If you’re old enough to remember when the Yardbirds’ “For Your Love” first hit the charts, you might also remember rumors of a cooperative venture between the US and UK. In order to lessen American teenagers’ angst over JFK’s assassination, the two governments supposedly agreed to expedite the wholesale export of British rock music to the States. However apocryphal this theory might be, it does seem coincidental that the invasion of the Brits did in fact begin within months of that sad day in Dallas.
The Yardbirds were part of an onslaught that included the Beatles, the Stones, the Kinks, the Who, and the Dave Clark Five, each with their own distinctive sound and appearance. Other notable names in this first wave were the Animals, Gerry and the Pacemakers, Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders, the Zombies, the Searchers, the Troggs, the Pretty Things, Them, Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas, Herman’s Hermits, and of course the Swingin’ Blue Jeans (I’m sure I’ve left out a few but these are the names I remember most). Alan Clayson captures the spirit of this important band in “The Yardbirds”, published by Backbeat Books. The subtitle, “The Band That Launched Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page”, is probably meant to draw those younger readers who might not know or care about the band’s significant contribution to rock guitar history.
Clayson’s attention to minutia is overwhelming (imagine Dickens as a fourteen year old writing a fanzine) and his style a bit labored: “The historian in me drank it all in. Details were eased from my memory bank and were laced with secondary research and further first-hand reminiscences when I wrote this book …” This sentence has value, though, for he goes on to say that his purpose is to focus on the rest of the band as well, and not just the Big Three, who were in fact the most interesting characters. The others, lead singer Keith Relf, bassist Paul Samwell-Smith, rhythm guitarist Chris Dreja, and drummer Jim McCarty, were local heroes. Like many English rockers, they met in or around school, and saw music as a way out of an ordinary life. Keith Relf had worked as an electrical engineer for Samwell-Smith’s father, an irony given his death in 1976 by electrocution from an ungrounded guitar amplifier. Chris Dreja and Anthony “Top” Topham, a co-founder of the group, hung out after school at a music shop in Surbiton, examining the electric guitars. Topham’s father had a large collection of imported blues records, which Dreja credits as an important influence on the group.
Topham was nevertheless replaced by Eric “Slowhand” Clapton in 1963, when the Yardbirds took over from the Rolling Stones as house band at the Crawdaddy in Richmond. The band concentrated on blues, and made the Top 50 in October 1964 with a cover of “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl”, by Sonny Boy Williamson, whom they backed during his tour of the UK. This set the stage for their hit “For Your Love”, possibly the first pop song to feature a harpsichord. It was also the final straw for blues purist Clapton, who’d been having “musical differences” with Samwell-Smith. He was fired just before the song’s release.
Jimmy Page was actually the first choice to replace Clapton. He was a popular studio guitarist, playing on tracks such as “I Can’t Explain” by the Who (nuggets like these make the book worthwhile). Page recommended Jeff Beck, who was looking to leave a group called the Tridents.
After the album “For Your Love”, which included “I’m Not Talking”, a very innovative song for its time, the Yardbirds released the seminal “Having a Rave Up”. This was some of the group’s best work. “Mr. You’re a Better Man Than I” and “Still I’m Sad” showed a unique original style, and “Train Kept A Rollin’” and “I’m a Man” underlined their strong blues roots.
Beck later called the group the first psychedelic band. The single “Shapes of Things” was certainly an early example of musical escapism, along with “Paint It Black” by the Stones and “Eight Miles High” by the Byrds. The album “Over Under Sideways Down” (released in the UK as “Roger the Engineer”), featured Beck’s pyrotechnics on the eponymous track (influenced, according to Clayson, by Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock”), ”Happenings Ten Years Time Ago”, “Hot House Of Omagarashid”, and “Jeff’s Boogie”, among others. Eventually, Paul Samwell-Smith quit the group after burning out on tour and the real fun began. Jimmy Page joined, as a bass player at first, and then, when Chris Dreja switched to bass from rhythm guitar, as co-lead guitarist with Beck. This was the lineup that appeared in Antonioni’s 1967 film “Blowup”, where they performed, in Clayson’s words, “a thinly-disguised ‘Train Kept A-Rolling’ to unnerving stares from what looked like a gigantic photograph of a silent and undemonstrative audience”. Clayson’s critique of the film (“a slow-moving two hours without much of a plot”) is disappointing not only for its simplistic summary (one wonders what he thinks of “Zabriskie Point”) but mainly for his failure to mention Vanessa Redgrave and the striking six-foot model Veruschka, whose appearances alone were worth the price of admission.
Unfortunately, the end was near. Clayson quotes Chris Dreja: “Having two guitarists was no longer a great idea.” Beck was unhappy at sharing the lead, and eventually left the group in mid-tour. They continued as a quartet with Page on guitar until July 1968, when the others called it quits. Page tried to recruit replacements. In a Pete Best-like statement, Dreja goes on to say “I even went up to Birmingham…to audition Robert Plant and John Bonham, but I wasn’t interested in becoming a jobbing musician with strangers.” Clayson adds, about John Paul Jones, “…since he’d been involved in most of The Yardbirds’ post-Beck singles, he was an obvious choice for Page’s new band, Led Zeppelin.” The rest, as they say, is history.
The Yardbirds were an incredible group in their time, and Clayson himself eventually played with a revived version led by Dreja and McCarty. There are more succinct summaries of the group’s influence but Clayson’s book is useful, and its wonderful collection of photographs gives it great coffee table appeal.
The development of British rock guitar can be traced to a few storied groups. John Mayall fielded a trio of guitar heavyweights: the post-Yardbirds Clapton, Peter Greene, Fleetwood Mac’s first guitarist, and Mick Taylor, who replaced the doomed Brian Jones in the Rolling Stones. These three were interchangeable journeymen (Clapton even named a later album “Journeyman”) playing traditional blues behind a leader. The Yardbirds blended the blues with self-contained originality. Clapton had the shortest tenure, and went on to a spectacular career with Cream and as a solo artist. Beck and Page were more devoted to the group, and managed to advance the state of the art within its context. When Beck left and formed his own group in 1968, his first album “Truth” continued the Yardbirds tradition of blues mixed with innovation (featuring an unknown singer named Rod Stewart, and current Rolling Stone Ron Wood playing bass). Jimmy Page, of course, went on to Led Zeppelin, the archetypal heavy metal group (how could anyone improve on “Good Times Bad Times”?). Perhaps that was where the Yardbirds were headed, but Clayson’s book does capture their real story for posterity.