Thursday, January 12, 2023

Sounds of shapes of things

Rest in Peace, Jeff Beck
It's unfortunate that the occasion of an artist's death often encourages us to revisit their work. It's also a gift. I pulled out some Yardbirds last night following the news of Jeff Beck's untimely death and, listening to "Shapes Of Things," it felt as if a blurry transparency had been lifted, and I was hearing the song new again. Which is appropriate, and the best tribute to Beck, really, whose futuristic, mind-bending playing during his twenty months with the Yardbirds was as new as new got even in the heady, dynamic world of mid-60s pop music, where startling sounds arrived and horizons rolled back at astonishing speed. 

"Shapes Of Things" was recorded in two sessions in late 1965 (at Chess Recording Studios in Chicago) and early 1966 (at Columbia Recording Studios in Hollywood) and released as a single in February of '66. It's difficult to re-hear a song I grew up with on "classic rock" radio and had hawked at me endlessly late at night on TV commercials. Yet Beck's death opened a door that I hadn't been aware of in a long time—going through, I found myself in the middle of the song's strangeness and thrills, a sound that at the time must've felt like an arrival from another world. It still does. Beck and guitarist Chris Dreja's playing shade the verses in a quasi-menacing, dark layers of distortion, power chords that glower behind Relf's politically-charged lyrics, set against the martial rhythm sections like a howling protester at an anti-war rally. (Samwell-Smith: "I just lifted part of a Dave Brubeck fugue to a marching beat.") The band locks in and kicks in at the raw, exciting chorus, one of the first passages in a rock and roll song I remember loving as a kid, and also being a little scared of with its anthemic power. 

Credited to drummer Jim McCarty, singer Keith Relf, and bassist Paul Samwell-Smith, the song's authorship ignores Beck, but everyone knows that his contributions were crucial. That chorus devolves as the famous solo, where for thirty seconds Beck takes down the song, and his band, in a maelstrom of controlled feedback inside of a quasi-raga lead, McCarty and Samwell-Smith galloping to keep up with the new sound—a new song, really. Over in half a minute, the solo changes everything—the song itself, and also Billboard, the rest of the year if not the decade, and the interior lives of anyone listening who dares to let the song take them on its journey. Beck recalled in Alan Di Perna's Guitar Masters: Intimate Portraits that "there was mass hysteria in the studio when I did that solo. They weren't expecting it and it was just some weird mist coming from the East out of an amp," adding that "[producer] Giorgio [Gomelsky] was freaking out and dancing about like some tribal witch doctor." If Beck had retired or otherwise vanished after his brief tenure in the Yardbirds, his reputation would still be secure for that half minute of playing. 

A great title—of a novel, a poem, a rock and roll song—always grows on a second glance: "Shapes Of Things" are what Relf, disgusted, sees metamorphosing in Vietnam, in a green world under assault, in his reeling perceptive mind; shapes are also what Beck conjures in his solo, best described as outlines or silhouettes of something vanguard and unheralded, frightening because they're unbidden and because they have something to say we may not want to hear. Whatever images you conjure during the stark, stuttering ending are the right ones. Songs can alter things for good. 

Of course, today, the words in the chorus:

Come tomorrow, will I be older?
Come tomorrow, may be a soldier
Come tomorrow, may I be bolder than today?
ring true in a different, sadder way, there being no more tomorrows for Beck, and utterly changed and grieving tomorrows for his friends and loved ones.


"The right time to record is when you're not quite ahead of yourself." That's Beck. This morning I find that observation profoundly moving, as it glosses his playing in a brilliant and helpful way, the mind not yet caught up with what the spirit, through hands and fingers, can do, will do. Rest in peace Jeff Beck, a guitar visionary.

Bottom photo via Getty

No comments: