Biography

The Yardbirds

The Yardbirds were an English rock band, formed in London in 1963. The band's core lineup featured vocalist and harmonica player Keith Relf, drummer Jim McCarty, rhythm guitarist/bassist Chris Dreja and bassist/producer Paul Samwell-Smith. The band is known for starting the careers of three of rock's most famous guitarists, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck, all of whom ranked in the top five of Rolling Stone magazine's list of 100 greatest guitarists. The band had a string of hits throughout the mid-1960s, including "For Your Love", "Heart Full of Soul", "Shapes of Things" and "Over Under Sideways Down".

 

 

Originally a blues-based band noted for their signature "rave-up" instrumental breaks, the Yardbirds broadened their range into pop, pioneering psychedelic rock and early hard rock; and contributed to many electric guitar innovations of the mid-1960s. Some rock critics and historians also cite their influence on the later punk rock, progressive rock, and heavy metal trends. Following the band's split in 1968, Relf and McCarty formed Renaissance and guitarist Jimmy Page formed Led Zeppelin.

 

 

The Clapton line-up recorded two singles, the blues "I Wish You Would" and "Good Morning, School Girl", before the band scored its first major hit with "For Your Love", a Graham Gouldman composition with a prominent harpsichord part by Brian Auger. "For Your Love" hit the top of the charts in the UK and reached number six in the United States, but it displeased Clapton, a blues purist whose vision extended beyond three-minute singles. Frustrated by the commercial approach, he abruptly left the band March 25, 1965, the day the single was released. Soon Clapton joined John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers, but not before he recommended Jimmy Page, a prominent young session guitarist, to replace him. Content with his lucrative sessions work, and worried about both his health and the politics of Clapton's departure, Page in turn recommended his friend Jeff Beck. Beck played his first gig with the Yardbirds only two days after Clapton's departure.

 

 

Beck's explorations of fuzz tone, reverb, feedback, sustain, distortion and hammer-on soloing fit well into the increasingly raw style of British beat music. The Yardbirds began to experiment with eclectic arrangements reminiscent of Gregorian chants and various European and Asian styles while Beck infused a pervasive Middle Eastern influence into the mix. Beck was voted No. 1 lead guitarist of 1966 in the British music magazine Beat Instrumental.

 

 

The Beck-era Yardbirds produced a number of groundbreaking recordings. These included the hit singles "Heart Full of Soul", "Evil Hearted You"/"Still I'm Sad", a cover of Bo Diddley's "I'm a Man" (US only), "Shapes of Things" and "Over Under Sideways Down".

 

 

Beck's fuzz-tone guitar riff on "Heart Full of Soul" helped to introduce Indian-influenced guitar stylings to the pop charts in the summer of 1965. The follow-up, the reverb-laden "Evil Hearted You", furthered the Eastern influence, while its B-side, "Still I'm Sad", featured the band chanting like Gregorian monks. The Diddley cover, "I'm a Man", was hard blues rock, featured the Yardbirds' signature "rave-up", where the tempo shifted to double time and Relf's harmonica and Beck's scratching guitar raced to a climax before falling back into the original beat.

 

 

The band embarked on their first US tour in late August 1965. A pair of albums were put together for the US market: For Your Love and Having a Rave Up, half of which came from the earlier Five Live Yardbirds album, combined with new tracks such as "You're a Better Man Than I" and "Train Kept A-Rollin'", both recorded with legendary producer Sam Phillips at Sun Studios in Memphis, Tennessee, during the first US tour. There were three more US tours during Beck's time with the band, and a brief European tour in April 1966.

 

 

The single "Shapes of Things", released in February 1966, "can justifiably be classified as the first psychedelic rock classic", according to music journalist Ritchie Unterberger and  heralded the coming of British psychedelia three months before the Beatles' "Paperback Writer" B-side "Rain”. [The Byrds “Eight Miles High” was also released in February 1966 and these two songs are generally regarded as ushering psychedelic music into the mainstream].

 

 

Reaching number three on the UK charts and 11 in the US, Relf's vague anti-war protest lyrics and Beck's feedback-driven, Middle Eastern-influenced solo reflected the band's increasing embrace of psychedelia, as did the follow-up single, "Over Under Sideways Down". The latter was released in May and featuring more quixotic lyrics by Relf and another Eastern-inspired guitar line by Beck.

 

 

In June 1966, Samwell-Smith quit the band and  Jimmy Page agreed to play bass until rhythm guitarist Dreja could rehearse on the instrument. The band toured with Page on bass, and Beck and Dreja on guitars, playing dates in Paris, the UK, the Midwestern US and the California coast. Beck fell ill late in the latter tour, and was hospitalized in San Francisco. Page took over as lead guitarist at the Carousel Ballroom (San Francisco) on August 25 1966 and Dreja switched to bass. Beck stayed in San Francisco to recuperate with his girlfriend Mary Hughes, while the rest of the band completed the tour. After the Yardbirds reunited in London, Dreja remained on bass and the group's dual lead guitar attack was born.

 

 

Only one recording was made featuring both Beck and Page, in May 1966, just weeks before Page joined the Yardbirds, which was "Beck's Bolero". This piece was inspired by Ravel's "Bolero" and credited to Page (although Beck also claims to have written the song), with John Paul Jones on bass, Keith Moon on drums and Nicky Hopkins on piano. Around the time of this session, the idea of a "supergroup" involving Beck, Page, Moon and Who bassist John Entwistle originated, with Entwistle suggesting it would "go over like a lead balloon" and Moon quipping that they could call the band "Lead Zeppelin". Although all the musicians remained with their respective bands, Page recalled the conversation in 1968 when deciding on the name for Led Zeppelin.

 

 

The Yardbirds opened for the Rolling Stones' 1966 UK tour ), and then headed back to the US for a show at the Fillmore West in San Francisco, and a slot on American Bandstand host Dick Clark's "Caravan of Stars" tour, which they joined in Texas. After a few shows with the Caravan, Beck stormed out and headed back to San Francisco. Beck's official departure was announced on 30 November 30  in the US. The Yardbirds finished their remaining US dates with Page as sole lead guitarist and headed back to the UK for more shows. Beck continued as a solo artist.

 

 

The Yardbirds spent much of 1967 touring in the US with new manager Peter Grant, their live shows becoming heavier and more experimental. The band rarely played their earlier singles, preferring to mix the Beck-era hits with blues standards and experimental psychedelia such as "Glimpses", a Page-written piece featuring bowed guitars, pre-recorded noise loops and a hypnotic wah-wah guitar groove. They also covered the Velvet Underground ("I'm Waiting for the Man") and Bob Dylan ("Most Likely You Go Your Way And I'll Go Mine") and American folk singer Jake Holmes, whose "Dazed and Confused", with overhauled arrangement by Page and lyrics modified by Relf, was shaped in fall of 1967 and a live fixture of the final American tour in 1968.

 

 

By 1968, the psychedelic blues rock of Cream and the Jimi Hendrix Experience was enormously popular, yet Relf and McCarty wished to pursue a style influenced by folk and classical music. Page wanted to continue with the kind of "heavy" music for which Led Zeppelin would become iconic.

 

The Yardbirds played their final shows on May 31 and June 1 at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles.

 

 

 

In early September, Page's revised Yardbirds - including John Bonham, Robert Plant and John Paul Jones, embarked as the New Yardbirds on a previously booked (Yardbirds) Scandinavian tour, after which the band returned to the UK to produce the debut Led Zeppelin album.

Back To Top