At the start you can barely hear the drums but as the track gets into gear they are more and more discernible until, suddenly, at about the 1.30 mark, they come crashing in with all the force of an avalanche. It could only be one drummer and it is. No wonder Pete was pissed off.
This extract from Hot Wired Guitar: The Life of Jeff Beck, by Martin Power, published by Omnibus in 2011, tells of the story of ‘Beck’s Bolero’, the B-side of Beck’s uncharacteristically poppish hit ‘Hi Ho Silver Lining’ and a highlight of his debut album Truth. It is one of the great curiosities of sixties rock, not least because the group that perform on the track might well have been the first ever British supergroup – Beck, Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones, Nicky Hopkins and… Keith Moon.
An updated paperback edition of Hot Wired Guitar is scheduled for early next year.
If ‘Hi Ho Silver Lining’ managed the job of making Jeff Beck hugely irritated and a pop star all at once, then ‘Beck’s Bolero’ brought about equal feelings of huge pride and lost opportunity. The instrumental would also spark a long-running and still-unresolved debate about who wrote and produced it, though no-one is in any doubt as to the musicians who recorded it. ‘... Bolero’ was actually cut on May 16-17, 1966 at London’s IBC Studios (nearly eight months before ‘... Silver Lining’) by a one-time only cast of players that might have caused the combined might of The Jimi Hendrix Experience and Cream to nervously study their ranks before running for the hills. On drums was The Who’s resident madman Keith Moon, whose talent for lunacy was almost as impressive as his skills with the sticks.
Filling in for Moon’s band mate, John Entwistle, who originally agreed to play bass on the session but pulled out at the last minute, was recurring session ace John Paul Jones. Adding some classically-influenced sparkle to proceedings was keyboard player Nicky Hopkins, a child prodigy/Royal Academy of Music graduate who had carved a fine career as a studio musician, working with The Beatles, the Stones and The Who. And completing the line-up were Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page, then only a month away from attending the Oxford May Ball where events would change the terms of their relationship from the best of friends to duelling gun slingers.
The ‘... Bolero’ session was conceived as part of Simon Napier-Bell’s plan for The Yardbirds to engage with various side projects in an effort to ease mounting tensions within the group, and part of the same nest of recordings that produced Keith Relf’s ‘Mr. Zero’ . In advance of the booking at IBC, Beck had visited Page to work up some suitable material for potential solo release.
“Well, The Yardbirds were dying and Simon suggested I do something to keep me quiet,” Beck told Elsewhere.com, “so I went around Jimmy’s place and he came out with this rhythm on a 12-string guitar (actually a Fender Electric XII). We wanted Keith, who was one of my favourite drummers, to play on it.”
The rhythm in question was inspired by Bolero, a classical piece written in 1928 by the composer Maurice Ravel as an accompaniment to Russian choreographer Ida Rubenstein’s short ballet of the same name. Built on a persistent, repeating motif supported by a snare drum, Ravel’s genius was in recreating the Spanish ‘Bolero’ dance pattern for full orchestra, using flutes, horns and oboes to add melody to the steady yet insistent tempo – thus matching the steps of the dancers as they built toward a slow-burning crescendo on the stage.
In his treatment of Ravel’s original idea, Jimmy Page opened up Ravel’s original two chord progression and transposed it from the key of C to A, thus using the 12-string guitar’s rich chiming quality to emulate the distinct, orchestral ‘Bolero’ sound. That said, who actually wrote the haunting melody that sits on top of the chords remains a sticky point for both Beck and Page.
According to Jeff, he is solely responsible: “Jimmy was playing the bolero rhythm and I played the melody on top of it. I don’t care what he says, I invented that melody.”
Not so, according to Page: “I wrote it, played on it, produced it,” he later told Guitar Player, “and I don’t give a damn what (Jeff) says. That’s the truth.” Page certainly took the sole writing credit for ‘Beck’s Bolero’ when it appeared on the B-side to ‘Hi Ho Silver Lining’, though Beck has become more philosophical than angry over time regarding his part in writing the instrumental – even if he does still claim the melody as his own. “No, I didn’t get a song-writing credit,” he said, “but you win some and lose some down the years.”
Beyond such disputes over authorship, ‘Beck’s Bolero’ has also taken on an important status in the annals of rock history because of the musicians involved in its recording, their unique collaboration on the track pointing the way towards what might have been rock’s first true supergroup. Then unhappy that The Who’s guitarist and principal songwriter Pete Townshend was receiving the lion’s share of cash in the band, both Keith Moon and John Entwistle had let it be known that they might be interested taking their talents elsewhere. Picking up on the rumour, Page and Beck contacted the duo and asked whether they would consider working on some material, with a possible view to even forming a band. Fearing possible reprisals from Townshend and Who manager Kit Lambert if discovered playing away from home, but still interested in what might come out of the session, Moon asked that the recording be conducted in total secrecy. “Keith told us he could only give us about three hours before his roadies would start looking for him,” said Jeff.
Evidently such clandestine activity proved too much in the end for John Entwistle who ending up ducking out, though Keith Moon’s nerve did hold – even if he went to extraordinary lengths to disguise his involvement. “Moon got out of the cab that morning wearing dark glasses and a bloody Cossack hat,” laughed Beck. Moon’s contribution to ‘Beck’s Bolero’, was well worth the daftness, his unique, propulsive drumming style adding much to the track’s mid-section rave up.
“It was my idea to cut off in the middle, Yardbirds-style,” said Jeff. “Keith upped the tempo and gave it an extra kick. It’s like a bit of The Who, a bit of The Yardbirds and a bit of me.” In fact, such was Moon’s enthusiasm for Beck’s idea, he managed to smash a $250 microphone with his drumstick as the band doubled the pace, thus rendering the sound of his kit inaudible but for the cymbals. “You can actually hear him screaming as he does it,” Beck confirmed to Guitarist.
A wonderfully judged tune, ‘Beck’s Bolero’ featured Jeff at his very best, the guitarist weaving his way across an alternating major/minor melody before launching a barrage of sighing slide effects that soaked the track in slow waves of echo and reverse phasing. When ‘... Bolero’’s tempo picked up, Beck was again equal to the task at hand, providing a thick-toned, descending riff that eerily presaged the coming era of hard rock and heavy metal. “The riff in the middle of ‘Bolero’ is the first heavy metal riff ever written and I wrote it,” he later said with some pride. What makes ‘Beck’s Bolero’ potentially even more scintillating is the knowledge that it wasn’t the only track recorded that morning. “I think there were two or three tracks in all,” Jeff confirmed. “They’re lurking about somewhere. But those were the days that when you left the studio, you left the tapes. No cassettes, just reel-to-reels.” *
Yet another hotly contested issue concerning ‘Beck’s Bolero’ is who actually produced the track, with three candidates eager to claim it as their very own. “Well, the track was done and then the producer, Simon Napier-Bell just disappeared,” Jimmy Page told Guitar Player. “He was never seen again. He simply didn’t come back. [Simon] just sort of left me and Jeff to it. Jeff was playing and I was [at the recording console].” According to Napier-Bell, his input was far more considerable. “I produced it,” he said. “But I was naive about ‘Bolero’. When Mickie Most took Jeff, he asked if there was there any productions knocking around and I said ‘Yes, we’ve got ‘... Bolero’. So it eventually came out as a Mickie Most production, which has always pissed me off because it was such a great record. My fault, no-one else’s.” Whether Most refined, enhanced or in all probability, did absolutely nothing to the tapes he received is ultimately irrelevant. ‘... Bolero’ bears his name alone as ‘Producer’.
Arguments aside, ‘Beck’s Bolero’ remains a delightful curio of the band that could have been but never was, their efforts hermetically sealed within the walls of an instrumental lasting just shy of three minutes. On its completion, Keith Moon immediately returned to his full time position as The Who’s lunatic-in-residence though his act of infidelity soon came to the attention of a vexed Pete Townshend, who took to calling Beck and Page “flashy little guitarists of very little brain” whenever the mood took him. Elsewhere, Nicky Hopkins was now firmly back on Jeff’s radar, his impressive orchestral swells at the end of the track alerting Beck to the possibilities of adding keyboards to any future endeavour. But it was Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones who probably gleaned the most long term benefit from ‘Beck’s Bolero’, the session planting seeds in both their minds of potentially good times ahead. “‘Beck’s Bolero’ was Jimmy, Jeff, me, Nicky Hopkins and Keith Moon,” Jones told Uncut. “Moon was just brilliant, [the] life and soul of the party at all times... plenty dangerous to go and party with, but never dull. We all thought, for about half an hour, that it would be brilliant to take this line-up on the road, though Moon said it would go down like a lead Zeppelin...”
Jimmy Page didn’t capture Moon’s joke on tape. But he did remember it.
* Legend has it that future Deep Purple guitarist Ritchie Blackmore was also involved in some capacity at the sessions, though this has never been confirmed.