Classic Music Review: Having a Rave Up with The Yardbirds

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A hodgepodge of an album constructed in haste to support an upcoming American tour; a record that cobbles together the early Jeff Beck era (side 1) with the long-gone Clapton era (side 2); a collection of tracks from one of the most distinctive and original bands of the era that contains a grand total of one original composition . .  . Having a Rave Up is a fucking mess any way you look at it.

Until you put the needle to vinyl and the sound comes out.

I don’t know what it was about The Yardbirds, but however disorganized, drunk or discouraged, they nearly always managed to put out great records. Their sound was distinctive from the get-go, and would get even more distinctive as they moved beyond blues band status. While eventually all the chaos would catch up with them and leave them out of sync with the rest of the music world, there is no question they were one of the most influential bands of the 1960’s, and their DNA is firmly lodged in many of the multiple genres that make up rock today.

I do have a theory: the core band (the one pictured on the cover) consisted of members who shared past life experiences as trappist monks. As such, they spent long and dreary lives in almost total silence following the Benedictine rule of stability, fidelity and obedience. Furthermore, I believe that they all came from the trappist orders that did not produce beer. All this means that these guys were primed for bashes, orgies and rave-ups from the moment they flew down the vaginal chute and landed in the mid 20th century! What clued me to their monkish origins is their endless fascination with Gregorian chants, a topic we shall explore once I stop fucking around and get to the review, which I shall do right now.

Although they didn’t write “Mister, You’re a Better Man Than I,” they should have. The song is credited by other music critics as a turning point song that opened their collective social consciousness and led to their great hits “Shapes of Things” and “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago.” The syntax of the lyrics is a bit awkward, but the anti-racist, anti-war, anti-stereotype messages come through loud and clear. Clarity also defines Keith Relf’s delivery as he alternates between reflective in the verses and anguished in the transitions and choruses:

Can you condemn a man,

If your faith he doesn’t hold?

Say the colour of his skin,

Is the colour of his soul?

Could you say that men,

For king and country all must die?

The song also establishes why Jeff Beck became so essential to the Yardbirds’ sound: he’s a daring, attacking guitar player unafraid of exploring new sounds and techniques. His solo, supported by superb drumming from Jim McCarty and throbbing bass from Paul Samwell-Smith is what you call a “certified ripper.” Notice also the hint of Gregorian in the vocal line fade outs on the second and third verses and say I didn’t tell you so.

“Evil Hearted You” is loosely based on the Phrygian scale, which in layman’s terms means it features one of the oddest chord patterns you’ll hear in any song of that era, allowing Jeff Beck to explore rarely-fingered parts of the fretboard. The opening power chord combo of C/E/A/E is definitely off the beaten track, but the verse gets stranger with an E/C/F/B7 pattern. The effect of all this is a kind of gothic gloominess that provides a perfect backdrop for Keith Relf’s voice—one almost completely devoid of overtones, giving it a disarming detachment that he powers with a strange sense of confidence.  You wouldn’t call him a great singer in the classic sense, but he’s perfect for The Yardbirds. Back to the song, it changes completely in the rave-up bridge (a rave-up is a double-time shift that The Yardbirds used quite often), going to A/E/G until the resolution. “Evil Hearted You” may be another cover, but it’s delightfully and distinctively Yardbirds.

I guess Betty Friedan must have put fear into many a male musician’s testicles during the sixties, which is the only explanation I have for two hits titled “I’m a Man.” In truth, the songs are very different: Spencer Davis’ version has ethereal lyrics that speak more about a man exploring possibilities beyond sex but is forever entrapped by his hormones; The Yardbirds took theirs from Bo Diddley, who was never afraid to put his phallic glory on display. The Yardbirds actually trim some of Bo’s more outrageous contentions in the lyrics, but the message is still look-at-my-big-dick-baby-I-can-make-love-to-you-in-an-hour’s-time.

Men! Always rushing things! An hour? Is that all you’ve got?

Getting back to the song, this is the best two minutes and thirty-eight seconds you’ll ever experience outside of a quickie. The arrangement is one of masterful builds, tensions leading to explosions and stunning precision. In the first verse, the steady beat, Keith’s offhand cockiness and the echoing harmonica are firmly established, getting your fanny into motion. You hear Jeff Beck bending a note in the background between the verses, a very subtle foreshadowing indeed. The second verse keeps the kick going until the first instrumental passage where Keith Relf takes the lead with a sweet harmonica solo that soars with assistance from Paul Samwell-Smith’s high-speed picking on the bass into a stunning crescendo before we return to the main pattern, now played a with just a touch more verve. The Yardbirds then bring down the volume, leaving a fading bass and light percussion to hold things for a few quiet seconds. Then we hear Jeff Beck bend a note, inviting a response from Keith on the harmonica, and as they go back and forth, occasionally blending but mostly engaging in call-and-response, you feel that this is what high-intensity seduction sounds like when put to music. When Jeff goes into scratch mode it’s like he’s fucking as hard as he can to get that last drop of delight out of the system . . . he even pauses for a minute like he’s catching his breath, just like a real man! M-A-N!

There’s only one way to follow that sucker (after the ritual cigarette), and nothing else complements the post-coitus mood quite like a Gregorian Chant. “Still I’m Sad” is the only original on the album, and The Yardbirds release their inner monasticism in a compelling display of monophonic rhapsody. Technically, it’s not really a Gregorian Chant, but close enough to validate my past life theory and break new ground in rock music criticism! Relatively simple in structure when compared to “Evil Hearted You,” the repeated chant combined with the faint acoustic strum and soft percussion make for a more-than-compelling listening experience.

For all of their fascination with the new and the different, it was a decision to avoid novelty that made “Heart Full of Soul” a hit that has stood the test of time. The original arrangement called for the sitar, and the results are godawful, as you can hear on this outtake. I can hear Jeff Beck saying to the group after another disappointing take, “It’s not bloody working, mates,” paying off the Indian musicians and messing with his knobs and tubes to capture the exotic sound of the subcontinent while retaining the chutzpah of rock ‘n’ roll. That left The Beatles to become the champions of Indian music with the release of “Norwegian Wood,” while leaving The Yardbirds with one of the most distinctive singles of the era. The combination of full acoustic strum with Jeff’s distortion gives the song that Eastern feel they were looking for, and the counterpoint background vocals, alternating between octave-matching and chant-like (ha!) runs up the scale, add another layer of mystery. Jeff pretty much stuck to the melody for this solo, choosing to validate the theme instead of attempting to guarantee himself a spot on the list of 100 Greatest Guitar Solos of All-Time, and he made the right choice.

Side One ends with what would prove to be a signature song of their live performances, “Train Kept A-Rollin'”. Jeff Beck takes the lead from start with that guitar-generated train whistle and a big bottom string riff that frigging rocks. Keith Relf’s double-track vocal actually diverges into two different vocal lines from time to time instead of the usual straight overdub, creating a sound that is positively manic. Paul Samwell-Smith’s heavy bass is amped up throughout, keeping the groove hot and heavy. But Jeff Beck really steals the show with a pair of solos that fucking fly. Compared to Johnny Burnette’s original, where the poor guy sounds like he’s going to have a coronary on the heave-and-a-ho lines, The Yardbirds are completely in control here. They performed a version of the song retitled “Stroll On” for Antonioni’s Blowup that’s a hoot, one for which Jeff Beck should have won the Oscar:

Side Two consists of tracks from a live performance at the Crawdaddy Club in March 1964 that were originally released on their UK début album Five Live Yardbirds (which unsurprisingly bombed—the world simply wasn’t ready for this during the height of Beatlemania). This means Eric Clapton instead of Jeff Beck, which to me (WARNING—sacrilege coming!) is always a disappointment. I think it was best for all concerned that Clapton left The Yardbirds, for while he is a precise and talented guitarist, they needed someone with a more dynamic, expansive sound for the direction they wanted to take.

The best of the bunch is “Smokestack Lightning,” where Keith Relf knocks it out of the park with an outstanding harp solo and an unusually intense lead vocal dripping with lust and booze—I know if I had been in that crowd during this song I wouldn’t have needed a partner to get my rocks off. “I’m a Man” isn’t as tight as the studio version, and I really miss Jeff Beck here. “Respectable” takes off at high-speed and never slows down—Jim McCarty sees to that with no-holds-barred drum work that must have caused him to lose a good five pounds in the process. “Here ‘Tis” sounds like it was recorded from a different spot in the room; the sound isn’t quite as a raw as the other three tracks. McCarty shines here again with a tom-pounding performance, supported by Paul Samwell-Smith’s rollicking bass. What makes this side so special is not so much the individual tracks but the gestalt of the experience—shit, man, this was London in 1964 and the revolution had just begun! I would give anything to be a time traveler and get down with that!

I have to end this review with a bit of cheating. There have been multiple versions of this album released over the years, and though I usually prefer to focus on the original work, I’m going to take advantage of the fact that “Shapes of Things” has been included on a couple of Rave Up variants. I simply can’t leave The Yardbirds behind without commenting on one of their greatest singles.

In other reviews of this period, I’ve often tried to imagine what it must have been like for a kid in the 1960’s to hear a sound that they’d never heard before coming out of a tinny little transistor radio—like the fuzz tone in “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” That poor little kid must have thought the world was ending when he heard the opening to “Shapes of Things”—the building volume of that intense, rapidly picked rhythm guitar topped with grinding feedback from Jeff Beck must have felt like something powerful and ominous was about to burst through the speaker. Feedback wasn’t new, but the way Jeff Beck and The Yardbirds used it to create sound layers and strange noises coming from unlikely places in the soundscape was truly innovative. The shifting rhythms of the song, moving from the march beat in the verses to the more unhinged rhythm in the refrains, significantly heightened the drama of an already dramatic piece. The core message driven by those maddeningly wonderful sounds must have shaken the souls of teenagers of the era who were probably starting to wonder what kind of fucked up world awaited them as adults . . . or if they would ever make it past drinking age:

Come tomorrow, will I be older?

Come tomorrow, may be a soldier.

Come tomorrow, may I be bolder than today?

Jeff Becks’ amazing solo—-did he really play it only using the G string?—is to die for, but what really gets me off are those über-intense distorted set of chords that end the solo. That must have sounded like the world was about to explode.

Having a Rave Up may have chaotic origins, but the music more than makes up for the mess—it captures one of the greatest bands ever during their peak period. I think it also conclusively proves that Jeff Beck was the key to The Yardbirds’ success: he gave the band a singularly unique guitarist, an exploring, inquisitive mind, and a passion for excellence that raised everyone’s game. Great musicians don’t steal the show: they bring out the best in others. During this wonderful period in the mid-1960’s, Jeff Beck did just that.

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