Imagine replacing Eric Clapton on guitar by bringing in Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page in the same band together! That’s the story of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame band The Yardbirds, who bring psychedelic blues-rock to Rams Head in Annapolis, Maryland, on Saturday.
“You’ve got the grandparents and the grandchildren who’ve all got their [Led] Zeppelin T-shirts on, so they know all about The Yardbirds,” longtime drummer Jim McCarty told WTOP. “We’ve got all [the hits] in there, and we do some blues covers, ‘Train Kept a Rolling,’ ‘Smokestack Lightning,’ ‘Drinking Muddy Water,’ so it’s a pretty good show.”
Formed in 1963, the lineup saw McCarty on drums, Keith Relf on vocals and harmonica, Chris Dreja on rhythm guitar, Paul Samwell-Smith on bass and Top Topham on lead guitar.
“We were all in the Southwest Landon area and we used to hang out at a pub in Kingston,” McCarty said. “Three of the guys were from Kingston Arts School, they were art students, and me and Paul Samwell-Smith were from a grammar school. We used to go and watch The Rolling Stones … so we gradually brought up a repertoire and we formed a group.”
In 1963, Topham was replaced on lead guitar by Clapton, whom McCarty called, “very ambitious and very dedicated. He used to practice all the time — practicing before breakfast — so he was very dedicated and very keen, and he was also very attached to fashion. … He was always destined to be a solo guy. He found it difficult being part of a team in the end.”
When Clapton left the band in 1965, they sought out Jimmy Page, who was too busy at the time, but he suggested his understudy Jeff Beck. “He was quite different to Eric. He didn’t care what he wore; he wore the dirty old jeans, leather jacket and let his hair get really long. He could play all sorts of stuff on the guitar. He loved getting different sounds.”
Eventually, Page joined in 1966, so The Yardbirds had Page and Beck at the same time! McCarty said Page played bass for a while, then swapped with rhythm guitarist Chris Dreja. So Beck and Page both played lead guitar for about nine months. “That was a pretty hot band,” McCarty said. “You never knew what was going to happen!”
The band’s first big hit was “For Your Love” (1965). “We were playing with The Beatles at their Christmas Show in Christmas 1964, and there was a publisher in the audience who had the demo disc and he thought it would fit us. … We loved it. We went into the studio and put that down. It was obviously going to be a hit as soon as we started.”
They followed up with “Heart Full of Soul” (1965). “We went in the studio and our manager had booked a sitar player to play the little riff at the beginning, so we recorded it with the sitar but it sounded a bit weak. Jeff said, ‘Oh, I can play this,’ so he played the riff on his fuzz box and it was very much a great-sounding riff, so we went with the Jeff version.”
After that came the breakup tune “Evil Hearted You” (1965), which McCarty calls “Another great song as well, and it featured a great slide solo from Jeff.”
McCarty co-wrote the first major psychedelic song, “Shapes of Things” (1966), recorded in Chicago at Chess Records during the British Invasion. “The studio sounded so much better in America. The drum sound particularly was better than England. American engineers knew what they were doing.”
Later that year, they released “Over Under Sideways Down” (1966). “We used to travel to gigs in a big car and listened to a rock radio station that played a lot of old ’50s classics [like] ‘Rock Around the Clock,’ so we said the next song we have to do a boogie. Jeff Beck played the boogie bass. … He finally did that incredible beginning out of nowhere!”
While Page left to form Led Zeppelin, McCarty and Relf started the prog-rock band Renaissance, followed by Illusion, Shoot and Box of Frogs. The Yardbirds reunited in the early ’90s when the band was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1992.
“It was very, very gratifying,” McCarty said. “There were so many great people there, Keith Richards, Little Richard, B.B. King, loads and loads of rock ‘n roll legends. The great thing was that we got inducted before Johnny Cash, who was one of our heroes when we were at school. … Standing up there next to Johnny Cash was very special for me.”
Today, The Yardbirds’ legacy is secure, ranking No. 89 on Rolling Stone‘s list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time. “We ended up being called a psychedelic band and we were supposedly all on drugs, but of course we were just playing; we just loved the music. We might have had a pint of beer or something, but that was it,” McCarty said.