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How The Yardbirds Played the Pop Music Game
Drummer Jim McCarty may well be the luckiest musician on the planet. He plays the kind of music he wants, plays with whichever musician strikes his fancy and releases solo albums and interesting collaborations whenever he feels the creative urge. The self-effacing McCarty is the first to admit that none of that would be possible if he didn’t have a fairly lucrative “day job.”
McCarty, along with guitarist Chris Dreja, is one of the founding members of The Yardbirds – the band that rode the British Invasion of the ‘60s with such hits as For Your Love, Heart Full Of Soul and Shapes Of Things. The Yardbirds continue to actively record and tour on the strength of new musicians, strong new material and a willingness to play the hits.
Jim McCarty, Paul Samwell-Smith, Chris Dreja , Keith Relf, Eric Clapton
Rock Cellar Magazine got a chance to sit down with McCarty as he and his fellow Yardbirds kicked off their latest U.S. tour.
“I guess you could say it is the ideal day job,” chuckles McCarty. “It allows us all to do other things, make a decent living, and to tour pretty much all over the world. Although these days the tours tend to be shorter because we’re older and don’t quite have the stamina we used to…!”
Photo © Arnie Goodman, courtesy of Jim McCarty
The Yardbirds, whose seminal lineup included Keith Relf (vocals, harmonica), Eric Clapton (guitar), Paul Samwell Smith (bass) Dreja (guitar) and McCarty (drums) were what many considered a grade-b element of The British Invasion. And like many British bands of the period, McCarty recalls that The Yardbirds were struggling to find their musical niche:
“I suppose we really didn’t know what kind of band we were in the beginning,” he remembers. “A club band? A blues band? A rock band? I guess in a sense we wanted to be all of those things. In the beginning we were a blues cover band, playing all the rhythm and blues songs by people like Jimmy Reed and Howlin’ Wolf.
“What we were doing at the time was pretty much what The Rolling Stones did in the beginning. At the time, white boys doing old blues standards was something that had never been heard before in England. We enjoyed it, the audiences enjoyed it and, at the time, it was all good fun.”
But the band was fully aware that the state of the music industry at the time was that a band had to have commercial pop hits.
“Back in those days, there really wasn’t a market for albums,” explains McCarty. “Having that hit single and getting on shows like ‘Top Of The Pops’ was very important. No matter what kind of band you were, you were only as big as your next big hit.”
In 1964, The Yardbirds made their first attempts at pop stardom. But two failed singles, covers of Billy Boy Arnold’s I Wish You Would and the Don and Bob chestnut Good Morning Little Schoolgirl put the band back at square one – blues traditionalists without a commercial bone in their bodies.
The band temporarily put aside their blues attitude in 1965 when their manager, Giorgio Gomelsky, took a listen to a demo tape by a young aspiring songwriter named Graham Gouldman (who would later go on to no small measure of fame as part of the group 10cc).
On the tape was a very strange bit of musical business called For Your Love.
McCarty recalls that the band, with the possible exception of Clapton who always maintained a purist blues bent, were not above taking a commercial leap.
“We did not go into the commercial phase of the band grudgingly. But we knew we had to play the game. Choosing For Your Love was a big step. It definitely was not a traditional R&B song. It was very across the pond from what we were doing at the time.
“It was unusual, and sort of moody, and the use of bongos gave the song an almost Baroque quality. But the thing that ultimately sold us was the way the song suddenly changed tempo right in the middle. It was like nothing else being done by anybody at the time so we all agreed that it was the song to do.”
The band entered London’s famed IBC Studios on January 5,1965 with the intent of recording For Your Love in a quick one day session. But as McCarty recalls, Eric Clapton’s dissatisfaction with the song was present at every turn.
“Eric hated the fact that we were recording a very commercial pop song. He also did not like the idea that Paul (Samwell Smith) had elected himself as the producer of the session. In an effort to smooth Eric’s feathers, we agreed to record two additional songs that he had suggested as singles – the Major Lance song Sweet Music and The Shirelles’ song Putty In Your Hands. Neither of those songs was ever released as a single but both would appear on future Yardbirds’ albums.”
The nature of For Your Love inspired much improvisation. A harpsichord was recorded on a separate track, followed by some strident bass lines by session player Ron Prentice and, as a capper, BBC radio presenter/session bongo player Denny Piercey was brought in to lay down the song’s ever-present bongo runs.
“It was a quick session,” says McCarty. “One track was the harpsichord and one track was the boogie in the middle. It was no more than three takes. Everything about it worked and the session was a quick in and out.”
Clapton had had enough and, shortly after the recording session, left the band to join John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. He was replaced by another guitarist of note – Jeff Beck. Beck had barely gotten his feet wet as a Yardbird when For Your Love dented the UK hit parade at No. 3 (it would reach No. 6 on the US charts some weeks later). The Yardbirds had their first hit. So now what?
“We were actually quite pleased that we finally had a big hit,” says McCarty. “We felt that now we could carry on and move onto the next level as a band. Definitely having a big hit opened us up to bigger venues and nationwide tours. Then Graham came to us with Heart Full Of Soul and we felt that was the perfect follow up. It became a hit as well and we were on our way.”
The Yardbirds toured the US several times and, during those tours, felt confident enough in the creative chemistry in the band to begin writing their own songs.
”We knew we were now in a position where we had to come up with hit singles on a regular basis. But we were all for it and we’re happy to carry on and start experimenting.”
Spearheaded by Beck’s fuzztone and distortion stylings , as well as all manner of European and Asian influences, The Yardbirds became a hit machine — turning out Still I’m Sad, I’m A Man, Shapes Of Things, and Over Under Sideways Down for the pop charts.
“We were definitely surprised when we discovered that we could write hits without outside writers,” says McCarty. “With Jeff Beck it became very much a team effort. Some of us did some things well and some of us did other things well. We put all of those things in a pot and it just all seemed to work.
“I always fancied Shapes Of Things as being the Yardbirds’ best single. That song had all the elements. Good tune, good lyrics, good rhythm and a great guitar solo by Jeff. That song was really the band at that point.”
But like all good shooting stars, by 1967 The Yardbirds were showing signs of doing a fast fade. Paul Samwell Smith left the band in 1966 and was replaced on bass by Jimmy Page; forming, for a short period of time, the best two-guitar lineup on the planet.
Yardbirds photo by Gered Mankowitz
The pressures of constantly touring and creating hit singles however was beginning to fracture the band. After the song Happenings Ten Years Time Ago failed to crack the top 30 (despite a legendary guitar workout and a sign that Page’s heaviness was influencing the band) in 1967, the handwriting was on the wall.
“The singles’ setup was beginning to kill us as a band,” reflected McCarty. “Paul wasn’t a great songwriter but he was good as a part of the team. When he left the band, it was a bit of a blow creatively. But we managed to get some songs together and carry on for a while.”
But McCarty concedes that desperation was once again seeping into the band and, in 1967, The Yardbirds once again reached out to an outside influence, famed British producer/songwriter Mickie Most: A memory that McCarty is not fond of.
“Working with Mickie Most was the kiss of death for the band. Mickie never really got what we were about. His attitude was that we were just another ‘60s band that needed a hit. Consequently the songs he supplied us with (most notably the catchy but very un-Yardbirds-like Little Games and Ha, Ha Said The Clown (which ironically was the band’s last single and only featured one member of the group, singer Keith Relf) went nowhere.”
The Yardbirds were a dispirited mess as they ran out the string on a series of concerts in 1967 and 68. Their live show at that point was often conspicuous by the absence of any of their hits and a mixture of Jeff Beck songs, old blues standards, and Velvet Underground covers. By the time The Yardbirds called it quits in June 1968, the consensus within the band was that their time had passed.
“I know I said it before but being a singles band is definitely what killed us,” laments McCarty. “It was what people expected of us. And the irony is that about the time we broke up, the whole singles thing was on the way out and albums and progressive rock were on their way in. If we had hung together for another year or two we might have been in a position to go in the studio and make a Pink Floyd kind of album and then who knows what might have happened. At our best, we were more than capable of becoming Pink Floyd.”
Yardbirds w/ Jimmy Page & manager Peter Grant (as Santa)
Photo © All Rights Reserved, courtesy of Jim McCarty
Following the breakup, the individual members went on to more leisurely and low profile solo careers, with the exception of Page who took the opportunity to launch the all time heavy band, Led Zeppelin.
In 1992 McCarty and Dreja were persuaded to bring The Yardbirds out of retirement for a one off gig (with new members) on a bill that included a reconstituted Animals. The spark was still flickering and so The Yardbirds once again hit the boards with a revolving set of capable musicians and, to date, two very well received albums, Birdland and Live At BB King’s which included new material as well as the tried-and-true Yardbirds hits. It is an enterprise that McCarty still looks forward to.
“The main thing is that it’s still fun,” he declares. “The audiences are receptive. We get fans all across the generations; people who followed us in the 60’s, their children and, in some cases, even their grandchildren.”
He gets a particular kick out of this generation’s Yardbirds’ ability to breathe new and progressive light into those old hits. “I’m not going to tell you that we’ve started doing eight to ten minute versions of For Your Love but we’ve been able to stretch it out to maybe four and, on a real good night, five minutes. Anything beyond that and they might be carrying us out…!
“The stamina isn’t what it used to be. But there are those nights when we’re working out on For Your Love and Shapes Of Things and I have to admit that I’m suddenly feeling like a twenty year old again.”
Photo courtesy of Jim McCarty