Recently reading Mick Wall's Led Zeppelin book - When Giants Walked the Earth - I realised I had a fairly intimate knowledge of Zeppelin's music, but had heard very little (and knew probably less) about the band that spawned Led Zeppelin - The Yardbirds
(coincidentally, a new Yardbirds compilation has just been released).
So what have I missed ...
The Yardbirds have cemented their place in history for 2 prime reasons:
- For having 3 of the finest British guitarists in their ranks - Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page
- When they fell apart, Peter Grant and Jimmy Page needed a band to fulfill contracts for a Scandanavian tour. That band became arguably the biggest band in the world over it's 12 year existence.
His pre-occupation with Jimmy Page's Aleister Crowley obsession gets a bit wearing too.
On the plus side, it does go some way to de-bunking much of the lascivious tales that made up Hammer Of The Gods.
Anyway, The Yardbirds ...
Formed in 1963 - vocalist and harmonica player Keith Relf (vocals),Chris Dreja (rhythm guitar), Top Topham (lead guitar), Paul Samwell-Smith (bass) and Jim McCarty (drums).
With a set matching the burgeoning UK Rhythm and Blues scene, The Yardbirds eventually soon over Rolling Stones residency at The Crawdaddy Club in Richmond. By late 1963 Top Topham left to concentrate on his Art School studies, and was replaced by another Art School student, Eric Clapton, in late 1963. It was this line-up in March 1964 that recorded 'Five Live Yardbirds' at the Marquee Club.
Prime exponents of R&B - time to look for pop success.
They had already scored a minor hit with "Good Morning Little Schoolgirl", and in early 1965 the Graham Gouldman penned "For Your Love" propelled the band into the Top 10, but also led to the departure of Eric Clapton to John Mayall's Bluesbreakers.
Upon departure, Eric Clapton recommended his friend Jimmy Page for the job - Jimmy was making a decent wedge doing session work so turned down the offer and suggested another friend called Jeff Beck.
Jeff Beck was every bit of a blues player as Eric Clapton, but he didn't have the same issue with the more pop focus the band were perusing. If anything, he was a more experimental than straight Blues Eric - and soon drone notes, fuzztones, reverb, feedback, and all manner of histrionics entered the fray.
The first single of the Jeff Beck era was another Gouldman song "Heart Full Of Soul", perhaps notable for being the first UK single to feature a sitar (beating both The Beatles "Norwegian Wood" and the Stones "Paint It Black" to the honour), and they can also claim to release of on the first psychedelic rock sounds with early 1966 release "Shapes Of Things".
During the recording of the album 'Roger The Engineer', Jeff Beck booked studio time with some friends and created "Beck's Bolero".
These friends were Jimmy Page, Nicky Hopkins, Keith Moon, and John Entwhistle (replaced by John Paul Jones when Entwhistle didn't show up at the studio). When they heard the results of the session there was a suggestion that they could form a working super-group. Keith Moon responded: "that will go down like a lead balloon, or worse, a lead zeppelin"
Jimmy Page must've scribbled a note in his notebook for later reference ...
The early sessions for the album 'Roger The Engineer' spawned the single "Over Under Sideways Down" - another step on The Yardbirds blues-y psychedelia odyssey.
The album itself stands alongside (certainly in sound, maybe not in sales or acclaim) other cornestone albums of 1966, and is probably The Yardbirds definitive statement album-wise.
Soon after the release of the album, bassist Paul Samwell-Smith quit and was replaced by Jimmy Page, initially on bass. Chris Dreja and Jimmy Page eventually swapped instruments giving The Yardbirds a twin-guitar front line.
As best exemplifed by the garage rock meets psychedelia single "Happening Ten Years Time Ago", the band could now balance the bluse-y based soloing (Beck) with a tougher rock edge (Page) - and you could barely see the join.
The Beck/Page line-up was short-lived though, and by the end of 1966 (according to whose story you believe) Jeff Beck was fired / Jeff Beck left The Yardbirds.
In 1967 The Yardbirds dropped manager Simon Napier-Bell and entered into a deal with Mickie Most hoping to boost their flagging commercial fortunes. Whilst Mickie Most took care of the record production, management of the band was passed to his office-mate Peter Grant. This arrangement effectively created 2 versions of the band - the smoothed commerciality of the Mickie Most produced singles, and the on-stage experimentation and rock led by Jimmy Page (including an early outing of the violin bow solo on "Dazed and Confused").
The Mickie Most deal did not restore commercial fortunes, but the Peter Grant management opened up a wider audience in the US as they visited regularly to a receptive (and growing) audience and started to play venues that would be unthinkable to most failing UK bands.
In early 1968, hit singles still weren't happening, but another 3 month tour of the US was planned.
Relf and McCarty wanted to go down a more folk-inspired route, whilst Page wanted to continue the heavy blues-rock so loved by the US audiences.
(Chris Dreja wanted to give it all up and become a photographer).
This stand-off resulted in Relf and McCarty deciding to quit the band, but after some persuasion from Page, Dreja (and doubtless Peter Grant) agreed to stay on for the final US Tour.
When the Tour finished, Relf and McCarty left giving Page and Dreja the rights to the name and the proviso that they fulfill a short tour of Scandanavia.
Chris Dreja also decided to leave at this time, leaving Page and Grant with the name, a contractual obligation, and no band.
The band name was altered to The New Yardbirds, and calls and offers made to assemble a band.
First choice vocalist Terry Reid declined the offer, but recommended a singer he'd seen in a Midlands club.
Robert Plant accepted the offer, but only if he could bring fellow Band Of Joy member, drummer John Bonham, with him. And John Paul Jones - who Jimmy Page knew from his session days - offered his services to complete the line-up
This was July 1968, and the Tour was scheduled for September. A rehearsal studio was booked and when all members came together for the first time, "something" happened.
The dates were completed, and less than a month after completing the Tour, they were in the studio recording their debut album backed with the biggest record company advance (from Atlantic) that had been granted.
Led Zeppelin - they're only the band The Yardbirds could've been
For Your Love
Heart Full Of Soul
Happening Ten Years Time Ago
New Yardbirds (Page & Grant) => Led Zeppelin