The Yardbirds’ contributions to the music industry have led to a portfolio of significant titles for the band. Perhaps none is more important than the band’s reputation as a hub for some of the greatest guitarists to fester in. Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page all cut their teeth in The Yardbirds during the group’s short existence from 1963-1968. This immense pool of talent is illustrated by all three Yardbirds guitarists ranking in the top five of Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Guitarists list.
Although a platform for some of England’s finest to show their worth, The Yardbirds are not positioned on the same pedestal as the bands its most famous members became household names in. So, who were The Yardbirds and what did they do?
Formation & Line-Up
The Yardbirds formed in the southwest suburbs of London in 1963.
Members Keith Relf, Top Topham, Chris Dreja, Paul Samwell-Smith, and Jim McCarty had various names before settling on The Yardbirds. According to McCarty’s 2018 autobiography, Nobody Told Me: My Life with the Yardbirds, the name was chosen both as a homage to Jack Kerouac’s On The Road novel as well as jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker who was nicknamed “Yardbird”.
The band largely covered blues works, seeking inspiration from Bo Diddley, Howlin’ Wolf, and Chuck Berry amongst others.
The group became a big name on the scene, replacing The Rolling Stones as Richmond’s Crawdaddy Club and playing the now-famous Marquee Club (where they recorded an album, largely consisting of cover songs).
In October 1963, Topham was replaced after only four months by a new guitarist: Eric Clapton.
The group even backed blues singer Sonny Boy Williamson, a big inspiration of theirs. NME: Rock’N’Roll Years details how Williamson was not reciprocating this affection:
“They want to play the blues so badly – and that’s how they play it, badly!”
The third single recorded by the Clapton-era iteration, The Yardbirds released the single ‘For Your Love’ in March 1965.
Written by the great Graham Gouldman, the single was a two-and-a-half-minute pop tune – quite the diversion from their non-commercial sound.
The single was hit number one in Canada, three in the UK, and cracked the US top 10.
In Chronology of Popular American Music 1900-2000 by Frank W. Hoffmann, it is said Clapton “professed dissatisfaction” with the dedicated blues loyalist dismayed by the music shift into popular music, compounded by the fact he only played during the middle-eight. Clapton, frustrated with the decision to become more mainstream, left the band.
Clapton later claimed:
“I was fooled into joining the group, attracted by the pop thing, the big money and traveling around and little chicks. It wasn’t until after a year and a half that I started to take music as a serious thing.”
Clapton recommended a replacement in the form of local talent Jimmy Page. However, as stated in Katherine Charlton’s Rock Music Styles: A History, Page
“had earned a great deal of respect as a blues guitarist who could play almost any form of popular music…but he was so successful, he was so successful…he was not looking to join a group as a regular member.”
Page referred the band to Jeff Beck, who jumped at the chance and went on to play with the band two days after Clapton’s departure.
The Yardbirds…Starring Jeff Beck
When Beck took the guitaring helm, he ensured the popularity continued, following up with the single ‘Heart Full Of Soul’, another US top 10 whilst a UK runner-up for three weeks kept off number one by the noticeably more commercial Hollies and The Byrds, part of a folk revival.
Charlton continues that Beck “turned out to be a very good choice”, due to “experimenting with amplifier feedback [and] frequent use of string bending” which gave the single a stronger sitar-like sound through his unique techniques. As Wikipedia put it: “fuzz tone, reverb, feedback, sustain, distortion and hammer-on soloing fit well into the increasingly raw style of British beat music.”
Beck soared (pun very much intended) to the skies in the group, following with hit after hit including three more top 10 hits in ‘Evil Hearted You’, ‘Shape Of Things’, and ‘Over, Under, Sideways, Down’, with Beck’s exploration of electric guitar effects making them stand out and very different to what they would have been under Clapton. A defining single, ‘Shape Of Things’ was referred to in glowing terms by Best Classic Bands’ Colin Fleming – also a writer for Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair – as “ha[ving] a solo that defied you to identify how anyone could even play it, let alone play it yourself. Singer Keith Relf might as well have been some Yeatsian sage, the herald of the future of sound itself, or maybe some prophet who’d lately been hanging out in the Book of Revelation. There was prescience in his voice, something supernal.”
They also in this time released the US-exclusive single ‘’I’m A Man’ and released their first self-penned A-side, ‘Still I’m Sad’.
This success was all well and good but behind the scenes, Beck was showing himself to be “undependable”, with Charlton elaborating: “His performances were inconsistent, sometimes requiring the other group members to fill in for him when he was not paying attention to what he was supposed to be playing. He would even miss concerts, choosing instead to be with his girlfriend.”
Although The Yardbirds were now front-runners in the full-flow ‘British Invasion’ of the early-mid 1960s, the group were going through more than their fair share of struggles. Not only this but bassist Paul Samwell-Smith gave his notice as he walked away, tired of touring and with an axe to grind with vocalist Keith Relf.
The Yardbirds turned where they knew they could find dependability. A certain session musician who had been working with The Who, Rolling Stones, and Kinks: Jimmy Page.
Turning Over To Page In A New Chapter
Page’s stint was seemingly going to be temporary, as Page reflected on himself after the first gig in 1966, saying to Trouser Press in 1977: “Jeff had brought me to the gig in his car, and on the way back I told him I’d sit in for a few months until they got things sorted out.”
This is further reinforced by Page’s now obviously miscast role, not as a guitarist but (as Tony Palmer’s All You Need Is Love: The Story of Popular Music documents) “a replacement bass player.”
This position did not suit Page.
“Jimmy wasn’t a bass player,” Beck recalled in the Page biography, Light and Shade. “But the only way I could get him involved was by insisting that it would be okay for him to take over on bass in order for the band to continue. Gradually — within a week, I think — we were talking about doing dueling guitar leads.”
Guitarist Chris Dreja filled the bass-shaped hole in the band’s lineup.
The issues did not subside however as in The Grapevine in November 196, it was written: “The Yardbirds are said to be on the verge of splitting up as soon as their US tour closes on November 27, with guitarists Jeff Beck (whose health has been suffering) and Jimmy Page likely to leave.”
The month earlier, the group released what was to be their only single with this line-up ‘Happenings Ten Years Ago’, which failed to reach into the top 40 with an interesting session bass player: John Paul Jones (no, obviously not the American Civil War naval commander).
In Q’s Rock Stars Encyclopedia, it is recounted that in January 1967, “Colombia pairs the band with producer Mickie Most (but there will be no more UK hits), for their first recordings as a four-piece. Napier-Bell sells his interest in the band to Peter Grant.”
When the US tour culminated, Rock: The Ultimate Guide puts it that “Beck was sacked during their penultimate and most harrowing US trek.” It continues, “The Yardbirds began to self-destruct.” The Yardbirds released final album ‘Little Games’ in 1967.
Train Stops A-Rollin’
Although innovating because of a unique and developed sound, the group’s ambitions of new material would have seemed archaic by the late 1960s. With Vietnam and the Summer Of Love sweeping the nation, the preferred blues sound desired by Relf and McCarty would have been out of step with modern audiences who were more taken with Jimi Hendrix or The Doors.
Relf and McCarty were on the way out of the door but encouraged to play a final US tour in 1968; they complied. In 1983, Page recalled: “We knew [the 1968 American tour] was going to be the last one, and all the pressure was off. We played well and had a really good time.”
Sighing, McCarty explained why the band ended: “We lost enthusiasm for it..We just didn’t have the energy for it. If we’d had a long break and sat down and had a rest and taken time to think of new songs, it might have been an idea. But everything back then was based on working, playing every night…They thought if you had six months off no one would recognise you anymore.” He also explained Page and Dreja wanted to resume afterwards.
In a brilliant piece by Louder Sound, it reflects that Relf was: “Disillusioned, disgruntled and often drunk. Relf would later claim that the best days of The Yardbirds had been when Eric was still in it; before For Your Love – and in its wake the arrival of Jeff. “The happiest times were playing London clubs like the Marquee and the Crawdaddy Club,” he said in 1974. “With Eric, it was a blues band.” After that, “it became a commercial band. We started touring the States, doing Dick Clark tours, playing one-nighters and that kind of thing.”
Indeed, McCarty and Relf absconded on a project that had risen ground-up to emerge as a top British group in the US amidst the British boom.
Having seen chart popularity pass them by, the band went out on a whimper
The group’s end was told by Yardbirds supporter and rock critic Lester Bangs who said: “The Yardbirds for all their greatness would finally fizzle out in an eclectic morass of confused experiments and bad judgments…Because the musicians in the Yardbirds were just too good, too accomplished and cocky to do anything but fuck up in the aftermath of an experiment that none of them seemed to understand anyway.”
Having seen chart popularity pass them by, the band went out after five drastic and eventful years, going out on a whimper…or did they?
The Post-Yardbirds Years
When the members departed, Jimmy Page went about setting up a new band: The New Yardbirds.
Page retained alliances from the original group, inviting manager Peter Grant, former colleague John Paul Jones, and record producer Mickie Most. A clipping from a magazine feature in NME: Rock’N’Roll Years outlines this new band: “The new lineup teams Page (lead and steel guitar) with John Paul Jones (bass guitar and organ), John Bonham (drums), and Robert Plant (vocals).” Sound familiar?
The group not only were a precursor to Led Zeppelin, perhaps the most acclaimed rock band of all time, but Katherine Charlton attributes their influence to other acts such as “The Count Five [who] used the distorted sound effects of The Yardbirds” and “Aerosmith…spent several years imitating the post-blues revival styles of…The Yardbirds.” The list goes on and on as to who and how the band shaped the music industry.
Today, the electric guitar is played in so many different styles, in so many ways, and by such greats who really attribute the opening of the door to electronic exploration to The Yardbirds, especially Jeff Beck.
As Rock Music Styles: A History simply put it: “That group stayed together for a long and successful career as Led Zeppelin.”
The band was honoured in 1992 with a Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame induction.
Clapton went on to success outside of the band, even overtaking their popularity in his own outfit: Cream. Clapton, one of the most acclaimed guitarists of all time, has gone on to mass success, the only artist with three R’N’R HOF inductions – the first of which was The Yardbirds.
Beck too, launched a successful solo and band career, becoming a two-time inductee. Beck has been nominated for 15 Grammys, of which he has won eight.
Keith Relf looked towards more success with the reform of old band Renaissance (to be called Illusion) set to take place. Unfortunately, the 33-year-old died in the basement of his house in Hounslow, London – electrocuted by his electric guitar. Heavy medication is likely responsible for Relf’s inability to survive the electrocution. He is the only original member who is no longer with us.
The group are still going today and has done since 1992 albeit with McCarty as the only significant member from the original version.
It would not be a mistaken comment to say that The Yardbirds really changed the ‘Shape Of Things’ in terms of mid-60s music (which is top-class punnery).
In five years, so much happened to the band of historical significance. Although successful for their time, they were more effective in laying the groundwork, paving a path to some of the most successful careers of all time – especially the players of the heart and soul of the quintet: the guitarists. Indeed, the holy trinity of Clapton, Beck, and Page left their mark on the music industry with The Yardbirds a launching pad although much, much more than just a footnote.
How can one not see the immense contributions in later rock and apply the praise not only to the influenced by the influences themselves? With that in mind, The Yardbirds are truly one of the most important yet unspoken of bands of the 20th century.
As manager and author Simon Napier-Bell put it: “There were four rock bands in the world that really counted – and The Yardbirds was one of them.”