The Yardbirds were formed in London in 1963 by Keith Relf (vocals, harmonica), Paul Samwell-Smith (bass), Chris Dreja (rhythm guitar) and Anthony Topham (lead guitar). Topham was quickly replaced by the young guitar prodigy Eric Clapton and soon the band started to gain a reputation by playing live venues with their frenetic approach to blues and R & B. After The Rolling Stones grew too big for the club circuit, The Yardbirds substituted as the house attraction at the Crawdaddy Club, where they recorded a live album as the backing band for American blues titan Sonny Boy Williamson II. However, it was their debut album, Five Live Yardbirds, recorded at the Marquee Club in 1964, that better documents the band’s initial period and their trademark ‘rave-up’ instrumental sections. Things were running smoothly for the band until 1965 when they decided to record the pop single “For Your Love”, a move that dissatisfied Clapton, who wanted to remain loyal to the band’s blues roots. He left the group the same day the single was released.
Jeff Beck replaced Clapton and proceeded to record the influential albums Having a Rave Up With The Yardbirds and Roger The Engineer as well as, among others, the groundbreaking psychedelic hits “Heart Full Of Soul” and “Shapes Of Things”. In 1966, bassist Paul Samwell-Smith decided to leave the band, though his role was quickly filled by Jimmy Page who soon switched to guitar, with Chris Dreja taking bass duties. The outstanding Beck & Page guitar duo was formed, but it was not meant to last, as Beck left the band a few months later, leaving Page as the sole guitarist. With Page, the band recorded Little Games, their last classic album, before disbanding in 1968. After the band’s break-up, Keith Relf and Jim McCarty formed progressive rock group Renaissance and Jimmy Page put together Led Zeppelin. In the ’90s, Chris Dreja and Jim McCarty reformed the Yardbirds with a brand new line-up. The band is still currently active, although McCarty is the only original member remaining.
Even though the Yardbirds never achieved the commercial success of some of its peers, the band’s relevance cannot be underestimated. The band was pivotal in the development of blues rock, psychedelic rock and hard rock, as well as in catapulting the career of three of all-time greatest guitarists. Let us take a closer look at their best songs to further appreciate their legacy.
10. “I Ain’t Got You”
This short cover of Jimmy Reed’s classic, taken from the album For Your Love (1965), is a joyful mid-tempo blues rocker with a sublime guitar performance from Clapton. Not the most sophisticated of songs (especially in comparison with some of the band’s later releases) but sometimes all you need is some raw blues vibrancy.
9. “Drinking Muddy Water”
Basically, a version of Muddy Water’s “Rollin’ and Tumblin” with different titles and lyrics, this song was released on Little Games (1967). A fun, slide-guitar number that keeps the Yardbirds’ blues essence alive among the pop-oriented songs that prevail in the album. The track also features the collaboration of pianist Ian Stewart, famous for his work with The Rolling Stones.
8. “For Your Love”
The aforementioned single that motivated Eric Clapton’s departure from the band, “For Your Love” is a rather eccentric pop song with its unusual chord progression, mid-song change of time signature, and employment of a harpsichord. Written by talented songwriter Graham Gouldman, the song was a massive hit and showcased, for the first time, the band’s ability to perform great music beyond the blues scope.
7. “Five Long Years”
Extracted from Five Live Yardbirds (1965), this cover of Eddie Boyd’s staple is an intense slow blues number featuring tasty harmonica and guitar solos, courtesy of Relf and Clapton. The audio quality may not be high but the raw potency of the performance makes up for it, making this track quintessential in the band’s catalog. Clapton reworked the song’s arrangement and released his version in his solo album From The Cradle (1994).
6. “The Nazz Are Blue”
This psychedelic blues rocker, appearing on Roger The Engineer (1966), is a lead guitar thrill ride. The tight rhythm section supplies the groundwork for Beck’s blazing licks and solos while he provides the vocals, which is something very rare. Also, renowned guitarist Eric Johnson stated that this song changed the way he thought about guitar playing. A short but very influential piece of music, indeed.
5. “Shapes Of Things”
Released in 1966, and probably the most well-known song in the band’s catalog, “Shape Of Things” is perhaps the first psychedelic hit in the history of rock music. Multi-layered and innovative, the song features one of the first uses of feedback in rock guitar when Jeff Beck rips a short but amazing solo mid-tune. The song also embodies the spirit of its time, with anti-war/pro-environment lyrics.
4. “I’m A Man”
A cover of Bo Diddley’s R & B hit, this powerful blues rocker is a prime example of a Yardbirds ‘rave-up’, with its final minute dedicated to a raging instrumental passage, that building on a crescendo, culminates in an explosion of sonic power. Released as a US-only single in 1965, it was a critical and commercial success, receiving praise from Diddley himself.
3. “Heart Full Of Soul”
Also written by Graham Gouldman, “Heart Full Of Soul” is an exotic, Indian-inspired rock single released in 1965. The song, which includes the usage of a fuzz box to recreate the sound of a sitar, is distinguished by its memorable guitar riff, stirring vocal melody, and captivating chorus. Also, the melancholic nature of the lyrics, which contrasts with the somewhat upbeat instrumentation, makes the song even more unique.
2. “Dazed And Confused”
After watching folk singer Jake Holmes perform his song “Dazed And Confused” live, Jimmy Page rearranged the track and added to the British quartet’s set. This cut, recorded live in 1968 at the Anderson Theater in New York, is perhaps the ultimate version of this song as done by The Yardbirds. It’s a dark, ominous heavy-blues tour de force that is marked by haunting vocals and harmonica fills, thick guitar riffs and an ear-splitting solo. Page also, notably, uses a violin bow on his guitar during the song’s intermission. As most people know, the studio version of this track was later recorded by Led Zeppelin, appearing on their debut album (1969).
1. “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago”
Released in late 1966, this dark, yet catchy rock single features the double guitar attack of Page & Beck, as well as John Paul Jones on bass. An addicting, eastern-sounding hard riff drives forward the track and a fiery guitar solo hints at early heavy metal while the atmospheric vocals set the psychedelic tone. Not the most successful of the Yardbirds’ singles, but perhaps the one that better defines their sound and aura.