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Formed originally as the Metropolitan Blues Quartet in 1962-63 in London, the Yardbirds first achieved notice on the burgeoning British blues scene (or "rhythm and blues," as the British music press alluded to it) when they took over as the house band at the Crawdaddy Club in London - succeeding the Rolling Stones. With a repertoire drawn more from the Delta-soaked Chicago blues titans Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson II, and Elmore James than the more commercially-minded Chuck Berry and Jimmy Reed influences of the Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds began to build a following of their own in London before very long. Their inexperience and their less-than-stellar musicianship was obvious but their commitment was just as powerful, as they hammered away at versions of such blues classics as "Smokestack Lightning," "Got Love If You Want It," "Here 'Tis," "Baby What's Wrong," "Good Morning Little School Girl," "Boom Boom," "I Wish You Would," "Done Somebody Wrong," and "Rollin' and Tumblin'."
They made their first significant lineup addition when singer/harmonica player Keith Relf, rhythm guitarist Chris Dreja, bassist Paul Samwell-Smith, and drummer Jim McCarty, replaced original lead guitarist Anthony (Top) Topham with a very boyish-looking art student named Eric Clapton in late 1963. Clapton already knew what he was doing with his instrument; his solo turns, while far enough from the gripping little gems for which he became famous enough soon enough, already set him apart from most of his peers among the British blues clubbers. Between his sleek guitar playing and Keith Relf's improving harmonica style, the group could at least boast two attractive players that made listeners overlook their still-incomplete rhythmic attack. And, of critical importance, Crawdaddy Club impresario Giorgio Gomelsky - who had all but discovered the Rolling Stones but thought it beyond his range to become their manager - learned enough from his previous miss to become the Yardbirds' manager and, as it turned out, first producer.
Under Gomelsky's guidance, the Yardbirds got themselves signed to EMI's Columbia label in early 1964; they set a precedent of a sort when their first album turned out to be a live album, Five Live Yardbirds, recorded at the legendary Marquee Club in London. The group was well enough reputed that none other than blues legend Sonny Boy Williamson himself invited the group to tour England and Germany with him, a union that survives to this day on a live album memorable for Williamson's trouper-like adaptation of his deep troubador style of blues to the Yardbirds' raw, unpolished rock and roll version. ("Those English kids," Williamson said famously of the Yardbirds and other British blues groups like the Animals and the Stones, "want to play the blues so bad - and they play the blues so bad," though he had a personal affection for the Yardbirds' members and even thought of moving to England permanently, until the illness that resulted in his early 1965 death.)
The quintet went from there to cut several singles, including "I Wish You Would," but it was "For Your Love," a Graham Gouldman composition that was anything but the blues, which put the band to their highest chart position yet in England - and their first major hit in the United States, when it was released there in 1965. It also prompted Eric Clapton - at the time a no-holds-barred blues purist - to leave the group and join with John Mayall's Blues Breakers. The loss could have been devastating to the Yardbirds; Clapton had already shown the striking, stabbingly virtuosic style he would later expand and deepen with Mayall and unfurl as a full-fledged virtuoso statement with the improvisational Cream. Clapton recommended Jimmy Page, a studio guitarist he had known (and with whom he would soon cut a series of stirring blues guitar duets, including "Tribute to Elmore" and "Draggin' My Tail"), as his replacement, but Page - uncertain at the time about giving up his lucrative studio work - recommended in turn one Jeff Beck, whose fleet-fingered style and bent for experimentation pushed the Yardbirds to the direction from which they became widely credited for opening the door to "psychedelic" rock.
The Yardbirds in 1965 and 1966 issued a pair of albums in the U.S., slapped together somewhat haphazardly from their British recordings, For Your Love (which included a delightful early take of "Hang On, Sloopy" - they'd gotten hold of a demo of the song before the McCoys had their chartbusting crack at it a year later, and their patented doubletime "rave up" version is a treat) and Havin' A Rave Up With The Yardbirds, half of which came from Five Live Yardbirds.
Beck's tenure in the group, meanwhile, produced a number of memorable recordings, from single hits like "Heart Full of Soul," "I'm A Man," and "Shapes of Things" to the Yardbirds album (known more popularly as Roger the Engineer, and first issued in the U.S. in a bowdlerised version called Over Under Sideways Down), and established him as a top-rank guitarist whose experiments with fuzz tone, feedback, and distortion jolted British rock forward with a bold drop kick. In addition, the Yardbirds began serious experiments with things like adapting Gregorian chant ("Still I'm Sad," "Turn Into Earth," Hot House of Omagarashid," "Farewell," "Ever Since The World Began") and various European folk styles into their blues and rock rooted music, and this gained them a new reputation among the hipster underground even as their commercial appeal had begun already to wane.
It was prior to the sessions that produced Yardbirds that Paul Samwell-Smith decided to quit the group for touring purposes and move behind the boards to co-produce them with new manager, Simon Napier-Bell (a former assistant to Beatles manager Brian Epstein). Jimmy Page re-entered the picture here, playing bass until rhythm guitarist Chris Dreja could become comfortable with that instrument, and then teaming with Beck for tantalising twin-guitar attacks that proved short-enough lived: Beck either quit or was fired from the group in mid-1966, and the Yardbirds continued as a quartet for the remainder of their career. (Almost the only pronounced examples of what the Beck-Page tandem could have been came on a single, "Happenings Ten Years Time Ago," and their half-crazed version of "The Train Kept A-Rollin'," an even crazier rendition of which turned up in the Antonioni film Blow-Up as "Stoll On".) Page was just as bent toward experimentation as Beck, particularly his striking technique of scraping a violin or cello bow across his guitar strings to induce a round of odd and surreal sounds, and his dextrous use of a wah-wah pedal. He also proved an adept fingerstyle guitarist, the shimmering "White Summer," an Indian-influence instrumental composition, joining his full-out hard rock grinder, "I'm Confused" as curlicues to the Yardbirds' unexpectedly forthcoming transmutation.
Increasing chart indifference, record company pressure (their British home label pressed hitmaking producer Mickie Most upon them in a failed bid to re-ignite their commercial success), and drug-related problems meant that by 1967 the Yardbirds' days were numbered. Or were they? After the failure of their final album (the badly-produced Little Games) and their reduction to small venues for touring, the group agreed to split in early 1968.
But Jimmy Page, left with both the rights to the band's name and a touring commitment yet fulfilled in Europe, was compelled to put a new lineup together to make that commitment. Billed as the New Yardbirds, they made the tour, found themselves clicking together decently enough, and then repaired home to England to produce, in a very short time, a very new album by a somewhat different group, although much of the sound derived from Page's sonic experiments (and a baby brother composition to his earlier "White Summer" called "Black Mountain Side" - not to mention a polished rewrite of "I'm Confused," called "Dazed and Confused") with the last edition of the Yardbirds: Led Zeppelin.
The remaining Yardbirds didn't exactly go gently into that good grey night. Paul Samwell-Smith, who had gone on to fame as Cat Stevens' producer in 1970, helped vocalist Relf and drummer McCarty organise a new group devoted to experimentation between rock, folk, and classical forms - Renaissance.
Keith Relf resurfaced in the late 1970s with a new quartet, Armageddon, a hybrid of hard, thrusting rock and folk that included former Renaissance mate Louis Cenammo. They recorded one promising album before Relf was killed in an electrocution accident in his home. Meanwhile, Jim McCarty, Paul Samwell-Smith (who had remained Cat Stevens' producer to the day Stevens converted to Islam and withdrew from pop music entirely), and Chris Dreja offered a nucleus in the 1980s for a short-enough lived but fun-enough kind of Yardbirds semi-reunion called Box of Frogs, which occasionally included Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page plus various friends with whom they'd all recorded over the years.
The Yardbirds were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990. All six living musicians who had been part of the group's heyday - including Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page, who had never (contrary to numerous misidentifications over the years) played in the group together (the confusion may have stemmed from a 1971 Epic Records anthology, Yardbirds Featuring Performances By: Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, a set which fell out of print and became a very expensive collectors' item for many years) - appeared at the ceremony. "I suppose," Jeff Beck cracked at the ceremony, "I should say thank you, but they fired me - so fuck 'em!"
In 2003, a new album, Birdland, was released under the Yardbirds name by a lineup including Chris Dreja, Jim McCarty, and new members Gypie Mayo (lead guitar, backing vocals), John Idan (bass, lead vocals) and Alan Glen (harmonica, backing vocals). Jeff Beck reunites with his former bandmates on one track.