Of all the films that sought to reflect the step changes of mid-sixties Britain (think Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush, Poor Cow and Up the Junction), it is probably Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup (1966) which most deftly captured the zeitgeist. That the film is a mystery thriller, rather than a comedy or an exercise in social realism, is both instructive and illuminating. For there is much in that particular decade which, even fifty-plus years on, still seems remarkably strange and alarming. Blowup is of course not only a witness to the emerging counterculture of the sixties, but actually becomes an accelerant in the process.
There are many unnerving scenes and sequences in the film, not least when fashion photographer Thomas (played by David Hemmings) is lured into a club where The Yardbirds begin playing ‘Stroll On’. What makes this sequence particularly disturbing is the disjunction between the energy of the group (then embodying both Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page on guitar) and the passive, zombie-like audience (which included a very young Michael Pailin and an equally young Janet Street-Porter!).
Although The Yard Birds was home to three great guitarists (Clapton, Beck and Page), it is difficult to overestimate the pivotal nature of Beck’s contribution to the group. This was a world where quasi-Gregorian chant and Indian and Middle Eastern ‘scales’ met loud, fuzz-tone guitars. According to to music journalist Ritchie Unterberger, the single ‘Shapes of Things’ "can justifiably be classified as the first psychedelic rock classic".
At the end of the performance of ‘Stroll On’ in Antonioni’s film, Beck is shown smashing his guitar on the ground, frustrated by a malfunctioning amplifier. Although this destructive act lacks the ambition and passion of Pete Townshend or Jimi Hendrix, the runes pointing to the future are, quintessentially, laid bare. Here, indeed, was a man on a journey...
Ten years later, Jeff Beck (with much water having flowed below the bridge) released his album Wired. Generally well received at the time, it is now regarded, along with its predecessor Blow By Blow, as perhaps the high-water mark of Beck’s career.
The track ‘Good Bye Pork Pie Hat’ was composed by bass player Charles Mingus and featured on his 1959 studio album Mingus Ah Um. Essentially, an elegy for the saxophonist Lester Young, who had died a few months earlier, the track quickly established itself as a jazz standard. However, it is a composition that has attracted the interest of a wide range of artists most notably Pentangle and Joni Mitchell (the latter providing moving lyrics for the piece on her album Mingus).
Beck’s version of ‘Good Bye Pork Pie Hat’ is not just another cover but a genuine homage to the genius of the composer. This is rock guitar at its most sensitive, most virtuosic and most powerful; an über-model of electric blues which is simultaneously authentic and authoritative. In short, a rare triumph!