The Yardbirds were a pivotal English R&B group formed in London in mid-1963 when Keith Relf (b. 1944, vocals / harmonica) and Paul Samwell-Smith (b. 1943, bass guitar), both members of semi-acoustic band the Metropolitan Blues Quartet (sometimes referred to as the Metropolis Blues Quartet), joined forces with Chris Dreja (b. 1944, rhythm guitar), Anthony 'Top' Topham (b. 1945, guitar), and Jim McCarty (b. 1944, drums). Their guitar-oriented blues-based rock 'n' roll was a crucial link between mid-Sixties R&B and late-Sixties psychedelia, setting the groundwork for heavy metal. This seminal band spawned three major guitar heroes - Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page - who pioneered almost every technical guitar innovation of the era, including feedback and fuzz.
Early years and Eric Clapton
Within months of forming, Topham had opted to continue academic studies and was replaced by Eric Clapton (b. 1945, guitar) in October 1963. Clapton was more than glad to join the Yardbirds because the band he was previously in, Casey Jones and the Engineers, were unable to make much money. The reconstituted line-up forged a style based on classic Chicago R&B and quickly amassed a following in the nascent blues circuit. They succeeded the Rolling Stones as the resident band at Richmond's popular Crawdaddy club, whose owner, Giorgio Gomelsky, then assumed the role as group manager. It was during this time Clapton received the 'Slowhand' nickname because he played with light strings and would break them often and when he did the audience would began a slow hand clapping while the guitarist changed strings. Two enthusiastic, if low-key singles, 'I Wish You Would' and 'Good Morning Little Schoolgirl', attracted critical interest, but the quintet's fortunes flourished with the release of Five Live Yardbirds. Recorded during their tenure at the Marquee club, the set captured an in-person excitement and was marked by an exceptional rendition of Howlin' Wolf's 'Smokestack Lightning'. Clapton emerged as the unit's focal point, but an uncompromising desire for playing only blues led to his departure in 1965 in the wake of their of their biggest selling single, 'For Your Love' in the spring of 1965. Penned by Graham Gouldman, the song's success proved unacceptable to the guitarist despite its innovative sound.
Jeff Beck era
Gomelsky approached ace session guitarist Jimmy Page (b. 1944, guitar) to replace Clapton, but Page turned down the offer and instead suggested his friend Jeff Beck (b. 1944, guitar), formerly of the Tridents. The Yardbirds single meanwhile had topped the New Musical Express chart at Number 1. Gouldman provided further hits in 'Heartful of Soul' and 'Evil Hearted You', the latter of which was a double-sided chart entry with the group penned 'Still I'm Sad'. Based on a Gregorian chant, the song indicated a desire for experimentation prevailing in the psychedelic-rock 'Shape of Things', 'Over Under Sideways Down', and the chaotic album Yardbirds. By this point Simon Napier-Bell had assumed management duties, while disaffection with touring, and Keith Relf's irreverent attitude, led to the departure of Samwell-Smith in June 1966.
Jimmy Page era
Session guitarist Jimmy Page was again asked to join, this time by Napier-Bell on advice from Beck, and was brought into the line-up initially on bass until Dreja could switch to that instrument. The Yardbirds now adopted a potentially devastating twin-lead guitar format. The experimental 'Happenings Ten Years Time Ago' and 'Psycho Daisies' confirmed such hopes, but within six months Beck had departed during a gruelling tour of the US in which he came almost to blows with Keith Relf, and disappeared from public view due to illness.
Little Games and the split
The Yardbirds remained a quartet but, despite a growing reputation on the American 'Underground' circuit, their appeal as a rock attraction waned. Despite late-period collaborations with the commercially-minded Mickie Most, singles, including 'Little Games' (1967) and 'Goodnight Sweet Josephine' (1968), failed to chart. The disappointing Little Games was denied a UK release but found success in the US. They followed with two minor successes in America: 'Ha Ha Said the Clown' and a cover of Harry Nilsson's 'Ten Little Indians'. When Relf and McCarty announced a desire to pursue a folk-based direction, the group was split into two camps in July 1968. Page and Dreja formed the New Yardbirds, until Dreja decided to pursue a career in photography, leaving Page to found Led Zeppelin. Relf and McCarty forged a new career, firstly as Together, then Renaissance.
Due to the band recording under various managers and record labels, it was inevitable unauthorised releases would surface. One such album did appear in 1971 titled Live Yardbirds! Featuring Jimmy Page which was recorded in New York in 1968. This album was pulled from the shelf by lawyers representing Jimmy Page and shows the group's sound in a far heavier state than the pop-leanings of Little Games, one listen to 'You're a Better Man Than I' and 'I'm a Man' shows that Page was at the forefront of what would become heavy metal.
The legacy of the Yardbirds refused to die, particularly in the wake of the fame enjoyed by its former guitarists in the 1970s. Relf was fatally electrocuted in 1976, but the following decade McCarty and Dreja joined Samwell-Smith in a new group called Box of Frogs. Both Page and Beck contributed tracks to the project. Since the end of the 1990s, the Yardbirds have again been touring with various line-ups and released an album called Birdland in 2003.
- Five Live Yardbirds (1964)
- For Your Love (1965)
- Having a Rave Up with the Yardbirds (1965)
- Roger the Engineer (1966)
- Little Games (1967)
- Birdland (2003)
- Brunning, Bob (2003) Blues In Britain: the History 1950s to the Present. Second edition. London: Blandford Press. ISBN 978-0-7137-2457-8 (OCLC 32274382)
- Clayson, Alan (2002) The Yardbirds: The Band that Launched Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page. San Francisco: Backbeat Books. ISBN 978-0-87930-724-0 (OCLC 316514648)
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