The Yardbirds (1963-1968) were an important English supergroup that also proved to be an important catalyst for the careers of Cream and Led Zeppelin. In addition, they helped to launch the solo careers of guitarists Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton. The original lineup was fronted by guitarist/vocalist Keith Reif and featured guitarists Chris Dreja and Anthony Topham, bassist Paul Samwell-Smith, and drummer Jim McCarty. The Yardbirds assumed a residency at The Crawdaddy Club when The Rolling Stones left to tour with Bo Diddley. Topham soon left the band and guitarist Eric Clapton joined. Clapton shared a passion with the other Yardbirds in playing the Delta and Chicago blues style. Their most popular cover was Howlin’ Wolf’s “Smokestack Lightning.” The band received a break when it was asked to back up Delta blues star Sonny Boy Williamson II. Eric Clapton recalled asking Sonny Boy, “Isn’t your real name Rice Miller? At which point he (Sonny Boy) pulled out a small penknife and glared at me. It went downhill from there.” At this time, The Beatles were becoming a worldwide sensation and The Rolling Stones were discovering America. The Yardbirds were now one of the most popular blues bands around London. The Yardbirds approached session guitarist Jimmy Page about joining the band when he would frequently sit in with them. In 1965, they recorded “For Your Love,” a big hit in England and America. However, Clapton became disillusioned with the band’s desire to write pop hits and he realized that his real love was playing the blues. He soon left to join John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, and would go on to create the supergroup Cream.
“For Your Love” written by Graham Gouldman
Graham Gouldman, future member of the band 10CC, wrote this song inspired by The Beatles. He then decided to offer it to The Yardbirds to record. The Yardbirds released “For Your Love” in 1965 as a catchy pop single that immediately did well on the British charts. However, it had a lot of competition from the British Invasion, which was in full swing. Bassist Paul Samwell-Smith was really pushing The Yardbirds into a more commercial direction, but Eric Clapton had misgivings with the song and its overall pop direction.
The Yardbirds recorded the song, augmented with Brian Auger on harpsichord, which was kind of a strange sound for a pop song. Eric Clapton and Chris Dreja added guitar parts only on the double-time middle section. “For Your Love” had a psychedelic meets pop sound and was a complete departure from the previous blues sound of The Yardbirds. Paul Samwell-Smith produced the song and made all of the creative decisions in the studio. “For Your Love” was the first Yardbirds tune to make the charts, but by that time, Eric Clapton had left the band.
Clapton’s replacement was the young guitar phenomenon, Jeff Beck. The band continued to write pop tunes, only now with a strong psychedelic edge. Beck played well but proved to be professionally unreliable. The Yardbirds went through some lineup changes and again Jimmy Page was asked to join the band. Page was reluctant at first, but agreed to join as the bassist to replace Paul Samwell-Smith. Jeff Beck remained as the lead guitar player because the idea of two great guitar players was irresistible to him (he knew it only a matter of time until Page switched to guitar). The Yardbirds soon featured both guitarists Beck and Page with Chris Dreja playing bass. However, it didn’t take long for Beck to become disinterested in The Yardbirds. Page was able to keep the band focused, but after a disastrous American tour in 1966, Beck was asked to leave.
“Beck’s Bolero” by Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page
inspired by Maurice Ravel’s Bolero
Because no official recordings exist of Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page playing together in The Yardbirds, Jeff Beck’s 1966 recording of “Beck’s Bolero” had significant importance. The song was originally created as the B-side of a single, and was first released in 1966. When Beck included it on his 1968 album titled Truth, it sounded as modern as it did when it was recorded two years earlier. The bassist on “Beck’s Bolero” was supposed to be The Who’s John Entwistle, but he never showed for the recording session. Instead, John Paul Jones was recruited at the last minuet. The drummer for the session was the legendary Keith Moon (also of The Who) and the great Nicky Hopkins played piano on the track. Beck later commented that “it’s a bit of The Who, a bit of The Yardbirds, and a bit of me.”
On this recording, Jeff Beck played with his signature melodic fluidity. When this was combined with Jimmy Page’s equally strong rhythmic sense, it produced one of the classic guitar recordings in rock history. The end of “Beck’s Bolero” also featured one of the first times that backward guitar parts were created through tape manipulation and utilized in a rock composition. Previously known for his unbridled energy, Moon directed his approach toward the song’s repeating rhythmic figure with his march-like snare drum accompaniment. Later, in the recording, Moon played a furious fill that led into the energetic B section of the song. This landmark track was one of rock’s first great instrumental recordings.
“Beck’s Bolero” marked one of the first times that a rock musician would create a combination of the thematic material from a classical work (inspired by composer Maurice Ravel’s “Bolero”) with the raw energy of rock ‘n’ roll. It also marked a very significant milestone in the history of British rock ‘n’ roll. “Beck’s Bolero” revealed a high a level of musicianship in a progressive rock style with its shifting time signatures, powerful guitar riffs and solos and innovative rhythmic feel. And remember that this song came before the bands Cream and The Jimi Hendrix Experience and The Beatles album Revolver.
The musician’s assembled for Beck’s album Truth and “Beck’s Bolero” track proved to be one of the great supergroups that never was. Beck and Page spoke about creating a permanent band with Keith Moon, John Entwistle, and Nicky Hopkins. The only problem would be who would be the lead vocalist. After considering the difficulty of acquiring singers such as Steve Winwood, Paul McCartney, or Steve Marriott, they put the idea of a new supergroup to rest (this would pave the way for Page to form a whole other band).
Jimmy Page assumed leadership of The Yardbirds and soon hired Peter Grant (later manager of Led Zeppelin) to manage the band. After numerous tours and some commercial success, The Yardbirds were finished by 1968. Page remembered, “I tried desperately to keep the band together. The group was almost ashamed of the very name (The Yardbirds), though I don’t know why. We were a great band.” The Yardbirds were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992. Jeff Beck was also inducted as a solo artist in 2009.