Though they lasted only five years, the Yardbirds reshaped rock, pop and blues. Through all the personnel changes—Clapton, then Beck, then Page—Jim McCarty was a stabilizing force in the band, along with guitarist Chris Dreja and vocalist Keith Relf. Richie Unterberger spoke with McCarty about the shapes of all things Yardbirds, and about his new memoir Nobody Told Me!
“Some difficulty will be experienced in collecting material, but there is no reason why we must draw it from Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry etc. exclusively. Numbers such as ‘Keys to Highway’ can be treated with heavy R&B backing and are suitable. Cyril Davies does this to great effect.” — from the April 22, 1963 entry in Yardbirds singer Keith Relf’s journal
As that entry proves, even from their very inception, the Yardbirds were committed to being different. Different from the Rolling Stones, the band they’d replace shortly afterward as resident act in the Crawdaddy club, after the Stones got too big. Different from the countless other R&B bands springing up in London in the wake of the Stones, adding rave-ups that stretched out, accelerated, and decelerated classics by Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, and others. And, within a couple years, breaking free of R&B altogether, pioneering psychedelic rock before it even had a name.
The Yardbirds only lasted five years in their ‘60s incarnation, but it’s amazing how much they packed into that half decade. And while Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page are often cited as the reasons worth remembering them, the band were much more than a vehicle for their guitarists. The humble roots, astonishing transformations, and exhausted burnout of the group are finally laid out in detail in drummer Jim McCarty’s new memoir, Nobody Told Me! .
In the absence of a good book about the Yardbirds (though there have been a couple disappointing attempts), this is as fine an overview of their career as you could want. Written with Dave Thompson, it details every unpredictable turn of the band’s path with clarity, humor, and modesty. There are plenty of fascinating bits here that might even be new to a Yardbirds completist, whether it’s “Train Kept A-Rollin’” getting boosted by double-tracked vocals by accident; the band turning down a chance to record “The Man in the Middle” (written by Paul Jones, whose group Manfred Mann did it instead); or McCarty missing some shows on one of their last American tours with a bout of depression. The drummer (who also co-wrote a good deal of the band’s material) also gets into the founding of Renaissance with fellow ex-Yardbird Keith Relf and his post-‘60s life, though his most famous band takes up well over half the volume.
From the Antonioni film, “Blow Up”.
“I wanted to go through everything, with all those stories that people hadn’t heard before,” affirms Jim when I recently talked with him about the memoir. “And get it very truthful, and honest, without stepping on any toes. Just tell those inside stories. I always had a sort of comical view of things, so I think that comes out as well in the book.”
As the April 1963 entry in Relf’s journal (reproduced in the book) reveals, at their outset the Yardbirds were, like the Rolling Stones, in essence an R&B cover band. Their set was sourced from coveted, hard-to-find American blues, R&B, and soul discs. It would have been tempting, perhaps, for them to be a Stones cover band, as they were taking over their residency and playing to a crowd hungry for the same kind of music.
But even before the Crawdaddy, the Yardbirds didn’t want to come off as Stones clones. On the most elemental level, that meant picking different tunes to cover. “In a way it was a case of, ‘use the numbers that the Stones haven’t used off the Bo Diddley album,’” Relf acknowledged in a mid-1970s interview with Bill Stout and Baby Ray for the liner notes of the More Golden Eggs bootleg.
“There didn’t seem to be a huge repertoire to choose from in those days,” says McCarty. “The people that were popular were Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Slim Harpo, Muddy Waters, and Howlin’ Wolf. I do remember making a conscious choice as a band, not to play those songs that [the Stones] did. Because we were doing that same gig, that same residence as they were.”
American blues/R&B records being much harder to get in the UK in 1963 than they are today, “there didn’t seem to be too many songs around that we could do at that time. We were lucky to get different ones.” It’s not often pointed out that various-artists compilations were a good way to find a bunch at once, especially for teenagers or just-post-teenagers on a budget, as the Yardbirds were. In fact, both sides of their 1964 debut single came off such anthologies, with Ernie K-Doe’s “A Certain Girl” found on the plainly titled We Sing the Blues, and Billy Boy Arnold’s “I Wish You Would” plucked off the even more plainly titled The Blues. (As The Blues also contained a relatively obscure song from the Stones’ first album, Gene Allison’s “You Can Make It If You Try,” one wonders if they were also using that LP for source material.)
There was another, more unusual place to check out blues on vinyl. Yardbirds rhythm guitarist Chris Dreja “always used to say that we used to get records from [original guitarist] Top Topham’s father, ‘cause he had a huge blues collection. He was an artist, and a bit of a bohemian. So he wasn’t your regular dad.” That makes Mr. Topham, to my knowledge, the only British Invasion dad besides Van Morrison’s with a blues collection.
Yet the Yardbirds were also eager to distinguish themselves not just from the Rolling Stones, but from any old British R&B group. As early Yardbirds manager Giorgio Gomelsky told me in a 1999 interview, they “had one thing that the Stones didn’t have. They had the concept of altering the material. I went up the stairs where they were rehearsing, and I said, ‘That’s the band.’ They were doing the rave-ups, speeding up.’” Here Gomelsky broke off to mimic their trademark accelerating and decelerating rhythms.
“I said, this is good for me, because I like the idea of pushing the envelope further,” he resumed. “And I saw how rhythm and blues could then be connected with jazz, which connected with ethnic music. Little by little, I wanted to get to the point we are at now, planetary popular music—we’re not really at now yet—where you had a sort of living and ongoing synthesis of world music, that would reflect all the cultural riches of this planet.
“With the Yardbirds, I felt, this could be possible to go that way. The Stones couldn’t; they were very set in their own format. The area of solos, improvisation—nobody in the Stones would have tried. Brian [Jones] had a great gift for instruments; he would pick up an instrument and two hours later, he would sort of make it work. But he was lazy, he did not practice, he was not a virtuoso in any way.
“So with the Yardbirds, there was a possibility of expanding form. You had to start somewhere, and blues was just a good place to start. It’s a great form of music that allows you, with little technical knowledge, a little effort, to actually compose. Everything else had started there. Jazz, for instance.”
The Yardbirds only lasted five years in their ‘60s incarnation, but it’s amazing how much they packed into that half decade.
McCarty hadn’t heard that story until Gomelsky (who died in 2016) told him five to ten years ago. And he agrees, “We were quite different. We had a different approach. We always wanted to make those songs a bit quirky, or a bit different. We wanted to have a bit of fun with them all.”
“Smokestack Lightning” was the rave-up par excellence from their first album, Five Live Yardbirds, recorded with Eric Clapton on guitar in 1964. Stretched to an almost unimaginable (by 1964 rock standards) five and a half minutes, it also left room for lengthy tradeoffs between guitar and harmonica riffs, as well as tempos that sped to a crescendo before gliding back into the verses. As classic as Howlin’ Wolf’s original version was, the Yardbirds’ interpretation was also undeniably different than Wolf’s shorter and more straightforward arrangement, and not a mere imitation or emulation.
“Smokestack Lightnin'” by The Yardbirds:
“The thing about that song, it’s all in one key,” notes McCarty. “So what do you do? Do you just play it the way through? You have to think of something to make it interesting, as far as I’m concerned, anyway, and the group is concerned. We sort of jammed on it.
“[Bassist] Paul [Samwell-Smith], myself, and Keith, we had a sort of chemistry going where we could jam and do things that we were all happy with. And of course, we played those songs a lot live. So they were developed live.”
You can hear that sort of tinkering with the source material throughout Five Live Yardbirds. It’s also one of the very few debut LPs by a significant ‘60s band recorded in concert. I can only think of one other, the MC5’s Kick Out the Jams, before Jim reminds me of another that turns out to have been an influence on Five Live Yardbirds. “There was another live album by Georgie Fame, around about the same time [Rhythm & Blues at the Flamingo, released February 1964], and we quite liked that,” he remembers. “That gave us a few ideas.
“Night Train”-Georgie Fame & the Blue Flames, live from the Flamingo Club, 1964:
“We all thought as a group that getting that real rock sound that we had didn’t really work in a studio. It was sort of dry and non-atmospheric. Playing it live, we were gonna get a much better outcome. All the live gigs were so exciting, and we wanted to get that over. I think that was the reason for it.”
A couple other rave-ups on Five Live Yardbirds not only likewise peek past the five-minute mark but throw in some ideas that are nearly avant-garde. “Respectable,” first done by the Isley Brothers, suddenly breaks into a ska-rhythm nursery “humpty dumpty” nursery rhyme halfway. “I think Eric found that one,” is Jim’s recollection.
That’s odd, I respond, since Clapton would famously leave the band in early 1965 because, as legend usually has it, he wanted to stick to pure blues. “He didn’t necessarily bring blues songs in,” clarifies McCarty. “He suggested a few sort of soul-y type things. There was another one we did, as a [possible] single that never worked, Major Lance[‘s ‘Sweet Music’]. I think that was his idea as well. He didn’t necessarily recommend us to do blues songs for recording-wise, for singles, anyway.”
A deconstruction of Bo Diddley’s “Here ‘Tis” closes Five Live Yardbirds, its lengthy instrumental break dispensing with melody altogether, note-less plucked guitar strings and scrapes dueling it out with McCarty’s frantic rolling drums. “We liked percussive things,” he explains. “In the dressing rooms, we used to have like a percussion jam and bang on anything we could bang on, to mess around. It was almost like a mess-around, just to make, like, a percussion jam in the middle of it.”
As the Who were also finding out as 1964 turned to 1965, thrilling avant-rock live performances wouldn’t translate into hit singles, which in the mid-‘60s were necessary to make the break from popular live act to national stardom. The Yardbirds had already given studio singles a couple shots in ’64 without getting close to a hit, though McCarty does like their rave-up treatment of “I Wish You Would” on their debut 45. Even given some frustrations in capturing the excitement of their live act in the studio, it has a tremendous punchy sound, and another pedal-to-the-medal guitar-harmonica-bass acceleration in the instrumental break.
The Yardbirds “I Wish You Would”, TV performance:
As for that track’s excitement, “I think it was probably because we’d played it so much, and we had a lot of feel for that song,” feels Jim. By contrast, the flipside, “A Certain Girl,” “I think we just probably got together as a recording. So [‘I Wish You Would’] had been played with quite a lot of fire to it. It was one of those big songs in the set as well. I think it was probably just an accident that the sound was good. But we probably really locked in on that one, because we knew it so well.”
As the Yardbirds weren’t yet writing much, the choice of what to cover for their third single was vexing. When they supported the Beatles at a series of Christmas shows in 1964, John Lennon suggested they try US soul singer Chuck Jackson’s “The Breaking Point.” As McCarty writes in the book, Clapton and Gomelsky “had more or less agreed that our next single should be an Otis Redding number [Eric] discovered, ‘Your One and Only Man.’” I put it to Jim that I can’t really hear the Yardbirds doing those songs.
“They wouldn’t really work, would they?” he allows. “‘Breaking Point’ was much too smooth for us, really.” The song that did end up as their third single would both make them stars and make Clapton leave the band. “For Your Love” was not the blues he loved, or even soul. It was pop-rock, albeit almost experimental pop-rock, with harpsichord, bongos, and a gloomy minor melody that jumped in and out of a happy-go-lucky bluesy bridge, in line with the tempo changes they’d given their R&B rave-ups.
‘For Your Love’ was a pop song. But had there ever been another one that sounded like that? And that, in turn, was what the Yardbirds had been all about, back when we first got together. Take something ‘normal’ and give it a twist. A unique Yardbirds twist.”
“Years later,” notes McCarty in the book, “I read an interview with Eric where he complained that we’d seen the Stones come out of the Crawdaddy, score a few hits and become international superstars, and we wanted to follow them. It’s true! We did, and I don’t see anything wrong with that. We saw how others were going to America and making out like bandits. Why shouldn’t we do the same? And another thing. Yes, ‘For Your Love’ was a pop song. But had there ever been another one that sounded like that? And that, in turn, was what the Yardbirds had been all about, back when we first got together. Take something ‘normal’ and give it a twist. A unique Yardbirds twist.”
McCarty expands on the conflict in our interview: “It was a political thing. That sort of comes over in the book about Paul Samwell-Smith suddenly hearing it and saying, ‘I suggest we do it this way, my idea.’ And Giorgio backing him, and [Eric] having a sort of a long time running with Paul, mainly due to that sort of class thing going on – Eric lining up with the lower class, and Paul lengthening his name,” he chuckles.
Unusually, Clapton’s departure, initially a blow, worked out best for all concerned. Eric got to play the blues with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, and make his own leap to rock superstardom less than two years later with Cream. And the Yardbirds replaced Clapton with Jeff Beck, who was not only at least the equal of Clapton in pure skill. He also added a sense of adventure and willingness to experiment that arguably put him ahead of any other rock guitarist of the era.
As some of the classics the Jeff Beck lineup scored with in 1965 and 1966 – “Heart Full of Soul,” “Still I’m Sad,” “I’m a Man,” “Shapes of Things,” and others, including LP-only tracks like “Mr. You’re a Better Than I”—are pretty famous (and discussed in the book), I ask Jim about a different song that’s always stoked my curiosity. “I’m Not Talking,” recorded very shortly after Beck joined, is even more different from the original than “Smokestack Lightning” or “Here ‘Tis” was. What’s more, “I’m Not Talking” wasn’t even an R&B or blues number, but a Mose Allison jazz tune. The Yardbirds turned a comparatively polite, piano-led hip-speak prototype into a positively roaring hard rocker, with devastating riffs that crunched, quavered, and squealed. How did they find it?
The Yardbirds “I’m Not Talking”:
“I think that was Keith’s idea to do it,” according to Jim. “Keith had it on an album, I think. We did quite a radical version. I think it was probably a lot to do with Jeff doing that, making up that riff. It could have been Jeff and Paul together, with the stops and everything. With jamming on it and putting all the stops in, it was quite a radical change. All praise to Jeff – he must have put a lot of himself into that arrangement.”
With Beck, the Yardbirds quickly went way beyond (although never completely abandoned) the blues. Odd shifts in tempo remained a kind of a trademark, but now applied to arresting minor-keyed melodies, with plenty of distorted and sustain-laden Beck guitar. At first the non-R&B material was supplied by future 10ccer Graham Gouldman (“For Your Love,” “Heart Full of Soul,” and “Evil Hearted You”).
But with “Still I’m Sad,” a rock-cum-Gregorian chant of sorts, the Yardbirds were by 1965 writing material that dove deep into territory new not just for the band, but for all of rock music. Over the next year they’d be the forefront of psychedelic rock’s birth, drawing from Indian music, the new possibilities of distortion and amplification, and lyrics both socially conscious (“Shapes of Things”) and poetic (“Turn into Earth”) to create an entirely new form of rock music.
Somewhat like Rolling Stones manager Andrew Oldham had earlier done with Mick Jagger and Keith Richard, “Giorgio said, ‘You’ve got to write songs. You spend so much time traveling around in the bus and dressing rooms and everything else racing around. You’ve lots of time together to write songs. Why don’t you do it? You can make money out of it.’”
But despite a series of UK and US hit singles in 1965 and early 1966, they weren’t seeing a lot of money. Gomelsky, who’d taken a stronger voice in their musical direction than most managers of the era, was fired. “It was always Paul that led the way with those things,” says Jim. “It was Paul that wanted to get rid of Giorgio. Even now, Paul can’t talk about Giorgio. He still gets very angry thinking about it. So he was the sort of instigator. We all went round Paul’s house to have that meeting, and decide to chuck him out.
“I think we were just sort of a bit blind, and not knowing what we were doing. I’ve always been very slightly insecure with things like that, not quite knowing which way to go. Totally the opposite to someone like Jimmy Page, who always seems to know which way to go with those sort of things. He’s always very pragmatic.”
It’s not unusual for rock stars to wonder where the money went, as McCarty does in Nobody Told Me! It is unusual, however, for them to take a balanced view of the situation, as Jim also does in the book. “Yes, he used us, but you could say that we used him as well—of course we did!” he writes. “Without Giorgio, we wouldn’t even have got into the Crawdaddy.” As he adds in our conversation, “Giorgio had a lot to do with us being a success. He had great ideas, and he was in the right place all the time, even though we didn’t really make a fortune or whatever.”
It’s uncommon, I offer, for rock vets not to get bitter about that in their memoirs. “First of all, I’m not really a bitter person,” he calmly replies. “I’m not that type of grudge-type person. I remember him saying one time, ‘oh, in a year’s time, the Yardbirds will be a household word.’ And he was quite right. In a year’s time from when he said it, we were. We were very famous. So he did a lot of the right things at the right time. I have no bitterness about him at all. I wonder what did happen about all our rights, and how much money he made, or whatever. But, you know, so what?” he laughs.
Replacing Gomelsky was Simon Napier-Bell, who’d extend his management career well beyond the British Invasion era, eventually working with Boney M, Wham!, and Japan, among others. At first, there were pluses to Napier-Bell’s stewardship. He helped arrange for the time to record their first proper studio album, 1966’s The Yardbirds (retitled Over Under Sideways Down for the US market, minus two tracks). He even helped write “Over Under Sideways Down.” But that would be the band’s last big hit, even as they scaled greater heights later that year with “Happening Ten Years Time Ago,” one of the first and best out-and-out psychedelic classics.
The Yardbirds “Happening Ten Years Time Ago”:
By that time, Samwell-Smith—by now producing as well as playing bass—had quit, replaced by Jimmy Page, who in turn would move from bass to sharing lead guitar duties with Beck, Dreja swapping rhythm guitar for bass. As thrilling as that lineup was, it lasted just a few months (and only three studio tracks), Beck leaving the band in the midst of a grueling American tour in late 1966. By the beginning of 1967, the Yardbirds had lost both a guitarist and a manager, Napier-Bell getting replaced by future Led Zeppelin overseer Peter Grant.
“It’s really mysterious how he suddenly disappeared, and then Peter Grant sort of came on the scene,” McCarty wonders. “Simon hadn’t even told us. Peter Grant suddenly appeared and said, ‘Oh yeah, well Simon’s gonna share the management with me now.’ It was very odd. Because we did use to go to Simon’s apartment, as I said in the book, and talk about things. But we never had that meeting. I’ve no idea why he just dropped out like that. Unless he didn’t like us, or whatever.”
Could it have something to do with Beck leaving? “Maybe it was something to do with that. But he didn’t even put himself forward to manage Jeff. I’ve no idea. Maybe he didn’t like Jimmy Page!” Jim’s sort of kidding, but Peter Grant is quoted as remembering a warning from Napier-Bell in Mark Blake’s recent Grant bio Bring It On Home: “He said, ‘There’s a troublemaker in the band, a real pain in the arse.’ I said, ‘Who’s that?’ He said, ‘Jimmy Page.’”
The Yardbirds had a year and a half to go under Grant’s guidance, but it would be a frustrating era in which the hits dried up and the records, for reasons that remain to some degree inexplicable, became erratic and at times downright poor. Much of that was due to new producer Mickie Most, who was behind the choice of ill-suited pop tunes and covers for their final quartet of singles.
“Those songs were totally inappropriate,” laments McCarty. “He didn’t really give the group the credit it was due. Because we didn’t even play on some of those songs. Actually, we did a version of ‘Goodnight, Sweet Josephine’ [the A-side of their final 45, in 1968] that we played on. And I thought, ‘Oh, this is much better sounding.’ ‘Cause at least it had that group feeling to it.”
Surprisingly, as McCarty recounts in his book, Page (along with Grant) was “adamant” they give Most a whirl, over the rest of the band’s reservations. As the UK’s top rock session guitarist before his stint with the Yardbirds, Page had already played on a bunch of Most-produced records, most notably Donovan’s “Sunshine Superman.” Most did have a long track record of British Invasion hits with Donovan, the Animals, Herman’s Hermits, and Lulu, but wouldn’t restore the Yardbirds to the upper reaches of the charts.
It’s still puzzling why Most didn’t play to the Yardbirds’ strengths by encouraging their original material or imaginative interpretations of outside compositions. “That’s what he did with Donovan, I think,” Jim agrees. “The Donovan albums were pretty good, weren’t they? That was a good album [Sunshine Superman]. I think he just let them get on with it.”
The group were allowed to “get on with it” on some B-sides and LP tracks, but only in glimpses here and there, like the fiery “Goodnight Sweet Josephine” flip “Think About It” or the otherworldly cut actually titled “Glimpses” on their 1967 US-only LP Little Games. On the latter song, throbbing bass, Page’s shimmering guitar distortions, exotic sound effects, monk-type wordless vocals, and Relf’s enigmatic spoken incantations mix in a psychedelic near-instrumental as far out as anything they did, ending with a revved-up crescendo throwback to their rave-up days.
“If only we’d just hung on in there and had some confidence. There was always that feeling when the Pink Floyd came along, oh, we could have been that band!”
A whole album of excursions like “Glimpses” and the Little Games folk instrumental “White Summer” (a showcase for Page’s folk-picking virtuosity) might have kept the Yardbirds at psychedelia’s cutting edge. “It was all about having our own self-confidence,” feels McCarty. “If only we’d just hung on in there and had some confidence. There was always that feeling when the Pink Floyd came along, oh, we could have been that band!”
“The ideas were there, they were never allowed to be exploited,” asserted Page in the February 24, 1969 issue of Fusion, less than a year after the Yardbirds split. “You had to keep cutting these dreadful things and hope that you might get something good on the B-side. That’s what it was—the power of the producer, and we were stupid enough not to do anything about it.”
Live with Jimmy Page, the Yardbirds kept their integrity, mixing some of their mid-‘60s classics—which, after all, were still just a year or two old—with some new material, as well as covers that never made their studio albums. Even some of their hits were rearranged for the Page lineup, particularly “I’m a Man,” which stretched past six minutes with semi-improvised sections of violin bowing and new ruminative lyrics. The live Page era is shown to best advantage on the 1967-68 recordings on the new five-disc Yardbirds box Live and Rare. It also includes off-the-beaten live and BBC tracks stretching back to 1964, as well as an entire DVD of 1964-68 footage spanning the Clapton, Beck, Beck-Page, and Page lineups.
“We could play all those sort of arrangements for the old songs, and play them differently every night,” McCarty enthuses. “And actually pretty well. It was just a question of time to get more ideas together. Funnily enough, when I look back on that, I’m quite impressed with some of those ideas. They weren’t as bad as I thought at the time,” he laughs.
One particular highlight of their March 9, 1968 spot on French TV was a radical reinvention of an obscure folk song by Jake Holmes, “Dazed and Confused.” Originally presented (on the 1967 LP The Above Ground Sound of Jake Holmes) as a mordant if compelling drumless dirge, the Yardbirds turned it into a six-minute psychedelic tour de force. Now it boasted a Page-on-violin-bow solo, as well as a rave-up instrumental break with dueling guitar and harmonica. You can see it on Live and Rare (which also has their BBC radio performance of the song, recorded just a few days earlier), but you couldn’t get it on a Yardbirds record at the time. Why didn’t they cut a studio version?
“It’s a good question,” admits McCarty. “It does seem a bit weird that we never did that one. Because we were playing it for a while, and it always came over really well. It was always a great version. I suppose we just hadn’t developed it in the studio. We didn’t even do it on the end, on those sessions [in New York on April 3 and 4 of 1968, parts of which would be issued on CD many years later]. It’s very strange. Unless we were still trying to find the three-minute single. Because we were sort of completely stuck in that thing. We needed a new single all the time, and it had to be that three-minute song. That was the sort of mindset in those days.”
Yet another live version of “Dazed and Confused” was issued on the notorious concert album Live Yardbirds Featuring Jimmy Page. Recorded at New York’s Anderson Theater on March 30, 1968, it was briefly released in September 1971 to capitalize on Page’s stardom with Led Zeppelin, but quickly withdrawn after Jimmy’s objections. It wasn’t just Page who objected to the results—the tracks were overdubbed with audience cheers that, even by the standards of fake crowd noise, were phony and ham-fisted.
In 2017, however, Page remixed the recordings, removing the fake crowd noise, though the remix does take out most of Keith Relf’s between-song comments and edit some of the performances, removing the third verse of “Dazed and Confused” as one example. The results were issued as Yardbirds ’68 by JimmyPage.com.
“Chris and I were very pleased that Jimmy eventually found it,” says McCarty. “That thing was going around for ages. The master tapes were mysteriously missing. It must have been about ten years ago that I got a call from Jimmy Page’s manager. He said to me, ‘I would only manage Jimmy if he released that album, ‘cause that was my favorite album at the time.’
“And then they couldn’t find the master. Jimmy was ringing me, saying, ‘Do you have the master?’ I said, ‘No, I don’t have the master for that.’ It went dead for a while. About two or three years ago, we suddenly heard that Jimmy had found the masters, redone it, remixed it, and wanted it out. And we’re gonna share it all equally, etc. We were very pleased about that.” He and Page are still in touch, and not just to arrange the release of the Anderson Theatre gig; Page wrote the introduction to Nobody Told Me!
Clapton’s departure, initially a blow, worked out best for all concerned. Eric got to play the blues with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, and make his own leap to rock superstardom less than two years later with Cream. And the Yardbirds replaced Clapton with Jeff Beck.
Yardbirds ’68 also has a disc of “studio sketches” of outtakes from the final studio sessions with Page. One of these, in particular, stands up to almost anything else they cut with Jimmy, as well as pointing to a new direction that could have been plumbed had they had more time. “Knowing That I’m Losing You (Tangerine)” was, of course, famously reworked as “Tangerine” on Led Zeppelin III. The Yardbirds’ version is a supremely eerie, folky piece with echoes of medieval English music.
It’s also graced by one of Relf’s most effectively plaintive vocals—but not in on Yardbirds ’68, which presents it as an instrumental, though the vocal version has unofficially circulated for years. That’s fueled speculation that the absence of words has something to do with the question as to who wrote the lyrics Relf sang, which have both differences from and similarities to the words for Led Zeppelin’s “Tangerine.”
“I must say Chris and I sort of went along with it the way he had it,” comments McCarty when I bring up the delicate question as to why “Knowing That I’m Losing You” has no vocals. “We didn’t ask any questions. He said, ‘I’d like to put it out,’ you know what I mean. But he had it all ready-mixed, and he didn’t have vocals on that track. He was obviously trying to protect himself. I don’t think we wanted to bring up that sensitive area either.
“Sometimes I speak to people, and I particularly speak to Keith Relf’s sons, and of course they ask me the inevitable question about that song. And I have to be really honest, that I couldn’t remember that Keith wrote the lyrics. There’s nowhere that he’s written them down. I always thought he did, but when it came to the question, Jimmy said, ‘Oh, well, I wrote that song about a breakup with a girlfriend.’ I couldn’t really argue. I couldn’t remember exactly who wrote what.” That girlfriend’s sometimes been rumored to be Jackie DeShannon, with whom Page had a fling in the mid-‘60s; in fact, “before he joined us, he brought her round to a gig.”
“Knowing That I’m Losing You” reflected Relf and McCarty’s growing interest in folkier, lower-volume sounds. Could they have developed more material along these lines with Page, especially since Jimmy cranked up the volume when he formed Led Zeppelin?
“There were a couple of rather folky things on the first Zeppelin album,” McCarty counters. “A couple of really nice folky things. I sometimes wonder, because I remember having a conversation with him one time. He said, ‘You want to go in a different direction? I’m happy to do that.’
“Yet I heard a story recently. It’s actually on a promo he did for a Fender guitar. He said at the time the Yardbirds were coming to the end, he went to see somebody that read his palm. This person said to him, ‘Oh, you’re gonna have a big change in your life coming up which is gonna do you lots of good.’ He actually said on this video [that] the other guys wanted to go in a different direction, but I wasn’t having any of it. Which is strange, because I vaguely remember him saying at the time, ‘Oh, I’m happy to go the way you want to go.’ So somewhere along the line, he drifted apart from us, and that’s where we split.”
That wasn’t the only thing carving up the Yardbirds by mid-1968. By the end of their run, the stress of four years of constant touring, along with the pressures of trying to recapture commercial success, were taking their toll.
“I went through this terrible depression,” says McCarty. “I couldn’t do anything. It was horrible. I’d never been like that before, or ever since. But it was like I couldn’t have any energy. It lasted quite a few months quite strongly, and then it gradually disappeared, very slowly. But I couldn’t turn up for the tour [of the US near the end of 1967]. I did turn up for it eventually.”
Continues Jim, “I said we could have been the Pink Floyd, but I don’t think so. We didn’t have any more energy left to carry on, not without having a sort of a year off or something. That was impossible, to take time off. You just thought, ‘We’ll disappear from the public view. Everyone will forget us.’”
Yet it wasn’t long after the Yardbirds’ last gig with Page in July 1968 that Relf and McCarty reunited with Paul Samwell-Smith, who produced a single by the duo that came out under the name Together. Together didn’t stay together long, but Relf and McCarty recruited other musicians for the first lineup with Renaissance, whose 1969 debut LP was also produced by Samwell-Smith.
With its fusion of rock, folk, and classical influences, Renaissance was about as different from the Yardbirds as any spin-off band has been from their predecessor. Which was fine with McCarty. “It was just refreshing. It was melodic, it was harmonic, it was nice to listen to, it had an atmosphere. I’ve always loved music that took you somewhere, that had a real atmosphere to it. We could have got an image for it as well, with Keith and his sister [Jane, who sang vocals with Keith in the group]. The way we progressed, which is sort of an accident really, we suddenly started to play classical stuff. That was coming from John Hawken [keyboard player, formerly of the Nashville Teens], and jamming around with the ideas.
“We did a tour, and I don’t think people knew what to make of us. Because we were playing with Savoy Brown, the Kinks, Neil Young, and Paul Butterfield. We were so different from what people saw. I think they thought we were gonna be another Zeppelin type of band.”
A demo that Keith and Jane Relf made in 1976:
Despite its early promise, this version of Renaissance wouldn’t even last another album, breaking up before a follow-up was completed. When the group was reorganized for a third album, no original members remained. The band that achieved considerable success later in the ‘70s, with Annie Haslam as lead singer, bore as little relationship to the original incarnation as Rumours-era Fleetwood Mac did to the late-‘60s Peter Green-blues band of the same name.
“They didn’t have that sort of feeling that we had, when we started it,” is McCarty’s diplomatic assessment of the later Renaissance. He agrees that when it comes to the rock life, Jane Relf “hasn’t got the personality for it. She hasn’t got that sort of whatever you need to get by as a girl singer. Something that Annie Haslam has in a huge way compared to her.”
In contrast, McCarty’s managed to make a living at rock ever since, if in much lower-key projects than the Yardbirds. He worked with the nucleus of the original Renaissance (sadly minus Keith Relf, who died in 1976) in Illusion; reunited with Dreja and Samwell-Smith in Box of Frogs in the ‘80s; put out solo albums, singing and playing guitar as well as drums; and is still touring as part of the Yardbirds, albeit as the only member from their ‘60s lineups.
“It’s all about having a vehicle for your ideas, and I’ve never really been stuck into one sort of genre,” he believes. “If I’m singing, I actually go the Renaissance way, which is much more gentle. Because that suits my voice. Melodic and harmonic; I like harmonies and interesting tunes. I do have quite a few ideas, and it’s a question of the vehicle for it.
“I think I’m very lucky to be able to do that, get a certain amount of acceptance, and find the necessary musicians and people in the studio, particularly in Toronto, because I’ve worked there quite a bit. There’s quite a lot of enthusiasm for my stuff and to work with me, and I’ve got a good team of musicians that are great to work with. That’s always very gratifying for me.”
As for his self-published memoir, “it sells mainly on the shows” he does. “I haven’t done millions, but it’s done quite a few, it’s been quite healthy. I’ve had some really nice feedback. I did speak to…there was a guy at one of the shows who’s a small-time publisher. He was saying, ‘I’d like to publish your book.’ And he was suggesting ways of changing it.
“It got a bit boring in the end. ‘Cause we thought, so he’s gonna change it all and then we’re gonna end up getting not much out of it. Is it really worth it? Because at least we’re happy with the book. So we kept it as it was. In the end, I didn’t have a sort of real rapport with this guy.” Co-writer Dave Thompson “said to me, ‘He’s terribly boring, isn’t he?’”
Which the Yardbirds certainly weren’t. It’s more than fifty years after Jim McCarty thought, “We’ll disappear from the public view. Everyone will forget us.” But long after anxieties over chart performance have faded, the music remains as intriguing, exciting, and durable as any produced in rock history.