“Here they are, The Yardbirds!”
Just like John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, The Yardbirds were also a breeding ground and apprenticeship for the next generation of English guitar heroes, namely Eric Clapton (ex-Bluesbreaker), Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page. Led by the charismatic Keith Relf, the band were one of England’s preeminent blues-rock groups and, some say, one of the most influential. And after listening to Live At The BBC, a compendium of recordings The Yardbirds made between 1965 and 1968, one might well agree with that assertion.
The Rolling Stones may have been better songwriters, but it could be argued that The Yardbirds were far superior musicians, eventually consisting of a guitar line-up that is now considered to be one of the finest of all time. Clapton’s tenure with the group was short-lived, lasting less than 18 months. However before he left in 1965, he recommended another young guitarist as his replacement, Jimmy Page. Page declined, but put Relf onto another promising guitarist, Jeff Beck, who gladly accepted the role as lead guitar player.
From opener “I Ain’t Got You,” to closing track “My Baby,” this is some of the most riveting blues-rock ever performed for the British Broadcasting Corporation, and it’s a sheer a miracle that the tapes have survived, considering how blasé the BBC’s attitude was toward popular culture.
Popular hit “For Your Love,” despite Clapton’s absence (he left just before the band were booked), lacks none of the original recordings urgency and passion. What BBC Sessions makes clear is that The Yardbirds were as mean on the stage as they were in the studio. In other words, no time for rehearsal, just plug in and play, which is pretty much the way it was in those days.
The majority of tracks run less than three minutes in length, so there was obviously no opportunity to improvise or extend each song’s welcome. Listening to their version of “Smokestack Lightning,” with Relf’s passionate vocal delivery, Paul Samwell-Smith’s throbbing bass, and Beck’s joker-like guitar skills, who, even as such a young age, was capable of pulling out of his trick-bag such an array of sounds that one still marvels today as to the level of technique and imagination he possessed. On Elmore James’ “Dust My Broom” and “The Sun Is Shining” they pre-date Fleetwood Mac’s own considerable blues chops by a year or two, unleash their inner Muddy Waters via English urbanity through convincing covers of “I’m A Man” and “Drinking Muddy Water,” thus linking London with Chicago.
Despite the band’s reliance on covers, it’s their musical prowess which impresses the most, Beck and Page in particular, whose ability to pluck notes from the cosmos at random never ceases to amaze. “Shapes Of Things” and “Train Kept A-Rollin’” are evidence alone of the band’s inventiveness within traditional 12 bar blues confines.
Because let’s not forget, Hendrix was still a year or so away, so when Beck unleashes a controlled flurry of notes during “Too Much Monkey Business” that is part Chet Atkins, part Alvin Lee, one wonders what those in the audience must have been thinking. Future blues indeed, to the extent that it was the likes of Beck, Page, Clapton and Townshend who were practically laying the groundwork ahead of Hendrix’s then unknown and explosive arrival.
On the album’s latter tracks with Jimmy Page one can hear the early rumblings of Led Zeppelin in the making, before Page would commandeer the band and eventually hire the talents of Robert Plant and John Bonham after the departure of Relf and Jim McCarty in July 1968.
Though despite whatever inner turmoil existed within the group, at their peak, which was pretty much all the time, The Yardbirds were impeccable exemplars of the British blues movement and who no doubt gave many a pimply teenager in the ‘60s the notion of forming a band of their own. Forget The Velvet Underground, with their ‘too cool for school’ pretentions, The Yardbirds were your everyday, polite working class lads (at least when on the BBC) who managed to both excite and exhilarate their audience in equal measure.
For this listener, the music they created only gets better with age.