A phone call to the Guinness Book of World Records on the Yardbirds’ behalf would not be out of the question as they’ve easily surpassed every other band’s dormancy. Even this year’s reconstituted Doors can’t match the Yardbirds’ 35-year absence and while the Lizard King-less reunion has been marred by two messy lawsuits with ex-drummers, the post-millennium Yardbirds have managed not only to pick up where they left off in 1968 with the same name and Hamish Grimes logo but managed to record and release a new album, Birdland, that has the blessings of all its original living members. Jeff Beck appears on one cut and ex-bassist Paul Samwell-Smith, now retired from the business, told Chris Dreja he loved the artwork and promised to listen to the album “with a bottle of my neighbor’s red.”
While the legacy of the band’s three guitar heroes, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page, insures that the Yardbirds’ name will liveth evermore in the rock pantheon, it’s the non-lead guitarist axis of the band that wrote many of its later hits like “Still I’m Sad” and “Shapes of Things.” And the group’s legendary live rave-up owes as much of its intensity to Jim McCarty’s primal drums and Chris Dreja’s frantic rhythm guitar as it does to the groundbreaking leads that soared above them.
Dreja recalls that, “We were originally turned on by electric Chicago-based blues music but we are white guys who don’t have that experience so we would elongate passages, we would power chord, just hit on a massive major chord to a climax.”
The band, generally hurried by its label to record albums like Roger the Engineer and Little Games in less than a week, actually honed its sound through live performances. Even this new, new Yardbirds has played some 100 shows in the last year.
Despite enthusiastic receptions everywhere, the band wasn’t sure coming back on record would be readily embraced.
They were initially reluctant to redo some of the old hits, but decided it might be necessary for the band to reintroduce itself for the 21st century. Then the idea came to have A-list guest guitarists play the leads to the classics (such as Jeff Baxter, Brian May, Joe Satriani, Slash and Steve Vai). “We were obviously concerned that they would not swamp the track they played on and in each case they deferred to the song and joined the band, as it were, for a song.”
The band’s current lead guitarist Gypie Mayo proves he’s no slouch on a revisit of “I’m Not Talking.” Ironically, it took two people to replace the late great Keith Relf — and bassist John Idan — who’s originally from Detroit — does a fairly eerie approximation of the singer. Stand-alone harp player Alan Glen expands that instrument’s role since it can now stroll on during the vocals.
“Keith is totally underrated,” notes Dreja. “On this album there’s a song called ‘Original Man’ that was written as a tribute to Keith. He was a great harp player, some of those hooks and phrasing is amazing and he did it all snatching it in between the lyrics. Plus he had one lung and suffered from asthma. Brain Jones of The Rolling Stones, who used to really dig the band and at one point wanted to manage us, was not only very similar to Keith in looks, but he was a harmonica player with asthma as well. Both died young. There are a lot of similarities, unfortunately.”
When the band called it a day in 1968, Dreja did auditions with Jimmy Page, Robert Plant and John Bonham who honored the Yardbirds’ outstanding contracts in Scandinavia by having his embryonic Led Zeppelin tour there as the New Yardbirds. Dreja opted for returning to his first passion — photography. Since then he’s only returned to playing with McCarty, Dreja and Samwell-Smith as Box of Frogs for a pair of ’80’s albums with limited participation from Jeff Beck. Asked to appear at the original Marquee Club for a mid-’90s anniversary, the revamped Yardbirds decided to formally give the band another go-round.
“A lot of young people who check us out now and say, ‘so that’s where this music comes from,’” says Dreja. “Or that ‘it’s a good time to have the Yardbirds album when you’ve got people like the Hives and the White Stripes out.’ Well that’s purely coincidental because when we started this album they weren’t even on the radar, I’d never heard of them. Those sorts of bands have always been out there but not viewed as a commercial viability. It’s so great that audiences are saying they’ve had enough of this synthetic crap and want to hear something a bit more real.”
“I read in the paper is that guitar sales are up 20 percent,” beams Dreja. “Kids are coming off the computers and wanted to be creative so they’re coming back to the thing that turned us on.”
The Yardbirds will perform Friday, June 13, at the Magic Bag (22920 Woodward Ave., Detroit). For info, call 248-544-3030. Serene Dominic writes about music for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org