Reviewed on this page:
Five Live Yardbirds - For Your Love - Having A Rave Up - Jimmy's Back Pages... The Early Years - Roger The Engineer - Little Games - On The Air
Easily one of the most legendary British Invasion groups, the Yardbirds were unfortunately shorter-lived and more thoughtlessly marketed than most of their competitors (the Stones, Kinks, Who, Zombies, etc.). As the launching pad for not one, but three of the greatest guitarists in rock history - Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page - their historical importance is unquestioned. But it has to be admitted that their period of major commercial success lasted little more than a year, that Clapton and Page had little to do with it, that their lead singer Keith Relf had little range, and that none of the band members developed as songwriters until it was too late.
Most of the Yardbirds' original LP's are hard to find and weren't so great anyway, and the market is flooded with deceptive, cheaply packaged compilations, all of which I strongly urge you avoid (even the Rhino Records greatest hits). Most of these discs have been thrown together from the band's brief early 1964 demo tape, their live recordings from December, 1963 (Crawdaddy Club) and March, 1964 (Marquee Club), and the 1964 - 1965 single and EP material that mostly ended up on their first two American LP's. Some of these discs also feature forgettable blues workouts by Clapton and Beck that date from their immediate post-Yardbirds periods (1965 - 1966); be very wary if you see two or more of the Holy Trinity prominently advertised on any particular compilation.
All of this crassness makes the Yardbirds' output harder to figure out than that of any other major British Invasion band. My advice is to get the BBC record and stop there, although you'll have trouble finding it.
Failing that, the two-disc compilation Smokestack Lightning presents their two 1965 Jeff Beck-era LP's in full, so despite the seemingly random bonus tracks it's worth owning. The companion two-disc set Blues, Backtracks, And Shapes Of Things is so cruddy it's a ripoff, but if you're a completist, this and either CD version of Little Games will give you a full collection of the Yardbird's original LP, EP, and single releases.
Keith Relf (vocals, harmonica), Chris Dreja (rhythm guitar), Jim McCarty (drums), Paul Samwell-Smith (bass), Anthony "Top" Topham (lead guitar). Topham replaced by Eric Clapton, late 1963 (before the band recorded anything). Clapton replaced by Jeff Beck, early 1965. Samwell-Smith replaced by Jimmy Page, mid-1966; Dreja soon moved to bass, Page to lead guitar; Beck then quit, late 1966. Band dissolved, mid-1968.
Five Live Yardbirds (1964)
This will seem crude and clumsy to a fan of Clapton's later work, but at the time it represented a breakthrough: loud, fast-paced live blues, performed by a bunch of cute English white boys who were "safe" for the consumption of a white middle class audience. The Rolling Stones had already pioneered this, but in 1964 Clapton was a far better blues guitarist than anyone else outside of Chicago, and occasionally he elevates the record from historically interesting to downright exciting.
Plus the wild Marquee Club crowd and enthusiastic MC help to give the recording a lot of atmosphere. However, the sound quality is terrible, the running time is short, and the rest of the band isn't contributing much at this point, offering no original material and showing themselves to be obsessed with Howlin' Wolf ("Smokestack Lightning"), Muddy Waters ("I'm A Man"), and Chuck Berry ("Too Much Monkey Business," which every British band was covering back then). (JA)
For Your Love (1965)
Thrown together for US release from a recent EP featuring Beck and three singles featuring Clapton, this is a hodgepodge that still stands as an enjoyable testimony to the British Invasion.
Two of the singles were flops: mid-1964's "I Wish You Would/A Certain Girl" is crude but harmless blues-based pop, and late 1964's "Good Morning Little Schoolgirl" is a catchy rave-up with amusingly smutty lyrics. But early 1965's "For Your Love," with Brian Auger's inventive harpsichord line and the band's startling instrumental middle, was the biggest break from rock formulas yet produced by the Invasion. The EP is decent ("I'm Not Talking"), although their six-minute cover of the McCoy's huge hit "My Girl [a.k.a. Hang On] Sloopy" is annoying.
Still, Relf's gasping vocals and their lack of songwriting talent - his weak "I Ain't Done Wrong" is the only original - point to the depths they eventually would reach. (JA)
Having A Rave Up (1965)
This would have been a masterpiece if Epic records had waited long enough to fill it out with new material. As it is, side 2 is dominated by four tracks lifted from Five Live, so all you're getting is six recently recorded singles sides - which happen to be the band's best work ever.
The dramatic protest song "You're A Better Man Than I" hits hard, with one of Relf's best vocals and an incredible solo; "Evil Hearted You" is equally dark and well-performed; "Still I'm Sad" is one of the earliest and best examples of down-tempo, Eastern-influenced, mid-60s British psychedelia.
Their international smash hit "Heart Full Of Soul" is still another textbook demonstration of Beck's fiery, groundbreaking guitar technique.
And "The Train Kept A Rollin'," which somehow wasn't an A-side, is the most devastating guitar workout yet recorded by anyone.
It's too bad that their gritty rendition of "I'm A Man" gets repeated in the live and studio segments. But if you weren't going to buy Five Live anyway - and you shouldn't - this is well worth tracking down. (JA)
Sonny Boy Williamson And The Yardbirds (1965)
This cash-in release is based on a late 1963 tape that features American bluesman Sonny Boy Williamson. A much older and more seasoned performer, he had no interest in the band other than having someone to back him on his tour of England. I've never heard the results but I'm not looking forward to it. (JA)
Jimmy's Back Pages... The Early Years (Page: rec. 1964 - 1965, rel. 1992)
Twenty-two single sides featuring a very young Jimmy Page and no less than ten different bands. Page was far ahead of his time, tearing up standards like "Leave My Kitten Alone" with raucous solos that often presage Beck's Yardbirds work. But only a rock historian would enjoy the record. Page often does little, and the bands are almost uniformly lousy. Most of them feature lame pop singers with heavy 50's influences and minimal vocal range, matched by shuffling, quasi-competent rhythm sections - the Lancastrians' singer even sounds like Ringo Starr.
And only two of these acts went anywhere at all: Nico, who after a 1965 debut single moved to New York, joined the Velvet Underground for an album, and went on to have a modest solo career despite her grating, Yoko Ono-like delivery; and Donovan, represented here by "Sunshine Superman."
A #1 hit single that was recorded at the end of 1965 and wasn't released until late 1966, it's so far ahead of the other tunes it's not even funny; Pete Townshend ("Circles") and the Yardbirds ("A Certain Girl) both get covered, and Gordon Lightfoot wrote the Nico A-side, but the rest is dreck. A final problem is that the young Page's clanging guitar sound and lightning speed weren't matched yet by a keen musical sensibility. At least you've got to give the compilers credit for presenting both A- and B-sides and researching things pretty thoroughly. (JA)
Roger The Engineer (1966)
After pouring out endless Top 40 hits for two years, the Yardbirds finally were given a chance to write and produce their own material. Unfortunately, none of the group members was a substantial songwriter - Beck included - and the resulting effort is so thin it's almost flippant (their material actually improved by the next time around). That even goes for the record's big hit (the jumpy "Over Under Sideways Down"), not to mention endless blues retreads like Beck's rare lead vocal on "The Nazz Are Blue."
Still, the Yardbirds were the heaviest, most wildly experimental blues-based band around in mid-'66, and Roger stands as an interesting prelude to Hendrix's early work, with bizarre percussion, tripped-out lyrics, and manic guitar parts. If you can find a version of the CD that includes the astoundingly Hendrix-like follow-up single ("Happenings 10 Years Time Ago"), snap it up: this track is the best example of the infamous, rarely recorded twin-lead guitar Beck/Page lineup in its full-fledged psychedelic glory (the others are the weak blues B-side, "Psycho Daisies"; "Beck's Bolero"; and a movie soundtrack rewrite of "Train Kept A Rollin'" called "Stroll On"). (JA)
Little Games (1967)
The only Page-era Yardbirds album flopped badly and indeed is mediocre. Cut-rate producer Mickie Most rushed them through the studio and brought in session players Nicky Hopkins (keyboards) and John Paul Jones (bass), and he also had them record several novelty tunes by hack writers (the enjoyable, galloping title track, a flop single, and the catchy "No Excess Baggage").
But most of the album was written by the band, and it's not really so different from contemporary efforts by peers like the Kinks and Who; up-tempo teenybopper acid rock songs ("Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sailor," with bowed guitar), blistering British blues ("Drinking Muddy Water"), an embarassing jug band sendup ("Stealing Stealing"), some flakey, Indian-flavored psychedelic silliness (the instrumental/audio collage "Glimpses"). All of it is lifted by Page's phenomenal craftsmanship, closer to Hendrix than anyone else at the time.
Plus there's Relf's pensive ballad "Only The Black Rose" and Page's fine acoustic spotlight, "White Summer" (later to become the Zep staple "Black Mountain Side").
The two-disc, 1992 CD release is a waste, but the slightly shorter single-disc, 1996 version includes everything of note from this era: "Puzzles" is mind-blowing, "Goodnight Sweet Josephine" and "Ha Ha Said The Clown" overcome their own campiness, Harry Nilsson's "Ten Little Indians" is abysmal, and the blazing "Think About It" is the best thing this version of the band ever did; of course, Zep soon recycled the guitar solo. (JA)
In March, 1968, the Yardbirds recorded a live performance at the Anderson Theatre, New York. Once Zeppelin hit the big time, a mangled LP version was released but then quickly withdrawn. You may encounter the tapes as a bootleg, but my advice is to avoid them because the sound quality is awful and the performance is widely described as uncharacteristically sloppy. (JA)
On The Air (rec. 1965 - 1968, rel. 1981)
It's impossible to find a good Yardbirds release that isn't either brief and miserably packaged, or endless, full of junk, and neither carefully arranged nor complete enough to satisfy a collector (Five Live is the only real counter-example).
This is the best compromise - a lengthy compilation of the Yardbirds' major BBC appearances, balancing all their better-known early hits ("For Your Love"; "Heart Full Of Soul") with a few obscurities ("Love Me Like I Love You"; Beck's lead vocal on Elmore James' "Dust My Blues"), and presenting everything in chronological order.
The band's rapid transition from utterly average British Invasion/R & B teen idols to major innovators in rock guitar is demonstrated startlingly by back-to-back sessions recorded just a few months apart: "I'm A Man" and "Evil Hearted You" vs. "Smokestack Lightning," "Train Kept A Rollin'," and "Shapes Of Things" (you won't find this early psychedelic masterpiece on any other legitimate album).
And the collection even encompasses the best songs from the Jimmy Page period ("Little Games"; "Think About It"; 'Drinking Muddy Water"). (JA)
The train kept a rollin'....