15 Years Ago: Jeff Beck Continues His Electronic Experiments With ‘You Had It Coming’
After taking a hiatus from solo recording for much of the '90s, Jeff Beck returned at the end of the decade with a new, electronics-assisted sound — one he continued to explore with his eighth studio LP, You Had It Coming.
Released Feb. 6, 2001, the album continued in the same vein Beck had tapped with his previous effort, 1999's Who Else!, but where that earlier release used electronic sounds and textures in fairly subtle ways, Coming doubled down on digital noise, using his guitar as the main ingredient in an aggressive cacophony of programming and chopped-up samples.
Although Beck's foray into electronics came at a trendy time, his motivations had less to do with sales than a desire to tap into a different side of his songwriting and playing. Working in tandem with producer Andy Wright and programmer Aiden Love, Beck used technology to build himself a playground where he could perform spontaneously — guitar first, songs later.
"The whole idea of the album was that we didn’t want to use any prewritten songs," explained Beck. "They were all brewed in the studio, in an editing suite, which was a part of the writing process. What I wanted to get away from was the sort of formulated, contrived sound. I wanted kind of a wild house party, you know."
The lack of constraints allowed Beck to work his way through You Had It Coming in a relatively brief period — roughly a month — that stood in stark contrast to the creative quagmire he'd found himself in for much of the '90s. With Who Else!, Beck had been reinvigorated by guitarist Jennifer Batten, who joined his band and injected fresh energy into his music. Although Batten was still part of the lineup for Coming (and contributed the record's leadoff track, "Earthquake"), Love was arguably this album's key contributor — and filled the role of younger player who pushed Beck to deliver his best work.
"We didn’t have time to brood over riffs or anything, it was just balls-out guitar playing and a bit of slick editing on the part of somebody who knows what they’re doing," said Beck. "What was really invaluable was the fact that this guy had no previous knowledge of me, really — he’s one of the younger guys, he knew me as a guitar player, but he didn’t really know track names, or anything like that."
The result was a set of tracks that, although forcibly removed from the aesthetic of Beck's classic earlier work, hummed with a swaggering disregard for convention and reasserted his still-vital presence in the rock guitar pantheon. As its sneering title suggests, You Had It Coming is one of Beck's more aggressive works, with Beck's leads buzzing, grinding, and soaring over and against programmed beats — a collision of new and traditional sounds that nods to the past (as with a twisted take on the blues classic "Rollin' and Tumblin'" featuring distinctive vocals from singer Imogen Heap) while forging into the digital unknown.
"We were building songs out of a click track, just a grain of sand," Beck recalled later. "At one point I copied a blackbird song. I used to hear one in an apple tree outside my window when I was a child, and that melody was so whistle-able. So we bought a CD of birdsongs and slowed the blackbird song right down so that I could pick out the melody. Then I transposed it onto a bottleneck."
As with each of his releases since 1976's Wired, You Had It Coming wasn't much of a sales phenomenon, peaking at No. 110 in the U.S. and missing the charts entirely in Beck's native U.K. — even if reviews were mostly kind and the album ultimately earned him a Grammy for the Heap-assisted "Dirty Mind." And although he'd later concede that working with such a heavily programmed sound made it easy to get bogged down in the infinite possibilities of post-production and edits, Beck continued to explore electronic sounds with his next release, 2003's Jeff, while assuring more traditionally minded fans that even if it didn't have a great deal in common with the records they remembered, You Had It Coming might actually offer a more purely distilled version of his creative vision.
"If nothing else, we were coming out with some original ideas of mine. And the guitar is still in the face. And it enabled me to find who I am a little bit more," said Beck. "Rather than trying to interpret someone else’s custom made songs, you know. So this is my first album, really! We’ll start here, thank you very much!"
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