REWIND: You may not know the Yardbirds, but you know their guitarists

The Yardbirds, Jeff Beck, Chris Dreja, Jim McCarty, Jimmy Page, Keith Relf

The Yardbirds in 1966. Left to right: Jeff Beck, Chris Dreja, Jim McCarty, Jimmy Page and Keith Relf. Courtesy.

Way, way back in the early ’00s, when I was at Diablo Valley College (that’s in the East Bay), I took a lot of random and unnecessary classes to keep my course load high enough to stay on my parents’ health insurance. For a year most of them focused on different belief systems and concepts of religion, because I’ve always been basically like this.

One of those classes was on folk religions. That’s basically unorganized religion; a system of beliefs and customs that don’t have any sort of official church structure but fill the same role in a society. The professor pointed out, for example, that sports fandom could fill most definitions of folk religion; there are ceremonies, superstitions, costumes, shared behaviors and it serves as the central point for a community.

I’m getting to the music part, stay with me here.

During that folk religion class, for reasons known only to the professor and possibly his psychiatrist, we were required to memorize the guitarists for The Yardbirds. Recently that piece of information popped back into my head and I discovered that the improbably star-studded history of an otherwise unremarkable band isn’t widely known.

So, welcome to the third edition of RIFF Rewind’s deep dives into bands you should know more about!

The Yardbirds — “For Your Love”

While the Yardbirds are an influential band that had quite a few hits in the U.K. and charted multiple times in the U.S., this was their big hit on this side of the Atlantic. If you’ve heard a Yardbirds song it’s almost definitely this one.

In 1963, in the suburbs of London, high school friends Keith Relf, Paul Samwell-Smith and Jim McCarty met another pair of high school friends, Tom Topham and Chris Dreja. They decided to start a band. Relf played harmonica and sang, Dreja played rhythm guitar, McCarty was drummer, Samwell-Smith played bass and Topham was the lead guitar player.

After a couple months they got offered a residency at a small music venue called the Crawdaddy Club. Topham was left with a dilemma: he could continue his art studies, or he could continue with the band. His parents strongly disapproved of the band so he stuck with art and left the young Yardbirds without a lead guitar player.

Fortunately, a guy from Topham’s art school was pretty good.

Eric Clapton — “After Midnight”

That’s right, Topham’s classmate was Eric Clapton.

Before he decided to build his career on cultural appropriation, Clapton was just some teenager outside London. And some guys he knew from school needed a guitar player so, hey, why not? And they almost immediately became a breakout success.

The Yardbirds were founded to be a blues band—the original members had met in a blues club, after all. Their first two singles, “I Wish You Would” and “Good Morning School Girl,” reflected that. They did fine but not especially well. Their third single is “For Your Love,” which you’ve heard. It was a huge hit in the U.K. and U.S. and propelled the Yardbirds to stardom.

Unfortunately, that did not sit well with young Eric Clapton. He considered himself a blues musician and wasn’t happy with what he considered to be lowering himself to sub-three-minute rock songs. So he quit and had a pretty good career; he recorded “Sunshine of Your Love” and “White Room” with Cream, “Layla” with Derek and the Dominoes, and countless songs solo.

As for the Yardbirds, they struck gold once by finding a legendary guitarist. Who in the world could they possibly find to replace him?

Jeff Beck — “Beck’s Bolero”

Rolling Stone named Eric Clapton the second-best guitarist of all time, and since Jimi Hendrix hadn’t hit the big time yet that meant the Yardbirds were forced to downgrade, settling for Rolling Stone’s fifth-greatest guitar player of all time.

After asking around the London music scene, they settled on a guy named Jeff Beck. He wasn’t their first choice but he’d have to do. Just two days after Clapton quit, Beck played his first show with the band.

During Beck’s tenure they strayed from their blues roots to be the godfathers of British psychedelic rock, epitomized by “Heart Full of Soul.” Since this all came before the Beatles transitioned to the genre with “Rain,” that technically meant the Beatles ripped off the Yardbirds.

Eventually, though, all good things must come to an end, and Samwell-Smith quit the band to be a producer. Dreja, the rhythm guitarist, was willing to move to bass, but that meant they’d need a second guitar player who could stand with Jeff Beck.

Since Beck is the fifth-best guitarist ever, and the second-best had already quit, that meant there were only two people who could hold their standard. What are the odds one of them would be available?

Jimmy Page — “She Just Satisfies”

How about the third-best guitar player of all time? Would that work?

Yes, that’s right. Over their history the Yardbirds had three of the top five best guitarists ever to play in their lineup. Not only that, but Page and Beck were in the band at the same time. Page was the guy who recommended Beck in the first place. Unfortunately, they only recorded a single, a B-side and a milkshake commercial with the Beck/Page lineup. But the B-side to their single, 1966’s “Psycho Daisies,” is recognized as one of the templates for what would become punk rock.

Pretty soon Jeff Beck left the band to move to San Francisco and be with his girlfriend Mary Hughes, who starred in some regrettable beach party movies, leaving Page as the only guitarist.

By 1968 Clapton’s new band Cream was making psychedelic rock popular, which should have been good for the band, but Relf and McCarty were bored with that and wanted to do music inspired by classical and folk. Page was also bored with that and looking to do something heavier. Dreja decided he would rather be a photographer. So the band broke up.

Led Zeppelin — “Whole Lotta Love”

Oh, but that’s not all. There’s an epilogue.

After the Yardbirds broke up, Jimmy Page decided to put together the New Yardbirds. He brought on a then-unknown singer named Robert Plant, who in turn brought his childhood friend John Bonham to play drums. A session musician who’d played bass and keyboards for the Old Yardbirds named John Paul Jones heard they were putting the band back together and offered his services.

The New Yardbirds went on a tour of Scandinavia before Dreja sent a cease and desist order claiming he had the rights to the name, so rather than fight it, the new band just started going by something else: Led Zeppelin.

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