By Will Shade
"When The Yardbirds started getting high, that was the turning point.”– Rick Brown, The Misunderstood
Lift Off
Yardbirds – the name still elicits awe 33 years after the group’s demise.
Besides the similarly monikered Byrds, no other band embraced as many styles as did the English group. The Yardbirds mastered stone-cold blues, moody pop and jet-propelled rockabilly. They almost single-handedly pioneered psychedelia and its bastard stepchild, heavy metal. Further, an unreleased track from their last studio session affirms that they were on the cusp of inventing country-rock. Their influence on garage-rock subculture was equaled by few and surpassed by none.
Best known as the springboard for the Holy Trinity of Guitar– Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page all served stewardships in the group – The Yardbirds were actually a marvelous musical unit, albeit an unstable one in the personnel department.
The band’s history has been well documented in the past. Consequently, this article does not examine the group during Slowhand’s tenure or its Golden Age under Jeff Beck. However, the group’s kamikaze final flight with Jimmy Page at the controls usually gets short shrift. Over the past two years, unreleased Page-era studio tracks as well as a legendary live show have been issued, demanding a reassessment. This article attempts to do just that. So, climb into the way-back machine and hit rewind.
Beck & Page
Throughout 1966, The Yardbirds had experimented with painting in tonal colors. Exploiting Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page’s dual lead guitar abilities to their utmost, Keith Relf felt confident in describing the group’s music as “images in sound.” The Yardbirds made good on that boast, recording psychedelia’s siren song in July 1966. Unfortunately, “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago” was to be the first and last single released by the Beck and Page lineup.
The song would peak at #30 in the American charts the following autumn. Along with The Byrds’ “Eight Miles High” and The Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows,” The Yardbirds’ magnum opus issued a call to hallucinogenic mayhem that few could resist.
The 45’s non-U.S. flipside, “Psycho Daisies,” featured a rare vocal appearance by Jeff Beck. Basically a super-charged Eddie Cochran adaptation, the tune found Beck confessing his devotion to his Hollywood girlfriend, Mary Hughes.
Later in the year, a searing rewrite of “Train Kept A-Rollin’” appeared in the Swinging London movie, BLOW UP. Entitled “Stroll On,” the tune showcased the band in a nightclub scene with Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page on dual lead guitars. As Beck smashed his axe, Page smirked nefariously, his face wreathed with Beelzebub-like muttonchops.
The Paul Butterfield Blues Band was venturing into the same territory at the time with their two guitarists, Michael Bloomfield and Elvin Bishop. The American group’s magnificent EAST-WEST album found the duo swapping solos and forging raga rock in a slightly similar manner to The Yardbirds. However, Bloomfield and Bishop exchanged lead duties throughout the title song “East-West.” Bishop would solo as his band-mate provided rhythm guitar and vice versa.
Beck and Page, on the other hand, would play the same lead lines in tandem. In live situations, the duo spit out stereophonic clusters of synchronized notes on hits like “Over, Under, Sideways, Down.” The effect, to say the least, was devastating. Sadly, this potential was to remain untapped and largely unrecorded. The three aforementioned Yardbirds tunes are the only ones to showcase the star-crossed Beck and Page configuration in the studio. Jeff Beck’s initial enthusiasm at having Jimmy Page in the band slowly turned to insecurity. Beck was an emotional wildcard, playing a brilliant gig one night and then three disastrous shows in a row.
Page, on the other hand, had been Britain’s premier studio guitarist (playing on Kinks and Who sessions among many others). Honed in the hit-making factories of London, Page knew that one must deliver the goods upon demand if one was to be paid. Jimmy Page was never less than startlingly competent, if not quite reaching the stellar heights Beck could scale on occasion. Page’s professionalism and reliability exacerbated the already tenuous situation. Further, Beck felt that his territory was being encroached upon. He wanted to do all the guitar parts, apparently forgetting that he had been the one to offer Page an invitation to join the band in the first place.
Beck stopped showing up for gigs, leaving the band to soldier on as a four-piece. When he did actually bother to make an appearance, he was as apt to smash his axe as he was to play it. The Yardbirds had already played at least 150 shows in 1966 before even embarking upon their autumn American tour. The stress was becoming too much and things quickly came to a head. Jeff Beck’s behavior bordered on the bizarre. As an example, during a gig at The Comic Strip in Worcester, Massachusetts, Beck destroyed an amplifier out of frustration. One must keep in mind that the guitarist had just turned 22-years-old. The enormous pressure was too much to bear for a sensitive young man.
“It was on that Dick Clark tour – there were a few incidents. One time in the dressing room I walked in and Beck had his guitar up over his head, about to bring it down on Keith Relf’s head, but instead smashed it on the floor,”Jimmy Page recalled years later. “Relf looked at him with total astonishment and Beck said, ‘Why did you make me do that?’ Fucking hell. Everyone said ‘My goodness gracious, what a funny chap.’ We went back to the hotel and Beck showed me his tonsils, said he wasn’t feeling well and was going to see a doctor. He left for L.A. where we were headed anyway. When we got there, though, we realized that whatever doctor he was claiming to see must’ve had his office in the Whiskey. He was actually seeing his girlfriend, Mary Hughes, and had just used the doctor bit as an excuse to cut out on us.”
Obviously, things could not continue. To make a long story short, the band fired Jeff Beck. This left Page in an uncomfortable position. He was best of mates with Beck, yet after years spent laboring as a session musician he found himself relishing life with a functioning band. Beck pressed his friend to leave with him. Page opted to stay the course. With the abrupt dismissal of their wildcard guitarist in November 1966, five live Yardbirds were no more.
Then There Were Four
Jeff Beck was only the latest casualty in the ongoing rock n roll wars. The Yardbirds had lost Top Topham, Eric Clapton and Paul Samwell-Smith since 1963. Fortunately, Beck’s departure wasn’t quite as debilitating as it could have been. After all, the band had gotten used to carrying on as a quartet whenever the Moody One had stalked off during the ill-fated American tour.
However, only the most resilient of groups can lose four members in a three-year period and continue with a sense of cohesion. Once again, only a Byrds comparison is analogous. It’s downright stupefying that these two bands could suffer so many departures and boldly continue to map out uncharted territory. Compare their situations to The Beatles, who in sharp contrast were blessed with one producer and no personnel changes after issuing their first single, “Love Me Do.”
Obviously, with Jeff Beck’s exit musical elements changed within The Yardbirds. Whereas McCarty, Samwell-Smith and Beck had provided harmony vocals in the band’s classic lineup, only McCarty now filled the breach. He revealed himself to be a triple-threat: superb drummer, gifted songwriter and fine backup singer. In retrospect, it is interesting to note that even guitar-dominated bands of the time featured vocal harmonies, something sadly lacking in modern rock n roll.
Regardless, this stripped-down lineup also found Keith Relf stepping up. Over time, he began contributing rhythm guitar when the occasion warranted as well as his accustomed lead vocals and harmonica playing. Relf has been routinely criticized for his apparent shortcomings as a singer. One must take into account the fact that he suffered from debilitating asthma and had to use a bronchial inhaler in-between songs when they played live. He had suffered a collapsed lung in 1963 that had hospitalized him for six weeks. His flat and sinister tone suited The Yardbirds’ material perfectly however. A more gifted and authentic blues vocalist like an Eric Burdon or Van Morrison would have overwhelmed nefarious vehicles like “Shapes Of Things.” Finally, Keith Relf’s harmonica work reveals him to be a master of the instrument. Within the realm of ‘60s white blues, nobody is a more passionate harp player.
All these elements would rewire the group’s makeup over the coming months as they attempted to grapple with the new dynamics. The first order of business was fulfilling contractual obligations and getting in the studio.
With Beck gone, the band finished their scheduled fall tour of America. While in Detroit, The Yardbirds shared the bill with a new group out of New York, The Velvet Underground. A Lou Reed original, “I’m Waiting For The Man”, immediately captivated the Englishmen. The New Yorkers had not as yet released their debut album, THE VELVET UNDERGROUND & NICO. Soon, The Yardbirds would be one of the first to purchase it.
Back in England, The Yardbirds entered the studio for the first time as a four-piece. Unfortunately, they had very little material to record. This should not have come as a surprise. Having recorded their classic ROGER THE ENGINEER album barely six months previously, the group had since embarked on another punishing schedule, playing at least 120 dates throughout the world. They were only able to snatch a one-day breather to record in their busy itinerary before embarking on another eight-day tour of the States.
On December 22, 1966, The Yardbirds entered Olympic Studios in London to lay down some tracks. The band tried to catch lightning in a bottle once more by doing another Graham Gouldman composition, “You Stole My Love.” This was to be their fourth cover of his material. They attempted to recreate the magic of the “For Your Love” sessions by bringing in ex-Yardbird Paul Samwell-Smith to produce said session. Things did not go smoothly. Samwell-Smith had already produced (Gouldman’s own band) The Mockingbirds’ version and did not realize that The Yardbirds intended to cover it. Samwell-Smith was not happy with the group’s choice of materialand he was further annoyed that the musicians hadn’t even worked out an arrangement. Jimmy Page was actually teaching Dreja the necessary changes in the studio. Further, Samwell-Smith and Page clashed immediately. Fifteen takes were attempted, but the song never progressed to the point where Keith Relf laid down a vocal. A piano-drum duet, “L.S.D.” was also composed on the spot, but is only of interest to the completist. Paul Samwell-Smith was not amused with the proceedings. He finally had enough and stormed out of the studio. Needless to say, neither song came to fruition. The two tunes would finally be issued in 1992 on the LITTLE GAMES SESSIONS & MORE compilation.
The title of the latter song makes it apparent that hallucinogenic drugs were tightening their grip on certain members of The Yardbirds. Relf and McCarty had been experimenting with marijuana and acid for some time. Dreja and Page steered well clear of drugs. This division would have a profound effect on the band over the next 18 months.
And that was it for studio work in 1966. Once again, The Yardbirds were faced with a daunting number of worldwide gigs that would take them well into the New Year. 1966 alone had witnessed nearly 200 documented gigs. It was taking its toll. Band members were falling by the wayside like GIs on the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
Brave New World
Surely 1967 would be a better year. For one thing, the group had a new manger, its third since 1963. Gone was the egotistical Simon Napier-Bell. Enter Peter Grant. Grant was a hard-nosed and fearless character who looked out for his charges. Under his direction, the band finally began making money, which surprised them to no end.
A January and February tour of the Pacific with Roy Orbison found the band settling comfortably into the four-piece format. Orbison was not impressed, however. Night after night, The Yardbirds delivered a blistering version of “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago.” It failed to move the elder statesman of rock n roll. Orbison regarded it as little more than an audio triage clinic. To put it bluntly, The Yardbirds were too loud and wild for his taste.
Jimmy Page also introduced a new element into the band’s sonic alchemy at this time. In his studio days, Page had experimented with using a violin bow on his guitar.
“I had used it before I joined The Yardbirds. It was suggested to me by a session violinist. I didn’t think it could be done at first – bowing a flat necked instrument – but I took his advice and got a bow and started having a go and I could see the possibilities in it,” he said.
Jimmy Page could only bow two strings at a time to produce a melody. When he ran the bow across all six strings, a strange whooping sound was produced. With Beck safely out of the way, Jimmy Page pulled this striking gimmick out of his bag of tricks. As well as providing new tonal textures, it was an effective visual device.It’s been asserted that Page actually got this idea from Eddie Phillips of The Creation. However, many guitar players from David Lindley to Syd Barrett appear to have used a violin bow at the time. Who came up with the idea in the first place doesn’t really matter. Obviously, Page was determined to evolve. After all, that’s what this particular group was famed for.
In March 1967, the band finally entered the studio for the first time in four months. However, things had changed dramatically. For one thing, they were given a producer they’d never worked with before: Mickie Most. Most was well respected in the recording industry, having guided lightweight entities like Herman’s Hermits to chart success. Page was well acquainted with Mickie Most, having provided guitar work at the aforementioned act’s sessions. The pairing of pop producer Mickie Most with iconoclastic visionaries like The Yardbirds was an ill-conceived decision to say the least.
Groundbreaking singles like “Shapes Of Things” and “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago” were not to be the order of the day anymore. The #30 U.S. peak of their last single, “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago,” was considered a major disaster. The powers-that-be decreed that there would be No More Taking Chances. Self-penned material would be relegated to album tracks. Therefore, Most assigned the group a song to record for release as a single. The first order of business was to tackle a charming ditty called “Little Games.”
While the song did feature a cello arrangement by Most session-crony John Paul Jones and a nifty solo from Page, it was certainly not on par with the group’s earlier revolutionary singles. The 45’s flipside, “Puzzles,” was solid, but still not up to snuff. However, it did boast a sizzling solo courtesy of Jimmy Page.
In April, “Little Games” was released. It went over like the proverbial lead balloon, struggling to #51 in America. It didn’t even make an appearance on the British charts.
In the interim, Epic had released a greatest hits package in the States in March. Unsurprisingly in the Brave New World of 1967, the groundbreaking material on this album slaked American fans’ thirst for vintage volume. With gems like “Over, Under, Sideways, Down” and “Still I’m Sad” nestling against psychedelia’s crown jewel, “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago,” the LP climbed to #28 during a 37-week residency in the charts. Further, it was to become The Yardbirds best selling album during their existence.
Emboldened by this response, Most pushed on with recording a new Yardbirds album. Of course, he totally misread the signs. Instead of allowing them to return to their earlier innovative material, he still hoped to furnish them with a perfect pop vehicle.
Frantic touring was still the order of the day, however. The group entered the studio only when they could shoehorn the time into their demanding schedule. In April and May, the band bounced in and out of the studio to lay down tracks for what became their final studio album. Recording conditions were ridiculous. Page was still fuming about it years later and rightly so.
“It was so bloody rushed. Everything was done in one take because Mickie Most was basically interested in singles and didn’t believe it was worth the time to do the tracks right on the album. Stu [Ian Stewart] from the Rolling Stones played piano on those tracks, and when we finished the first take of the first track we were recording he said, ‘That’ll sound much better the second take.’ Mickie Most was sitting in the control booth, and all of a sudden he said, ‘Next!’ Stu couldn’t believe it,” Jimmy Page said.
Starting with the recording of the “Little Games” single, session players began making frequent appearances on The Yardbirds’ recording sessions, which makes no sense except from a ruthless economic point of view. Of course, the band was more than adept at playing whatever material was demanded, even if it was assigned and not to their liking. However, with their crushing responsibilities on the road, The Yardbirds were allotted very little studio time. When they were able to find time off to record, they would enter the studio only to find that Most’s session hacks had already laid down basic tracks. Often, only Page’s guitar and Relf’s vocals were needed to complete these recordings.
Unfortunately, Page’s production expertise from his session days wasn’t brought to bear at this time. It’s unsettling that Page’s uncanny ear would allow him to participate in some of the dubious fodder that was foisted on the band by Most. Perhaps Page was simply intimidated by the producer, whose reputation packed an enormous wallop. After all, it’s hard to argue with a man who steered countless singles to the top of the charts.
Further, it slowly became apparent that Samwell-Smith’s departure left a huge hole in the songwriting process. Beck had also been a major catalyst, although he didn’t write songs per se. Relf and McCarty still contributed material, but it was slowly beginning to veer towards a lighter feel than they’d previously exhibited. The newest member, Jimmy Page, was still in the embryonic stages of songwriting. Dreja was good for the odd riff or lyric when he could be coaxed out of his shell.
Although the sessions were nominally approached with the intent of recording an album, Mickie Most was always on the look out for 45s.
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