50 Years Later – Revisiting Jeff Beck Group’s Dynamic ‘Orange Album’

The early phases of British guitarist Jeff Beck’s solo career proceeded in fits and starts, due in no small part to the same temperamental nature that got him fired from the Yardbirds (where he had succeeded Eric Clapton on the recommendation of old friend Jimmy Page). Yet there were also twists of fate that, in fairly quick succession, first stymied, then accelerated his progress under his own name: the original Jeff Beck Group—populated by vocalist Rod Stewart, bassist Ronnie Wood and, in later stages, pianist extraordinaire Nicky Hopkins–might’ve established a major breakthrough had they played the confirmed gig at the Woodstock Festival in 1969. But Beck dissolved the band just prior to the date, soon after suffering serious injuries in a car crash that left him inactive until the assembly of a new Group in 1970. 

Released two years later on 5/1/72, The Orange Album (so dubbed for its otherwise generic cover graphic) is as heavy on nuance as visceral impact, that blends elements familiar from the same lineup’s preceding project, 1971’s Rough And Ready. But the sophomore effort with this five-man lineup also planted the seeds for Jeff Beck’s groundbreaking jazz-rock fusion piece three years later, Blow by Blow; while there’s nothing quite so haunting here as the moody instrumental “Max’s Tune” (first titled “Raynes Park Blues” in the prior album’s original form), the 1972 record has its own share of atmosphere in the form of two majestic pieces sans singing: the closing, one of two rare originals of Beck’s own, “Definitely Maybe,” is especially exalting in the yearning that permeates Beck’s guitar, but this rendition of Ashford and Simpson’s “I Can’t Give Back the Love I Feel for You” isn’t much less bittersweet or potent. 

Don Nix’ “Going Down” is the best known and most durable track on the album (one Beck still plays today) and it quite liberally features the primary virtues of the band. Max Middleton’s keyboards sound equally earthy or ethereal, while drummer Cozy Powell plays with consummate fluidity in and around the underpinning of the rhythm section that is the unceasing rumble of Clive Chaman’s bass. But, as with the initial effort by this same ensemble (and the prior quartet), too much of the material is as lightweight as “Ice Cream Cakes,” listenable more for the instrumental interaction than the songs to which that musicianship is being devoted (not surprisingly, the effect was much the same with the separate ensemble called Hummingbird, including some of this same personnel sans the leader). 

The solos by the namesake of the band further distinguish the group dynamic. For instance, there is the tidal wave of notes on “Highways,” its unrelenting force perhaps not surprising as it happens to be the second of ‘El Becko”s own compositions here.  It is a revelation of some significance, however, to hear the idiosyncratic rhythm guitar playing during “Got To Have A Song,” the first of what came to be quite a few Stevie Wonder tunes: truth be told, the background chording is more memorable than Bobby Tench’s singing, which only pales in comparison to Rod The Mod’s as well as his own contributions to Van Morrison’s band circa Wavelength. Beck’s wishes for a bonafide producer, found in the estimable likes of guitarist Steve Cropper of Booker T, & The MG’s, exerted no discernible effect on that aspect of this quintet’s work here but may have borne fruit in the form of a wider palette of outside material including Bob Dylan’s “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You,” Tench’s best moment.

True to his iconoclastic nature, in the five-decade interim since this album’s release, Jeff Beck has spent nearly as much of his time devoting himself to his passion for building hot rods as to his music. There have been those flurries of touring and recording activity, including his aforementioned watershed instrumental album and its successors, as well as the period later in the next decade stemming from the very popular Guitar Shop LP. And he’s also honed his skills as a bandleader with varying personnel lineups, but only after the abbreviated stint (semi-debacle?) in collaboration with bassist/vocalist Tim Bogert and drummer Carmen Appice;  he was set to work with these erstwhile members of Vanilla Fudge and Cactus when that debilitating auto accident occurred (about which the man speaks with startling nonchalance in the superb documentary film Still On The Run). 

The two-time Rock and Roll Hall of Famer shepherded a stellar lineup including wunderkind bassist Tal Wilkenfeld to Ronnie Scott’s venerable London jazz venue and beyond, then recruited former Wet Willie vocalist Jimmy Hall to help maintain a balance between the leader’s devotion to fusion and his fondness for soulful hard rock. And Beck’s select live dates with his contemporary ‘Slowhand’ Clapton, such as the one at Madison Square Garden in 2010, found the former commanding the stage on his own in the presence of a string section (the likes of which appeared later the same year’s on the studio release Emotion & Commotion), after which he then effectively blew EC off the stage they shared.

Publication of his autobiography in the lavish form of Beck 01 coincided with the 2016 release of his forgettable Loud Hailer LP, after which a fiftieth-anniversary celebration tour the next year featured including a high-profile stop at the Hollywood Bowl (preserved for posterity on a live audio and video release). Jeff has seemingly returned to his preferred brand of seclusion since then, but just as, in retrospect, this fifty-year-old album still holds its share of surprises, so too might Beck’s return to public visibility brings with it the unexpected and unpredictable that has earmarked his guitar playing for the duration of his career.

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