In Britain the Yardbirds are famous for spawning three of the finest British guitarists of the 60s. In America they are hailed as the crucial link between R&B, psychedelia and heavy metal.
But apart from Messrs. Clapton, Beck and Page, who exactly were The Yardbirds? Let rhythm guitarist Chris Dreja make the introductions: “There was Keith Relf, our singer and underrated harmonica player, a sensitive guy, a great lyric writer and no slouch as a looker.
“There was Paul Samwell-Smith on bass, who was the most un-rock’n’roll kind of guy but a genius in his own right – particularly when it came to getting our sound on record. Then there was Jim McCarty on drums who became an important part of our songwriting team. And there was me, who was able to work with everyone and keep the gel there.”
They all grew up around the Kingston area, south west of London, which during the late 50s and early 60s became a hot-bed for the burgeoning rhythm and blues scene pioneered by grown-up blues musicians like Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated and the Cyril Davies All Stars.
They got to know each other at school and art college, part of a circle that hung around coffee bars, cafes, living rooms and bedrooms, listening to records, playing together and forming bands. “Jim and I were in a band called Surbiton R&B,” Dreja recalls, “and Keith and Paul were in the Metropolis Blues Quartet.”
The local scene was set buzzing in 1962 when the newly-formed Rolling Stones got a residency at Richmond’s Crawdaddy Club at the Station Hotel. The Yardbirds formed in May 1963, spurred on by the general excitement. Their first guitarist was Anthony ‘Top’ Topham. “He’d been my best friend at school, and had introduced me to the music I fell in love with,” says Dreja. “Pretty soon we were playing four or five nights a week which made it a paying proposition.”
When the Rolling Stones moved their Crawdaddy residency to the Richmond Athletic Club in autumn 1963 to accommodate their growing following, The Yardbirds asked promoter Giorgio Gomelsky if they could take over at the Station Hotel.
At this point, Topham bowed out in favour of the art degree he was doing at college. When they looked around for a replacement, Eric Clapton was the obvious choice. “He was at the same college Top and I were at but he was a couple of years older,” says Dreja. “He already had a reputation as a guitarist with a bit of charisma. So when we got the Crawdaddy gig, we approached him.”
The Yardbirds’ prospects were more enticing than Clapton’s current band, Casey Jones & The Engineers, and he quickly accepted. “He was already a professional player so it wasn’t like he had to learn that attitude,” says Dreja. “And we all had the music in common, although I think Eric was more passionate about it than we were. He would spend a weekend practising just one guitar phrase.
“I remember he joined on condition that he could have a week off at Christmas, no questions asked. And no questions were asked. It was only later that we found out he’d gone to visit his mother in Germany. He was illegitimate which was still a stigma in those days. In fact he was living with his grandparents, which is where we’d drop him off after gigs.
“When he joined there was an extremely intense period where we all became very close which I think was important to him. He and I even shared a tiny flat together.” Which is where Dreja and Clapton discovered they had another passion in common: clothes. “We found this place in Shaftesbury Avenue where you could buy imported American clothes – the button-down shirts, the shiny mohair suits, the trousers that were two inches above the shoe, That became the template for mod gear. But we were just trying to be cool.”
With Clapton’s arrival, The Yardbirds found their popularity rising quickly. Drummer Jim McCarty remembers that, “We used to give it everything on stage. We had a really high energy level. That excited the audience and we’d feed off that.” To raise the excitement levels even higher they developed the ‘rave-up’ where they’d suddenly go into overdrive and create a musical frenzy.
“That was Paul’s idea although I think he nicked it from the Cyril Davies All Stars,” says McCarty. “He’d double up the tempo on his bass and then build to a huge crescendo. It got the crowd going every time.”
Giorgio Gomelsky had good connections to the Marquee Club and the National Jazz & Blues Festival (the forerunner of the Reading Festival), so not only did The Yardbirds gain a hip London gig, they also got to back legendary Mississippi Delta bluesman Sonny Boy Williamson when he toured in December 1963. It was a dream come true for these eager young white boys from the Thames Delta, although Sonny Boy didn’t necessarily see it that way.
“Apparently he was telling people when he got back, ‘Those white kids wanna play the blues so bad… and they do’,” laughs McCarty. “Actually we weren’t that bad, and he was quite affectionate to us. He was a real character with a wicked sense of humour that screwed us up on stage a couple of times. And he was a drinker – a bottle of whisky a day.”
Dreja remembers the insight into “the real world of the blues. We’d just been mimicking it before. We didn’t realise that in black America Sonny Boy was actually a big star – because the industry was so segregated back then. And he was surprised to find an eager young white audience that included lots of pretty young girls. I think it blew his mind a bit.”
The Yardbirds’ first two singles in 1964 were both live favourites – I Wish You Would, complete with customised rave-up, and Good Morning Little Schoolgirl. These might have pleased their fans but they were too raw for the charts. It was the same with their first album, Five Live Yardbirds, recorded at the Marquee. Amid the audibly chaotic recording, the band’s visceral R&B comes through loud if not clear. Clapton revels in the thrust of the recording, and the rest of them make up in adrenalin what they might lack in finesse.
“The Marquee was always a great night for us,” remembers Dreja. “We did over 50 shows there. And there was this back room where we could put all the recording equipment. But it was all very primitive and we caught it by accident rather than design.”
But that was as good as it got for Clapton. The next step was being sent out on package tours around the country, part of a bus load of groups playing 28 towns in 29 days to audiences who’d come to swoon over Billy J. Kramer or Herman’s Hermits.
“Eric had this thing about paying his dues,” says Dreja. “But once we moved on to that cinema circuit, playing 20-minute sets twice a night to a pop audience, it didn’t work for him anymore. He was a purist, to the point of being blinkered, and he couldn’t see that the rest of us were happy just getting something out of our system. In fact I think he felt hurt by it, considering how close we’d been.”
It didn’t do the band any harm, though. Their reputation as a live act got them a spot on the bill for The Beatles’ 1964 Christmas shows at London’s Hammersmith Odeon. “It were more vaudeville than rock’n’roll with the Beatles running around in these cheap costumes,” says Dreja. “Eric wasn’t enjoying it. In fact he never showed up for one show. I remember seeing him sneaking down the aisle during the last number, looking sheepish with a batch of albums under his arm.”
But The Yardbirds needed a hit if they were to sustain the momentum. They were given a demo of For Your Love by Graham Gouldman who’d written hits for The Hollies. Paul Samwell-Smith could see the possibilities, and a letter went round stating that he’d be arranging and supervising the recording session. Dreja doesn’t remember it but McCarty does. “That was the hair that broke Eric’s back. He never really got on with Paul.”
Clapton left after recording For Your Love in March 1965, moving to John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. The Yardbirds needed a replacement quickly as the single was climbing the charts. They approached noted session player about town Jimmy Page, but he was earning more in the studio than The Yardbirds could offer. He did, however, point them in the direction of Jeff Beck who was playing with The Tridents on the club circuit The Yardbirds had left behind. With a single breaking into the Top 10, Beck wasn’t that hard to convince.
“Jeff was, and is, a fucking genius,” maintains Dreja. “But in contrast to Eric, Jeff was totally uncool – except when it came to his guitar playing.”
“He had a much wider range of sounds,” adds McCarty. “He hadn’t just been listening to the blues. And that suited us because we were looking for something original.”
They found it with Beck. His arrival heralded four brilliant, innovative hit singles over 15 months that took the band in a whole new direction – _Heart Full Of Sou_l, Evil Hearted You, Shapes Of Things and Over Under Sideways Down.
The last two were written by the band. “We found this way of working with Jeff that worked wonders,” says Dreja. “The rest of us would put a basic song together in the studio and then we’d bring Jeff in to put his bits on top. Sometimes we had ideas for him to try. Other times we just let him do what he wanted. But it always seemed to work.”
“The thing about Jeff was that he wasn’t very talkative. Maybe he was a bit intimidated by the rest of us. So it was hard to know what he was thinking. But on stage it was completely different. He’d really come alive and you never knew what he was going to do.”
Not only were they scoring Top Three singles in Britain, they were having Top 10 hits in the US as well. “Finally we got to go to the land we knew so much about… or thought we did,” says Dreja. “Actually a lot of it lived up to our expectations – hanging out with Andy Warhol at The Factory, that kind of stuff. And Jeff was absolutely bowled over by California – the cars, the girls. But we were also touring like lunatics over there. The schedules were just crazy.”
The relentless touring on both sides of the Atlantic was starting to take its toll. Paul Samwell-Smith would try to blot it out with a book, Keith Relf with a bottle. Beck would bottle it up and then let it out on stage. And even though the hits were stacking up, they didn’t get round to recording their second album – their first studio album – until the summer of 1966.
“We were allowed a whole week,” says Jim with heavy irony. “We had loads of ideas but it was all so crammed. We had a lot of fun doing it, though, and Roger the engineer (after whom the record is nicknamed even though it’s officially credited as Yardbirds) spent a lot of time listening to what we wanted. In some ways it was a weird, unconscious concept album and maybe it was ahead of its time.” The album featured the last classic Yardbirds hit, Over Under Sideways Down (apparently a homage to Rock Around The Clock). They also recorded the follow-up, Happenings Ten Years Time Ago, which was a relative flop, but has been regularly hailed since as one of the great psych-pop records of all time.
After producing the album, Paul Samwell-Smith decided to remain at the control desk. They turned to Jimmy Page again and this time he accepted the offer. “He finally decided he wanted to get out there and get a piece of the action,” says Dreja. “He came in on bass, ‘to help us out’, as he says. But he was a real professional. He knew the business much better than we did.”
Jimmy Page’s professionalism was soon in action. Just before a prestigious San Francisco gig on their next American tour, Beck had what Dreja calls “the first of his mysterious collapses”. Page switched to guitar, Dreja moved to bass and they managed to salvage the show.
When Beck returned, Page stayed on guitar, giving the band a dual-guitar format rather than the previous lead/rhythm look. The prospect of Beck and Page in tandem was – and still is – mouth-watering, but the reality seldom matched up. “They’d been friends, but I think Jeff thought Jimmy was crowding his space on stage,” says Dreja.
McCarty agrees, adding, “The problem was, Jeff would never talk about it. One gig in 10 was fantastic, but the other nine were crap.”
The problem resolved itself in October 1966 when the band were dispatched on yet another inappropriate US tour with pop idols Gary Lewis and Brian Hyland across the American South, all in the same bus. Beck lasted one show before having another mysterious collapse. Again the band reverted to a four-piece and this time they decided to stay that way. Whether Beck was fired or quit is unclear, although as Dreja says, “I can’t imagine The Yardbirds firing anyone. That was part of our problem.”
“I wasn’t that good on bass, but I had loads of energy. And now Jimmy got the chance to show what a great chord and riff player he was. It was embryonic Led Zeppelin in some ways. I loved that period as a four-piece.”
Relf and McCarty were not so enamoured, however. Relf was not reacting well to the frequent changes around him. “He wasn’t a dominant personality on stage whereas both Jeff and Jimmy were,” says Dreja. “And he didn’t really know how to deal with that, he had too many insecurities. Plus the music was getting heavier and his musical tastes were going in the opposite direction.”
By 1967 the hits had dried up and The Yardbirds were sent to record with Mickie Most, who had masterminded the Animals’ hit career as well as Herman’s Hermits and Lulu. “He was the Simon Cowell of his day,” says Dreja. “He could spot it, regardless of whether it was cool or not. And he worked well with Jimmy. But he just couldn’t get our eclectic mix.”
“He used to have a drawer full of tapes and he’d pull one out and say, ‘This sounds like a Yardbirds song, Ha Ha Said The Clown. Have a go at it’. I quite like the single, Little Games, that we did with him. Unfortunately it didn’t really work.”
If they couldn’t get hits, their live reputation meant they could always get gigs. And the arrival of Peter Grant as tour manager meant they got paid. “I don’t care what anyone says, he changed the music industry to the benefit of the artist,” says Dreja.
“But I think he recognised that this band was on its last legs, particularly when it came to dealing with Keith and Jim, who were getting increasingly out of it. Keith was becoming more and more unreliable, which was a real irony, because this was the first time we’d had a totally reliable guitarist.” Page was certainly doing his best to keep up The Yardbirds’ live tradition, adding his own flourishes such as playing guitar with a violin bow.
At the beginning of 1968, Relf and McCarty announced their intention to quit after the upcoming American tour. “We wanted to go in another direction,” says McCarty. “It turned out to be a really good tour because the pressure was off. We just relaxed and enjoyed it.”
When their American record label got to hear of the band’s imminent demise they hastily recorded their New York show at the Anderson Theatre. So hastily they shelved the tapes until 1971, when any unreleased Jimmy Page recordings had a value. But the album, which included a song called I’m Confused, was quickly suppressed in a flurry of lawsuits.
The end of The Yardbirds remains dazed and confused. They played some European shows after America before Relf and McCarty called time and went off to form Renaissance. That left Dreja as the sole founder member. There were also apparently some unfulfilled dates in Scandinavia.
“I wasn’t prepared to continue the band without Keith or Jim. I’d had enough. I wanted to be able to control my own destiny. I was keen to pursue photography as a career which would enable me to do that.”
Page was already making plans. Dreja remembers going to a rehearsal with Robert Plant and John Bonham. “My instant thought was that Bonham was a phenomenon. Jimmy I already knew about.”
Dreja reckons he was “manipulated” over the break-up of The Yardbirds. Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, John Bonham and John Paul Jones played the Scandinavian dates as the New Yardbirds in September 1968, along with a couple of British dates the following month after they’d played their first gig as Led Zeppelin.
One of Chris Dreja’s earliest photographic assignments was to shoot the back cover picture on Led Zeppelin’s first album, which was released early in 1969. At the time, Eric Clapton was pondering a band with Steve Winwood following the break-up of Cream. Six months earlier, Jeff Beck had released Truth, probably the best rock album he ever made and regarded by many as a template for Led Zeppelin’s first album…
Yardbirds just keep on keeping on.
The Yardbirds remained gone but not forgotten. And in 1992 they were inducted into the US Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame. Keith Relf and Jim McCarty had left Renaissance after two albums but they were planning a new group together in 1976, when Relf was electrocuted in a tragic accident. The closest they came to a Yardbirds reunion was the Box Of Frogs project in the mid-80s when Dreja, McCarty and Samwell-Smith hooked up with ex-Medicine Head singer/guitarist John Fiddler for two albums that featured Beck on the first and Page on the second.
The Yardbirds did not perform at their Hall Of Fame induction, and it wasn’t until three years later that an “exuberant agent” persuaded Dreja and McCarty to put a Yardbirds band together again.
“I’d been playing a blues residency with ‘Top’ Topham, who didn’t want to do it but our bass player and singer John Idan was perfect for the band,” says McCarty. Dreja says he “hadn’t played the music for so long it came back freshly to me.”
In the finest Yardbirds tradition, they went through a succession of lead guitarists including Gypie Mayo (Dr Feelgood) and string-bending maestro Jerry Donahue. And the guest list on their 2003 Birdland album featured Slash, Brian May, Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, Jeff ‘Skunk’ Baxter and Steve Lukather.
But McCarty and Dreja reckoned the latest recruit, 22-year-old Ben King, was the best they’d heard since Beck. They recorded a live album in 2007, the first since Five Live Yardbirds back in 1964.
ALL TOGETHER NOW
Clapton, Beck, Page. One stage. Blues rock vortex ensues.
The only time the triumvirate of Yardbirds guitarists have played together on the same stage was at the ARMS (Action for Research into Multiple Sclerosis) charity concerts in 1983. Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page came together in an unprecedented show of support for Ronnie Lane (of the Small Faces/Faces) who had been diagnosed with MS a few years earlier. And they were not the only ones. The line-up of the backing band assembled for the London Royal Albert Hall concert made the phrase ‘all-star’ seem almost inadequate: Charlie Watts and Kenney Jones on drums, Bill Wyman on bass, Steve Winwood on organ, Chris Stainton on piano, Ray Cooper on percussion and Andy Fairweather-Low also on guitar.
Clapton, Beck and Page each performed their own sets. Clapton’s included Lay Down Sally and Cocaine, Beck jazz-rocked through The Pump and grinned and bared it for Hi Ho Silver, while Page played songs from his Death Wish II soundtrack and an instrumental Stairway To Heaven. They finally came together at the end to play Tulsa Time and Layla where each of them took a solo spot. Finally Ronnie Lane came on and led the company through Leadbelly’s Goodnight Irene. There were no Yardbirds songs performed.
They played half a dozen more shows in America where Steve Winwood was replaced by Paul Rodgers, who teamed up with Jimmy Page to play a song called Bird On A Wing which would later became Midnight Moonlight when they got together in The Firm. Page was also joined by Beck and Clapton during Stairway To Heaven. Still there were no Yardbirds songs performed.
This feature was published in_ Classic Rock Special No.2: The Blues_
Read more about how the Yardbirds became Zeppelin here