The Yardbirds, considered by some to be one of the sixties key UK bands, behind The Beatles and The Stones, slightly behind The Who and The Kinks, maybe keeping up with The Pretty Things and definitely ahead of The Creation and The Action. They had some hit singles but when did you last hear them on a golden oldies radio show? In their lifetime they released three albums proper, a live debut, this album and a final Mickie Most produced last stab at hitdom but when it all boils down Yardbirds is their only fully realised album project. Let’s face it, were it not for the fact that they featured the triumvirate of Clapton, Beck and Page respectively they would be even less well known. However, this (latest, possibly definitive) reissue of their second album offers a chance for the band to remind listeners that, despite a catalogue of woes, management problems and guitarist lurgy that rivals that of Spinal Tap’s drummer problem, The Yardbirds captured the zeitgeist of “swinging London” on the cusp of beatfreak and psychedelia.
Originally a blues band and successors to the Stone’s residency at The Crawdaddy Club they recorded a live album (Five Live Yardbirds) with Eric Clapton on guitar but after hooking up with writer Graham Gouldman (of later 10CC fame) for the hit, For Your Love, Clapton quit, the pop tune allegedly not in line with his blues purist pursuit. His successor, Jeff Beck, had no such qualms, the band scoring with two further singles, Heart Full of Soul and Evil Hearted You. And so in March 1966 the band went into the studios to record their first bona fide studio album. Despite some background noise in the shape of a management change, original manager Giorgio Gomelsky replaced by Simon Napier-Bell, and a simultaneous attempt at solo stardom from singer Keith Relf they emerged with what would be their most fully realised statement.
Commonly known as Roger The Engineer after the line drawing (by rhythm guitarist Chris Déjà) of studio engineer Roger Cameron which featured on the cover, Yardbirds (the official title) shows the band in full command of their blues powers (witness the excellently paced Rack My Mind), experimenting with the studio possibilities and delivering some frantic beat pop with a slight whiff of the emerging psychedelic sound. The latter is apparent from the beginning with Lost Woman opening with an Animals’ like bass driven boogie before opening out into a lengthy “freak out”, harmonica and guitar duelling with Beck delving into feedback and frenzied fretwork that rivals that of Townshend. Over, Under, Sideways, Down , released as a single, is a fine slice of sixties guitar pop dominated by Beck’s spiralling guitar riff and He’s Always There had the potential to be a chart topper but it’s let down by a flat production that lacks oomph despite Beck’s bravura soloing at the end. Finally on the freakbeat side there’s the very fine What Do you Want, a song that starts off like The Monkees but is elevated by the frequent interventions from Beck and, again, his soloing at the end of the song. Turn Into Earth retreads some of the territory of their single, Still I’m Sad, the vocals recalling Gregorian chant, a mantra of sorts.
Unable to shake off their blues roots there are several “adaptations” of familiar blues riffs and boogies. Aside from the aforementioned Rack My Mind the band offer a 12 bar boogie on The Nazz Are Blue which thrashes along finely and which surely would have had fans comparing Clapton and Beck when played live. Here Beck passes with flying colours, his long sustained note midway through just brilliant. Jeff’s Boogie is just that, his fingers flying as he runs through some Chuck Berry inspired riffs and just generally shows off.
That’s two thirds of the album and had the band kept up this quality then Yardbirds might be up there with Between The Buttons and The Who Sell Out but they do themselves no favours with I Can’t Make Your Way, a pedestrian song that recalls the likes of Freddie And The Dreamers or Herman’s Hermits despite Beck’s soaring solo break. Likewise the short Farewell, a brave but ultimately failed attempt at social commentary. They’re more successful on the jungle surf weirdness of Hot House Of Omagarashid, a kind of R’n’B Pink Floyd instrumental complete with wobble board. The album proper ends with some more social commentary, this time on the evils of money, on Ever Since The World Began, a song that combines some of the Gregorian chanting that had featured on Still I’m Sad before warping into an almost cabaret like guitar shuffle. More than anything these songs date the album, their shelf lives expired.
It’s tempting to ask what if? What if the band had stuck together and got back into the studio a year later with better equipment and even better songs? There’s a partial answer here with the inclusion of their masterpiece, recorded six months later and with Jimmy Page replacing Paul Samwell Smith in the line up. Happenings Ten Years Time Ago is a major event, the band defining their guitar freakout and burgeoning psychedelic sound. Sadly it was a one off, Beck soon departing, however there was a final opportunity to see/hear the twin guitar line up in the movie Blow Up and happily their rendition of Stroll On (a thinly disguised version of Train Kept A’ Rollin) is also included here. The Yardbirds continued as a four piece, touring America and by all accounts becoming a prototype Led Zeppelin. However, they were delivered into the hands of Mickie Most who produced their final album, filling it with slight pop songs played by session men with the band having little or no say. They slowly disintegrated leaving Page with nothing but the name.
This release (a double CD) contains the album in both its mono and stereo versions along with mono versions of Happenings Ten Years Time Ago, its B-side, Psycho Daisies, and Stroll On. In addition there are alternative stereo mixes of He’s Always There, Turn Into Earth and I Can’t Make Your Way. Finally there are the two singles released by Keith Relf in ’66, manager Napier-Bell apparently seeing him as a potential pop heart throb. Recorded with session men (including Jimmy Page) Mr. Zero, a Bob Lind song, is a period baroque folk pop number which just nudged into the top 50, the B-side , Knowing, written by Relf, continues in a similar vein. Shapes In My Mind, written by Napier- Bell, is somewhat more dramatic with a churchlike organ intro, Napier-Bell seemingly trying to fit Relf into a Manfred Mann/Paul Jones suit. The B-side for this single, Blue Sands, is an inconsequential harmonica led instrumental and apparently is by another band altogether (The Outsiders), indicative of the manager’s cavalier manner.
In all this package won’t effect any seismic shift in The Yardbirds standing in the roll call of sixties bands but it’s a fine and respectful look back at their big shot at posterity.