The Yardbirds - A Brief History
The Yardbirds are one of the most influential rock bands in history. Three of rock's greatest guitarists - Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page first made their names in this innovative British band. The Yardbirds also eventually burgeoned into Led Zeppelin.
Beginning with the unwieldy name of The Metropolitan Blues Quartet, in 1962/63, London-based The Yardbirds didn't pull up any trees with their musicianship early on in their careers. Following in the footsteps of emerging R&B band, The Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds took over from Mick and Co. as the resident band at The Crawdaddy Club, but whereas the Stones were playing material from the likes of Chuck Berry, The Yardbirds were going back a bit further - to the likes of Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, and, soon-to-be-friend, Sonny Boy Williamson II.
The original Yardbirds line-up was: Keith Relf - vocals/harmonica; Chris Dreja - rhythm guitar; Paul Samwell-Smith - bass; Jim McCarty - drums; Anthony (Top) Topham - lead guitar. 17-year-old art student Eric Clapton replaced Topham late in 1962. Clapton, though not the finished article or an obvious genius, was still impressing audiences even at that early stage in his career.
Giorgio Gomelsky, the Crawdaddy owner, had lacked the confidence to manage The Rolling Stones, but made sure that he didn't miss out again, and became The Yardbirds manager and first producer. Gomelsky helped the group get their first recording contract with EMI Columbia early in 1964. Unusually, but appropriately, The Yardbirds first album was the live at The Marquee Club, London recording, 'Five Live Yardbirds'. Around this time Sonny Boy Williamson invited the group to tour with him, in England and Germany. Though somewhat dismissive of their interpretation of the blues, he and the band became friends until Williamson's death in 1965.
The Yardbirds didn't find commercial success until they used a song from a young English songwriter (who was later to achieve fame as a member of 10cc), Graham Gouldman. 'For Your Love' gave the group their first UK and US hit. Clapton didn't like the song, and saw it as a sign The Yardbirds were moving away from their blues roots (one of 10cc's songs upset Eric later in the mid-1970s - 'Old Wild Men', which was loosely based on various guitarists getting old, including him). Clapton left to join John Mayall's Blues Breakers, and then became a superstar with Cream, and, with Jimi Hendrix, remains the most admired rock guitarist.
Paradoxically, the recent success of The Yardbirds meant that Clapton's departure was not the blow it could have been. They were now a prestigious group to join. Jimmy Page was invited to be the group's new lead guitarist, after being recommended by Clapton, but he was, at the time, one of the hottest studio guitarists around - playing on Tom Jones's 'It's Not Unusual', The Who's 'I Can't Explain', and 'You Really Got Me' by The Kinks. Reluctant to take the risk of joining a group that maybe wouldn't last, he recommended Jeff Beck, and it was Beck who pushed The Yardbirds, and rock music in general, into uncharted territory, with his using an electric guitar to not only make music, but strange, futuristic sounds. Songs such as 'Shapes Of Things' and 'Over Under Sideways Down' indicating where the group was heading - and, lyrically, they were like a futuristic Alice In Wonderland! 'Evil Hearted You' also showed early signs of some thunderous Led Zeppelin chords, and then there were the Gregorian-style vocals on cuts such as 'Still I'm Sad'...The Yardbirds were a band not afraid of taking risks.
When Samwell-Smith decided to quit playing, and become The Yardbirds producer, Jimmy Page joined the group, and Page and Beck's invention was shown on 'Happenings Ten Years Time Ago'. Featuring John Paul Jones on bass, this was a groundbreaking track, and a definitive psychedelic one. Page was also playing bass with The Yardbirds, as well as sharing lead guitar with Beck around this time, while tutoring Dreja into becoming The Yardbirds regular bassist.
1966 saw a smirking Page and a moody Beck playing 'Stroll On' to a hip crowd, including David Hemmings, in the famous Antonioni film, and snatch of mid-1960s London, 'Blow Up'. Beck ending up smashing his guitar into a supposedly faulty amp.
When Beck left the group in contentious circumstances, he went for a solo career, and gave Rod Stewart a job as the lead singer of The Jeff Beck Group. The B-side of Beck's hit, 'Hi Ho Silver Lining', was 'Beck's Bolero' - historically interesting as it was written by Page, who also played guitar on it with Beck. John Paul Jones was on bass, Keith Moon was on drums, and Nicky Hopkins was on keyboards. Thus the supergroup that never was.
The Yardbirds were never as strong after Beck's departure, but did start giving exposure to unknown artists, covering songs from future legends Harry Nilsson and The Velvet Underground. In retrospect, though, it's interesting to see how the group evolved into Led Zeppelin. Peter Grant became The Yardbirds manager in 1967, then went on to become one of the most famous of all rock managers with Led Zeppelin. Page was experimenting with using a violin and cello bow on his guitar with The Yardbirds - something he carried on doing with Led Zeppelin. The Yardbirds covered Jake Holmes's 'Dazed And Confused' - an early Led Zeppelin classic - which had gone down well on American tours.
In July, 1968, The Yardbirds played effectively their last-ever gig, appropriately in England. In Luton, Beds, at the technical college - this writer's home town. Things then got a bit complicated. Jimmy Page had claimed the rights to the band's name, Yardbirds stalwart Dreja quit, Relf and McCarty had already left, and a Scandinavian tour beckoned. A one Terry Reid, formerly lead singer of The Jaywalkers, was offered the job as lead singer with what would be called The New Yardbirds, but still The Yardbirds to record companies trying to shift product from this new assemblage. Reid had other obligations, so recommended an unknown singer from Wolverhampton, Robert Plant, who suggested John Bonham as the drummer, and John Paul Jones (Page's old Herman's Hermits buddy) replaced Dreja on bass. Keith Moon's dismissive "You'll go down like a lead zeppelin" comment would, unwittingly, give the name to the biggest rock act of the 1970s.
Of the ex-Yardbirds, Keith Relf, who had formed Renaissance with Jim McCarty, was tragically electrocuted, Samwell-Smith became a producer for Cat Stevens, and Chris Dreja put together a band called Box Of Frogs in the 1980s, featuring Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck. In 2003 the album 'Birdland' was released under The Yardbirds name, and included original members Chris Dreja and Jim McCarty, and a brief appearance by Jeff Beck. There's also a wonderful collection of guests on this album, including Slash and Brian May.
The Yardbirds were worthy inductees into the 'Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame' in 1992, with U2's The Edge inducting them.
- Paul Rance/booksmusicfilmstv.com.