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The Yardbirds are a British rock band, noted for starting the careers of three of rock's most famous guitarists: Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page. A blues-based band whose sound evolved into experimental pop rock, they had a string of hits including “For Your Love”, “Over, Under, Sideways, Down” and “Heart Full Of Soul”. They were a crucial link between British R&B and psychedelia; their guitarists were extremely influential in music.
The Yardbirds were pioneers in almost every guitar innovation of the '60s: fuzz tone, feedback, distortion, improved amplification, and were one of the first to put an emphasis on complex lead guitar parts and experimentation. The term, "Yardbird" is used in the southern United States as slang for 'chicken' (as in poultry), and it is a slang expression for "prisoner".
The bulk of the band's conceptual ideas, as well as their songwriting, came from the quartet of singer Keith Relf, drummer Jim McCarty, rhythm guitarist/bassist Chris Dreja, and bassist/producer Paul Samwell-Smith, all of whom co-wrote the Yardbird's original hits and constituted the core of the group.
Formed originally as the Metropolitan Blues Quartet in 1962–63 in the London suburbs, and having emanated out of the atmosphere of Bohemianism fostered by the Kingston Art School, the Yardbirds first achieved notice on the burgeoning British blues scene (or "rhythm and blues", as the British music press alluded to it) when they took over as the house band at the Crawdaddy Club in Richmond— succeeding the Rolling Stones in September 1963, and flying in the face of London's 'serious music' 'trad jazz' club scene circuit in which the new 'R&B' groups got many of their first professional bookings.
With a repertoire drawn from the Delta-soaked Chicago blues titans Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson II and Elmore James, the Yardbirds began to build a following of their own in London before very long. Their inexperience and their less-than-stellar musicianship was obvious, but their commitment was just as powerful, as they hammered away at versions of such blues classics as "Smokestack Lightning", "Got Love If You Want It", "Here 'Tis", "Baby What's Wrong", "Good Morning Little School Girl", "Boom Boom", "I Wish You Would", "Done Somebody Wrong", "Rollin' and Tumblin'", and "I'm a Man".
They made their first significant lineup addition when singer/harmonica player Keith Relf, rhythm guitarist Chris Dreja, bassist Paul Samwell-Smith and drummer Jim McCarty, replaced original lead guitarist (Anthony) Top Topham with a very boyish-looking art student named Eric Clapton in October 1963. Clapton already knew what he was doing with his instrument; his solo turns, while far enough from the gripping little gems for which he became famous soon enough, already set him apart from most of his peers among the British blues clubbers. Between his sleek guitar playing and Keith Relf's improving harmonica style, the group could at least boast two attractive players that made listeners overlook their still-incomplete rhythmic attack. And, of critical importance, Crawdaddy Club impresario Giorgio Gomelsky—who had all but discovered the Rolling Stones but thought it beyond his range to become their manager—learned enough from his previous miss to become the Yardbirds' manager and, as it turned out, first producer.
Under Gomelsky's guidance, the Yardbirds got themselves signed to EMI's Columbia label in February, 1964; they set a precedent of a sort when their first album turned out to be a live album, Five Live Yardbirds, recorded at the legendary Marquee Club in London. The group was well enough reputed that none other than blues legend Sonny Boy Williamson II himself invited the group to tour England and Germany with him, a union that survives to this day on a live album memorable for Williamson's trouper-like adaptation of his deep troubador style of blues to the Yardbirds' raw, unpolished rock and roll version. ("Those English kids," Williamson said famously of the Yardbirds and other British blues groups like the Animals and the Stones, "want to play the blues so bad—and they play the blues so bad", though he had a personal affection for the Yardbirds' members and even thought of moving to England permanently, until the illness that resulted in his early death in 1965.)
The quintet went from there to cut several singles, including "I Wish You Would", but it was their third single, "For Your Love", a Graham Gouldman composition that was anything but the blues, which put the band to their highest chart position yet in England—and gave them their first major hit in the United States when it was released Stateside in 1965. The group's move into pop outraged lead guitarist Eric Clapton, at the time a no-holds-barred blues purist, who had already doubted the ability of "nice college kids" like bassist Paul Samwell-Smith to play the "real blues". Clapton left the group in protest.
The loss could have been devastating to the Yardbirds; Clapton had already shown the striking, stabbingly virtuosic style he would later expand and deepen with Mayall and unfurl as a full-fledged virtuoso statement with the improvisational blues rock/psychedelic Cream. Clapton recommended Jimmy Page, a studio guitarist he knew (and with whom he would soon cut a series of stirring blues guitar duets, including "Tribute to Elmore" and "Draggin' My Tail"), as his replacement, but Page—uncertain at the time about giving up his lucrative studio work and worried about his health—recommended in turn his friend Jeff Beck, whose fleet-fingered style and bent for experimentation pushed the Yardbirds to the direction from which they became widely credited for opening the door to "psychedelic" rock. Beck played his first gig with the Yardbirds only two days after Clapton's departure.
In 1965, the Yardbirds issued a pair of albums in the U.S., slapped together somewhat haphazardly from their British recordings, For Your Love (which included an early take of "My Girl Sloopy"—they'd gotten hold of a demo of the song before the McCoys had their chartbusting crack at it a year later, and theirs is a doubletime "rave up" version) and Havin' A Rave Up With The Yardbirds, half of which came from Five Live Yardbirds.
Rather than presenting the Yardbirds with a setback after Clapton's departure, Jeff Beck's tenure in the band actually propelled the group forward into new artistic realms that were revolutionary at the time, as well as upward commercially, and saw the band at their absolute zenith in terms of their influence and prominence within the existing music scene in the UK and abroad. The Yardbirds embarked on their first US tour in late August, 1965, and would return for 3 more US tours during Beck's time with the group, further solidifying his reputation as the most exciting and innovative guitarist on the international 'pop' music scene. A brief European tour took place in April, 1966.
The Beck-era Yardbirds produced a number of memorable, groundbreaking recordings, from single hits like "Heart Full of Soul", "I'm A Man", and "Shapes of Things" to the Yardbirds album (known more popularly as Roger the Engineer, and first issued in the U.S. in a bowdlerised version called Over Under Sideways Down), and established him as a top-rank guitarist.
Beck's guitar experiments with fuzz tone, feedback, and distortion jolted British rock forward with a bold dropkick, punching a psychedelic time-clock, and evincing world-music influences. In addition, the Yardbirds began serious experiments with things like adapting Gregorian chant and world-music influences ("Still I'm Sad", "Turn Into Earth", "Hot House of Omagarashid", "Farewell", "Ever Since The World Began") and various European folk styles into their blues and rock rooted music, and this gained them a new reputation among the hipster underground even as their commercial appeal had begun already to wane.
Beck was voted #1 lead guitarist of 1966 in the British music magazine Beat Instrumental, and his work during this period influenced major musicians (such as the then-unknown Jimi Hendrix), as well as amateur musicians in garages and stages the world over (the Yardbirds' music from the Beck-era was one of the staples of garage-rock and cover bands' repertoires during the mid-to-late 1960s). In the rarefied world of rock star guitar-heroes on the very cutting edge of new and integral sounds, Beck then stood alone at the top of the heap, and his tenure with the Yardbirds is rightfully viewed by many as their 'golden' era, with his presence and talent lending an undeniable contribution.
It was shortly after the sessions that produced Yardbirds (aka, Roger The Engineer) that Paul Samwell-Smith decided to leave the group and work behind the console as a record producer. Jimmy Page re-entered the picture, agreeing to play bass until rhythm guitarist Chris Dreja could become comfortable with that instrument, and then teaming with Beck for tantalising twin-guitar attacks.
The Yardbirds were now blessed with two world-class lead guitarists. Pronounced examples of what the Beck-Page tandem could do were the concert dates they played as the opening band for The Rolling Stones, in which they were described by critics as "World War Three", and the single "Happenings Ten Years Time Ago". The "Happenings" single featured Beck and Page on twin lead guitar, with John Paul Jones brought in to the recording session to play bass; it was backed with "Psycho Daisies", which featured Beck on lead guitar and Page on bass (The B-side of the U.S. single, "The Nazz Are Blue", features a rare lead vocal by Beck). The Beck-Page era Yardbirds also recorded "Stroll On", their half-crazed rendition of the standard "Train Kept A-Rollin'", which they recorded for the Antonioni film Blowup. Relf changed the lyrics and title the night before it was recorded because there was not enough time to acquire permission from the copyright holder. "Stroll On" features a twin lead-guitar break, so it is almost without a doubt that the Beck-Page tandem was at work on this recording (Beck had earlier played his same solo on live renditions of 'Train...', while Page would later play the second lead part alone in the Yardbirds and Led Zeppelin; put the separate Beck-Page solos together, and it sounds like the combined twin-solo on 'Stroll On').
Unfortunately, the Beck-Page lineup recorded little else in the studio, and no live recordings of the dual-lead guitar lineup have yet surfaced. The Beck-Page Yardbirds are believed to have made one other recording, a commercial for a milkshake product "Great Shakes"—a short rehash of "Over Under Sideways Down". Yet there was also one additional recording that Beck and Page made in secret—"Beck's Bolero", a piece inspired by Ravel's "Bolero" yet credited to "Page" (Beck also claims to have written the song). The rest of the lineup was John Paul Jones on bass, Keith Moon on drums, and Nicky Hopkins on piano. "Beck's Bolero" was first released as the B-side of Beck's first solo single, "Hi Ho Silver Lining", and was included on his first solo album, Truth.
Their appearance in Blowup was accidental: originally, The Who were approached, but they declined, and then The In-Crowd had been planned but they were unable to attend the filming. The Yardbirds filled in at short notice, and the guitar that Beck smashes at the end of their set is a replica of Steve Howe's instrument. Director Michelangelo Antonioni instructed Beck to smash his guitar in emulation of The Who's Pete Townshend.
The powerful synergy between Beck and Page proved short-lived; Beck either quit or was fired from the group after a tour stop in Texas in late October 1966, and the Yardbirds continued as a quartet for the remainder of their career.
Page became the new lead guitarist and he was just as bent toward experimentation as Beck, particularly his striking technique of scraping a violin or cello bow across his guitar strings to induce a round of odd and surreal sounds, and his dextrous use of a wah-wah pedal. He also proved an adept finger-style guitarist, as evident on the shimmering "White Summer", a raga- and folk-styled instrumental composition that employs the melody of "She Moves Through The Fair" and owes an evident debt to Davy Graham's "She Moved Through the Bizarre".
Increasing chart indifference, record company pressure (their British label EMI pressed hitmaking producer Mickie Most upon them in a failed bid to re-ignite their commercial success), and drug-related problems meant that by 1967, the Yardbirds' days were numbered. The "Little Games" single released in the spring flopped so badly in the UK that EMI did not release a Yardbirds record in Britain for another year. A cover of Manfred Mann's "Ha Ha Said The Clown" -- on which only one band member, Relf, actually performed -- was the band's last single to crack the U.S. Top 50, peaking at No. 44 in Billboard in the summer of '67. Their final album Little Games, a psychedelic album released in the U.S. that July, did poorly.
The Yardbirds spent most of the rest of that year touring in the States with new manager Peter Grant while living a schizophrenic pop life: their records became more benign (a cover of Harry Nilsson's "Ten Little Indians" hit the U.S. in the fall of '67 and quickly sank) as their live shows were becoming heavier and more experimental. The band rarely played their 1967 singles live, preferring to mix the Beck-era hits with blues standards and covers by groups such as the Velvet Underground and American folk singer Jake Holmes. Holmes' "Dazed and Confused", with lyrics rewritten by Relf and cranked up to a blues-metal frenzy by Page, McCarty and Dreja, was a live staple of the Yardbirds' last two American tours -- and it went down so well that Page decided to keep it in the quiver even after the band's demise.
A concert and some album tracks were recorded in New York City in March 1968 (including the currently unreleased song "Knowing That I'm Losing You", an early version of a track that would be re-recorded by Led Zeppelin as "Tangerine"). All were shelved at the band's request, although once Led Zeppelin hit big, Epic tried to cash in by releasing the concert material as the bootleg Live Yardbirds: Featuring Jimmy Page. The album was quickly withdrawn after Page's lawyers filed an injunction on it. The Yardbirds' final single, "Goodnight Sweet Josephine", was recorded in January 1968. Released two months later, it failed to crack the Billboard Top 100 but is notable in retrospect for its B-side, "Think About It", which featured a proto-Zeppelin Page riff and snippets of the "Dazed" guitar solo in the break.
Such efforts did not improve the commercial success of the band. In addition, the members were split over the band's direction: Relf and McCarty wanted a folk sound, while Jimmy Page wanted to play more "Heavy" the kind of music that Led Zeppelin would become famous for.
But Jimmy Page, left with a touring commitment yet unfulfilled in Scandinavia, was compelled to put a new lineup together. Terry Reid was asked to join the new group, but he turned down the offer because of his new recording contract, instead recommending a then-unknown Midlands singer by the name of Robert Plant. Plant, in turn, recommended his childhood friend John Bonham on drums. Dreja bowed out to pursue a career as a rock photographer; enter bassist/keyboardist/arranger John Paul Jones, who had reportedly inquired about forming a band with Page as early as 1967.
They made the tour as "The New Yardbirds". Fans at these early shows were confused by new members, expecting to see Keith Relf. After this brief tour the band found themselves clicking, and returned home to England to produce, in a very short time, a landmark debut album. Interestingly, what was to become Led Zeppelin was still being billed as "Yard Birds" or "The Yardbirds Featuring Jimmy Page" as late as October 1968; indeed, some early studio tapes from the Led Zeppelin album were marked as being performed by "The Yardbirds".
The Yardbirds record company Epic believed that the band with Jimmy Page were under contract still to Epic. They soon found out that Jimmy was not under contract as a Yardbird and thus was free to sign with who ever he wanted to. When Led Zeppelin signed with Atlantic Records, Clive Davis was not happy and remembered they had the old tapes from the Anderson Theatre. For the second time, the album was released, this time under the Columbia Special Products label. Again, Page stopped distribution a week after its release. Jimmy Page would have continued to use the name but legal threat from Dreja (who claimed he also shared rights to the Yardbirds name) hastened the name change, finally closing the books on the Yardbirds for the rest of the century.
The term "Lead Zeppelin" was The Who's Keith Moon's tongue-in-cheek description of the prospective fortunes of a proposed "supergroup" that would have comprised himself, John Paul Jones, Steve Marriott, Beck and Page. Peter Grant changed the spelling of "lead" so that the name wouldn't be mispronounced.
The remaining Yardbirds did not exactly go gently into that good night. Vocalist Keith Relf and drummer Jim McCarty formed an acoustic-rock group (then very much in vogue) called Together and, with the help of Paul Samwell-Smith, who had gone on to fame as Cat Stevens' producer in 1970, the seminal prog-rock band, Renaissance, which recorded two albums for Island Records over a two-year period. However, the impending dissolution of Renaissance brought on by the hazards of touring caused McCarty to reform the band into a very different lineup, with McCarty himself also soon departing midway through their second album.
Jim McCarty thereafter formed the group called Shoot in 1973, which performed on the BBC several times but never toured, releasing an album called "On the Frontier" and another one that never saw the light of day. Finally, Keith Relf resurfaced in 1975 with a new quartet, Armageddon, a hybrid of hard, thrusting rock and folk that included former Renaissance mate Louis Cennamo. They recorded one promising album before Relf died in an electrical accident while playing an ungrounded guitar in his home studio on May 14, 1976. In 1977, Illusion was formed, featuring a reunited lineup of the original Renaissance, including drummer Jim McCarty and Keith's sister Jane Relf. (By this time the Renaissance name was already appropriated by a reinvented lineup fronted by Annie Haslam, thus the original Renaissance assumed the name "Illusion" from the title of their second Renaissance album.)
In the 1980s Jim McCarty, Chris Dreja and Paul Samwell-Smith (who had remained Cat Stevens' producer to the day Stevens converted to Islam and withdrew from pop music entirely) offered a nucleus for a short-enough lived but fun-enough kind of Yardbirds semi-reunion called Box of Frogs, which occasionally included Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page plus various friends with whom they'd all recorded over the years.
The Yardbirds were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992. All six living musicians who had been part of the group's heyday, including Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page, appeared at the ceremony. Jeff Beck cracked at the ceremony: "I suppose I should say thank you, but they fired me ... so fuck 'em! (Laughs)...".
Jim McCarty and Chris Dreja reformed the Yardbirds in the 1990s, with John Idan handling bass and lead vocals, and touring regularly since then with a number of guitarists and harmonica players passing through their ranks.
In 2003, a new album, Birdland, was released under the Yardbirds name on the Favored Nations label by a lineup including Chris Dreja, Jim McCarty, and new members Gypie Mayo (lead guitar, backing vocals), John Idan (bass, lead vocals) and Alan Glen (harmonica, backing vocals), which consisted of a mixture of new material mostly penned by McCarty and re-recordings of some of their greatest hits, with guest appearances by Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, Slash, Brian May, Steve Lukather, Jeff "Skunk" Baxter, John Rzeznik, Martin Ditchum and Simon McCarty. Also, Jeff Beck reunited with his former bandmates on the song "My Blind Life". The Shivers opened for them when they played in Indianapolis on this tour. And then there was the rare and improbable guest appearance on stage in 2005 by their first guitarist from the sixties, Top Topham.
Since the release of Birdland, Gypie Mayo has been briefly replaced by Jerry Donahue, and subsequently by 22 year old Ben King, while Alan Glen has been replaced by Billy Boy Miskimmon from Nine Below Zero fame.
Note: The Yardbirds released a live 2007 CD, "Live At B.B. King Blues Club" (Favored Nations).
According the Total Rock website. Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page are to possibly rejoin the yardbirds for a reunion tour starting in October 2007. No news as to who will perform vocals and this is as yet not confirmed or unconfirmed.
(to October 1963)
|Clapton replaces Topham|
(Oct. 1963 - Feb. 1965)
|Beck replaces Clapton|
(Mar. 1965 - Jun. 1966)
|Page replaces Samwell-Smith|
|Page Switches with Dreja|
|Beck is fired|
(Oct. 1966 - Jul. 1968)
(group technically "disbands," and evolves into Led Zeppelin)
(1992 - 1993)
|Idan replaces Demick, Garman and Majors join|
(1994 - 1995)
|Mayo replaces Majors|
(1995 - 1996)
|Garman Leaves and Glen joins|
(1996 - 2003)
|Miskimmin replaces Glen|
(2003 - 2004)
|Donahue replaces Mayo|
(2004 - 2005)
|King replaces Donahue|
(2005 - Present)
(*) U.S. non-LP tracks
Box of Frogs were vocalist John Fiddler with reunited Yardbirds founding members Jim McCarty, Chris Dreja and Paul Samwell-Smith.