Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton’s careers will always be aligned with Beck once coining their relationship as an “uncomfortable rivalry”. As much as he wishes they wouldn’t be compared with each other, it’s a reality that he’s been forced to accept over the years.
Both guitarists became prominent thanks to being in The Yardbirds, with Beck replacing Clapton in the group. The latter had become disenfranchised with life in the group because of their attempts to gain commercial success, and he instead left to pursue new endeavours with John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers. Clapton tried to recruit Jimmy Page to replace him, and he chose to put forward his friend, Beck.
After Beck joined the band, The Yardbirds began to gain notoriety. The guitarist was heralded as a pioneer thanks to his innovative approach, which introduced new stylings into the mainstream. As a result of the public admiration for him, while Clapton’s career stalled, Beck always felt uneasy around his predecessor because of their unspoken rivalry.
Due to their frosty relationship, Beck was surprised to see Clapton appear in the documentary, Still on the Run: The Jeff Beck Story. Furthermore, he was overcome with emotion at the sincerity the former Cream guitarist showed during his appearance and admitted it reduced him to tears.
“I must admit there was a tear – especially with Eric,” Beck told Rolling Stone. “I never expected him to bother to be in it. I studied his face over and over, just to make sure there wasn’t something else going on [laughs]. But no, it was just overwhelming.”
Beck then shared one memory which encompasses their strange competitive relationship. He recalled: “I remember he invited me to this gig [in 1980] in Guilford, near where he lives, and I thought, ‘Why is he asking me?’ I thought to myself, ‘Obviously you won’t be playing, so go along and have a beer’.
“On the way there, he goes, ‘Do you want to play ‘Blackie’?’ And I said, ‘Uh, I don’t know that song.’ He said, ‘No, it’s my guitar.’ I went, ‘Oh, whoops.’ First calamity of the evening. So I said, ‘I didn’t bring a guitar, so I’ll do that.’ Then about a minute later, he turned around and stood at the car and goes, ‘This is not gonna be one of these blowing-off things, is it?’ I said, ‘Listen, either I play or I don’t.’ And there was that, what’s the word, uncomfortable rivalry about it.”
For Beck, this incident confirmed that they would never be close friends, and Clapton’s then-wife Pattie Boyd later confirmed the rivalry was indeed legit. He added: “I found out later from Pattie, his wife, that there definitely was [rivalry] – especially with the Stevie Wonder stuff. He was not too amused about me doing something successful with Stevie. I think that maybe got under his skin a bit.”
Competition isn’t necessarily harmful; it can often help push artists to fulfil their full potential. Perhaps, Beck’s success is what helped give Clapton the hunger to form Cream and eclipse The Yardbirds. Moreover, as his role in the documentary confirms, Clapton has nothing but unbridled respect for his rival.