career.

Beck sees it differently. “I’m proud to say I have made a decent living without a singer. I don’t know if it was selfishness or just the desire to retain individual quality, but I’m glad I did it.”

He dislikes singing, and, unlike Clapton, refused to make himself into a more rounded performer by taking up lead vocals. An exception was his biggest British hit, “Hi Ho Silver Lining”, made in 1967 when he fell under the wing of the pop impresario Mickie Most. “I was faced with nothing or doing what Mickie wanted,” says Beck, who loathes the song and calls it “the great unmentionable”.

Unluckily for him, the hated hit lives on as a football terrace chant. It is also oddly popular with the police. “I understand it’s because of police balls. Every time I get nicked for speeding they say, ‘Oh we love that song of yours.’ Does that mean I’ll get off the ticket? ‘No, you won’t.’”

He did, however, sing “the great unmentionable” on a recent US tour with Clapton. “Eric said, ‘If you don’t sing, I’ll sing it’.” Touring with Clapton was “fantastic”. It was the first time the two ex-Yardbirds had gone on the road together. “It was a bit like I’ve got to get my old blues cap on now, because that’s where I came from.”

Has his approach to guitar-playing changed as he has got older? The attacking style of old is “still there. I think I’ve expanded, rather than changed.” What place does an album based around a guitar virtuoso have in the world today? He laughs. “None whatever.” Although he enthuses about “the catalogue of geniuses” who play at Clapton’s annual guitar festival, Crossroads, he concedes there is a lack of young bucks moving up to replace the likes of him and Clapton.

“You don’t ever hear stories about amazing guitar players any more, because most records don’t have them. Coldplay, they were doing three-note, catchy hooks – fantastic, but it’s not Cream number two or Jimi Hendrix number two. I think we probably have to say goodbye to that.”

Yet he found on tour with Clapton that audiences were “mesmerised”. Popular fascination for ace guitarists has not disappeared. “You’ve got to admit that it has been a pretty remarkable instrument, the electric guitar, since the 1930s. If I do nothing at all I’d be happy if someone saw me play and took the guitar up. Job’s done, really.”

‘Emotion & Commotion’ is out on April 12 on Rhino

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