LIST OF YARDBIRDS REVIEWS:
Five Live Yardbirds (1964)
It's such a weird thing that The Yardbirds' first album was a live one. Have you ever heard of that happening before? Maybe it has, but probably not to a band that's as much of a household name as The Yardbirds. (What, aren't The Yardbirds a frequent topic at your family's dinner table?) If a band's first album is live, it must've meant they had a legendary live presence. And, indeed, I believe they did; they knew how to generate some rabble-rousing momentum with the best of them. But were they as good as The Rolling Stones? I think not. But if you want to get a full picture of what the British R&B scene from the early '60s was like, you would never be able to ignore The Yardbirds; they were a force to be reckoned with.
This album gets the distinction of being the first in the history of mankind to feature Eric Clapton. Or Eric “Slowhand” Clapton, as he is introduced right at the beginning of the first track. He was an inexperienced, 18-year-old sprat back then, so don't be too taken aback when I say I'm not especially taken with his guitaring abilities... For the most part, he seems to be trying to play as fast as he could, which comes across like a blur through much of this somewhat crudely recorded set. Although I can't exactly scoff at his entertaining, show-offey solo during their performance of Eddie Boyd's “Five Long Years.” I also wonder how the hell he made those frenzied scratchy noises throughout “Here 'Tis.” (Come to think of it, I don't know why I assume that was him. That could have been the rhythm guitar. So, please correct me if you know better!) The remaining, less world-famous band-mates included Chris Dreja on rhythm guitar, Paul “Sam” Samwell-Smith on bass guitar, Keith Relf on lead vocals and harmonica, and Jim McCarty on drums. The latter two individuals would eventually form my favorite post-Yardbirds band called Renaissance! (Led Zeppelin can bite me.)
I like their cover of Sonny Boy Williamson's “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl” just because it makes me want to dance. Were people in the audience dancing? They'd better have been! The opening number, Chuck Berry's “Too Much Monkey Business,” was a massively energetic way to get the ball rolling, and I find it to be a nice 'n' catchy little song to boot. “Pretty Girl” is much the same. “Louise” is more mid-tempo and gets a nice, ol smokey R&B groove going, and I like Relf's harmonica! Although I can hear him playing an incorrect note at the beginning of Ellas McDaniel's “I'm a Man.”
Oh, I'm not going to talk about every song here. The days I talk about every song in album reviews are behind me now. I will at least mention these days you can buy this album loaded with all sorts of bonus tracks, which must be utterly priceless to their major fans. Most intriguingly, it contains four live recordings from December 1963--enjoyable versions of “You Can't Judge a Book By Looking at the Cover,” Chuck Berry's “Let it Rock,” Billy Boy Arnold's “I Wish You Would,” and Ellas McDaniel's “Who Do You Love?” Understandably, the recording quality is even sketchier there than it is the main album, but let's just feel fortunate these things exist. The other bonus tracks are early studio singles, one of which is *gasp* an original by Keith Relf called “Honey in Your Hips.” It's such an 'original' that it could have been a cover for all I knew, but it's hardly terrible. “A Certain Girl” sticks in my mind the most of anything--even though it's in the bonus tracks--because it has a catchy melody and features some playful call-and-response style vocals and some great fuzz guitar that's well incorporated into its groove. The other studio tracks are take-'em-or-leave-'em; among them is a studio version of “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl,” which doesn't generate near the energy the live cut did.
So here's the rating I'll give this album: 11/15. If you're a huge fan of old-timey rhythm and blues, feel free to raise that rating a notch. There was a time I could hardly stomach this stuff, but now it has grown on me so much that I actually enjoy it. But I still don't claim that R&B 'runs through my veins,' so to speak. I know if I met Eric Clapton in 1963, he woulda been like 'forget that guy.'
For Your Love (1965)
I talked about many of these songs already, because they appeared in the bonus tracks of Five Live Yardbirds. I'm so brand spanking new to these Yardbirds albums, I didn't even notice that was coming! I guess if you're going to be a Yardbirds fan and you want their deluxe CD packages, you'd better be prepared for repeat songs on your iPod.
Perhaps this song-repeat syndrome is a side-effect of how awfully screwed up The Yardbirds' discography was. This album, for instance, is not really an "album"; rather, it is a compilation of singles that were assembled by the band manager. That's usually seen as a negative, but The Yardbirds were such a fine singles act that this compilation is miles better than most real "albums" were in 1965. Perhaps more selfishly--as a hobbyist reviewer--I'm glad to be listening to a product from 1965 instead of some lame-ass box-set from 1999.
This compilation (as well as their following album/singles-compilation, Having a Rave-Up) shows the band in the weird transition period between having Eric Clapton and his replacement, Jeff Beck. Clapton, as the legend goes, strongly objected to the POP direction the band was going, so he quit. (I guess it's a good thing the laws of space and time didn't allow him to catch a glimpse of those albums he'd release in the '80s with Phil Collins. He would've stabbed himself, probably.) You'll hear Beck on “I'm Not Talking,” “I Ain't Done Wrong,” and “My Girl Sloopy,” and Clapton is heard on the rest. The guitar throughout is excellent, naturally. Neither of them were quite to guitar-god status, but they were well on their way.
So why don't I talk about the songs? “For Your Love” is absolutely golden. If you don't like that song, then you also don't like breathing. It was the first step The Yardbirds took away from R&B, and what a top-notch step it was (despite Clapton's weird objections)! It has an ominous harpsichord playing large chords while a maniacal bongo drum flutters around like some kind of hyperactive bumblebee. It also has a melodic hook; it's a simple but brilliant hook, the kind that grabs you and shakes you. It'll also make you dance, particularly if you're a go-go dancer. ...Yup, the thing was very hip in 1965, and it should have been. Its composer, by the way, is Graham Gouldman, who would later form 10cc. (Coincidence or not, I got my first 10cc album in the mail today. I should've taken a polaroid of myself opening the package.)
I would like to continue to profess my fondness for “A Certain Girl.” I mean, that fuzz guitar so awesome and powerful and that call-and-response melody is a whole lotta fun. Besides, Clapton lets his electric guitar RIP in that; it's worth it for that alone. This album also has the very, very, very tight R&B rocker called “I'm Not Talking,” which is vintage Yardbirds at its best. That tight groove might be the best place to enjoy early Jeff Beck--those tight acrobatics he does are tantalizing. “Putty (In Your Hands)” uses a riff that's been used approximately one billion times by 1965, but who cares when it's entertaining when The Yardbirds do it? I also like "I Wish You Would," which has a fuzz guitar that seems so HUGE and yet so tight that it's rendered a real powerhouse of a song. And you know what else? Keith Relf plays a flowery harmonica there. He does that through most of the album, actually. For sure, he wasn't the best harmonica player around--and not even the best lead singer--but he hits solid notes. Thus, I won't bother complaining about him.
Relf also wrote a very fine original called “I Ain't Done Wrong,” which has a powerful riff and drums that make stomping noises at you. “I Ain't Got You” is probably my least favorite, but I still like it due to its excellent R&B guitar. ...So let's just call everything on this "album" good! I mean, it's not as good as a Beatles album, but that doesn't matter; this is The Yardbirds. We can acknowledge that they were far from perfect, but we'd also have to acknowledge that rock 'n' roll would not have been the same without 'em.
So, now that my fanboy drivel is nearly through, I'll put this album on the weaker spectrum of a 12/15. I would recommend this album not only for its history--the chance to hear early Clapton and Beck--but also for its good songs.
You'll also notice there are a plethora of bonus tracks on the CD rerelease of this album that consists mostly of demos (I decided against assigning ratings to them on account of not wanting to.) I'd wager the most recommended of them is an early Jeff Beck original, a slow R&B tune called “Steeled Blues.” It uses a generic chord progression, but the guitar playing is smooth and delicious.
Having a Rave Up (1965)
This was The Yardbirds' third official release, and they had yet to release an actual album. That's strange, considering--especially by 1965--it was the thing for pop bands to assemble albums. What we got instead was a compilation of 10 tracks. Six of these tracks were singles and the remaining four were live cuts recycled from Five Live Yardbirds. (Naturally, the 21st Century compact disc reissues are loaded with a plethora of greatly appreciated bonus tracks and glossy liner notes.) Perhaps even more strange is that The Yardbirds, even without releasing albums, still were considered one of the top-tier groups of the era. They were probably even more influential than The Rolling Stones were. (And I'm saying this even though I worship The Rolling Stones, but that band didn't really start blooming until 1966, and it's not a stretch of the imagination whatsoever to assume that The Yardbirds helped give them a boost.)
And maybe it's also true that these singles were said to be a direct predecessor of psychedelic music, and Jeff Beck's explosive guitar playing is said to have done more than anyone to inspire the most explosive guitar player there ever was: Jimi Hendrix? In that sense, anyone into collecting historically important albums is required to collect this one. But more than that, I think it should be collected because it has six freaking fantastic songs on it. If you also include the bonus tracks, which you should, then there are a whole lotta fantastic songs on this. A selection from the bonus tracks is “Shapes of Things,” and it's sort of difficult to picture what the psychedelic movement would have been without it. It was also written by band members, which the band was slowly getting accustomed to doing. Most of the other songs here were original, but they came from outside songwriters.
If you can listen to “The Train Kept A-Rollin'” and not feel its sheer power trying to rip through your stomach like that scene in Alien, then you might have to ask yourself: What's the point of life? (Or maybe you're really not that into pop-rock.) If you listen to the 1951 original, it's mind boggling to me how they managed to extract that piping hot riff from it. I am also infatuated with that opening, wailing guitar-line at the beginning and some of that harmonica in the middle that mimes the sound of an actual train. The lead vocals are also interesting in that we hear two lead voices singing at the same time who don't seem to pay much attention to what the other is doing. ...That does come off as messy, but I like it: It convincingly adds to the unruly spirit of the thing. We also hear a more distortion-heavy version of that riff in “Stroll On” in the bonus tracks, so be sure to check that out as well. Another excellent addition to the original album is the studio version of “I'm a Man.” Oddly enough they also included the live version of that song, so we get to know directly from the source which version we like better. For me, it's handily the crisper and tighter studio cut. I mean, that heart-thumping drum beat comes in clear as a bell!
The most well-regarded song of the lot is “Mr. You're a Better Man Than I,” which is a bit of pop. Otherwise known as the reason Eric Clapton left the band. But he was a fool for doing so: What an excellent song! Its melody is brilliant, the rhythm is dark and driving, and it's peppered with a distortion-ridden guitar solo from Jeff Beck. Additionally, there are two songs here written by Graham Gouldman (who had previously written The Yardbirds' mega-hit “For Your Love”). The first is “Evil Hearted You,” which--perhaps appropriately--is orchestrated with dark tones. (I mean, listen to that utterly stinging tone that opens up the song.) That's interesting since, surely, the vast majority of bands of this era wouldn't have orchestrated such a pop song as such. I could also imagine that as a fluffy but legitimately strong hit for a band like The Dave Clarke Five. Gouldman also wrote “Heart Full of Soul,” which is more standard pop-rock, but the melody once again is fantastic. There are also a few interesting things going on there: It's characterized by some frantic bongo drums, a ghostly (and mightily psychedelic) voice in the background, and strong Jeff Beck licks.
Is this review already over? Should I talk more about the bonus tracks? The important bonus track here was of course “The Shapes of Things,” which wasn't included on the original release because it hadn't been written yet. Otherwise, it's loaded with a bunch of instrumental jams, which I do actually enjoy listening to quite a bit, but I realize that they're not especially substantial. Although they're heaven for big fans of the electric guitar. My favorites are the distortion-heavy solos we get in the instrumental versions of “Someone to Love” and “Here 'Tis.” So to conclude, let's give Having a Rave-Up its well deserved 13/15, and let's get on with our days.
Roger the Engineer (1966)
At long last, The Yardbirds not only got to release a bona fide studio album, but they got to record an album with all original material in it. And--no!--they didn't even have to rely on outside songwriters to give them material; this album was written wholly by band members. The only problem was this: Comparing the unstoppable quality of the singles from their previous LP, Having a Rave Up, it's pretty clear the band was well past their peak. This album also shows the band in a bit of a flustered state as they genre-hop so relentlessly in this album that it becomes disorienting. Some of these songs are their old-school brand of 12-bar blues, others are cutesy pop music, and others are bizarro psychedelia. (And that is, psychedelia before that was even a thing.) But just because this album is confusing, it doesn't mean these songs aren't all fantastic!
The opener “Lost Woman” is a terrific, rabble rousing bit of R&B. The melody is generic, but the instrumentalist play it with such ferocity that it's difficult to keep myself from tapping my foot to it. Of course, it's required I mention there that Jeff Beck experiments with feedback noise on his electric guitar and--in the song's second half--starts playing that thing as though it were ON FIRE. The sound he produced there, of course, helped invent heavy metal. It wasn't such a huge step from that to what one of this band's offshoots--Led Zeppelin--would be doing a few years later.
Of course I'm going to be the one who always goes for the pop-rock songs, and they give me a great one with “Over Under Sideways Down.” The melody is hooky, and the instrumentals are joyously upbeat with a fun pop-rock drum beat, chugging harmonica, a catchy fuzz-guitar riff, and the band screaming “Hey!” in the background. There is also some psychedelia (or I guess proto-psychedelia) infused in small portions of that song where we hear Keith Relf sing in a droning manner “Whennn will it endddd....” while Beck plays some long, dreary notes in the background. More excellent songs of the pop-variety include the pleasant head-bopper “I Can't Make Your Way” (which reminds me of The Beatles' “I Should Have Known Better” except it spent the last few years drunk and homeless in the streets).
“The Nazz is Blue” features none other than Jeff Beck on lead vocals, which is interesting considering that he'd rarely ever sing lead vocals in his solo career. Anyway, that's a furious bit of blues that's mightily entertaining to listen to, but it's certainly fair to throw the term 'generic' at it. You can also accuse “Jeff's Boogie” of being generic, because it is based on a very standard blues chord progression. However, the guitar playing throughout is dazzling and inventive. (Oh, guitar worshipers: Come one and all and dissect what Beck does here! ...What do I know about any of this?)
One song that I have a particular blast listening to “Hot House of Omargararshid,” and that's just because I find it goofy. It has a pretty danceable and snappy bongo-based beat with some kind of wobbly instrument that sounds like somebody's wiggling around a saw. And then there are no lead vocals to speak of apart from a choir of men singing “Yah, yah, yah!” Another interesting song is a creepy ballad called “Turn into Earth,” with a subdued and dark drumbeat and ghostly, mystical vocals. You can also hear Beck noodling around in the background although he's lost in all that mist so listen closely for him.
Oh, and as if The Yardbirds being credited to helping created Led Zeppelin, Cream, Jeff Beck's solo career, and Renaissance wasn't enough, they were also said to have helped create Black Sabbath in just two, measly minutes of first half of “Ever Since the World Began.” You'll have to listen to it to hear it, if you don't believe me.
Anyway, even though Roger the Engineer is usually considered far too scattershot and unfocused to be one of the top-tiered albums of 1966, it was nevertheless an important album released that year. However, I wouldn't get this album just because it's important. I'd get it because it makes a fun and--occasionally--surprising listen. 12/15
Wait! Don't go just yet! There are songs in the bonus tracks that you have to hear. “Happenings Ten Years Ago” and “Psycho Daises” feature the sort of 'changing of the guards' between Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page; both of these legendary guitarists are featured on lead there. The former song especially has a riff that is both catchy and FURIOUSLY played. (The latter is kind of a generic blues song, but these axeman still really let it rip there.) The bonus tracks also come with a bunch of engaging art-rock songs from Keith Relf that feature such things as harpsichords, pianos, and oboes. They even are written with chord progressions inspired by classical music, even though some of them come off a bit awkward. (...Hm! It sounds like he was starting to sow the seeds for Renaissance!)