This month the spotlight is onan English rock band, The
Yardbirds. The group is notable for having started the careers of three of rock's most famous guitarists:
Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page, all of whom were in the top fifteen of Rolling Stone's 100 Top
Guitarists list (Clapton as #4, Page as #9, and Beck as #14).
The band formed in the south-west London suburbs. Relf and
Samwell-Smith were originally in a band named the Metropolitan Blues Quartet. After being joined by Dreja, McCarty
and Topham in late May 1963, they decided to change the name, and after a couple of gigs in September 1963 as the
Blue-Sounds, they settled on The Yardbirds, which was both an expression for hobos hanging around rail yards
waiting for a train and also a reference to the jazz saxophonist Charlie "Yardbird" Parker.
At Kingston Art School in late May 1963 they first performed as a
backup band for Cyril Davies, and achieved notice on the burgeoning British rhythm and blues scene in September
1963 when they took over as the house band at the Crawdaddy Club in Richmond, succeeding The Rolling Stones. They
drew their repertoire from the Chicago blues of Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, Sonny Boy Williamson II and
Elmore James, including "Smokestack Lightning", "Good Morning Little School Girl", "Boom Boom", "I Wish You Would",
"Rollin' and Tumblin'", and "I'm a Man".
Original lead guitarist (Anthony) Top Topham left and was replaced
by Eric Clapton in October 1963. Crawdaddy Club impresario Giorgio Gomelsky became the Yardbirds' manager and first
record producer. Under Gomelsky's guidance the Yardbirds signed to EMI's Columbia label in February 1964. Their
first album was "live", Five Live Yardbirds, recorded at the legendary Marquee Club in London. Blues legend Sonny
Boy Williamson II invited the group to tour England and Germany with him, a union that later engendered another
The quintet cut two singles, "I Wish You Would" and "Good Morning,
School Girl", before their third, "For Your Love", a Graham Gouldman composition, provided their first major hit.
It sold over one million copies, and was awarded a gold disc. Clapton, at the time a blues purist, left the group
in protest to join John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers. Clapton recommended Jimmy Page, a prominent young studio
session guitarist, as his replacement. Page, uncertain about giving up his lucrative studio work and worried about
his health, recommended in turn his friend Jeff Beck. He played his first gig with the Yardbirds only two days
after Clapton's departure in May 1965.
Beck's experiments with fuzz tone, feedback, and distortion fit
well into the increasingly raw style of British beat music and the Yardbirds began to experiment, producing
arrangements reminiscent of Gregorian chant and various European and Asian styles ("Still I'm Sad", "Turn Into
Earth", "Hot House of Omagarashid", "Farewell", "Ever Since The World Began") though their commercial appeal began
to wane. Beck was voted #1 lead guitarist of 1966 in the British music magazine Beat Instrumental.
The Beck-era Yardbirds produced a number of memorable recordings,
single hits like "Heart Full of Soul", Bo Diddley's "I'm A Man", and "Shapes of Things" and the Yardbirds album
(known popularly as Roger the Engineer and first issued in the U.S. in an abridged version called Over Under
The Yardbirds embarked on their first US tour in late August,
1965. A pair of albums was put together for the U.S. market; For Your Love (which included an early take of "My
Girl Sloopy"), and Havin' A Rave Up With The Yardbirds, half of which came from Five Live Yardbirds. There were
three more US tours during Beck's time with the group. A brief European tour took place in April 1966.
In June 1966, shortly after the sessions that produced Yardbirds
(aka, Roger The Engineer), Samwell-Smith decided to leave the group and work as a record producer. Jimmy Page
agreed to play bass until rhythm guitarist Dreja had rehearsed on that instrument. The Beck-Page tandem is heard on
the single "Happenings Ten Years Time Ago" (a psychedelic rock highlight), though this featured Beck and Page on
twin lead guitar, with John Paul Jones on bass: it was backed with "Psycho Daisies", which featured Beck on lead
guitar and Page on bass (the B-side of the U.S. single, "The Nazz Are Blue", features a rare lead vocal by
The Beck-Page era Yardbirds also recorded "Stroll On", a rendering
of "Train Kept A-Rollin'" recorded for the Michelangelo Antonioni film Blowup, though Relf changed the lyrics and
title to avoid seeking permission from the copyright holder. "Stroll On" features a twin lead-guitar break by Beck
and Page. Their appearance in Blowup came after The Who declined and The In-Crowd were unable to attend the
filming. The Velvet Underground were also considered for the part but were unable to acquire UK work permits.
Director Michelangelo Antonioni instructed Beck to smash his guitar in emulation of The Who's Pete Townshend:
the guitar that Beck smashes at the end of their set is a cheap German-made Hofner instrument.
The Beck-Page lineup recorded little else in the studio and no
live recordings of the dual-lead guitar lineup have surfaced (save a scratchy cover of the Velvet Underground's
"I'm Waiting for the Man"). The Beck-Page Yardbirds recorded a commercial for a milkshake product "Great Shakes"
using the opening riff of "Over Under Sideways Down", featured on 1992's Little Games Sessions & More
There was also one recording made by Beck and Page with John Paul
Jones on bass, Keith Moon on drums and Nicky Hopkins on piano — "Beck's Bolero", a piece inspired by Ravel's
"Bolero", credited to Page (Beck also claims to have written the song). "Beck's Bolero" was first released as the
B-side of Beck's first solo single, "Hi Ho Silver Lining" and was included on his first album, Truth.
 The Yardbirds' final days: the Page era
Beck was fired from the group after a tour stop in Texas in late
October 1966; as such, the Yardbirds continued as a quartet for the remainder of their career. Page became the new
lead guitarist and introduced his technique of playing with a cello bow (suggested to him by session musician David
McCallum, Sr.) and the use of a wah-wah pedal.
Meanwhile, the Yardbirds' commercial fortunes were declining.
"Happenings Ten Years Time Ago" had only reached No. 30 on the U.S. Hot 100 and had fared even worse in Britain. A
partnership with Columbia's hit-making producer, Mickie Most, failed to reignite their commercial success. The
"Little Games" single released in spring 1967 flopped so badly in the UK that EMI did not release another Yardbirds
record there until after the band broke up (a UK release of the "Goodnight Sweet Josephine" single was planned the
following year, but was eventually cancelled). A version of Tony Hazzard's "Ha Ha Said the Clown" — on which only
one band member, Relf, actually performed — was the band's last single to crack the U.S. Top 50, peaking at No. 44
in Billboard in the summer of 1967. Their final album, Little Games, released in America in July, was a commercial
and critical non-entity. A cover of Harry Nilsson's "Ten Little Indians" hit the U.S. in the fall of 1967 and
The Yardbirds spent most of the rest of that year touring in the
States with new manager Peter Grant, their live shows becoming heavier and more experimental. The band rarely
played their 1967 singles on stage, preferring to mix the Beck-era hits with blues standards and covers from groups
such as The Velvet Underground and American folk singer Jake Holmes, whose "Dazed and Confused", with lyrics
rewritten by Relf, was a live staple of the Yardbirds' last two American tours. The latter went down so well that
Page selected it for the first Led Zeppelin record, on which it appears with Page credited as writer.
By 1968 Relf and McCarty wished to pursue a style influenced by
folk and classical music while Page, at a time when the psychedelic blues-rock of Cream and The Jimi Hendrix
Experience was enormously popular, wanted to continue with the kind of "heavy" music for which Led Zeppelin would
become famous. Dreja was developing an interest in photography. By March, Relf and McCarty had decided to leave,
though the other two managed to persuade them to stay at least for one more American tour. The Yardbirds' final
single, recorded in January and released two months later, reflected these divergences. The A-side, "Goodnight
Sweet Josephine", was in the same vein as their Mickie Most-produced singles of the previous year, while its
B-side, "Think About It", featured a proto-Zeppelin Page riff and snippets of the "Dazed" guitar solo. This last
single did not even crack the Hot 100.
A concert and some album tracks were recorded in New York City in
March (including the currently unreleased song "Knowing That I'm Losing You", an early version of a track that
would be re-recorded by Led Zeppelin as "Tangerine"). All were shelved at the band's request, although once Led
Zeppelin were successful Epic tried to release the concert material as Live Yardbirds: Featuring Jimmy Page. The
album was quickly withdrawn after Page's lawyers filed an injunction.
On 7 July 1968, the Yardbirds played their final gig at Luton
College of Technology in Bedfordshire, England. Twelve years later to the day Led Zeppelin would play their final
concert in their original line-up in Berlin.