In other posts, I have likely given the impression that I’d have preferred to have been born earlier so I could have hit puberty in the 1960’s. I want to apologize for any confusion or angst I might have created in my followers on that subject.
So, allow me to make it crystal clear: hell, yes, I wish I’d been there!
The creative explosion in popular music that lasted from 1963 until it died a disco death sometime in the 1970s was absolutely phenomenal and it would have been so damned exciting to be there when all these new sounds were brought into the world. You add to that free love, the various civil rights and antiwar movements and the right to smoke anywhere and everywhere—baby, take me back! Invent that time machine and deliver me from this health nazi drone culture where the primary preoccupation is the fear of death instead of the love of life! I want to shop on Carnaby Street, drop in and see the Stones at The Crawdaddy Club and end every evening in a bisexual orgy as I engage in a paroxysm of everlasting rebellion!
Thank you for allowing me to indulge my fantasies. Now, back to our story.
For me, the quintessential band of the 1960s was not The Beatles, not The Stones, not The Kinks, but The Yardbirds, because unlike the others, they’re trapped in the amber of the time of mods, rockers and Antonioni and were never able to leave. They were a band often in flux, running through three of the acknowledged guitar greats in about four years’ time. Their music ranged from nasty blues rock numbers to avant-garde modernism, creating a sound that truly classifies as unique. They also looked the part, with Keith Relf’s striking blonde mop contrasting nicely with Jeff Beck’s darker and shaggier looks.
Chronicling The Yardbirds’ history and discography is a full-time job. In addition to the usual confusion between British and American versions, the album I’m reviewing is neither, but a compilation of the two versions with some additional tracks where Keith Relf (the lead singer) is listed as the artist. Since the rumor is that Keith Relf’s backing band was The Yardbirds, you have to wonder if the rest of the band wasn’t particularly sold on the direction Keith wanted to go; his songs are very un-Yardbirds. Because of the addition of the single “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago/Psycho Daisies,” Jimmy Page appears on this re-created version of the album. This altered version is available on iTunes for a mere $9.99, a bargain if there ever was one (click the album cover).
In this case, the structure and content of the album hardly matter. The Yardbirds were never an album band; they were a singles band. Roger the Engineer really doesn’t stand up as a great album per se; there’s no thematic continuity of any kind. What is fascinating about the album is it is a chronicle of a band at the end of their run trying to find a new path and failing to do so. They couldn’t make the transition from Swinging London to Haight-Ashbury, and they couldn’t make the two-great-lead-guitar-heroes model work. Jeff Beck would leave the band to Jimmy Page shortly thereafter, and Paul Samwell-Smith would depart to launch a successful career as a producer.
So let me get to the best part first. “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago” absolutely decimates me every time I hear it. This is one instance where the performance of dueling guitar heroes lives up to its hype, as both Beck and Page deliver one of the stellar examples of the sheer excitement that only well-played electric guitars can generate. Keith Relf produces a magnificently detached vocal that perfectly complements the sci-fi mood of the song and the psychological isolation of the narrator. The instrumental passage in the middle is unforgettably intense, driven by the exquisitely played guitar solo and Jeff Beck’s introduction of spoken word and a chilling piece of nervous laughter.
Since it would be unfair to evaluate an ersatz album the artists did not compile, I’ll limit my comments to some of the more remarkable pieces. “Lost Woman” opens the album with what appears to be a standard Yardbirds blues-rock number but the jam in the middle takes several unexpected directions, introducing fresh chords and a fab bass solo that segues into the final verse. The title track comes next, a glorious anthem for hedonists like me:
Cars and girls are easy come by in this day and age,
Laughing, joking, drinking, smoking,
Till I’ve spent my wage.
When I was young people spoke of immorality,
All the things they said were wrong,
Are what I want to be.
This is followed by what is best described as a pub song, “I Can’t Make Your Way,” something I’d love to sing with a small crowd bombed on Watney’s. Then it’s back to harmonica-driven blues with “Rack My Mind” before the almost child-like “Farewell,” with its tale of a lonely man in an empty house describing the days leading up to his suicide—a much more sensitive and artistic treatment of the subject than the angst-driven parallels of the 90’s. “Hot House of Omagararshid” continues the pattern of departure from the norm, a wordless singalong with intriguing interplay between vocals and guitar.
Beck finally gets to rock on “Jeff’s Boogie.” As mentioned in a previous post, I’m a Jeff Beck girl, so this is heaven. He’s so much more imaginative than most guitar players, more willing to mix virtuosity with dissonance and always doing what you least expect him to do. My next favorite is “Turn into Earth,” which extends the band’s exploration into the Gregorian soundscape that characterized the earlier “Still I’m Sad.” I also love the quirky “What Do You Want,” but I’m only so-so on “Ever Since the World,” the last cut on the album proper.
This compilation also features the flip side of “Happenings,” the fast and fun “Psycho Daisies,” a blues rock USA travelogue sung by Jeff Beck that fades when you least expect it to fade. The five Keith Relf songs are all harbingers of the band’s final direction, best exemplified in their last minor hit, “Little Games” (a song I adore but apparently was not particularly popular with the listening public of the time). The most interesting is “Shapes in My Mind,” an almost theatrical piece with a clear scent of patchouli.
I could have done a review on one of their greatest hits compilations (there are several), for their hits alone constitute a masterpiece. My favorite Yardbirds album is actually the American Having a Rave-Up with The Yardbirds, so I’ll probably review that one someday. However, the sheer strangeness of this album, with its odd combination of styles and moods, has an anthropological value in capturing the transition from basic blues-based rock to the experimental that characterized the mid-1960s.
And I wish I’d been there. Damn!