British Blues – Biographies – The Yardbirds

The Yardbirds

Formed: 1963

Disbanded: 1968

Resurrected: 1992

Contribution to British Blues: Three of the world’s greatest guitarists

Which era: 1960’s

Album to get: “The Yardbirds” (now known as “Roger the Engineer”)

The song that is perhaps the best example of their work: “I’m A Man” (any version.)

Associated bands: The Metropolis Blues Quartet, The Roosters, The Grebbells, The Tridents, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, Cream, The Jeff Beck Group, Led Zeppelin, Renaissance, Box Of Frogs, The Pretty Things/Yardbirds Blues Band.

Personnel: Keith Relf, Jim McCarty, Chris Dreja, Paul Samwell Smith, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page.

In their earliest incarnation, The Yardbirds were a straightforward Blues and R&B covers band, though competent enough to back Sonny Boy Williamson II (Rice Miller) when he toured Europe. There was little hint of the pop promise that would soon see them riding high in the UK charts, and no suggestion that they’d end up giving birth to the world’s most successful heavy rock band. But in their heyday they counted among their number not one, not two, but three guitarists who are now considered international rock stars.

They began as The Metropolis Blues Quartet , and it was only when guitarist Paul Samwell Smith decided to change to bass that a fifth member was sought. They found one in talented sixteen-year old Tony Topham, and with the new line-up came a new name. Vocalist Keith Relf suggested The Yardbirds, and at the time it was widely accepted that the name referred to a kind of American hobo or vagrant, a ‘bird’ who hung around the rail yards looking to hitch a ride on a train.  It was also the title of a short-lived 1950’s American comic book, a spin-off from the more famous G.I. Joe, about the humorous antics of a pair of army “foul-ups.”  Google it now, and all you’ll get is “chicken,” or the suggestion that it means a prisoner cooped up in a compound.


Establishing themselves at other London venues like the Station Hotel Harrow, and the Studio 51 club off Leicester Square, the band plucked up the courage to approach Russian emigré Giorgio Gomelsky, manager of Richmond’s Crawdaddy Club, for representation. Before long the group had taken over the Rolling Stones residency, and found themselves working five or six nights a week, much to the dismay of Mr. & Mrs. Topham. Teenage Tony was persuaded to step down, though he was soon playing again with The Grebbells , another Gomelsky band. Meanwhile Keith Relf already had an idea where to find a more-than-suitable replacement.

Keith’s art-school chum Eric Clapton had been playing with latter-day Manfred Mann and Blues Band member Tom McGuinness in The Roosters , and was happily drafted into The Yardbirds , where, with their very full gig calendar, his guitar prowess began to win him a following of his own, as well as the mystifying nickname of ‘Slowhand.’ When the group got the chance to back visiting American Blues star Sonny Boy Williamson II, they were tremendously excited to be working with one of their heroes, and the night he played with them on their home turf, at the Crawdaddy, Gomelsky arranged to have the set recorded.

Although the performance is spontaneous and unrehearsed, the band’s backing is cautious and reverent, never overwhelming their aging mentor. Shuffles like Mr. Downchild and Pontiac Blues swing along nicely, with Clapton providing sympathetic fills, while 23 Hours Too Long is a satisfyingly atmospheric slow Blues. Sadly this rather engaging marriage between old America and young Britain wasn’t released until 1967, and then it was with a cover photo of the band with Beck rather than Clapton. The session is now available on CD in a number of packages, most accurately and completely as Sonny Boy Williamson & The Yardbirds 1963 – with Eric Clapton on the import LR label.

In the interim, impresario Gomelsky had been playing Yardbirds demos to the major record companies, and soon signed a deal with EMI’s Columbia on their behalf. The first session resulted in two tracks, covers of Ernie K. Doe’s Stateside R&B hit A Certain Girl and Bo Diddley sideman Billy Boy Arnold’s hypnotic, harp-led I Wish You Would . Though the former cut had been intended for the A-Side, the company wisely decided to flip the disc in favour of the latter, which more accurately reflected the band’s onstage style. The single, issued in June 1964, failed to chart, though it did gain the group some welcome media attention.

Later the same year they recorded another Billy Boy Arnold cover, I Ain’t Got You , which this time became the B-side to Good Morning Little Schoolgirl . This one’s often attributed to Sonny Boy Williamson, though it’s not the Blues classic, but an entirely different song written by Don Level and Bob Love. Sadly for them, the publishing was credited to label owner H G Demarais, who received the royalties they deserved. Released on the Chess subsidiary Argo, by ‘Don & Bob,’ the song was a catchy R&B ditty about dancing at the hop and drinking soda pop, with a prominent guitar break that gave Eric the chance to shine. Despite being banned by the BBC, this was more successful, making no. 44 in November, but it still failed to either top the charts, or capture the excitement of the band’s live show.

Given their previous experience with live recording, it seemed natural to repeat the experiment, and their debut album Five Live Yardbirds was taped at a packed gig in Wardour Street’s famed Marquee Club. Following a frenzied introduction from artist and photographer Hamish Grimes, designer of the band’s logo, the ‘most blueswailing’ Yardbirds launch into Chuck Berry’s Too Much Monkey Business at breakneck speed, with such a frantic solo that it’s a wonder Clapton has any strings left intact by the end. Smokestack Lightnin’ bears only limited resemblance to the Howlin’ Wolf original, but it enjoys what was to become the Yardbirds ‘ trademark treatment, of creating tension by cutting down very low, then building to a furious crescendo of pounding rhythm before breaking back into the song.

Samwell Smith’s big fat bass is constantly busy, riffing and walking, McCarty & Dreja keep a tight beat together, and Clapton’s guitar is loud and confident. Only the asthmatic Relf seems to have trouble keeping up sometimes, though his harp playing remains powerful and prominent. There are the occasional glitches that come with live recording- like when Relf picks up the wrong harmonica at the start of I’m A Man – but overall, it’s the sound of a young band in its prime playing to a very enthusiastic audience, with all of them plainly having a darned good time. Gomelsky takes producer’s credit, and his sleeve notes for the LP end with the words “Some parts of the performance could have been better, the recording itself could be improved on perhaps? Perhaps, but who knows, it could also have been much worse,” which no doubt pleased the band immensely!

The combo continued with the usual round of pop package tours, as was the custom of the day, working alongside Billy J. Kramer, Cliff Bennett, The Kinks, and The Beatles, but ‘Paul Yardbird’ was still searching for that elusive top ten hit. He found it with Graham Gouldman’s For Your Love , a haunting tune with harpsichord, harmonies, bongos and an off-beat middle 8 in a different tempo. As a pop record it was unusual and quite ground-breaking, but it was anathema to Blues purist Clapton, whose 12-bar instrumental Got To Hurry occupied the B-side. The single, which reached no.3, and won a gold disc, marked the beginning of Samwell Smith’s move away from playing and into producing. For better or worse, it also propelled a disenchanted Clapton out of The Yardbirds and into the ranks of John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers , to cut the seminal and influential ‘Beano’ album, where the sound of an overdriven Les Paul set the pattern for all the guitar stars who followed in his wake.

Looking for a replacement for ‘God’, the band approached Jimmy Page, who’d already worked with Cyril Davies in the early days. He refused to join them for the same reason that he left the All-Stars, he wasn’t prepared to give up his lucrative position as one of the country’s hottest session players. But he suggested a friend who might fit the bill, a young guitarist with a very individual style who wasn’t afraid of pushing the envelope. Jeff Beck, who’d done a few sessions himself, including one for Screaming Lord Sutch, was with an R&B group called The Tridents who had a weekly gig at Eel Pie Island.

Though he was well-versed in Blues and Rock’n’Roll, Beck was happy to undertake the kind of experimentation The Yardbirds required in order to follow up their Top 10 hit, and the band went straight to work on the follow up, Heart Full Of Soul . Another Gouldman song, revisiting the harmonies and bongos of its predecessor, this one – originally intended to include the Indian sitar so popular with The Beatles – opens instead with eight bars of Eastern- flavoured fuzz guitar from the inventive Beck, whose solo is then moved up to follow the first verse, rather than, more traditionally, the second. With Beck’s bottleneck instrumental Steeled Blues on the flip, the single reached no.2.

Their next single was what the industry used to call a Double A-side, which is to say both songs received similar amounts of promotion and airplay. This allowed the band to simultaneously release a track by Gouldman, their now-reliable hit-maker, and also experiment with something as yet untried- one of their own songs. On one side is the ominous Evil Hearted You , on which Beck pulls out all the stops, using amp tremolo, whammy bar, flurries of notes and a soaring slide solo. Like For Your Love it features a middle 8 in a different time signature, in this case a Bo Diddley beat, maintaining a link to the band’s R&B roots. On the other side is a Samwell Smith/McCarty composition of stunning originality. Drenched in echo, swathed in melancholy, Still I’m Sad is in the style of a Gregorian Chant, with multiple voices singing in unison, and although the ‘choir’ takes the foreground, Beck’s guitar supports subtly, creating a crying effect with the tone control. Relf’s voice, at other times perhaps a little inexpressive, seems ideally suited to the song’s mood of world-weariness and resignation. The single went to no. 3.

Encouraged by the success of Still I’m Sad , the group chose another self-penned song for the follow-up, and Paul, Jim and Keith collaborated on the complex Shapes Of Things . More like musical science fiction than the Blues with which the band began, the song starts with one of the band’s typical guitar crescendos, then settles into a martial beat over which Keith Relf delivers a lyric questioning both mankind’s future and his own. Once again, the band execute a tempo change, this time on the solo, where Beck imaginatively double-tracks an Eastern-sounding improvisation over sustained notes that sound like a woman’s voice. On the B-side, the band tackles Mister, You’re A Better Man Than I , a song about bigotry and prejudice written by Manfred Mann drummer Mike Hugg and his brother Brian. The delivery is pared-down and sparse by comparison to the A-side, though Beck delivers a stinging, angry solo appropriate to the subject matter. The result for The Yardbirds was another no.3 in the hit parade.

It was around this point that they began work on their second album, known then simply as ‘The Yardbirds’ but now, in a world crammed to bursting point with Yardbirds re-issue compilations, always referred to as ‘Roger The Engineer’ after Chris Dreja’s caricature of Advision studio’s Roger Cameron on the cover. It also took bassist Paul even deeper into production. Jim McCarty’s sleeve notes state, “Paul Samwell Smith, who is generally considered to have all the qualities of Burt Bacharach, Phil Spector and Richard Wattis all rolled into one (I wonder about the ratios!) again spends some time in the soundproof booth, and we tried using our mate Mick on bass.”

Quite who their mate Mick was is unclear, as Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page both sometimes receive bass playing credits for the album, but re-issues and compilations have muddied the waters by including ‘bonus tracks’ of later material. Suffice it to say, whoever it was (or were) did a fine job, the results are pretty seamless, and the album’s a fascinating and enjoyable celebration of all the styles the band has been playing up to that point.

Rack My Mind , not unlike Slim Harpo’s ‘Scratch My Back,’ The Nazz Are Blue , after the style of Elmore James’ ‘Dust My Broom,’ and the 12-bar guitar shuffle Jeff’s Boogie all give the group a chance to revisit their Blues roots, though Beck avoids clichés, using double-tracking, harmonics, controlled sustain, power chords, and unexpected major runs or bends to shock the listener out of complacency. Lost Women is reminiscent of the extended workouts on Five Live Yardbirds with reverberating tom-toms, and harp and guitar interplay creating a feeling of tension. The mournful Turn Into Earth revisits the Gregorian Chant, Beck’s fuzzed guitar wailing distantly behind the deeply layered vocals, while He’s Always There brings the fuzz to the foreground in a song that conveys a claustrophobic sense of anxiety and desperation. The reflective Ever Since The World Began finds Relf once more exploring man’s motivations, but lightens the somber mood with a hypnotic Bo Diddley- style chorus. And of course the album contains the group’s seventh single, Over, Under, Sideways, Down , with its ‘Rock Around The Clock’ rhythm and Beck playing a guitar like the bagpipes. Taken in its entirety, the album’s a work of great imagination and versatility, though its lack of focus on any one style in particular may be a stumbling block to some listeners.

The single fared less well in the charts than the four that preceded it, reaching no.10 at its highest point, though Beck was voted the country’s top lead guitarist in 1966’s Beat Instrumental magazine. The band had also exerted enough influence on the American market to spawn at least one Yardbirds sound-alike, The Count Five, whose ‘Psychotic Reaction,’ with recognisable fuzz-tone guitar and tempo change, made it to no. 5 in the U.S. Charts at the end of ’66. However, shortly after the second album was released, Samwell Smith left to pursue a career as a writer and producer, going on to produce a number of successful albums for Cat Stevens and Carly Simon, among others. Jimmy Page was finally persuaded to quit session work, and join the group permanently as bass player, though no sooner had he joined than Beck was taken ill and he had to deputise on lead, with Dreja shifting to the bass.

When Beck returned, the group decided to carry on with Page on guitar, so the next single was cut featuring both Beck and Page on lead (and, intriguingly, John Paul Jones on bass.) The resulting A-side, Happenings Ten Years Time Ago , is a tour-de-force, with harsh, stabbing guitars over an insistent beat and a solo section featuring guitar-generated sirens and explosions, throughout which disembodied voices engage in ugly conversation. With lyrics about déjà vu and reincarnation, powerfully musically realised, it may well have been the pinnacle of the band’s creativity, but the record-buying public failed to give it their seal of approval, and it reached no higher than no. 43 in the UK charts.

The twin-lead lineup survived long enough to feature in Antonioni’s thriller Blow Up , where Beck is seen frustratedly trashing his guitar when he has amplifier problems, but in reality Beck’s frustration wasn’t just an act. Unhappy at having his position as the lead guitarist usurped by Page, and exhausted from the constant traveling, he walked out during an American tour in late 1966 and either left, or was sacked, depending on whose account you read. The band carried on as a four-piece, going into partnership with hit producer Mickie Most, but he did little to improve their chart success and their subsequent singles, Little Games , was the last to be released in the UK until after the band had broken up. The band continued working and touring in America with new manager Peter Grant but the hits eluded them there too, and The Yardbirds played their final gig in the UK in July 1968.

Clapton of course had long since quit the Bluesbreakers to form Cream with Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce. Beck formed The Jeff Beck Group with Ron Wood, Rod Stewart and Micky Waller, and Page continued with Robert Plant, John Bonham and John Paul Jones in what was known briefly as The New Yardbirds but which very shortly became Led Zeppelin. All three bands developed harder, heavier-sounding styles, but continued to play a significant amount of Blues, or Blues-based material, drawing heavily on the works of Willie Dixon, Howlin’ Wolf and Albert King.

Relf and McCarty took an entirely different direction, forming the Folk/Rock band Renaissance , and Chris Dreja pursued a career as a music-biz photographer. Relf died tragically in 1976, electrocuted by poorly-earthed equipment in his home studio, and that might’ve spelt the end to our story, but you can’t keep a good Blues band down! In the 80’s the old rhythm section- Jim, Chris and Paul- reunited, with John Fiddler of Medicine Head, as a Box Of Frogs , and recorded two albums with their old pals Jeff and Jimmy guesting, wisely on separate sessions.

McCarty also teamed up with Pretty Things founders Phil May and Dick Taylor and Canned Heat bassist Richard Hite to cut two albums in Chicago as The Pretty Things/Yardbirds Blues Band in 1991, and in 1992, after The Yardbirds were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, McCarty and Dreja teamed up under the old flag once again with a more fluid new line-up, culminating in the 2003 release Birdland . The album includes fine new compositions in the old mould, alongside excellent and respectful remakes of some of their original recordings, and features guest appearances by Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, Slash, Brian May and Jeff Beck to name but a few. With the 2007 album Live At B.B. King’s Club , still featuring favourites like I’m A Man and Rack My Mind , it seems no matter where The Yardbirds travel, these “chickens” always come back to dip their beaks in the Blues. Long may they do so!

P.S. A number of claims are made from time to time- sometimes even by the band’s members- that The Yardbirds “invented” either Heavy Metal or Psychedelia, or both. To claim the former ignores the influence of their contemporaries like The Who or The Kinks, originally both R&B groups, who experimented with distortion, feedback, and hard-hitting rhythms; and to claim the latter discounts the work of other bands of that era, such as The Pretty Things or The Small Faces, who began with Blues or R&B influences before making the transition to more imaginative composition styles of their own.

© Stevie King 2012 for the British Blues Archive