The Yardbirds: Over, Under, Sideways Down
Interviews, and introduction by Daniel Coston
Originally published by The Big Takeover Magazine, winter 2005
If you’re reading this magazine, chances are you’re already a Yardbirds fan, or know full well about the influence that this band has had in the last forty years. Beginning in the Richmond area near London in 1963, the band produced three legendary guitarists (Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page) in succession, and put their mark on the merging or rock, blues, and later psychedelia.
Upon the band’s break-up in 1968, Page and later Yardbirds manager Peter Grant put together Led Zeppelin, a band whose ties to the Yardbirds are still a point of contention among many fans. This includes the Zeppelin song “Dazed And Confused,” which began life as a Yardbirds song, and its inclusion on later Yardbirds live recordings have allowed Page to suppress the release of further Yardbirds recordings from the 1968 period.
Having reformed in 1995 with original members Jim McCarty (drums) and Chris Dreja (guitar), the Yardbirds have taken flight again, playing all over the world and produced the new album Birdland (2003), an album that features songs from their past, as well as new songs that stand on their own. Simply put, you can’t have the last forty years of rock music without discussing the Yardbirds, and it is a story that is still in motion.
Taken from a lengthy interview with McCarty, as well as short interviews with Dreja and current vocalist/bassist John Idan, this is the story that begins in the present, with a new lineup that, as Idan pointed out, “has lasted twice as long as the original band.”
BT: How did this new version of the Yardbirds begin?
Jim McCarty: I’d run into [original Yardbirds guitarist] Top Topham again in the late ‘80s, and he told me that he’d gotten the bug again, and he said, “How’d you fancy doing a blues band?” And I said, “Not really,” (laughs) because I had been doing other things, but he kept on me, so I eventually said, “All right, let’s see how we go.” [Topham] was working at this music shop in Soho London, and one day John came in. He was on some trip from Detroit.
We didn’t play the Yardbirds hits then, we just played like “Smokestack Lightning,” things from the old era. It just got bigger and bigger. And that went on for five years.
Chris [Dreja] would come down to the pub to see us, as did Paul Samwell-Smith, Jeff Beck. They wouldn’t particularly play, they would just come in and watch. Bill Wyman, Phil May, they’d come down. We suddenly had this ball rolling, and then Top left the band.
John Idan: We actually continued without Top for two years.
McCarty: (to Idan) He’s a bit odd, isn’t he? He kinda goes both hot and cold. But then Chris got involved, and we did that reunion thing at the 100 Club [in 1995].
And then Chris and I got a call from this agent in Lancashire, and he was already booking out the Animals, with John Steel and Hilton Valentine, and he said, “Why don’t you reform the Yardbirds? Play a few festivals, and see how it goes.”
BT: How important was it to make the new record?
Idan: It was the crucial point. We were like, “If we can’t do this, then there really isn’t amy point. Because we had proved up to that point that we could play any of venue, and play those songs effectively. And we gotten to the point of coming up with something to take it an extra step further. “Can we make a new record that sounds like what a new Yardbirds record should sound?”
Chris Dreja: If you see us, you’ll know that we’re a high-energy, kick-ass rock and roll band. We’’re not the sort of a band that you lean against the bar and listen to. You’ve got to deliver this music, and it takes over.
We’ve got a new album, and we’re gonna play material off of that, and I think every night, especially now with [new guitarist] Jerry Donahue, the arrangements are never gonna stay quite the same.
BT: Starting out, what was it about the sound of the blues that attracted you, as well as other members of the Yardbirds?
McCarty: It was the excitement. It had a certain emotion about it. I think the first time I heard R&B, per se, was Paul Samwell-Smith. He used to come in and out of the school group. He had an electric guitar he’d bring in. I think he played a Fender Strat, or something, and it was one of the first Fender Strats to come over to England. And I bumped into him one day, and he said, “Come ‘round and listen to this Jimmy Reed Live At Carnegie Hall, and that the first time that I heard something that seemed to cross over rock and roll, and blues. All that excitement, emotion and grit to it.
BT: Being that it was from America, did that add to the mysterious nature of the music?
McCarty: Oh yeah. American culture was something really special to us. Loads of films and TV shows, and all that cool thing about America was great when you were a teenager. It was also something that looked really abundant. Sunshine, cars and girls, over under, sideways down! (laughs)
BT: Did that song have a lot of the vibe that you first got from America?
McCarty: Yeah. First of all, it was loosely based on Bill Haley, “Rock Around The Clock,” that sort of a boogie. I think what happened was, we used to go to gigs, and there was a guy called Paul Raven that used to have a rock and roll show on the radio. And we always used to listen to that on the way to gigs, and they used to play a lot of boogie stuff. And we just thought it’d be great to do something based around a boogie.
Actually, it was Jeff Beck that had a lot to do with it, because he played the bass on it. We just did like an original take with the bass and the drums, and we built it up from there. And then just singing about a decadent way of life. (laughs)
BT: How did the rest of the Yardbirds come together?
McCarty: Paul and I had been in school, and we’d been in the school band, or whatever version of the school band there was. We’d always been pretty matey, and always had that in common. And then we left school, and then I bumped into Paul later. He got involved with a group of people that used to hang out at a pub in Kingston, in Surrey. That’s another place that’s near Richmond, and it was a beatnik-type pub. He met Keith Relf there, and there were a lot of people that went to this pub that were from the arts school. People like Chris [Dreja], that went to arts school in England, which was like an education stream where people could sort of drop out from doing regular grammar school studies, and study art, or painting.
So Keith and Chris were from art school, and Paul and I were from the high school, and Paul got into this scene that was mainly composed of art school people. So they formed a country blues group, and we all used to go and watch the [Rolling] Stones when they started at the Richmond Crawdaddy. And then we got more into the records, and it was though somebody that I met Chris and Top Topham, and they were friends from Kingston art school, Chris and Top. And they were thinking of forming another band, an R&B band, that would play in the interval between Keith’s band. It was quite funny.
We did a couple of gigs in that Kingston area, and then Paul and Keith said that they wanted to change their band. They wanted to go more rocky, they didn’t want to play country blues anymore. They wanted to play in the more exciting setup, so they suggested that we all join up, and that’s how we formed the original Yardbirds.
The first show in the interval with Phil Davis, who was a harmonica player that played really rocky blues. We managed to play a few numbers in his interval spot. He was playing at Eel Pie Island. And he liked us, and he said he had a regular gig in Harrow. Funny enough, it was in a pub where the Who started off. He said he couldn’t make the gig there the next week, and he wondered if we could do it. So that was actually our first headline gig.
BT: Did you know early on that this was something that was gonna go on for a while?
McCarty: It was all very exciting, and it always seemed like it was gonna be popular because people seemed to be very interested. And whenever we played, there was always a great reaction, and it sort of spread, because we found more and more gigs to play, and then we ended up playing every night of the week.
And then, around that time, Keith and Paul approached Georgio Gomelsky, who ran the Crawdaddy Club. Because the Stones were giving up their residency and going on to a big nationwide tour. And he was looking for another band, so Georgio came down to see us, and immediately signed us up to play [the Stones’] residency.
BT: At what point did Top bow out of the band?
McCarty: We started the residency, and then we started building all these shows, mainly around London. Some of the gigs were all-night things.
But at the same time, Top was trying to keep up his art studies, and his parents really wanted him to keep on doing his studies. They didn’t really approve of the band, and they put pressure on him to leave, so he had to leave. And that’s when Clapton came in.
BT: Did you all know of Clapton beforehand?
McCarty: It was only really Keith that knew Eric. Maybe Chris a bit, but Keith mainly knew him, and he had bit of a reputation as a guitar player. He’d already played in a couple of bands, and he was at the same art school that they went to in Kingston. And so, Keith invited him down for an audition. So that went really well, so we went from there.
BT: Did you all get on pretty well at this point?
McCarty: Yeah. We all used to hang out. We all had the love of the music, and we all had a funny sense of humor, and I suppose that we were all pulling birds, and things. (laughs) Everyone except me, they all got a flat near Richmond. I didn’t, actually, ‘cause I was still living at home with my mum. They used to get up to all sorts of things. (laughs)
But the more we went on, there was a division between Eric and Paul. We were all from a more lower-class background, but Paul used to think he was more of a bit middle-class background, ‘cause he had “Paul Samwell-Smith” and all that, it was more of an upper class name. Hyphenated name. And he was a bit of a snob, and didn’t really gel well with Eric.
Eric really, I guess, had quite a lot of hang-ups about his background, and also the fact that he was brought up by his grandparents, because his mother and father were separated. I think his father was in the Services, I don’t know the exact background of it.
BT: Was that something that came out more and more when you were traveling?
McCarty: Yeah, when you’re traveling together, and there’s all egos going on. And we were all quite young, all of these things were starting to grate. And that really was one of the main reasons behind him leaving, because when we did “For Your Love,” we were really looking for a hit song. A lot of the other contemporary bands had had hit songs. The Animals, the Moody Blues, and obviously the Beatles and the Stones. So we were looking for a song that would make a hit.
I don’t know whether Eric really didn’t like the song, or he didn’t like the way it was done, because Paul really sort of took over, and said, “I’ve got an idea how to do this song, and we should do it with a harpsichord, and a bowed bass.” Because originally the demo, which was done by the writer, Graham Gouldman, came over to our manager Georgio, and he played it to us, and we thought, “Oh, this is good, because it’s quite unusual. It’s got that time change in the middle.”
BT: Were you surprised when Eric left [in early 1965]?
McCarty: Not really, because he’d become very moody, and he was obviously very unhappy. And he’d suggested various songs to record, as well. We tried various things to try and get us hits, things like “Wish You Would” and “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl.” But they were never really hits, they really weren’t commercial enough. And “For Your Love” is obviously very commercial. And even though it was away from the blues, we all seemed to like it, but Eric took more of a purist sense about it.
BT: When you listen back to that period of the band, say, Five Live Yardbirds (1964), what comes to mind?
McCarty: It was just all very exciting. I just remember the atmosphere. Going into the recording studio was very difficult to get any level of excitement, so that’s why we plumbed for something like “For Your Live,” because it really wasn’t a blues song. Because playing blues in the recording studio just sounded so tame. And so, the best idea was do a live recording, where at least some excitement down. And there was always a great atmosphere at the Marquee. It was always really sweaty, with everybody jumping around, and everyone packed in. And I think that came over on the record.
BT: When “For Your Love” became a hit, how did things change for you and the band?
McCarty: It changed dramatically, because up until then, we’d only really been playing around London. All of a sudden, we were playing all over the country, and we’d on these nationwide tours. These used to be tours that go ‘round in cinemas, and there’d be half a dozen bands. And we did a couple of those. And there was lots of publicity, lots of magazines and papers. Lots of radio sessions, interviews, all that stuff. All of a sudden, it really took off, in a big way.
BT: How did find Jeff Beck? The story goes that you wanted to get Jimmy Page in the band, and he recommended Jeff.
McCarty: Yeah, that’s right. That’s true. Jeff used to do sessions with Jimmy, or sessions that Jimmy couldn’t do, because Jimmy was the top session player in London. And Georgio knew [Page], and he came down to a couple of gigs. He used to really like the band. And he recommended Jeff, who was playing in a band called the Tridents. And Georgio went over to Eel Pie Island to see the band. We didn’t actually see him, but Georgio went over and saw the Tridents, and asked Jeff to come and audition with us.
And he came and auditioned, funny enough, at the Marquee. There was a story about Jeff being in a queue of guitar players, but that wasn’t the case. It was just him. He certainly could play, and he play everything Eric could play. He just looked so different. He was coming from a different place altogether. Because Eric was so fashion-conscious, and very Ivy League at the time. And he had a crew cut at the time, he used to wear suits, and buttoned-down collar shirts. And Jeff just turned up with a dirty old leather jacket, and oil and grease down his trousers, and really long shoulder-length hair.
So Georgio recommended that he change his image, and I think Chris took him out, and bought him a whole load of Carnaby Street stuff. (laughs) Really funny. Because [Beck] used to work on cars, and he’d be dirty from lying under the hood of a car.
BT: How has your friendship with Chris changed over the years, especially with the last ten years together with this lineup?
McCarty: We were always the steady ones in the band. We had that in common, that we never really went over the deep end. We’d just kept in touch, and we kept sort of matey. When he was a photographer, I often used to stop in, and get together with him. He always had an interest in the music, even though he was doing something else. He didn’t play for a long time.
BT: How was each guitarist different to play with, as a band member?
Dreja: I think every guitar player we’ve had in the band has had their own original style. Starting with Eric Clapton, who was more of a blues purist. Then Jeff Beck, who is an absolutely crazy genius, and then Jimmy Page, who brought something else to the band.
McCarty: Jeff was very unpredictable. He was a nervous guy, and very, very keyed up. And unpredictable in that you never knew if he was gonna be happy with his sound, and quite often, he wouldn’t be. He’d lose his rag, he’d kick amps over, and storm off-stage, and all that sort of stuff. (laughs) It was quite difficult, and it was actually quite a relief when we got to Jimmy, because he’d been used to being a session guy, and he’d been used to be playing what people wanted, and being very businesslike about it. Whereas Jeff was completely off the wall.
And the two of them together was quite interesting, because they were coming at it from different directions, and too often it didn’t used to work. They’d often be at each other. They’d just really wouldn’t gel.
BT: The stories I’ve heard about that time was that it either was the most amazing you’ve heard, and that something was going on with Jeff.
McCarty: (laughing) Yes, it was one or the other. But every now and then, when it used to happen, it was great. We did a tour with the Stones in England, and now and then that really used to kick in. And I think the Stones were obviously quite worried about it. We used to play right before them, and it would be really great rock and roll.
BT: Do you regret that there’s not more audio or visual documents of that lineup?
McCarty: Yeah, there’s nothing, is there, really? It would have been great to get a really good show on tape.
BT: One of the few things that did emerge from that time, though, was the “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago” single. When you did that song, were you totally behind it? Like, “Yeah, this is where we want to go.”
McCarty: Definitely. It’s funny, because somebody asked me, and he said, “Oh, you produced ‘Happenings,’ and then you went to Mickie Most and produced all these terrible singles.” (laughing) “Why on earth couldn’t you have carried on producing things like ‘Happenings’”?” Looking back on it, it almost could have gone into Pink Floyd territory. Something really psychedelic and rocky. And it’s a shame that we just didn’t have the confidence to say, “Okay, we can still do something good,” because “Happenings” was a big flop.
BT: It just barely got into the top forty, didn’t it?
McCarty: Yeah. We were used to having Top Ten hits, and we’d had about four Top Tenners, and then “Happenings” didn’t make it, and we just thought “Happenings” was great. Our confidence took a real beating. I guess we thought we couldn’t turn out another “Shapes Of Things.”
BT: Is that the point where Mickie Most started taking over the singles?
McCarty: We just got desperate. Jimmy had said, “We should work with Mickie Most,” because he had worked with him on hit records that he’d played guitar on. But to Mickie, all that mattered was the single, and if it had something that could sell.
It was all around the hit single, and when it came to doing the album with Mickie Most, he was hardly interested. He said, “Well, you know, the hits are the main thing, and the albums are something that bands do. But they don’t sell many [albums], unless you’re the Beatles.”
BT: Do you think that the frustration of having the singles being taken out of your hands eventually led to the Yardbirds winding down?
McCarty: Oh yeah, exactly. We just didn’t have the confidence to say to Mickie Most, “We don’t really need you. We can do it on our own. We just need a good producer that we can-reproduce what we do.” Because he was a very controlling, big-time producer that would find songs for us to do. Some of those songs we didn’t even play on.
Some of the singles like “Ten Little Indians,” and “Ha Ha Said The Clown,” I didn’t even play on those.
BT: Looking back, would you have rather had the Yardbirds continue in the album vein, or when the band would down, were you ready to try other things?
McCarty: It’s difficult, really, it’s a mixture of things. There was a certain boredom with playing the same songs. There was a certain lack of creativity when Paul and Jeff had gone. It was difficult to actually write good songs. We could always find songs, like “Dazed And Confused.” And the way the finances were, we were always being pushed all the time to play live, ‘cause that’s where the money was. There were no great big royalty checks. And so naturally, playing live, we didn’t have the time for creating, as well. There were quite a few factors going on.
Maybe if we had sat back for six months, and said, “We’re not gonna play live, we’re just gonna create another album.” Maybe re-invent ourselves in some way, we might have kept together. But I don’t know what would have come out. (laughs)
BT: When Paul left [in 1966], did that shift gears within the band?
McCarty: Oh, yeah. It was very stressful on him. It was stressful on all of us, but for him it was tough, ‘cause he was quite a sensitive guy. I know he started to drink a lot. That didn’t help him. And he didn’t like traveling around too much, and the pressure really got to him.
Yeah, it changed things a lot. If it had been like it was, it might have worked out a bit more creatively.
BT: What would you want people to know about Keith Relf?
McCarty: He was quite avant-garde in his ideas. Quite futuristic, very original. Sort of always looking for something new. Creative guy, very spiritual person. He was quite a troubled guy, underneath it all. He had quite a lot of problems, and psychical problems, as well. But we became great friends, and especially at the end [of the Yardbirds], basically left, and formed Renaissance.
BT: Was that how the band basically ended? You and Keith left....
McCarty: Yeah, ‘cause we had ideas. And I think we got a bit bored doing those songs every night. And we just wanted a break, and we were looking to do a different sort of music. Which kind of came out in Renaissance, something a bit more tuneful, a bit more ethereal, I guess.
BT: Did you regret that Renaissance only lasted two records?
McCarty: Yeah, it was a shame. I think we left the Yardbirds, and formed [Renaissance], we realized that it was the same thing, we were just doing a different sort of music. We had all the same pressures. But we could do albums, which was good. I think the main problem with Renaissance was the personalities. Everyone was very nervous, and it was quite difficult to tour, because nobody was really stable. Chris [Dreja] is a very solid, stable person, very grounded, and there no one really like that in Renaissance. We were all like flipping out. (laughs)
BT: After [Keith’s death in 1976], was it hard to get used to the idea that Keith wasn’t gonna be on stage with you, and did it take a while for you to feel comfortable with other singers?
McCarty: Yeah, I guess so. I guess it was a bit odd, first of all. No one’s really ever asked me that before. I got very used to playing with him. It was a bit strange, ‘cause singers are a bit odd. I don’t think I’ve worked with many singers, because singers often have got attitudes (laughs). Keith had a bit of an attitude, but not like most singers.
Singer/musicians are better, really. Musicians who can sing. John [Idan’s] sort of a musician’s singer.
Tell me a bit about Chris’ guitar playing. People always miss how important his guitar sound has been in the band.
BT: Would you still like to see Live Yardbirds With Jimmy Page released officially again?
McCarty: Yeah, it would be good. It’s possible it will happen, but I don’t know. What would be nice to maybe get Jeff and Jimmy on board, and maybe do a big DVD of a live show. That would be really good.
BT: Do you still keep in touch with Jeff and Jimmy, or Eric?
McCarty: Yeah, mainly Jeff and Jimmy.
BT: How have they changed, personality-wise, over the years?
McCarty: Jeff has actually become so much more... hmmm, what’s the word? He’s so completely bright, you know. He’s much brighter than I ever thought he was. He was very funny, and used to love to have a laugh, and we used to get on really well. And he still really likes comedians. Some of his friends are quite famous comedians on English TV. But he’s such a bright guy. His mind really works in such an interesting way.
Jimmy, I’m not so sure about, really. (laughs) He’s really become more of a control freak. But he’s more controlling than I ever thought.
BT: Were you surprised when Jimmy held up release on the Live Yardbirds record, or some of the other things that people have tried to put out?
McCarty: Yeah. It’s really weird. It’s not really gonna hurt him at all. It’s not like we’re gonna make millions of dollars out of it, either. It’s only really for collectors.
BT: If there is a legacy for the Yardbirds, what is it?
McCarty: I guess it is to create a version of rock music that original enough to carry on, and inspire people, and be copied by so many bands. I think that if you listen to us, you can probably hear the roots of a lot of other bands. And I’m still surprised that every day I seem to find another big band that used to play our songs.
Dreja: I think that during the ‘60s, the Yardbirds were only together for maybe five years, but the musical travel was colossal. We started off very influenced by the blues, but not really being sort of a black blues band, we eventualy found our own theme. And I think that what the Yardbirds have always done is be pretty eclectic, and if you come and hear the show, you’’ll hear a pretty terrific range of what we do.
McCarty: If you’re gonna see us play, it’s always gonna have that energy. There’s no point of us playing without that. It’s got that old sound, it’s got that old feeling. It’s got all those songs that go through all those weird twists and turns.
BT: Would you say that the Yardbirds is as much a part of your legacy as anyone else that’s been in the band?
McCarty: Yeah, I was always sort of in there, rather than just being the drummer. I always had ideas, as well as everyone else. I always put myself down. I’d say, “Oh, it’s always the guitar players.” I didn’t give myself more credit. But I can give myself more credit now. But it was always the team effort.
Dreja: Obviously, the band has become very famous for having three great guirtar players. But apart from Jimmy Page, they were young like us. They weren’t known as guitar legends at that point. We’ve always been a guitar band, pretty much. The thing is, if you listen to things like the Roger The Engineer album (1966), you’ll realize that the influence of everybody, like Paul Samwell-Smith and Jim, Jim’s writing and everybody’s contributions were very important. We’ve probably worked with about six or seven great guitar players, but the Yardbirds have always had a core element to it the remains very much the heart of the band.
BT: Do you think that there’s more to the Yardbirds story?
McCarty: Yeah, I think there is, I don’t know what it will be. But I think there certainly is some more to see, to open up. But we’ll see about that (laughs), I can’t predict that.
My thanks to everyone involved in putting together these interviews, and to everyone in the Yardbirds for being so great to me.