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Music / The Yardbirds

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The classic line-up of The Yardbirds, from left to right:
Chris Dreja, Jim McCarty, Keith Relf, Jeff Beck, and
Paul Samwell-Smith.

A British Invasion band active in the 1960s British Blues Rock scene alongside The Rolling Stones and The Animals, The Yardbirds are best remembered for developing their hard-edged, proto-Psychedelic Rock sound, which influenced numerous future Hard Rock and early Heavy Metal performers, and for serving as the starting point for three guitar players who soon became famous in their own right: Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page.

The Yardbirds formed in London in 1963, with a line-up initially consisting of Anthony "Top" Topham, Paul Samwell-Smith, Chris Dreja, Jim McCarty and Keith Relf. Topham had to leave that fall due to studies, and was replaced by Eric Clapton, with whom the band released their first three singles and their debut album Five Live Yardbirds, which was revolutionary at the time. Clapton quit to join John Mayall's Bluesbreakers shortly before the completion of For Your Love, which he felt was too much of a departure from their blues roots, and was replaced by Jeff Beck, who led the group in a distinctly psychedelic direction. This is generally considered to be the "classic' line-up of the band, and for good reason. It was with Beck that they recorded their biggest hits (with the exception of "For Your Love", which was with Clapton), most of which appeared on the albums Having a Rave Up (1965) and Roger the Engineer (1966).

Paul Samwell-Smith — who was an integral part of the band musically and their chief songwriter — quit shortly after Roger the Engineer to focus on production. Jimmy Page joined to replace Samwell-Smith on bass, but it became clear that bass was not suited for him. Chris Dreja chose to switch from rhythm guitar to bass, but until Dreja could learn and play bass competently, Page continued to play bass. Once this was done, Page switched to co-lead guitar and for a very brief period, Beck and Page played lead guitar together. There are only three Yardbirds songs with both Beck and Page: The non-album single "Happenings Ten Years Time Ago" (Dreja played rhythm guitar, and the bass was played by Page's future band-mate John Paul Jones, then a session musician. Turned out to be their last major hit.), its B-Side "Psycho Daisies" (Beck on sole lead guitar, Dreja on rhythm guitar and Page on bass) and "Stroll On" ("The Train Kept A-Rollin'" with different lyrics. Used in the film Blow Up). Despite all that, this line-up remains highly influential, especially for guitar enthusiasts.

Near the end of 1966, Jeff Beck was fired and Jimmy Page effectively took over as the co-leader of the band along with Keith Relf. This final line-up released one album (Little Games in 1967) and several unsuccessful singles before throwing in the towel in mid-1968. Undaunted, Page decided to organize The New Yardbirds, recruiting Robert Plant, John Paul Jones, and John Bonham to fulfill an obligation to play at several European tour dates. Page and company decided to record an album after the completion of the tour. Chris Dreja issued a cease and desist order that stated Page could only use the name for those tour dates. Inspired by a snarky comment from Keith Moon and John Entwistle (that the band would go over like a lead balloon), the group changed their name to Led Zeppelin.

Keith Relf died from accidental electrocution in 1976. In 1982, Chris Dreja and Jim McCarty reformed The Yardbirds with several new musicians and with Paul Samwell-Smith joining the following year. Subsequently, they began working under a different name, called the Box Of Frogs and that lasted until 1986. In 1992, Dreja and McCarty again reformed The Yardbirds with several new musicians. This edition of the band released one studio album (Birdland in 2003) and several live albums. Dreja had to leave the Yardbirds in 2013 after suffering from several strokes, and he was replaced by founding member "Top" Topham, who himself left in 2015. McCarty and others continued to tour as The Yardbirds to this day. McCarty has been the only member who's been in every version of the group (bar The New Yardbirds), although Dreja comes close.

Principal Members (Founding members in bold, current members in italic.):

  • Kenny Aaronson - bass (2015–present)
  • Joe Allanson - bass (1982)
  • Johnny Antonopoulos - guitar (2015–present)
  • Jeff Beck - guitar, backing and lead vocals, bass (1965–66; died 2023)
  • John Cawthra (Gypie Mayo) - guitar, vocals (1995–2004; died 2013)
  • Eric Clapton - guitar, backing and co-lead vocals (1963–65)
  • Rod Demick - bass, harmonica, vocals (1992–93)
  • Jerry Donahue - guitar (2004–05)
  • Chris Dreja - guitar, bass, piano, vocals (1963–68, 1982–83, 1992–2013)
  • Mark Feltham - lead vocals, harmonica (1982–83)
  • Laurie Garman - harmonica (1994–96)
  • Alan Glen - harmonica, percussion (1996–2003, 2008–09)
  • John Idan - lead vocals, guitar, bass (1992–2009, 2015–present)
  • Ben King - guitar (2005–15)
  • John Knightsbridge - guitar, vocals (1982–83)
  • Ray Majors - guitar, vocals (1994–95)
  • Jim McCarty - drums, percussion, backing and lead vocals (1963–68, 1982–83, 1992–present)
  • Billy Boy Miskimmin - harmonica, percussion (2003–08)
  • Andy Mitchell - lead vocals, harmonica (2009–15)
  • Jimmy Page - guitar, bass (1966–68)
  • Keith Relf - lead vocals, harmonica, maracas, guitar, percussion (1963–68; died 1976)
  • Paul Samwell-Smith - bass, backing and co-lead vocals (1963–66, 1983)
  • Myke Scavone - lead vocals, harmonica, percussion (2015–present)
  • David Smale - bass (2009–15)
  • Earl Slick - guitar (2015)
  • Anthony "Top" Topham - guitar, vocals (1963, 2013–15)

Studio Discography:

  • 1965 - For Your Love note 
  • 1965 - Having a Rave Up note 
  • 1966 - The Yardbirds (Better known as Roger the Engineer. Or Over Under Sideways Down in some territories)note 
  • 1967 - Little Games
  • 2003 - Birdland

Live Discography:

  • 1964 - Five Live Yardbirds
  • 1965 - Sonny Boy Williamson And The Yardbirds note 
  • 1965 - Having a Rave Up note 
  • 1971 - Live Yardbirds Featuring Jimmy Page
  • 1984 - London 1963 — The First Recordings!
  • 1997 - BBC Sessions
  • 1999 - Reunion Jam
  • 2003 - Live! Blueswailing July '64
  • 2006 - Reunion Jam Vol. II
  • 2007 - Live At B.B. King Blues Club
  • 2013 - Making Tracks

Heart Full of Tropes:

  • Blues Rock: One of the earliest exponents of the style, along with The Rolling Stones and The Animals.
  • Breakup Breakout: Clapton, Beck and Page. Although Relf and McCarty did go on to some success with Renaissance, and Samwell-Smith went on to have a successful career behind the scenes as a producer.
  • Cover Version: Most of their material, especially when they started off, was covers of blues, rock and roll and rockabilly songs, played a bit faster and heavier than the originals. Except for Roger the Engineer, heavy touring and limited studio time left the band mostly at the mercy of covers and songs written by outside musicians like Graham Gouldman.
  • The Cracker: In late 2015, Yardbirds fans were puzzled to discover that the band's official Facebook page was posting articles on sexual positions. As it turns out, the page was hacked, and despite the admins' best efforts, they had no choice but to shut the page down and create a new one.
  • Driven to Suicide: "Farewell" could be interpreted this way.
  • Mood Whiplash: "Ever Since The World Began" starts as a scary, doom-laden monotone chant about the evils of greed, and then suddenly becomes a light pop song with a call-and-response section... about the evils of greed.
  • Perishing Alt-Rock Voice: On the few occasions when Jeff Beck sang lead vocals, e.g. "The Nazz Are Blue", he turned out to have this, which is probably why he hasn't exactly gone on to be a singer-guitarist.
  • Precision F-Strike: An early recorded example. The last line of "Spanish Blood" has McCarty speaking the words "that was the wrong fucking verse."
  • Psychedelic Rock:
    • They went in this direction to an extent after Jeff Beck joined the group. It's best illustrated on Roger the Engineer.
    • In fact, their song "Happenings Ten Years Time Ago" (one of few with both Page and Beck) was recently voted the number one UK Psychedelic Song in some poll.
  • Revival: Dreja and McCarty's reformation of the group, which is also an example of The Band Minus the Face.
  • Revolving Door Band: Throughout the Yardbirds' history, Dreja and McCarty were the only consistent members until Dreja retired due to health issues in 2013.
  • Sarcastic Title: The Protest Song "You're A Better Man Than I".
    Can you condemn a man if your faith he doesn't hold?
    Say the colour of his skin is the colour of his soul?
    Could you say that men for king and country all must die?
    Well, mister, you're a better man than I
  • Self-Titled Album: Almost with Five Live Yardbirds; Roger the Engineer depending on where and when it was released.
  • Spiritual Successor: Led Zeppelin, who were originally called The New Yardbirds.
  • Spoken Word in Music: The comical Cockney rant that Beck delivers during the instrumental break in "Happenings Ten Years Time Ago."
    Beck: Pop group, are ya? Bet you’re making money… (laughing) Why you lot wear your long hair? I bet you’re appearing in a club again, are you? Singing every night there on stage.
  • Stage Name: Eric Clapton was given the nickname "Slowhand" on stage during his time in The Yardbirds. The nickname has stuck, alongside his post-Yardbirds nickname "God".
    • Also, Paul Samwell-Smith was born simply "Paul Smith". On-stage, he was always referred to as "Sam".
  • Step Up to the Microphone: Eric Clapton and Paul Samwell-Smith sing co-lead vocals on "Good Morning Little Schoolgirl". Jeff Beck sings lead vocals on "The Nazz Are Blue". Jim McCarty sings lead vocals on "Spanish Blood" and "Taking A Hold On Me".
  • Westminster Chimes: Quoted in "Jeff's Boogie".