Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Yardbirds' "Little Games"

It seems incredible that in 40 years of collecting Yardbirds records, I'd never owned this one, but it's true. Sure, I owned most of the good stuff on the skimpy (five songs a side!) '70 Epic double elpee anthology Featuring Performances by Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page, but being an aficionado of _the romance of the artifact_, I'm pleased as punch to finally have my mitts on the 'riginal vinyl now (having passed on the expanded-with-outtakes double-CD Sony and EMI versions back in the oh-ohs). Thank you, Sir Marlin Von Bungy!

Little Games is, of course, the Jimmy Page-era Yardbirds' terminal offering, which the record company considered such a dog they didn't even bother to release it in the UK. In fairness, by '67 the Yardbirds were spending a lot of time out of the country, and were probably a bigger deal Stateside than at home. There are a few conflicting influences at work here: pop producer Mickey Most's desire to make hit singles (all of which flopped everywhere); recently-liberated sessionman Jimmy Page's desire to record some of the wailing sounds he'd come up with after supplanting his pal Jeff Beck as the band's sole lead guitarist; and acid-eating founder members Keith Relf and Jim McCarty's desire to pursue psychedelic experimentalismo.

In fairness to Most, the Yardbirds weren't exactly prolific songwriters; their forte was sonic experiment, as demonstrated by their epic -- no pun intended -- string of singles starting with "Heart Full of Soul" and culminating in "Happenings Then Years Time Ago" that incorporated fuzztones, feedback, Near Eastern modes, mock Gregorian chants, and studio apocalypses, or their one true studio album Yardbirds aka Roger the Engineer, which they pulled out of their collective asses in a week a la Mark I Deep Purple without the benefit of much more than their own collective imagination and a smidge of blues bowdlerization. While it ain't Revolver, it holds up a whole lot better and is a lot more forward looking than most rock rekkids made in 1966.

This is probably heresy, but inasmuch as Beck was a true innovator who went on to morph into a veritable Zen master of electric guitar, the available aural evidence (BBC sessions, Euro TV videos, and suppressed documents like the '68 live-at-the-Anderson-Theater LP or the hideously rare Cumular Limit) indicates that Yardbird-era Page was a more consistent player, and had a more mind-melting sound (compare their solos in the iconic "Stroll On" clip from Blow Up and tell me I'm wrong).

On Little Games, you can hear Page's acid-blues-raga spew in full effect on the title track, "Smile On Me" (a cross-bastardization of Slim Harpo's "Scratch My Back," which the Yardbirds had previously ripped off as Roger's "Rack My Mind," and the shuffle portion of Otis Rush's "All Your Love"), and "Drinking Muddy Water." "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sailor" foreshadows Led Zep in its power-chorded electric 12-string intro and bowed-guitar solo, and the acoustic Bert Jansch-ismo of "White Summer" remained Page's party piece well into the Zep years. (I even learned it in a futile attempt to impress the really neat girls in my college dorm.)

"Glimpses" is the most psychedelic moment here (featuring Relf singing through a wah-wah pedal over drone, chant, and found sounds), while "Only the Black Rose" is an OK sensitive-guy ballad (reminiscent of Roger's "Farewell"). Of the tunes I hadn't previously owned, "No Excess Baggage" is a nothing song written by the same writing duo that gave the Animals "It's My Life." "Stealing, Stealing" is a so-so jugband blues, and "Little Soldier Boy" is pop pap and about as inauspicious a way to end a major band's recording career as one can imagine.

To folks that teethed on Sabbath and Zeppelin (or Black Flag and the Melvins), this stuff might sound tame or even quaint. This isn't the Yardbirds I'll reach for when I get the itch -- that'd be Roger the Engineer, Raven's Happenings Ten Years Time Ago 1964-1968 comp CD, or for the Page era, Cumular Limit (good luck finding thatun) -- but it fills a long-empty space on my shelf, and satisfies the completist asshole in me.


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