With hits like For Your Love, Shapes Of Things and Heart Full Of Soul, The Yardbirds were one of the most influential of the early 1960s blues-rock bands. They also enjoyed the distinction of having three of the world’s great guitarists – Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page – in the band at various times.
Clapton joined in 1963 but left because the group was becoming “too commercial.” Beck replaced him in 1965, and later Page dropped in before forming Led Zeppelin. In 1992, the band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Of late, two Yardbirds original members – Chris Dreja (rhythm guitar) and Jim McCarty (drums) – have resurrected the group to tour in various incarnations. I caught up with them for some rock history trivia. Following are edited excerpts from a fascinating conversation.
Jim Clash: The Yardbirds toured with The Beatles in the day, correct?
Chris Dreja: In the early sixties, they used to come to London for a Christmas show. We were the local London band, so they invited us to be part of it. We played with them every day for a week. They were the great, the fully formed characters we know now. John Lennon was the bright, in-your-face guy; Paul McCartney was charming; Ringo [Starr] was the funny one; and George [Harrison], the quiet one, got on very well with Eric [Clapton]. In those days, as fellow performers, we had unlimited access. They used to come to our dressing room and try out new songs. Paul played something called Scrambled Eggs for us that later turned into Yesterday. We knew that once he got the lyrics right, it was going to be very nice.
Jim Clash: You worked with Clapton, Beck and Page. What do you recall about each?
Jim McCarty: It was Eric first, and he was still learning the trade, a beginner. He would listen to old blues records and mimic the guitar sounds. He was very earnest, enthusiastic and keen. He would practice all day. Jeff was different. He seemed to be able to play without really practicing. He had an inborn talent. It was wonderful, inspirational – stuff you never expected. And Jimmy was different because he was from the session side. He was used to doing what people wanted in the best way possible. When he came to the group, he did just that – played what we wanted. He was precise and business-like. That all probably changed with [Led] Zeppelin, but I can’t speak for that era [laughs].
Jim Clash: Keith Relf, your iconic singer, passed in 1976.
Chris Dreja: Keith was very underrated. He was a great singer and harmonica player. But he got overshadowed by the guitarists. In those days, we didn’t have good PA systems. Keith was also a sensitive soul. He wrote great lyrics. He started to drink and take various drugs. He had started out as a very sensitive young man, but after five or six intense years on the road, he became a bit of a mess. Some people self-destruct. He had a little of that in him. I was surprised but not surprised when he died because I knew he had delicate health and was not doing wise things to his body. He had had a lung removed early on. I remember going to the funeral, in a quiet graveyard in Richmond [England]. I think he was in an unmarked grave for years. The family finally did get around to putting up a plaque.
Jim Clash: You’ve played Yardbirds tunes on and off for over half a century. What are audiences like now, and do you ever get bored?
Chris Dreja: I’m happy to say that those from my generation are still out there kicking! We get a lot of young people, too. It’s a cross section. And we never perform the songs quite the same, so I never get bored. It’s like jazz or blues: You play the same 12 bars but, somehow, every time is a little different. The nuances, the new guys in the band – all that brings something. There’s such energy in the music, too – from I’m Not Talking, to Shapes of Things, to Mr. You’re a Better Man Than I, to I’m a Man. My favorite is Happenings Ten Years Time Ago. That was a neat track. It took the public a long time to get hold of it. It’s really a two-and-a-half minute opera!