Sunday, 30 May 2010

Yardbirds Live In Leeds, 1966


I miss the last train home and spend the night stranded
in Leeds, but hey, Wednesday 23rd March 1966 was
a great night. THE YARDBIRDS at ‘The Majestic Ballroom’
‘Everybody knows that three feet make a yard,
but every Moddy knows that ten feet make the Yardbirds…’
(‘Record Mirror’ 30 May 1964)

And now, ‘the most blueswailing BIRDYARDS, sorry, the most yardwailing BLUEBIRDS, er, Live Five YIRDBARDS – no, FIVE LIVE YARDBIRDS!’ And they don’t even do the hits. As though it’s not quite valid pandering to chart stuff. Which is a shame. They’re great little singles. In memory, it was something like the “Stroll On” sequence in ‘Blow-Up’, with Jeff Beck petulantly smashing his guitar. Jimmy Page standing slightly back, watching him with a playful smile, an expression that might be amusement, admiration, or something of both. But it wasn’t really like that. The Yardbirds have been proclaimed the first psychedelic band. The first to experiment with strange tunings and odd sounds. But in Leeds they stick pretty close to their earlier ‘Most Blueswailing’ tag-line, as High Priests of the Home Counties Brit-bluesology Blues-revering sect. With an extended ten-minute “I’m A Man” building to its long rattling percussive lead-out, climaxing the hard-storming hour-long set. ‘The Majestic’ stands across City Square, just opposite the Rail Station. With its spacious auditorium and wide balcony, at various times it’s operated under the guise of a Bingo venue, and more recently a trendy Night Club frequented by Leeds United stars, and also the location of one of their more scurrilously violent episodes in the run-up to their collapse from the Premiership. But during the sixties it was the city’s premier ballroom, a place for crowds laughing, joking, drinking, smoking, till they’d spent their wage, a place to pull if your luck’s in, or else get off on just about every beat-combo name from the Beatles, the Mojos, the Hollies, Zoot Money’s Big Roll Band, on down at various weekends. And this night, the Yardbirds.

Over the years since, Yardbird history has been rewritten around the three-guitarists theory. The Eric Clapton-Jeff Beck-Jimmy Page triad that ran in series, and sometimes in parallel through the group’s story. That’s an understandable, if skewed perspective. You can no more understand a group dynamic by studying its constituent parts in isolation than you can appreciate what a laptop can do by examining a pile of disconnected printed-circuits and silicon chips. The Five Live Yardbirds operate as a single collective entity, a single pulsating organism, and should be viewed in that way. I’d been aware of them for some time before I’d even heard them. Long before Love or the Doors, they were the first group to exploit the graphic visual flair of configuring their name into an art-logo. The abrupt angular ‘Y’, the back-to-back echoing ‘db’, the long-tongued ‘r’s supporting and interlocking the ‘d’s into a stylish scrawl. Although I’d yet to make the connection with BeBop giant Charlie ‘Yardbird’ Parker, I’d noted their distinctive font in the gig-guide lead-out pages of ‘Melody Maker’ or ‘Record Mirror’, standing bold from ‘The Marquee’ or ‘The Crawdaddy’ Club-box listing, focussing attention towards the sparse lines of advance reviews. They’d debuted at Eel Pie Island, then replaced the Stones as house-band at Giorgio Gomelsky’s ‘Crawdaddy’ when Jagger-&-co moved up and out into greater things. Although by day the venue went under the somewhat staid guise of ‘The Richmond Cricket Club’, the ‘Daily Mail’ claimed it ‘should be called the southern equivalent of Liverpool’s Cavern…’ and with the succession bestowing them a certain legendary status from the off ‘the Yardbirds will soon be whisked away on the elevator of fame. Or so they say’ (2 March 1964). Further hints and suggestions invested them with the vaguely esoteric air that their biographer Alan Clayson calls their ‘arty aura’. Blues bands were hardly a scarcity around the scene. But the Yardbirds crank it up a notch, elevate it a little onto another level, upset the pH of the scene by innovating Clapton’s extended instrumental ‘rave-ups’. A tendency that, with time, would in less dexterous hands become tediously self-indulgent, but as yet was still bitingly sharp and relatively restrained. Something of it is captured on ‘Five Live Yardbirds’ (Columbia SX1677, December 1964), their first album cut live at ‘The Marquee’ where they had a Sunday-night residency, with the compere’s stumbling mispronounced introduction, and the tapes speeded-up slightly so as to fit the ten tracks onto twelve inches of vinyl. Yet ‘without doubt one of the four or five most exciting Rock concerts ever recorded’ according to ‘Rolling Stone’ (9 July 1970). Looking as the liner-photos now, on the far left Relf looks unbelievably vulnerably boyish, while far-right there’s a short-back-&-sides Clapton in neat tie. But between them, the bedrock of the band, Paul Samwell-Smith’s bass and Chris Dreja’s rhythm guitar, bouyed on Jim McCarty’s neat economical drumming. McCarty scribed the witty liner notes for the second – and definitive album, variously known as ‘The Yardbirds’ or ‘Roger The Engineer’ (Columbia SCX 6063, July 1966), named for studio technician Roger Cameron caricatured in the warped cover-art inked by Dreja. For this second album, incoming ex-Trident Jeff Beck took Clapton’s clean Blues lines and gave them a dirtier edge, with reverb and bits of feedback. There are Blues-roots to “The Nazz Are Blue” lifted direct from Elmore James’ “Dust My Broom”, but Beck is less a Blues-Stalinist than Clapton, his solo takes it into elsewhere. More open to other influences, drawing chiming Jazz-quotes into “Jeff’s Boogie”.

The first few hit singles, when they duly arrive, were written for them by Graham Gouldman, but uniquely individualised. “For Your Love” with its structured changes, odd percussion and ascending Baroque harpsichord (courtesy Brian Auger), plus the keening “Heartful Of Soul” are both sharply inventive. “Still I’m Sad” – a group original (Samwell-Smith & McCarty) based around a Gregorian chant, is frankly weird. “Shapes Of Things”, another group-original (Relf, McCarty, Samwell-Smith) via a vague Sci-Fi HG Wells/ Alexander Korda futuristic vision, makes a blisteringly concise forty-five-rpm with not a note to spare. Yes, Jeff Beck’s solo is a masterpiece of inspired compression, but Keith’s lyrics delivered in his slightly nasal vocal-lines touch base with anti-militarist protest, and a yearning sense-of-wonder long-perspective gaze into endless tomorrows ‘when time and tide have been’, building to a jerking juddering climax. And although it’s studio-refined, they can do it live. Flip it over, and “You’re A Better Man Than I” came from the Manfred’s Mike Hugg, asserting the need not to judge a man by the colour of his skin, a fairly obvious sentiment now, but back then it was still something that needed restating. Each single evolving away from Blues, certainly. Carrying advance tremors of psychedelia, undoubtedly. A whole slew of American garage-bands would retune their dissonance through this Yardbirds lens.

Not that any of these elements come high on the set-list in Leeds as the place comes alive. The stage framed by a white-plaster frieze that’s seen better days, with cornices and wall-motifs, as the play-in vagueness becomes a ‘sound’, urgent, precise, real. ‘Come back baby, I wish you would’, ‘Howling’ Relf appears pale and frail, lost, partially eclipsed behind hands cupping his Hohner Echo mouth-harp around the mike in sprays of blonde fringe. He’s softly-spoken between numbers, speaking hesitantly, or not at all, and sways a little unsteadily when he steps back, not supported by the mike-stand. But his harmonica-abusing keens like a knife to the head. He raises his arm, keys in Beck’s crashing chords with a chopping hand-gesture. Beck sulking, concentrating on his Les Paul guitar to the exclusion of all else, while stix-man McCarty pins it down with clean uncluttered drums, no flash, his eyes closed. Dreja adds build, crouched in around his guitar, knees bent, jerking rhythmically and sometimes doing a stiff-legged hop forward, while Samwell-Smith looks slightly gawky, his striding up-front bass up-sloped at forty-five degrees, his hair unstylishly tousled, stooping in at the mike self-consciously to add harmonies, looking every bit the relief fill-in Geography Teacher. According to the three-guitarists theory, Beck is the star. At the time it doesn’t look that way. Instead, they work indivisibly. “Louise” from John Lee Hooker, ‘Loo-weeze, why don’t you hurry home?’ sung with off-pitch rawness, or “I’m A Man, M-A-N”. Charles Shaar Murray points out Bo Diddley’s defiant unspoken punchline ‘I’m a Man, don’t EVER call me boy’ gets reduced by thin white-boys to ‘I’m a man, you’re a woman – get ‘em off’. But hey, this night, it’s transcendental. Slow Blues, fast Blues, plus kinds of Blues you never ever dreamed possible, one moment setting up chiming unison riffs, the next trading solos, duelling, exchanging licks, then abruptly switching what seems to be straight Blues into thundering raucous-loud crescendo, despite primitive amplification. Rumour had it they use a Tibetan prayer-mat on stage to add ambience, although I can’t see it. Not from any of the various angles I manage to contrive through the storming set in buckets-of-sweat humidity. In memory, it all confuses into something like the faux-‘Ricky Tick’ sequence in ‘Blow-Up’. A sparking crackle from the Vox stack. Beck irritably clubbing the faulty amp with his guitar-neck, then again as the roadie’s tweaks have no effect, harder, petulantly smashing his guitar. He stomps on the fractured fragments, then hurls the amputated fret into the audience as the Yardies determinedly play on. Except, it’s not like that. David Hemmings retrieves the splintered fret, and escapes with it into the night. What do I retrieve from this, strangely different night? A heartful of blurred recall? And within months Beck would be gone (in October). ‘Farewell to future days…’ Paul Samwell-Smith too (June 1966). Things were moving fast. The Yardbirds faster than most. After the gig closes, with the final echoes of “Train Kept A-Rollin’” (re-written into “Stroll On” for copyright reasons for the movie) receding across the emptying hall, I hang around too long. City Square is cold with bleak tides of wind, a wind that’s blowing time into my heart, but I’m still so high on riffs I scarcely notice. And by the time I get there, the station is already gridded off in high black gates, not unlike the rusted alley-railings the group are imprisoned behind on the front of ‘Five Live Yardbirds’. The last train for Hull long since gone. What began as a strange night was about to become longer and stranger than I’d anticipated. But that’s another tale for a different occasion...

‘Is There A Rhythm & Blues Boom?’
Giorgio Gomelsky writes in ‘Jazzbeat’ (1964)


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