|Track||Single / Album|
|Good Morning |
|Columbia DB 7391 / Five Live Yardbirds|
|I Ain't Got You||Columbia DB 7391 / For Your Love (US)|
|A Certain Girl||Columbia DB 7283 / For Your Love (US)|
|For Your Love||Columbia DB 7499 / For Your Love (US)|
|Heart Full Of Soul||Columbia DB 7594 / Having A Rave Up|
|Over Under Sideways Down||Columbia DB 7928 / Roger The Engineer|
|The Nazz Are Blue||Epic 5-10094 (US) / Roger The Engineer|
|The Train Kept A-Rollin'||Having A Rave Up (US)|
|Shapes Of Things||Columbia DB 7848|
|Dazed And Confused||Live Yardbirds|
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 (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 (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.
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.