The Yardbirds

They came together in pretty typical fashion -- friends and acquaintances who fell in with fellow bohemians in 60's London, led by their love of American blues and r&b, which had spread among the Brits thanks to American G.I.s and the slightly belated assault of rock`n'roll.

They formed a band and started doing the rounds. After a couple of years, they had their chops down and were pros. This was around 1963, and it was then that their first guitar-slinger, Anthony "Top" Topham, bailed for a quieter life. His replacement was Eric Clapton, who soon started building a rep as the fastest gun in town.

They built up a following, and even had enough credibility to end up backing Sonny Boy Williamson on his English tours and even some recordings (Sonny Boy was not impressed with them...and, whatever they might have thought of his music, Sonny Boy himself must have been straight from Mars as far as these English boys were concerned!). They soon became the house band at the legendary London club The Marquee, taking over the place left by The Rolling Stones, who were starting down the road to legend-dom. They recorded their first album there, a live job (it would not be released in the US for over 20 years). They also hit on their trademark idea: the rave-up. The “rave-up” was a pretty simple, and cool, idea. They would take a good, solid r&b stomp-rhythm, say a Bo Diddley number, and then start vamping on it, and improvising, and getting crazier and crazier and more out of control until the whole thing finally exploded. It was a trick they would perfect and use again and again.

Shortly after this, they started cutting singles. But, while the live album had been a relatively straight shot of r&b, they, and their management, knew that wasn’t gonna fly on the pop charts (The Stones did eventually chart with their cover of “Little Red Rooster,” but that was part fluke/part marketing, mostly). None of the members regarded himself as a songwriter, so they fell to the pop songwriting pool, specifically, Graham Gouldman, who wrote for The Hollies and many others. Gouldman gave them “For Your Love.” It got them their hit, but it cost them Clapton, who wanted to stick with the blues.

For a replacement, they got Jeff Beck, then playing with a neighboring band called The Tridents (based on surviving tapes, The Tridents sound a lot like The Yardbirds, right down to the rave-up). Beck had none of Clapton’s reservations about pop music .... he had his blues moves down, but he was a rock`n’roller from the gitgo. He was also a fast, flashy, loud guitarist, and he was a little insane. A perfect fit. If Clapton’s forte was his fast, expressive, and dead-on blues-playing, Beck’s was pure adrenaline and a willingness to try anything. He would throw not only big chunks of Jimmy Reed and Chuck Berry into the mix, but also feedback, dissonance, and flashes of Orientalia ("Heartfull of Soul"s signature riff was based on a sitar raga), all of which would become Yardbirds trademarks.

The band made several more singles and had albums released (vastly different in the U.S. than in the U.K.) but scored only modest hits. They had a big rep, but were never chart-toppers.

As the 60’s wore on, they built something of an underground following in the U.S., inspiring countless garage bands. Unfortunately, they never quite caught on with the bandwagon that would later turn other underground British bands (like The Who) into stars. They missed their opportunities and ended up on thankless package tours that never took them quite where they needed to be. They also missed big opportunities like Murray the K’s New York shows and Monterey Pop (both of which helped break The Who stateside). Their singles scraped into the charts but never went far.

By `67 or so, things were actually looking up for them a little. Paul Samwell-Smith quit the band to make his living behind the engineer’s board. As a replacement, they got Shel Talmy’s indentured servant sessionman, Jimmy Page. They were hip enough to land a part in the film “Blow Up” (it remains one of rock`n’rolls great cinematic moments). In England, they were somewhat looked down on for their “impure” take on the blues. They continued to make inconsistent but often striking music.

Page, a more striking guitarist than Chris Dreja, began to move to the guitar slot next to Beck, while Dreja took up the bass. Page and Beck eliminated the rhythm guitar/lead guitar lockstep and went for a twin-guitar attack. They took part in a long package tour of the U.S. that left jaws open wherever they were seen. Apparently it was a grueling tour, and, though those who saw them still remember the shows with reverent awe, they seem to, once again, have missed the audiences that would have appreciated them most. Beck started missing gigs. I don’t know if it was displeasure at sharing the guitar spotlight, other personality conflicts, professional issues or just general flakiness. Anyway, the tour ended with The Yardbirds as a quartet.

They soldiered on, but not well. Mickie Most, a prominent British producer, became their manager. Although Most did well with the similarly bluesy Animals, he seems not to have really understood The Yardbirds. Their final album, Little Games shows a band seriously in the throes of schizophrenia. Attempts at weird Yardbirds-pop running up against folk ideas that Page would later explore elsewhere and a lot of English “whimsy,” the sort of tripe that filled the earliest (pre-electric) Marc Bolan albums and others ... the sound of English kids who’d dropped too much acid and read too much Tolkein. There was a little more touring. Live tapes show a band at the end. Relf sounds tired, the rhythm section, once one of the most propulsive in British rock, sludgy. Only Page sounds engaged. Relf especially had drug problems. He no longer had any interest in business affairs; McCarty and Dreja little more. This caused real friction with Page, who even then had put together strong management and legal contacts. The Yardbirds finally petered out on their final U.S. tour, leaving a legacy of exciting music, and a buttload of debts for Page to handle. Relf and McCarty went off and formed Renaissance, a folk/art/classical/rock outfit that got fairly popular among people who like that sort of thing.

Both of them had split the band by the time their following grew. Relf later formed a grotesque hard-rock band called Armageddon. Paul Samwell-Smith hooked up with Jethro Tull and made a bundle. Chris Dreja became a professional photographer. Of the gunslingers: well, Clapton of course became rock’s most celebrated living guitar players, and inspired a couple generations of string-benders. Beck got into a jazz-rock thing and turned on a lot of high school guitarist wannabes. Page of course started another band, originally under the name “The New Yardbirds.” They changed their name fairly quickly, made a few gazillion dollars, and inspired a legion of followers that continues to this day (your local chapter can probably be found at the nearest high school, bumming cigarettes in the boy’s room). Keith Relf passed away rather weirdly in 1976 (electrocuted by a guitar, or his headphones, or some such. I’ve heard several variations). McCarty, Dreja, and Samwell-Smith have done occasional gigs since the mid-80’s as Box of Frogs and, more recently as The Yardbirds.

The Yardbirds have to be one of the ten or twelve most influential bands in rock`n’roll. For all the inspiration that fans-cum-performers may have drawn from say, The Beatles or The Who, there’s no other British Invasion band that spawned as many imitators as The Yardbirds. Aside from laying out the blueprint for Page’s post-Yardbirds career, they were the first prominent band to take Chicago blues and crank up the speed and volume to undreamt-of degrees, thus conceptually inventing heavy metal. Though this cost them a lot of points with the blues purists, it was a pretty good idea; look, there’s NEVER been a white guy I can think of who can take to the blues the way Muddy Waters or Howlin’ Wolf or even B.B. King can ... it just doesn’t happen. Clapton and Stevie Ray Vaughan and many others can play the stuff with style and expression, but it’s just not the same. The best use that white musicians have made of the blues has been to draw inspiration from it in creating music distinctly their own (witness The Rolling Stones, Van Morrison ... and The Yardbirds). They pioneered the idea of the Guitar Hero, but they sported a rock-solid rhythm section (McCarty was as good a drummer as has graced a rock`n’roll stage). They were a good band. Relf wasn’t anything to get excited about as a singer ... he mostly just sounds adenoidal, but he seems to have been very much a spiritual leader for much of the band’s career, and he actually could blow a pretty mean harp.

The Yardbirds were in their own way as striking as any of the other big names in the British Invasion. They were often inconsistent, sometimes saddled with highly inappropriate material like “Paaf Bum” (a German pop song) and “Hang On Sloopy” (actually, a cool song, but not in their hands) and they often showed their contempt for weak material with lackluster performances. But given something that suited them, they were inspired. On songs like “Heartfull Of Soul” and their cover of “I’m A Man” (where Beck turns his guitar from a screaming banshee to a percussion instrument in a matter of seconds) and “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago” they forged one of the most propulsive, exciting sounds in 60’s-era rock`n’roll. Best of all, they were weird. Ken Emerson summed them up pretty neatly in The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll

“...they subverted everything else: turning pop into something sinister, the blues into the rudest noise, even disrupting melody with jerky tempo changes as Keith Relf sang with flat menace. The Yardbirds were too manic to be consistent, but their adventurousness exemplified all that was `progressive.’ They anticipated the freak-outs of psychedelic San Francisco, pioneered what would later be dubbed `heavy metal,’ and dabbled in everything from ersatz Gregorian chants to Mideastern reels.”