The Yardbirds were pioneers in almost every guitar innovation of the '60s: fuzz tone, feedback, distortion, backwards echo, improved amplification. They were one of the first to put an emphasis on complex lead guitar parts and experimentation.
The bulk of the band's conceptual ideas, as well as their songwriting, came from the quartet of singer/harmonica player Keith Relf, drummer Jim McCarty, rhythm guitarist/bassist Chris Dreja, and bassist/producer Paul Samwell-Smith, all of whom co-wrote the Yardbirds' original hits and constituted the core of the group. The band's musical foundation would also lay the groundwork for the formation of the 1970s rock band Led Zeppelin.
The term "yardbird" is used in the southern United States as slang for "chicken" (as in poultry), and it is a slang expression for "prisoner".
With a repertoire drawn from the Delta-soaked Chicago blues titans Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, Sonny Boy Williamson II and Elmore James, the Yardbirds began to build a following of their own in London before very long. Their inexperience and their less-than-stellar musicianship was obvious, but their commitment was just as powerful, as they hammered away at versions of such blues classics as "Smokestack Lightning", "Got Love If You Want It", "Here 'Tis", "Baby What's Wrong", "Good Morning Little School Girl", "Boom Boom", "I Wish You Would", "Done Somebody Wrong", "Rollin' and Tumblin'", and "I'm a Man".
They made their first significant lineup addition when they replaced original lead guitarist (Anthony) Top Topham with a very boyish-looking art student named Eric Clapton in October 1963. Clapton already knew what he was doing with his instrument; his solo turns already set him apart from most of his peers among the British blues clubbers. Between his sleek guitar playing and Relf's improving harmonica style, the group could at least boast two attractive players that made listeners overlook their still-incomplete rhythmic attack. And, of critical importance, Crawdaddy Club impresario Giorgio Gomelsky—who had all but discovered the Rolling Stones but thought it beyond his range to become their manager—had learned enough from his previous miss to become the Yardbirds' manager and, as it turned out, first producer.
Under Gomelsky's guidance, the Yardbirds got themselves signed to EMI's Columbia label in February, 1964; they set a precedent of a sort when their first album turned out to be a live album, Five Live Yardbirds, recorded at the legendary Marquee Club in London. Blues legend Sonny Boy Williamson II invited the group to tour England and Germany with him, a union that survives to this day on a live album memorable for Williamson's trouper-like adaptation of his deep troubadour style of blues to the Yardbirds' raw, unpolished rock version. ("Those English kids," Williamson famously said of the Yardbirds and other British blues groups like the Animals and the Stones, "want to play the blues so bad—and they play the blues so bad".)
The loss could have been devastating to the Yardbirds; Clapton had already displayed a distinctive style. Clapton recommended Jimmy Page, a studio guitarist he knew (and with whom he would soon cut a series of stirring blues guitar duets, including "Tribute to Elmore" and "Draggin' My Tail"), as his replacement, but Page, uncertain at the time about giving up his lucrative studio work and worried about his health, recommended in turn his friend Jeff Beck. Beck's playing style and bent for experimentation pushed the Yardbirds toward a "psychedelic rock" sound. He played his first gig with the Yardbirds only two days after Clapton's departure.
In 1965, the Yardbirds issued a pair of albums in the U.S., slapped together somewhat haphazardly from their British recordings, For Your Love (which included an early take of "My Girl Sloopy"), and Havin' A Rave Up With The Yardbirds, half of which came from Five Live Yardbirds.
The Beck-era Yardbirds produced a number of memorable, groundbreaking recordings, from single hits like "Heart Full of Soul", Bo Diddley's "I'm A Man", and "Shapes of Things", to the Yardbirds album (known more popularly as Roger the Engineer, and first issued in the U.S. in a bowdlerised version called Over Under Sideways Down).
Beck's guitar experiments with fuzz tone, feedback, and distortion helped revolutionize British rock. In addition, the Yardbirds began incorporating Gregorian chant and world-music influences ("Still I'm Sad", "Turn Into Earth", "Hot House of Omagarashid", "Farewell", "Ever Since The World Began") and various European folk styles into their blues and rock rooted music, which gained them a reputation among the hipster underground even as their commercial appeal began to wane.
Beck was voted #1 lead guitarist of 1966 in the British music magazine Beat Instrumental, and his work during this period influenced musicians such as Jimi Hendrix. His tenure with the Yardbirds is viewed by many as the group's "golden era".
In June, 1966, shortly after the sessions that produced Yardbirds (aka, Roger The Engineer), Samwell-Smith decided to leave the group and work behind the console as a record producer. Jimmy Page re-entered the picture, agreeing to play bass until rhythm guitarist Dreja could become comfortable with that instrument.
The Yardbirds were now blessed with two world-class lead guitarists. Pronounced examples of what the Beck-Page tandem could do were the concert dates they played as the opening band for The Rolling Stones, in which they were described by critics as "World War Three", and the single "Happenings Ten Years Time Ago". The "Happenings" single featured Beck and Page on twin lead guitar, with John Paul Jones brought in to the recording session to play bass; it was backed with "Psycho Daisies", which featured Beck on lead guitar and Page on bass (the B-side of the U.S. single, "The Nazz Are Blue", features a rare lead vocal by Beck).
The Beck-Page era Yardbirds also recorded "Stroll On", their half-crazed rendition of the standard "Train Kept A-Rollin'", which they recorded for the Antonioni film Blowup. Relf changed the lyrics and title the night before it was recorded because there was not enough time to acquire permission from the copyright holder. "Stroll On" features a twin lead-guitar break, so it is almost without a doubt that the Beck-Page tandem was at work on this recording. (Beck had earlier played his same solo on live renditions of "Train...", while Page would later play the second lead part alone in the Yardbirds and Led Zeppelin; put the separate Beck-Page solos together, and it sounds like the combined twin-solo on "Stroll On".)
Unfortunately, the Beck-Page lineup recorded little else in the studio, and no live recordings (save a scratchy cover of the Velvet Underground's "Waiting for the Man") of the dual-lead guitar lineup have yet surfaced. The Beck-Page Yardbirds are believed to have made one other recording, a commercial for a milkshake product "Great Shakes", using the opening riff of "Over Under Sideways Down". This rare commercial for the long-defunct product is featured on 1992's Little Games Sessions & More compilation. Yet there was also one additional recording that Beck and Page made in secret—"Beck's Bolero", a piece inspired by Ravel's "Bolero" yet credited to Page (Beck also claims to have written the song). The rest of the lineup was John Paul Jones on bass, Keith Moon on drums, and Nicky Hopkins on piano. "Beck's Bolero" was first released as the B-side of Beck's first solo single, "Hi Ho Silver Lining", and was included on his first solo album, Truth.
Their appearance in Blowup was accidental: originally, The Who were approached, but they declined, and then The In-Crowd had been planned but they were unable to attend the filming. The Yardbirds filled in at short notice, and the guitar that Beck smashes at the end of their set (in frustration over his amplifier continuously shorting out) is a replica of Steve Howe's instrument. Director Michelangelo Antonioni instructed Beck to smash his guitar in emulation of The Who's Pete Townshend.
Page became the new lead guitarist and he was just as bent toward experimentation as Beck, particularly his striking technique of scraping a violin or cello bow across his guitar strings to induce a round of odd and surreal sounds, and his dexterous use of a wah-wah pedal. He also proved an adept finger-style guitarist, as evident on the shimmering "White Summer", a raga- and folk-styled instrumental composition that employs the melody of "She Moves Through The Fair" and owes an evident debt to Davy Graham's "She Moved Through the Bazaar".
Despite Page's contributions, the Yardbirds' commercial fortunes began sinking quickly. Chart indifference, record company pressure (British label EMI pressed hit-making producer Mickie Most upon them in a failed bid to reignite their commercial success), and drug-related problems meant that by 1967, the band's days were numbered. The "Little Games" single released in the spring flopped so badly in the UK that EMI did not release a Yardbirds record in Britain for another year. A cover of Manfred Mann's "Ha Ha Said The Clown"— on which only one band member, Relf, actually performed— was the band's last single to crack the U.S. Top 50, peaking at No. 44 in Billboard in the summer of '67. Their final album, Little Games, released in America in July, was a commercial and critical non-entity.
The Yardbirds spent most of the rest of that year touring in the States with new manager Peter Grant while living a schizophrenic pop life: While their records became more benign (a cover of Harry Nilsson's "Ten Little Indians" hit the U.S. in the fall of '67 and quickly sank), their live shows were becoming heavier and more experimental. The band rarely played their 1967 singles on stage, preferring to mix the Beck-era hits with blues standards and covers from groups such as the Velvet Underground and American folk singer Jake Holmes. Holmes' "Dazed and Confused", with lyrics rewritten by Relf and cranked up to a blues-metal frenzy by Page, McCarty and Dreja, was a live staple of the Yardbirds' last two American tours—and it went down so well that Page decided to keep it in the quiver even after the band's demise.
A concert and some album tracks were recorded in New York City in March 1968 (including the currently unreleased song "Knowing That I'm Losing You", an early version of a track that would be re-recorded by Led Zeppelin as "Tangerine"). All were shelved at the band's request, although once Led Zeppelin hit big, Epic tried to cash in by releasing the concert material as the bootleg Live Yardbirds: Featuring Jimmy Page. The album was quickly withdrawn after Page's lawyers filed an injunction.
The Yardbirds' final single, "Goodnight Sweet Josephine", was recorded in January 1968. Released two months later, it failed to crack the Billboard Top 100 but is notable in retrospect for its B-side, "Think About It", which featured a proto-Zeppelin Page riff and snippets of the "Dazed" guitar solo in the break.
Such efforts did not improve the commercial success of the band. In addition, the members were split over the band's direction: Relf and McCarty wanted a folk sound, while Jimmy Page wanted to steer blues-rock into new, more intense directions of dynamics and depth—the kind of music that Led Zeppelin would become famous for.
On July 7, 1968, the Yardbirds played their final gig at Luton Technical College in Bedfordshire, England (twelve years to the day later Led Zeppelin would play their final concert in their original line-up in Berlin).
Rehearsals began in August; in early September, Page's revised Yardbirds hit the road. Fans at the Scandinavian shows were confused by new members, expecting to see Relf up front, but the band quickly found themselves clicking. After this brief tour, Page and his new bandmates returned to England to produce, in a very short time, a landmark debut album. Interestingly, what was to become Led Zeppelin was still being billed as "Yard Birds" or "The Yardbirds Featuring Jimmy Page" as late as October 1968; indeed, some early studio tapes from the Led Zeppelin album sessions were originally marked as being performed by "The Yardbirds." One song from the album, "Communication Breakdown", was a re-tooled version of a Yardbirds song, "Nervous Breakdown".
However, a very different band was soon working under a very different identity — a change reportedly hastened, in part, by a cease-and-desist order from Dreja, who claimed that he still maintained legal rights to the "Yardbirds" name. The moniker 'Led Zeppelin' was an old inside joke among Page and his closest musical friends, several of whom would later take credit for the idea. Coined as early as 1966, "Lead Zeppelin" was The Who's Keith Moon's tongue-in-cheek description of the prospective "supergroup" that would have comprised himself, John Entwistle, Steve Marriott, Beck and Page, because he felt they would go over "like a lead balloon." Once the idea was revived, the band elected to change the spelling of "lead" so that the name wouldn't be mispronounced, effectively closing the books on the Yardbirds for the rest of the century.
Jim McCarty thereafter formed the group called Shoot in 1973, which performed on the BBC several times but never toured, releasing an album called "On the Frontier" and another one that never saw the light of day. Finally, Keith Relf resurfaced in 1975 with a new quartet, Armageddon, a hybrid of hard, thrusting rock and folk that included former Renaissance mate Louis Cennamo. They recorded one promising album before Relf died in an electrical accident while playing an ungrounded guitar in his home studio on May 14, 1976. In 1977, Illusion was formed, featuring a reunited lineup of the original Renaissance, including drummer Jim McCarty and Keith's sister Jane Relf. (By this time the Renaissance name was already appropriated by a reinvented lineup fronted by Annie Haslam, thus the original Renaissance assumed the name "Illusion" from the title of their second Renaissance album.)
In the 1980s Jim McCarty, Chris Dreja and Paul Samwell-Smith (who had remained Cat Stevens' producer to the day Stevens converted to Islam and withdrew from pop music entirely) offered a nucleus for a short-enough lived but fun-enough kind of Yardbirds semi-reunion called Box of Frogs, which occasionally included Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page plus various friends with whom they'd all recorded over the years.
Jim McCarty was also part of a super-group of sorts in the 90s... 'The British Invasion All-Stars' with members of Procol Harum, Creation, Nashville Teens, The Downliners Sect and The Pretty Things.
Phil May and Dick Taylor of the The Pretty Things, together with drummer Jim McCarty, recorded 2 albums in Chicago as The Pretty Things-Yardbirds Blues Band "The Chicago Blues Tapes 1991" and "Wine, Women, Whiskey", both produced by George Paulus.
The Yardbirds were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992. Nearly all the original surviving musicians who had been part of the group's heyday, including Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page, appeared at the ceremony. This induction would be the first of three for Eric Clapton, who was unable to attend this one as he was working on a show for MTV's "Unplugged" series. Accepting the induction on behalf of the late Keith Relf were his wife April and son Danny. Jeff Beck cracked at the ceremony: "Someone told me that I should be happy, but I'm not...because they kicked me out... f--- them! (Laughs)".
In 2003, a new album, Birdland, was released under the Yardbirds name on the Favored Nations label by a lineup including Chris Dreja, Jim McCarty, and new members Gypie Mayo (lead guitar, backing vocals), John Idan (bass, lead vocals) and Alan Glen (harmonica, backing vocals), which consisted of a mixture of new material mostly penned by McCarty and re-recordings of some of their greatest hits, with guest appearances by Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, Slash, Brian May, Steve Lukather, Jeff "Skunk" Baxter, John Rzeznik, Martin Ditchum and Simon McCarty. Also, Jeff Beck reunited with his former bandmates on the song "My Blind Life". And then there was the rare and improbable guest appearance on stage in 2005 by their first guitarist from the sixties, Top Topham.
Since the release of Birdland, Gypie Mayo has been briefly replaced by Jerry Donahue, and subsequently in 2005 by the then 22-year-old Ben King, while Alan Glen has been replaced by Billy Boy Miskimmon from Nine Below Zero fame.
Note: The Yardbirds released a live 2007 CD, "Live At B.B. King Blues Club" (Favored Nations).
According the Total Rock website, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page are to possibly rejoin the Yardbirds for a reunion tour some time in 2008.
Lead vocalist John Idan would retain his front man position. Ben King would also remain as lead guitarist as any reunion with Page and Beck would be temporary.
The first episode of the 2007/2008 season for "The Simpsons" featured The Yardbirds' "I'm A Man" from the CD "Live At B.B. King Blues Club" (Favored Nations).
| Original lineup|
(Mid 1963 - October 1963)
| Clapton replaces Topham|
(October 1963 - February 1965)
| Beck replaces Clapton|
(March 1965 - June 1966)
| Page replaces Samwell-Smith|
(June 1966 - September 1966)
| Page Switches with Dreja|
(September 1966 - October 1966)
| Beck is fired|
(November 1966 - July 1968)
| Disbandment of original group|
| New Yardbirds|
(September 1968 - October 1968)
| Yardbirds become Led Zeppelin|
| First lineup of reformed group|
| Idan Joins|
(1992 - 1993)
| Idan replaces Demick, Garman and Majors join|
(1994 - 1995)
| Mayo replaces Majors|
(1995 - 1996)
| Glen replaces Garman|
(1996 - 2003)
| Miskimmin replaces Glen|
(2003 - 2004)
| Donahue replaces Mayo|
(2004 - 2005)
| King replaces Donahue|
(2005 - Present)