During their original incarnation from 1963 to 1968, England’s Yardbirds minted a string of hits that still get spun on classic rock radio, including “For Your Love,” “Over Under Sideways Down,” “I Wish You Would,” “Train Kept A-Rollin’ ” and “Heart Full of Soul” – all part of the perfect late-night FM-soundtrack for long drives down the interstate.
But the band played another, arguably more important, role in rock history. It was the vehicle that provided the Holy Trinity of British blues – Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton – with their first hard-core touring experience and international exposure.
The saga starts with Eric Clapton, who joined in October 1963 after original lead guitarist Top Topham left the band. The Yardbirds were only Clapton’s second group, following The Roosters. Before that he’d been busking and playing pubs as part of a duo. Yet the 17-year-old’s incendiary playing immediately raised The Yardbirds’ profile in the London club scene.
At the time Clapton joined, The Yardbirds played few originals, hewing to the Chicago blues repertoire of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Bo Diddley and the other American bluesmen associated with Chicago’s Chess Records. In 1964 they backed Sonny Boy Williamson on a tour of England and Germany. The results, which left the notoriously curmudgeonly Williamson less than satisfied, are available on a widely distributed album sold under various titles including Live at Crawdaddy and Sonny Boy Williamson & the Yardbirds.
Clapton was entirely happy playing blues, but the other Yardbirds and their colorful manager Giorgio Gomelski were interested in the kind of success The Beatles and The Rolling Stones were enjoying. After their first two singles, “I Wish You Would” and “Good Morning, School Girl,” the search began for material by pop songwriters from outside the band. “For Your Love,” written by longtime 10CC guitarist Graham Gouldman, provided the Yardbirds with their first million-seller. Instead of embracing the group’s rising fortunes, Clapton – then a blues purist – quit, bought his famed Gibson Les Paul Standard, and kept pursuing dyed-in-the-wool blues as a member of John Mayall’s band.
Clapton recommended his friend Page for the gig, but Page was reluctant to give up his successful work as a studio musician. He, in turn, recommended Jeff Beck, who had been playing with early rock recyclers The Rumbles and the Fitz and Startz.
Beck played his first Yardbirds show in May 1965, bringing a more versatile guitar sound that better fit the group’s fresh pop inclinations. On the other hand, Beck may have held the group back in some respects. He was then, as now, a ferociously edgy player. Suddenly Yardbirds singles including “Still I’m Sad,” “Turn Into Earth” and “Hot House of Omagarashid” were shot through with fuzztone, feedback and Eastern modalities… and they rode lower on the charts. On the other hand, Beck was voted lead guitarist of the year by the British music magazine Beat Instrumental.
But more classics did come as Beck’s tenure continued, including Gouldman’s “Heart Full of Soul” and “Shapes of Things.” Beck and the Yardbirds made their first tour of the States in 1965 and the group expanded their European territory as well.
When original bassist Paul Samwell-Smith left in 1966, Page agreed to play bass while rhythm guitarist Chris Dreja prepared to take over that role in The Yardbirds. Nonetheless, Beck and Page almost immediately began tag teaming on guitar in the studio. The single “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago” featured both men on lead, although the B-side displayed Beck and Page on guitar and bass, respectively. They also played duel lead guitars on “Stroll On,” the band’s first recorded version of the Johnny Burnette Trio’s “Train Kept A-Rollin’,” which they cut for the soundtrack of the Michelangelo Antonioni film Blowup. The group also appeared in the film, in a scene where Beck smashes a guitar on stage.
Beck and Page made one more recording during the former’s time in The Yardbirds. “Beck’s Bolero” became the B-side of Beck’s first single as a solo artist and foreshadowed the coming of the New Yardbirds, Led Zeppelin and Beck’s own band. It featured Beck and Page on guitars, future Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones, The Who’s Keith Moon on drums and Nicky Hopkins, who would become part of the Jeff Beck Group, on keyboards. The A-side was “Hi Ho Silver Lining.”
Beck was fired from the Yardbirds after a 1966 Texas tour, reportedly for not showing up at gigs and being temperamental. Page immediately stepped to the fore and introduced his violin bow technique, immortalized in the Led Zeppelin film The Song Remains the Same, on stage.
The hits stopped coming for The Yardbirds, so they switched management. In another foreshadowing of Led Zeppelin, Peter Grant became their new handler. The Yardbirds’ touring repertoire still drew heavily on the Beck years augmented by blues standards and covers of the Velvet Underground and others. One entry on their set lists was “Dazed and Confused,” a tune originally composed by American songwriter Jake Holmes, with lyrics rewritten by Yardbirds frontman Keith Relf.
In 1968 the group split in two. Relf and guitarist Jim McCarty were interesting in pursuing folk-based music, while Page was smitten with the sound and considerable success of Cream and the Jimi Hendrix Experience. An indicator of Page’s trajectory was the guitar break on “Think About It,” the B-side of the last single by the Yardbirds during their original run. It contains the basics of the epic playing he’d put on tape when Led Zeppelin recorded “Dazed and Confused” for their debut.
After The Yardbirds played their final concert together on July 7, 1968, attempts to fulfill contracts for a Scandinavian tour seemed doomed until Page found Robert Plant and John Bonham and recruited John Paul Jones to fill out a new Yardbirds lineup. But by the end of the year, a legal dispute over the ownership of the band’s name made a change necessary, and thanks to Keith Moon, who suggested Page’s new group would go over like a Led Zeppelin, the stage was set for an entirely new chapter in rock history.
In 1994, Dreja and McCarty reunited under The Yardbirds banner and they continue to perform as the group today, playing blues chestnuts and revisiting hits and obscurities from The Yardbirds’ Clapton, Beck and Page eras.