The Yardbirds – Roger the Engineer/Over, Under, Sideways, Down – Classic Music Review

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!

My review of Having a Rave Up.

12 responses

  1. […] The Yardbirds– Roger the Engineer […]

  2. I recollect one of the band members, on a History of Rock documentary on TV, explaining that they came up with the song ‘Over Under Sideways Down’ in the studio, while attempting to play ‘Rock Around The Clock’ backwards … I’d never have picked it without the tip-off, but you can kinda hear it in the song’s bass line.

    Really impressed by your review, btw. And I’m in full agreement that Beck was the band’s standout guitarist–so much of the album’s enduring listenability derives from his inventiveness and style. A high point for me is his solo on ‘Rack My Mind’: compact, intense, and magical.

    1. Thank you! And thanks for pointing out the Bill Haley connection—that bass line always sounded familiar but I could never figure out why.

      The more I listen to Jeff Beck in the context of the times, the more I appreciate his impact and influence. I really should do some of his post-Yardbirds work.

  3. […] My review of Roger the Engineer/Over Under Sideways Down. […]

  4. 1966 was a great year, possibly the best of the 60’s judging by the high amount of incredible singles that were released which twisted genres, explored new sonic territories and above all had a wonderful spirit of adventurism. This particular Yardbirds album is my favourite album of 1966. Yep, I enjoy this above the likes of “Pet Sounds”, “Revolver”, “Aftermath” etc. Given they only had one week in which write and record it, it’s impressive how diverse and eccentric it is. It’s also the sound of a band newly liberated having recently split from first manager Giorgio Gomelsky and I think they were glad to see the back of him, so went all out with this album.

    By then, Jeff Beck had been with them for just over a year and he was going nuts coming out with the most inventive guitar work. From what I’ve read, most of the time he tended to come into the studio last of all… would listen to what they’d recorded and would be free to add whatever he liked on top. He hits the bullseye on the first track “Lost Woman” which shows the band trying to push the R+B envelope ever further to good effect but when Jeff comes blasting in with that weird solo, it elevates it into another stratosphere… and that’s pretty much what he does throughout the album. Even when he keeps it simple like on “He’s Always There” it’s still pretty wonderful and tops that song off neatly.

    So, on the one hand you get the lads reminding us they began as an R+B band and how far they’d come with that and on the other, thanks to their extraordinary set of singles, a whole bunch of odd tracks in which their imaginations run riot. Sometimes it might not quite come off, but the sheer spirit shines adding fun to the proceedings. They sure had a sense of humour, both wacky and macabre, so in essence this album contains all the elements that made The Yardbirds so unique. I love the diversity and the moodier moments like “Farewell” and “Turn To Earth” always hit the spot since there was no other band doing those Gregorian chants like them – no Beck solos on those, probably because he knew they were effective enough without his contribution, which in itself works as a contribution if you know what I mean! “Hot House” another almost wordless chant may seem weird, nonsensical – throwaway even – but if one is listening to the mono version, Jeff comes crashing in with another wonderfully bonkers solo that justifies the tracks existence.

    If there’s one album for me that defines the whole “Swinging London” ethos, it’s this one. Though there’s many influences especially American, it’s a very English album in tone and feel to my ears. I have had the pleasure of wandering around the heart of London listening to this on headphones and it was an absolute treat – suited the surroundings perfectly since I was wandering the very areas and streets the band would had known back then.

    Though never a part of the original album both sides of the “Happenings” single fit perfectly and I’m with you on the awesomeness of that single. Astonishing. Extraordinary. The band’s creative peak – dense, dramatic, unique and exciting – just how great rock music SHOULD be. That duel between Beck and Page leaves one lost for words such is it’s power and audacity – I really can picture the pair of them in the studio stood facing each other egging each to outdo each other.

    There is one odd track that sits between this album and that single. It was in June 1966 that Beck and Page collaborated on “Beck’s Bolero” complete with Nicky Hopkins, John Paul Jones and Keith Moon thundering away. A truly spectacular instrumental that was very heavy for it’s time hinting ahead to both The Jeff Beck Group and Led Zeppelin. Manager Simon Napier Bell had a plan for each member to issue solo singles but only the Keith Relf one appeared – “Bolero” was set to be Beck’s debut solo disc but instead was left in the can for 9 months or so and thrown away as a B side on the embarrassing “Hi Ho Silver Lining” as Mickie Most assumed control of Beck’s solo career and that of The Yardbirds… the Most era of the band was… patchy, but that first Beck album “Truth” had some killer stuff!

    All in all, this album is a fascinating curio, not to everybody’s tastes. It would always be interesting and fun but toss Jeff Beck into the mix, that guy truly lifts it into another league altogether. He’s my man too – my all time fave guitarist and this album has ample evidence as to why. He has a genuine spirit of experimentation, a vivid imagination, great chops and able to pull it off to stunning effect.

    1. It was a great year for music; probably the best ever. So full of new directions, new sounds . . . and the music feels much more hopeful than the music of 1968, when things started to get ugly.

      Tomorrow’s review is of Rave Up and I did note the complexity and value of Jeff Beck’s contributions, particularly (as you noted) what he chooses not to do. Miles Davis talks a lot about the importance of empty space in music in his autobio, and Jeff Beck is one of the few guitarists who understood that.

      I have two reviews on tap that I think are much more British, at least to the ears of an ex-yank.

  5. Ah, The Yardbirds… I always thought that their r&b output is some kind of Stones for grownups (let it be said that I love the Stones too, but I acknowledge the Yardbirds were much more advanced, although Jagger & Co. were better stage performers)… And Jeff Beck is my great guitar hero; I may be the only in the world, but I think he takes the best-rock-guitarist-ever post from Hendrix by a semiquaver, although at the end of the day Hendrix wins for being a better arranger, songwriter and even “non-singer”.

    “Still I’m sad” to think that the Yardbirds, important as they were and are, only managed to do two albums proper, Five Live Yardbirds (a rare instance of a live debut album) and this you’ve reviewed – and reviewed it well… All of their other albums (bar a BBC live one released in the 1990s) are a jumble of singles, album tracks and outtakes; even Having A Rave-Up, as you must know, is a collage: half from the aforementioned Five Live, half from various singles. (Who in the USA record company would have cared that the cover shows Beck but doesn’t even mention Eric Clapton, the lead guitarist on Five Live? But it’s interesting to have no less than two “I’m A Man”‘s, one played by Clapton and the other by Beck…)

    The UK record company gave the Yardbirds one week of total freedom to make this album and they made the most of it…Roger The Engineer is a great example of a whole that’s bigger than the sum of its parts – and it predated Deep Purple’s Machine Head in that it was entirely self-made. The cover was done by guitarist Chris Dreja, production was handled by bassist Paul Samwell-Smith, and all songs were written by the band (albeit with some almost Zeppelin-like borrowing). It almost qualifies as a comedy record, certainly one of the funniest rock albums ever made. Indeed, this is no Revolver, Bringing It All Back Home or Village Green: no big statements, no message, pretentiousness, all seriousness left outside the studio. Indeed, most songs are no big deal for themselves, but in totum they are big fun.

    You said “Hot House Of Omagararshid” is “wordless”! But the original liner notes say Keith Relf spent three days running to write them – and does it show! To quote them in their entirety: “Yah, yah, yah/yah, yah, yah…” ;^)

    (As you may know, this album has no title proper, having been called “Roger The Engineer” just like that white elephant of a Beatles album – heh heh – is widely known as “The White Album”. The USA edition of this Yardbirds album record gives it a title, Over Under Sideways Down, in exchange for subtracting two tracks, “Rack My Mind” and “The Nazz Are Blue” – but that didn’t stop Todd Rundgren and friends from hearing it and finding the inspiration for naming their band Nazz.)

    And you said you’d like to do a review of the Having A Rave-Up album… Very encouraging news, so your blog will take long to fall asleep or – here’s hoping here – just won’t fall asleep at all!



    1. I just noticed that I forgot two further 1960s albums proper by the Yardbirds, one they did with Sonny Boy Williamson II and Little Games – but this was a Freudian lapse or whatever of my own, since by 1967-8 the Yardbirds were starting to morph into Led Zeppelin, a band I’m not so very keen on nowadays…

      And I said the Yardbirds, even at their prime, did some almost-Zeppelin borrowings… Well, I have to present proof… So hear for yourself if these videos don’t remind you of anything done later…

      1. Bingo! You’ve done it again!

    2. I’m definitely in the Jeff Beck camp. I always found Clapton competent but predictable and Jimmy Page too much. I am not a fan of Led Zep, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple or any of the other bands whose primary goal was loud. I find technical virtuosity rather boring by itself.

      I am feeling some desire to complete more Classic reviews because there are irritating gaps in the library that have become glaring as the process if site reconstruction continues. I’m hoping I get over it, though.

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