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Having a Rave-Up With The Yardbirds - Lenny Kaye, Guitar World, September 1981



Having a Rave-Up With The Yardbirds
Lenny Kaye, Guitar World, September 1981

Clapton, Beck and Page: a holy trinity whose rippling lead lines and
powerful slashing chords have provided a world on instruction for countless
aspiring players. That they all cut their instrumental teeth within the
bounds of the same group is cause enough for wonder; that each built on the
breakthroughs of his predecessor to take the band a step further makes for a
tale of tales.

In a very real sense, the Yardbirds did more than profoundly influence the
rise and character for sixties guitar rock. Bridging the gap between
instrumental bands like the Venture and Shadows, and such later
pyrotechnicians as Jimi Hendrix, their story is a capsule history of the
maturation of a style, a rite of passage that in the end broke the group
apart, leaving only the legacy of legend.

As drummer Jim McCarty would say, looking back: "It was an education, it was
growing up, it was? I don't know. The Yardbirds never quite made it, did
they? They missed out slightly. If we knew then what we know now, we could
have been the biggest."

The Yardbirds were the biggest, however, at least given the benefit of our
own hindsight. The Dave Clark Five and Herman's Hermits might have sold more
records, but the intervening time since the group's late 1968 break-up (or
Blow-Up, to cite their famed ?Stroll On? movie appearance) has seen the band
venerated in a manner that is a tribute to the scope of their vision.
Experimental, exotic, skewered by the conflicting pressures of the
marketplace and their own internal difficulties, they nonetheless made some
of the most challenging music of the sixties, a group out of time whose
presence was essential to all that came after.

They had formed in the heat of London's r&b underworld in the early sixties,
a revolt against pop style that relied heavily on traditional
interpretations of American blues. The revival centered around the Ealing
Rhythm and Blues Club founded by Cyril Davies and Alexis Korner in March,
1962, a scene that would soon provide a haven for the Rolling Stones, Ginger
Baker, Jack Bruce, the Pretty Things and many other musicians, some of whose
names belong only to the exotic past: the Downliners Sect, Gary Farr and the
T-Bones, Georgie Fame and the Blue Flame.

The emphasis was on a rigorous purity of interpretation, yet given the
cultural distance, it was inevitable that a distinct new way of looking at
the blues would come about. Elements of rock and roll were added (the two
forms were never that far apart anyway ? witness Chuck Berry), and youthful
enthusiasm pumped fuel to the mixture. When the Metropolis Blues Quartet,
featuring Keith Relf on vocals, bassist Paul Samwell-Smith, rhythm guitarist
Chris Dreja and drummer McCarty found that parental approval was stopping
their lead guitarist, Tony ?Top? Topham, from playing with them, they
contacted a member of the John Lee Hooker/Bo Diddley-influenced Roosters.
Eric ?Slow-hand? Clapton agreed, and the Yardbirds were born.

Moving into the Crawdaddy Club in Richmond after the Stones had outgrown
their residency, the Yardbirds built a steady following. Owner Giorgio
Gomelsky took over their management, placing them in prestigious backing
slots, such as the night in 1963 when he had them back harp master Sonny Boy
Williamson. Captured on a live recording ? Eric Clapton and the Yardbirds
Live With Sonny Boy Williamson (Mercury SR 61271 and re-issued as ML-8003.
See also Beyond Exotics, p. 77, this issue. It shows the Yardbirds as subtle
if unspectacular accompanists, though Eric gets to place a few pointed
guitar fills within the slow strains of ?Take It Easy Baby.? His solo tone
lacks punch, however, and he seems very much to be searching for the correct
blues feel.

Not so on the other series of Yardbirds live recordings, made only a year
later (March 1974) at London's famed Marquee Club. Released under the name
of Five Live Yardbirds (EMI 33SX 1677) in England only (it saw belated issue
in America as side two of the Yardbirds' second album), it introduced an
early form of extended rock jamming, bristling with electricity and an
overflow of energy.

Clapton remembers that the Yardbirds' ideas for a ?rave-up? came about
largely because of his inability to play standard melodic lines; whether
this is actually true or not, the results cannot be denied. Using each
song ? mostly standards like ?Smokestack Lightning,? ?I'm A Man? and
?Respectable? ? as a base from which to operate, the group launched into
long improvisations, tossing the turn back and forth until rhythms began to
whirl in a mad frenzy of chopping guitars. Picked up by Summer of Love San
Francisco bands like the Grateful Dead and Quicksilver Messenger Service and
honed to an elongated art by Clapton's own Cream, it was an idea that was
yet to catch on with a vengeance.

Audiences seemed to enjoy it, but the Yardbirds could not secure a foothold
in the charts. When the band prepared to change directions, opting for a
more pop vein in March, 1965, with ?For Your Love? (it featured a
harpsichord and bongo drums), Clapton refused to go along. He wanted to take
his music ?seriously.? He retired from performing briefly to work in the
construction field (!) before returning to action with John Mayal's
Bluesbreakers.

The Yardbirds first thought to replace Clapton with session guitarist Jimmy
Page, but problems over money led them to a member of the Tridents, Jeff
Beck. Advised to play like Clapton, Beck acquiesced for a time (the cover of
the For Your Love album [Epic LN 24167] ? most of which features Clapton's
playing, including a well-paced version of ?Good Morning Little Schoolgirl
 ? has Jeff seated behind a keyboard!), but soon his irrepressible guitar
nature began to work changes in the Yardbirds' sound.

It was a heaven-made match. Beck's adventuresome leanings, his flashy
Esquire soloing and fascination with guitar-sound technology, pushed the
group's musical concerns even further away from the path traced by their
contemporaries. Socially relevant (?Shapes of Things,? ?Better man Than I?),
tinkering with Eastern scales (?Over Under Sideways Down?) and full-blown
white noise (the climactic harmonica-guitar duel that closed the studio
version of ?I'm a Man?) ? all of these helped keep the Yardbirds at the
forefront of innovation.

Having a Rave-Up (Epic LN 24177) was the group's second American record (in
England it wasn't released at all), but split between a side of Beck's
boleroings (mostly singles, including the fuzz-toned ?Heart Full of Soul?)
and Clapton's Marquee tracks, it was certainly a transition album. Over
Under Sideways Down (Epic LN 24210) was their first coherent statement and
it showed that given experimental room. The group had few peers. Utilizing
Gregorian-like chants, outlandish percussion instruments (an Australian
wobble-board) and Beck at his most maniacal, it was a triumph of the
laboratory, even if some of the songs seemed to be classic case of the tail
wagging the dog.

Still, there were internal problems. The band's failure to expand its
audience arrayed Relf and McCarty against Beck; Samwell-Smith, tired of
being caught in the middle, soon exited. Jimmy Page, bored with session
anonymity, was asked to fill the empty bass slot, with the intention of
switching places with Dreja and eventually playing co-lead with Beck.

As mouth-watering a possibility as this seems, the combination was too
volatile, aside from the futuristic guitar apocalypse of ?Happenings Ten
Years Time Ago,? with its howling sirens and feedback explosions (and for
me, the Yardbirds' single finest moment), Beck already had his mind on a
solo career. The chart flop of ?Happenings? hastened the end, and it didn't
help that a San Jose, California, group called the Count Five came up with a
blatant Yardbirds-copy called ?Psychotic Reactions? and scored a massive
hit.

As for the Page-led Yardbirds, they were practically obsolete before their
time. After a successful Greatest Hits album (Epic BN 24246), producer
Mickie Most was called in to ?help? the group out. On Little Games (Epic BN
26313), he only succeeded in removing whatever personality they had left.
His records were pop (?Ten Little Indians,? ?Ha Ha Said the Clown?) and
while not bad on that level, could have been performed by virtually anybody.

Still, there was one golden egg left in the basket. Live Yardbirds (Epic E
30615) was recorded at New York's Anderson Theatre on March 30, 1968, during
what was to be the group's last American tour. It is a valuable document,
especially when compared to the Yardbirds' debut album, revealing that the
band could still be a powerhouse four years on, taking folk favorites like
?I'm a Man? or ?Shapes of Things? and stretching them in ever-new ways.

Page's musicianship ? bowing the strings, stroking out feedback, tearing off
quick, spiraling runs from a psychedelic-painted Telecaster ? is uniformity
excellent, but a song like ?I'm Confused? (later ?Dazed and Confused?) or
the acoustic showpiece ?White Summer,? sows more the seed of pre-Led
Zeppelin than it does the Yardbirds. Declaring that it sounded as if it was
recorded in a ?bullfight arena,? Jimmy quickly slapped an injunction on Epic
when the record was belatedly released in 1971, and this last live album has
since become a much sought-after collector's item.

?Nostalgia,? mutters Relf at the end of ?Over Under Sideways Down? on the
Anderson album, as if he too was aware of the passing of an era. Or maybe he
just couldn't stand the thought of looking for another guitar player.

A FOOT NOTE TO DISCOLOGY

Thought it may seem incredible, there are no (as in none) Yardbirds albums
currently in print in the Epic catalogue. To be fair, not all of this can be
blamed on the record company, according to Trouser Press editor Ira Robbins,
Jimmy Page bought up much of Epic's rights to the group's catalogue a few
years back, leaving only a predictable assortment of greatest hits and the
like for possible compilation. Still, this doesn't explain why even the two
anthologies for which Robbins wrote excellent liner notes in 1977 have
disappeared. The Yardbirds Great Hits (PE 34491), featuring such single
fodder as ?For Your Love,? ?I'm Not Talkin',? ?I'm A Man? and ?The Train
Kept A rollin',?; and Yardbirds Favorites (E 34490), a slightly more budget
priced collection with classics like ?A Certain Girl,? ?Evil Hearted You,?
?Good Mornin' Little Schoolgirl?" and ?Smokestack Lightning?" As the
highlighted tracks indicate, there is not much rhyme or reason to the
selections for each album, great though each might be, and Page's purchase
has meant that many collector favorites (?Happenings Ten Years Time Ago?
?Psycho Daisies?) are still in the no man's land of bargain bins and flea
markets (not to mention high-priced record auctions). A recent attempt to
place a few Yardbirds tracks on an Epic Ten-inch ep ran into similar legal
hassles, which implies that future releases are highly unlikely. (Guess
again. See this issue's beyond Exotics for new of one collection that made
it. ?GW ed.) Of the original albums, Having a Rave-Up is perhaps in the most
plentiful supply, staying in print until the early seventies, and in some
ways is the most essential, with large slices of Beck and Clapton at their
best. The other four have been commanding premium over the past decade.
Happy hunting!

© Lenny Kaye 1981