Music Features

Overlooked Albums #38: Jeff Beck - Truth

Restlessness is good. It has made a voyager out of Jeff Beck, who continues a musical quest that began in his teenage years. His pal Jimmy Page, who traded licks with him in The Yardbirds, has lived content within the heavy-rock niche he’s built for himself, but that kind of commitment wasn’t made for Beck. His musical journey, which runs the gamut from rockabilly to jazz fusion, is closer in spirit to that of Jimi Hendrix, who was too adventurous to shrink from anything. Beck is a wanderer, his attention always fixed on what waits up ahead behind the bend.

Beck was booted from The Yardbirds in late 1966. It was the opportunity to blaze his own trail, and he didn’t waste time. His first single, Hi Ho Silver Lining, was a shrewd commercial move that had him singing with a string section. By the time he released Love Is Blue, critics were wondering whether Beck had been replaced by a body-snatching pod. They needn’t have worried because he was handpicking a stellar lineup for his next move: drummer Mick Waller, fresh from John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, ex-Birds Ron Wood on bass, and singer Rod Stewart, who had been struggling to get something going after the dissolution of Shotgun Express.

Though Truth is credited to Beck alone, the album is mostly a team effort. A tour of America had created a buzz around the Jeff Beck Group that paved the way for the recording deal. Beck could be a tough boss, but he gave everyone a fair chance to shine, and that freedom of action pays off handsomely here.

Beck doffs his cap to the recent past with a reworking of Shapes Of Things. Paradoxically, it serves to set new sonic rules; the rhythm is slowed down to allow more free play between bass and drums while opening space for Stewart’s vocalizing. Beck layers the song with rhythm guitar and twin leads, but all lines fit with the precision of a classical piece.

Let us praise engineer Ken Scott’s stereo mix, turning cuts like Let Me Love You into rich aural tapestries. By this time in the late 60s, albums had become the dominant form of recording music over singles. The piecemeal consumption of music had given way to attention to nuance and instrumental performance. As listening habits changed, album tracks became the lifeblood of FM stations and the pulse of social gatherings. Albums like Truth were cohesive works of art meant to be savored. 

You won’t find your mom’s Rod Stewart here. This is Stewart in blues belter mode, all piss and vinegar, sounding like a raspy, wearier Sam Cooke on Morning Dew and You Shook Me. He’s one of the lads too, his voice wrenching deep emotion yet blending organically like another instrument. That rare alchemy makes Ol’ Man River work. This odd cover choice was written by Kern & Hammerstein for Show Boat. Paul Robeson’s magnificent version couldn’t stop white singers from embarrassing themselves over the years with pale imitations. Beck places the song in a rock context, adding to the mix timpani played by Keith Moon. Stewart contributes the emotional muscle, finding the feel that so many white singers had missed.

The odd choices continue with Greensleeves, a traditional tune that Beck plays alone. This delicate acoustic piece cleanses the palate for harder stuff like Rock My Plimsoul, a hard blues with a sizzling interplay between Beck and Stewart. Beck’s Bolero is an instrumental that harks back to the …Silver Lining sessions, so the lineup is Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones, Nicky Hopkins, and Keith Moon. Taking Ravel’s famous masterwork as a starting point, it sounds like a soundtrack for a space epic.

Blues Deluxe is the album’s centerpiece. In his liner notes, Beck calls the song “a perfect example of ‘live’ blues music that we sometimes give forth”. You can’t argue with that. Stewart’s vocal prowess is in full display, then there’s Nicky Hopkins’ piano, which anchors the song before launching into a jaw-dropping solo. When you think the show’s over, Beck hits us sideways with a sinuous guitar trip that illustrates what can be achieved with a tremolo bar and some imagination. He ups the ante with the last song, I Ain’t Superstitious, where he coaxes mewing and snarling sounds out of his guitar.

Both Truth and its follow-up, Beck-Ola, did well on the American charts. The Jeff Beck Group could have scaled the heights of success reached by Led Zeppelin, but it wasn’t meant to be. Beck and manager Mickie Most failed to provide a stable atmosphere for the group, which made the split inevitable. Wood and Stewart saw greener pastures in The Faces, where the drinks and the laughs were guaranteed. Stewart’s solo success snowballed, transforming the former odd-job labourer into rock royalty. Wood joined the Stones in 1975, his tenure outlasting Brian Jones’ and Mick Taylor’s. 

At first, Beck didn’t do as well. The second incarnation of the Jeff Beck Group lacked the magic of the original. Beck, Bogert, and Appice, a power trio, only lasted for one studio album. He finally hit his stride with Blow By Blow (1975), which opened new grounds for guitar experimentation. Since then, Beck has become the ultimate journeyman, flitting from genre to genre as the mood fits, playing with artists as diverse as John McLaughlin and Brian Wilson, paying homage to guitar heroes such as Les Paul and Cliff Gallup, and releasing substantial albums.

Beck, at 70, still feels the need to challenge himself, and that’s a lesson for contemporary musicians, many of whom start to play it safe on their second album. Beck has dared, time and time again, to fail. It has only made him a better artist.