They started out as a raucous R&B band, taking over the Rolling Stones' residency at the Crawdaddy Club in Richmond, Surrey. In hot, sweaty, beer-fueled sessions there, they developed a style of instrumental crescendo they called the "rave up," in which the guitarists played rapidly choke-strummed chords while the bass zoomed manically up and down the neck. Budding virtuoso Eric Clapton was folded into the lineup when their original underage lead guitarist was forced out by parental disapproval and so there wasn't the kind of chemistry that Keef and Brian had in the early Stones, the result of many late nights spent working out interlocking parts.
Listening to their earliest recordings (from the Crawdaddy with and without Sonny Boy Williamson; their demos for EMI), you can hear a band playing blues almost without inflection. Asthmatic Keith Relf sang in a nasal whine that Brit journo Charles Shaar-Murray once charitably characterized as "punk-rock" (talk about yer revisionist history). But by the time they recorded their debut LP Five Live Yardbirds at London's Marquee Club, they'd gained confidence and crude energy. It's unfortunate that the tracks had to be sped up slightly to make 'em all fit on LP. To these feedback-scorched ears, Rhino's CD that purported to restore them to original speed sounded no different than the myriad other versions that have been released over the years.
Once they were signed, their original manager, Giorgio Gomelsky, who's presumably made a tidy living off the innumerable reissues of their recordings to which he holds the rights, immediately set about trying to secure them a pop hit single. (A nadir of sorts was achieved when he had them record two songs for the 1966 San Remo Song Festival.) It was the Yardbirds' misfortune to come along at a transitional moment, between early '60s pop commercialism and the later focus on experimentation and expression that they'd help spark. So in 1965, hired gun songwriter Graham Gouldman (of Mindbenders and later, 10cc fame) would try to do for the Yardbirds what Brill Building tunesmiths Mann/Weil and Atkins/D'Errico did for the Animals -- to wit, get them on the charts in the States.
Their first Gouldman-penned single, "For Your Love," featured the sounds of harpsichord and bongos. On the follow-up, "Heart Full of Soul," new guitarist Jeff Beck used a fuzz-tone to simulate the sound of a sitar (Clapton having quit in a huff over the band's commercial direction and an Indian session muso having failed to cut the mustard). "Evil Hearted You," which charted in the U.K. but wasn't even a single in the States, might just be the best of the three, featuring a Morricone-esque minor key melody, nifty rave-up bridge, and melodic slide solo.
The Yardbirds spent most of their existence touring extensively rather than meticulously crafting recordings for the ages. In fairness, they weren't really writers; a hectic touring schedule certainly didn't prevent the Stones' Jagger and Richards from penning plenty of toonage in 1965-66. One side benefit of spending so much time in the States was getting the opportunity to record at historic Sun Studios in Memphis and Chess Studios in Chicago, where much of the music that influenced them originated.
Their Sun session produced two tracks that were muy influential on U.S. teen-snot garage bands, the rockabilly cover "Train Kept A-Rollin'" and the ghostwritten protest anthem "You're a Better Man Than I." Their visits to Chess produced two of their most earth-shattering tracks: a breakneck romp through Bo Diddley's "I'm a Man," which ended in a frantic call-and-response episode that exploded into in their wildest-ever rave up, and the band original "Shapes of Things," a fuzz-and-feedback laden monster that featured socially conscious lyrics and an Indian-influenced Beck solo, played entirely on the G string.
Some of the early Brit single and EP tracks included on their debut U.S. LP For Your Love are good representations of their "rave up" style, while others seem to have been aimed at an Archie comics/malt shop U.S. teen audience that was on its way out in '65. An uncredited Clapton soloed on "Good Morning Little Schoolgirl," "I Ain't Got You," and the instrumental "Got To Hurry" with a brighter tone and more presence than Beck's solos on the album, but a version of Mose Allison's "I'm Not Talking" with Beck pointed toward a heavier overall sound. A second thrown-together album, Having a Rave Up with the Yardbirds, boasting a classic title and cover art, consisted of one side of ace studio tracks featuring Beck and one side of live ramalama recycled from Five Live Yardbirds.
An abortive attempt was made to record a bona fide Yardbirds studio long-player at the end of March 1966. The surviving bits are mostly just riffs and sketches of songs, without vocals; they've been released numerous times since the early '70s. Following those sessions, they broke with manager Gomelsky and got Simon Napier-Bell, described by Nik Cohn as "an outrageous cosmic talker, a true mouth," in his place. At the end of May, they went back in the studio and recorded the album Yardbirds, aka Roger the Engineer (Over Under Sideways Down in the States, minus a couple of blues songs) -- in a week. Sure, the Beatles did their first album in a day, and Mark I Deep Purple never spent more than a week on an album, but they weren't writing all the material in the studio.
While it was no Pet Sounds or Revolver, Roger the Engineer's still an underrated gem from a time when bands were starting to focus more on albums than singles. "Lost Woman" -- based on a Snooky Pryor number Clapton hipped them to before he unassed and previously attempted at the scuttled March sessions as "Someone To Love" -- is a masterpiece of controlled tension-building, like a pot that simmers, threatening to boil over, but never does. "Over Under Sideways Down" was supposedly based on "Rock Around the Clock," but you'd never prove it by me; the lyrics describe a dissolute Swinging London rake like the one David Hemmings played in Blow-Up. "I Can't Make Your Way" sounds like nothing more than a Japanese children's song, while "Farewell" is a brief Relf suicide note with simple piano and vocal backing. "Hot House of Omagarashid" is a fun bit of percussion-and-wobble-board silliness; the mono version includes a killer Beck guitar solo that didn't make it onto the stereo for some reason.
"Jeff's Boogie" is a reverb-drenched tribute to Beck's idol Les Paul that he'd started playing in his pre-Yardbird band, the Tridents. "He's Always There" works off a thumping four-on-the-floor kick and a menacing, four-note descending fuzz bass line. "Turn Into Earth" is a jazz waltz with more pensive lyrics from Relf, the patented Yardbirds "Still I'm Sad" Gregorian chant backing vocals, and a Beck solo that's buried so deep in the mix that it sounds like gypsy fiddle heard through mists of time. "What Do You Want" is another retread from the March sessions, a two-chord basher with more socially conscious lyrics and another flashy (but brief) solo from Beck. "Ever Since the World Began" sounds to these feedback-scorched ears like, no fooling, the roots of Black Sabbath -- structurally, anyway, minus the heaviness.
Before the album was released, however, bassist/musical director Paul Samwell-Smith quit to become a producer, paving the way for busy session muso Jimmy Page (who'd originally passed on the guitarist gig and recommended his pal Beck when Clapton quit) to join the band...on bass. That lasted about as long as you'd figure, with rhythm guitarist Chris Dreja moving over to the four-stringed instrument and making way for Page to play lead along with (and sometimes without) the increasingly unreliable Beck.
It was during this period that they recorded "Happenings Ten Years Time Ago," which went even further than "Shapes of Things" into realms of sound experiment and is probably their psych-rock pinnacle. They also appeared in Antonioni's aforementioned Swinging London exploitation flick Blow-Up in lieu of the Who (Beck broke a guitar), playing a modified "Train Kept A-Rollin'" entitled "Stroll On" that's probably their single most exciting recorded moment. It wasn't meant to last, and it didn't. The B-side to "Happenings," "Psycho Daisies," chronicled Beck's infatuation with a Hollywood starlet, and upon the completion of their U.S. tour in December, he was informed that his services were no longer required.
As 1967 dawned, Napier-Bell relinquished his duties as manager to Peter Grant (yep, _that one_) and as producer to Mickey Most (of Animals/Donovan/Lulu fame). By this time, Relf and drummer Jim McCarty had discovered the joys of psychedelics, so the live show was getting freakier, with numbers getting extended and Page adding new toys like a wah-wah pedal and violin bow (the latter probably inspired by the Creation's Eddie Phillips) to his bag of tricks. Recording sessions for an album took place intermittently from March to May, while the release of an increasingly lousy series of ghostwritten flop singles commenced. The LP, Little Games, was okay but uneven; it wasn't even released in the U.K. The Yardbirds were running out of steam.
At the end of March 1968, they recorded a live album at the Anderson Theater in New York. When it was released (with fake audience applause added) in 1971, Page moved swiftly to have it withdrawn, probably because he didn't want Led Zeppelin's fans to know how much of that band's early repertoire -- especially the song "Dazed and Confused," itself a steal from Greenwich Village singer-songwriter Jake Holmes -- was cribbed from the Yardbirds. In early April, the band recorded a few tracks that wouldn't see the light of day until the '90s (as Cumular Limit). In June, at the end of their sixth U.S. tour, Relf and McCarty called it quits, and the Yardbirds were effectively finished (although the embryonic Led Zep played dates as the "New Yardbirds" until after sessions for their first album were complete).
Before the CD age of maximalism -- when Charly in the U.K. released a 4CD box of all the Gomelsky recordings; Rhino put out a 2CD that included all of the "legit" recordings from the Gomelsky, Napier-Bell, and Most eras; and EMI even got into the act with a 2CD Little Games that included all the outtakes -- the Yardbirds' catalog has had a very convoluted history. The original albums were all out of catalog by the end of the '60s, with only the '67 Greatest Hits still available. (Not a bad place to start, actually; that's where I did.)
In 1970, their American label Epic released a 2LP compilation, Yardbirds Featuring Performances by Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page that culled non-single highlights from all their U.S. albums to cash in on the popularity of their latter-day bands. It included five tracks from For Your Love, two from Rave Up, seven (appropriately) from Over Under Sideways Down, and six from Little Games -- a fairly representative selection, with nothing the contemporary rock audience would reject. (Only the original aficionados and dedicated crate-diggers like your humble chronicler o' events got to hear those other ones.) In the late '70s, Canadian label Bomb released Shapes of Things, a judicious culling of Gomelsky-era sides, including some from the aborted March '66 album sessions.
When their BBC sessions finally became available on disc in the '90s, they were a revelation, since no live Beck-era recordings save "Stroll On" had been released up till then. (Not only that, you could hear a '65 version of "Smokestack Lightning" with Beck that revealed where Zep got the riff that powered "How Many More Times" on their first album.) Another candygram from the gods was the aforementioned Cumular Limit, a Y2K release the brought together some of the best bits from Little Games, the previously-unheard April '68 sessions, and some hot live performances from German TV -- in toto, probably the best representation of the Page-era Yardbirds extant. Now Carlton Sandercock, the Brit Uberfan who was instrumental in releasing both the BBC sessions and Cumular Limit, has a 5CD box, Glimpses 1963-1968, due out any day on his Easy Action label. Looks like a corker.
Perhaps the Yardbirds' legacy has lost a little luster over the years. In Rock and the Pop Narcotic, Joe Carducci wrote, "They burned a path; they didn't build a bridge." Myself, I still find the noise those malnourished Brit war babies made more resonant than the heavier crews like Blue Cheer and Black Sabbath that followed in their wake. I respect the noise that bands like Sleep and their progeny make; it just doesn't move me.
As for the Yardbirds' triumverate of hotshot guitarists, Clapton's apex probably came with his tenure in John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, when he adopted the Les Paul-Marshall combination that's defined heavy rock ever since. With Cream, he went on to new heights in self-indulgence, wowing the hipi ballroom audiences with endless monochordal jams until Rolling Stone said they didn't like it. After that, he started chasing the Band and hasn't stopped since. Hasn't caught up with 'em yet, either. (In fairness, to some folks who aren't me, his name is synonymous with blues guitar. Just not my taste, is all.)
Of the three, Beck is my guy. I think the 1968 Jeff Beck Group was one of the greatest rock bands ever, and have the stack of audience recordings to prove it. In the '70s, he went on to reinvent himself as a fusion demigod, playing what St. Lester charmingly referred to as "Mahaherbiehancockorea." Since the late '80s, he's become a sort of Zen master of the electric guitar. No one can touch him, although he still defers to Clapton, in the way you'd expect from a samurai.
Page is the most problematic. Sure, he stole from everybody, but in the end, isn't it all folk music anyway? (Just ask an attorney.) In the fullness of time, he and Percy Plant crafted something that was uniquely theirs (and uniquely English) from an amalgam of Howlin' Wolf, Bert Jansch, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Aleister Crowley. By the time Zep hit the States, the political economy of rock promotion had changed (from clubs to ballrooms to theaters to arenas to stadiums), and so had rock management. No more connoisseurs like Gomelsky or dandified dilletantes like Napier-Bell; for the era of Bill Graham and Frank Barsalona, only a hard-nose like Peter Grant, a graduate of the Don Arden school of management-by-intimidation, would do.
For their part, Zep took their borrowings and blew them up into a sound big enough to fill the sheds. As a producer, Page figured out how to use ambient miking to make bass and drums sound _huge_. And only a fool would argue that the Yardbirds had a better singer and drummer than Plant and Bonham. (So did the Jeff Beck Group, but back in those days, Beck was too mercurial to see where his advantage lay -- he even passed on playing Woodstock. Living well is the best revenge.)
Ask Keith Relf and he'd tell you that his favorite days were early on, with Eric. But what band isn't the most fun near its inception, the first time you see a crowd of people going apeshit over the guys on the stage, and one of the guys on the stage is you? He died in 1976, electrocuted while playing guitar at home. Patti Smith said it at the time, and I believe it now: It doesn't matter if Keith Relf ever did anything wrong in his life.