It was occasionally said in the distant past that getting on in your career wasn’t so much a question of what you knew as who you knew. It’s a small injustice of the 1960s that The Yardbirds, though having known a thing or two, are indeed still more famed for their storied personnel – their band at separate times included Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page – than for their own recorded output.
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Despite the band’s graduates having sold millions of classic rock albums with music rooted in the British blues boom, the body of work on which these careers were built was only intermittently classic. During their brief career (1963-1968), the Yardbirds were predominantly known as a reliable live turn, early manager Giorgio Gomelsky privileging their bookings over their time in the studio. With its re-compilations of singles and US variants, their catalogue, following the not-misleadingly titled Five Live Yardbirds is like their era: headspinning and confusing, and not always in a good way.
The tension between studio and live was something the band brought to their first studio album. Yardbirds singles had shown a willingness to experiment (the Paul Samwell-Smith-produced For Your Love from 1965 was musically interesting to the point of alienating Eric Clapton; Heart Full Of Soul a cool raga rocker). Now, under the guidance of Samwell-Smith, the band turned an inclination towards monastic group vocals into a trademark (Over Under Sideways Down), and this sense of import into heavy and meaningful tracks such as Turn Into Earth and Ever Since The World Began. It’s a feel which is interestingly at odds with the hard-raving live group who also present Hot House Of Omagararshid and Jeff’s Boogie.
If you’ve seen the bit in Antonioni’s Blow-Up, recorded in the later, fleeting Beck/Page incarnation of the Yardbirds, where they play Stroll On at the Ricky Tick, you’ll have an idea of the band’s live potential. Much of that brooding menace is present here, Beck’s guitar as unstable as the group’s lineup: a lightning flash of tone, feedback and the mood in the room. On The Nazz Are Blue, a fairly trad blues on which Beck also sings, he’s poised for an epic solo but, when the time comes for him to take off, he alights on a single note that he leaves feeding back, like a daring remark no-one’s sure how to respond to.
Released within sight of Revolver and Pet Sounds, Aftermath and Small Faces, Yardbirds is good but not quite as good. Stellar guitarists notwithstanding, there’s always a sense, with their schoolboy cartoons (by bassist Chris Dreja) and jokey sleevenotes (from drummer Jim McCarty) that The Yardbirds were playing quite their own, vaguely amateurish and eccentric game. Clearly the group were picking up composition and production on the hoof, so what’s captured here is more the thrill of the getting there, during five days of urgent creativity.
Adapting to modern perspectives, this is an album no longer being marketed as a pre-Zeppelin accessory (in which role it has historically come up short, the call and response of opener Lost Women notwithstanding), and more on its own terms. Here, amid the nice bits of vinyl, alternate tracks, a single of the Beck/Page era Happenings Ten Years Time Ago, and the stereo mix, there’s a book where Thurston Moore and Wayne Kramer from the MC5 each make claims for the album as a weirdo lodestone. No-one quite says it but there’s a sense of Velvet Underground-like transgression here at times, as if the noise will shortly bust through the fourth wall of the songs.
The reason Yardbirds is universally known as Roger The Engineer is because of that noise. Engineer Roger Cameron suggested that the band’s sound might benefit from extensive use of plate reverb, and it’s a heavy echo that gives the album much of its continuity and power. Variable as the album can be in tone – roaming from light-hearted boogie into suicidal suburbia and closing with proto-metal – there is something of short-story suspense about it. Beck’s contributions are often the wolf howling outside the door, leaving you to speculate what they might unleash were they to be let in.
It would take Jimmy Page to fully realise the potential in the Yardbirds template. Then, with the jokes removed, the songs more substantial and the tone more consistently glowering, there would be something to reckon with. As it is, Roger… is whimsical, divergent, independent-thinking and fun. Exactly the sort of club you’d want to join, in fact.