The Yardbirds’ Sixties ‘Rave-Up’ with Three Legendary Guitars

The Yardbirds line-up when they were a hit-making machine.
The Yardbirds ’65 at the top of their game with Keith Relf and Jeff Beck. Source: Ultimate Classic Rock

Two original Yardbirds have kept the flame burning long after the band’s final 1968 concert.

Three Guitars

It is a fact that the Yardbirds, a British rock band that thrived for five years in the sixties (1963-68), employed some fairly hotshot guitar players who would go on to have legendary careers.

First Eric Clapton, then Jeff Beck and finally Jimmy Page (some overlapping here) played lead guitar for the band at the height of its popularity in the sixties. These guitar legends occupy three positions in Rolling Stone magazine’s Top Five guitar players of all-time. (Jimi Hendrix and Keith Richards never played for the Yardbirds.)

I promise we’ll get to the Yardbirds’ sixties exploits. What is lesser known among rock fans (especially in America) is that two of the original members of the Yardbirds, rhythm guitarist Chris Dreja and drummer Jim McCarty, led a revival of sorts that has prolonged the band’s destiny to the present day.

Chris Dreja and Jim McCarty, original members of the Yardbirds.
Yardbird originals Chris Dreja and Jim McCarty. Source:

Dreja and McCarty resurrected the Yardbirds as a touring band in the nineties, right around the time the Yardbirds made it into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992. “You play the same 12 bars,” suggested Dreja, “but somehow every time is a little bit different.”

The Yardbirds even released a new album in 2003, Birdland, that contained covers, old Yardbirds songs from the sixties and seven originals. It was the first studio album by the Yardbirds in 35 years. Of course Clapton, Beck and Page had moved on. So, Dreja and McCarty recruited some highly regarded guitar talent to take their place: Joe Satriani, Brian May, Steve Vai and Slash. The album was dedicated to former bandleader Keith Relf.

Jeff Beck even made a cameo appearance, on the song, “My Blind Life.”

Dreja suffered a series of strokes in 2013, leaving McCarty as the remaining original member. The Yardbirds perform to this day. Here, courtesy of Wikipedia, is a timeline of the band’s personnel:

The Sixties: Keith Relf’s Yardbirds

The band was founded in 1963 by singer and harmonica player Keith Relf who, along with bassist Paul Samwell-Smith, wrote most of the Yardbirds’ most popular songs. Relf fronted the band throughout the sixties. He was the one who gave the band its flavor: a combination of American blues and R&B, plus “high speed and increased volume, dubbed ‘the rave-up,’ the group’s distinguishing feature.” The Yardbirds was Relf’s band.

So, with sadness and a touch of irony given the band’s guitar legacy, Relf got himself electrocuted in 1976 while playing an improperly-grounded guitar while standing on a lead pipe. He was just 33 years old. It was said that Relf suffered from asthma and emphysema, which might have hindered his ability to withstand an electric shock. Tragically, the event was witnessed by his eight-year-old son.

The original Yardbirds, with Eric Clapton at the upper left. Source:
Eric Clapton On Lead Guitar

Eric Clapton came along in October 1963. A sampling of the band’s set list during Clapton’s tenure revealed his love for the blues: “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl,” Sonny Boy Williamson; “Smokestack Lightning,” Howling Wolf; “I’m a Man,” Bo Diddley; and “Boom Boom,” John Lee Hooker.

But when the Yardbirds scored a commercial hit with “For Your Love,” blues-purist Clapton abruptly left the band to join John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers. Clapton recommended studio guitarist and session producer Jimmy Page to take his place. But Page, unwilling to give up his lucrative session work and wary of touring, passed the torch to his friend Jeff Beck. Page would be back very soon.

Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck tuning up. Source:
Yardbirds Become a Commercial Success

With Jeff Beck on guitar, the Yardbirds thrived and reeled off a succession of hits, including “Heart Full of Soul,” “Shapes of Things,” and “Over Under Sideways Down.” Beck, a guitar virtuoso (he’s won the Grammy for Best Rock Instrumental Performance six times) did “experiments with fuzz tone, feedback and distortion” that added a psychedelic quality to the Yardbirds’ recordings. “The electronic equipment just wasn’t up to the sounds that I had in my head,” Beck said at the time.

Jeff Beck Gets Fired

But Beck was fired in the middle of the band’s 1966 American tour for his temper and grinding perfectionism–some of the same qualities that made him a guitar great. Beck went on to found the Jeff Beck Group, with Rod Stewart on vocals. Their first album, Truth, contained the blues standard, “You Shook Me.” Jimmy Page’s Led Zeppelin played that same song on its first album.

Jimmy Page is the man. Sources: Forbes and
Jimmy Page Takes Over

Jimmy Page, named “the pontiff of power-riffing” by Rolling Stone, was actually a Yardbird before Beck departed. In June 1966 bassist Samwell-Smith left the band, and Page agreed the play bass until another band member learned the instrument. The Beck-Page partnership created the song, “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago,” a counter-culture psychedelic delight.

Here is a three-minute video of the studio recording of “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago,” loaded with fascinating images, published by riffaholic via YouTube:

Page took over lead guitar when Jeff Beck was sacked. The band released a song, “Dazed and Confused,” which went nowhere until Led Zeppelin made it an arena power rocker. On July 7, 1968, the Yardbirds played their final sixties gig at the College of Technology, Luton, Bedfordshire, England.

Andrew Goutman

Andrew Goutman is the editor of The Record.

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