Everything You Need to Know About the Yardbirds
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In this installment of Everything You Need To Know About, we focus on the Yardbirds – a band that carries the distinction of being both celebrated and yet under-appreciated at the same time. Initially one of many young British bands of the early ’60s who took their cues from American blues and R&B (along with the Rolling Stones, Pretty Things and Animals), the Yardbirds have since become known as the early home for a trio of guitar greats. But this group made an important impact beyond that rock footnote, and they continue today, in one form or another. Here’s Everything You Need to Know About the Yardbirds.
YEARS OF OPERATION: 1963-68; 1982–83, 1992–present
ORIGINAL LINEUP: Keith Relf – vocals, Chris Dreja – rhythm guitar, Paul Samwell-Smith – bass, Jim McCarty – drums, Anthony ‘Top’ Topham – lead guitar (replaced shortly thereafter by Eric Clapton)
CLASSIC LINEUP: Keith Relf – vocals, Chris Dreja – rhythm guitar, Paul Samwell-Smith – bass, Jim McCarty – drums, Jeff Beck – lead guitar
KEY DISCOGRAPHY: For Your Love (1965), Having a Rave Up with The Yardbirds (1965), Roger the Engineer (1966)
The Yardbirds took flight in early 1963. Inspired by American blues artists, the band of young British players wanted to recast the sounds of Sonny Boy Williamson, Howlin’ Wolf and Bo Diddley in their own mold. Initially, everyone seemed to be on the same page. But then the Yardbirds charted a pop single with little, if any, trace of blues authenticity, and their lead guitarist made his exit.
Disillusioned with what he saw as the commercialization of their pure blues approach with the success of “For Your Love,” Eric Clapton unceremoniously left the band in early 1965 to persue a path of his own. While the loss of someone like Clapton might have spelled the end of many an aspiring band, it was hardly the end of the line for the Yardbirds. Following his departure, manager Giorgio Gomelsky (who had previously been involved in the early days of the Rolling Stones) sought out someone he knew could fill those shoes, go-to session man Jimmy Page, but Page was unable to take the job because of a demanding schedule as a session man.
“I was doing about three studio dates a day, a good five days a week and maybe a couple over the weekend,” Page said in the Yardbirds Story documentary. In turn, Page recommended his friend Jeff Beck for the gig. “I remember being at Jimmy Page’s,” Beck said. “We were great friends, always sort of playing records to one another. He said, ‘What do you think of this?’ and he put on Five Live Yardbirds. He’d already backed out of the job and I think he was a sort of scout to find a replacement for Eric.”
The Yardbirds’ new guitarist made an immediate impact. “I was very, very, very happy with Jeff,” Gomelsky said. “He had this emotional thing that Eric didn’t have. The emotion is there with Eric, but it’s not exploding.” Stalwart drummer Jim McCarty added, “He could play all Eric’s stuff, but [Beck] had this futuristic feeling about his playing.” Not long after the replacement of Clapton, the band severed ties with Gomelsky who, due to his contract, ended up owning the rights to the recordings he produced for the Yardbirds up to that point.
With the lineup solidified, they moved forward promoting the “For Your Love,” which also made it into the U.S. Top 10. Things moved fast, and in short order, the Yardbirds released a string of classic singles including “Heart Full of Soul,” “I’m a Man,” “Shapes of Things” and “Over Under Sideways Down.” In 1966, the Yardbirds issued what many consider their masterpiece, Roger The Engineer. Everything was fair game now: Feedback drenched, blues wailing, hypnotic ragas smashed up against bright light pop. They’d made a sound all their own.
The LP was issued in America under the title Over Under Sideways Down, with an altered track listing. Shortly after its release, bassist Paul Samwell-Smith decided to leave and concentrate on producing records. Taking his place initially was old friend Jimmy Page. This shift didn’t last long. In frustration over the change, Beck left the band and Dreja moved over to bass. After a rethink, Beck returned to the fold and suddenly the Yardbirds found themselves with not only two lead guitarists, but two of the very best. The twin-lead lineup was similarly short lived, however. “I didn’t like my territory being encroached upon,” Beck said. “I wanted to be it, you know, I wanted to do all the guitar work.” The Page/Beck lineup did produce one landmark single in “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago,” which took their raw blues attack head long into the oncoming psychedelic haze, making for one of the era’s greatest singles.
With Beck gone, Page took control of a now four-piece lineup which would ultimately morph into a template for Led Zeppelin. The Yardbirds made one final LP, Little Games, which contained several great moments but also showed the divide between producer Mickie Most, Page and the rest of the band over musical direction. This lineup ended up performing early versions of soon-to-be Zep classics like “Dazed And Confused.” Then Jim McCarty and Keith Relf left to co-found Renaissance, and Led Zeppelin began to take shape in earnest.
That’s where things remained until a brief reunion in the early ’80s; by then, however, Keith Relf had passed. Jim McCarty and Chris Dreja returned for a lengthier reboot of the Yardbirds following their early ’90s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. McCarty and original guitarist Top Topham have formed the nucleus of the band since 2013.
If the Yardbirds had only served as the launching pad for three of rock’s greatest-ever guitarists, they’d still be important. But they were much more than that. Over a very short period of time, the Yardbirds were able to jump from straight blues inspirations to pop chart success to wildly experimental recordings. Along the way, the group helped create the basis for much of what rock and roll would sound like in the following decade. Their music still has the power to inspire, influence, and amaze musicians and fans alike, even as the Yardbirds continue to fill concert halls long after the departures of Clapton, Beck and Page.
Post-reunion Yardbirds lineups have turned to guitarists like Gypie Mayo of pub-rock legends Dr. Feelgood, though Beck made an appearance “My Blind Life” from 2003’s Birdland. That album featured a mix of classic-era Yardbirds songs with a few tracks composed by McCarty and Dreja, who has since taken leave to deal with health issues.