The legendary master of the Stratocaster shows us that an unforeseen kinship with one of Hollywood’s most talented leading men can prove everyone wrong in 18.
The first time I saw Jeff Beck live was in New Jersey on August 31, 1999. I had only just recently turned 12 years-old and by the time he hit the stage, my family and I had crept up to the fifth row. When Beck’s set was – unbeknownst to me – over, I turned to my Dad (who’d introduced me to his music long ago), earnestly asking him “Is this an intermission?” With the proud grin spread across his face and stifled laugh, he had a lot of trouble answering me.
Having been raised on Beck’s music, consistently seeing him live since that show in ‘99 and being given the true honor to meet him through a friend in 2003, I long ago took the time to tune my ears to a frequency that understands and follows him as he continues to advance to levels no one can reach. Beck’s newest studio album, 18, the debut collaboration of 13 tracks (11 covers, 2 originals) with Hollywood actor and musician Johnny Depp, was named for the age they feel when they get together. Depp’s ability to help drag Beck into a new dimension of music… well, I’d be lying if I said it didn’t impress the hell out of me. Depp has always been rock and roll in spirit and nature, so it surely didn’t surprise me. Because he’s a leading man, Beck stated that he hoped people will “take [Depp] seriously as a musician because it’s a hard thing for some people to accept that Johnny Depp can sing rock and roll.”
Beck’s 16th solo studio album (third collaborative) was recorded mainly over three years in his England countryside home studio with several tracks co-produced by Robert Adam Stevenson, engineering many of the sessions remotely from Depp’s studio in Los Angeles. Veteran Beck band members and session musicians, drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, bassists Rhonda Smith and Pino Palladino, with keyboard player Jason Rebello, among others, helped to polish off the basic tracks. After joining up with Beck circa 2008, Colaiuta fluidly switched from traditional grip and a Jazz influenced approach, to more of a strong match grip, to match Beck, both live and on record, with a thunderous groove. So to learn that the lighthearted and jazzy backbeat on this album is still due to the one, the only session musician extraordinaire, not only took me by surprise but made me truly happy.
This is the two-time Rock & Roll Hall of Famer’s first studio album since 2016’s Loud Hailer, which was created with the youthful energy of two very edgy English women, singer Rosie Bones and rhythm guitarist Carmen Vandenberg. It just so happened to be the very same year that the stars aligned and Depp knocked on Beck’s dressing room door in Japan.
“I opened the door, and it was like seeing a long-lost brother. Every time we’re together, it’s non-stop laughter,” Beck depicts a comedic kinship he hadn’t experienced since the Yardbirds in a press release. “When I left the band, I never had that again until I met Johnny.”
It’s a very rare occasion when, over the past three decades, I’ve watched a performance by Depp – a veteran screen chameleon in any movie – and didn’t think about the ways in which he used both a soundstage and a set as a blank canvas. An A-list actor he may be, and one whose looks could be used to skate by in “leading man” roles, but thankfully the word “stereotypical” doesn’t register alongside Depp. He is a true artist, one whose looks and mannerisms disappear in just about every character he’s ever played. That is the sheer brilliance of character actors. They shed their layers, examine each and every one, then use them to build from scratch and play; to become someone who will be immortalized on the silver screen, and yet became that way because their humanity and the adaptations of life that allowed them to create. The best musicians are just the same and I have no doubt that’s why Depp has been one for so long, admiring fellow private, pensive, honest souls like Beck, while having a mind that brings forth Lennon-isms in his songwriting.
Beck has worked with everyone from Rod Stewart, Stevie Wonder, Buddy Guy, and Eric Clapton to contemporaries like Joss Stone and Beth Hart, among many others. Now, he adds Depp to that list, who has been writing songs and making music since he was only 16 years of age. He spent 12 years with Alice Cooper and Aerosmith’s Joe Perry in the Hollywood Vampires, recording two albums with guests that also included Beck. Now, he’s beginning his escalation into an elite status beside the man, the myth, the legend, who was plucked from the heavens (and surely the Gods were unhappy to let him go).
The catalog of songs on 18 are filled with juxtapositions due to Beck and Depp mentioning songs to one another, none of which they thought the other would bring to the table. Each mentions challenging the other, pushing them out of their respective comfort zones during the creation of this introduction to the masses, which in turn, not only nailed down something very new for them both, but I’d say the result will push listeners, new and veteran alike, out of our own comfort zones. It hands you an unorthodox combination containing elements of tender sweetness, heartbreak, and raw industrial rock, all revealing the human condition, thankfully with historically relevant overtones. Their unplanned-planned approach left them with exactly what was needed. The groundbreaking guitarist has never rested in a single genre and he wasn’t about to start now. From tone, melody, songwriting, original tracks, and chosen covers – all with fitting arrangements and quite tongue-in-cheek lyrics – this is yet another step into the stratosphere for Beck. The eight-time Grammy-winner has nothing to prove to anyone, even if they left themselves lost in the dust for not keeping up.
I always know that a particular record or album is quite special when upon hearing it I can’t immediately discern my reaction. Do I like it? Do I understand it? Does it make sense to me? In that moment of ever-evolving questions and thoughts, I know that it’s different, that it’s testing me, and that it has an approach and a message which may change the course of everyone’s opinions in the deepest way to eventually stand the test of time. When my initial reaction upon first listen here was that of no immediate conclusion, I was over the moon. From covers of John Lennon, Marvin Gaye, The Velvet Underground, The Everly Brothers (“Let It Be Me”), Dennis Wilson (“Time”), and The Beach Boys with two originals by Depp (“Sad Motherfuckin’ Parade” and “This Is A Song For Miss Hedy Lamarr”) and arranged by these two men – who both think widely outside of the box – this isn’t like anything you’ve yet to hear. Trust me. From the transition of Irish uilleann pipes into rawness on guitar that brings Beck down into those deep notes that only he can hit, this album is pushing us forward in areas where the world is reverting us backward.
The sheer beauty of 18 is that within the raw and the rock is Beck’s emotion – as always. It opens with the extraordinary “Midnight Walker,” a Celtic gem written by the Grammy-winning Davy Spillane, whose songs Beck has covered quite a bit before. Originally driven by cultural instruments (those aforementioned uilleann pipes) that make you wish you were in Ireland amongst the lush, nearly neon green surroundings, it has been stripped down to an approach only Beck can bring to life in his signature guitar range (alongside other talents), with a deeply passionate cello performance by Vanessa Freebairn-Smith, arranged by Stevenson.
All songs sung and/or written by Depp still have that comforting echo of Beck’s Stratocaster along for the ride with the sweetest tones and sultriest notes. “Death And Resurrection Show” doesn’t stray too far from The Killing Joke’s original, however what needs to be tweaked, is. It’s in the vein of Marilyn Manson, and although Depp may not have Manson’s horror-dripping rawr, he has a pulsating persona that shines through.
Beginning with drums that remind me of the late David Bowie, the album single “This Is A Song For Miss Hedy Lamarr” was the catalyst for this entire album in 2019 The song, written by Depp about the exceptionally private, shy, gorgeous actress and inventor of the same name, “erased by the same world that made her a star,” blew Beck away, causing him to ask Depp if he wanted to make an album and cementing it into existence. It doesn’t take long to understand why he was quick to present the idea. The tune is a powerful reminder, not only of Lamarr, but of how much the human condition has been further skewed and tainted by recent events. Whether it’s the way we look at people in a fish bowl, smearing them with a simple four-letter word, “fame,” where many easily forget that they’re actually human beings with hearts and feelings, or the way we’ve lost our humanity in the most extreme sense. White supremacy, racial riots, women’s rights stripped away, human rights disappearing, heightened gun violence… it all turns into a recipe for the world to continue spinning down a rabbit hole at a rate we not only can’t comprehend, we soon won’t be able to stop. “I don’t believe in humans anymore,” Beck and Depp confess, the latter of whom also continues to make a point in songs he didn’t write, like Janis Ian’s “12 Stars,” where he sings that “people lust for fame like athletes in a game.” Everyone wants their 15 minutes, no matter the cost.
The covers of “Caroline, No” and “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder)” brought me back to one of two nights I watched Beck share a bill and perform with Brian Wilson and other members of The Beach Boys. This particular night was in New York City at The Beacon Theatre when Wilson decided to gift us with Pet Sounds in its entirety. “Don’t Talk” has the return of soprano Olivia Safe, who chilled us on Emotion & Commotion’s “Elegy For Dunkirk.” A woman whose voice can creep in and appear as if out of nowhere, often hiding as an instrument, is exceedingly rare and there’s no question why she was asked back.
Depp rarely brings forth the same temperature and depth during each song (if you feel so inclined, please skip to “Ooo Baby Baby”). If I wasn’t already seated, I think I’d have fallen over upon reading the album’s credits. It indeed states that the lead vocals that hit Smokey Robinson’s legendary falsetto on this Miracles’ cover are sung by Depp. Few people can reach such a breathy height. Singing is far from speaking, yet Depp is an actor who can twist, turn, and contort his voice onscreen, bringing to life memorable characters from scratch. Magically he manages to do just the same as a singer.
Still wondering if he’s that good?
Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” is best explained in the simplest of terms. Beck’s notes don’t stray far from the late soul singer’s smooth, golden pipes. Instead he brings them back to life on his guitar with small sections of vocal parts by Depp making it a definite favorite of mine.
Despite never being one to listen to the Velvet Underground, their song “Venus In Furs” just may be the shining, unexpectedly bright star on this album. The brilliant approach injects pure energy into an otherwise lackluster cult tune written by Lou Reed (apologies, Underground fans, I just don’t feel it). I’ve never heard such a raw and robust rock cover from Beck that not only reminds me of his fluid evolution on guitar, but a smooth approach and descent into the auditory runway. At one point, he hits a note that most every guitar player will shrug frustratingly at, thinking “that note isn’t on my guitar” and if it were a human voice it would match the highest octave, such as at the top of Mariah Carey’s range.
“Isolation,” which was a single released at the beginning of the pandemic in 2020 to echo the sentiment we all felt (and still feel), ends the album. John Lennon – what else is there to say? The late Beatle with open thoughts and sky-high dreams that were cut short in 1980 would no doubt be proud of the job Beck and Depp did upon covering one of his deepest, most pure, and honest songs.
My best advice before listening to 18 would be to wipe your “Jeff Beck slate” clean. No comparisons, no expectations, just a set of fresh ears and a completely fresh perspective. If you’re a fan of his music and collaborations, you shouldn’t need this advice. However, there you go.
18, THE NEW ALBUM FROM JEFF BECK AND JOHNNY DEPP, IS OUT NOW WHEREVER YOU LISTEN TO MUSIC!