With their first recording in 36 years, the Yardbirds are back in high-flying, guitar-flaying, hard-rocking fashion
There are indelible moments in the history of rock 'n' roll, sublime happenings that thankfully have nothing to do with number of albums sold, MP3s downloaded or navels on display in a video.
It can be an instant during a song when something explodes and the listener is left with pure, unembellished, quivering emotion. Or it can be a song itself that demolishes the musical status quo with style, sound and attitude.
Most bands never achieve these wondrous peaks, wouldn't even know how. The Yardbirds made it seem commonplace.
• They invented the rave-up, a musical interlude in which the entire band crescendos furiously until it hits a state of complete chaos. See 'I'm a Man' or 'I Wish You Would.'
• Dressed in their mod-est Carnaby Street gear, the Yardbirds supercharge Michelangelo Antonioni's seminal 1966 film 'Blow-Up.' During a nightclub sequence, brash guitarist Jeff Beck trashes his instrument while the band bulldozes its way through 'Stroll On.'
• Beck's guitar solos in 'Train Kept a Rollin'' are the epitome of rough, rude and raw tonality. The Yardbirds' version makes Aerosmith's lame remake seem, well, lame.
There are other inspired instances, including musical experiments with Middle Eastern scales and Gregorian chants, but time grows short.
Originally part of the early '60s R & B boom in England that spawned the Rolling Stones, the Animals and the Pretty Things, the Yardbirds made their name by always having a flash guitar hero in the house. Three plucky caballeros named Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page all made their bones in the group.
'I think the lineup of Chris (Dreja), Paul Samwell-Smith,
Keith Relf, Jeff Beck and myself was the best,' says drummer Jim McCarty, 59, during a phone interview with the Tribune. 'It was the most creative time, and we wrote our best songs.
'Jeff Beck was more than a blues guitarist,' he adds, discussing the succession of famous ax-men. 'He had a wider background than Eric (Clapton, Beck's predecessor). He listened to Les Paul, Link Wray, Gene Vincent, rockabilly and things like that.
'It was around 1966 that we first went to America, and it was great. We were a rather austere act in England, and then we got to California for the first time! That was quite a surprise. É We started out wearing light-colored suits, then black suits and (eventually) we were all in caftans.'
The Yardbirds disbanded in 1968, with guitarist Jimmy Page Ñ who succeeded Beck Ñ moving on to form Led Zeppelin, a group that also sold a few albums in its time.
McCarty is stumping on behalf of the first Yardbirds record in 36 years. It's called 'Birdland,' and it's made up of re-recordings of classic Yardbirds cuts and some new numbers primarily composed by McCarty and original rhythm guitarist Chris Dreja.
The album boasts special guest guitarists Ñ Joe Satriani, Slash, Steve Vai and 'Skunk' Baxter, among others Ñ performing fiery solos on revered songs such as 'Shapes of Things,' 'Over Under Sideways Down' and 'Happenings Ten Years Time Ago.' Goo Goo Dolls singer John Rzeznik also steps behind the mike for a credible version of the Yardbirds' biggest hit, 'For Your Love.'
'The new record was put out on Steve Vai's record label (Favored Nations), so it was easy for him to bring in these other guitarists,' McCarty says. 'During our tour last year, (Queen guitarist) Brian May approached us after our Albert Hall show and expressed some interest in playing. We were happy to have Brian there to fly the British flag among all these Americans' Ñ Satriani, Vai, Slash, etc.
All this would be just so much rock-geek history if the Yardbirds hadn't returned in high-flying fashion. While their new material isn't as brilliant as the classic cuts, the revamped band proves it can certainly cook with indefatigable pub-rock zeal. (McCarty and Dreja decided to hatch another incarnation of the Yardbirds sometime after their 1992 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.)
Bassist-singer John Idan has a great soul voice, and former Nine Below Zero harmonica blower Alan Glen absolutely torches his blues harp. Yet the most attention falls on new guitarist Gypie Mayo, who acquits himself nicely, considering the band's towering six-string legacy.
'Gypie's been at it for a while now, and I think he's finally got it down,' McCarty says. 'He's a very spontaneous player, very unpredictable.'
Are there times when the gray-haired drummer wonders what year it is as he looks around the stage during the bashing out of some hoary old tune?
'Actually, yes,' he says with a chuckle.