The Yardbirds, as many biographies over the internet have said, are known to the casual rock fan for starting the careers of three of rock's most important British guitarists - Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page. Beck, in particular, experimented with fuzz, feedback and distortion more than anyone else. As was said in the first episode of The Seven Ages of Rock : "The Yardbirds showed how ... The electric guitar could be sexy." That, and vocalist Keith Relf's fantastic delivery. Too bad he electrocuted himself while playing guitar at his home at a young age.
But apart from this, the Yardbirds also were pivotal in bringing blues-based rock to the forefront, and were a major influence on a hell lot of bands, not just because of the guitaring pyrotechnics. Jimi Hendrix, then relatively unknown and playing in the underground black circuits in America, idolized both Beck and Clapton (the former - due to his work in the Yardbirds).
As a band, they started out with a lot of covers of blues standards, had a few songs that were songwritten by others, and surprisingly, had only one album with fully original material. They kept swinging between genres - and - unlike the Beatles, who did it with directional finesse - seemed confused most of the time. Clapton left after their early blues-covers-days since he didn't want to move away from the blues roots. Some of their albums - Roger the Engineer, in particular - are a weird mashup of psychedelia and blues-pop.
The Yardbirds of course, are arguably more important for disbanding in 1968 - which forced Jimmy Page, the only surviving member - to put together Led Zeppelin, and we don't need to go too much there now. The Yardbirds of course, reunited much, much later - in 1992 with surviving members Chris Dreja and Jim McCarty. In 2003, 35 years after their last album, the new-look Yardbirds released Birdland - a collection of new songs and old material. Scandalous as this might sound to purists, I consider this the best of their albums. It has the best sound of all, it sounds structured, the new songs are very well written and not just filler. There are a host of guest guitarists on the album - Slash, Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, Brian May and a cameo from Jeff Beck himself.
The Yardbirds have some of the most hummable tunes from the 60s. Here's my list of top 20 songs you should check out. Ironically, for a band most associated with blues rock, it's their deviations from the genre I like the best. Videos, as always, are provided.
20. Farewell: A cute like piano-based song to start things off. Gotta love the backing vox here. At just 1:30, one of the shortest songs you'll ever hear.
19. The Train Kept A Rollin': The classic blues cover that everyone and their guitarist would cover. The Yardbirds made it popular, though, culminating in a spectacular performance featuring Metallica, Jeff Beck, Ronnie Wood, Joe Perry, Jimmy Page, and Jason Newsted & Flea on bass. And that train sound right at the beginning - that's Jeff Beck. Eddie van Halen, eat your heart out!
18. Shapes Of Things: The band considered this as one of their finest moments. It's apparently about the Vietnam War. The solo section, albeit short, looks quite progressive for its time.
17. Boom Boom: Nothing much to explain here, just a nice fun song. Featuring Clapton on lead.
16. Still I'm Sad: Probably the most experimentation this so-called blues-rock band has ever done. With their Gregorian chants that reek of 'In the Jungle, the Mighty Jungle'. As serious as this song is, I can't help but picture animated animals on screen.
15. Good morning little schoolgirl: Let's get back to some good ol' blues. One thing the Yardbirds had in their early songs was a lot of harmonica. And Keith Relf shows us. Also a neat little Clapton solo.
14. Goodnight Sweet Josephine: One of the two songs where the Yardbirds sound like they're right out of Pink Floyd's first album (the other being Little Soldier Boy - it's almost like Syd Barrett himself sang that song!). This one is so irresistibly upbeat and happy.
13. White Summer: Wait, didn't I hear that opening note on some Led Zeppelin acoustic song? Of course you did. This is a solo acoustic performance by Page, and it's easy to extrapolate this song to Black Mountain Side and Bron-Yr-Aur. In fact, he frequently played an electric-guitar combination of White Summer and the former at Zeppelin shows (like this). I'm not sure if Viram Jasani, who played tabla on BMS, plays it for this song as well.
12. A Certain Girl: Another one from the early days. I've never seen so many parentheses in a song's lyrics.
11. Evil Hearted You: Another one of those 'dark' songs. Composed by 10cc's Graham Gouldman, who also provided some of their other big hits (#1 and 3 on this list, to be exact)
10. My Blind Life: Like I said, I think Birdland is a fantastic album, and I have three songs from it in my top 10. The sound, while still rooted in Yardbirdism, is quite different. New vocalist John Idan does an admirable job taking off from where Relf left off. Jeff Beck plays guest guitar on the studio version of this track.
09. Paff Bumm: An absolutely silly song ("Paff Bumm - that's the sound of love" - hyuk!). But the rhythm is so upbeat and sticky-in-head that you can't help but smile and sing along.
08. Mister You're A Better Man Than I: This song was written by Mike Hugg (Manfred Mann's drummer), and is given quite a searing performance by Keith Relf, and has one of the best verse-to-chorus changes in their catalog.
07. Over, Under, Sideways, Down: Ah, the song that everyone knows. That riff is either revolutionary or annoying, depending on your point of view. In the Birdland version, Slash plays guitar on this song, which is about the decadence of the 60s and generally having a good time.
06. Crying Out For Love: One from Birdland, again. A much more mature, well-produced song, you'll notice. Gypie Mayo, the guitarist, comes up with two very, very neat solos here.
Ooh, top 5 now.
05. Dream Within a Dream: Musically, the best of the new material off Birdland. With a superb riff, lovely vox, and a solo that beck would have been proud of, this song is ultimate proof that bands CAN bring out new material 35 years after disbanding. The riff will be stuck in your head faster than you can say Inception.
04. Smokestack Lightning: First song, first ever live performance. "Let's have a big hand for The Yardbirds, please... And Smokestack Lightning". There are many versions, but I like this version (The Early Recordings, Londong '63) the best. At 6:51, it's immensely satisfying, showcases Clapton's early guitar and Relf's harmonica prowesses. This is of course, a cover of the classic song by Howlin' Wolf.
03. For Your Love: Described by AllMusic as quasi-progressive (well, that tempo change at 01:30 is quite interesting). Written by Gouldman and modified by then bassist Paul Samwell-Smith, the song features a dominating harspichord and quite 'pleading' vocals by Relf that just seem to work. Great track. Oh, and here's Led Zeppelin ruining (or improving, depending again on your point of view) the song.
02. Happenings Ten Years Ago: Described as the first psychedelic song. Also, the only song on which Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck play together. Strangely weird. The video linked - well, I don't know what to make of it. It features Jeff Beck flipping out over a malfunctioning amp and destroying his guitar. But it's clearly not this song they're playing (either that or Relf had laryngitis and didn't know it).
01. Heart Full Of Soul: What a song! Incredibly addictive. Lots of versions available on YouTube. But the best version I have heard of this song is not by them, but Rush, who had this stunning version on their EP, Feedback. And it's a sheer joy to watch this live version of theirs, with the crowd singing along. This was also composed by Gouldman, and there was initially a Sitar version (which was rightfully rejected by Beck because it didn't sound too right). Apparently, this song is supposed to be Eastern sounding (er, really?) and is said to have influenced a Messr. Harrison into using a Sitar on a song we all know and love.
There we go. They definitely left their mark, the 'birds, and I think are extremely underrated. I mean, they were a band that had Beck, Clapton and Page! Admittedly, they weren't at the heights of their powers during their Yardbirds stints, but it's obvious their days in the band were vital to help them polish their technique. Like Arbit on Twitter said: (They) made very little music, but part of a great rock genealogy.