On the Way to Led Zeppelin: Jimmy Page on the Yardbirds Years

jimmy page yardbirds
Bob King/Redferns
Jimmy Page performs with the Yardbirds in Australia.
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"I knew instinctively what the music should be doing," Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page says, looking back at his original vision for that band. "It's what I had learned from touring in the Yardbirds."

During a marathon interview with Rolling Stone, featured in the current issue, Page reflected on his entire career as one of rock's premier guitarists, including his life during and after Zeppelin and going back to his mid-Sixties work as a session musician in London. He also spoke about his history with seminal British blues-rock band the Yardbirds: recommending his boyhood friend Jeff Beck as a replacement when Eric Clapton quit the group in 1965; joining Beck in the lineup in 1966; then, after Beck quit, becoming the Yardbirds' sole guitarist and driving force until the birth, in the summer of '68, of Led Zeppelin.

"In those days, there was a great focus by people on the music, an affinity for it, certainly in America," Page recalled. "If someone came out of a group and started a new one, they were keen to know what they were doing. So there was quite a reputation that had built up with the Yardbirds. And I was trying a lot of new ideas in the Yardbirds that hadn't actually been done by Eric or Jeff. The colors were starting to show in the palette."

Here are extracts from that interview.

The Yardbirds first asked you to replace Clapton when he left. You recommended Beck instead. Was it because you were making better money doing sessions?
It wasn't that. Otherwise, I would never have joined them at all. At that point, I didn't have any wish to go out touring. I appreciated what I was doing in the world of recording, being a studio musician.

There was another issue. Eric and I had become pals, and I didn't feel right [about taking his place]. But I did say to the band: "You should check out Jeff Beck." Because I knew Jeff was playing well.

What changed your mind when they asked you again, originally to replace Paul Samwell-Smith on bass?
I had a Muzak session to do. It was a whole folio of music – all reading, turning the page and carrying on. I thought, "This is it." I was experimenting with all of these ideas at home. I just knew it was time to go. They had a show at the Marquee Club, and Paul was not coming back. So I foolishly said, "Yeah, I'll play bass." [Drummer] Jim McCarty says I was so desperate to get out of the studio that I'd have played drums.

When you switched to guitar, alongside Beck, was it difficult to figure out who would play what parts?
Just as a sort of game, we spoke about doing all of the intros to the songs in harmony and doing the solos in harmony too [grins], the way they would have brass sections in a big band. It didn't materialize too much. It was only a short recording span, with Jeff and I. "Happenings Ten Years Time Ago" [the only Yardbirds single to feature Beck and Page on guitars, released in late 1966] was really cool. Of course, it was the first Yardbirds record that wasn't a hit.

The Road to Zeppelin

When Beck left, did you see the Yardbirds as a vehicle for your own ideas?
What I didn't want to do was get caught up in that thing we already had to subscribe to – the singles scene. We were doing the singles but trying to put a reflection of what we were really doing on the B-sides.

I also knew America was the place to be. In the wake of the San Francisco scene, ears were alive. It was a listening generation. They weren't just getting pissed, talking, jumping up and down.

We weren't making money in the Yardbirds. Keith [Relf, singer] and Jim were the main writing force. When they decided to fold the Yardbirds, they wanted to make a total break musically. I was trying to convince them, "No, we've got something here."

You needed guys who were as hungry as you were.
Yeah, there's no doubt about that. But I didn't go, "I've got to be in the Yardbirds. I'm going to make a calculating move here." I really believed in the conclusions I'd come to. And for me, the way was not going to be bloody hit singles.

We had a song called "Glimpses" [on the Yardbirds' 1967 album, Little Games]. It featured the [violin] bow, and when it was played in concert, I had tapes that played all this stuff – the Staten Island Ferry, locomotives, shock sounds – with textures from the bow. But we didn't get a chance, with the Yardbirds, to take it far enough.

The others had had enough. They had experimented, taken the music way ahead and broken down barriers in their recordings with Jeff and those great singles. They had become tired of the whole format. They needed to get outside this vehicle, even though it was moving into other areas.

Later, when you had Zeppelin, did you feel competitive with Clapton and Beck as they pursued their solo careers?
Eric was pretty far gone out of the Yardbirds when I joined. And when Jeff left, I was aware of having to do that Yardbirds stuff, knowing how well Jeff had played it in the first place. I didn't come to it anywhere near what he did. My own stuff – that was different.

I was really competitive with myself. You can start putting all of these other names out there. But I wasn't interested in eclipsing this person's career or that one. What I was aspiring to was something where people like Eric or Jeff would say, "That's a real good group you've got." You want that – peers respecting what you're doing. I'm not saying everybody did. But I knew, from what we had [in Zeppelin], that there was so much to come.