Yardbirds: 'Birdland' And Before

The Yardbirds -- featuring original members Jim McCarty (drums) and Chris Dreja (bass) recently completed a new album, "Birdland," featuring an extraordinary cast of guest guitarists. That Brian May,

The Yardbirds -- featuring original members Jim McCarty (drums) and Chris Dreja (bass) recently completed a new album, "Birdland," featuring an extraordinary cast of guest guitarists. That Brian May, Jeff Baxter, Joe Satriani, Slash, and Steve Vai (whose Favored Nations label will release the set on April 22) have all contributed their fretboard skills to this project simply underlines the enormous influence the 1960s band has had on succeeding generations of musicians.

As well as serving as a musical university for future guitar superstars Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page, the Yardbirds recorded several classics, among them tracks like "Over Under Sideways Down" and "Shapes of Things," which many claim are the first ever psychedelic records. Meanwhile, it is arguable that Led Zeppelin would simply not have been possible without the example of the Yardbirds' powerhouse, virtuoso, and ultramodern interpretation of the blues.

Such is the enduring interest in their music that as well as the new album, the group is experiencing further release activity in the shape of "Little Games," its final album from 1967, just reissued by EMI U.K. Said reissue contains some previously unreleased bonus tracks, one of which has a fascinating story attached to it. "Dazed And Confused," a song that featured in the live repertoire of the Yardbirds' last line-up, would later become a staple of Led Zeppelin's catalog with a wholly incorrect songwriting credit.

The Yardbirds originated in the London suburb Surrey, just one of the hundreds of English bands of the era who played the music of their American rhythm and blues heroes. But the Yardbirds had assets that few other R&B merchants could boast. The first was guitarist Clapton, a musician so gifted that before his short tenure with the Yardbirds had ended, he was inspiring graffiti on London walls that read "Clapton is God."

Then there was an almost unbearably exciting live act, the fulcrum of which was a device of the Yardbirds' own invention, the rave-up. "The rave-up really was the bass build up to the crescendo," explains Yardbirds drummer Jim McCarty, one of only two ever-present members of the group. "Bass and drums doing the double-up crescendo, like in 'Smokestack Lighting,' where we'd build up to the top note and then gradually come down like a great big orgasm. That was something that we specialized in order to whip up the excitement."

The only problem was that when the group inevitably secured a record deal, it was unable to translate that stage power to vinyl. Debut singles "I Wish You Would" and "Good Morning Little Schoolgirl" were competent enough but, as McCarty remembers, "Every time we went into the studio and tried to record something, it always sounded so flat. It never seemed very exciting."

The solution was provided, at least in album form, by 1964's "Five Live Yardbirds," which captured a sweaty, rave-up-laced night at London's Marquee. It was never released in the U.S., although four tracks were put on an otherwise studio-based stateside album; there never was a U.K. Yardbirds album whose tracklisting tallied exactly with an American one.

With its prowess proved in the album medium, the band then turned to the single format to have another crack at demonstrating its talents. Recording a composition by up-and-coming songwriter Graham Gouldman that had been sent to them by a publisher, the Yardbirds emerged with a classic record, "For Your Love." Its exotic harpsichord and bongos sounds -- as well as its weird and wonderful mixture of minor chord spookiness and lovesick sentiment -- took it into the top-10 in both the U.K. and U.S.

However, the record created a problem for the band. Clapton felt that it was a mere pop song, inhabiting a different musical universe from the one in which he -- a blues purist -- wanted to reside. It was this, as well as a personality clash between Clapton and bassist Paul Samwell-Smith that led to Clapton decamping to John Mayall's Bluesbreakers in early 1965. Perhaps surprisingly, McCarty doesn't remember this loss of such a great asset as frightening: "When somebody in a band is obviously very unhappy like he was, it's not much fun traveling around and playing gigs and things. It was quite a relief when he finally left."

The remaining Yardbirds' first choice as Clapton's replacement was a man well known in musician's circles as an extraordinarily prolific session guitarist: Jimmy Page. He declind, but did recommend another guitarist. "Jeff Beck was actually his understudy," recalls McCarty. "He would do sessions that Jimmy couldn't do." Beck, though never a prolific songwriter, would turn out to be an extraordinary influence on the Yardbirds' future direction, which would shortly make the group's blues origins sound very old-fashioned. "His style of playing, we sort of went with it and his wide range of influences," McCarty says. "From the Les Paul influence to playing Eastern sitar type things to blues. He was contributing something that was quite unusual whereas with Eric, we might have gone backwards and become a 12-bar band."

Beck's influence on the band's sound was initially restricted to remarkable but truncated virtuoso passages on their two further fine Gouldman hits "Heart Full of Soul" and "Evil Hearted You." But come February 1966, Beck was doing things with a guitar that had never been done before. "Shapes of Things," written by Samwell-Smith, singer Keith Relf, and McCarty (a trio who were always the crux of the Yardbirds songwriting team) was a single that would be notable for its surreal and self-searching air alone. Beck, however, added the coup de grace with a guitar break of unprecedented blaring intensity, a precursor of heavy metal.

"Shapes" was the last Yardbirds single recorded with original manager Giorgio Gomelsky at the helm. Disillusioned by the discrepancy between their onerous work rate and their financial recompense, they replaced him with Simon Napier-Bell, who, like his predecessor, would combine managing the Yardbirds with producing. Napier-Bell found he was taking on a peculiar group, one who could never create the pandemonium the Rolling Stones did despite having breathtaking musical gifts and an incredibly good-looking front man.

"They were a dour sort of bunch," Napier-Bell recalls. "They had plenty of humor to them but they weren't extroverted at all. The principal musical person was Paul Samwell-Smith. Absolutely musical in the most correct sense of that word. He wasn't a flamboyant extrovert at all. And Jeff would leap on stage and try to make a great rock'n'roll act for the audience but it wasn't really him."

Nonetheless, artistically the Yardbirds were now in their pomp. The follow-up to "Shapes" was the staggeringly brilliant "Over Under Sideways Down." A celebration of the values of the emerging counter-culture, it was a breathless track laced with rousing shouts of "Hey!" and one of the finest guitar performances of all time. How Beck managed to make his six-stringer sound like an Eastern reed instrument remains a mystery to McCarty to this day. Whatever the technique employed, it made for a sound the lapel-grabbing properties of which have rarely been matched before or since. There was nothing quite so staggering on the summer 1966 album "Yardbirds" (aka "Roger the Engineer") but it -- the only Yardbirds album on which they managed to write all the material -- contained some excellent cuts.

Before that album's release, bassist Samwell-Smith, weary of a life on the road, quit the band, though continued to co-produce with Napier-Bell. The choice for his replacement was somewhat bizarre: Jimmy Page, who'd had a change of heart, was drafted. Inevitably, within weeks Page swapped roles with guitarist Chris Dreja. The Yardbirds now proceeded to stun audiences: anyone can employ a twin lead guitar attack but when that attack comprises two of history's finest rock virtuosos, the result is one of the most jaw-socking sounds imaginable.

The only proper recorded legacy of this phase of the band's career are the tracks "Stroll On," the band's unforgettable performance in the movie "Blow-Up," and the single "Happenings Ten Years Time Ago," another psychedelic classic whose middle section includes a glorious Page/Beck duel.

Unfortunately, the dueling was not restricted to music. Says Napier-Bell: "Neither of them was happy. Suddenly Jeff, who got all the adulation when he played his solos, was having the adulation halved because Jimmy was on the other side of the stage playing with him in unison. And Jimmy wasn't happy because these weren't his solos." Ultimately it was Beck who snapped first and was fired after going AWOL.

With Napier-Bell now also out of the picture, Page proceeded to take over the Yardbirds. Surprisingly, though they continued to be a gutsy live act, in the studio the future Led Zeppelin mastermind took the group down the road of crass commercialism. Hiring Mickie Most as producer, the band recorded material like "Ten Little Indians" and "Good Night Sweet Josephine" that could just as easily have been rendered by teenybopper act Herman's Hermits (another Most client). Thankfully, the Yardbirds retained their bluesy and psychedelic integrity on several tracks on the contemporaneous album, "Little Games."

"The good thing about this release," says McCarty of the current reissue, "it's got 'Dazed And Confused,' which has never been properly attributed to the Yardbirds." The band first heard this song from the mouth of its composer, Jake Holmes, at a gig in New York and subsequently inserted a re-jigged version into its set.

Asked if he was surprised that the song turned up on the debut album of the band Page set up from the Yardbirds' ashes (the early Led Zeppelin was billed as the New Yardbirds for a brief period), McCarty says, "It was always very exciting and I always thought it was one of the few successes we had with that line-up so I wasn't really surprised." He was surprised, however, to see the composition of the song credited to Page. "It's very naughty, isn't it?" he says.

The Yardbirds played their last gig in July 1968. McCarty and Relf formed the mellow Renaissance while Dreja and Page pondered forming the band that would eventually be Led Zeppelin, although Dreja opted to become a photographer and shot the back cover of Zeppelin's debut. Relf was fatally electrocuted in 1976.

Today, McCarty and Dreja are back touring as the Yardbirds, rounded out by lead guitarist Gypie Mayo (Dr. Feelgood), bassist/vocalist John Idan, and Alan Glen (Nine Below Zero, Little Axe) on harmonica and backing vocals. The album features newly recorded version of eight Yardbirds hits, including "The Nazz Are Blue," "Shapes of Things," and "For Your Love," and was produced by Ken Allardyce (Weezer, Fleetwood Mac). Seven new songs complete the set.

Along with Vai, Slash, May, and Satriani, the album features the return of Beck on the track "My Blind Life," as well as Steve Lukather, and vocals by the Goo Goo Dolls' John Rzeznik. Of the guest guitarists who agreed to appear on "Birdland," McCarty says, "They're sort of really honoring us. I think it's been a big influence on a lot of guitar players and a lot of bands, particularly in the States."

McCarty is able to explain why the Yardbirds have had such an influence quite simply: "We were like a collection point for great musicians and we always had very far reaching ideas. We were always very futuristic and very unusual."