Jeff Beck’s strangest album – made with Jimmy Page and Screaming Lord Sutch

Screaming Lord Sutch performed to more than 400 fans at the Country Club in Hampstead in 1970 - Daily Mirror/Mirrorpix/Mirrorpix via Getty Images
Screaming Lord Sutch performed to more than 400 fans at the Country Club in Hampstead in 1970 - Daily Mirror/Mirrorpix/Mirrorpix via Getty Images

Jeff Beck was famed for producing sounds that broke the perceived rules of guitar-playing. He once claimed that you’ve “got to be prepared to look like a chump” if you want to create memorable music. His solo tracks, such as Beck’s Bolero, and his collaborations with the likes of Tina Turner, Kate Bush and Stevie Wonder will rightfully see him take his place in the pantheon of guitar greats. But one record on which he featured that’s unlikely to be mentioned is Lord Sutch and Heavy Friends.

The record was put out in 1970 by Screaming Lord Sutch, otherwise known as English musician David Sutch, who famously went on to become an election-night staple with his Official Monster Raving Loony Party. As well as Beck, it featured a phalanx of rock greats including Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page and John Bonham, and Jimi Hendrix’s bass player Noel Redding. Yet even their virtuoso work couldn’t save the record. It was panned as “absolutely terrible” by Rolling Stone, swiftly disowned by those who appeared on it, and named as the “worst album ever” in a 1998 BBC poll.

What’s particularly noteworthy is that Lord Sutch and Heavy Friends was released at a time when its contributors were attaining dizzying levels of success. Beck had found fame with The Yardbirds and The Jeff Beck Group, which included Rod Stewart. When the recording of Heavy Friends started in May 1969, Zeppelin were working on Led Zeppelin II. Noel Redding was still – until late June, at least – a member of The Jimi Hendrix Experience and keyboardist Nicky Hopkins was providing piano parts for classic Rolling Stones tracks including Sympathy for the Devil and Gimme Shelter. Which begs the question: why did they do it?

It seems that Sutch was a fantastic cajoler. He’d attained a level of fame in the UK earlier in the 1960s through his horror-themed stage shows, and he’d taken to travelling across the US in his Union Jack-decorated Rolls-Royce, appearing on television.

It was on one such trip that he convinced Page and Zeppelin drummer John Bonham, who were recording in Los Angeles, to help on Heavy Friends. Sutch was seen as having his finger somewhere near the pulse of British alternative culture in those days, too: in the early 1970s, for example, he was an early patron of Vivienne Westwood and Malcom McLaren’s King’s Road boutique Paradise Garage, a forerunner to Sex, and The Sex Pistols even supported him on tour in 1976).

Jeff Beck in the US circa 1972 - Robert Knight Archive/Redferns
Jeff Beck in the US circa 1972 - Robert Knight Archive/Redferns

The album is messy. It suffers from Sutch’s voice, which has an ever-present proto-glam-rock wail, and the derivativeness of many of the tracks. Despite featuring John Bonham on drums, Cause I Love You is a blatant Kinks pastiche. Meanwhile the terribly-named Thumping Beats, which features Bonham and Page, is essentially Led Zeppelin fronted by a pound-shop Noddy Holder. That makes it either a hidden gem or something best avoided, depending on your viewpoint. And then there are the lyrics. Union Jack Car opens with the lines, “I was driving down Sunset / In my Union Jack car / I got stuck in the traffic / Well, I didn’t get far”, and doesn’t get much better from there.

Indeed, the musicians quickly distanced themselves from Heavy Friends following its release. Shortly after the album came out, Page explained, “Last time we were in LA, [Sutch] came to me and said, ‘I wish you could help me out. I’ve got a chance to make an album, and I’ve been in the business for twelve years.’ I said, ‘Look, I’ll help you if I can.’”

The Zeppelin guitarist even suggested that his contribution had been exaggerated. “I didn’t do any solos. I did a little bit of wah-wah [guitar] on one track. But – and this is where the criminal side of it comes in – [Sutch] didn’t put ‘extra guitar: so-and-so’ or ‘lead guitar by so-and-so’ [in the credits] – he put ‘guitar’, so everybody thought, ‘Oh, Jimmy Page played on that heap of crap’, and it became more than an embarrassment.” What started as a laugh and a joke, Page added, had become “ugly”. Some musicians were even thought to believe that their tracks were merely demos that were never going to see the light of day.

But despite its “worst album ever” tag, Heavy Friends isn’t universally objectionable. The propulsive dirty blues that Beck provides on Gutty Guitar is thrilling, while the tempo-shifting Would You Believe has shades of The Who. And the record-buying public certainly didn’t dismiss the LP out of hand: it sold 70,000 copies in one month following its February 1970 release in America. In 1972, Sutch was part of the line-up at The London Rock and Roll Show at Wembley Stadium, the first ever mega-gig held at the venue. Other acts included Bo Diddley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard – hardly a bill for failed musicians.

The album is perhaps best viewed as an all-star curio, one on which not only Jeff Beck but an entire generation of British rock royalty all mucked in. It certainly won’t be a work for which Beck is remembered – but as the man himself said, you’ve got to be prepared to look like a chump at times.