For a group – originally called The Most Blueswailing Yardbirds – that gave the world three of the world’s greatest guitarists, it’s funny to realize that none of them (Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton) were the original guitarist.
The original band was a five-piece unit consisting of Keith Relf (vocals, harmonica); Paul Samwell-Smith (bassist); Chris Dreja (rhythm guitar, later bass); Jim McCarty (drums); Anthony “Top” Topham (guitar). Topham, at only 15 years old, could not at that age meet the demands of a professional music career and was replaced by Eric Clapton (we are not worthy!).
Initially, they performed as a backup band for the inescapable Cyril Davies and went on to be part of the burgeoning early ’60’s British blues scene. (They replaced the Stones at the Crawdaddy club). As near as I can tell, no official recording of the band with Topham exists as they were only signed to a contract after Clapton joined.
Oddly enough, their very first recording was not a studio album but was a live album recorded at the Marquee, called Five Live Yardbirds. (If I had a time machine, what I wouldn’t give to go back to that era and frequent the Marquee and the Station Hotel at Richmond “Crawdaddy”. Then I’d drive 200 miles north and go to the Cavern Club).
Note – I always find it so interesting that there were these parallel tracks – the blues/jazz guys in London and the pop/rock n’ roll guys in Liverpool. Five Live Yardbirds came out five months after A Hard Day’s Night. The Beatles were taking over the world; the blues guys were the back door men.
Here’s “Five Long Years,” which Clapton does to this day:
As these things frequently tend to go, the band increasingly became more commercial. Clapton, still then a blues purist, quit the band in 1965 on the verge of their breakthrough. He had met fellow guitarist, one Jimmy Page (chorus of trumpets!) playing at the Marquee and recommended him.
But Pagey had had some health problems and was much in demand as a session player. So he recommended another Marquee regular, a certain Jeff Beck (choir of angels!) to replace him.
And thereby, changed modern blues. Unlike Clapton who was a straight blues player, Beck liked to experiment with different styles, fuzz-tone and Eastern sounds. I am not saying Beck is a better guitarist because that is just a parlor game. Flip a coin. But given that and his jazz/rock forays, he’s certainly the more consistently creative and experimental.
This song is “Over, Under, Sideways, Down,” which is a group composition but has Beck stamped all over it. I still don’t know where he came up with that weird scale. (Page is pictured but does not play on this song):
In another twist, Samwell-Smith decided to leave the band in 1966. Page agreed to play bass until Dreja could get up to speed. Somehow, Page stayed on and for a time, the band became a two-guitar unit. (One of the songs they recorded, “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago,” had session bassist/arranger John Paul Jones playing on it).
Now you doubtless know the song “Train Kept A’Rollin.” Well, the Yardbirds covered that. But to avoid copyright issues, they also took the exact same music, put new words to it and called it “Stroll On.” It’s great because it features Beck and Page. Who cares what they call it?
Now, I could just post a standard recording of the song. But here’s something cool. The band were asked to be part of a ’60’s “youth movie” called Blow-Up. (Not uncommon for rock bands and music to be used in these films back then. Gave the film a hip cachet, brought the kids in.) And what did they play? Well, check it out:
I’m not entirely sure why the audience was directed to stand there like mannequins. And that guitar that Beck “Townshends” is basically a prop.
Beck was later sacked for being somewhat of an arsehole. The remaining lineup’s last album was called Little Games. Overall it was unsuccessful. But here’s a nice blues called “Smile On Me.” Listen to Page’s great break on this:
Despite the band running out of steam, Page tried to keep it going. In May 1966, the Who’s Keith Moon and John Entwistle recorded the instrumental “Beck’s Bolero” with Page, John Paul Jones and Jeff Beck. The track came out well (it wound up on Beck’s solo album, Truth) and they tossed around the idea of forming a new band. (I think The Who’s future was a little uncertain at that time).
Moon allegedly said the band would go over like a lead balloon. Hmm, said Page, who then formed a group called the New Yardbirds with himself, Jones, Robert Plant and John Bonham. Later, recalling the joke, he went on to rename the band Led Zeppelin who, well hell, that’s a whole ‘nother story.
Epilogue: In 1969, Relf and McCarty did a complete 180-degree turn and formed Renaissance, a prog-rock band with classical and folk influences. Samwell-Smith, who had shifted gears, produced the album. Clapton, Page and Beck are ranked #2, 3, and 5 on Rolling Stone’s top 100 guitarists. Some version of the Yardbirds reformed and tours to this day.
The Yardbirds – supposedly named in part in tribute to Charlie “Yardbird” Parker – were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992.