A few years later, this 18 year old boy, who went by the name of Eric Clapton was invited by a former college peer, Keith Relf, to fill the recently vacated guitarist position for a group that would go down in history as a pioneer of the British R&B movement. The members named themselves as the Metropolitan Quartet, but eventually became known to the world as the Yardbirds, a name inspired both from the frequent sightings of the homeless around rail yards, and jazz saxophonist, Charlie “Yardbird” Parker.
Today, the band’s musical genius largely remains as a footnote in the history of rock and roll, and is remembered simply as a band that ignited talents of some of the world’ greatest guitar players – Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page. However, the Yardbirds journey is one that conveys much more than the stories of its individual (nonetheless legendary) members. When heard closely, it narrates the history of rock and roll music in its truest, most cynical, yet most poetic manner.
A Blues Suburban Start
In the year 1963, the Metropolitan Quartet played as the back up band for legendary blues musician, Cyril Davis. Despite the initial interest and few gigs, the band truly broke through the burgeoning R&B scene, when they succeeded The Rolling Stones, at the then famous Craw Daddy Club in Richmond, as the resident band. (Rolling Stones by then, had started touring nationwide, with their famous hit – “Common”).
An year later, under the management of former impresario of the Craw Daddy Club, Giorgio Gomelsky, the band recorded for EMI’s Columbia label, maintaining their puritanical Blues inspirations, spearheaded by the deft guitar skills of Eric Clapton.
Loss of the Guitar Prodigy
As the hysteria around The Yardbirds gathered momentum, so did the aspirations of the most of the band’s members. In an attempt to seamlessly transition blues inspired riffs to create backdrops for greater commercial successes, the band recorded their hit song “For your Love” in the year 1965. The song broke chart records, and sold over a million copies. However, the delight of song’s commercial success could not encourage Clapton, and the day the song was released to the public, the guitar prodigy abruptly quit.
At the time of his departure, Clapton recommended a busy young sessions guitarist, who was working his way into the London scene, as his potential replacement in the band. Vocalist Keith Relf, immediately organized a chat with talented guitar player, Jimmy Page, about playing with the band. Page, expressed his unavailability to play for the band, as he was already absorbed in enormous sessions work, and instead suggested one of his understudies to Relf.
The Shabby Looking Psychedelic Rock Guitar God
When Page’s understudy, Jeff Beck came into the studio to play out a set with the band members, he was dressed in tattered clothes and had overgrown, unkempt hair. The band ran a few songs with the guitarist, and realized Beck’s talent within the first few minutes. In addition to his obvious skill on the guitar, Beck resonated the band’s exploratory interests in rock and roll.With this immediate trust on their new found guitarist, they abandoned the rehearsal midway and took Beck clothes shopping instead.
Beck was extremely keen to experiment, and had the ability to compliment arrangements with eclectic, new, and exhilarating electric sounds. When the band was composing their hit single “Heart Full of Soul”, Paul Smith and Jim McCartney, had insisted on a Sitar sound for the interludes and hired Indian Sitar & Tabla players, from a local Indian restaurant to accompany the band. Unfortunately, the sitar sounded weak, leaving the band in want of an innovative solution. They called Beck over, and requested him to take a look at what could be done. Beck came back to them a day later, with the incredible sounding riff, that would eventually throw their audiences in a state of frenzy at their live concerts, in the UK as well as the US. Beck created niche experiences with electric fuzz tones, and fathered the psychedelia movement of the late 60s.
Overshadowing the Microphone
Meanwhile, somewhere behind the microphone, Keith Relph was increasingly suffering under the rising popularity of the band’s string of incredible guitar players. Relph realized he was reasonably talented in the vocals department, and compensated for his lack of genius ability with some fantastic harmonica playing during the songs performed by the band. This, despite the fact that he was asthmatic, he threw in unbelievably fierce harmonica interludes throughout song structures.
On the band’s trip to Sun Studios in Memphis, during their US tour, Relph drew further flack from founder Sam Phillips, as Keith walked into the recording session few drinks down, and many notes off. Relph’s self-destructing attitude frustrated other band members, specifically Paul Smith. During a particular performance at a prestigious college ball, Relph climbed on stage, inebriated and literally fell backwards just as Beck had strummed the first note, of the song. This proved to the be the last straw for Smith, and the bassist quit to pursue a career as a record producer.
The Twin Lead Guitar Magic & Mayhem
With Smith’s departure, Chris Dreja took over bass, even as Beck invited Jimmy Page to play with the band. Page started out on the bass, but very soon realized that his skill set lay in lead guitar. Thus began, Yardbirds’ potentially histrionic sting as a double lead rock and roll band. Unfortunately the band only recorded 3 singles during this stint, even as unhealthy levels of frustration continued to haunt remaining members. Despite his paramount talent on the guitar, the band suffered under Beck’s unpredictable nature, as the band went on tours. The pressures of constant travel added to Beck’s struggling sincerity, and ultimately, led to his movement away from the band.
The Final Dissolution
As Beck stayed back in California, and the band moved ahead, Page assumed the responsibility to steer The Yardbirds to a more heavier sound. His time of exploration with such music as member of the band, would eventually culminate into great song structures made famous by the band he founded later on and named Led Zeppelin.
Post an unsuccessful attempt to revive the sounds of the band, by pop music producer Mickie Most, aided by then band manager Peter Grant, the Yardbirds ultimately broke up in the year 1968.
The story of the Yardbirds is the journey of talented musicians that peeled out riveting rock and roll sounds, that were used as stockpile material for prolific compositions in the years to come. In their most famous single “For Your Love”, the Yardbirds gave everything and more. But perhaps they just gave just a bit more to the history of rock and roll.
( This article has been written by Shweta Sharma, who is a Delhi based entrepreneur/musician.)