Life at 33 1/3: Before Zeppelin there was … Yardbirds

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Yardbirds: Yardbirds(Columbia)

They started out as blues purists, bending the blue notes with such ragged ease that the late great Sonny Boy Williamson hired them as his backing band when he visited England in 1963.  But then they, or rather their manager, upped the ambitions and zoomed in on the hit parade, and so The Yardbirds topped the charts in early ’65 with the Graham Gouldman composition “For Your Love”.



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That was more than Eric Clapton could take.  He thought they had sold out and left the band.  A bit premature.  Indeed they would record a string of hit singles during the next year or so, but they were all innovative pieces of plastic that added to the exciting end of British rock at the time.  They were cool, they were so swinging London.  The main reason for their success was of course Jeff Beck, Clapton’s replacement.  A completely unpredictable guitar player, fearless and experimental, technically brilliant, saddled with a temper that didn’t make him easy to work with.

The Beck-area Yardbirds produced a handful of very original and catchy hit singles and one album, “Yardbirds” aka “Roger The Engineer “.

This line-up of the band soaked up esoteric influences like a sponge.  Their anything goes attitude made for a highly exotic brew.  They might use the electric blues as a starting point (Keith Relf’s harmonica sure gives their roots away), but the end result wasn’t much like the blues at all.

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They would incorporate elements from classic music, and they would opt for Gregorian chanting instead of the aerie vocal harmonies that bands like The Beatles, The Beach Boys and The Byrds had injected into the world of rock.  They nibbled on what we now would call world music, be it from Asia or Europe, it all found its way into the music they created.  And everywhere, high and low, was Beck’s aggressive propensity for fuzz, feedback, distortion and non-traditional soloing.  It was a very different package.

Unfortunately Yardbirds were never well produced.  Their recordings sound murky and flat.  I really wish it would be possible to clean up and remix the original multi-track tapes.  Yardbirds were not the only ones in the 60’s that struggled with poor equipment and shoddy engineering, but they suffered more than most because there’s so much going on in their recordings.  Most of all the fine little details drown in the murky clutter, and the album lacks punch.  For all I know its their own fault, maybe they interfered too much in the control room.

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“Yardbirds” is an excellent summary of this incarnation.  It’s Beck’s show even if all the tracks are credited to the entire band.  The range is huge, the textures rich and Beck’s guitar stays center stage all the time.  There are many semi classics here, including “Lost Girl” , the runaway electric guitar galore performance of “Over , Under, Sideways , Down” and gloomy, melancholy tracks like “Farewell”, “Turn Into Earth” and “Ever Since The World Began”.

Nevertheless, I think the album is short on real highlights, it may have to do with production, but the record does sound a bit tame and unresolved.  I would have included “Shapes Of Things” (a big hit in March 1966) and if possible the strangely fascinating “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago” (that has Jimmy Page on it and was released a couple of months after the album).

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I’ve never been very fond of “Yardbirds” even though many rate it as a classic.  Overrated?  I think so.  But certainly exciting.  And its influence on contemporary rock is indisputable.  After all, this band transformed into Led Zeppelin, though that was two years later.

Released:  July 1966

Produced by: Paul Samwell-Smith and Simon Napier-Bell

(All songs written by Chris Dreja, Jim McCarty, Jeff Beck, Keith Relf, and Paul Samwell-Smith.  All songs are recorded in stereo, except where noted)




Side One

1.”Lost Woman”  3:16

2.”Over Under Sideways Down” (Rechanneled) 2:24

3.”The Nazz Are Blue”  3:04

4.”I Can’t Make Your Way”  2:26

5.”Rack My Mind”  3:15

6.”Farewell”  1:29

Side Two

7.”Hot House of Omagarashid”  2:39

8.”Jeff’s Boogie” (Rechanneled)  2:25

9.”He’s Always There”  2:15

10.”Turn into Earth”  3:06

11.”What Do You Want”  3:22

12.”Ever Since the World Began”  2:09

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Personel:

Keith Relf – lead vocals (except “The Nazz Are Blue”), harmonica

Jeff Beck – lead guitar, bass guitar on “Over, Under, Sideways, Down”, lead vocals on “The Nazz Are Blue”

Chris Dreja – rhythm guitar, piano, vocals

Paul Samwell-Smith – bass guitar, vocals

Jim McCarty – drums, percussion, vocals

Cover art:

Chris Dreja – cover design and artwork

Jim McCarty – sleeve notes