Via such epic singles as Shapes Of Things, Heart Full of Soul, For Your Love, Over Under Sideways Down, Happenings Ten Years Time Ago and others, The Yardbirds made their mark in the ’60s with a sound awash in gritty blues rock swagger.
It also didn’t hurt that the band showcased in its ranks three of rock’s greatest guitar players, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page.
A pivotal influence on the likes of Aerosmith, The Black Crowes and sundry other bands, The Yardbirds legacy lives on through a new ensemble numbering original drummer Jim McCarty and new recruits, John Idan on lead vocals/guitar, bassist Kenny Aaronson (Bob Dylan/Billy Squier/Billy Idol), lead guitarist Johnny A. (Peter Wolf/Bobby Whitlock) and Myke Scavone (Ram Jam/Doughboys) on blues harp/percussion.
The band is currently on tour in the States throughout July. Join us for a conversation with Jim McCarty as we take a trip back in time to discuss all things Yardbirds.
The band drew heavily from blues, were you all collectively pooling from the same influences or were there other outside influences creeping in?
Jim McCarty: No, we were all together on that. We all loved the blues stuff and the stuff we were hearing from the U.S. But we were always interested in different types of music; definitely Paul (Samwell-Smith), Keith (Relf) and myself. We loved classical music and all sorts of world music, anything off the wall. We started playing those blues covers and we thought it was a bit ordinary just playing 12-bar blues so we wanted to make it a bit more interesting.
How were you able to accomplish that and turning that blues sound upside down?
Jim McCarty: Well, we just had fun and we were able to experiment with different time changes. Then of course when Jeff Beck came in that was great because he had all those different sounds and he wasn’t particularly rooted in the blues. He was a great blues player but he liked Les Paul and Mary Ford and liked a lot of jazz stuff too; Cry Me A River, that sort of stuff.
He liked jazz guitar players like Barney Kessel. So we had a lot of influences coming away from the blues as well. But we did it well. We were a good band and we worked well together. We were enthusiastic and were able to turn some of those things around.
How did the band’s immersion in the London music scene and residency at the Crawdaddy Club help shape the group’s sound?
Jim McCarty: Well, it’s always good to do a residency where you get to build it up. You’re there every week and people get to know you and it becomes a famous venue and it becomes sort of the “in” thing to do so that was good. The place in Richmond wasn’t really in London; it was just the last stop on the tube. (laughs) So you could get a tube there and you’d get to play ideas and work things out and jam on things and bring them together.
It’s a good solidifying thing playing a residency like that.
The new incarnation canvasses the band’s entire career, from big hits to deeper cuts. Share the back story behind several of the songs you’re still performing today: For Your Love and Heart Full Of Soul were huge hits for the band. Both tracks were written by Graham Gouldman. How did they first come to the band’s attention?
Jim McCarty: Well, they went through Giorgio Gomelsky, our manager. They probably passed through our publishers. In those days there were Tin Pan Alley publishers, people that would try and get covers on songs and go and visit people and go and see bands. It was a really active thing back then. We had a guy come and see us play with The Beatles.
We played the Beatles Christmas show in 1964 and there was a guy, one of these song pluggers. He was a great guy. Funnily enough, his name was Ronnie Beck. He had the same last name as Jeff but no relation. So he was in the audience and he had this demo. In those days the demos were on acetate discs, funny little single discs, and he saw us play and thought this song he had called For Your Love would be good for us to record. He had the demo disc for For Your Love and got it over to Giorgio and then we went from there. We heard it and decided to do a version of it.
Same goes for Heart Full Of Soul?
Jim McCarty: We had that channel then, that channel was open. We had a big hit with For Your Love so we thought, Let’s have a go at another one. That song was also good in its own way.
How about Shapes Of Things?
Jim McCarty: That was one of the first songs that was written within the band. With Shapes Of Things, we were touring in the U.S. an going to various American studios to record because we seemed to get a better sound at the American studios in those days. They were used to a lot of great rock and roll and blues and it suited us. The English studio were a little bit sterile. We were doing really well.
We were on tour sometime in 1966 and stopped off at Chess Studios in Chicago and we’d already done I’m A Man in that studio. So we went in and worked our Shapes Of Things. We stared with a little chord sequence and then we all put in our ideas. We had a little rehearsal I a rehearsal room and just sort of gradually got it together and we were very pleased with it.
When did the band come into its own in the studio as record makers?
Jim McCarty: Well, I’d say that Shapes Of Things was the breakthrough; that particular recording was a big breakthrough for us. Then of course we did the Roger The Engineer album, which was in London. By then we had a nice engineer with the engineer, Roger the engineer. (laughs) So we had a good relationship with him and we worked on the sounds and we got a good sound. We did the whole album which was written by us, written as a band project.
Is there a definitive studio album by The Yardbirds that ticks all the boxes for you?
Jim McCarty: It has to be the Roger The Engineer album. That was the classic lineup and it had all the ingredients of a great album. A 50th anniversary edition has just come out and it’s remastered and it’s a very nice package.
The Yardbirds boasted three of rock’s legendary guitar players in their ranks–Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page. From a purely creative perspective, was there an era that worked best for you?
Jim McCarty: The Jeff Beck era. Going back to that Shapes Of Things time, that was a great time. Between that song and Over Under Sideways Down, I guess it would be 1966. Paul, Keith, Jeff, Chris (Dreja) and me were all working very well together.
What was the brief period like when the band had Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page playing guitar?
Jim McCarty: Yeah, it was good. It was hot. (laughs)
Jim McCarty: Very hot onstage. But not always a success onstage because there’d sometimes be too much going on. There’d also be a lot of tension onstage between the two of them. I would say particularly from Jeff. They were different sort of players. Jimmy is very worked out and sort of business-like and Jeff’s a very much off the top of his head kind of player so they’re quite different.
Why didn’t the lineup with Beck and Page last longer?
Jim McCarty: I think Jeff got completely blown out by it. It was too much for him. He’s a very, very sensitive guy, very nervous, very sort of twitchy and quite a perfectionist. If things are not happening, if the equipment’s wrong or if there’s a gig he didn’t like he’d find it difficult.
How were the Yardbirds a different animal on the live stage?
Jim McCarty: We could improvise on stage with each other like a sort of jazz thing but also we really went for it when we were gigging. We really wanted to hit it when we were playing.
What are your most indelible memories of Yardbirds original singer, the late Keith Relf?
Jim McCarty: Well, he was a funny guy. He was very spiritual in one sense. He had lots of physical troubles and was quite an insecure kind of guy. He used to like to drink and smoke pot but nothing really too strong. But he was a very nice guy and there was a nice side to him that I really got on with. We got on very well. Funnily enough, I get on very well now with his two sons.
His songs are very nice and they’ve got different aspects of him and we really click. It’s a nice relationship. As a talent, Keith was great. He wasn’t a powerful singer; he didn’t have a lot of strength or energy. He was suffering, he only had one lung a lot of the time. He had a lung removed. He was a good musician. He could jam and he could make up stuff there and then. He was spontaneous and he had some good ideas. He liked a lot of jazz, a lot of blues. He had a great feeling to him.
When the band split in the late ‘60s, did you feel there was more creative territory the Yardbirds could have been explored or was the time right to go your separate ways?
Jim McCarty: Well, we were pretty tired. I think the answer would have been to take a break and probably quite a long break ‘cause it was full on. We were full-on recording and touring and doing photo sessions and interviews and all that. It was very full-on and we were all pretty worn down. I always thought that the best lineup of the band was the Paul Samwell-Smith/Jeff Beck lineup from the Roger The Engineer time. I think we missed those guys when they left. (laughs) Looking back on it, they had some great ideas. We did some interesting stuff with Jimmy (Page) later on that weren’t so bad.
I’ve heard some of the stuff and actually that stuff might resurface. There were some studio session we did in New York that look like they might resurface now.
Near the end of the band’s career in the ‘60s, Jimmy Page was performing songs he’d later do in Led Zeppelin, things like I’m Confused, which morphed into Dazed & Confused and White Summer. Was that a direction the band was embracing?
Jim McCarty: It was a powerful direction, that’s for sure, because it was a four-piece. You had to play out more to fill up the sound. With a five-piece you could relax a bit more but this was like a four-piece with quite a metal-y sound and that was developing the whole time. Of course Jimmy was very very good at making up those riffs, those heavy riffs, which he’d later incorporate in his work with Led Zeppelin.
When you heard the first Zeppelin album, besides Dazed & Confused, were there any other riffs or pieces of music you recognized that Jimmy was playing on or offstage during the Yardbirds days?
Jim McCarty: Well, it was very interesting. I went round and Jimmy played Zeppelin’s first album for me and it was like the stuff that we were playing but it was played really well and recorded very well. I thought, wow, this is a great album. It was a lot of the songs that we’d been playing in The Yardbirds but now they’d got a bit more developed. But I think it was a bit later where he started to develop such good heavy heavy riffs.
Aerosmith have long cited The Yardbirds as a pivotal influence on their sound, covering several songs popularized by the band, notably Train Kept A Rollin’ and Think About It. What were your impressions of that band?
Jim McCarty: I think Aerosmith is a great band. They’re very good technically. They have a good sound and they have the advantage to a modern recording sound which we never had. The modern recording sounds is so much better than it was. Also, on stage you get a much better sound now live. I can hear our sound in Aerosmith’s music. They’ve done good versions of Train Kept A Rollin’, Think About It and I Ain’t Got You, if I’m not mistaken. Steven’s a great front man. They’re an excellent band.
Speaking of cover songs, what’s your favorite rendition of a Yardbirds song?
Jim McCarty: Oh, that’s a difficult one…Let me think…I saw a band the other night called The Truews, and they’re from Nova Scotia. They did a great version of Shapes Of Things that was very off the wall.
What did you think of the Jeff Beck Group’s version of Shapes Of Things?
Jim McCarty: Yeah, it was good. David Bowie’s version of Shapes Of Things was quite good. He also covered I Wish You Would too. Rush also did Shapes Of Things and that was pretty good.
The Yardbirds have gone through numerous lineup changes through the year and now you’re the last man standing. What makes this particular incarnation special?
Jim McCarty: I don’t know. Maybe it’s because these guys have grown up with the music and they’ve got a lovely authentic feeling about them. They’re very honorable to the music. They were big fans of the music. I think it’s just something about the way they play it that works really well. It’s really good.