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.