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Sunday, July 2, 2017

The Yardbirds: Having A Rave Up


1) Mr. You're A Better Man Than I; 2) Evil Hearted You; 3) I'm A Man; 4) Still I'm Sad; 5) Heart Full Of Soul; 6) Train Kept A-Rollin'; 7)Smokestack Lightning; 8) Respectable; 9) I'm A Man; 10) Here 'Tis; 11*) Shapes Of Things; 12*) New York City Blues; 13*) Jeff's Blues (take 1); 14*) Someone To Love (pt. 1); 15*) Someone To Love (pt. 2); 16*) Like Jimmy Reed Again; 17*) Chris' Number; 18*) What Do You Want; 19*) Here 'Tis (instrumental); 20*) Here 'Tis (version for RSG); 21*) Stroll On.

It is fairly bizarre how The Yardbirds were so screwed up by the LP market in their native country, although it may have been more of a personal than a marketing problem: all through 1964 and 1965, the band members had serious trouble coming up with original material — of the six brilliant songs present on the first side of this album, not more than one was self-penned. And the option of releasing entirely cover-based LPs in 1965 may not have appealed to anybody, what with the major players in the field now having to face the challenge of proving their artistic worth on their own. Nevertheless, the American market would not take this sitting down, and by the end of 1965, dutifully spat out another Yardbirds LP — an embarrassing rip-off by the standards of that time, a priceless masterpiece by the standards of ours.

What Epic Records did was simple: they just took four of the band's A- and B-sides, added two more tracks recorded at the same time but not yet in use, and then, since there was nothing to pad the second side with, simply took a few numbers off Five Live Yardbirds to round out the pack­age — admittedly, since the latter had not been released in the States, this was somewhat legiti­mate (at least the customer was not buying the same stuff twice), but the sequencing was quite silly: by mid-65, The Yardbirds were long past their «rave-up» roots, and putting together Beck-era expe­rimental material with Clapton-era R&B workouts made very little sense (not that it bothered any of the record executives, of course). In today's world, the original release seems extremely silly. However, advent of the CD era and intelligent track sequencing has reinstated the album's reputation: today, the most common edition adds ten more bonus tracks, rounding out the score with at least one more classic single (ʽShapes Of Thingsʼ) and a slew of lesser numbers that are still impressive from a guitar-based perspective.

The quality of the singles on the album's first side remains so astonishing that The Yardbirds, as a result, look like one of the most befuddling Sixties puzzles in my personal book. By all accounts, the band had very little personality — its individual members, with the questionable exception of the gruff, reclusive Jeff Beck, were bores (if not downright squares) — and, as I already said, none of them ever truly matured as challenging songwriters. Yet this small handful of songs they put out over the course of one year is still one of the greatest streaks of its time, easily ranking up there with The Beatles, Stones, Kinks, Who, etc. How they managed this feat, I have not the slightest idea; blaming it all on the spirit of the time still won't cut it. Unquestionably, it was the presence of Beck that acted as a catalyst, yet The Yardbirds were still a group, of which Beck was just one part (and a Johnny-come-lately, too, who could not have a decisive say in everything they did — one reason why he never lasted too long). In the end, it's just a mystery that I personally have little interest in de-mistifying.

While it would be a serious exaggeration to say that each of the six songs on the album's first side (seven, if you throw in ʽShapes Of Thingsʼ — and you rightfully should) had started its own musical genre, it is still a point worth defending, at least for the fun of it. First, ʽMr. You're A Better Man Than Iʼ is one of the progenitors of socially-conscious punk rock. Clearly Dylan-in­fluenced at least in terms of lyrics (it was written by the drummer of Manfred Mann), its verse-to-chorus buildup of rage and indignation is carried off by Relf and the boys splendidly — over the chorus, he seems to picture himself flinging a gauntlet in the face of his imaginary bigoted racist opponent, and then Beck's heavily distorted solo, spiralling upwards in fury and frenzy and ec­stasy, is the imaginary duel... with an undetermined ending, perhaps, but then again, that's life. I have a hard time trying to remember a «political» rock song from 1965 that would kick so much racist butt — so you could check it as the godfather song for Bad Religion and Dead Kennedys, if your heart so desires.

Two of the songs were contributed by Graham Gouldman, in a successful attempt to capitalize on the good luck of ʽFor Your Loveʼ. ʽEvil Hearted Youʼ seems to have been written with the band's «rave» reputation in mind, since the contrasting mid-section is played with fussy Bo Diddley-style rhythmics — but the major focus is on the brooding, gloomy atmosphere of the main section, with Eastern influences and hints of black magic (big difference between the Stones and the Yard­birds: when it came to women, Mick Jagger would always prefer the time-honored practice of bitch-slapping, while Keith Relf was more into the «witchy» side of his female counterparts, and damned if I know which of the two stereotypes is more forgivable). Again, the key moment arrives with Beck's solo — to the best of my knowledge, nobody in the UK at least had managed to wring that kind of tone out of a slide guitar up to that time, and as he rises higher and higher up the scale and as the instrument begins to sound like a throttled kitten, it is almost scary to think of the associations that went through the band's minds as they listened to this...

The other Gouldman song is ʽHeart Full Of Soulʼ, technically similar to ʽEvil Hearted Youʼ (both in terms of lyrics and melodic structure), but where ʽEvil Hearted Youʼ only flirted very tangen­tially with Eastern elements, this here song was first tried out with a sitar (you can still hear the original take as a bonus track on For Your Love), and once that did not work out, Beck simply re-recorded the parts with a special fuzz box. The result is a fascinating mash-up of broken-hear­ted folk-pop and raga borrowings; purists might deride it as bullshit-mystic cultural appropriation, but there's really nothing wrong in appropriating a few raga-like lines to describe a state of ag­gres­sively fermenting melancholy, is there?

The studio version of ʽI'm A Manʼ is probably the most old-fashioned song here, and the one that most clearly justifies the Rave Up tag, but even that one has been modernized by Beck's presence: Jeff's «scratchy» sound is not something you can easily find on the Clapton-era rave-ups, and the wall of noise generated by the band during the coda is almost as impressive as contemporary Who exercises in controlled (or not so controlled) chaos, which is already a huge compliment, so check this as a milestone in the evolution of noise-rock or whatever. Yet clearly, it pales in com­parison to the achievement of ʽStill I'm Sadʼ — not only because it is the only truly original song here (written by McCarthy and Samwell-Smith), but also because it was a unique experiment at the time. The vocal arrangement, making use of Gregorian chant legacy, creates an atmosphere of a black-plague-like funeral procession here — a bit heavy-handed for the description of a failed teenage romance, perhaps, but it falls in the same category of «overblown dark-sentimental mas­terpieces» of the time as do all those Shangri-La's classics: utter sincerity of design and challen­ging butt-throughs into the terrifying world of grown-up music make it an ultimate win, and for once, I am actually happy here that Keith Relf never had a great singing voice. Add a Dietrich Fischer-Diskau to ʽStill I'm Sadʼ, and the song explodes. Leave in the well-meaning, moderately talented nerdy frail British kid, and it survives.

ʽThe Train Kept A-Rollinʼ was not invented by The Yardbirds. The ferociously sexual potential of the song had already been disclosed by The Rock'n'Roll Trio, with Paul Burlison letting it all out with early aggressive guitar distortion in 1956. But it still took The Yardbirds to update that sound for the Sixties — just as it would take Aerosmith to update it for the Seventies (and then rock music died and nobody cared about updating it for the Eighties, I guess). I have no idea whose particular version could be considered the best or «definitive» one, but the immortal riff of the song, I believe, took on its ultimately refined shape with the Yardbirds — although, as a mat­ter of fact, I have to say that the definitive Yardbirds version of the song is the one that was re-recorded for Antonioni's Blow Up: renamed ʽStroll Onʼ, it is fortunately featured as the last bonus track on the CD edition and is unquestionably the single heaviest track recorded in the year of 1966 — by that time, Jimmy Page had already joined the band as second guitarist, so you can catch a rare glimpse of the twin Beck/Page soloing here; and the riff is at least twice as heavy as on the original. Ever imagined a Panzer tank blitzing along with the speed of an express train?...

Finally, even though ʽShapes Of Thingsʼ was released in 1966 rather than 1965, and thematically is more cohesive with the band's first proper LP (Roger The Engineer), there is no better way to conclude this stellar run of singles than with the band's full-fledged conversion to psychedelia, a song that matters almost as much to the genre as ʽTomorrow Never Knowsʼ or ʽPurple Hazeʼ. It is a creative masterpiece — rising out of an almost music-hall melody (you can easily picture somebody like Paul McCartney banging that "shapes! of things before my eyes!" stuff on the piano), going through a ʽWe Gotta Get Out Of This Placeʼ-like R&B bass groove, and finally entering that sonic realm where everything is possible. The second part of the single is the soli­tary domain of Jeff Beck (in fact, he would continue to explore those psychedelic volcanoes on ʽBeck's Boleroʼ and other stuff), but it is the three-stage merger of pop, R&B, and total freakout that really counts — and introduces both the band and their audiences to the concept of true (and deep) thematic development in a pop song. It may lack a single power hook like ʽPurple Hazeʼ, and it may not be as openly mesmerizing as ʽTomorrow Never Knowsʼ — which is why you will never find it in any «top five psychedelic masterpieces» list — but it still has a triumphant ring to it after all these years.

Of the other bonus tracks, besides the already mentioned mastodontic attack of ʽStroll Onʼ, it is necessary to remember ʽJeff's Bluesʼ, an instrumental jam that takes the ʽDust My Broomʼ groove and evolves it into furiously psychedelic guitar soloing (with none of Clapton's contemporary inhibitions). The rest are mostly there to at least somehow justify the Rave Up tag — for instance, two studio takes on ʽHere 'Tisʼ that had previously been played on Five Live Yardbirds — but with Beck in the band, pretty much everything is fun to some degree, even a couple slow blues numbers (ʽNew York City Bluesʼ) that would have been unbearable, had Clapton been replaced by a player of lesser rather than equal caliber. (And oh yes, best part of the bonus tracks: No Keith Relf singing in Italian anywhere in sight!)

There is no way anybody is going to rotate the bonus inclusions more often than the first seven tracks, though — but even if the entire album had been left simply as a modest 20-minute long EP, it would still deserve one of the strongest thumbs up judgements for the masterpiece-heavy year of 1965. If you only want to own one Yardbirds album, this is the one to get: everything else will necessarily look like a disappointment in comparison (and this is coming from somebody who sincerely believes that the band's entire career remains quite heavily underappreciated).


  1. Although I can't recall precisely, likely my 1st Yardbirds purchase was a compilation on 'Bomb' records. The cassette I made off that wax was a great compliment to the tapes I'd make of the American blues/garage rock stuff I'd find. & all from 1 band! You'd think more people would have something to say about them nowadays.....

  2. Shapes of Things is my all-time favorite Yardie song, period. But it's a close race with I'm A Man (Beck is the only guy who could make scratching behind the saddle sound cool and not wanky) Better Man Than I (Another Beck moment of minimalist genius) and Think About It (Basically proto-Zeppelin, but much more economical and hard-hitting than its love child Dazed and Confused). Though I've never been a huge fan of Beck's solo stuff, his Y-bird epoch is my favorite.

    As far as nerdy, awkward English boys go, none can carry Keith's inhaler on NY Blues: "I met a little (?) girl there/Stood about five feet eight/I said "I want to LOVE you!"/And she said, Man, that'd be great."

    (12 year old Michael Jagger shakes his head in embarrassment)

  3. As always, you've given me a fresh perspective on music I've listened to forever. Great stuff.