The Yardbirds

TrackSingle / Album
Good Morning
Little Schoolgirl
Columbia DB 7391 / Five Live Yardbirds
I Ain't Got YouColumbia DB 7391 / For Your Love (US)
A Certain GirlColumbia DB 7283 / For Your Love (US)
For Your LoveColumbia DB 7499 / For Your Love (US)
Heart Full Of SoulColumbia DB 7594 / Having A Rave Up
Over Under Sideways DownColumbia DB 7928 / Roger The Engineer
The Nazz Are BlueEpic 5-10094 (US) / Roger The Engineer
The Train Kept A-Rollin'Having A Rave Up (US)
Stroll OnBlow-Up
Shapes Of ThingsColumbia DB 7848
Dazed And ConfusedLive Yardbirds

spotify-logo-primary-horizontal-dark-background-rgb-sm

 

 

Contributor: David Lewis

This group is remembered for one main reason: it introduced three of the best electric guitarists out of England; Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page. However, for the interested connoisseur, there are many little and large delights in the back catalogue. They were quite innovative when it came to pop music (more on this later).

The Yardbirds start as a blues band. Managed by Giorgio Gomelsky, they gain fame, or at least notoriety, as the band who replace the Rolling Stones at the Crawdaddy Club. Their blues covers gain them a powerful live reputation. Keith Relf’s vocals were no more limited than Mick Jagger’s, and his dark sunglasses gave him an element of cool. Jim McArty (drums), Chris Dreja (rhythm guitar) and Paul Samwell-Smith (bass) filled out the rest.

The Yardbirds photo 1

The Yardbirds (l to r): Giorgio Gomelsky (manager), Paul Samwell-Smith, Chris Dreja, Jim McCarty, Eric Clapton, Keith Relf

 

The ‘classic lineup’ is hard to determine – it goes down to your taste in guitarists, I suppose. Having said that, once Beck left, the band started to fall apart somewhat and the Page era is probably best remembered as a portent of things to come, rather than a fully realised artistic happening. For some, the authentic (really?) period with Clapton is the best. For others, the experimental pop which Beck was prepared to live with was the best. And I’m betting that there’s a coterie of people who believe it all went downhill after Top Topham left.

So, to the songs. Most of these are singles – they were a singles band but were capable of good albums. The so-called ‘Roger The Engineer’ LP, actual title Yardbirds (1966), is one of the classic albums of the era, but even then, I think I’ve taken the singles.

The Yardbirds were renowned for an explosive live show, particularly in a climate which included the Stones, the Beatles and the Who. From Five Live Yardbirds (1964) I’ve included Good Morning Little Schoolgirl. A problematic song in this post-Gary Glitter/Jimmy Savile age, the authenticity of these early twenties boys (so not that much older) marked them as a serious blues band.

Clapton, who replaced Top Topham in October 1963, showed a very early promise. The scorching solo on I Ain’t Got You was head and shoulders above anything anyone else was doing at the time – even Peter Green or Rory Gallagher didn’t get to this intensity this early (though both were to equal, or perhaps even surpass, Clapton later).

The Allan Toussaint penned A Certain Girl Is another excellent example of Clapton’s impact. But it’s also a great song. It was the band’s second single and, although it flopped, it was later covered by Warren Zevon.

The last one from the Clapton era must be For Your Love. In fact, he’s only playing the boogie shuffle in the bridge: he’d left the band by the time of its release to retain his status as a blues purist. That didn’t quite last but he is still one of the premier blues players in the world. The graffiti ‘Clapton is God’ appeared around this time, as did the ‘Slowhand’ nickname. Slowhand comes either from the fact he played more slowly, played more quickly, or used to break strings and the audience would slow clap while he changed them. The backing vocals are superb, and the drumming is another McCarty masterpiece (was McCarty an even more underrated drummer than Ringo Starr?).

The mercurial and less blues purist Jeff Beck helped redefine rock guitar. Heart Full Of Soul has his Esquire sounding like a sitar. The story goes that they had a sitar player in, but couldn’t get the balance and/or tuning right. Beck manipulated the amp and guitar so it sounded a lot like a sitar. Although the Yardbirds usually wrote their own material, this one (and For Your Love) was written by Graham Gouldman, who later went on to form 10cc and wrote more rock classics.

Another Beck piece which sounds like a sitar is the extraordinary Over Under Sideways Down. Back in the day, there was a different morality. Now everything is changed. Talkin’ bout my generation …

The Nazz Are Blue, featuring Jeff Beck on lead vocals, is a scorching blues with an authentic performance by Beck. Sounding like Dust My Broom by Elmore James, it shows that even though they’d gone pop, like the Stones, they could still do blues. This song inspired both David Bowie (Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars were ‘The Nazz’) and Todd Rundgren, who named his band ‘The Nazz’.

Another great blues piece is The Train Kept A-Rollin’. Actually based on a 1951 song by Tiny Bradshaw, then covered by Johnny Burnette, the Yardbirds add the fuzz guitar of Beck and sloppy double tracking by Relf, whose harmonica in this piece is extraordinary. They later re-recorded this with a double lead guitar as Stroll On for Blow-Up, directed by Antonioni. I’ve included both because it’s a good contrast between the one guitar of Beck and then with the added guitar of Page later.

Shapes Of Things features a brief rave up, which the Yardbirds were famous for. I also like the unresolved ending. It’s a great drum piece by McCarty too.

For a change of pace, the Yardbirds’ version of the Jake Holmes song Dazed And Confused (pre-dating the Zeppelin recording) is perhaps a pointer to how the band might have gone. Page uses the bow on his guitar, and the arrangement is effective and restrained.

The Yardbirds photo 2

The Yardbirds (l to r): Jeff Beck, Jim McCarty, Chris Dreja, Jimmy Page, Keith Relf

 

Keith Relf was fatally electrocuted at his home in 1976: he was 33. The other Yardbirds went on to different levels of success in different fields. Paul Samwell-Smith became a respected and prolific producer. Eric Clapton went on to Delaney & Bonnie and Friends, and a couple of other acts and a solo career. Jeff Beck still strums occasionally (Loudhailer was 2016’s best rock album). Jimmy Page went into a reclusive lifestyle. He also formed a band called The Firm. Oh, and another little band that only hipster purists love.

The Yardbirds: a stunning live act, a successful experimental act and one which deserves its place in the rock and roll pantheon. McCarty and Dreja reformed the band in 1992 and they’ve gigged constantly since. Dreja left last year, but the act still goes on.

 

Keith Relf (1943–1976)

 

Also on Toppermost: Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, Led Zeppelin

The Yardbirds official website

Yardbirds 1963 – Now: dedicated to fans everywhere

The Yardbirds US website

Jim McCarty official website

Chris Dreja’s website

The Yardbirds biography (iTunes)

David Lewis has written several posts for Toppermost. He lives in Sydney and lectures in Popular Culture and Contemporary and Roots Music at the Australian Institute of Music. A guitarist, mandolinist, banjoist and bassist, he plays everything from funk to country. He writes on music here.

TopperPost #612

8 Comments

  1. Andrew Shields
    Mar 21, 2017

    David, thanks for this great piece on a fine band. Superb choices as well though I would have to say that I prefer the Jeff Beck group version of ‘Shapes of Things’ to the Yardbirds one. But, then again, that combination of Rod on vocals and Jeff on guitar always produced great results… And for me the Beck years were the best in the band’s history. He is such a brilliantly innovative and versatile guitarist.

  2. Dave Stephens
    Mar 22, 2017

    Congratulations David. You got there before me. I should have thought of doing the Yardbirds but didn’t. Saw them live a couple of times, first with Clappers and then a year or two later, the Beck/Page version. Out of all the bands operating in the shadow of the Stones, the first incarnation was possibly the best in a club environment. Perceptive piece and good, representative selections. The only note I would have added would have been a mention – but mention only – of the Relf Rennaissance band, purely for completeness.

    • Ilkka Jauramo
      Mar 24, 2017

      Good to see Relf Renaissance mentioned here – or on the entire Internet, for that matter. Information on that particular period of British post-blues rock/pop music is hard to find anywhere. I happened to see this band backing John Mayall twice. The humble solo guitarist hid himself behind the amp and John Mayall had to force him to show up!

  3. Peter Viney
    Mar 25, 2017

    Excellent piece. Don’t miss David’s link to the Blow Up sequence in the text above. This is such a good view of a 60s club. There are so many stories behind this. Apparently Antonioni wanted The Who and even considered The Velvet Underground but couldn’t afford to bring them over. Then they booked mod favourites the In Crowd and made up replicas of Steve Howe’s Gibson 175. Then they secured The Yardbirds, which is why Jeff Beck has to play Steve Howe’s choice of guitar and smash it up. Also of note is the LP “Sonny Boy Williamson & The Yardbirds” recorded in December 1963. However this might be one of the bands Sonny Boy was quoted as saying “They want to play the blues so bad. And they do.” Though the Animals and Manfred Mann are the other suspects.

    • David Lewis
      Mar 28, 2017

      Hi Peter: Beck himself claimed they wanted him to smash up a Les Paul, which he refused to do – I got this from a 1982 interview for a BBC radio series called the guitar greats, which was later published as a book. There are so many great stories.. and Beck himself doesn’t look comfortable smashing a guitar… Beck’s next film appearance was about 20 years later in Twins (with Danny DeVito and some Austrian bodybuilder), in which Beck’s band plays in a bar. A fight breaks out, and, yep, you guessed it, Beck’s guitar gets smashed. Typecast!

    • Ilkka Jauramo
      Mar 31, 2017

      Peter, British blues is underrated! My word against Sonny Boy’s… Now, when national self-confidence is growing, it might be re-evaluated.

  4. Murray Sutton
    May 2, 2017

    Why no mention of Mister You’re a Better Man Than I? Possibly Beck’s best solo!

    • David Lewis
      May 13, 2017

      It was on the list but ultimately lost out. So much to choose from. Happenings 10 Years Time Ago was as well.

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

↓