“We really didn’t know what we were doing in those days. We were just trying everything and thumbing our noses, not knowing that it would become a blueprint for a lot of stuff.”
– Yardbirds co-founder Chris Dreja
We won’t attempt to write a book on the Yardbirds here; that’s already been done three times (see the print and online bibliography at the end of this bio for further reading). We’ll simply reiterate that the Yardbirds, perhaps more than any other group, brought guitar pyrotechnics to rock & roll in the 1960s. By introducing Clapton, Beck and Page to the world, and giving them plenty of space to create, the band set the template not only for Cream, the Jeff Beck Group and Led Zeppelin (whose original moniker was the New Yardbirds), but for virtually every rock group featuring distortion, feedback and in-your-face electric-guitar virtuosity.
Now, that remarkable achievement would be more than enough for any band to fondly look back on, but this band is aggressively moving forward. Three years after their 1992 induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (“We had roast duck,” Chris Dreja says of that special night), the Yardbirds reformed, but they chose to stay below the radar, tweaking their lineup and working up material. That has changed with the release of their first new studio recording since 1967’s Little Games. What’s surprising about the new longplayer, Birdland (on Steve Vai’s Favored Nations Records), is that, a full 35 years later, the sound remains distinctly and electrifyingly that of the Yardbirds. It’s also very much of the moment, as another generation of gritty, guitar-slinging units like the White Stripes, the Hives, the Strokes and the Vines connects with the reinvigorated rock audience.
Among the talents of founding members Dreja (rhythm guitar, backing vocals) and Jim McCarty (drums, backing vocals) is a knack for locating brilliant guitar players, and they’ve done it yet again by centering the current Yardbirds around the fleet-fingered explosiveness of one John “Gypie” Mayo, the best axeman you never heard of (unless you followed the exploits of Dr. Feelgood from 1977-80, when Mayo played with that revved-up British R&B unit and came up with the fondly remembered “Milk and Alcohol”). “Gypie never plays anything quite the same way twice,” Dreja says. “He’s very inspired and of the moment, like Beck – he’s a fantastic player who’s spectacular when he’s on.'”
Filling out the group are Detroit-reared frontman/bassist John Idan, a lifelong Yardbirds fan who views his gig as a labor of love, and onetime Nine Below Zero member Alan Glen blowing harp in the spirit of the late Keith Relf, the band’s original lead singer, who was electrocuted in 1976 while recording at home. Both charismatic performers — John with his astonishing range and visually exciting stage presence, and Alan, a hauntingly soulful player and one of the UK’s most in-demand session players — have developed devoted followings. Mesmerizing and most blues-wailing indeed!
This crack crew has plenty of company on Birdland, which features guest appearances by six-string notables Brian May, Slash, Joe Satriani, Steve Lukather, Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, Vai and Jeff Beck, who returns to take a spin in his onetime vehicle. This array of talent, along with the introduction of their skilled contemporary Mayo, makes the album a feast for rock-guitar aficionados.
In order to introduce the group and its oeuvre to a new generation of music lovers, the band members, at Vai’s urging, decided to make new recordings of eight Yardbirds classics: “I’m Not Talking” (with Mayo taking the lead), “The Nazz Are Blue” (featuring Baxter), “For Your Love” (with the Goo Goo Dolls’ Johnny Rzeznik on vocals), “Train Kept a Rolling” (Satriani), “Shapes of Things” (Vai), “Over, Under, Sideways, Down” (Slash), “Mr. You’re a Better Man Than I” (May) and “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago” (Lukather). “Some of the back catalog is absolutely stunning live,” Dreja marvels, “and today, with better sound equipment, it’s gone into the 21st century really well.”
“I consider it a great honor that such highly respected musicians have decided to come and join in,” says McCarty. “But then again, the Yardbirds have always been a collecting point for authentic and explorative musicians, past and present.”
These reinterpretations are interspersed with seven new songs that perpetuate the Yardbirds’ musical tradition – “Crying Out for Love,” “Please Don’t Tell Me ‘Bout the News,” “Mr. Saboteur,” “My Blind Life”, “Mystery of Being,” “Dream Within a Dream” and “An Original Man (A Song for Keith)” – while giving full rein to the range and firepower of the new lineup.
“The current material connects with the original material,” McCarty maintains, “in that there were definitely two different sides to the previous material, namely the bluesy-riffy ideas such as ‘I’m Not Talking’ and ‘I’m a Man,’ and the more moody songs such as ‘For Your Love’ and ‘Shapes of Things.’ I feel that this is still evident with songs like ‘Mystery of Being’ and ‘Dream Within a Dream,’ which are both quite haunting, whereas ‘News’ and ‘Mr. Saboteur’ bring in more of the bluesy influence.”
McCarty composed five of the seven new songs: “Mystery of Being,” “Dream Within a Dream,” “News,” “Mr. Saboteur” and the minor-key, blues-based “Crying Out for Love.” “Jim’s a composer, so he probably out of all of us possesses the ability to bring a song to the table,” Dreja says of his partner. “Then we Yardbirdize it – we seriously birdshit all over it.” Dreja penned “My Blind Life” in the spirit of Bo Diddley and Howlin’ Wolf, and “An Original Man” is a group composition that pays tribute to Relf.
Working with producer Ken Allardyce (Weezer, Fleetwood Mac, Green Day, Goo Goo Dolls), a relocated Scot who fell in love with the Yardbirds when he saw them open for the Beatles in 1964, the band cut the bulk of the record at Vai’s Mothership Studios in Hollywood, with additional work done at two London facilities and Jeff Beck’s home studio in Sussex.
“To make our first album in so many years has been a lasting ambition of ours,” says Dreja. “We wanted to do our original songs and our new ones with modern production, while preserving the essence of our sound. To me, it doesn’t sound like we’ve been away for 35 years. The Yardbirds are still a kick-ass, high-energy band, and that comes across on this album.”
What were once and future Yardbirds up to in the years between the breakup and the reformation? “In the mid-’80s,” Dreja recalls, “we felt the need to record some more material, which became the Box of Frogs. We had people like Ian Dury, Graham Parker, Roger Chapman, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, Rory Gallagher and Steve Hackett. It was not a touring band; it was an outlet for middle-aged men to get together and play music – group therapy,” he quips. “Then there was another long break because of other commitments – other careers, really.” Dreja has been a professional photographer for 32 years, while McCarty, who, with Relf, founded the ’70s group Renaissance, has more recently recorded several solo albums. “But Jim and I always kept in contact. Then, after you guys honored us in ’92, there came a discussion about playing again, if we could find the right people for the Yardbirds.”
McCarty picks up the narrative thread: “Motivation for reforming the band came in about 1995, when Chris and I were approached by an agent who was already working with a reformed Animals. I had been playing since about 1989 in the Jim McCarty Band, a London blues band formed with Top Topham, the original Yardbirds` guitarist from 1963, who was replaced by Eric Clapton after playing with the band for about six months. A recording of the band made in 1993 was recently released for the first time. We had met John Idan while he was in London buying guitars for a U.S. business, and he decided to join up with us. Eventually, Top left and was replaced by Ray Majors, who had played on a track for Box of Frogs back in 1984.
“John and Ray were invited to join the new Yardbirds lineup, with John on bass. John brings to the band an energy and enthusiasm, as well as a very good knowledge of the original group and a respect for the original material. He also looks a bit like Keith Relf, but sings more like a Chicago blues singer. We then asked Laurie Garman, another musician who would occasionally jam with us in the pubs, to join us on harmonica. We started with some ‘retro’ shows and festivals, finding it good fun and enjoying playing the old songs. Ray was a pretty heavy guitarist, and we thought it would be better to replace him with somebody more spontaneous in his playing, a la Jeff Beck. Laurie Garman had played with Gypie Mayo previously in a band called the Cobras, and so we gave him a go. It was obvious to me that Gypie was just right for the band, as he was incredibly creative, especially on stage. Around 1997, Laurie was replaced by Alan Glen.
“Over the process of creating the new material for Birdland, we have all opened up much more to our various individual and collective potentials,” McCarty says of the modern-day Yardbirds, “and there is now a new dynamism amongst us the original excitement and energy is still there, but with added experience, which definitely helps in some aspects.”
Dreja explains how the band managed to attract that impressive array of big-name guests for the project: “All the guitar players, people in music, especially in America, have always held a sort of reverence for the Yardbirds. Steve and the gang in America helped to get Slash and Satriani on board. Once the ball started rolling, you get one or two great people on it and others want to follow. This is an album of passion and love, not a marketing exercise.”
What would Dreja say to skeptics who will inevitably question the band’s motives in revisiting vintage material and wheeling out the guest stars? “The decision to remind people of the energy of those original songs was important because we went away. We were not a band like the Who or the Stones that just carried on and everybody grew old with – we took a long holiday.
“Every artist likes to better what they did originally, and I really prefer a lot of our interpretations now to the originals. The originals were done in a short amount of time, and the production was crap. It was very interesting to go back and stage the play again, so to speak. And anyway, the album is a mix of new and old, and the old material has subtle changes, and of course those guests really knocked their socks off to put something special into those songs. When I listened to the reference master, I tried to distance myself. And I realized that this band still has that urgent edge. There’s blood and sweat, which is what this album took.”
And what of those who would accuse the band of cashing in now that its musical approach has become popular again? “That garage sound never really went away,” Dreja replies. “I’ve been hearing it all over the place for years, and for some reason it’s fashionable again. But that’s not us picking up the phone saying, ‘Hey man, it’s all coming back. Let’s get out there and make an album.’ We were way ahead of that. It just sort of happened that the album’s coming out at a time when the Hives and the Strokes are getting a bit of press. And believe me, it’s not easy getting a record deal after 35 years,” he says with a rueful laugh, “especially with all the reshuffling at the major companies, who were dropping very good acts themselves. Steve came along and said if we could do it this way, he’d love to do an album. He was really cool about… and he did a great solo too.” Shrewd move, Chris, giving props to the label head.
McCarty was at London’s Festival Hall last year when the White Stripes played some Yardbirds songs with none other than Jeff Beck in a sort cross-generational rave-up. “I spoke with Jack the singer afterwards,” Jim recalls, “and he was very complimentary towards me. The set with Jeff was exciting and full of youthful enthusiasm.”
These Yardbirds are channeling a similar enthusiasm, three-and-a-half decades down the line, as these inveterate rock & rollers wail away, still capable of achieving godhead, still having a blast.
“It’ll be extremely fascinating to see what happens – who lambastes us, who doesn’t,” Dreja reflects. “We are obviously going to come to America and work the album; it’s very important to us. None of us are youngsters, of course, and we don’t know how many years left of touring there may be. So this is going to be a pivotal moment for us, no doubt. But this is a band. That is what the Yardbirds are – warts and edginess and all. It’s the real thing.”