At their very beginning, the Yardbirds were first the Metropolitan Blues Quartet, then briefly the Blue Sounds, finally settling on Yardbirds in the fall of 1963. This one band was responsible for starting the careers of three of the top 100 guitarists (Clapton #2, Page #3, Beck #5). Their original sound was all “classic” blues. Regrettably, there are no recordings of them from this time, so here’s a piece by the original artist that they played frequently, in smoky, ill-lit UK clubs.
1. The Eric Clapton Era: Howlin’ Wolf – “Smokestack Lightning” (1959)
In October of ’63, the original lead guitarist, Tony “Top” Topham resigned. You see, he was all of 16 years old, and his parents objected to him hanging around in clubs at his age (the newly named “Yardbirds” having succeeded as the house band for the Crawdaddy Club, replacing the Rolling Stones); also, he was scheduled to attend art school, so away he went. Once Topham had departed, a preciously young Clapton took over as lead guitar. Clapton was also enamored of the blues, although he took the ‘Birds in a somewhat different direction than the original “pure” sound.
2. The Clapton Era Continues: “Good Morning, Little Schoolgirl” (1964)
A year after the Yardbirds recorded “Good Morning, Little Schoolgirl” in 1964, the band decided that “For Your Love,” written by future 10cc member Graham Gouldman would be their key to chart success, and they were proven right, as the song went to number one in England, and number six in America. But in protest to their increasing emphasis on pop over blues, Clapton resigned the Yardbirds in March of 1965. In parting, he recommended a friend, Jimmy Page, to replace him. Page, busy at that moment with recording studio session work, in turn recommended his friend Jeff Beck.
Unlike Clapton, at that time a Blues purist, Beck was experimental. Fuzztone, feedback and distortion became the order of the day. On the following song, you can clearly hear the different direction Beck was taking them, compared to just a few years before.
3. The Jeff Beck Era: “Over Under Sideways Down” (1966) –
In June ’66, founding member Samwell-Smith decided to leave the group and work as a record producer. Page joined, agreeing to play bass until Chris Dreja had familiarized himself with the instrument, then became co-lead guitarist alongside Beck. If you’ll note at the beginning of the following song, you can hear a Page “proto Led-Zeppelin” guitar riff.
4. Jimmy Page Era and the End: “Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor” (1967) –
In late 1966, Beck was sacked from the band due to his mercurial temper and habit of being a constant “no show.” The band continued as a foursome, with Page, Relf, Dreja and Jim McCarty, until disintegrating in July of 1968, despite a tour of Scandinavia already booked for the fall. In order to fulfill the band’s contract, Page formed “The New Yardbirds,” finding a then-relatively unknown singer named Robert Plant, who insisted his friend John Bonham be allowed in on drums. For a time, Dreja was going to remain in the group as bassist, but he decided to retire from the music world to concentrate on photography. John Paul Jones, who had recently become as fed up with the drudgery of session work as Page had earlier felt, became the band’s bassist instead.
Shortly afterwards, taking their cue from a proposed band name by John Entwistle and Keith Moon of The Who, Page changed the name of the group from the New Yardbirds to Led Zeppelin, and building on the spadework of the Yardbirds’ decade of experiments in guitar-based rock, very quickly reached superstardom. (Dreja, retired from music, would shoot the back cover photo for Led Zeppelin 1 and remain friendly with the band.)
5. Afterwards: “Knowing That I’m Losing You/Tangerine” (1968)
(1980s) The Yardbirds briefly get back together in a brief semi-reunion, performing under the name “Box of Frogs” Most of the former band members participate, including Beck and Page.
(1990s) The Yardbirds reunite, largely as a “nostalgia band.”
(2013) And, founding member Chris Deja leaves for health reasons and is replaced by…lead guitarist Top Topham. Full circle, 50 years later.
Update: PJM columnist Ed Driscoll filled in some of the gaps of the history of the Yardbirds as presented in this article.