This past July, Jeff Beck released his 14th studio album entitled "18." While, it's mostly covers of songs first recorded by John Lennon, Marvin Gaye, The Miracles, and The Everly Brothers, as with all of Beck's music, the songs are as fresh and unique as the original productions. The album also features songs by Beck with his latest collaborator, Johnny Depp. If all you know about Depp is his star-making role as Captain Jack Sparrow, and his recent turn as a plaintiff during the celebrity trial of the century, then you are in for a treat. Having been one of the founders of The Hollywood Vampires, along with Alice Cooper and Joe Perry, Depp comes to the recording process and stage with some serious rock and roll cred.
The seemingly odd couple met at a Beck concert many years ago, and as Jeff came to respect Depp as a musician, he was soon invited to join the 60’s guitar God onstage at The Royal Albert Hall. With that, a rock and roll partnership was born.
Still, why would someone believed by many to be the greatest guitar player of all time even consider collaborating with someone whose primary claim to fame is playing a drunken pirate on the big screen? As it happens, Beck, since his earliest beginnings, has always found inspiration in musicians with abilities that seem at odds with what is normally expected of a rock and roller. In this case, not only was it the music itself but both Beck and Depp have a love of restoring old cars. The actor and the musician bonded, not just in the recording studio and on stage, but also in the garage over gears and gasoline.
In the early 1960s, driven by the music of guys like Muddy Waters, and Bo Diddley, young British musicians became intensely interested in American blues, and R&B music. Bands like John Mayall's Blues Breakers, The Rolling Stones, and even the earliest iterations of Fleetwood Mac and Jethro Tull, all began as blues bands. Among them is a 1992 entrant into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame called The Yardbirds. Playing on their earliest records was an up-and-coming blues guitarist named Eric Clapton.
Their first recording called, "Five Live Yardbirds," included songs by Chuck Berry, and Howlin' Wolf. When their version of Wolf's "Smokestack Lightnin," became a minor radio hit, it raised the band's profile, and expectations, with the London blues crowd. However, as the band began migrating towards a more commercial sound, Clapton decided to move on. Before he left, he recommended a young session guitarist named Jimmy Page as his replacement. Page, later of Led Zeppelin fame, reluctant to leave a steady paying studio gig, declined the invite. In his place, he recommended another young up-and-coming guitar player named Jeff Beck.
Beck, unsurprisingly passed the audition, and the band quickly began fulfilling the promise of their early success with hits like "For Your Love," and "Over Under Sideways Down." Beck steered the future Rock and Roll Hall of Fame band towards a more psychedelic sound. Along with George Harrison of the Beatles, Beck became interested in Sitar master Ravi Shankar's work. He soon, through the clever use of amplification and distortion effects, found a way to emulate the sitar sound, and The Yardbirds song “Heart Full of Soul '' became a hit. Those three songs are still in regular rotation on oldies, and classic rock radio stations everywhere in the world.
Eventually, Beck, like Clapton before him, decided he wanted to take his music in a different direction and when he left, the band replaced him, ironically, with the guy who recommended him to begin with, Jimmy Page. By the end of the 1960s, both Clapton and Page reached international super stardom. Beck, the least well-known of the three at that time, emerged as the most respected. With his ability to play any style of music, he became known as a consummate blues man, a jazz fusion virtuoso, and one of the primary architects of psychedelia.
In general, the greatest guitarists are recognized because of their originality and mastery of a specific style. For example, Stevie Ray Vaughan is best known for his expertise in playing within a template recognized as the Texas blues. That does not mean he couldn’t play other styles, he did, and he excelled at it. However, his core audience always clamored for "Pride and Joy," and he never stopped finding innovative ways to play within that mold.
Beck, on the other hand, has defied being defined by genre or style. His embrace of effects and his unique string-bending playing style have allowed him to continue innovating within whichever template he chooses. For example, his cover of The Beatles singular "A Day in the Life," is a mind-warping instrumental journey, which he himself reinterprets nightly.
In 1967, Beck joined forces with Ronnie Wood and Rod Stewart to form The Jeff Beck Group. The band had a few minor hits, including a song that pointed the way forward called “Beck’s Bolero.” Bolero was originally recorded in 1966 prior to Beck's newest band, with a studio supergroup that included Nicky Hopkins on Keyboards, John Paul Jones on bass, Keith Moon on drums, Jimmy Page on guitar, and Beck laying down what became a concert staple in a career which has now spanned 60 years. A bolero is a slow, and sexy, Latin dance beat, which wasn't a rock and roll staple back then, and still isn't today. That fact alone is enough to make it unique in the annals of rock and roll history. Outside of Dick Dale, Booker T. & The MG's, and a few Brian Wilson offerings, pure instrumental rock songs were atypical in the mid-1960s. It was released as the B side of the song "Hi Ho Silver Lining," which dented, but did not exactly break the music charts. However, within the music industry, Beck's Bolero opened eyes, ears, and minds. After that, young musicians like The Allman Brothers, Jimi Hendrix, and dozens of others frequently featured instrumentals both on record and on stage.
During the last decade, headlines were made, and tongues wagged, when Beck teamed up with Brian Wilson, the founder of the Beach Boys, for a concert tour. This pairing, on the surface, does seem odd. After all, what could the King of Surf Rock, and the guitar GOAT have in common? It turns out, a lot. In 1966, The Beach Boys released Pet Sounds, and like almost everyone else in the music industry, it blew Beck away.
He found Wilson’s melodies intriguing, and his experimental approach in the studio liberating. With Bolero already in the can, it was just the encouragement Beck needed. Soon he began writing inventive, genre, and mind-bending songs in earnest, which would eventually garner him eight Grammys, and the respect from everyone in the music industry from pop music to prog rock. After each had their solo set, the two would combine forces for a few of Wilson’s biggest hits. Beck would add fun leads to songs like Fun, Fun, Fun, and Surfin USA. However, it was his string-bending take on Beach Boy’s classics like “Surf’s Up,” and "Don't Talk" which also appears on "18," that was every bit as intriguing as his cover of A Day in the Life. Ten years later, both songs are still nightly staples on Beck’s setlist. Along with his love of old cars, Beach Boys car songs, like “Little Deuce Coupe '' were another bonding point with Johnny Depp.
Jeff Beck: 24 June 1944 – 10 January 2023
Rock On Magazine was saddened to hear of the passing of 60's guitar legend Jeff Beck. He recently passed away peacefully from bacterial meningitis, and many of his musician friends were nearby when it happened, including his friend Johnny Depp.
The Rockettes are an American institution. Founded in 1925, the high-kicking precision dance company moved to New York City in 1932; ever since, The Rockettes have wowed audiences with performances at the historic Radio City Music Hall. And with its breathtaking combination of tradition and timeliness, the Rockettes’ Christmas Spectacular has been dazzling audiences for nearly 90 years.
For many dancers, joining the Rockettes is a lifelong dream. And that dream came true for Danielle Betscher when she became a member of the company in 2013. “I saw The Rockettes in the Christmas Spectacular for the first time right around my 13th birthday,” says Betscher, who lives in Las Vegas when she’s not in New York City working with The Rockettes.
“That was my turning point.”
But Danielle’s lifelong pursuit had begun long before that fateful moment. “I started dancing at the age of two,” she says. Her family was living in a remote corner of Kentucky, and Danielle was home schooled. “I wasn't anywhere near a dance studio for kids my age, so my mom actually started with ‘dance on VCR tape.’” Danielle attended those TV dance classes in her family's living room, post-lunch, pre-nap for two years. “Even at two years old, every single day I was popping that VCR in,” she says. And that dedication impressed her parents: they realized, “Oh, she's invested!”
Once the family moved to Ohio, Danielle enrolled in a regular dance study program.
“I was a competitive dancer, so I was in the studio almost every single evening, seven days a week,” she recalls.
Along the way, Danielle couldn’t help but become aware of The Rockettes. “I knew who they were,” she admits, “but I’d only ever seen them on the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. I’d never actually seen them dance in the Christmas Spectacular, so I hadn’t put those things together. When she did witness their performance live and in person, she was seated in the audience with her family. “And the first kick line that I ever saw, I was in awe,” she says. “I was mesmerized. These women were just so powerful and elegant!”
Danielle’s beloved Paw Paw was sitting next to her, and he turned to her and said, “You know, if you wanted to, someday you could do that.” And she knew he was right. At that moment, Danielle decided for certain that she wanted to go professional.
At age 16, Danielle says that she “put everything else aside and started attending the Rockettes Summer Intensive.” That program – now known as the Rockettes Conservatory Program – provides intensive study in the company’s inimitable style. According to the Rockettes’ official website, the Conservatory Program creates “an inclusive talent pipeline by eliminating barriers to entry, investing in promising dancers, and attracting the best dancers from all backgrounds.”
Danielle attended four of those intensive programs in the space of three summers, and then at age 17 she started auditioning for the Christmas Spectacular. “Technically,” she admits, “you have to be 18 years old to make it as a Rockette for the Christmas Spectacular, so I knew that I couldn't make it. But I wanted to get my face in the room and be able to experience what a real audition is like.” Then as now, those who auditioned were required to be proficient in ballet, tap, and jazz as well as other dance styles. “It's always very helpful to be well-rounded,” Danielle says.
That initial set of auditions went as well as it could have for Danielle. “I actually made it to the end of that two-day process,” she says. “We went from over 1,000 women at the beginning to maybe 30-40 by the end. And that was my moment when I said, ‘I'm invested, and they're invested in me; let's go for this!”
Danielle returned the next year, now old enough to qualify. But she was cut in the first round of auditions. She realized she would have to work even harder. “So I worked my patootie off that summer, and when they had another audition that August, I was there again.”
The third time proved to be the charm. “I made it to the end,” Danielle recalls with pride. “Five days later I got the call offering me a job as a Rockette in New York City!” Fresh out of high school, she was embarking on the adventure of a lifetime. “I had just graduated, and here I was moving to New York City just a couple months later. It was something that I had dreamed about since I was a little girl, and it's still surreal to think about.”
Danielle’s first Christmas Spectacular with The Rockettes was in 2013. The run-up to the shows is an intensive period for the members of the precision dance company. “We rehearse seven hours a day for six weeks leading up to the opening,” she says. “Our rehearsals are pretty demanding, but they ease us in. By the end of it, as a line we are strong and ready to begin performances.” The 90-minute production opens November 18 at Radio City Music Hall.
Danielle says that the camaraderie among members of The Rockettes is strong. “I'd always heard about ‘the sisterhood,’ and wondered what that meant,” she says. “Even in the first couple of weeks of my very first season, it truly blew me away just how embracing these women are.”
She says that all of her best friends are Rockettes. “These are women who have attended my wedding,” she says. “We attend each others' major life events; we're in each others' lives.” Danielle says that even among women who have long since retired from the company, “they're still very close to the people that they danced with through the Rockettes.”
And that camaraderie builds upon the passion and commitment of the company. “I think it really speaks to the legacy of the Rockettes,” Danielle says. We've been around since 1933, and that's just at Radio City Music Hall. You can actually say that you are a part of this company that thousands of women before you have been able to be a part of, and you can carry on that legacy.”
Coming out of the pandemic period, this year’s Christmas Spectacular is an opportunity to experience once again the thrill of a Rockettes performance. “It really combines tradition and new,” Danielle says. “We have numbers in the show that every Rockette has performed since its inception. But then that's combined with modern technology and modern choreography, and it's all smashed together in this wild performance.”
The dazzling and technically demanding “Parade of the Wooden Soldiers” number has been part of the show every year since 1933, “with the same choreography, the same design of costumes,” Danielle says. “As a performer, it’s a powerful moment knowing I am doing the same movement that women back in 1933 were able to do, and I think the audience feels that as well.”
A newer number, “New York at Christmas” features a life-size double-decker sightseeing bus onstage. “We Rockettes ride that bus around the stage, we get off, we perform our iconic eye-high kicks, and there's fireworks!” The whole experience is a journey from old-school Hollywood glamour and elegance to present-day New York City, and back again. “What makes the Christmas Spectacular so special is that we're able to make that span,” Danielle says. “It all works perfectly, because the theme is the holiday season, joy and happiness.”
When asked to share her favorite thing about being part of The Rockettes, Danielle Betscher doesn’t hesitate. “It’s that I know that I'm bringing joy to 6,000 people – sometimes four times a day at Radio City Music Hall – even if it's for just 90 minutes. They can let everything else go and just be awash in Christmas magic.”
With their winning combination of rock energy and Texas twang, Dallas-based Old 97’s have carved out a unique place for themselves on the music landscape. Across a dozen albums, their evocative songwriting and high energy musical approach has won the group both critical acclaim and a dedicated following. But the band hasn’t quite reached the commercial success that critics and ardent fans alike agree are so richly deserved.
Part of the problem might be that Old 97’s don’t fit neatly into one stylistic category. So it’s something of a challenge for their label to promote them. Are they country? Alt-country, or power pop? Rock? Something else? Lead guitarist Ken Bethea acknowledges that there’s no neat, one-word label that offers a shorthand description for what Old 97’s does.
Let’s address power pop. To some, the term refers to the rock subgenre exemplified by bands like Badfinger, The Raspberries, The Knack...groups that made uptempo, Beatles-influenced rock with sharp hooks and concise melodies. But it’s that word pop that rankles Bethea.
“To me,” he explains, “pop is a kind of music where there’s a producer and a separate songwriter. They write a song, and the singer or band comes in and sings it. And that doesn’t even begin to describe us.” By that understanding of the term, he’s right. From the very start, Old 97’s have chasrted their own path, written their own songs and played their own instruments.
Bethea acknowledges that other labels like Americana or even “loud folk” have at least some connection to the Old 97’s aesthetic. “But,” he insists, “there really isn’t another band like us.” Once again, he’s right. The idea of combining country textures with a rock approach has been done since the earliest days of rock ‘n’ roll: witness Elvis, early Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis. But Old 97’s doesn't sound much like them.
Later generations of rockers like Eagles developed their own hybrids of rock and c&w. But no one would ever mistake Old 97’s for the slick Californians who gave us “Heartache Tonight” or “Disco Strangler.”
Asked about artists whose work has had an impact on the sound of his band, Bethea names some of the greats. While many Old 97’s songs are group-composed and arranged, singer-guitarist Rhett Miller is the band’s primary songwriter.
And Bethea describes a central component of the band’s signature sound as the product of Miller’s creativity, informed by an appreciation for David Bowie, Lennon and McCartney and Elvis Costello. Those musical touchstones offer a connection to what the band is all about.
“I don’t even listen to country,” Bethea admits with a laugh. But in the same breath, he confesses that he very much likes playing it. “Even from the very beginning before I met Rhett and Murry [Hammond, bassist], I liked playing country music on my guitar. It was fun bending those notes.” A few moments into the discussion, he hits upon a way of describing Old 97’s that suits him. “It’s modern music, played in the style of old-fashioned music,” he suggests. “That’s what we’ve always been.”
Timeless music might be an even better way of describing it. Miller’s wry lyrics and the irresistible guitar licks make a song like “Murder (Or a Heart Attack)” from the band’s fourth album, 1999’s Too Far to Care, a stone classic. Call it what you will, but it’s great stuff, the kind of music that makes listeners want to throw away all the labels and just appreciate the music for its greatness.
Each time Old 97’s release an album – 2020’s Twelfth is their latest one, by the way – the record is greeted by critical praise. And their latest single, “Turn off the TV,” rose to the #22 spot on Billboard’s Adult Alternative singles chart. But nearly a quarter century into its existence, the group still somehow flies under the radar of many who (by most measures) should appreciate their music.
The likely reason for that brings us back to that nagging what-is-their-sound question. Not fitting neatly into an existing category makes it difficult when it comes to things like marketing. “It makes it nearly impossible,” Bethea says with a good-natured (if resigned) chuckle.
“But on the good side,” he hastens to add, “when your [sound is super-specific, you ‘scratch the itch’ for a segment of the population.” And while there may not be a massive contingent of Old 97’s fans, many of those who know them, love them.
Bethea says that he’s lost count of how many times he’s engaged in conversation with a stranger, only for the dialogue to unfold like this: “You tell them you’re in a band, and they’re excited,” he says. “Then you tell ‘em the name of the band, and they’ve never heard of us.
And that’s here in Dallas!”
After the laughter subsides, he completes his example. “But then when you talk to the fourth or fifth person, they say, ‘Holy shit! I’ve seen you guys so many times!’”
Back in the 1970s when Bob Seger broke out as a national success, there was a saying about him: “He took years and years to become an overnight success.” Though Seger was a well-respected and hard working Detroit rocker since the mid ‘60s, it wasn’t until the release of Live Bullet in 1976 that he became a household name.
And so – just maybe – it might be the same with Old 97’s.
Superb albums, spirited concerts and a surprising level-headedness – the original lineup has stayed together all these years without a single personnel change – are all commendable qualities. But they don’t necessarily push a band into next-level, high-profile success.
What might just do that is a little motion picture called Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special. Released to the Disney+ streaming service last Christmas, the popular action-adventure-comedy film takes the popular Marvel superhero franchise to the next level, and onto TV screens. Alongside beloved characters like Peter “Star-Lord” Quill, Drax the Destroyer and Nebula is an intergalactic rock band, Bzermikitokolok and the Knowheremen.
The nearly-unpronounceable band is none other than Old 97’s, making their feature film debut.
It’s fair to wonder how the band landed such a high-profile spot. Not surprisingly, it has everything to do with the fact that the filmmakers could have been the fourth or fifth person in Bethea’s example.
“James Gunn is the director and writer of Guardians of the Galaxy, and his brother, Sean, is also in it.” he explains. Bback in the early days of Old 97’s, one Gunn brother lived in St. Louis, the other in Chicago.
The two would make a point of attending every Old 97’s show in either city.
Bethea says that he and his band mates only found out about all this six or seven years ago when they met James Gunn for the first time. “And James was like, ‘I'd love to get you involved in our Guardians movie, but the music’s all from the ‘70s.’ So we didn’t really fit.”
Unfortunately, the same would be true when Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 were made. But then came the holiday special, a winking nod at the infamous stinkeroo, 1978’s Star Wars Holiday Special.
Because the Disney+ film would be a change of pace, Gunn felt he had the freedom to go a different direction with the music. He also wanted actor Kevin Bacon – who had been referenced previously in Guardians movies – to appear. So in the film, Bacon portrays a fictionalized version of himself, and he sings a song with Old 97’s.
Unlike Bacon, the band members were heavily made up to look like intergalactic creatures; until the music starts, they’re barely recognizable as the four Texans of Old 97’s. Reportedly, wrangling the musicians into their costumes and makeup took several hours. “But now I’m in the Marvel universe!” exclaims Bethea. “That so badass! It was really fun shooting the film, and it was amazing when it came out. It was mind-blowing.” And it brought Old 97’s to a whole new audience.
Not making too much of his brush with movie stardom, Bethea is first and foremost proud of the music he and his band mates make. And even though Old 97’s haven’t raked in millions of dollars or achieved worldwide fame – not yet anyway – he says that there’s a simple reason the four of them stick with it.
“It’s our ‘fishing trip,’” he says.
“We get along very well. I like hanging out with the guys [in the band], and I like hanging out with our crew,” Bethea says. “I enjoy the process of going and playing shows, and I think everybody else does, too. It's still really fun to do it.”
He equates being in Old 97’s to spending nearly all your time doing your favorite thing. “It’s like if you're really into fishing,” he explains, “and you get to drive around the country doing it with your best friends. But every time you catch a fish, there would be 1000 people that cheer. It’s amazing!”