Guide to British Music of the 1960s


The Yardbirds

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Lead guitar- Andrew "Top" Topham, vocals- Keith Relf, bass- Paul Samwell-Smith, rhythm guitar- Chris Dreja, drums- Jim McCarty

Paul Samwell-Smith and Jim McCarty formed the Yardbirds in 1963 in south London. They had a love of the blues and that was the direction they took. They recruited Topham on guitar, Keith Relf on vocals and Chris Dreja on rhythm guitar. By October 1963, Topham had been replaced by Eric Clapton. Clapton had previously been in the Roosters with Tom McGuinness (later of Manfred Mann) and Terry Brennan (later of the Muleskinners).

Giorgio Gomelsky took over the management of the band. He also ran the Crawdaddy Cub at the Station Hotel in Richmond. When the Rolling Stones finished their Sunday night residency the Yardbirds took over the slot. The Yardbirds started to develop their own style which set them apart from the many other British bands playing American R&B. A particular highlight was the Rave-up where the guitars would build to a climax. EMI signed the band and released the debut single I Wish You Would on its Columbia label in May 1964. A second single Good Morning Little Schoolgirl followed at the end of October. Neither of these were hits despite being well-received. This changed in March 1965 with the third single For Your Love which was written by Graham Gouldman from the Manchester band the Mockingbirds and later of 10CC. The song broadened the band's fan base and took them to the higher end of the charts. However, the blues purists were less keen and guitarist Clapton decided to leave the band as it had become "too commercial".

The band's performance at the Marquee 7 August 1964 was subsequently released as Live! Blueswailing July '64. Shortly afterwards, Keith Relf fell ill with a punctured lung. He was temporarily replaced by Mick O'Neill from The Authentics. This line-up performed on the third evening of the Fourth National Jazz & Blues Festival in Richmond on 9 August 1964. Tracks with O'Neill were released on Glimpses and these included the Chuck Berry numbers Little Queenie and Carol which were not otherwise recorded by the Yardbirds. They returned to Richmond the following year by which time For Your Love was a hit and the band had a new lead guitarist.

Following Clapton's departure from the band, Jimmy Page, then a top session guitarist, was asked to join. He turned down the role but did recommend his friend Jeff Beck. He was straight into the band, promoting the hit single on which he did not play. The appointment of Beck was an inspired move as he not only shone on the blues repertoire but he developed innovative guitar sounds that defined the outstanding hit singles that the Yardbirds released over the next couple of years.

By 1966, both Keith Relf and Jeff Beck were recording solo material. Relf released a cove of a Bob Lind song Mr Zero followed, later in the year, by Shapes in My Mind. Beck formed a "supergroup" with top session players Jimmy Page, John-Paul Jones and Nicky Hopkins as well as The Who's drummer Keith Moon. They recorded the track Beck's Bolero and Moon noted that they would go down like a "lead balloon".

One of Paul Samwell-Smith's final tasks as a member of the Yardbirds was co-producing a new studio album The Yardbirds (often referred to as Roger the Engineer) with the band's manager Simon Napier-Bell. The album was recorded in just five days and must rate as one of the best examples of British R&B. Jeff Beck's guitar playing is outstanding even when one of his solos consisted of a single sustained note!

Paul Samwell-Smith left the band in 1966. He moved to life the other side of the glass in music production. He declared that, at the age of 23, "I'm far too old for all those screaming kids leaping about". According to Jimmy Page, he had become fed up with Relf's drinking and walked out after a university ball (Queen's College, Oxford, 18 May 1966). Amongst others, Samwell-Smith produced Cat Stevens, Carly Simon, Paul Simon and Jethro Tull. The band turned again to Jimmy Page to fill the gap left by Samwell-Smith. Page had been looking to expand more and felt constrained by session playing.

Jimmy Page had been following the band and knew the songs. The 21-year old session player joined on bass guitar in June 1966 although he was yet to play one and made his debut at the Marquee on 21 June 1966. It had been decided that Chris Dreja would switch to bass as soon as he became proficient with Page switching to lead guitar alongside Jeff Beck. The switch happened sooner than expected to due to Beck's health problems which saw him take a brief break from the band. However, he remained on guitar when Jeff Beck returned to the band.

With Beck and Page on dual lead guitar the Yardbirds had a phenomenal presence. However, there were just three tracks recorded by this line up. The single Happenings Ten Years Time Ago / Psycho Daisies was issued on Colombia, John-Paul Jones taking the bass part on the A-side. The tracks are also available on CD-reissues of "Roger the Engineer" although the remainder of this classic album is the Jeff Beck/Paul Samwell-Smith line-up. The dual guitar was also featured in the film Blow Up. The film intended to highlight "swinging London" showing the Beck/Page Yardbirds playing "live" in a venue based on the Ricky Tick Club in Windsor. The track Stroll On was a reworking of Train Kept a-Rollin' and featured blistering guitar work by Beck and Page with Chris Dreja on bass. The lyrics were changed the night before the session as permission was not given to use the original track. Beck has dismissed the film as the director, Antonioni's view of London. He added that Antonioni really wanted The Who hence the guitar-smashing scene.

Beck left (or was encouraged to leave) the band in October 1966. He was not replaced, with Page playing the sole guitar. This line-up continued for about eighteen months and can be seen in full flight on footage from the German Beat Beat Beat show. This was recorded live and showed the band as a four-piece, Page sported a mirrored Telecaster, working through powerful versions of I'm a Man, Happenings Ten Years Time Ago, Shapes of Things and Over Under Sideways Down. With Mickie Most now on board as producer the band released its final album Little Games. For many Yardbirds fans this was an intense disappointment and showed Most attempting to move the band towards a more commercial direction. This included sub-par performances of Manfred Mann's Ha Ha Said the Clown. The album was all the more disappointing given the live sound of the Yardbirds and the experimental quality of the previous album, Roger the Engineer. However, there were signs of a more interesting approach which was instigated by Jimmy Page. Think About It was a highlight and the live set included White Summer and Dazed & Confused which were to become Led Zeppelin classics.

Relf and McCarty were looking towards a new musical direction. This had more of a folk angle and the band Renaissance came out of this. The Yardbirds' final gig was at Luton College of Technology in July 1966. Dreja initially continued with Page but then departed for a photographic career. Jimmy Page was just getting into his stride and recruited three musicians as performed as the New Yardbirds which was later renamed Led Zeppelin.

Unlike most of the 1960s' top bands, the Yardbirds were not prolific songwriters but, nevertheless, they proved to be one of the most powerful and innovative groups of the era with new guitar sounds and an evolution that lead directly to the birth of heavier British blues. Their singles are incredibly powerful pieces that showcased their sound and that highlighted new directions such as making the guitar sound like a sitar or gothic chanting. Then, of course, there is Jeff Beck's final chord in the solo on Shapes of Things.

Keith Relf was killed in May 1976 when he was electrocuted by a badly-earthed guitar.

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