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
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
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
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
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
- Paul Rance/booksmusicfilmstv.com.