In the '60s British Blues/Rock hierarchy the Rolling Stones held the top spot with the Yardbirds and Animals duking it out for No. 2. Both the Animals and Yardbirds were steeped in the Blues and used outside songwriters for their most memorable material. The Yardbirds' Keith Relf always got a bad rap as a singer but he was actually fairly good, and not an embarrassment. Clearly though, he was overshadowed by the group's guitarists. They were, in order of appearance, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page. No group before or since has had that level of talent pass through.
Eric Clapton Period
Starting as the Metropolis Blues Quartet, they soon renamed themselves the Yardbirds, with Relf, Paul Samwell-Smith (bass), Chris Dreja (rhythm guitar), Jim McCarty (drums) and Anthony "Top" Topham (guitar). The young Topham (he was only 16) didn't last long, so Relf recruited his art-college classmate Eric Clapton. With Clapton onboard the Yardbirds quickly made a name for themselves on the burgeoning London R&B circuit, eventually taking over from the Rolling Stones at the famed Crawdaddy Club.
The Yardbirds backed Blues great Sonny Boy Williamson for an album and were soon recording on their own. As exciting as "Five Live Yardbirds" was the R&B covers didn't crack the pop market in either the U.K. or U.S. The minor chord driven pop song "For Your Love" represented a major deviation. Clapton had little use for the Graham Gouldman tune and his contributions were minimal. If this was the direction the Yardbirds were headed, Clapton wanted no part of it. Soon, he was gone. His first stop was John Mayall's Bluesbreakers before forming Cream and achieving superstar status.
Jeff Beck Period
The Yardbirds asked London session guitarist Jimmy Page to replace Clapton. Though Page declined, he did recommend a little known, sometimes session guitarist, Jeff Beck. Arguably, Beck's addition launched the Yardbirds into their most creative and commercially successful period.
Using fuzz boxes and other distortion devices ("Shapes of Things"), Middle Eastern influences ("Heart Full of Soul"), bent notes, string scraping and percussive playing ("I'm A Man"), Beck practically invented an electric guitar lexicon.
The Yardbirds continued to rely on outside songwriters, especially for their hits. However, the "Roger The Engineer" album featured all original material with mixed results. Also, the group began dabbling in experimental and psychedelic music.
In mid '66, Samwell-Smith left. Page was asked again to join. Finally fed up with session work, Page signed on as the bass player. While on tour, Beck fell ill and Page subbed on guitar with Dreja moving to bass. It became apparent that was the way to go. When Beck returned, the Yardbirds had dual lead guitarists.
As the Yardbirds delved deeper into psychedelic music they released the single "Happenings Ten Years Time Ago" which despite its progressive sound failed to score commercially. Also, the Yardbirds appeared in the film "Blow Up" performing "Stroll On" (essentially a reworking of "Train Kept-A Rollin'" - a song they'd recorded earlier).
Mickie Most, who'd worked with Herman's Hermits, Lulu and other pop acts, was installed as the Yardbirds' producer and became largely responsible for the group's musical direction. A series of useless pop fodder singles followed. To add insult to injury, these lousy songs failed commercially. Meanwhile, the Yardbirds experimental tendencies were played out on B-sides and album tracks.
Beck, unhappy with the group's fortunes, decided it was time to pack it in. He soon formed the Jeff Beck Group with Rod Stewart, Ron Wood and Mickey Waller, before embarking on an exceptional Rock/Jazz fusion solo career.
Jimmy Page Period
By the late '60s, Relf and McCarty had started the acoustic oriented Renaissance. Page, left holding the bag for some concert dates, assembled the New Yardbirds. After being turned down by a handful of musicians, Page finally hooked up with John Paul Jones, Robert Plant and John Bonham. Following the New Yardbirds' Scandinavian tour this line-up became Led Zeppelin.
1965 For Your Love
1965 Having A Rave Up
1966 Yardbirds (aka Roger The Engineer)
1966 Over Under Sideways Down
1967 Little Games
1964 Five Live Yardbirds
1966 Sonny Boy Williamson and The Yardbirds
The Yardbirds output has been mercilessly re-packaged. However, there are three compilations worth noting. "Greatest Hits" covers the Clapton (a live version of "Smokestack Lightening") and the early Beck ("Shapes of Things") periods though it omits most of the Yardbirds' experimental endeavors. Many Yardbirds' innovations re-appeared in both the Jeff Beck Group and Led Zeppelin, and from there went into general usage. "Blues, Backtracks and Shapes of Things" is another excellent option. "The Yardbirds," covers a lot of ground from the fairly straight-ahead "Jeff's Boogie' to the outlandish "Hot House of Omagarashid." It doesn't have the hits but digs deeper into the group's catalog. "Five Live Yardbirds," with Clapton, best illustrates the group's Blues influences.