Jean Baudrillard contends that human achievement has become so intertwined with the media, technology, and hypereality that individual accomplishment has become nearly impossible. This generates nostalgia for exceptional talents who can restore society’s faith in individual accomplishment while, at the same time, people project all of their passion into machines. This essay examines the work of guitarist Jeff Beck and his ability to maintain the relevance and fascination of virtuosity in postmodernity where much of what the virtuoso used to metaphorically represent is irrelevant or no longer possible. A description of the challenges currently facing the virtuoso is presented, followed by a discussion of how Beck’s upbringing and influences have allowed him to thrive in the postmodern social milieu. A detailed analysis of songs from Beck’s 1999 album Who Else! is used to illustrate how the guitarist’s musical eclecticism, unorthodox techniques, humor, and rhetorical strategies allow him to compete with the visceral intensity of the visual media. Beck’s success in balancing high and low technology and his ability to bring to the instrument an unparalleled sense of nuance gives his music the mystique and seductiveness necessary for virtuosi of any time period, but which are so elusive in the postmodern era.
In much of his writing Jean Baudrillard often made serious observations that are worthy of reflection and contemplation beyond that which his deceptively lighthearted tone might imply. In his essay “The Racing Driver and his Double,” the philosopher used his impressions of Formula-One auto-racing to illustrate his belief that human achievement has become so inexorably linked with the media, technology, and hyperreality, that individual accomplishment has been diminished and is rapidly becoming impossible.1 An unhealthy fascination with technology rather than a desire for excellence or improvement is creating something akin to a new type of humanism where people “identify with the machine and project all of their passions into it,” then join together with it in the ecstasy of high-performance.2
Human accomplishment, Baudrillard believed, can now be represented in a pyramid diagram, with the audience and the media, as well as an array of corporate interests, engineers, advertisers, journalists, pundits, pollsters and critics comprising the base and body of the structure. Sitting at the summit are a single person and a single machine who represent the whole superstructure in microcosm. Flesh and steel unite for a single momentary high-performance spectacle that, in order to possess the necessary fascination, depends as much upon the unpredictable as it does on skill and precision. The performer at the top of the pyramid is robbed of all passion and enjoyment for his art since this is necessarily sacrificed in the heat of the moment. The spectacle is fascinating primarily because it is haunted by the possibility of catastrophe, and also because the performance depends upon the hairline control of equipment, which serves as a tactile extension of the body. High-energy performances help spectators cope with the banality of life and assure them that humans are still masters of their machines. There is, however, always something unsettling, something undeniably contrived and artificial about these affairs. Baudrillard felt that if human excellence is to remain a collective passion, it must now “embrace the multiple screens of technological research, the living prosthesis of the individual, and the screens into which viewers project themselves.”3 The media is now an equal partner in any significant human endeavor.
The theorist concludes that events such as auto races or any venture that intensely concentrates money, ambition, technology, and prestige, will inevitably produce a monstrosity as the end result. He states “[these] monsters are doomed to disappear and we are afraid that they might be disappearing. We want to at least save the passion for the pure event, and for exceptional beings who are permitted to do absolutely anything.”4
Baudrillard’s comments could of course be applied to other fields of human accomplishment including music. Virtuosos in the postmodern age, for example, are supported by a similar media superstructure that simultaneously degrades and face-lifts their abilities. In popular music in particular, players and musical technology are more or less equal partners that spur the other’s success.
In the past, instrumental virtuosos have typically served as signifiers of human excellence and the vigor and vitality of the mind, body, and spirit. In addition, these magnificent performers always filled a void or some cultural need serving as exponents of Renaissance humanism, as masters of the affections, as the embodiment of enlightened progressivism, or as Romantic symbols of emancipation. In the postmodern age, much of what the virtuoso represented is seemingly irrelevant, or no longer possible. To judge from both academic theorizing and musings in the popular press, there seems to be less faith than ever in the power of music to represent anything remotely heroic or to symbolize the power of human beings to better their world. The uniqueness of the individual cannot be celebrated when no one is now sure that an unfragmented sense of self is even possible or if the sublime in the real world can compete with the visceral intensity of digital technology. Spontaneity, one of the virtuoso’s most powerful attributes, seems pre-programmed or routine and is therefore not as impressive as it was in the nineteenth-century. Any emotional experience that one could possibly have has been made banal through movies and television or has been dissected and scrutinized countless times by theorists. Humanism is now passé as people have already proven their significance to the point of excess both collectively and individually.
Yet virtuosi continue to be celebrated in all genres of music and usually for the same reasons that such extraordinary persons were idolized during previous centuries. Purity of intonation, intensity and vividness of expression, the ability to make an instrument sing with the warmth and nuance of the human voice, a distinct beauty of tone, control of harmonics and color, a mastery of all known techniques (and the invention of new ones), the ability to absorb and communicate in diverse styles or genres, extreme individuality of interpretation, and a charismatic or seductive off-stage persona are among the mandatory characteristics of the virtuoso. However, in an age that is hyper-real from the outset, it is uncertain what cultural need exceptional players fulfill or to what degree their continued fascination relies on media hype, technology, or nostalgia.
Since the mid-1960s, guitarist Jeff Beck has been one of popular music’s most widely celebrated virtuosi. However, unlike other well-known guitarists, Beck has come to be regarded as something of a musical delicacy, a guy that is “cool” or fashionable to like and reference even during periods when elaborate guitar solos have been unfashionable in popular music. In other words, his popularity is hyper-real. Beginning his career as an English blues and rockabilly player, Beck became successful in the field of jazz-rock fusion in the 1970s. From the 1980s to the present the guitarist has succeeded in maintaining the seduction and fascination of instrumental virtuosity in the digital, hyperreal era, the age when all is known and everyone has seen everything. This study examines the guitarist’s virtuosity and its place in the postmodern social milieu. I will begin by discussing the challenges that face the virtuoso in postmodernity, followed by a sketch of how the development of Beck’s guitar style reflects postmodern approaches to appropriation. Too often an analysis of how a postmodern artist made use of their influences, and assembled borrowed materials makes the process sound too contrived and mechanical with no element of biographical criticism. I have tried to avoid this pitfall when tracing the evolution of Beck’s current playing style. I will then discuss how Beck has responded to the challenge of maintaining interest in virtuosity in the age of the hyperreal. My purpose is not to celebrate Beck’s virtuosity, but to show how his strategies have been particularly effective and distinct. For example, Beck effectively balances high and low music technologies, and he has the ability to find novelties that seduce contemporary audiences. This is in sharp contrast to his peers such as Eric Clapton who now records with the persona of a blues historian, or Jimmy Page, who functions as a symbol of nostalgia but records little. Beck is still pushing the boundaries of guitar technique but his primary shtick, however, involves appropriating esoteric material and taking rock’s obsession with authenticity to hyperreal extremes by bringing to the electric guitar an unusual degree of vocal-like nuance, and adopting the persona of the player who re-humanizes the guitar in the digital age.
Virtuosity and Postmodernism
At first, it might seem like virtuosity would complement the postmodern social milieu extremely well. Because it takes years of intensive practice to become an exceptional player, the virtuoso is not an identity that just anyone can assume as a passing fad. In an era obsessed with finding the real and the genuine, the virtuoso serves as the ultimate symbol of authenticity. This is particularly true in popular music, where, unlike their counterparts in classical music, the virtuoso is an “everyman,” an unsheltered, untrained, but gifted player from a working, or middle-class background, the neighborhood kid who made good.
The postmodern virtuoso would seem to fit naturally into hyperreality, with playing that is faster than fast, more beautiful than beautiful, and more real than real. Also, since postmodernity is ruled by surprise, obscenity, and shock-value, one would think that the virtuoso would feel perfectly at home. Players with mesmerizing ability would be the ultimate musical entertainment for an audience, who, as Baudrillard observes, experience events like waves, “decipherable only and instantly in terms of color, tactility, ambience, and sensory effects.”5
During the Romantic era, the significance of virtuosity was bound up with philosophies of art, politics, sexuality, and economics. Now, in the postmodern age, virtuosity, like art in general, intermingles even more freely in all aspects of life. Since postmodernity is commonly associated with the disappearance of traditional aesthetics and taste, with which virtuosity has often come into conflict, technical skill is now free to dazzle and shine unencumbered without any aesthetic or philosophical baggage, a fitting spectacle worthy of the high-performance age and a perfect means for communing with the machine.
Still, postmodernity presents a number of challenges for the virtuoso. One wonders, for example if a superhuman player can still fill his or her audiences with the same sense of awe and wonder that virtuosos were able to conjure in previous eras, even if the media enhances the perception of their abilities. Virtuosity is typically far more impressive live than recorded and when presented to an audience with fragmented tastes the virtuoso faces the difficult task of reaching beyond a niche audience of fellow players. Yet, this is precisely what must happen in order for the virtuoso to remain a relevant universal symbol of the power of human agency in the way they have traditionally functioned.
It is now easy to take virtuosity for granted. We naturally expect people who have recording contracts to play brilliantly and execute flawlessly. The internet is chock-full of videos posted by everyday people who play exceptionally well and twelve-year old children who can perform note-perfect renditions of Jimi Hendrix’s most flamboyant solos or complex classical piano etudes. For many the virtuoso’s special abilities are really not that special when compared to other forms of entertainment. People do not care about virtuosity or relate to what the virtuoso does so great performers become symbols of isolation.
The virtuoso can have a problem keeping up with the pace of postmodern life. Baudrillard observes that “today communication is too slow; it is an effect of slowness working through contact and speech. Looking is much faster, it is the medium of the media.” Later he adds, “We never communicate. In the to and fro of communication, the instantaneity of looking, light and seduction are already lost.”6 Audiences are slowly being desensitized and trained to overlook nuance and attention to detail that distinguishes the virtuoso’s work.
Postmodern virtuosity must fight to remain relevant in an era where the creation of hyperreality, the realer than real, is what generates the most passion.7 One would think that virtuosity would thrive under this impulse to enhance and accelerate, but the question is whether or not it can keep up with expectations.
“The Ecstasy of Communication” is Baudrillard’s term for a condition where everything is so transparent, instantaneous, and overexposed through the media that all the wonder, mystery, and meaning are purged from existence.8 What this means for the electric guitar virtuosos in rock and jazz is that their bag of tricks is commonplace. On the internet one can find a video explaining in detail any given technique or aspect of music theory imaginable, not to mention the hundreds of books, CDs, DVDs available for purchase promising to unlock the secrets of any player’s tone and style. The instrument is now devoid of any mysteries. To illustrate this point, the January 2007 issue of Guitar World, a magazine marketed to young enthusiasts of the instrument, interviewed eleven newly established rock guitarists who all conceded that virtuosity was no longer impressive in and of itself and that everything that can be done on the guitar has already been done.9 While this may seem unimportant (after all there have not been any new advances in classical piano or trombone technique for some time), technical innovation has been a major part of rock guitar authenticity. The players did express some satisfaction that success on the instrument is now judged in terms of melodicism, the distinctness of a player’s tone, and by how well they assimilated their influences. One of the primary challenges is finding increasingly novel or esoteric material from the past or present to combine in a way that is impressive and moving.
Another challenge facing the postmodern virtuoso is avoiding what Baudrillard describes as “I Did It” syndrome in his book America. “I Did It” is a pure and empty performance with absolutely no goal or meaning, “a feat of no consequence” which a person undertakes to simply advertise that they exist.10 As examples, Baudrillard cites the mania for marathon running or mountain climbing. He even includes the moon landing as an example because there was so much expectation for success that the event seemed predetermined. With little imagination virtuosity could be interpreted as being part of this postmodern fanaticism for empty achievement.
In previous time-periods, interest in virtuoso players was stimulated by optimism, faith in progress, and the desire for emacipatory social change,11 however, it is debatable whether these qualities are present in the postmodern social fabric in insufficient quantities for virtuosity to maintain its significance. Dick Hebdige actually defines postmodernism as “modernity without the hopes and dreams that made modernity bearable.”12 The virtuoso therefore loses the basis of their power. Baudrillard trumps Hebdige’s bleak diagnosis asserting that ideologies, social groups and other markers of identity have simply disappeared as people gradually prefer the isolation of media simulation. What virtuosity can signify to individuals with little sense of who they are and what they can do remains unclear.
One of Baudrillard’s most serious complaints about the postmodern world of late capitalism is that society is governed too closely by the bourgeoisie logic of production, accumulation, and growth. Wealth, goods, information, and images must ceaselessly be stockpiled in order to be considered valuable, but in actuality, they simply decay as waste-matter.13 The theorist feels that this logic results in a toxic environment where nothing is valued, nothing has any mysteriousness, and the sublime is pushed out of existence. The virtuoso, with his or her amazing skills, could easily be seen as a signifier of logic, science, accumulation, and production, but in order to possess the same mystery and subversivness of nineteenth-century virtuosos (the gold-standard), postmodern players must come to symbolize more than production and authenticity to a large portion of the public.14
The virtuoso faces the problem of creating a dazzling musical experience for people who relate more to objects than they do to other people. Throughout Fatal Strategies, Baudrillard describes a world so oversaturated with objects, consumer goods, and empty signs that human subjects become overwhelmed and consumed by fascination. Building on the ideas of Charles Baudelaire, who believed that shock and uncertainty destroyed the use-value of art, Baudrillard theorizes that, in their work, artists “must adopt all of the qualities of shock, strangeness, surprise, disquietude, liquidity, even auto-destruction; the instantaneity and unreality which belong to the commodity.”15 The virtuoso must find a way to become as fascinating as an object in a space where the quest to uncover all secrets, to make everything known, causes one to overlook the beauty and expressiveness of their work.
Beck’s Influences and Postmodernism
While all rock guitarists are more or less the sum of their influences, Jeff Beck synthesized his influences in a way that enabled him to develop a style that was particularly well-suited to the postmodern, high-performance age. While many electric guitarists may reflect postmodern traits such as a nostalgia for deceased players, the clubs in Chicago in the 1950s, or, for the time when guitar virtuosity was a symbol of the 1960s counterculture, Beck behaves like a virtuoso who has read Simulacra and Simulation and is actively applying its principles to his music and image.
Beck’s playing is primarily indebted to American blues guitarists, such as Buddy Guy, Otis Rush, and Hubert Sumlin with their flamboyant but tasteful phrasing, sensitivity to dynamic shading, and exciting use of distortion timbres. The influence of Chicago blues on Beck, Clapton, Page, and all the other British rock players who began their careers during the 1960s has been well-documented, therefore this section will focus on other important, and more recent sources that have shaped Beck’s style.
Les Paul’s speed, humor, and melodicism inspired Beck who was greatly influenced by the intriguing use of recording technology such as overdubbing, reverb, and delay (echo) effects on Paul’s recordings. Beck recalls being rebuked by his parents for being so captivated by what they considered to be the superficial elements of the music,16 but his interest in special effects has served him well as a postmodern virtuoso.
Beck cites Cliff Gallup (from Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps) as his primary influence, although save for his use of rapid slur passages between fretted and open notes, little of Gallup’s rockabilly style can be heard in Beck’s playing. In 1993 Beck released an album of unembellished, note-for-note Gene Vincent covers titled Crazy Legs. In addition to reflecting the postmodern tendency to relive the past and the endless fascination with dead cultural energy, the album illustrates the postmodern practice of liberating art, fashion, objects, and so forth from their cultural context and symbolic significance in order to simply appreciate objects and phenomenon in and of themselves. There are not many rock musicians who could produce an album of unembellished covers and still be taken seriously, but Beck’s hyperreal popularity gave him the freedom to indulge in such a project without being ridiculed for copying.
The way that Beck draws inspiration from non-musical sources also reflects the postmodern ideal of combining elements, styles, fields, disciplines, and so forth that are completely unrelated or that have only the most tangential connections. For example, along with Gene Vincent, Buddy Holly, and the music of other artists associated with the car culture of the 1950s, Beck is musically influenced by the old-fashioned hot-rods themselves. Building, customizing, and racing vintage sports cars is Beck’s principle hobby. Naturally, car-culture and rock n’ roll have been inexorably linked since the 1950s, but Beck feels that he is particularly sensitive to the way that speed, power, and glamour culturally tie rock music and cars together. Beck also asserts that his control of dynamics, articulation, and vibrato is no different than controlling a powerful car, and that his love of machines piqued his interest in music technology.17
Mechanical themes abound in Beck’s music, from naming songs after cars and sampling their sounds (“Roy’s Toy”), to using his guitar to mimic the sounds of a factory (“Guitar Shop”), to the covers of his recent albums displaying photos of cars, garages, and greasy hands, all of which serve to recycle the hipness of and nostalgia for the 1950s.
Beck’s playing has other traits in common with “kustom culture.”18 For example, John DeWitt observes that the danger, speed, and power associated with custom cars is tempered by their physical beauty.19 Beck’s playing exhibits a similar blend of aggressiveness, speed, tastefulness, and melodicism. His humor and capriciousness is also not unlike that of car designs in kustom kulture. DeWitt states that cool and humor are rarely compatible but “clever puns and subtle play on objects and materials was acceptable with the understanding that the goal was to make people smile and not to become a joke.20 Beck’s use of humor, whether quoting the Westminster chimes in a solo, imitating the sound of cars or of animals (as Paganini had done), or his tongue-in cheek sentimentality, never compromises the seriousness inherent in rock virtuosity.
During Beck’s youth the British had a love/hate relationship with America and its cultural influence. American products (typically cars) were symbols of freedom, hope, and post-war progress, but posed a threat to British cultural identity.21 For this reason Beck’s interest in American cars and their influence on his music was a symbol of rock n’ roll rebelliousness, and since the late 1980s the guitarist began to recycle the sign-value of custom cars in his music and image, perhaps suggesting that rock no longer possess the energy and vitality that it once did. To the English, American cultural products were also symbols of novelty, newness, glamour, and personality.22 This could explain Beck’s fascination with ephemerality; constantly incorporating the latest musical fads into his playing, as well as the important role that timbre plays in the impact of his music.
Beck’s style exhibits an eclecticism that is atypical for a rock guitarist, incorporating the influence of classical music, jazz, Indian ragas, and East-Asian folk music in addition to the African-American influences discussed earlier. Surprisingly, Beck cites Les Mystére des Voix Bulgares by the Bulgarian State Women’s Choir as his favorite album.23 The guitarist claims that this recording inspired his continuing exploration of microtonal inflections, as well as the melodies in songs such as “Where Were You?” and “Blast from the East.” The esoteric eclecticism so prevalent in postmodern art is a symptom of our linear culture of accumulation. The past and the present must be on display at all times since this is what guarantees value and meaning, and thus power.24 Beck’s virtuoso style can be interpreted as being a part of this mania for accumulation on a technical, musical, and cultural level. But there is a question as to whether his stockpiling of techniques and genres is really a sign of power. Certainly it takes skill to incorporate esoteric elements into popular music, and is therefore a sign of authenticity. But unlike, say, a heavy metal guitarist, Beck does not amass musical signs of power. He typically incorporates the music that he appropriated in such a way as to obscure the source, except in cases where he deliberately displays his influences. His solos definitely do not sound like melodies sung by the Bulgarian Women’s Choir, but still strike the listener with their exoticism. Many rock artists have used eastern-inspired melodies for their sign-value or as a novelty, but one could objectively say that Beck is more sensitive to the beauty of his materials and does not simply use them as a flash of color only; instead they blend naturally with his blues, jazz, and R&B elements.
Beck’s ability to utilize and combine various influences may stem from the eclectic nature of the popular music that he heard in his youth. British skiffle was always an amalgamation of English and American folk elements. British blues mixed together Texas, Mississippi Delta, Chicago, and other American styles. English pop music, such as that of The Yardbirds (a band Beck eventually joined) was comprised of blues, rock n’ roll, Indian folk-music, and even classical music (“Still I’m Sad” was based on a Gregorian chant).25
There are other factors that contributed to the development of Beck’s virtuosity. The guitarist relates that, “maybe being born in the war had something to do with it [his style]. The explosions, the fire, the mess and everything, all the people going crazy. Perhaps that rubbed off on me a bit, in that I didn’t want to be peaceful and play beautiful music. So I suppose that had a lot to do with what I play now, kind of manic and disjointed.”26 The emergence of the virtuoso guitar hero was originally a British phenomenon that can be interpreted as a cultural response to the pressure put upon the post-war generation to fill the shoes of their resilient predecessors.
The influence of socio-economic class also played a part in Beck’s approach to playing. Drawing inspiration from kustom kulture most certainly reflected class-consciousness since beautifying and customizing cars symbolized the sensitivity, imagination, and intelligence of the working class.27 Beck states that his ostentatious style originated because inhibitions rooted in class-consciousness prevented him from behaving in an extroverted manner in any other way.28 Like many other middle and working-class youths Beck received a grant to attend an art school, which perhaps played a part in honing his sensitivity to what makes a given style effective and dramatic, to the significance of color, and the ability to see the culture of others as raw-material for appropriation.
Although Beck enjoyed his greatest popularity during the 1960s and 1970s, he has had no trouble adapting to life in the hyperreal. In addition to his ability at simulating sounds on the guitar and his embracing of the latest digital technology, Beck makes cameo film appearances, composes film soundtracks, and has written songs based on movies. His music is typically instrumental often with quasi-programmatic titles that refer to visual phenomena, and sometimes feature sampled sounds or dialogue from films. Beck has played solos on recordings by Mick Jagger, Tina Turner, Jan Hammer, Buddy Guy, and many others. He frequently makes guest appearances at concerts and on recordings by acts that are currently fashionable. But Beck is no ordinary studio musician; he seems to function as a free-floating signifier of avant-garde cool and superior musicality. He enjoys working with iconic artists like Jagger, Turner, and Bon Jovi to appropriate their sign-value while imparting some of his own.
Beck is fascinated by genres that have become hyperreal or faddish. For example, Beck’s interpretation of the song “Declan” by Donal Lunny shows the guitarist dabbling in the vogue for simulations of Irish and Scottish folk-music such as that which appears on the Narrada Lotus label, or heard in Riverdance productions. “Declan” features Beck’s heavily distorted guitar simulating the shrillness of bagpipes doubled, naturally, by a flute (in reference to James Galway and The Chieftains) and accompanied by the schmaltzy strings typically heard on pop Celtic arrangements. Beck plays with intensity; he does not seem to be mocking the genre but is driven by the desire for pure simulation, novelty, and boundary transgression.
Beck’s 2000 recording of the blues standard “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” was clearly inspired by R. L. Burnside, T-Model Ford, Junior Kimbrough, and other blues artists from the Fat Possum record label. Fat Possum promotes these elderly, poverty-stricken musicians as “the last of the Mississippi hill-country bluesmen,” and for the last thirty years has turned them into hyperreal signifiers of authentic rural blues, and real lived experience.29 U2, Iggy Pop, and The Eurythmics have all toured, recorded, or performed with these African-Americans in order to appropriate a measure of their authenticity. One of the hallmarks of the “hill-country” style is the way in which the drummer adds tension by alternating between shuffle-rhythms and heavy hammering hemiola patterns with aggressive accents. Fat Possum artists typically play without bassists and this magnifies the impact of the drum beats and the raspiness of their guitar timbres, which also adds intensity. Beck borrows these techniques in his recording and intensifies their effect through the use of a drum-machine (that sharpens the accents even more) and employing gated reverb effects on the instruments causing an exhilarating crescendo rush from piano to forte on every beat.
“Rollin’ and Tumblin’” was sung by electronica vocalist Imogen Heap, who was perhaps chosen for her sign value as a cutting-edge, fashionable, musician. Heap embellishes the melody with an exasperated breathy tone and numerous melismas, more in the pop style of Joni Mitchell and Alanis Morissette than the forceful delivery of an African-American blues diva. This further adds to the song’s sign-value as an ultra-modern, chic interpretation. Beck plays economically in an incisive, Delta slide-guitar style emphasizing a few well-chosen notes. Beck’s solos at the end of the song betray his preoccupation with simulation where he uses his bottleneck slide and a wah pedal to create a timbre that is nearly indistinguishable from a harmonica, with licks and fills reminiscent of Little Walter or Junior Wells.
“Rollin’ and Tumblin’” was a song popularized by Muddy Waters, and frequently re-recorded by him in new arrangements.30 This is perhaps why Beck selected this song to use as a platform for chic musical sign-play since Waters had previously used it as a sign of renewal. With his version Beck seems to be saying “if you want authentic delta blues (which at one point was grounded in specific social and cultural conditions) then listen to the old bluesmen, but if you want spectacle, then I will give it to you.” However Beck is engaging in sign-play and not presenting a facsimile of delta blues as an empty sign with no referent, and this is typical of his approach. In other words, the source of Beck’s authenticity is the way he creates music out of styles and genres that have been reduced to fashion.
In rock music, composing your own songs is usually viewed as an essential part of authenticity. Beck, however, rarely composes his own material opting instead to improvise elaborate solos over songs written by a collaborating keyboardist such as Max Middleton, Jan Hammer, or Tony Hymas. Also, some of Beck’s most celebrated music was the result of his collaborations with high-profile artists such as Stevie Wonder and producer George Martin who imparted considerable sign-value to Beck’s Blow by Blow album due to their position as pop legends, in addition to their musical contributions.
Although Beck does not compose but instead dabbles in and mixes genres with typical postmodern eclecticism, it serves to make his playing the focal point of every album; the background changes, but he remains constant. By shunning some of rock’s defining criteria for authenticity, while intensifying others, his music and image become seductive.
Since 1999 Jeff Beck has produced a succession of mostly instrumental albums highly indebted to the techno or electronica genre of dance music. The recordings’ artwork and photography promotes the image of Beck as a hot rod builder and greasy mechanic, which playfully contrasts with the polished, well-produced sound of the album, its high-tech music, and his refined melodic guitar playing. The rough mechanic image does underscore the guitarist’s technique, the sense of recklessness in his soloing, and his heavily distorted guitar timbre (often referred to as “dirty”). The songs often have quasi-programmatic titles that refer to some object or experience and with music that creates the appropriate affect. The mood of the songs varies from intense melancholy to exuberant humor and sometimes presents extreme emotional contrasts within a song. This provides a human element to the electronic atmosphere of the music, but it is also for virtuoso effect, as Beck’s soloing is forced to respond to the quicksilver changes to the accompaniment’s affect.
Often the guitarist’s solos were recorded over a considerable span of time, little snippets of inspiration that were assembled digitally. Nothing is ever at risk of being lost, and inspiration becomes less special, no longer superhuman and seductive. The guitarist’s technique combined with the music’s ambience, dance grooves, excellence of production, and original melodies overwhelm the listener. This is why Beck can afford to create humor with his solos without fear of being labeled inauthentic.
In order to show how Jeff Beck maintains the relevancy of virtuosity in postmodernity, I analyze two songs that illustrate his strategies. One piece that demonstrates musically Baudrillard’s contention that fascination is society’s primary passion is “THX138” from the 1999 album Who Else! The song is based on George Lucas’s futuristic film of the same name that chronicles one individual’s escape from a computerized, Orwellian society where all persons are electronically interconnected and monitored. The song is self-referential since the soundtrack for the film was the song “Still I’m Sad” by The Yardbirds, Beck’s former group. Composing music based on a film rather than real life experiences seems shallow, not exactly something that a serious virtuoso would do, but Beck delights in violating such expectations. The song plays on postmodern fears and conveys some of the drama and suspense of the protagonist’s struggle to escape from a Foucaultian nightmare. However, for the most part, the music simply fascinates, it is difficult to even get a clear sense of the song’s affect, which is appropriate since the film and the music are set in a sterile, soulless society.
The instrumental song begins with the guitarist, unaccompanied, playing a dizzying motive of frenzied slurs in d mixolydian as shown in Figure 1a. Most guitarists use relatively simple motives for their primary themes, but Beck’s are often diabolically difficult. Here great physical stamina and a flawless left hand technique are required. It is not just the speed that is unsettling in this opening motive, the tonic is never defined, and the disjunct repetitive nature and narrow range of the theme resembles electronic gibberish. The shrill buzzing quality of the guitar’s distorted timbre further reinforces this effect. Exactly how Beck achieves this distinct tone color is not clear. The frantic slurred motive quickly becomes a restless ostinato as the guitar is joined by the synthetic sound of a drum machine, ominously churning an unceasing syncopated techno dance rhythm, and a synthesizer producing what sounds like intermittent, pitched static on the tonic. The result is a mechanical atmosphere of kinetic energy vividly portraying the machine, the collective, scrambling to remedy and contain a transgression.
Figure 1a. “THX138,” ostinato figure.
Simon Reynolds’ excellent summary of the appeal of visceral electronic dance music explains why a postmodern guitar virtuoso might wish to appropriate it. He observes that “electronic music is driven by a quest to find the most radical or futuristic-sounding potential in brand-new technology.”31 It should be added that in pop music these new sounds are used in an accessible way. Working in techno was therefore a way that Beck could appropriate avant-garde sign value, but still perform music in a conservative style that does not distract from his virtuosity. Reynolds states that electronic music is more anonymous than other styles in that the listener does not think of a specific artist when they hear it. The melodies are similarly unobtrusive since this would distract from the totality of the musical experience. Beck seizes the opportunity to infuse the genre with his virtuosity, his unique style and hyperreal reputation making those qualities shine in greater relief. Dabbling in electronica would seem to contradict the definitions of authenticity that are the rock virtuoso’s means of credibility. The song’s whimsical nature is characteristic of Beck’s habit of violating the audience’s expectation that the virtuoso remain serious and fulfill his role as the controller of meaning.
“THX138” is loosely structured. The first five minutes of the song consist of an irregular alternation between two distinct guitar motives played over the ostinato. The first of these consists of only the tonic and the seventh played on the guitar in a high register. It resembles both a computer bleep and a delta blues fill (see Figure 1b). The second is a strong physical gesture marked by a repeated, heavily-distorted d-minor7 chord that clashes with the mixolydian ostinato and ominously descends through a slow glissando via the guitar’s tremolo bar (Figure 1c). There is a brief guitar solo at 1:48, and a third section appears near the end of the song at 4:58, presenting for the first time a melody with some degree of tunefulness. There is finally some harmonic movement as well as the static d-major chord gives way to an I-bVI-I-VII progression. The sequence is a common mixolydian progression except that the VI would typically not be lowered and would have a minor quality. The change gives the melody an affect that is elevated, majestic, transcendent, but in a banal way. Arousing strong emotions was clearly not Beck’s intention. Instead, the guitarist provides the listener with a measure of the intensity and fascination of the film’s experience through musical means. The layering of ostinatos and the harmonic stasis combine to immerse and captivate the listener in the way that Baudrillard feels that the screen swallows the viewer because there is no scene or gaze.32 Perhaps what fascinates most of all is Beck’s guitar tone, heavily saturated with studio reverb effects. The overpowering cavernous sense of space surrounding the guitar’s sound symbolizes the infinity of the collective interconnected society that induces awe by virtue of its vastness. Lush reverb effects have been a signifier of chic instrumental rock music since the 1950s. Elmore James, Mickey Baker, Duane Eddy, The Ventures, Dick Dale, and many others all performed with reverb saturated guitar tones from their amplifiers. Beck’s use of a strong digital reverb effect was a way of positioning himself as a part of this lineage in the postmodern age. Reverb beautifies the guitar’s tone and provides an ambience that makes it easier for the player to feel comfortable since the sound is so vibrant. The guitar’s tone becomes more physical and tangible as well since the notes leave behind a residual ringing like a tail following a comet. In Beck’s case the digital reverb effect makes his tone more lush than lush, more ambient than could be imagined. Like Baudrillard’s racing car and driver, man and technology are inspiring and challenging one another.
Figure 1b. “THX138,” first thematic motive.
Figure 1c. “THX138,” second thematic motive.
The tone that Beck generates from his fingers, the wood, and the steel is still not enough to impress the postmodern ear. It takes the marvel of studio effects to give his playing a sense of the sublime. The guitar’s distortion in the solo passages is edgy and brash, a model of blues authenticity but with the reverb effects it’s a blatantly artificial Delta tone, more real than real. This is particularly evident during the brief guitar solo at 1:49 when Beck plays in a restrained and minimalistic manner that recalls Muddy Waters’s pithy melodicism.
“THX138” is a showcase of exhilarating guitar tone, but the passion that went into creating the technology that made this exquisite tone possible seems equal to Beck’s passion for playing.
In the midst of a techno-influenced album Who Else! Beck chose to include a 12-bar blues-based work called “Brush With the Blues.” This was a nod to the postmodern obsession with “real,” “authentic,” lived culture that blues is widely perceived to signify. As an added bit of irony the track was recorded live at a club in stark contrast to the other songs that could scarcely be recreated outside of a studio. Through the course of his career, Jeff Beck, like his English contemporaries, watched blues music go from a style based in real-life racism and poverty to becoming a fashion statement (a change that he himself undoubtedly helped to facilitate). The guitarist seems to recognize the difficulties of performing blues in postmodernity. Originally, blues was, at least in part, a product of the prejudice and depravation faced by African-Americans and therefore the music had a special significance to them (as Baudrillard might have said, the music was part of a relationship of symbolic exchange).33 Over time however, the language of the music became clichéd. Blues continues to be the basis for most rock music but is tied to social conditions that largely no longer exist. The use of old-fashioned slang in the lyrics, and references to agriculture, railroads, or the Chicago of a bygone era are awkward to sing and hear in a postmodern setting. One could argue that the blues tradition is a simulation, not alive in any real sense (unless one considers blues to be, like jazz, a new type of classical music). Beck also understands that society is fascinated by “the real as a lost referent” and the way that our culture ceaselessly remakes its classics, reactivates mythologies, and recopies itself even better than the original.34 Therefore, in “Brush with the Blues” Beck uses the genre for sign-play and as a virtuosic showpiece. To Englishmen, “blues is just a form,” stated Mick Jagger,35 and this sentiment is reflected Beck’s performance; it’s a sign, nothing more. This is a significant departure from the ethos of the romantic virtuoso who was preoccupied with artistic truth. Beck, the postmodern virtuoso revels in and celebrates the false. In keeping with the greasemonkey, mechanic image of the album’s photography, Beck uses blues as an ordinary, unremarkable sign that he can transform into a racy hot rod.
“Brush With the Blues” is an instrumental that superimposes a quasi-strophic structure over a b-flat minor 12-bar blues modified into a i-III6-IV7-i-III6-IV7-V7-i progression with a I7-II-IV7 turnaround. The changes give the standard blues progression a fresh urban sound. The abundance of harmonies in the major make the piece less melancholy but still ruminative. The added chromaticism of the stylized progression allows more options for the guitarist, and its rather neutral affect makes it malleable for the soloist. The scoring of bass and drums (lightly brushed in a slow shuffle) contributes to the contemplative mood of the piece while providing a foundation that puts the focus firmly on the guitar and gives Beck room to build and develop stronger sentiments.
The melody of the repeated refrain is similarly pensive and based on an ascending pentatonic motive (see Figure 2a). It is the kind of plaintive gesture commonly found in blues and coveys a sense of contemplation followed by reflection and then disappointment as the motive cadences with a sighing descent in 6ths. The motive is long enough to provide Beck with plenty of raw material to build upon and interpret in each cycle of the progression. The motive suggests the presence of simmering tension below the surface but does not fully reveal itself yet, like a musical striptease.
Figure 2a. “Brush with the Blues,” a main theme.
“Brush With the Blues” is a toccata in the most literal sense of the term, a showcase of nuance and touch above all else. Nuance and dynamicism have always been an integral part of blues guitar but Beck takes those qualities into the hyperreal. For example, while most guitarists play with either a clean tone or with various degrees of distortion, Beck uses both timbres and controls them in an expressive masterful way. In the first strophe beginning at :30, Beck plays with a clean tone that is steely, woody, and punchy—a traditional Fender Stratocaster Chicago blues sound. In the second strophe, where the guitarist wants to increase the level of agitation and aggression (1:25), he turns up the volume level on his guitar increasing the strength of the signal and driving his amp into distortion. Beck is able to coax varying degrees and colors of distortion from his instrument. From 1:29 to 1:56 the guitar’s overdriven signal resembles a reedy, aggressively played saxophone but soon mellows into a lightly distorted raw blues guitar tone, which again changes into wailing thick harmonics at 2:07.
Beck’s control of dynamics is also apparent in these strophes that mirror the rise and fall of the melodic line with the utmost detail. What fascinates in the first two strophes is not just that the guitarist is manipulating dynamic levels (although this is not particularly common in rock as heavy distortion compresses the signal and gives the player no more ability to play loud or soft than a harpsichordist would have); it’s the amount of fine shading that captivates the listener to a degree comparable to visual media.
"Brush With the Blues" also shows how Beck exploits the potential of dynamic contrasts in a manner not unlike that of T-bone Walker in the 1940s. For example, the second half of the strophic theme (see Figure 2b) at 1:03, which abruptly takes on the air of defiance or denial when the harmony changes to the dominant and Beck responds by playing marccato and with sharp sforzando accent on the longest note (and made more dramatic through the echo effect on the guitar). The phrase is followed by the theme’s cadence that is characterized by an air of resignation expressed through a slow descending blue note bend, wrenching morendo dynamics on the descending line, and a vibrato nuanced and delicate to a degree that is unusual in rock music. Another example is the terraced dynamics at the beginning of the guitar solo (2:25) which opens with a painful screech of a heavily distorted b-flat minor chord in the upper register before a glissando into a piano murmur two octaves lower. In the opening strophes any note longer than a crotchet (i.e., a quarter note) is emphasized by Beck’s signature vibrato, a rapid, intense, physical gesture achieved through manipulation of the tremolo bar, which is difficult to copy. There is some appropriate postmodern irony that his vibrato, the most personal, most vocal-like expressive device available to a guitarist is achieved here through mechanical means. Beck’s fetishization of nuance and expressive control perhaps stems from his recognition that, in the words of Wanda Landowska, a fragile, sensitive nature is necessary for the virtuoso.36 Another possible reason is that British guitarists and vocalists recognized that their playing and singing was not as nuanced as black American artists to whom they were often judged to be inferior.37
Figure 2b. “Brush with the Blues,” second part of main theme.
There is also an element of postmodern humor and irony in Beck’s use of dynamics, be it the mannered intensity of his vibrato or the dead-pan crocodile-tear vibrato bar bends at 2:29. Using such extreme devices without humor would invite sentimentality, and as Alan Goldman observes, “persons who react positively to sentimental art often remain focused more on their own responses and responsiveness than on various features of the work.”38 A postmodern virtuoso would never allow anyone to steal away their spotlight; your attention must remain focused on them.
Beck’s lengthy solo in “Brush with the Blues” is one of his most virtuosic. In order to increase the urgency and energy of his cadenza, the song’s harmonic progression is truncated to a i-III6-IV7 ostinato. The guitarist’s soloing is episodic with each cycle of the progression dominated by a certain technique or rhetorical device. The ideas do not grow organically out of each other or flow very smoothly. This way every musical idea in the solo draws attention to itself.
At 2:42 Beck again demonstrates his ability to make the guitar’s distorted timbre sound brash and reedy like a saxophone. His phrasing also resembles sax phrasing in the way that dynamics are tightly controlled growing and shrinking within a single melodic gesture, the incisiveness of the slurs, and the barking staccato repeated notes (Figure 2c). In other words, Beck has developed the ability to make notes breathe in a way that is common for aerophones but rare on plucked strings. The imitation of saxophone players has a long history in blues guitar dating back to T-bone Walker’s signature sputtering, honking licks, and Freddie King’s imitation of Louis Jourdan ‘s phrasing. But here Beck is taking the concept into the realm of hypereality and simulation. At 3:13 Beck develops the melody of the song’s strophes in the instrument’s higher register through extension. At 4: 35 he employs snarling delta-style double stops. From 4:13 through 4:19 the guitarist uses the common Chicago and British blues technique of rapidly repeating a slurred pentatonic motive (Figure 2d). At 3:02 Beck draws the most enthusiastic response from his audience with his ability to sustain and manipulate artificial harmonics, a technique for which Paganini was also famous.39
Figure 2c. “Brush with the Blues,” saxophone-style phrasing.
Figure 2d. Common British and Chicago-style blues figuration.
Beck understands that in order to captivate, virtuosity must be, at times, ugly as well as beautiful.40 The aggressive trills at 3:40 and the heaving double-stop bends from 4:01 to 4:05 are shockingly tasteless; completely out of place in a slow minor blues progression with lovely chromatic alterations. However, part of Beck’s appeal has always been in the way that he hammers square pegs into round holes recklessly improvising phrases that just barely work contextually. Beck’s hyperreal status, his sign-value as rock’s preeminent virtuoso, gives him permission to play grotesque phrases for which another player would be ridiculed. When he engages in tasteless self-indulgence however, Beck always sounds like he is in control of the chaos. This is quite unlike the playing of his peers, Jimmy Page and Ritchie Blackmore, who, when they played capriciously, often sounded as though the instrument was getting away from them. “Brush With the Blues” features the same type of display that has drawn the ire of critics from every historical period, but as Jane O’Dea points out, “the pleasures of hyperbole never cease to be seductive,”41 and seductiveness is vital if an artist is to remain fascinating in the postmodern.
The solo in “Brush With the Blues” also contains passages that collectively read like a catalog of cutting edge rhetorical devices from blues guitarists from the past. At 2:55 Beck plays a figure of rapidly repeated triplets similar to licks that T-bone Walker used in virtually all of his solos as a metaphor for frustration and wheel-spinning futility (see Figure 3a). The point at 3:48 exhibits the same type of repeated blue-note figuration that B. B. King often plays over the IV change in 12-bar music (Figure 3b), while the devilish skipping and slurring between high fretted notes and an open e string at 4:08 (Figure 3c) is taken from Jimi Hendrix’s solo in “Stone Free.” Guitarists regularly steal one another’s licks to help capture the affect of a song’s lyrics, but in this instance Beck displays borrowed gestures for their sign-value, as signifiers of smart, fashionable playing.
Figure 3a. “Brush With the Blues” lick comparison: Beck (above) vs. T-Bone Walker’s “Mean Old World” (below).
Figure 3b. “Brush With the Blues” lick comparison: Beck (above) vs. B. B. King’s “You Upset Me Baby” (below).
Figure 3c. Brush With the Blues” lick comparison: Beck (above) vs. Jimi Hendrix’s “Stone Free” (below).
It can also be said that Leo Fender, the creator of Beck’s Fender Stratocaster, collaborated with the virtuoso for this solo, not unlike the relationship between Baudrillard’s race car and its driver. The Stratocaster is an icon, a symbol of rock n’ roll chic and innovation going back to Buddy Holly. It is also a signifier of individualism since guitarists believe that the Stratocaster’s transparency, clarity, and lack of sustain, lays bare the player’s flaws making it a difficult instrument to master and one that almost forces the player to develop an original style.42 The Stratocaster is an example of the functional logic of modernism at its best. The elegant body is designed for maximum comfort. The instruments vibrato bar, tone and volume controls, and pickup selector switch provides an endless number of possibilities for expressively manipulating tones. The dramatic impact of Beck’s playing from his bright, cutting tone to the distinctness of his vibrato could not be possible on another guitar. “Brush With the Blues” becomes something of a showcase of the instrument’s potential taking the fascination with the object to the extreme.
Baudrillard predicts that high-performance spectacles such as racing (or instrumental virtuosity) have a fine future as long as they remain collective, artificial, and induce a passionate response. They must always reflect technological research, embrace the screen (make references to the visual medium) and infuse just enough humanism into the proceedings to convince us that we are in control of the signs with which we play and the electronic gadgetry we use.43
The respect, success, and longevity that Beck has enjoyed throughout his career indicates that he understands that he plays in a world that values passion over aesthetics, signs over reality, and that which is seductive over that which is merely interesting. He refuses to take his power as a virtuoso seriously since power is dependent on meaning, something that a postmodern virtuoso can no longer control. Beck’s reputation as one of rock’s most passionate players demonstrates his ability to arouse strong emotions in his listeners; his success is not simply rooted in nostalgia for the guitar virtuosity of the 1960s. Beck has the ability to adapt to new situations with the fluidity necessary to succeed in the postmodern milieu. He demonstrates to his audience that exceptional beings have not disappeared and that they are still seductive.
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14Baudrillard had little to say about music over the course of his career but to judge from his indirect praise of Jimi Hendrix’s performance at Woodstock he surely believed that popular musicians and virtuoso players can symbolize and express something more than just the bourgeoisie capitalist mantra. America, 86.
27DeWitt, Kustom Kulture, 35. Beck did not begin cultivating the image of a blue-collar mechanic and writing songs with racing connotations until the late 1980s. This primarily reflects a postmodern nostalgia for associating cars with rebellion and subversion since the connection was no longer meaningful by the 1980s.
33Symbolic exchange refers to cultural activity or artifacts that hold a special symbolic meaning to a person or group and are not related to capitalist use-value or a fashion system of objects. The author developed this thesis throughout the book.