The Yardbirds – The Yardbirds: Ultimate

The Yardbirds: Ultimate

Two fallacies that invariably arise in discussions of the Yardbirds: 1) declaring them the fathers of psychedelic music and/or heavy metal; 2) focusing on their colossal lead guitar lineage at the expense of their collective personality and talent as a band. Because the important aspect to remember about the former is that, while the Yardbirds did indeed presage these and other movements, they were impossible to peg precisely because they refused categorization – putting pedal to the metal on a Bo Diddley romp one minute, incorporating Gregorian chants the next. And while it’s easy to be blinded by the fact that a single band could boast Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page in succession, each band member (bassist Paul Samwell-Smith, drummer Jim McCarty, rhythm guitarist Chris Dreja, and singer-harpist Keith Relf) was essential to the band’s sound and direction. And, man, could they play.

The element that these pioneers really brought to the fore of rock and roll was improvisation. Not that they invented the concept, but at the height of the British Invasion you had George Harrison’s Atkins-ish break in “All My Loving” (or Keith Richards’ Chuck Berry derivations on “It’s All Over Now”) one moment, and then Jeff Beck saying, “Stand back and let me rip your head off” the next. The guitarist as gunslinger, as hero, as icon – as God – was a direct result of the Yardbirds’ in-your-face attitude.

Rhino’s two-disc compendium is the closest-to-definitive collection of a band that’s been woefully under-represented on CD. Among its 52 tracks there are highlights aplenty and very few clinkers. My main frustration is that the package isn’t maybe one disc larger (Rhino recently devoted four discs to Buffalo Springfield), but producer Gary Stewart was trying to home in on the “essence” of the band, not serve up a “complete recordings,” and most of his choices are on the money. An added bonus are the extensive, insightful liner notes by the late, great Cub Koda, with various “Yardbirds Fun Facts” (of Beck’s solo on “I’m Not Talking,” the Cubmaster writes, “There are guitar players who will tell you that you can’t bend strings this far; they would be wrong.”).

In their original incarnation as blues interpreters, the Yardbirds had the rare ability to not only give a song its own stamp but often transcend and/or surpass the original source. Ignoring their worst-of-all-versions “Boom Boom” demo, which unfortunately opens this anthology, the group shows this uncanny knack on their first single, cut in March 1964. As cool as Billy Boy Arnold’s hypnotic recording of “I Wish You Would” is, the Yardbirds’ energetic cover – soaked in reverb with a mini jam session, all in 2:17 – is at least its equal.

Likewise, “I Ain’t Got You” was a so-so track in the Jimmy Reed catalog prior to it becoming the vehicle for some of Clapton’s most hair-raising early work. The then 19-year-old’s 25 seconds of aggression definitely raised the blues and rock guitar stakes.

As Koda points out, “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl” is not the Sonny Boy Williamson blues – an additional Fun Fact (#13): its source was apparently a 1961 Argo track by “Don and Bob,” whoever they were.

Here, Clapton’s fat, high-volume tone and sustain are unlike anything that had gone before – bending a single note 30 times in a row before releasing into a melodic tag, and getting out in 21 seconds flat. The effect is like he’s gliding over the locomotive groove the band is laying down underneath him. The instrumental shuffle “Got To Hurry” was Clapton’s homage to Freddie King and resulted in a call from John Mayall after Eric split the band.

Sadly, only four of the 10 songs from Five Live Yardbirds, the band’s onstage debut LP, are included. On “Smokestack Lightnin'” they again transform a blues classic (this time by Howlin’ Wolf) into something wholly their own, and introduce the “rave-up,” where they completely deviate from the song for an extensive jam. This is probably the definitive track from the group’s early period.

When Jeff Beck was enlisted in early ’65, he wasted no time in staking his claim. Clapton’s influences (B.B. and Freddie King, Chuck Berry) were clear; he just took them to the next level (and cranked his Vox AC-30 to a much higher volume). But Beck rarely resembled anyone; he was absolutely his own man, a true original. His influences (including Buddy Guy, Les Paul, and Gene Vincent sideman Cliff Gallup) were about as discernible as T-Bone Walker’s influence was in Albert King’s resultant style.

For their follow-up to “For Your Love,” the band went to the same composer, Graham Gouldman (later of 10cc), for “Heart Full of Soul.” Fun Fact #14: the band first attempted to have a sitar player they’d found in an Indian restaurant play the now-famous riff, but 4/4 time was totally foreign to him, so Beck (with the aid of his new fuzztone stompbox) simulated a sitar-like feel on guitar. The Beck period, which lasted a year and a half and comprises roughly half of Ultimate’s repertoire, was the group’s most creative. As before, the band outstripped the source (rockabilly Johnny Burnette’s Rock ‘N’ Roll Trio) with “Train Kept A-Rollin’,” featuring Jeff’s in-the-groove blues licks (and is there a more classic riff in all of rock?). The bridge to “Evil Hearted You” is one of the few times Beck sneaks in a reference to his idols – a speedy little Cliff Gallup pull-off. “Shapes of Things” serves as a worthy canvas for more Beck psychedelia. But on the group’s tour de force, Bo Diddley’s “I’m A Man,” Beck pulled out all stops, beginning with some fuzzy, sustained bends before resorting to scratching, scraping, and chicken noises – pure sound effects; again, unheard of in 1965 (and check McCarty’s kick drum work after he double-clutches the shuffle into double-time). A bonus for Yardofiles: the unedited stereo mix of “You’re a Better Man Than I” includes an additional 45 seconds.

The band’s first sessions recorded as an album, and featuring all originals, netted their high-water mark, titled Over Under Sideways Down in the States, Roger The Engineer in England. In the midst of moody, chant-based numbers like “Turn Into Earth” (with Beck’s lead sounding like it’s coming from a couple blocks away) and the splendidly surreal “Hot House of Omagararshid,” Beck inserted a couple of traditional reworkings, “The Nazz Are Blue” and “Jeff’s Boogie.” In the former, a revamp of “Dust My Broom,” he sustains a note for 10 seconds (try that at home); for the latter, based on Chuck Berry’s “Guitar Boogie,” he tips his trick-filled hat to Les Paul.

Jimmy Page, hired on bass when Samwell-Smith quit to concentrate on producing, moved to guitar (with Dreja inheriting the bass chair) when Beck had to miss some gigs in ’66. The subsequent dual-guitar Page-Beck period lasted long enough for only three songs – the psychedelic barrage “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago,” its flipside “Psycho Daisies” (sung by Beck), and a rewrite of “Train Kept A-Rollin'” for the film Blow-Up, “Stroll On.” Then Beck departed, and things changed considerably. The quintet was now a quartet, and instead of a bandmate (Paul) producing, hitmaker Mickie Most was brought onboard. While this arrangement’s one resulting album, Little Games, showed the band’s adventurous nature – from a “Rollin’ and Tumblin'” clone with Page on slide to Pagey’s violin-bow theatrics on “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sailor” – it was less organic, more contrived, and perhaps a bit self-indulgent. Page’s showcase, which he cut solo without the band’s knowledge, was the acoustic “White Summer,” a DADGAD, Indian-tinged nod to British fingerstylists such as Bert Jansch, John Renbourn, and Davy Graham. Not included is the futuristic, tape-loopy “Glimpses” and “Smile on Me,” which features some of Page’s most over-the-top blues playing.

But quibbles aside, I haven’t been able to extract this set from the CD player since its arrival. Ultimate? Not quite. Recommended? Absolutely. Thanks to Greg Russo, author of Yardbirds: The Ultimate Rave-Up (recommended reading) for his help in preparing this review. – DF

This review originally appeared in VG‘s Nov. ’01 issue.

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