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Sunday, October 29, 2017

The Yardbirds: Little Games


1) Little Games; 2) Smile On Me; 3) White Summer; 4) Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sailor; 5) Glimpses; 6) Drinking Muddy Water; 7) No Excess Baggage; 8) Stealing Stealing; 9) Only The Black Rose; 10) Little Soldier Boy; 11*) Puzzles; 12*) I Remember The Night; 13*) Ha Ha Said The Clown; 14*) Ten Little Indians; 15*) Goodnight Sweet Josephine; 16*) Think About It.

I believe that conventional wisdom puts most of the blame on Mickie Most — like, here is the only Yardbirds album recorded when they had Jimmy Page himself in the band, and instead of sounding like early Led Zeppelin, they end up sounding like a mix of Manfred Mann with Her­man's Hermits, and whose fault is that? Why, the producer's, of course! What on earth was EMI thinking, hiring the Herman's Hermits guy to mold an album by one of Britain's heaviest and most hallucinatory musical outfits?

To some extent, this might be true — but, truth be told, for the most part the band's slide into novelty territory took place on their single releases, which were just as embarrassing for 1967 as the 1965-66 series was groundbreaking and revelatory. One look at the titles is enough: ʽLittle Gamesʼ, ʽHa Ha Said The Clownʼ, ʽTen Little Indiansʼ — not even The Monkees at their, um, dangliest could boast a series of titles like that. And the music is adequate to the titles: ʽLittle Gamesʼ sounds like a fruity throwback to the era of bubblegummy Merseybeat — a triumphant guitar-cello duet belatedly makes its way to the mid-section in order to throw on a bit of that psychedelic flavor... but it really seems more like a last-minute attempt to save some face than a thoughtful addition to the song. Tony Hazzard's ʽHa Ha Said The Clownʼ is a speedy pop romp more fit for Tom Jones than The Yardbirds; and the decision to cover Harry Nilsson is under­standable — Harry was one of the hottest young songwriters of 1967-68 — but Keith Relf and the boys add nothing to his cute joke about the Ten Commandments that he did not say himself on his Pandemonium Shadow Show original.

If all these had been simply the latest batch of, say, Manfred Mann musical bones thrown to loyal fans so that the band could have enough improvisational freedom on its albums, it would have been understandable. But The Yardbirds, up to that time, had been a singles band almost by defi­nition — and in the year of ʽStrawberry Fields Foreverʼ and ʽWaterloo Sunsetʼ, releasing this kind of stuff as their banners was artistic suicide; and, quite plainly, it was evident that such a thing could only happen to a band that was completely deprived of any sense of direction. Which, I suppose, they were, with Beck and Samwell-Smith already out of the band, Page already thin­king about a project of his own, and the other three clearly insufficient to carry on in the same old way (in fact, when you think that Relf's and McCarty's next move would be to found the folk-prog band Renaissance, it becomes fairly clear that they must have been free of the «Yardbirds spirit» for quite some time before).

In light of all this, it is surprising that Little Games, as an album, is quite listenable on the whole. The bulk of the album, unlike the singles, is not pop — psychedelic, folk, and blues influences, most of them inherited from the band's past, are still rampant here, it's just that they are unable to move forward on any of them. Thus, for instance, the «original» ʽSmile On Meʼ is a loud and crunchy blues-rocker with a nicely fried guitar solo from Page — except that the song is essen­tially a re-write of Otis Rush's ʽAll Your Loveʼ, and even the opening of the solo sounds unhap­pily ripped off from Eric Clapton's performance of it on the Bluesbreakers album. Even worse, ʽDrinking Muddy Waterʼ is a somewhat overproduced version of ʽRollin' And Tumblin'ʼ with slightly new lyrics (all of them taken from blues stock phrasing anyway), credited to Dreja / McCarty / Page / Relf even if the reference to the author is semi-insultingly concealed in the song title (yes, I know that "drinking muddy water" is one of the stock phrases, and that Muddy him­self did not really «write» ʽRollin' And Tumblin'ʼ, but still, a travesty is a travesty). But in the end, Page still makes it worth your while with his array of guitar tones and frantic soloing.

The band's penchant for psychedelia and Gregorian chant flashes once more with ʽGlimpsesʼ, the only track here that actually sounds like a leftover from Roger — quasi-sitars, dark monk chorals, gloomy moods, but the whole thing is more of a stoned, absent-minded groove now than a focused raid on a previously unknown dimension. Really, it is all so confusing that it is hardly a coincidence that the album's poppiest original composition, ʽTinker, Tailorʼ, poses the album's most important and pertinent question: "How can I know just what to be? Please stop and give advice to me". It is even less a coincidence that the album's second poppiest original composition, ʽLittle Soldier Boyʼ (in which they dip into the same pool of British cutesiness that produced some of the Kinks' and Small Faces' contemporary successes), ends the record on a self-destruc­tive note: ʽHe gave a last triumphant cry / And fell into the fireʼ.

If there is one non-suicidal triumphant cry on the album, it belongs to Jimmy Page, whose little exercise in gluing together British and Indian folk elements on his solo acoustic spot ʽWhite Summerʼ is the record's most innovative and artistically valid bit, presaging ʽBlack Mountain Sideʼ and the rest of his acoustic work with Led Zeppelin (indeed, ʽWhite Summerʼ itself became a staple of Zeppelin's early shows). Saying that this is definitely not The Yardbirds, but rather Led Zeppelin, is somewhat harsh, since there is no reason why The Yardbirds, a band that was always open to new influences, could not have made this sound a part of their regular baggage; but on Little Games, it definitely sounds out of place — far more intimate and introspective than anything they'd previously done. (There is one more acoustic ballad here, Keith Relf's quiet, slightly Zombie-like serenade ʽOnly The Black Roseʼ, but it is much less impressive musically, with a standard rhythmic pattern that could be produced by anyone).

On the whole, though, it is much more of a wonder that The Yardbirds had managed to last for so long than that they finally failed to crash the 1967 barrier. In a way, their survival (and not just survival, but triumphant artistic success) had been largely due to sheer luck: a rotating series of Britain's finest guitar talents, plus collaboration with all the right people in the songwriting, pro­du­cing, and managing business (up until Mickey Most, that is) — despite the clear lack of some strong «pivot» in the band, a Ray Davies or a Pete Townshend to drag their mission through fire and water and musical revolutions. Sooner or later, though, that luck had to end, and once they found themselves in the hands of a misguided (and misguiding) producer, it all crashed fairly quickly. Perhaps if Page had been as concerned about making his mark on the band as Beck had been before, things would have turned out differently; but clearly he was not, and besides, as a relative newcomer, he couldn't have routed things his way anyway.

Despite all this, I still recommend the record — it has its fair share of entertaining moments, and at least as far as messed-up swan songs go, this one is fairly diverse. Not a single song, ʽWhite Summerʼ excluded, is a masterpiece on its own, but together they form an oddly grotesque puzzle that, perhaps, should still be judged as quite an intriguing curtain call. At the very least, there is still an aura of helpless, but desperate experimentation here, which is sometimes preferable over cold-hearted calculated formula.


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  3. Excellent review! I agree with you that the album as a whole merits a listen (and even ownership), especially for the aforementioned Glimpses, which I would put up as the coolest most psychedelic track on the LP. White Summer is indeed excellent, but some of the pop is solid here as well. Take No Excess Baggage, which does feel like The Monkees, but with edgy 60s guitar from Jimmy Page. Think About It (later covered by Aerosmith) is a hidden, hard rock gem. And Little Games, the song, is weirdly catchy, but - as you write - the overall impression is of an "intriguing curtain call" and a jumble with more "misses" than "hits". Give the LP credit for still attempting experiments rather than calculated formula as you write. I'm biased anyway: I have always enjoyed the Yardbirds in spite of Relf's tinny voice. :-)

  4. It's too bad they never caught their version of Dazed and Confused on this one. It's the twisted skeleton on which the terrible misshapen beast was later formed. Compare these two versions to see the horrific mutation:

    1. I heard Jake Holmes, who wrote "Dazed And Confused", wasn't too fond of the Led Zeppelin version, but thought the Yardbirds version was nice.

    2. For the record, two of the best songs in the album (Little Games and Think About It) were recorded live for the BBC, and I believe the live versions totally obliterate the originals. The sound is raw and exciting, and the rhythm section does an excellent job. You can really feel the transition from the Yardbirds to Led Zeppelin on these. They recorded more songs, with mixed results. I am quite fond of Goodnight Sweet Josephine though - guilty pleasure... - if only for the great, great Page solo.

  5. This was a pretty good review. I've never been able to put my finger on why this album has never left much of an impression on me, and now I realize that I was approaching it from the wrong direction all this time. If you think of it as a psychedelic Page laying groundwork for Led Zeppelin, the album just doesn't deliver. If you think of it like Mickey Most attempting a Manfred Mann album, then it works much better.