Of the bands that rose from British blues and R&B scene of the 1960s, few were as influential and stylistically adventurous as the Yardbirds. The group started out as blues purists, but with time they blazed trails in experimental pop, psychedelia, and hard rock, as well as introducing three of the most celebrated British guitarists of the era: Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page. They pioneered what they called the “rave-up,” enhancing their songs by adding intense, high-energy instrumental passages with frantic guitar and harmonica soloing, and while their recorded legacy was not especially large, few if any of their peers could match them for both power and originality. The 2001 collection Ultimate! Is a well-curated career overview, 1964′s Five Live Yardbirds is a riveting document of their blues period, and 1966′s Roger the Engineer captured them at the peak of their psychedelic era, and is arguably their best album.
The powerful and visionary band that would become the Yardbirds started out humbly in the suburbs of London in 1963. Vocalist and harmonica player Keith Relf and bassist Paul Samwell-Smith had been playing in a combo called the Metropolis Blues Quartet and were looking for a more interesting lineup. They began working with lead guitarist Anthony "Top" Topham, rhythm guitarist Chris Dreja, and drummer Jim McCarty, and were soon gigging as a backing band for U.K. blues artist Cyril Davies. After breaking off on their own, the group played briefly under the name the Blue-Sounds before Topham suggested calling themselves the Yardbirds, inspired by the nickname given to American jazz icon Charlie Parker. The Yardbirds had started making the rounds of London blues clubs when Topham resigned after his family persuaded him to take a regular job. His replacement, Eric Clapton, knew Relf from art school and had previously played guitar with the Roosters and Casey Jones & the Engineers. With Clapton on lead, the Yardbirds landed a regular gig at the Crawdaddy Club, taking over a spot vacated by the Rolling Stones. Performing a repertoire based on classic Chicago blues, the act caught the attention of Giorgio Gomelsky, a colorful character who had previously managed the Stones. Gomelsky took over management of the Yardbirds and got them a prime spot as backing band for Sonny Boy Williamson II as the American blues harp master toured the United Kingdom in late 1963 and early 1964. Williamson would famously say of his British accompanists, “These white boys want to play the blues in the worst way — and they do,” but the tour was a tremendous learning experience for the band, and their live show became more powerful as they grew tighter and their rave-ups honed their instrumental interplay and use of dynamics.
As the Yardbirds’ popularity grew, they were signed to EMI’s Columbia Records imprint (not connected to the American label of the same name), and in March 1964 they recorded a live show at London’s Marquee Club. Near the end of the year, Five Live Yardbirds, drawn from the Marquee recordings, was released and documented the Clapton era of the band at the peak of their powers. However, after cutting a pair of studio singles, it was becoming obvious their devotion to Chicago blues wasn’t selling records, so for their third single, the band cut “For Your Love,” a rock song penned by Graham Gouldman (who would later co-found 10cc) that added harpsichord and Latin percussion to their arrangement. The song was a hit in England and North America, enough so that their U.S. label, Epic, rushed out an album, 1965′s For Your Love, that included the single along with a grab-bag of other tracks that mostly showed off the band’s blues wailing. However, Clapton was unhappy with the group’s new creative direction and quit the day the single was released. He suggested they hire his friend Jimmy Page, a strong blues player and a successful sessionman; Page turned down the gig but introduced the Yardbirds to Jeff Beck, then playing with a group called the Tridents, and Beck proved to be the right man for the job, a masterful blues guitarist who also had a taste for experimentation and impressive technical skills.
A mere two days after Clapton played his last show with the Yardbirds, Beck was ready to go, and his first single with the group, “Heart Full of Soul” (also written by Gouldman), found him blending blues licks with lead lines meant to simulate the sound of a sitar. The single was another hit for the band, and others would soon follow, including “Still I’m Sad,” “I’m a Man,” and “Evil Hearted You,” leading to the Yardbirds’ second U.S. album, 1965′s Having a Rave Up with the Yardbirds, another hodgepodge of recent singles and other odds and ends, including four tracks from the Five Live Yardbirds session. (Live recordings from their tour with Sonny Boy Williamson II also appeared on LP in 1965 and would be repackaged endlessly over the years to come.) While the Gregorian chant-style backing vocals on “Still I’m Sad” and Beck’s frenetic guitar attack on “I’m a Man” made it clear the Yardbirds were exploring new ground, their first single in 1966, “Shapes of Things,” was a head-first dive into psychedelic rock, with its lyrical wanderlust and the distorted explosions of Beck’s guitar work. In the middle of 1966, the group brought out The Yardbirds, aka Roger the Engineer, which was their most ambitious album to date, mixing blues figures with psychedelic exploration and featuring only original material for the first time. However, shortly after the album came out, Paul Samwell-Smith left the band. Jimmy Page, who had grown tired of session work, agreed to join the Yardbirds; he initially played bass, but in time Chris Dreja moved from rhythm guitar to bass, giving the group two world-class lead guitarists.
The new lineup recorded a single, “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago” b/w “Psycho Daisies,” that showed off their new potential, and the Yardbirds made an appearance in Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 art house hit Blow Up, playing an instrumental called “Stroll On” that bore a strong resemblance to “Train Kept A-Rollin’.” However, tensions were beginning to grow, and after a U.K. tour opening for the Rolling Stones and in the midst of a string of American dates as part of Dick Clark’s “Caravan of Stars” tour, Beck abandoned the group to visit his girlfriend in San Francisco. They continued on with Page as sole guitarist, and once they finally caught up with Beck, he officially quit the act. (The following year, he formed the Jeff Beck Group.) Reworking themselves as a quartet, Page started showing off new techniques on guitar (including the violin bow trick that would become one of his trademarks), and with Paul Samwell-Smith (who produced most of their sessions as well as playing bass) out of the group, the Yardbirds partnered with Mickie Most, who had produced dozens of hits for Donovan, the Animals, Herman's Hermits, and many others, with an eye toward improving their declining commercial fortunes. However, the pop-oriented tunes that Most insisted the group record were a poor fit for the Yardbirds, and the 1967 album Little Games proved to be a severe disappointment that sold poorly and left fans cold. The Yardbirds put their emphasis on touring, as their new manager, Peter Grant, kept them busy on the road in the United States. Meanwhile, Page took to pointing their music toward a heavier and more experimental direction that would prove to be a dry run for his later work with Led Zeppelin, who, in their initial gigs, were billed as “the New Yardbirds.” (In 1971, once Led Zeppelin were firmly established, Epic Records would issue an album called Live Yardbirds: Featuring Jimmy Page drawn from March 1968 recordings of the band on-stage in New York City. Page, who had not authorized its release, quickly filed suit and the album was promptly withdrawn, making it a much-sought-after collector’s item.) However, Keith Relf and Jim McCarty were growing disenchanted with their new sound and wanted to explore a different approach influenced by folk and classical sounds. In June 1968, Relf and McCarty quit the Yardbirds, and after one final U.K. concert, Page dissolved what was left of the band.
After the collapse of the Yardbirds, Keith Relf and Jim McCarty would form the arty folk-rock band Renaissance, cutting two albums with them before they moved on. McCarty would go on to form the group Shoot while Relf launched Armageddon, an ambitious fusion of folk and hard rock. Armageddon released their self-titled debut album in 1975, but the group came to a tragic end when Relf died in 1976 in an electrical accident in his home studio. Chris Dreja, Paul Samwell-Smith, and Jim McCarty reunited in the 1980s with the group Box of Frogs, who cut a pair of albums for Epic (1984′s Box of Frogs and 1986′s Strange Land) that included guest appearances from Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page. In 1992, the Yardbirds were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and that same year, Chris Dreja and Jim McCarty introduced a new edition of the Yardbirds with a concert at London’s Marquee Club. The debut performance was a success, and the Yardbirds would tour regularly in the years to come, with a steady stream of musicians accompanying Dreja and McCarty. In 2003, the Yardbirds recorded an album, Birdland, that included guest appearances from Brian May, Slash, Joe Satriani, and Jeff Beck. In 2013, Dreja dropped out of the Yardbirds and McCarty soon retired the band. However, he had a change of heart, and in 2015, his edition of the Yardbirds returned to duty and continued to play for their fans. Jeff Beck died on January 10, 2023 at a hospital in Southern England after contracting bacterial meningitis; he was 78 years old. Founding guitarist Anthony "Top" Topham died on January 23, 2023 at the age of 75. ~ Mark Deming