45 Years Ago: The Jeff Beck Group Release ‘Beck-Ola’
The original Jeff Beck Group were a force of nature, plain and simple. All the players fit together perfectly, in a musical sense, and the sound and vibe they created was thrilling. Their second album, ‘Beck-Ola,’ was released in June 1969.
Jeff Beck left the Yardbirds in late 1966, following the release of their groundbreaking single, ‘Happenings Ten Years Time Ago.’ After a pair of pop-oriented singles, ‘Hi Ho Silver Lining’ and ‘Tallyman’ in early 1967, Beck tried to assemble a dream team of sorts. After various line-up changes, the final lineup of Ronnie Wood on bass, drummer Micky Waller and vocalist Rod Stewart was in place. Their debut, ‘Truth,’ was a benchmark for hard rock and roll, picking up where bands like Cream left off, fine-tuning things and creating a template that many would follow for years to come.
The approach favored by Beck and Co. was simultaneously being given a go by another former Yardbird, Jimmy Page, and his new combo called Led Zeppelin. Musically, the basic formula between the groups was not that different: heavy, stylized guitar playing over a driving rhythm section. The main difference between the two really went to the style of the lead singers. Robert Plant had the drama, the howl and the ethereal, while Rod Stewart had the grit, soul and earthiness.
For ‘Beck-Ola,’ Beck stayed with the template set by ‘Truth.’ Side One kicks off with a raw and rocking take on the Elvis Presley classic ‘All Shook Up.’ As he did with the Yardbirds’ gem ‘Shapes Of Things’ on ‘Truth,’ he reworks the Presley tune here, taking it from a simple, bouncy little rocker and transforming it into a growling, blusey stomper. Rod Stewart proves that he was one of the finest white blues singers ever, delivering more than a mountain of soul here.
‘Spanish Boots’ was a joint effort between Beck, Stewart and Wood, and it is a full-on rocker. Beck and new drummer Tony Newman get to show off here, and despite the fact that we’ve all known Ron Wood as an ace guitarist for most of his career, it is worth noting that the man was one hell of a bass player. His sense of both anchor and melody is top-flight stuff. Stewart has less than high praise for his contribution to the song, however. “I wrote the lyrics — a load of old nonsense about monasteries and tapestries and putting your boots on,” he said in his autobiography ‘Rod,’ “I cringe to think of it now.”
‘Girl from Mill Valley’ is a mellow, piano-based instrumental that, while nice and all, does little to charge any batteries. Then, ‘Jailhouse Rock’ is treated to the same loud and bluesy infusion as ‘All Shook Up,’ and once again, it works wonders, re-making the song in their own image. Again, Stewart has his reservations when recalling the making of the album. “It was recorded over a positively leisurely six days this time, but it still found us lagging behind the contemporary way of supplementing our own new material with covers,” he said, “Not one, but two Elvis Presley hits, for heaven’s sake.”
Side two is off and running in fine style with the song ‘Plynth (Water Down the Drain),’ which was co-written by Stewart, Wood and legendary session keyboardist, Nicky Hopkins. It’s a slightly funky raver that is a great showcase for Beck. The band are truly on fire here, and you can hear elements of things that Wood and Stewart would soon carry with them into the Faces.
‘Hangman’s Knee’ is a heavy, down-and-dirty blues rocker that features not only some amazing Beck guitar flashes here, but a fierce vocal from Stewart. Few have ever matched his raw, emotive and soulful style which is fully in the spotlight here. Meanwhile, Beck proves why so many fellow guitarists were, and still are, in awe of his talents. Never one to step into cliches, Beck always had his own approach. Hopkins’ piano here adds the perfect foil for Beck’s six-string business
‘Rice Pudding,’ credited to the entire band, ends things on a heavier-than-thou note. A super-powered blues riff kicks in and bludgeons you on the head. Clocking in at nearly eight minutes, the band really get to stretch out here and though it’s really more of a riff-based jam, it was certainly a perfect fit for the times.
Upon the release of ‘Beck-Ola,’ things were really moving along for the band, and the album shot up to No. 15 on the Billboard 200. “I mostly remember the sessions for a series of confrontations between Mickie Most, who was producing it, and an increasingly moody and reluctant Jeff,” recalled Stewart.
Rolling Stone called it “a brilliant album, dense in texture, full of physical and nervous energy, equally appealing to mind and body.” The band toured the U.S. just prior to the album’s release, playing key gigs like the Newport Jazz Festival and the Fillmore East. With Nicky Hopkins in tow as a full-time member, crowds were very receptive, but what should have been a skyward trajectory, ended up crashing to the ground.
“The intention was to end the trip at some outdoor event or other in upstate New York in August,” remembered Stewart. “Then the call came. The gig wouldn’t be happening. Jeff had already flown out on the 5:30 flight that afternoon. Apparently he had got wind from somewhere that his missus was having an affair with the gardener, which turned out to be false, so he was keen to go home. The name of that festival we didn’t play? Woodstock. Ah well. Seen one outdoor festival, you’ve seen them all.”