Monday, September 21, 2009

Song of the Week: "Happenings Ten Years Time Ago", The Yardbirds

The Yardbirds are one of those bands whose shadow is larger than the actual profile of the band. They are a band that is revered by musicians and musicologists alike. They were inventive, musically stylish, aggressive, unpredictable and explosive. They are also known for spawning three of the greatest guitarists to step into the limelight in the nascent era of guitar heroes. Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page would all be birthed from the ranks of The Yardbirds. But any real follower of The Yardbirds bristles when the group is remembered for this selection of alums alone. The Yardbirds were much more than these three guitar legends.

The Yardbirds started in London with a fine young guitarist at the helm, Anthony "Top" Topham. Top Topham's parents (he was 16) thought little of his future and forced him from the supposedly deadbeat group. Good thing for the other members -- vocalist and harmonica player Keith Relf, drummer Jim McCarty, bassist Paul Samwell Smith, and rhythm guitarist Chris Dreja -- they new this introverted and moody kid from art school that used to play at the coffee house. He even was rumored to have a killer record collection. So off the 4 went courting their classmate. That classmate was none other than one Eric Clapton. The year was 1963 and the up and coming band made a play to get the residency at the Crawdaddy Club that was being vacated by a group who had to leave the residency to start touring. That group is of course, The Rolling Stones. The Yardbirds quickly built a following of blues enthusiasts who were attracted to the band for it's overdriven versions of obscure blues songs and the stellar finger work of their young lead guitarist as seen here performing Louise. Clapton was with the group when they recorded one of their finest works, a cover of the Billy Boy Arnold song, I Wish You Would. But Clapton bristled at requests to do the pop song, For Your Love, and departed the group for browner fields in the middle of the recording of their first album.

Half way through the recording of their first album, in steps publicly unknown guitarist Jeff Beck. While Beck was also a blues enthusiast, unlike Clapton, he was not a purist. Jeff Beck ushered in the era of musical experimentation that became the pinnacle of The Yardbirds' existence. The Yardbirds began drawing inspiration from disparate sources such as blues, jazz, country, raga, and rockabilly. (See this Flip-Side post from December, 2008 for an example of Beck's guitar work.) The result was a sonic explosion that sounded like nothing else in the UK or the US and had a tremendous impact on fellow musicians from Love to Jimi Hendrix to Aerosmith. Bassist Paul Samwell-Smith stepped forward as the group's primary songwriter, arranger and eventually producer. With Beck the group was at top form, as seen here in this live rendition of Bo Diddley's I'm A Man.

Shortly after producing the group's second album, Paul Samwell-Smith, tired of the touring, departed the group. In steps session guitarist Jimmy Page to replace Samwell-Smith on bass. The idea was to train Dreja how to play bass and have Page move over to guitar, giving the band perhaps the greatest guitar duo in history. That's where we pick up today's SoTW. It is the best of the three songs the two guitar legends recorded together. The song is Happening Ten Years Time Ago. It features Beck and Page and session bassist, John Paul Jones on bass. It was recorded in the summer of '66 and features some of the finest guitar tone you will ever here as Page and Beck duel with their Fender Telecasters through the lead as we hear distant voices under the siren swells.

This line up lasted for only three recordings and one film session, which can be seen here. Beck began to crack under pressure and left the group while on the road in California. Jimmy Page was left to carry the load for the band, and did a more than able job as the lone guitarist.

But all was not well in Yardbird land. Bad management, the loss of Jeff Beck coupled with the loss of Samwell-Smith and the changes in the music market, saw The Yardbirds playing a high school dance in Illinois one night, and a double theater show performance in Alabama the next night. With little enthusiasm left, in 1967, Relf and McCarty quit the band they founded.

Jimmy Page was still fresh and soldiered on for contractual purposes with The New Yardbirds, morphing the band into his new lineup he called Led Zeppelin (after The Who's Keith Moon stated that trying to keep the band afloat would go over like a Led Zeppelin). They would continue on with The Yardbirds set-list for a few months (as seen here) and eventually, become their own group and have one or two hits on their own accord.

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