Though the guitarists for The Yardbirds got all the ink, the band’s other four members—bassist Paul Samwell-Smith, drummer Jim McCarty, rhythm guitarist (and later bassist) Chris Dreja, and vocalist Keith Relf—stood on equal footing with Clapton, Page and Beck. Relf, in particular, seemed on the cusp of a brilliant post-Yardbirds career when he died from an accidental electrocution in 1976. Richie Unterberger spoke with Samwell-Smith and McCarty about their former frontman, while a new compilation sheds light on Relf’s solo recordings.
The Yardbirds are most famous for spawning three superstar guitarists with Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page. Yet there was much more to the band than those axemen, as brilliant as they were. All the members were vital to their brew of fiery blues-rock, improvisational rave-ups, experiments with electronics, and daring integration of Indian raga, socially conscious lyrics, and even Gregorian chants.
Singer and frontman Keith Relf was a crucial cog in their innovation, both as lead singer and a songwriter, usually sharing composing credits with other Yardbirds. His work outside of the Yardbirds, however, has received relatively little attention, though he remained active to varying degrees until his accidental 1976 death from electrocution while playing guitar at home. Serious fans know he was in the original lineup of Renaissance and made an album in the mid-1970s as singer in the hard rock outfit Armageddon. But even they often know little beyond that.
Almost 45 years after his death, Repertoire Records’ new compilation, All the Falling Angels, fills in much of the missing picture. Spanning the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s, this 24-track collection of obscurities and demos takes in sides from Relf’s rare 1966 solo singles; the yet scarcer single he and ex-Yardbirds drummer Jim McCarty issued in the late ‘60s as the duo Together; and assorted rarities that have only showed up on out-of-the-way archival compilations. Digging even deeper, about half the material is previously unreleased, including solo demos going back to Relf’s Yardbirds days.
But All the Falling Angels has value far beyond filling in the cracks for Yardbirds fanatics. When working on his own or as part of the Together, Relf usually eschewed blues-rock and psychedelia (at which he was quite good) for more tender outings with an almost nakedly personal aura. There’s a nearly translucent quality to the cuts here that didn’t make it onto discs, as if Relf was not quite of this earth or at home here, with a mystical yearning too ethereal to withstand the everyday pressures of human existence.
That’s especially prevalent on the previously unavailable solo demos. Fidelity-wise, they’re not up to what would have been considered releasable in the late 1960s and 1970s, and sometimes the sound quality is actually pretty rough or rudimentary. Yet in common with many demos emphasizing guitar and voice, they have a window-to-the-soul feel that would have gotten lost with lots of production, or even much more production, considering these songs work best in a stark state. Although occasionally in an upbeat rock mood (“Try Believing”), more often Relf favored folky ruminations that verged on crossing the line from melancholy to spooky. “Collector to the Light,” in particular, sounds almost like a message from a hermit’s cave, with eerie reverb and miscellaneous faint shakes.
A few items are nothing more than sketches or lyric-less scats, but still attractive for their otherworldliness, especially “Roundalay,” which unwinds in jazzy circles as Relf hum-sings the kind of unpredictable minor-keyed melodies he favors. He wasn’t done with far-out experimentation, either, as the closing “Sunbury Electronic Sequence” emphasizes. As its harsh collage of numerous distorted effects goes on for nine minutes, placing it at the end was a good idea, in case you’re not in the mood for extended atonality.
Although the Yardbirds were most known for ferocious blues-rock and, later, some of the earliest psychedelia, Relf’s moodily intoned, melancholy folk leanings were a part of the group’s repertoire going back to the earliest track on All the Falling Angels. In April 1965, he sang the bittersweet lullaby “All the Pretty Horses” on the BBC, his voice and acoustic guitar accompanied only by Yardbirds drummer Jim McCarty’s bongos.
Occasional mid-‘60s Yardbirds originals like the 1965 UK hit “Still I’m Sad” (the one that used Gregorian chant-like backing vocals) and “Turn into Earth” also showed the more sensitive, introspective side of the man, even as raunchier workouts like “I’m a Man” were on the hit parade.
Relf worked more extensively with McCarty than any other musician, the pair also recording and writing with each other as part of Together, Renaissance, and other post-Yardbirds projects. Asked in 2020 to account for how the folkier sides of his ex-bandmate emerged, Jim speculates, “I guess they were a relief of the sort of heavy, rocking stuff. They were sort of gentle. And yet, Keith had sort of a gentle side in him as well. He was quite a complex character. He always had a sort of almost secret side to him that was rather mysterious, which you couldn’t quite fasten down.
“He was very gentle, but he had a sort of heavy side to him as well. And there’s one that’s very extroverted. He had both those sides in his nature. We used to link up on the gentle side and the spiritual things. He was a very spiritual guy”— a quality that comes across strongly in these recordings, as if he’s drawing from the bottom of his well.
Even before Together, Relf tested the waters outside of the Yardbirds with a couple 1966 solo singles, three tracks from which are on All the Falling Angels. Coming as they did in the wakes of “Shapes of Things” and “Over, Under, Sideways, Down,” these had a surprisingly pop-folk bent, whether on his cover of mild American folk-rocker Bob Lind’s “Mr. Zero,” Yardbirds manager Simon Napier-Bell’s “Shapes in My Mind,” or his own composition “Knowing.” They also had a more ornate, baroque-pop production than Yardbirds fans expected, and failed to launch a simultaneous solo career, though “Mr. Zero” just dented the UK chart at #50.
“I am sure that had we been able, we would have liked to lean more towards the folk traditions, and we tried to go in that direction with ‘Mr. Zero,’” says Yardbirds bassist Paul Samwell-Smith, who produced the single with Napier-Bell (and would go on to produce hit albums for Cat Stevens and Carly Simon). “I was listening to Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Carolyn Hester, Joan Baez, Donovan, Johnny Cash, and we would share our discoveries and passions with each other.
“I think the blues, and especially the adventurous and improvised sort of mad rave-ups that we generated, were really just a way for us to get out there, get a living, and get involved with music all in one move. We were always aware of and sharing of the folk tradition, and had we been able to we would surely have included something of those influences in our stage presence, but the R&B ‘wave’ didn’t really allow for that. A 90-minute set in front of a Friday night crowd in a dance hall in Croydon didn’t allow for an introspective folksy interval. Keep ‘em raving…”
Even in the two years after Samwell-Smith left the Yardbirds, to be replaced by Jimmy Page (who soon moved from bass to lead guitar), that folky, spiritual bent poked through from time to time on their erratic post-’66 recordings. Brief Relf solo demos of a couple from their 1967 LP Little Games are on the new collection. “Only the Black Rose” bears a much more upbeat melody than the completed album track, and “Glimpses” is little more than a quasi-Gregorian chant at this point (though it would explode into an all-out psychedelic extravaganza on LP).
Samwell-Smith took the production reins again for Together, formed by Relf and McCarty just after the Yardbirds split in summer 1968. Their sole release, the single “Henry’s Coming Home/Love Mum and Dad,” had a West Coast harmony folk-rock-pop feel unlike anything the Yardbirds had issued, and was heard by hardly anyone upon its release.
“Henry’s Coming Home”-Together (Relf on vocals, McCarty on percussion)
Three Together outtakes – two of which first emerged as bonus tracks on an expanded CD of Little Games — are in a similar soothing vein, though the previously unavailable “Line of Least Resistance” is more straightforward and forceful guitar-based folk-rock, with McCarty on lead vocal.
“Line of Least Resistance,” oddly, did come out back in 1970 on a rare single by the group Reign, produced by Relf and McCarty. I ask Jim why he and Keith didn’t put out their own version then, whether as Together or part of another project. “I don’t know. We didn’t actually have a lot of confidence,” he laughs. “We weren’t really confident in what we were doing. It was quite a nice song, but it was a little bit too weak to make an impact. We were very pleased when Reign covered it. I suppose it would have gone on the Together album if we’d have done it.”
Adds McCarty, “We found it a lot of fun to work in Together. But I can see that there wasn’t anything in those days that was at all commercial. It wasn’t really powerful enough to be commercial, somehow. It was a bit bumbling.” Was there enough material for a whole Together album? “We did have other things, but I don’t know if [Keith] was that inspired to do it. Somebody suggested to us, ‘It’s very good, but you really need a band to go and play all this stuff, and get other people to put in their ideas.’ Which of course happened with Renaissance. That was much more of a force. Together [was] a bit wishy-washy in a way, thinking back on it.”
According to Samwell-Smith, “As the Yardbirds we always seemed to be searching for that indication of success that was a successful single, or radio hit. So when Keith and Jim sat down to try to write they weren’t, I think, writing material for an album; they were more exploring something they had between them, and if it had legs then they would pursue it. If not, they would move on to something else. Which was Renaissance.”
Adding Keith’s sister Jane as another singer, along with keyboardist John Hawken and bassist Louis Cennamo, Renaissance’s first album was produced by Samwell-Smith. In a way, it was a different, less blues-hard-rock-slanted offshoot of the Yardbirds than their guitar heroes had done in Cream, the Jeff Beck Group, and Led Zeppelin. There was a classical as well as folk influence in this version of Renaissance, which played early progressive rock that was more experimental and less commercial than the entirely different lineup that found success in the mid-1970s.
“If you listen to Robert Plant for a few songs, you get fed up with it,” he laughs. “But Keith was quite unusual. It was very authentic, what he did. ‘Cause he believed it. He wasn’t just messing around.” – Jim McCarty
But as McCarty acknowledges, “Even Renaissance had problems. People wondered what on earth we were playing. What they expected was something totally different. Much more like Zeppelin. During our first tour, it was really very disappointing, ‘cause we were playing like with Savoy Brown, and Paul Butterfield. We were always forerunners. We were always a bit before our time. I think people finally got it ten years later.” By that time McCarty and the Relfs were long gone from Renaissance, who didn’t have any original members when the group worked on their third album, 1972’s Prologue.
To most rock fans, Relf seemed to vanish from view in the first half of the ‘70s, re-emerging as lead singer for Armageddon’s sole and self-titled LP in 1975. Actually, he did keep busy producing other acts, even if only one of them, Medicine Head (with whom he also played bass for a while), made much of a commercial dent, and then only in the UK. He was, however, continuing to write and record, if often on home tapes. This is where All the Falling Angels fills the most crucial gap in his career, allowing us to hear Relf at his most reflective, even if some of the tracks are more germinating ideas than proper songs.
On tracks like “Collector of Light” (co-written with Cennamo, who’d hook up with Relf again in Armageddon), “The Roundalay” (co-written with McCarty), “End and Out,” “Cherokee,” and “Voice and Echo,” Keith sounds more like a man in search of a feel than one with a fully-formed song in mind. The reverb-heavy recording enhanced the spookiness. “His thing was to have all the playback set up, so when you walked in the room there’d be a mike and you’d say hi, and it would repeat on you like you were in some sort of weird ghost room or something,” recalls McCarty. “That was the big joke. He would more often than not be stoned, and it would be a big joke when you walked in – ‘hello hello hello.’ Like something from a fairground.”
As cool as these relics sound, they took quite a bit of digging to unearth, and lots more effort to cull for official release. “Back in the late ‘80s, Richard Mackay, who published the Yardbirds World fanzine, was given access to Keith’s private tape collection,” explains Mike Stax, who compiled the CD and wrote the extensive historical liner notes. “He transferred dozens of reels of tape, some of them in poor condition, and attempted to catalogue them with the help of Jim McCarty and Keith’s sister Jane.
“Richard compiled the transfers onto a series of cassettes. There were multiple volumes in a series he titled Keith Relf Musical Spectrum, along with others devoted specifically to Renaissance, Armageddon, and so on. These cassettes circulated among fans for years, and at some point became CD-Rs. I had quite a few of these in my collection already, but Coskun Cicek, a big Yardbirds collector in Australia, kindly made me copies of everything he had. In the end there were about 30 CD-Rs to go through. There may be a few things I overlooked, but the tracks I selected are the best by far of the many hours of tapes I listened to. However, we did leave out anything related to Armageddon, as we’re saving that for a future release.
“Restoring and mastering those selections was the job of Repertoire’s in-house mastering engineer Eroc. Eroc has an amazing ear and exceptional studio skills, learned through years of experience as a musician, producer, and engineer. He was the drummer and leader of the German progressive rock band Grobschnitt and has also made several successful solo records. He’s also been a huge Yardbirds fan since the ‘60s. He was able to work wonders with some of the poorer quality home recordings.
“The tapes included multiple versions of many of the tracks so it was a matter of choosing the best and most complete takes, as well as taking into consideration the sound quality. Many discs yielded nothing worthwhile at all, others had one or two tracks. It took me a couple of months to get it together. Keith certainly wasn’t a prolific songwriter, but he was a prolific experimenter.
“As I mention in the liner notes, there’s a meditative quality to his home recordings. On many of the tapes he’s just working out ideas by chanting or playing guitar with lots of echo, almost like a mantra, gradually shaping ideas which become more fully formed on subsequent recordings. The song ‘All the Falling Angels’ in particular was a melody and an atmosphere he’d been working on in different forms for five or six years before he finally went into a recording studio with the finished song. It turned out to be the last song he ever recorded.”
Although it’s doubtful Relf was familiar with Skip Spence’s ultra-low-selling 1969 cult album Oar, demos like “Collector of Light” have a similar acid-folk vibe. Like much of Spence’s folk-psychedelic LP, they teeter between structured expression and unhinged instability. Does Stax also get that vibe from some of the tracks?
“Absolutely. I think he was often working with melodies and even lyrics right off the top of his head, tapping into his unconscious to find something, much like Skip on parts of Oar. ‘Collector of Light’ is an extraordinary piece of music with what sounds like a detuned guitar being plucked as he sings along in a very abstract way. It’s beautiful and hypnotic. That’s true of some of the other tracks on there too, such as the ‘Sunbury Electronics Sequence,’ which Eroc pointed out is similar to the work Achim Reichel was doing in the early ‘70s using guitars fed through various echo effects.”
Yet All the Falling Angels doesn’t lack more conventional, finished songs. “Just Think What You’re Achieving” is a relatively jaunty, if minor-melody-tinged, acoustic folk-rock tune, and the aforementioned “All the Falling Angels” (co-written) a relatively finished production that almost sounds like a requiem for Relf’s premature death. Another nice acoustic folk piece, “I’d Love to Love You Till Tomorrow,” also recorded shortly before his death, has harmony vocals from his younger sister Jane, who looked enough like Keith for some to mistake them for twins.
“It has sort of a charm about it, the brother and sister thing,” observes McCarty. “Some of the stuff they did together was lovely. ‘I’d Love to Love You Till Tomorrow,’ I think, is a fabulous song. The way they sang it together had a certain wistful magic to it.”
Just 33 at the time of his passing, Relf clearly had more music in him. As to why more didn’t get out during his lifetime, Jim thinks “he was frustrated, and a little bit sad. Because he had a problem with his wife, and he was looking after his two boys. So he didn’t seem to have time. He didn’t have much energy for it. There was something really odd about it. A bit of a waste really, because he was a talented guy. If you don’t use your talent, it goes a bit sour.
“I saw him, actually, the evening he died. It was really depressing. He was in a weird sort of hole, somehow. I was, to be quite honest, quite pleased to get away from him. It was really heavy. My mother used to work in the local police station; she was on the switchboard. She called me up the next day and said, ‘oh, I heard he’s dead,’ because the police were called in. It was a big shock for me and Louis and John Hawken.
“At one point, we had a lot of fun together. We had a good relationship for chatting and getting quite deep about stuff and all that. It was sort of sad that we couldn’t keep that up. When he died, we didn’t have that same sort of relationship. He was probably too messed up in his life, or too depressed about his life. That was a shame.”
It’s a shame, too, that Relf’s not nearly as well remembered as the superstars who got their start in the Yardbirds, and sometimes criticized for vocal shortcomings. Suffering from a collapsed lung, he couldn’t summon the power of a Robert Plant or Rod Stewart, to name two singers ex-Yardbirds guitarists worked with shortly after leaving the group. But his vocals projected such an idiosyncratic brooding intensity that he didn’t need to, or certainly had a personality that matched the material he sang in the ‘60s and ‘70s.
“I agree with you totally,” says McCarty when I tell him as much in our interview. “It didn’t really have to have that sort of power. If you listen to Robert Plant for a few songs, you get fed up with it,” he laughs. “But Keith was quite unusual. It was very authentic, what he did. ‘Cause he believed it. He wasn’t just messing around.”
“I think Keith was one of the most underrated vocalists of the era,” in Stax’s estimation. “He conveyed moodiness, mystery, and a fragility that was perfect for the material he was singing. Later in the ‘60s, people became hung up on virtuosity. Sure, Keith didn’t have the range and power of a Stevie Winwood or a Robert Plant, but I can’t imagine either of them singing ‘Evil Hearted You’ or ‘Shapes of Things’ nearly as effectively as Keith did.
“I do feel that this collection fills a significant gap in that here we can hear Keith in a more intimate setting, as a solo artist, or as part of a duo with Jim McCarty, rather than as a member of a larger group. It’s a side of him that was only occasionally represented on record, on songs like ‘Only the Black Rose’ and ‘Glimpses’ with the Yardbirds, or ‘Silver Tightrope’ by Armageddon. It reveals more of what he was like as a person, behind closed doors, working on his music alone or with a few trusted friends. I hope it helps people gain a better understanding of who he was.”