“How would you like to try and play guitar with broken fingers?” was how Don Arden kept Steve Marriot in the band The Small Faces when he was asked to join a new band with Jimmy Page. Don Arden (father of Sharon who these days is better know by her married name, Sharon Osbourne) had a reputation for being a tough, no nonsense gangster in the late 1960s British music scene. He is reported to have held music empresario Robert Stigwood (of RSO fame) over the balcony railing at a hotel to make his point: “My artists aren’t signing with you!” The idea of forming a band with Page excited Marriot a great deal, but in the end, he had to settle for keeping his fingers intact and eventually forming his own seminal blues-boogie band, Humble Pie. Page was a grizzled veteran of the studio when he was playing his final shows with The Yardbirds, but at the age of 22, he had his sights set on making music that reached beyond the pop singles that had made The Yardbirds famous.
Formed in 1963, The Yardbirds followed the template of the British ‘wanna be a blues band’ groups of the day. They took their name from the late jazz legend Charlie ‘Yardbird’ Parker and played pure blues covers by the American artists who spawned many Brit bands: Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, Elmore James. Founding members Keith Relf (harmonica, vocals, lyricist), Paul Samwell-Smith (bass), Jim McCarty (drums & vocals), Chris Dreja (guitar, bass, vocals) and lead guitarist Anthony ‘Top’ Topham eventually worked their was up the club ladder far enough to replace the Rolling Stones as the house band at the Crawdaddy Club. By then, Topham had left the band ‘to find a proper job’ and he was replaced by the new guy, another blues junky named Eric Clapton.
The Crawdaddy Club was owned by another music empire builder named Giorgio Gomelsky and he became their manager. Under Gomelsky’s guidance, they spent an 18 month stint as Sonny Boy Williamson II’s backing band while Giorgio brokered them a record deal with EMI. During Clapton’s tenure, the live album recorded with Williamson and their first studio album (Five Live Yardbirds) sank without producing so much as a ripple in a musical ocean teeming with poppier bands. Gomelsky set out to change that when he convinced music publisher Ronnie Beck to let the Yardbirds take a crack at a Graham Gouldman (later of 10cc fame) penned tune called For Your Love. Beck had intended to pass on to another pop band: The Beatles. For Your Love shot up the charts but had the unintended side effect of chasing Clapton out of the ‘Birds (he called the song “pop crap”) and into a band more in line with his ultra-purist blues leanings: John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. Clapton’s replacement was an ambitious 21 year old guitarist who harbored no ill feelings about becoming the guitarist in a popular band with a rising single on the charts. Jeff Beck was very happy to spend the next year bending musical rules and recording more hits with the Yardbirds. As he put it back then, “I wanted people to look at me, know what I was doing. I’m not one of those guys who wants to fade into the background on stage.” As famous as Beck would become as a guitar genius, he was actually the band’s second choice as Clapton’s replacement.
The guy the Yardbirds really wanted was that grizzled 21 year old studio veteran named Jimmy Page. He didn’t turn the Yardbirds down because he didn’t want to make hit records. Page turned them down because he was too busy making hit records with artists as varied as Shirley Bassey (Goldfinger), The Nashville Teens (Tobacco Road), Them (Baby, Please Don’t Go), among many, many others like The Kinks, The Who, Herman’s Hermits, and Lulu. It was Page who suggested his friend to the Yardbirds and within weeks, Beck was in the studio laying down another Gouldman track (and their next hit) Heart Full of Soul.
As the Yardbirds toured behind their Gouldman penned hits and blues covers, the beginning of the end for Beck’s time with the band arrived with their 1966 mega single Shapes of Things. It shot to #3 in Britain and into the Top 10 in the US, but Beck wasn’t given a share of the songwriting credits along side McCarty, Relf and Samwell-Smith. Beck was already notorious for his ‘good Beck, bad Beck’ behavior on stage and having his name excluded from the Shapes credits only made things worse. Beck had one foot out the door, but Samwell-Smith beat him to it after having a near brawl with Relf after a poor gig. The band seemed to be unwinding. They had a new album to tour and no bass player (Samwell-Smith would return to produce the band later, but he never toured with them again). By now, Jimmy Page was getting bored out of his skull with his still successful studio career, and he offered to replace Samwell-Smith on bass. Beck had an inkling that he and his old friend could do some miraculous things together, so they moved Dreja over to bass and the Yardbirds suddenly became one of the first bands of that era to feature two extremely gifted guitarists trading and/or sharing solos. As Page told the New Music Express at the time, “I was drying up as a guitarist. I was playing a lot of rhythm guitar on sessions, which is very dull. It left me no time to practice. Most of the musicians I know think I have done the right thing in joining The Yardbirds.”
When they debuted this lineup in Minneapolis in August of 1966, Dreja was asked if he felt put out being bumped to bass: “It definitely gave the band a kick up the arse (having Beck and Page on guitar). No, not at all. No, no. I’m a man who knows his limitations.” Tongue firmly planted in cheek, Dreja suggested that he was moved to bass because he was a better player than Page: “As a bass player he was rubbish. Too many bloody notes, mate!” Dreja would not commit as to which of the guitar players he worked with (Clapton, Beck or Page) was the best: “I enjoyed playing with all of them, They all come with such individual characteristics. Eric was a blues man. With Jeff you never knew what he was coming up with. He was a bloody genius, wasn’t he? But I loved to play with Jimmy. He was full of energy. Go, go, go! And I liked that. He was very positive. Still is today. He’s a wonderful man.”
Relentless touring began to take a toll on the band. Dreja and Page loved it, but McCarty and Relf were becoming disillusioned with being on the road. Looking back in 1974, Relf claimed, “The happiest times were playing London clubs like the Marquee and the Crawdaddy Club. With Eric, it was a blues band and (after that) it became a commercial band. We started touring the States, doing Dick Clark tours, playing one-nighters and that kind of thing.” Relf and McCarty kept at it for a while longer, but Beck fell head over heels for actress Mary Hughes and went Hollywood. He really wanted to play with Page, but with in a few months of falling for Hughes, he walked out on the Yardbirds and settled in Los Angeles. He did return for a time to tour Europe and appear with the band in the 1967 film Blow-Up, but eventually, Beck would depart for a solo career and the Yardbirds would continue as a four-piece until McCarty and Relf could take it no more. They were still powerful and looking back now, one can hear the snippets of the sound Page wanted but wouldn’t fully realize until the recording of the first Led Zeppelin album.
In May of 1966, Page had presided over a recording session that was intended for Beck’s first solo album. Beck’s reworking of Ravel’s Bolero (called Beck’s Bolero and later included on the album Truth) featured Page on acoustic guitar, Beck playing lead, session bass player John Paul Jones and The Who’s Keith Moon on drums (it is Moon who screams as the main riff gives way to the uptempo rave up near the middle of the track). Moon and Who bass player John Entwistle were unhappy with the their role in the ‘Pete and Rog Show’ (The Who) and were seriously mulling over Page’s idea of forming the super rhythm section for Page’s new band. It was either Moon or Entwistle (both had their own versions of the story) who inadvertently provided Page with a name for the new band when one or the other commented that “the news would go over (with Townshend and Daltrey) like a lead zeppelin.” All they needed was a singer. Page was interested in Steve Winwood, but by then his band Traffic was on the rise so he wasn’t available. His second choice was Steve Marriott, but we already know why he didn’t get on board. In the end, Moonie and Entwistle carried on with The Who, but Page couldn’t let it go. All of this transpired six months before the release of the first Cream album leading Page to speculate that,
“It would have been the first of all those sort of bands, like the Cream sort of thing.”
Beck was thinking along the same lines and he dearly wanted to form a band with Moon, but in the end he couldn’t pry Moonie away from The Who either. Beck recognized the potential of this band that wasn’t to be: “That was probably the first Led Zeppelin band. Not with that name, but that kind of thing. Moony was the only hooligan who could play properly. You could feel the excitement.” Beck did manage to get Moon’s contributions on Beck’s Bolero, but he couldn’t get the record’s producer to issue it as a single. Micky Most was the most prolific singles producer of the day and he didn’t like the direction Beck and Page were heading. They wanted to record albums, he wanted to record hit singles. Before the parting of the ways, Most finally released Bolero as the B-side of Beck’s single Hi Ho Silver Lining, but by not embracing either of the guitarists vision of the future, he missed getting in on the ground floor of Led Zeppelin. Everyone went back to their respective tours and the whole idea was set aside, but in Page’s mind, not forgotten.
The final Yardbird’s tour in 1967 was both a triumph and a disaster. Beck finally had a nervous breakdown and a near fatal bout of meningitis. The four remaining ‘Birds thundered on with a world spanning tour. The music was getting farther and farther away from the band’s For Your Love era and one can hear proto Led Zeppelin elements in their repertoire. Page began using a violin bow on a Vox 12 string for the song Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sailor. Smile On Me has a guitar break that would later resurface on LZ’s first album in the song You Shook Me. His use of tape loops and effects on stage would be heard again with Zep’s Whole Lotta Love. The acoustic strum and tabla drums on Zeppelin’s Black Mountain Side are clearly heard in the ‘Birds White Summer. Jimmy Page was still in the Yardbirds, but he was laying the foundation for his next band. With the recruitment of his session playing buddy John Paul Jones on bass and keyboards he was half way there. Bringing in John Bonham on drums and Robert Plant on vocals provided the last two pieces of the puzzle.
I was a freshman in high school and in my second year of woodshedding to records while learning to play the drums. I can’t remember what exactly compelled me to pick up Led Zeppelin’s first album because it wasn’t something that was being played on the radio (not yet, anyway). When the needle was dropped on the opening track (Good Times, Bad Times) my musical bar was instantly raised through the roof. There was no way on God’s green earth that I was going to ever be able to play like John Bonham, but hours and hours of trying to play like him would make me a much better drummer in the end. Knowing what effect this album had on me personally makes me appreciate how Jimmy Page felt in that period when he was transitioning from The Yardbirds to Yard Zeppelin to Led Zeppelin. To hear the sound you want to make in your head is one thing. To make it happen had to be the cherry on the top of Page’s sundae.
Top Piece Video – The Yardbirds with Jimmy Page minus Jeff Beck just before Relf and McCarty departed the band.