How the Yardbirds Revolutionized Rock Live on the BBC

Jeff Beck–led band blew up the very possibilities of sound 50 years ago

The Jeff Beck–led Yardbirds may have been the key sonic inventors of the 1960s. Their performances on the BBC make a strong case. Credit: John Rodgers/Redferns/Getty

If you wish to launch a humdinger of an argument – and one you might win – sidle up to just about any 1960s rock fan and offer the opinion that it was not the Beatles, the Stones, Pink Floyd, Hendrix, the Velvet Underground or the Byrds who were the key sonic inventors of the decade.

Nope: wasn't any of those collectives of aural innovation who did quite what the Yardbirds did in terms of overhauling sound, never mind that they couldn't keep a steady lineup and were pretty much unclassifiable, save as the dudes who influenced everybody else and basically birthed blues rock, garage rock and heavy metal.

Said birthing was in large part due to what they did for that brief moment in time, spanning 1965 to 1966, when Jeff Beck replaced Eric Clapton on guitar, before he became sick of riding around on tour buses and was in turn replaced by Jimmy Page. We're in the pre-Hendrix era, and this was a time when the amps in England's studios weren't exactly primed to handle wailing feedback, in-the-red volume and crazy distortion effects, all Jeff Beck staples.

They cut some of their best material at Sam Philips' Sun Studios – numbers which redefined guitar soloing, like their cover of "Train Kept A-Rollin'" and "You're a Better Man Than I" – and released two rag-bag 1965 albums in For Your Love and Having a Rave Up With the Yardbirds, which processed in left-over live Eric Clapton material, and featured, in the first side of Rave Up, what might be the single greatest first side to an album ever. Beck was the Paganini of guitarists, capable of controlling feedback, something that, well, scientifically you should not be able to.

But nowhere did these Beck-driven Yardbirds excel better than they did on BBC radio, where they should have been an awful fit, the new era Sonic Futurists having to endure hosts fond of milquetoast humor and antiquated equipment.

When you look over the trove of BBC recordings that still exist, you naturally look to what the Beatles did, and then Hendrix's airshots a few years later, but it's tough to beat the recordings the Yardbirds made there starting 50 years ago. This iteration of the band didn't leave us a live album, a reality that might be one of the worst losses in rock history, were it not for the surviving BBC material.

Their in-concert speciality, besides Beck's soloing and singer Keith Relf's adenoidal wail and matchless harmonica work, was the vaunted rave-up. The gist: a swelling, pulsing, building surge of sound, from bass, guitars, harmonica, drums, until sweet, sweet, orgastic release, which you damn near physically feel yourself when you hear it, and then a charge back into the verse.

And wouldn't you know: they trot out their rave-ups at the BBC, and it's like they're workshopping nascent strands of music that will be as advanced, in some ways, as, say, "Tomorrow Never Knows," but which every pimply kid who thinks himself a future rock & roller will be bashing out in a garage in random outposts like San Jose, Akron, and Pawtucket.

This was a kind of everyman virtuosity: so while you couldn't hope to solo like Beck, you could dig loudness and power-chording as much, and that was enough to launch who knows how many bands. The Beatles launched more, but that was on account of an amalgam of wanting that life, digging those melodies and thinking you'd look cool holding a guitar. No band, though, got you wanting to do what they did through pure sound and nothing else, like the Yardbirds, as best heard on their great run of BBC sides, commencing in the summer of 1965 and lasting until spring 1966.

These are the five songs for that sonic innovators par excellence argument.

"Too Much Monkey Business"
The August 6th, 1965 version of Chuck Berry's "Too Much Monkey Business" is just one of those "come on, you have to be shitting me" performances, with two Beck solos that contain torrents of notes that tumble out faster than anything Ritchie Blackmore would later play, and with perfect articulation. If you can play guitar better than this, you can't play it much better. Bent notes, hammer-ons, vibrato, cheek, Chet Atkins finesse, Son House power, all at Alvin Lee warp speed.

"Still I'm Sad"
Oh, this is normal – how about some Gregorgian chant on the radio while you're planning your weekend young person things? But so it went when the Yardbirds broke into "Still I'm Sad" at a September BBC session that is part raga drone for voice, Druidic death lament and what one might imagine they used to sing around the rocks at Stonehenge. Maybe to get the Martians to land for the latest time. People knock Relf as a singer, but he was the perfect vocalist for this band, with a voice that cuts its own unwavering path out of the sonic maelstrom.

"Train Kept A-Rollin'"
A show for early 1966 comes complete with New Year's resolutions. When pressed what his is, Beck says that he doesn't have any at all, he's doing just fine. And judging by the version of "Train Kept A-Rollin'" that shortly follows, you'd have to agree with that non-deviation approach. The second solo that explodes out of the rave-up section is one of the most exciting musical moments of the decade, and what sounds like a laser crossed with a train whistle imported from some other galaxy. The power chording throughout just about makes your loins vibrate, too.

"Smokestack Lightning"
That same session produced a cover of "Smokestack Lightning" that is the full Yardbirds aesthetic in one old warhorse turned into a perfervid glimpse of the future. Relf's harmonica playing is replete with blue notes, as swampy as anything cut by Slim Harpo, and pure swagger to boot. This cut swings ridiculously hard, a real juker complete with what might be the finest rave-up the band ever unleashed. The sound, before the cumulative explosion, feels just too big for any radio or studio to hold it. Beck is not playing a slide, but he manages to make it sound like he is. Welcome to the new mimetics, and the new sonic vocabulary. They might as well have stopped to plant a flag.

"The Sun Is Shining"
And then we have "The Sun Is Shining" from May 1966, a threnody for all that had come before in the blues, and all that would now vanish as new modes of music-making, in large part due to these guys, were underway. Beck takes the vocal this time, but the real voice is the guitar. Ever heard one sing like this one here during the intro? As humanly expressive as any piece of metal ever got. And that sustain – bloody epic. Bloody fitting.