Although the British rock and roll scene of the 1960s introduced bands more popular and longer-lived than the Yardbirds, only a few can match that august quintet for their lasting influence. Extant only from 1963 to 1968, the Yardbirds were crucial to the development of rock and roll from its roots in rhythm and blues to its growth into psychedelia and heavy metal. At the heart of the band’s distinctive sound were three of rock’s most gifted guitarists: Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page. Each shouldered lead guitar duties during the band’s brief history—Beck and Page simultaneously at one point—and their technical innovations, as well as the prominence they have achieved since, have combined to create a Yardbirds legacy that has lasted considerably longer than the band itself.
The Yardbirds were born of the same early 1960s London rhythm and blues club scene that produced the Rolling Stones. The original lineup included Keith Relf on vocals, Chris Dreja on rhythm guitar, Jim McCarty on drums, Paul Samwell-Smith on bass, and Anthony “Top” Topham on lead guitar. By the end of 1963, Eric
Original members included Chris Dreja (born November 11, 1944, in Surbiton, London, England) rhythm guitar, then bass; Jim McCarty (born July 25, 1943, in Liverpool, Merseyside, England), drums; Keith Relf (born March 22, 1943, in Richmond, London; died of electrocution, May 14, 1976), vocals, harmonica; Paul Samwell-Smith (born May 8, 1944, in Richmond; left group 1966), bass; and Anthony “Top” Topham (born in 1947 in England; left group 1963), lead guitar.
Other members included Jeff Beck (born June 24, 1944, in Wallington, London; joined group 1965; left group 1966), lead guitar; Eric Clapton (born Eric Patrick Clapp, March 30, 1945, in Ripley, Derbys, England; joined group 1963; left group 1965), lead guitar; Jimmy Page (bom April 9, 1944, in London; joined group 1966), bass, then rhythm guitar, then lead guitar.
Relf, Samwell-Smith, Dreja, and Topham met at London’s Kingston Art School, 1963; band originally called the Metropolitan Blues Quartet; performed in Richmond and London clubs; became house band at Crawdaddy club, 1963; backed Sonny Boy Williamson on tour, 1963; signed with EMI/Columbia (in U.K.), 1964; supported the Beatles, Paris, 1965; toured U.S., 1965; toured Australia and Far East, 1967; appeared in film Blow Up, 1967; disbanded, 1968. Page went on to form the New Yardbirds, which became Led Zeppelin.
Awards: Inducted into Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 1992.
Clapton had taken Topham’s place (the latter going back to school), and the Yardbirds were developing an enthusiastic following both in London and on the southern Home Counties club circuit. Enthusiasm for the group rivaled that of the Stones, but while both bands played the same R&B standards, the Yardbirds remained more faithful to the material onstage.
When the Rolling Stones moved beyond the local club circuit, the Yardbirds took over their spot as house band at the legendary Crawdaddy club. Their shows became famous for “rave ups,” the term used by the group to describe their method of constantly increasing the tempo during a set in order to push the crowd into a frenzy. 1964 saw the release of the band’s first album in England, Five Live Yardbirds, which featured performances at the Marquee Club. Though the group’s renowned live performances did not translate into commercial success for the album, the Yardbirds’ reputation continued to spread. They toured Europe as the backing band for veteran blues performer Sonny Boy Williamson, whose songs they regularly covered. In 1965, an album from that tour was released on both sides of the Atlantic, but Williamson had top billing and the Yardbirds remained hitless.
The fivesome finally hit the charts later in 1965 with the driving single “For Your Love,” but the song created strife within the band. written specially for the Yardbirds by Graham Gouldman, later of 10cc, “For Your Love” marked a departure from the group’s focus on the blues. Upset by this sacrifice of their roots for the sake of commercial success, Clapton left. Still, neither he nor the band suffered because of the break; while Clapton went on to join John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers—during his tenure with that group the graffito “Clapton Is God” began appearing on walls around London—and later formed the seminal power trio Cream, the Yardbirds recruited another highly respected local guitarist, Jeff Beck, to take his place, and their fame continued to grow. “For Your Love” hit the Number Three spot on the U.K. singles chart and went to Number Six in the U.S. And in the fall of 1965, the new lineup mounted their first American tour, on the heels of their first American album release, For Your Love, which would only make it to Number 96. Later in the year the Yardbirds became regulars on a celebrated weekly British radio show.
Their next U.S. release, Having a Rave Up With the Yardbirds, debuted in late 1965 and managed to hit Number 53. Four of the cuts on Rave Up were recorded before Clapton’s departure; the rest featured Beck on lead guitar. The album, firmly rooted in blues-based rock, spawned another hit single written by Gouldman, “Heart Full of Soul,” which climbed to Number Two in the U.K. and Number Nine stateside. It also featured psychedelic experimentation, evidenced on “Still I’m Sad,” a British Number Three hit based on a Gregorian chant. The bands next record, Over Under Sideways Down, moved even further toward psychedelia, both lyrically and in Beck’s innovative guitar work. The title cut was a Top Ten hit in the U.K. and reached Number 11 in America; the single “Shapes of Things” went to Number Three at home and again, to Number 11 in the U.S. The album, however, failed to rise above Number 52 stateside.
By this time the Yardbirds had established themselves as an outstanding rock outfit, but dissension again wrought change; in June of 1966, Samwell-Smith left to give his full attention to producing records. To counter this loss, Dreja switched from rhythm guitar to bass, and Jimmy Page stepped in to assume the role of rhythm guitarist. Already one of the most sought-after session musicians in London, page had turned down an offer to join the band when Clapton bowed out. The next month, the Yardbirds issued their first, self-titled studio album, which ascended to the Number 20 spot on the U.K chart.
Shortly after Page arrived, Beck developed health problems—in April of 1966, according to Rock Movers & Shakers, he was hospitalized in France with suspected meningitis—that forced his extended absence from the band; at that point, the ever-versatile Page took over on lead guitar. When Beck recovered and returned to the group, he and Page shared lead duties—the Yardbirds thus boasting two of the greatest axemen rock has ever seen. Still, Beck and page did have their moments of discord. Page looked pack at their pairing in a 1992 interview in Guitar Player: “I was doing what I was supposed to, while something totally different would be coming from Jeff. That was alright for improvisation, but there were other parts where it just did not work. Jeff had discipline occasionally, in that when he’s on, he’s probably the best there is. But at that time he had no respect for audiences. When I joined the band, he supposedly wasn’t going to walk off anymore. Well, he did a couple of times.” Beck left the group in 1966, making the quintet a quartet.
While the Yardbirds continued to play to packed houses, 1967 brought no hit singles in the U.S. Their album of that year, Little Games, consisted mostly of material that the band reportedly never intended to release (in fact, they successfully prevented the release of Little Games in the U.K.); it was received poorly by both critics and the public. But that year also saw the unveiling of The Yardbirds’ Greatest Hits, their first and only album to make Billboard’s Top 40.
In 1968 the Yardbirds tried once again to infiltrate the U.S. singles chart, but their goal eluded them. By this time, various members of the band had decided to go their separate ways. Beck left first and, after recording two solo singles, formed the Jeff Beck Group with vocalist Rod Stewart and guitarist Ron Wood. Relf and McCarty performed as a folk duet called Together, then helped form Renaissance, which continued some of the experimentation with various musical styles that they had begun with the Yardbirds. Reif died in 1976 from an electric shock sustained while playing guitar at his home. Dreja, after initially casting his lot with Page, eventually left music for photography. Perhaps the most significant development for rock following the demise of the Yardbirds, however, was the result of contractual obligations for a concert tour of Scandinavia. Page inherited the band’s name and the responsibility for fulfilling the northern dates, so he recruited three other musicians and performed with them as the New Yardbirds. When Page and his new crew—drummer John Bonham, bassist John Paul Jones, and vocalist Robert Plant—returned to England, the New Yardbirds became Led Zeppelin (after Who drummer Keith Moon’s pet description for a catastrophic concert—“going down like a lead Zeppelin”).
The five-year life of the Yardbirds weathered major changes in the nature of rock, and more than most bands, the Yardbirds aided in the transformation. As author and rock critic Dave Marsh stated in Rolling Stone, “The Yardbirds helped introduce almost every technical innovation in the rock of the period: feedback, modal playing, fuzztone, etc. Their influence can’t be overestimated. Cream, Led Zeppelin, and heavy metal in general would have been inconceivable without them.” And though the Yardbirds did not achieve mass popularity during the British Invasion that carried them to the U.S., their 1992 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame attests to the enduring impact that their songwriting and musicianship has had on the character of rock.
Singles (U.S.); on Epic
“For Your Love,” 1965.
“Heart Full of Soul,” 1965.
“Over Under Sideways Down,” 1966.
“Shapes of Things,” 1966.
Albums (U.S.); on Epic, except as noted
Sonny Boy Williamson and the Yardbirds, Mercury, 1965.
For Your Love, 1965.
Having a Rave Up With the Yardbirds, 1965.
Over Under Sideways Down, 1966.
The Yardbirds’ Greatest Hits, 1967.
Little Games, 1967.
Five Live Yardbirds, Rhino, 1988.
The Yardbirds: Little Games Sessions and More, EMI, 1992.
Logan, Nick, and Woffinden, Bob, The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock, Harmony, 1977.
Naha, Ed, Liflian Roxon’s Rock Encyclopedia, Grosset & Dunlap, 1978.
Rees, Dafydd, and Luke Crampton, Rock Movers & Shakers, ABC/OJO, 1991.
The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, edited by Jon Pareles and Patricia Romanowski, Rolling Stone Press/Summit Books, 1983.
Stambler, Irwin, The Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock and Soul, St. Martin’s, 1989.
Guitar Player, January 1992; November 1992.
Entertainment Weekly, September 18, 1992.
Pulse!, August 1992.
Rolling Stone, February 6, 1992.
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