March 13, 2010

The Most Blueswailing, Yardmerizing Yardbirds

The Yardbirds get name-dropped as one of the greats of sixties Britrock, mainly for their role as the cradle for three of the great rock guitarists: Clapton, Beck, and Page. Unfortunately, this renders them more an answer to a trivia question than a living, (fire)breathing rock band.

Clapton pushed them into the forefront of the British blues rock explosion, but they didn't really become THE YARDBIRDS until purist Clapton left in a huff over their "pop experimentalism". With Beck handling lead guitar duties and the rest of the band free to experiment with oddball pop structures, The Yardbirds quickly became the most interesting, if not necessarily the best, of the British Invasion bands.

Paul Samwell-Smith is responsible for the Gregorian Chant arrangement of this song, and Beck does some really nice accents with his tone knob. Is this a great song? Not really. But it is interesting.

For me, Jeff Beck will always be the trademark sound of The Yardbirds, and probably the biggest raw talent to call himself a rock guitarist. He sunk into horrible fuzak in the 70's (with Miami Vice theme-miester Jan Hammer!), but still, his guitar playing was often mesmerizing. Even a recent PBS show featuring Beck doing an updated version of the same fuzak managed to hold my attention for almost twenty minutes. The only thing that keeps Beck from being an immortal musician as opposed to simply a badass guitarist is his horrible taste in music.

The primetime Yardbirds were built on a blues foundation cemented by Clapton, and revolved around Relf's hipster/hippieisms, Samwell-Smith's songwriting, and Beck's gunslinger attitude . . . and there has NEVER been a guitarist with Beck's articulate aggression. Even overwhelmingly sappy crap such as "Mr. You're a Better Man Than I" is saved by a vicious Beck guitar solo. Or, for a similar hippie blast undercut by Beck, see "Shapes of Things" above.

Initially, Jimmy Page was invited to replace Clapton when EC hit the bricks. Page, who at the time played on damn near every pop song coming out of England, was hesitant to give up his day job. It was Page who recommended Beck. After Paul Samwell-Smith left, Page took over on bass until Chris Dreja could learn the instrument and Page could move to guitar. The idea was that Page and Beck would eventually end up as dueling leads, which they did . . . but only for a short time.

It was a great pairing, which is almost counter intuitive: usually, with egos (and talents) that big, you would expect them to run all over each other. Fortunately, Beck and Page complimented each well, with Page's lysergic grunge rumbling under Beck's slashing . . . Page was always behind the beat, a little funky, while Beck was always in front of the beat, always pushing . . .

They showed up together in an unintentionally hilarious scene in Antonioni's The Blow Up, lip syncing an absolutely blistering redo of "Train Kept A'Rollin'" called "Stroll On":

I love the fact that the crowd stands there like zombies with the exception of one dancing couple. Beck's playing a cheap Hoffner hollowbody which is clearly meant to bite it before the end of the clip, which it does . . . I mean, seriously, wasn't there at least enough room in the budget for him to waste a used Tele? There are bad overdubs of "guitar malfunction" to justify Beck's smashing of the guitar, and to really top it off, they couldn't get all the action in the time it took "Stroll On" to run through, so they do a bad edit and play half the song over again. And, if that weren't enough, the heretofore zombie-like crowd TOTALLY FREAKS OUT when Beck throws his guitar neck off the stage . . . a-and, the hero of the movie makes it out of the riot with the holy talisman, only to discard it when he hits the sidewalk. Here, a painfully unhip Antonioni posits The Yardbirds as the cutting edge of pop/youth culture, a position that they did indeed occupy, even if Antonioni's vision is ridiculous.

In the public's eye, though, The Yardbirds were regressing. Popular with Clapton as their guitarist, each successive release moved further away from the public's interest. It was almost as if the band were reversing the usual movement from cult band to mainstream heroes. By the time Beck was fired, the British public had pretty much forgotten about The Yardbirds . . .

The Yardbirds soldiered on with Page for a bit longer, but, as they say, the gig was up. Always experimental, they also moved away from trying to make hit singles years before a band could sustain itself with album sales. The results were unfortunate, if predictable. Page was an able replacement for Beck, but the band had run out of gas, and Page's nascent vision for the band was still not ready for prime time.

Page had a vision, but the rest of the band was not on board. No one, it seems, was interested in the guitar-heavy psychedelic rock that Page was pushing on the band. Relf and McCarty left to pursue music in a more folk/acoustic vein, while Dreja decided to pursue a career in photography. The Yardbirds left with one last blast that no one noticed. The B-side was a harbinger of things to come and, at the same time, a rocker equal to "For Your Love", "Heart Full of Soul", "Evil Hearted You", "Over Under Sideways Down", "Stroll On", "Happenings Ten Years Time Ago", and everything else they ever did that earned them a place in the pantheon:

Page replaced Dreja with session pro John Paul Jones, Relf and McCarty with unknowns Robert Plant and John Bonham. After soldiering on briefly under the name The New Yardbirds, Page, perhaps realizing that the "Yardbirds" handle no longer had any cache, took Keith Moon's suggestion and renamed the band Led Zeppelin. And so, by 1968, The Yardbirds were done.

* * * * *

The British Invasion will always be The Beatles and the Stones, with The Who, The Kinks, The Animals, Small Faces, The Zombies, and a few others just behind. Of those, the band closest to my heart will always be the Rolling Stones. The Yardbirds, though, have never gotten their due: they were more than just a world class rock guitar farm club, and more than just the band that preceded Led Zeppelin. The Yardbirds were the most interesting nexus of blues, pop, psychedelia, and hipsterism to emerge in late sixties Britain. I did this spiel because it's time The Yardbirds were recognized for what they were, instead of what they spawned.


Matt said...

"The only thing that keeps Beck from being an immortal musician as opposed to simply a badass guitarist is his horrible taste in music." - this would be a great post in itself. I can think of a few bass players that are great, but they still manage to crank out/be involved with horrible music.

Bill Zink said...

Unlike all those shredder idiots his playing is always interesting and innovative, but he hasn't been involved in really good music since The Yardbirds, although the first couple Jeff Beck Group albums out-Zepped Led Zeppelin. Those fuzak albums ("Wired", "Blow By Blow", "Live With the Jan Hammer Group", and "There and Back"), taken as a whole, are frightening, and I won't get into "Jeff Beck's Guitar Shop".

He's apparently got a pretty good collection of hot rods that he works on himself. Ah, the life of the idle rich.