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Sunday, August 6, 2017

The Yardbirds: Roger The Engineer


1) Lost Woman; 2) Over, Under, Sideways, Down; 3) The Nazz Are Blue; 4) I Can't Make Your Way; 5) Rack My Mind; 6) Farewell; 7) Hot House Of Omagarashid; 8) Jeff's Boogie; 9) He's Always There; 10) Turn Into Earth; 11) What Do You Want; 12) Ever Since The World Began; 13*) Psycho Daisies; 14*) Happenings Ten Years Time Ago.

The first Yardbirds album to be properly conceived and recorded as an album, rather than a bunch of disconnected singles, was supposed to be simply titled Yardbirds — fate, however, has deter­mined that it be forever known as Roger The Engineer, after a short clarifying scribble by Chris Dreja who wanted all the world to know that the grotesque figure on the front sleeve was Roger Cameron, the band's audio engineer. Unfortunately, as tempting as it is to imagine the album as a conceptual rock opera about the adventures of a humble studio technician in the psychedelic age, this is not to be, because The Yardbirds were simply too disjointed and confused to care about any sort of cohesiveness and conceptuality. Instead, Roger The Engineer is a total mess, retro-oriented one minute and sloppily futuristic the next one — a potential disaster turned into a glorious delight because of the presence of at least one musical genius in the group, and also because it was friggin' 1966, when «messy» and «visionary» were just two sides of the same coin.

In a decisive departure from past times, all the material here was written by the band members themselves — which, naturally, ensured that much of it was very derivative in terms of basic melody, since the creative instincts of most of The Yardbirds did not venture too far away from their R&B foundations. However, after two years of distinguished service they were capable of an occasional great riff; of cool ideas on atmospheric overdubs and psychedelic sound effects; and of projecting their eclectic experience onto LP territory, as just about every sub-genre that was explored on their 1965-66 singles is also represented on the album, from bone-crushing hard rock to sinister Gregorian chants to top-of-the-line blueswailing.

The album gets off to a solid, but inauspicious start: ʽLost Womanʼ is merely another in a stable line of their R&B rave-ups, with a noisy, but not too ecstatic crescendo in the middle and a memorable rolling bass line from Samwell-Smith. Possibly not the best way to immediately make an impression on the progress-spoiled audiences of '66 — ʽOver Under Sideways Downʼ would have made a far more efficient opener: the combination of a rousing "hey!" and a snakey Indian-inspired riff from Beck (incidentally, a similar pattern, but played already on a real sitar, can be heard on Harrison's ʽThe Inner Lightʼ two years later) sounds really novel even for The Yardbirds, as does the marriage of a catchy-bouncy pop melody in the verse with the somber Gothicness of the "when will it end?" reprise. Throw in a bunch of lyrics that deal with liberation, hedonism, and retribution, and all of a sudden, the song stands out as a laconic artistic masterpiece from both the formal and the substantial points of view.

This is the frustration and the charm of Roger The Engineer — you never know what's coming next, a predictable reenactment of some long gone glory or a dazzling futuristic twist. Sometimes both of them come within the confines of the same tune: ʽThe Nazz Are Blueʼ begins as the 5,000th rewrite of Elmore James' ʽDust My Broomʼ, but quickly turns into a playground for some provocative guitar experimentation from Beck that remains exciting to this day (ah, that sweet sustained note at 1:24! it is also interesting that Jeff takes a rare lead vocal on the song himself, something that he would very rarely follow up on in the future). Sometimes the odd twist ends up sounding stupid, at least in retrospect: the contorted Oompa-Loompish Africanisms of ʽHot House Of Omagarashidʼ, made to look even sillier by the «bubbly» effect (are we supposed to have visions of five live Yardbirds, all plucked and boiling in a steamy cauldron?), can hardly be saved even by Beck's shrill psychedelic solo.

But then you also have The Yardbirds surprisingly successfully competing with Manfred Mann in the «ironically sunshine pop» category (ʽI Can't Make Your Wayʼ, whose bounciness makes it a prime candidate for Britain's slyest pop sellout to cover); engaging in melancholic piano Brit-pop with a music hall flavor (ʽFarewellʼ); expanding the borders of heavy rock with a simple, proto-metallic descending fuzz bass riff (ʽHe's Always Thereʼ); capitalizing on the success of ʽStill I'm Sadʼ with another moody piece of Gregorian chant (ʽTurn Into Earthʼ); and pretty much inventing classic Black Sabbath with the first part of ʽEver Since The World Beganʼ: "Ever since the world began / Satan's followed every man / Trapping evil if he can / I tell you now his greatest plan" — tell me, with a straight face, that these lyrics have not been written by Geezer Butler and have not been delivered by Ozzy Osbourne. Okay, so they weren't, but that is the entire Sabbath formula, in a nutshell, over one minute, just without the heavy riffs. Come to think of it, even the unexpec­ted transition into a fast rave-up is Sabbath-like to a certain degree, considering how the bad boys of Birmingham liked to introduce boogie bits in their slow metallic drawls.

Keith Relf, predictably, remains the weakest link. Nice guy overall and a competent singer by the book, he remains incapable of injecting the songs with strong emotion or distinct personality, and this is, perhaps, the harshest blow to the potential of Roger The Engineer — it is all but impos­sible to get deeply involved in them, unless they are flat-out instrumentals (ʽJeff's Boogieʼ). But, in all fairness, this whole thing should have really been credited to «The Yardbirds Featuring Jeff Beck», or even «Jeff Beck and The Yardbirds», the same way John Mayall's Bluesbreakers were smart enough to put «With Eric Clapton» on their quintessential record from the same year — and once you have settled into accepting the vocals as largely a side accompaniment for the lead guitar, rather than vice versa, Roger The Engineer will be on the verge of slipping into the masterpiece category. Because, truly and verily, some of the most outstanding pre-Hendrix era guitar work can be found here, be it the spiralling Indian riff of ʽOver Under Sideways Downʼ, or the beastly sustain of ʽThe Nazz Are Blueʼ, or the finger-flashing arpeggios of ʽJeff's Boogieʼ, or the sick acid tone of the six-string on ʽHe's Always Thereʼ — the first, and one of the finest, full-scale demonstrations of the genius of Mr. Beck.

Whether you are buying the CD or downloading a digital copy, make sure that it is (admittedly, a rare) edition that also adds one slightly later single as a couple of bonus tracks — ʽPsycho Daisiesʼ, the B-side, is a Chuck Berry pastiche with angry garage rock guitar splattered all over it, but the real deal is ʽHappenings Ten Years Time Agoʼ, the only A-side of theirs that features dual lead playing from Beck and the freshly joined Page and remains one of the quintessential psyche­delic tracks of 1966 — in fact, the chaotic, earth-rattling solo in the middle is one of the very few instances of a typically Hendrix-like sound prior to Hendrix, although its most memorable ele­ment is probably the fussy descending guitar riff, which, to me, seems borrowed out of the Link Wray or Duane Eddy textbook, but transferred to a whole new level of intensity (those guys would probably just use the «toppling» chords as a gimmick, whereas here they are put at the skeletal center of the song).

Together with ʽShapes Of Thingsʼ, this song was The Yardbirds' best bet at becoming messiahnic prophets for their generation — with epic and ominous declarations like these, even the lack of a great lead singer was not much of a problem — but, alas, this was not to be because, so it seems to me, nobody in The Yardbirds ever had anything resembling a cohesive, transparent «vision» for the band's music. Roger The Engineer is a clear example of that — it's a mish-mash and a hodge-podge, often brilliant despite the intentions of its authors rather than according to them, or so it reads to me. Naturally, a thumbs up rating is self-evident here, but I also understand why the album never managed to become a timeless 1966 classic along the same lines as contem­porary albums by the Beatles, the Stones, the Beach Boys, or the Kinks. Fortunately, it has always enjoyed a cult status among connoisseurs, and let us keep it that way.


  1. Coincidentally, I was just revisiting this LP, mine opens with "Happenings..." & closes with "Psycho Daisies" Lucky this mess remains a mess regardless of order...

  2. He's Always There is one of the best uses of a fishbone in a rock song. On those breaks, I can see the protagonist scratching his chin or tapping his foot in frustration cause his rival beat him to the bird. Hot House is indeed a stupid piece of bubble gum. While I have nothing against Gregorian modes, I never liked their interpretation of it. As I'm listening to Turn to Earth I'm hearing a cool guitar riff absolutely buried in the mix. Lots of that here. Roger should have been fired and Rodger Bain hired instead.

  3. Yes, there is some cool guitar lines buried in Turn to Earth; how could this have been intentional? She's Always There has one heck of a guitar outro as well. I like how it builds up in tension repeating over and over before breaking loose in all directions.

    Having said that, Jeff Beck's guitar experimentation alone makes this album worth listening too. Of course, some of the non-Beck aspects are neat (most notably the Gregorian chants).