Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Yardbirds Mark IV:
"Happenings Ten Years Time Ago"
"Psycho Daisies"
"Stroll On"

Yardbirds Happening Ten Years Time Ago 45 Picture Sleeve Germany
The most eminent touring band to have ever played guitar-based rock and roll had a lifetime of about four months, and recorded all of three songs.*

Piero Scaruffi calls them "an historic duet," Pete Frame called them Yardbirds 4, and ever since I bought the then-newly-available expanded reissue of the album now more commonly known as Roger The Engineer in 1983, I have called them the absolute shit.

They were the Beck-Page Yardbirds, formed when Paul Samwell-Smith quit the band in June of '66, concluded when Jeff Beck was fired in October, and each of the three tracks they cut is in some sense landmark.

Drawing by Chris DrejaThese tracks--the A and B sides of perhaps the decade's most influential single, plus a cut from a film soundtrack--are at the pinnacle of the mountain that the Yardbirds made. Each of their incarnations since their Top Topham beginnings would end more accomplished than the last, but there could be no surpassing these. They were the best of the Yardbirds, and therefore the best of Sixties British Rock: technically accomplished, inventive, trailblazing.

"Happenings Ten Years Time Ago" is most often talked about, and quite rightly praised for its Middle-Eastern-inflected psychedelia--and for the police sirens and jet engines which Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page mimic in the midsection of the song. "HTYTA" is probably the first "twin-lead" guitar song ever recorded. I'm pretty certain that the six guitar tracks on Fresh Cream 's"Sweet Wine" (released two months later) had to have been conceived as a response to "Happenings." And I'll eat my Pork Pie Hat if Pink Floyd weren't thinking of Beck's voiceover to the solos when they created Dark Side of the Moon.

Some have called "Happenings" the first psychedelic record. I'm not so sure about this. If Beck had bought unto Yardbirds 3 and Page had bought unto version 4 a ton of disparate influences, they each couldn't and--wouldn't--change what the band in fact were: purveyors of the wailing guitar. Blues, boogie, psych, middle-eastern: Ever more esoteric, the Yardbirds incorporated these styles, but they were always transmitted through the core red-hot guitar. For me, "Incense and Peppermints" is psychedelia of the period. "Happenings" is withering guitar-rock that prefigures psychedelia in its invention.

Though "Happenings" was Yardbirds 4, it was released in the US with a Yardbirds 3 flipside. The Beck vocal, "The Nazz are Blue" had appeared on The Yardbirds aka Over Under Sideways Down aka Roger the Engineer when it had been released in July of '66. "The Nazz" was a pretty good song on an excellent album, but it was not Beck-Page, and it was not a new recording when Epic released "Happenings" with "Nazz" on the back in October. Don't ask me why it was handled this way.

But I know the UK version was all new, all Yardbirds Mark IV, and the British B side "Psycho Daisies"--another Beck vocal, no less--was a rabid son of a bitch indeed. Perhaps no British song is more deserving of the descriptive "protopunk," and certainly no song connects The Yardbirds to the American garage scene they so greatly influenced so very aptly.

"Psycho Daisies" is my favorite Yardbird track, for a ton of reasons. For starters, Beck's vocal is his best ever, and one that puts the thin, keening one he recorded for "The Nazz Are Blue" to shame.

And perhaps that's because Mr. Beck is putting his dick to work on the thing, if you can pardon the vulgarity. The lyrics are a travelogue, and in the spirit of "California Girls" are more about places Beck doesn't wanna go, since
Back in California there's nothing to lose,
'Cos everything's swinging there with Mary Hughes.
Beach blanket starlet Mary Hughes, of rather appreciable attributes at the time, was Beck's girlfriend, and one towards whose company--if Page is to be believed--Beck had bailed midtour at least once.

I don't think there's any denying the song's primal and carnal energy. Though I'm not entirely sure it's true, I've read where Beck, beyond simply providing the alternately chimelike, roiling, and machete sharp lead breaks, also provides the rhythm guitar track, instead of regular rhythm player Chris Dreja, and instead of Jimmy Page, who was elsewise occupied playing bass for the track.

If so, it would make sense to me, not only insofar as the rabid rhythm guitar might be indeed seen as a function of Mssr. Beck's lust for his busty beau, but also because I'm simply not so sure that Dreja was even capable of playing with such furious abandon.

No such guesswork exists concerning our last song. We have Antonioni's visual evidence as presented in the movie Blow-up--combined with the evidence of our ears--that Dreja is playing bass on "Stroll On," while Page and Beck do the battling virtuoso thang, the twin lead trapeze act.

Although it seems as if The Yardbirds were in fact the perfect band for the director of Blow-Up to have used in his perfectionist's quest to capture Swinging London down to the tiniest detail, the band was perhaps as deep as fourth on the director's original list. Antonioni--admittedly much more a fan of jazz--had The Who in mind, considered The Velvet Underground, and actually had Tomorrow submit two songs, before settling on Beck, Page and Co.

Tomorrow must have just about had the job before pissing Antonioni off in some way. Singer Keith West, quoted in the OMPST's booklet notes, says that "because of the general kind of misbehavior . . . we got the sack. Too much larking around." Not only did the director have two songs and some film in the can, he had several cardboard mockups of Steve Howe's Gibson 175. Though Beck played a Les Paul and a Fender Esquire during his time in The Yardbirds, it is a copy of Steve Howe's guitar that he smashes during the scene in Blow-Up.

Speaking of the iconic smashment, how recursive can you get? It's life imitating art imitiating life imitating . . . . it seems endless. Antonioni first had the idea to place the smashed instrument motif in his movie when he saw The Who perform in 1965. But he was NOT a huge pop fan, and had no idea of Beck's unsteady temperament when he hired The Yardbirds. And while Beck is known to have destroyed guitars on his mercurial whim during the band's 1966 American tour, eveything you see in the movie is staged.

But you can be sure that playing the part came easy for Jeff . . . . The band in its entirety comes off as authentic, and the playing is torrid with a live vibe to it. "Stroll On," of course, is a rework of "Train Kept A Rollin'," as the band had been added so late into the production schedule that there was no time to get clearance for the Mann/Bradshaw/Kay thing. So Keith Relf wrote some quick substitute lyrics the night before the shoot. But there was still plenty of time to add in some Beck-Page interplay. The playing is as I've suggested fast, and with the way Beck and Page intertwine their leads like ornate scrollwork, the song is truly superior to the already excellent version which had appeared on Side Two of Having a Rave Up. If the crowd is curiously motionless, can we resist the temptation to think that Antonioni knew he was making a precious museum piece?

And when Beck throws the neck of his erstwhile guitar into the crowd and David Hemmings picks it up while disappearing into the Swingin' London night, can we resist the temptation to see that as a metaphor for the ending of Yardbirds v.4? Not exactly sure when the Yardbirds scene was filmed, but it couldn't have been more than six weeks after that Beck was fired (or maybe quit, if you believe some sources) and put an end to one of the most tantalizing lineups in rock history.

Three songs. Just three.

It never could have worked for long. Beck was too much the powderkeg. And talent like that never can coexist for long.

Even still, it seems like a ripoff. Can you imagine if Yardbirds 4 had managed to record an entire album?

Or several?

The Yardbirds - The Yardbirds - 1 - Happenings Ten Years Time Ago.mp3

The Yardbirds - The Yardbirds - 08 - Psycho Daisies.mp3

Blow-Up OMPST - 14 - The Yardbirds - Stroll On.mp3

File under: Proto-Zeppelin

These files were removed July 22, 2010. If you're still way interested in coming up with a copy of this--and really can't figure out where you might get one--drop me an email and I'm sure I'll be able to figure something out for you.

*If you don't count the commercial they made (Return)


Anonymous said...

I tell anyone remotely interested in the Yardbirds that you haven`t really heard the Roger the engineer lp until you get a mono copy of the Canadain release on capitol part of the "6000" series. Better mixed and more Beck guitar parts on some songs..try it !

Anonymous said...

Great Yardbirds piece. Just reading about how The Velvets were out because it was too expensive to fly them over. Apparently The Yardbirds used to perform "I'm Waiting for My Man." Interesting tid-bit about the Howe guitar. TY