Ear to the sound

The Yardbirds by mcmentalninja
June 6, 2008, 3:28 pm
Filed under: Music, Rock | Tags: , , , , ,

Although other English blues bands tried to play R&B the American way, with the emphasis on the singing or the groove, the Yardbirds saw it as a means of showcasing guitar playing. That this should be the case hardly seems surprising, given the quality of guitarist the band favored; this, after all, was where Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck made their names, and where Jimmy Page laid the foundations for what would become Led Zeppelin. But at the time, the Yardbirds’ approach to blues and R&B transformed rock & roll, making the music harder and more exciting than before, while in the process inspiring successive generations of bands, from blues rockers to heavy metalists to punks.

What made the Yardbirds distinctive is almost immediately apparent in the raucous interplay of Five Live Yardbirds. Despite Keith Relf’s lackluster vocals and a set list entirely given over to cover material, the Yardbirds nonetheless set themselves apart from their peers, through both the quality of the guitar playing and the feral energy of the ensemble. Just listen to the way these five rip through the Isley Brothers’ “Respectable”; not only do the Yardbirds make the original sound tame, but their rhythm work converts the Isleys’ breathless backbeat into something far more insistent than swinging. This music doesn’t roll — it just rocks.

Other material from that era remains, unfortunately, harder to pin down. Clapton’s Cradle is an impressive document of that guitarist in his nascent stage, and says much about the Yardbirds’ early development. But it’s hardly exhaustive, and such periodically deleted titles as now import-only Sonny Boy Williamson and The Yardbirds provide valuable clues to understanding how these young Britons absorbed and processed the blues.

A key turning point was the hit “For Your Love.” Although the single finally put the Yardbirds on the charts, the recording was too pop for Clapton, who left the group in disgust. But his replacement, Jeff Beck, was more than happy to try other colors, and the singles he played on — “Heart Full of Soul,” “Shapes of Things,” “The Train Kept a Rollin’ ” — find the Yardbirds breaking significant new ground. As such, Roger the Engineer stands as the Yardbirds’ crowning achievement, an album that, through the likes of “Over, Under, Sideways, Down” and “Jeff’s Boogie,” pushes the band well into the psychedelic era without betraying its sound or roots. (Live, the band took these tunes even further, as the Beck-era material from Live at the BBC attests.)

Bassist Paul Samwell-Smith left the group shortly after Roger, and was replaced by Page, who later moved over to colead (and, eventually, sole lead) guitar. Both Page and Beck are heard on the dramatic “Happenings 10 Years Time Ago” (originally a single, but now included on Roger the Engineer), as well as “Stroll On,” a none-too-subtle rewrite of “The Train Kept a Rollin’ ” the group cut for the Michelangelo Antonioni film Blow Up (and is included on Ultimate Yardbirds!). That, though, was the group’s last bit of greatness, for it fell apart after cutting Little Games, a disastrous attempt at conventional pop that nonetheless led Page to the sound that would become Led Zeppelin.

Although five albums’ worth of Yardbirds mate-rial was released in the U.S. during the band’s prime, at this writing, nothing resembling the original vinyl remains in print. That’s not entirely a complaint, as the CD version of Roger the Engineer is far superior to its vinyl analog, and Ultimate manages to squeeze pretty much every track a nonfanatic could want onto two ultrainstructive CDs. Beyond that, it’s up to the collector’s instinct in every listener. (J.D.CONSIDINE)

From the 2004 The New Rolling Stone Album Guide


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