The Yardbirds are an English rock band formed in London in 1963 that had a string of hits during the mid-1960s, including "For Your Love", "Heart Full of Soul", "Shapes of Things" and "Over Under Sideways Down". The group launched the careers of 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.
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, such as feedback, distortion and "fuzztone". The bulk of the band's most successful self-written songs came from vocalist and harmonica player Keith Relf, drummer Jim McCarty and bassist and producer Paul Samwell-Smith, who, with rhythm guitarist and bassist Chris Dreja, constituted the core of the group.
The band's influence on both the music of the times and genres to come was great, and they inspired a host of imitators such as the Count Five and The Shadows of Knight. Rock critics and historians credit the Yardbirds with heavily contributing, if not inventing, "the birth of psychedelic music"and sowing the seeds of punk rock, progressive rock and heavy metal, among other genres.
After the Yardbirds broke up in 1968, lead guitarist Jimmy Page founded what became Led Zeppelin, while Relf and McCarty formed the symphonic rock group Renaissance. The Yardbirds reformed in the 1990s, featuring McCarty, Dreja and new members. They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992. They were included in Rolling Stone's list of the "100 Greatest Artists of All Time", and ranked No. 37 on VH1's 100 Greatest Artists of Hard Rock.
The group formed in the south-west London suburbs in 1963. Relf and Samwell-Smith were originally in a band named the Metropolitan Blues Quartet. After being joined by Dreja, McCarty and Top Topham, they performed at Kingston Art School in late May 1963 as a backup band for Cyril Davies. Following a couple of gigs in September 1963 as the Blue-Sounds, they changed their name to The Yardbirds, either an expression for hobos hanging around rail yards or prisoners hanging around a prison yard; and a reference to seminal jazz saxophonist Charlie "Yardbird" Parker.
The quintet achieved notice on the burgeoning British rhythm and blues scene when they took over as the house band at the Crawdaddy Club in Richmond, succeeding the Rolling Stones. Their repertoire drew from the Chicago blues of Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, Sonny Boy Williamson II and Elmore James, including "Smokestack Lightning", "Good Morning Little School Girl", "Boom Boom", "I Wish You Would", "Rollin' and Tumblin'" and "I'm a Man".
Original lead guitarist Topham left and was replaced by Eric Clapton in October 1963. Crawdaddy Club impresario Giorgio Gomelsky became the Yardbirds manager and first record producer. Under Gomelsky's guidance the Yardbirds signed to EMI's Columbia label in February 1964. Their first album was the "live", Five Live Yardbirds, recorded at the legendary Marquee Club in London. Blues legend Sonny Boy Williamson II invited the group to tour Britain and Germany with him, a union that later engendered another live album, Sonny Boy Williamson and The Yardbirds.
The Clapton line-up cut two singles, the blues "I Wish You Would" and "Good Morning, School Girl", before the band scored its first major hit with the overtly pop "For Your Love", a Beatles-influenced Graham Gouldman composition built around a major chord progression (E-G-A) strummed on a harpsichord. "For Your Love" hit the top of the charts in the U.K. and Canada and reached No. 6 in the U.S., but it didn't please Clapton, a blues purist whose vision extended beyond three-minute singles. Frustrated by the commercial approach, he abruptly left the group on 25 March 1965, the day the single was released. Soon Clapton joined John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers, but not before he recommended Jimmy Page, a prominent young studio 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, and the Yardbirds began to experiment with eclectic arrangements reminiscent of Gregorian chants and various European and Asian styles ("Still I'm Sad", "Turn into Earth", "Hot House of Omagararshid", "Ever Since the World Began"). Beck was voted No. 1 lead guitarist of 1966 in the British music magazine Beat Instrumental.
The Beck-era group produced a number of memorable and often groundbreaking recordings including the hit singles "Heart Full of Soul", "Evil Hearted You", a cover of Bo Diddley's "I'm a Man" (U.S. only), "Shapes of Things" and "Over Under Sideways Down", and the Yardbirds album (known popularly as Roger the Engineer).
Beck's fuzz tone guitar riff on "Heart Full of Soul" introduced Indian raga-style guitar to the pop charts in the summer of 1965; the follow-up, the reverb-laden "Evil Hearted You" continued the Eastern vibe, while its B-Side, the haunting "Still I'm Sad" backed its melody with 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 U.S. tour in late August 1965. A pair of albums were put together for the U.S. 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 "Mister, You're a Better Man Than I". There were three more U.S. tours during Beck's time with the group, and brief European tour in April 1966.
The Yardbird's released their first self-written hit, "Shapes of Things" in Feb. 1966, the previous three U.K. A-sides having been written by Gouldman. Relf's vague anti-war protest lyrics and Beck's soaring, feedback-driven, raga scale solo heralded the coming of British psychedelia months before the Beatles B-side "Rain". The B-Side, "You're A Better Man Than I" doubled down on the psychedelia, as did the follow-up single, "Over Under Sideways Down", released in May and featuring more quixotic lyrics by Relf and another blistering raga-inspired guitar line by Beck.
The "Over Under Sideways Down" sessions were held in April 1966 and produced the album Yardbirds, commonly referred to as "Roger the Engineer", the words scrawled under a cartoon by Dreja of engineer Roger Cameron that appears on the cover of the U.K. release. In the U.S. an abridged version of the album, minus the cartoon cover art was released as Over Under Sideways Down. The recording session marked the Yardbirds split with their manager, Giorgio Gomelsky, as writer Simon Napier-Bell took over management and shared production credit with Samwell-Smith on "Roger".
The band, led by Relf and McCarty, eschewed cover material, writing the entire album themselves. They were allotted "a whole week" to record the album, according to Dreja, resulting in a "crammed" albeit eclectic mix of blues, hard rock, monkish chanting ("Turn into Earth", "Ever Since the World Began") and African tribal rhythms ("Hot House of Omagararshid") best classified as early and experimental British psychedelia. Beck's searing guitar lines were a unifying constant throughout, and "Roger" became a critics favorite, listing at No. 350 on Rolling Stone magazine's "500 Greatest Albums of All-Time."
Yardbirds ("Roger the Engineer") was released in June 1966 and, shortly thereafter, Samwell-Smith quit the group at a drunken gig at Queen's College in Oxford, U.K., to embark on a career as a record producer. Jimmy Page, who was at the show, agreed that night to play bass until rhythm guitarist Dreja could rehearse on it. The band hit the road with Page on bass, Beck and Dreja on guitars, playing dates in Paris, the U.K. and a barnstorming tour of Midwestern U.S. and the California coast. Beck fell ill late in the tour, and was hospitalized in San Francisco. Page took over the lead guitar duties at the Carousel Ballroom (San Francisco) 25 August and Dreja switched to bass. Beck stayed in San Francisco to recuperate with girlfriend Mary Hughes while the rest of the band finished up the tour. Reunited in London, Dreja would remain on bass and the dual lead guitar attack was born.
The Beck-Page lead guitar tandem created the avant garde psychedelic rock classic "Happenings Ten Years Time Ago" (with future Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones on bass instead of Dreja), recorded in July and Sept. of 1966. "Happenings" was backed in the U.K. with "Psycho Daisies", an embryonic garage punk track featuring Beck on vocals (he mentions Mary Hughes in the lyric) and lead guitar and Page on bass. The "Happenings" U.S. B-side, "The Nazz Are Blue", features a rare lead vocal by Beck.
The Beck-Page-era Yardbirds also recorded "Stroll On", a reworking of Tiny Bradshaw's "Train Kept A-Rollin'", recorded for Michelangelo Antonioni critically acclaimed film Blow-Up, with Relf changing the lyrics and title to avoid seeking permission from the copyright holder. Their appearance in the film, about a hip fashion photographer (played by David Hemmings) undergoing an existential crisis in "Swinging London", came after the Who declined and the In-Crowd were unable to attend the filming. Andy Warhol "Factory" band The Velvet Underground were also considered for the part but were unable to acquire UK work permits. Director Antonioni instructed Beck to smash his guitar in emulation of the Who's Pete Townshend. The guitar that Beck destroys in the film was a cheap German-made Höfner instrument. Blow-Up won the Palm D'Or at the 1967 Cannes film festival and was nominated for two Oscars.
The Beck-Page lineup recorded little else in the studio and no live recordings of the dual-lead guitar lineup have surfaced, save "Great Shakes", a commercial recorded for Great Shakes milkshakes using the opening riff of "Over Under Sideways Down", included on the 1992 Little Games Sessions & More compilation.
There was, however, one recording made by Beck and Page in May 1966, just weeks prior to Page joining the Yardbirds: "Beck's Bolero", a piece inspired by Ravel's "Bolero", credited to Page (Beck also claims to have written the song), with John Paul Jones on bass, Keith Moon on drums and Nicky Hopkins on piano. It was around this session that the idea of a "super group" involving Beck, Page, Moon and Who bassist John Entwistle was kicked around, with Entwistle suggesting it would "go over like a lead balloon" and Moon quipping that they could call the group "Lead Zeppelin". Though all parties would remain with their respective groups, Page recalled the conversation in 1968 when deciding on the name for Led Zeppelin. "Beck's Bolero" was first released in 1967 as the B-side of Beck's first solo single, "Hi Ho Silver Lining" and was later included on his 1968 debut album, Truth.
Back in London, the "swinging London" scene depicted in Blow-Up was evolving toward psychedelic London but the Yardbirds kept up a frenetic touring schedule upon their return. They opened for the Rolling Stones '66 U.K. tour (with Ike & Tina Turner, Peter Jay and Long John Baldry also on the bill), released the "Happenings" single, shot their scenes in Blow-up, then headed back to the U.S. for a show at the Fillmore West in San Francisco, CA. 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 and Mary Hughes. The band, still in Texas, continued on the Dick Clark tour as a quartet, with Page as sole lead guitarist. They caught up with Beck in late November, at which point Beck officially left the band. Beck's lack of professionalism, his temper, Relf's drunkenness, the grueling tour schedule, the unrewarding Dick Clark Caravan and other pressures were cited, none of which involved Beck actually being fired. Beck's official departure was announced 30 November in the U.S. The Yardbirds finished their remaining U.S. dates and headed back to the U.K. for more shows scheduled by Napier-Bell. Beck began his 50-year odyssey as a solo artist.
Page subsequently introduced playing the instrument with a cello bow (suggested to him by violinist David McCallum, Sr.) and the combination of a wah-wah pedal in addition to a distortion fuzzbox. Other innovations included the use of a taped noise loop in live settings (on the psychedelic dirge "Glimpses") and open-tuned guitar to enhance the sitar-like sounds the Yardbirds were known for.
Meanwhile, the act's commercial fortunes were declining. "Happenings Ten Years Time Ago" had only reached No. 30 on the U.S. Hot 100 and had fared even worse in Britain. The band dropped Napier-Bell and entered into a partnership with Columbia Records hit-making producer, Mickie Most, known for his work with The Animals, Herman's Hermits and Scottish folk singer turned psychedelic artist Donovan Leitch, yet this move failed to reignite their chart success. After the disappointing sales of "Happenings", the single "Little Games" released in March 1967 flopped so badly in the UK that EMI did not release another Yardbirds record there until after the band broke up. The single did not chart, despite the appearance of another psychedelic gem, "Puzzles", on the B-Side. A 1968 UK release of the "Goodnight Sweet Josephine" single was planned but cancelled. A version of Tony Hazzard's "Ha Ha Said the Clown"—on which only Relf performed—backed with the Relf-McCarty original "Tinker Tailor, Soldier Sailor", was the band's last single to crack the U.S. Top 50, peaking at No. 44 on the Billboard charts in the summer of 1967.
Even as the singles bombed, Epic compiled the six earlier A-Side hits and B-Sides ("New York City Blues", "Still I'm Sad") with the heaviest material from For Your Love ("I'm Not Talking") and Having a Rave Up ("Smokestack Lightning"), and released The Yardbirds Greatest Hits in the U.S. only in March 1967. The album featured the first appearance of "Happenings" and "Shapes of Things" on an album, which, along with "Over Under Sideways Down" formed the Yardbirds 1966 trinity of pioneering psychedelic rock classics. Though it left off the avant sludge-punk of "Psycho Daisies", which had only been released in the U.K. as a B-side, Greatest Hits described to the Yardbirds' growing American audience a nearly complete picture of "what made the Yardbirds a great band", according to critics; it also presented young garage rock musicians of the psychedelic era the full range of the band's work 1965-66. Greatest Hits would be the Yardbirds' best-selling U.S. album release, rising to No. 28 on the Billboard charts as the band toured the states heavily.
Their final album, Little Games, released in America in July 1967, was, however, a commercial and critical non-entity. A cover of Harry Nilsson's "Ten Little Indians" hit the U.S. in the autumn of 1967 and quickly sank.
The Yardbirds spent most of the rest of that year touring in the States with new manager Peter Grant, their live shows becoming heavier and more experimental. The group rarely played their 1967 Most-produced singles on stage, preferring to mix the Beck-era hits with blues standards and experimental psychedelia such as "Glimpses", a Page-written dirge from Little Games 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 rewritten by Relf, was a live staple of the Yardbirds' last two American tours. "Dazed and Confused" went down so well that Page selected it for the first Led Zeppelin record, on which it appears with further revised lyrics and Page credited as writer. (Page and Holmes would settle on an "Inspired by" credit for Holmes in 2011).
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. Dreja was developing an interest in photography. By March, Relf and McCarty had decided to leave but were persuaded by the other two to stay at least for one more American tour.
The group's final single was recorded in January and released two months later. Reflecting the divergences of the band members and their producer, the A-side, "Goodnight Sweet Josephine", was another Mickie Most-produced pop single of the kind that flopped the previous year; while the B-side, "Think About It", featured a proto-Zeppelin Page riff and snippets of the "Dazed and Confused" guitar solo. It did not enter the Billboard Top 100.
A concert and some album tracks were recorded in New York City in March and early April (including the unreleased song "Knowing That I'm Losing You", an early version of a track that would be re-recorded by Led Zeppelin as "Tangerine"). All were shelved at the group's request, but after Led Zeppelin became successful Epic tried to release the concert material as Live Yardbirds: Featuring Jimmy Page. The album was quickly withdrawn after Page's lawyers filed an injunction.
On 7 July 1968, the Yardbirds played their final gig at the College of Technology in Luton, Bedfordshire. Rolling Stone magazine announced the break-up by saying that "Jimmy Paige [sic] intends to go into solo recording work..."
Page and Dreja, with a tour of Scandinavia scheduled for late summer 1968, saw the break-up as an opportunity to put a new lineup together with Page as producer and Grant as manager. Procol Harum's B.J. Wilson, Paul Francis and session man Clem Cattini, who'd guested on more than a few Yardbirds tracks under Most's supervision, were considered as drummers. Young vocalist and composer Terry Reid was asked to replace Relf but declined because of a new recording contract with Most and recommended the then-unknown Robert Plant. Plant, in turn, recommended his childhood friend John Bonham on drums. Dreja bowed out to pursue a career as a rock photographer and bassist/keyboardist/arranger John Paul Jones—who had worked with Page on countless sessions, including several with the Yardbirds and "Beck's Bolero"—was recruited. Rehearsals began in August; in early September, Page's revised Yardbirds embarked as the New Yardbirds on the Scandinavian tour after which the group returned to the UK to produce the debut Led Zeppelin album.
While Page's new roster still played a few songs from the Yardbirds' canon—usually "Train Kept a-Rollin'," "Dazed and Confused" or "For Your Love" and snatches of Beck's "Shapes of Things" solo —a name (and identity) change was in order in Oct. 1968. They appeared on contracts, promotional material, ticket stubs and other collateral as "The Yardbirds" or "The New Yardbirds" for three shows in October 1968, with the Marquee Club date reported as the Yardbirds' "farewell London appearance" and the Liverpool University show 19 Oct. announced as the Yardbirds' "last ever appearance". This may have been motivated, at least in part, by a cease-and-desist order from Dreja, who claimed that he maintained legal rights to "The Yardbirds" name, though most sources indicate that Page and Grant fully intended to change the name after they returned from Scandanavia with or without the nudge from Dreja. From 19 Oct. 1968 on, they were Led Zeppelin, the name taken from The Who bandmembers Moon and Entwistle's "lead balloon" discussion of the "super group" that had played on the "Beck's Bolero" sessions in May 1966. The spelling of "lead" was changed to avoid confusion over the pronunciation. This effectively closed the books on the Yardbirds – at least by name – for the next 24 years.
Relf and McCarty formed an acoustic rock group called Together and then Renaissance, which recorded two albums for Island Records over a two-year period. McCarty formed the group Shoot in 1973. Relf, after producing albums for Medicine Head (with whom he also played bass) and Saturnalia, resurfaced in 1975 with a new quartet, Armageddon; a hybrid of heavy metal, hard rock and folk influences, which now included former Renaissance bandmate Louis Cennamo, drummer Bobby Caldwell (previously a member of Captain Beyond and Johnny Winter), and guitarist Martin Pugh (from Steamhammer, Rod Stewart's An Old Raincoat Won't Ever Let You Down, and most recently in 7th Order). They recorded one promising album before Relf died in an electrical accident in his home studio on 14 May 1976. In 1977, Illusion was formed, featuring a reunited lineup of the original Renaissance, including McCarty and Keith's sister Jane Relf.
In the 1980s McCarty, Dreja and Samwell-Smith formed a short-lived but fun Yardbirds semi-reunion called Box of Frogs, which occasionally included Beck and Page plus various friends with whom they had all recorded over the years. They recorded two albums for Epic, the self-titled "Box of Frogs" (1984) and "Strange Land" (1986). McCarty was also part of 'The British Invasion All-Stars' with members of Procol Harum, The Creation, the Nashville Teens, the Downliners Sect and The Pretty Things. Phil May and Dick Taylor of the Pretty Things, together with McCarty, recorded two albums in Chicago as the Pretty Things-Yardbirds Blues Band – The Chicago Blues Tapes 1991 and Wine, Women, Whiskey, both produced by George Paulus.
The Yardbirds were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992. Nearly all the original surviving musicians who had been part of the group's heyday, including Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page, appeared at the ceremony. (Original lead guitarist Top Topham was not included.) Eric Clapton, whose Hall of Fame induction was the first of three, was unable to attend because of his obligations while recording and working on a show for the MTV Unplugged series. Accepting the induction on behalf of the late Keith Relf were his wife April and son Danny.
In 1992, Peter Barton from Rock Artist Management contacted Jim McCarty about the prospect of reforming the Yardbirds. McCarty was interested but only if Chris Dreja would agree, but at the time he thought it highly unlikely that Dreja would want to tour again. Barton then contacted Dreja, who agreed to give it a try. Their debut gig was booked at the Marquee Club in London along with the newly reformed Animals. It was a great success. The lineup featured John Idan handling bass and lead vocals. Barton managed the band and booked all their dates for over a decade; he still works with the band on occasion.
In 2003, a new album, Birdland, was released under the Yardbirds name on the Favored Nations label by a lineup including Chris Dreja, Jim McCarty and new members Gypie Mayo (lead guitar, backing vocals), John Idan (bass, lead vocals) and Alan Glen (harmonica, backing vocals), which consisted of a mixture of new material mostly penned by McCarty and re-recordings of some of their greatest hits, with guest appearances by Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, Slash, Brian May, Steve Lukather, Jeff "Skunk" Baxter, John Rzeznik, Martin Ditchum and Simon McCarty. Also, Jeff Beck reunited with his former bandmates on the song "My Blind Life". And then there was the rare and improbable guest appearance on stage in 2005 by their first guitarist from the 1960s, Top Topham.
Since the release of Birdland, Mayo was replaced briefly by Jerry Donahue, and subsequently in 2005 by the then 20-year-old Ben King, while Glen has been replaced by Billy Boy Miskimmin from Nine Below Zero fame.
In 2007 the Yardbirds released a live CD, recorded on 19 July 2006, entitled Live at B.B. King Blues Club (Favored Nations), featuring the McCarty, Dreja, Idan, King and Miskimmin line-up.
The first episode of the 2007/08 season for The Simpsons featured the Yardbirds' "I'm A Man" from the CD Live at B.B. King Blues Club (Favored Nations).
According to his website, Idan resigned from the Yardbirds in August 2008, although his last gig with them was on Friday 24 April 2009, when they headlined the first concert in the new Live Room venue at Twickenham rugby stadium. This was also Glen's last gig with the band after temporarily standing in when Miskimmin was unavailable.
Idan and Glen were replaced by Andy Mitchell (lead vocals, harmonica, acoustic guitar) and David Smale (bass, backing vocals), brother of the virtuoso guitarist Jonathan Smale.
Dreja sat out the US spring 2012 tour to recover from an illness. It was announced in 2013 that he was leaving the band for medical reasons and would be replaced by original Yardbirds guitarist Topham.
McCarty announced in December 2014 that the current lineup of the Yardbirds had disbanded. He told fans in an email that he would be "working on solo ventures and other Yardbirds projects in 2015.” This has been proven to be untrue as the Yardbirds are on tour as of 2015. In May 2015 Topham left the band and was replaced by Earl Slick. Ultimately, Slick would not play with them.
In August 2015 it was announced they would play the Eel Pie Club in Twickenham on 17 October with a line-up of Jim McCarty, John Idan, Ben King, David Smale and Billyboy Miskimmin.
On 12 August 2015 it was announced that Boston-based guitarist Johnny A. would become the newest member of the Yardbirds for their North American tour running from 30 October to 22 November 2015. Former Ram Jam harmonica played Myke Scavone joined the band at the end of 2015.
On 15 April 2016 the band played at the Under the Bridge venue in London with a line-up of Jim McCarty, John Idan, Johnny A, Kenny Aaronson, and Billyboy Miskimmin. Chris Dreja was in the audience.
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