THE YARDBIRDS

A little over a year after The Beatles spearheaded the British Invasion of America, The Yardbirds came along. They had the wildest sound of anyone up to that time; by mid-'60s standards it was way, way out. At the start they were much like their peers from the isles The Rolling Stones, obsessed with the music of Jimmy Reed, Willie Dixon and the many other outstanding American blues practitioners of the 1950s. A big break came in 1963 when they began playing the Crawdaddy Club in Richmond, Surrey, west of London, coming in after a run there by the Stones, who'd just put a single on the charts and were moving on to bigger things.

A band called The Country Gentlemen hardly sounds like a logical starting point for one of music's most innovative bands, but that was the name of the outfit bassist Paul Samwell-Smith and drummer Jim McCarty were with in the late 1950s while attending Hampton Boys' School, getting a few small club jobs performing mostly rock tunes lifted from their Americal idols Buddy Holly, The Everly Brothers and others. Samwell-Smith jumped on the blues bandwagon in the early '60s as a member of the loftier-named group The Metropolitan Blues Quartet (McCarty would soon tag along). "The MBQ" included singer and harmonica player Keith Relf, rhythm guitarist Chris Dreja and lead guitarist Anthony Topham (nicknamed "Top"), at 15 the "kid" of the group (a whole two or three years younger than the others). Top's parents forced him to quit at the start of the '63 school year to concentrate on his art school studies. His replacement was a seriously focused blues guitarist who would go on to make quite a name for himself.

Eric Clapton knew Dreja from art school and had played guitar with local blues bands The Roosters and Casey Jones and the Engineers. The MBQ had by this time changed their name to The Yardbirds (taken from a reference in American author Jack Kerouac's highly influential 1957 novel On the Road) and were set up as regulars at the Crawdaddy, run by Giorgio Gomelsky, recently employed as their manager based on his friendship with Willie Dixon, who he'd gotten to know during the prolific bluesman's tour of the U.K. The blues acts of Chicago's Chess Records and other American labels held a faraway mystique to their younger Brit fans and future counterparts; the guys were impressed by Gomelsky's connection to it all, however tenuous. A few months after Clapton joined, they formed a close connection of their own to another great bluesman, Sonny Boy Williamson (a Chess artist, as was Dixon, his real name was Aleck Ford, the second artist to use the Williamson moniker, as the first had died in 1948). They played some dates with Sonny Boy in December 1963, tape was rolling, and those performances became their first live recordings.

The group's first studio session in February '64 produced the demos that got them signed to EMI's Columbia label. A live set at London's Marquee Club in March was released as their debut album, Five Live Yardbirds. The first single came out in June: Billy Boy Arnold's "I Wish You Would" backed with the Naomi Neville song "A Certain Girl," first made memorable by Ernie K-Doe in 1961. "Good Morning Little Schoolgirl," an improvisation of a song by the original Sonny Boy, was the group's second single, a minor U.K. hit in November. Clapton mostly kept to himself through all this and ultimately the commercial goals of the band did not align with his own ideas of artistic integrity. During the session for the next single, the Graham Gouldman song "For Your Love," he made clear his objections. Using outside musicians Brian Auger on harpsichord and Denny Piercey on bongos, the song was anything but a blues number. Clapton informed the others he was quitting the band as soon as the session was over. The record was a smash when it was released, going top ten in England and the U.S., and there was a promotional clip made which featured his replacement, Jeff Beck (who'd spent several months on the club scene with a group called The Tridents), even though it was Eric who'd actually played guitar on the track.

Clapton worked with John Mayall's Bluesbreakers from April 1965 until the summer of '66 before joining Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker to form Cream, one of the best-selling bands of the late '60s, which no doubt had the other Yardbirds scratching their heads as to what all that objection to commercialism had been about in the first place. Unlike Clapton, Beck had no qualms about reaching for mainstream success - he wanted it and would get it by whatever means. Clapton was erroneously shown on the American picture sleeve for Gouldman's "Heart Full of Soul," a late summer of '65 top ten in the U.K. and U.S. that featured a fuzz box guitar exhibition by Beck.

The unexpected top ten success in America opened the door for the band to make the leap across the Atlantic, yet during a visit in autumn 1965 they played only a few shows. The trip was perhaps more notable for a stop in Chicago; "I'm a Man" was recorded at the Chess studio, a thrill for everyone involved, and a visit the same week to Sun headquarters in Memphis resulted in the session for "You're a Better Man Than I" and Tiny Bradshaw's "The Train Kept A-Rollin'." According to legend, Sam Phillips had a hand in producing those tracks. Next came the middle eastern-influenced "Evil Hearted You." Its flip, "Still I'm Sad," derailed expectations; inspired by Gregorian chants, the entire group sang, accompanied by only an acoustic guitar and a triangle. Both sides were big in England, while American label Epic coupled "Sad" with a rocking remake of Bo Diddley's bluesy "I'm a Man," a hit at the end of the year.

The Yardbirds

The five, hitting their stride as a songwriting unit by late 1965, began cranking out more original material (with credit usually going to all band members). The futuristic conjecture of "Shapes of Things," their first hit of 1966, was heightened by Beck's heavy guitar licks beyond what anyone else was doing at the time. Gomelsky had suggested a move towards a more psychedelic sound, a concept still not fully formed in the music world of early '66, though the Yardbirds were certainly at the leading edge. He and the group parted ways over their differences and Simon Napier-Bell became manager. Paul Samwell-Smith enjoyed the in-studio recording but had tired of the live gigging and quit in May to focus on producing other acts. Keith Relf, who had struggled with health issues (including a collapsed lung brought on by asthma, which had healed successfully but sidelined him for a time in '64), took a stab at a solo side project with a couple of singles including "Mr. Zero" (written by Bob Lind of "Elusive Butterfly" fame), a minor May '66 U.K. hit. Any uncertainty the band had about its future stabilized a bit when Samwell-Smith's replacement showed up.

Jimmy Page had been a busy studio guitarist for a few years. His work can be heard on lots of mid-'60s hits, starting with "Diamonds," a number one U.K. hit in '63 by Jet Harris and Tony Meehan (late of The Shadows). "Is It True" by Brenda Lee (from a September 1964 session in England with producer Mickie Most), "Downtown" by Petula Clark, "I Can't Explain" by The Who, "Baby Please Don't Go" by Them and The Nashville Teens' "Tobacco Road" all feature his axe work. He was also writing songs around this time, collaborating (and rumored to be romantically involved) with Kentucky girl and U.S. hitmaker Jackie DeShannon during an extended visit she made to the U.K. The band had offered him the gig when Clapton left, which he'd turned down, preferring his studio work. When they made the offer again more than a year later, Jimmy accepted - though with Beck on board, he ended up playing bass (squeezing in lead guitar parts whenever he could get away with it).

"Over Under Sideways Down," a rock rave built on the rhythm of Bill Haley and the Comets' "Rock Around the Clock," kept the string of hits intact in the summer of '66. Its follow-up is one of the most chaotic three minutes of musical madness imaginable; with bewildering lyrics conjuring both lost memories and future fears, "Happenings Ten Years Time Ago" went off the deep end like none before and few since. Lead guitar solos by Beck and Page fueled the confusion, as did a distorted atomic bomb blast sound effect and Beck's mysterious spoken vexations midway through. The record is either a high point or low point depending on your perspective. Despite the amped-up weirdness of it, the song was a top 30 hit.

Director Michelangelo Antonioni tapped the band to appear in his 1966 film Blowup (which later picked up two Oscar nominations, for Best Director and Screenplay). The Ricky Tick Club in Windsor (where they had performed early on) was recreated for the shoot. Antonioni liked Beck's reckless abandon on stage and insisted he pummel his guitar during the scene (a la the favorite pastime of the Who's Pete Townshend). "The Train Kept A-Rollin'" was the intended song, but the publishing company wanted higher-than-usual royalty money, so the group reworked it with the title "Stroll On" and let 'er rip with Beck and Page doubling up again on lead guitar (at least until the part toward the end where Jeff starts smashing).

Jeff Beck's apparent tantrum in Blowup, it seems, mirrored his own real life personality. Everyone involved saw first-hand how moody he could be; he would often lose his temper, kicking AC3 amplifiers off the stage during performances or similarly mutilating equipment in the studio. He became increasingly unreliable, showing up late for shows or not at all, and eventually it became clear he had to be replaced. Jeff beat them to the punch in October 1966, a few weeks into a tour with Dick Clark's Caravan of Stars; he got off the bus and never returned. A replacement wasn't hired. Instead, the group opted to move Jimmy to lead, Chris to bass, and the band stayed a quartet from that point on. Beck popped up soon afterwards with a new group consisting of singer Rod Stewart, drummer Aynsley Dunbar and bassist Ron Wood. A single, "Hi-Ho Silver Lining," made a little noise in May '67 and an instrumental track, "Beck's Bolero," recorded during a Yardbirds session with Page on acoustic guitar, Nicky Hopkins on piano and John Paul Jones on bass, ended up being released on Beck's 1968 album Truth.

Mickie Most took over producing duties in 1967, pushing them in more of a pop direction...and the band members bristled. Most's track record with The Animals, Herman's Hermits, Donovan and others convinced the record company he could put the Yardbirds back into the upper tier of the charts. But it didn't work out that way, and singles like "Little Games" and "Ha Ha Said the Clown" (already a U.K. hit for Manfred Mann in a near-soundalike version) hadn't set well with the group. The middling chart performance of these records would seem to prove their point, yet the recorded music of the Yardbirds during this time demonstrates that the band was capable of delivering good, if not excellent, music under any conditions. The Most productions have a different sound, yet are on a high level approaching anything done previously, even compared to their creative peak the year before when Beck and Page together provided an excess of over-the-top talent.

After a 45 of the Harry Nilsson song "Ten Little Indians" and a final single in 1968, "Goodnight Sweet Josephine," the band fell apart. Relf and McCarty formed Renaissance with Keith's sister Jane Relf, who had earlier seen to the details of the group's fan club. Chris Dreja stayed with Page awhile longer before opting out to pursue a career in photography. In May 1976, Keith Relf passed away by accidental electrocution while practicing guitar at his home in Hounslow, Middlesex.

It was left to latecomer Jimmy Page, with recently-hired manager Peter Grant, to carry on the Yardbirds' legacy. "Dazed and Confused," written by Jake Holmes (called "I'm Confused" for a time) was a direct link to the band the Yardbirds would eventually transition into. Page recruited John Paul Jones, bass and keyboard player for the new group, along with drummer John Bonham and singer Robert Plant. The four played several concerts as The New Yardbirds in Sweden and Denmark in September 1968 and recorded their first studio sessions backing Texas native P.J. Proby on his album Three Week Hero. Legal entanglements prevented them from continuing as The Yardbirds, so they renamed themselves Led Zeppelin, changing the entire landscape of rock music in the process.

- Michael Jack Kirby

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