It wasn’t called psychedelia when the Yardbirds invented it. “When we first went to California, we were playing shows and having all these people that were taking acid and stuff, and we didn’t know anything about it,” drummer Jim McCarty recalled. “They thought we were all freaks, and of course we weren’t.” No, they were just English art-school kids who, like their contemporaries the Rolling Stones, fell in love with the music of black America.
The Yardbirds play the Vogue Monday.
The Yardbirds were never a household name, except for about 10 minutes in the mid-’60s when eccentric singles like “For Your Love” and “Heart Full of Soul” cracked the Top 10 on both sides of the Atlantic. But after taking over the Stones’ weekly stand at London’s famed Crawdaddy club, they took their blues and R&B obsession into uncharted waters, launching the era of heavy rock guitar and its first generation of icons: Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page. So, yes, they sort of invented heavy metal, too. But they didn’t realize at the time that Page, while perfecting his violin-bow wizardry, was morphing the band into Led Zeppelin, second only to the Beatles as the best-selling combo in rock history. “I don’t think we were aware while he was with us, but he was always the master of the heavy metal riff, and he was very businesslike in his approach,” McCarty said in a phone interview from his London home. “He had it all worked out.” Though critics and historians have always given the Yardbirds their props, there has been no deafening clamor for a reunion. In the mid-’90s, however, McCarty and rhythm guitarist Chris Dreja broke from other musical and graphic-arts pursuits to assemble a new lineup and play some European festivals. Last year they decided to make a record, the first Yardbirds studio project since 1967. The disc, tiled Birdland, is divided between remakes of classics like “Shapes of Things” and new songs in a similar vein. The old numbers feature star cameos in place of the missing original members. Contributors include Johnny Rzeznik of the Goo Goo Dolls and a laundry list of celebrated guitarists: their old chum Beck, Slash, Queen’s Brian May, studio legends Jeff “Skunk” Baxter and Steve Lukather, and flashy technicians Steve Vai and Joe Satriani. The disc was released on Vai’s Favored Nations label. The new numbers feature the lineup that is touring Europe and North America and will appear Monday in Indianapolis: McCarty on drums, Dreja on rhythm guitar, and new members John Idan on bass and lead vocals, Gypie Mayo on lead guitar and Alan Glen on harmonica. (As for the other original members, vocalist Keith Relf died in 1976 in a music-related electrical accident. Bassist Paul Samwell-Smith developed a noteworthy career as a producer.) Following, edited for space and clarity, are a few more excerpts of our chat with McCarty, who will turn 60 this year. NUVO: The story goes that Clapton left the band because he didn’t like “For Your Love” and the commercial direction you were being steered in. Was that the case? McCarty: Not altogether, no. He had various personality conflicts with some of the other guys, and I think he had his own agenda, really, his own way of looking at it. At that time he was a bit of a blues purist, but that didn’t really last into Cream. And I think leaving us and going to John Mayall, he achieved a certain amount of celebrity for sticking to his guns. He was always going to be a star in his own right, really, the same as all of them. NUVO: Did anybody call Clapton or Page to see if they were interested in this new project? Are you still in touch with them? McCarty: We don’t actually see much of Eric. We have got an old album coming out with him on it, that was never released before, which he was happy to do. He was happy to sign the contract, which is nice. He didn’t say, “Oh, no, you’re not allowed to do that.” And Jimmy has been down to see the band a couple times, so he’s sort of still in touch. It’s been in our minds to do a show with them all involved, so it might happen, making a DVD. It would be good. NUVO: But Beck played on the disc. McCarty: We still see him from time to time. He’s quite loyal to his old friends. NUVO: For a while the band had both Beck and Page, at a time when heavy lead guitar was a relatively new idea. That must have been a strange animal. McCarty: Yes. It was difficult to organize who would play when. One would play a solo, and then the other would follow, and then they might just play at the same time, which was a bit mad. It worked on things where they played the same, like a stereo riff, but some of the time it was a bit of a noise. There was a bit of ego, as well. I think they were both trying to outdo each other. We toured once with the Stones and Ike and Tina Turner, and I remember playing one gig in Cardiff, when Beck and Page did work together really well. I remember getting this huge ovation from the crowd right before the Stones were due on, which was a bit embarrassing for them. NUVO: You left just as the band was turning into Led Zeppelin. What prompted that? McCarty: We’d been on the road for a long time. All the income from the band was coming from playing live. There wasn’t a big income from record royalties. We were pretty stressed out, and Jimmy was quite fresh. When Keith and I left, we were quite tired, and Jimmy got some new musicians that were totally fresh and raring to go, so all the energy was there. It was our decision. We really wanted to do our own songs, which were in a different vein. NUVO: Do you feel that the Yardbirds never found the success they deserved? Were you bitter about being passed over? McCarty: We could have been, but it was a lot down to timing and a lot down to the decision we made. Probably, if we’d stuck together through ’68 to the early ’70s, when suddenly the album market took off, that might have helped. But there was no way we saw it that way at the time. We felt like this was it, that we’d done all we could. NUVO: How does it feel to look back on it now? McCarty: We had to work quite hard, and we had lots of ups and downs, but it was a very exciting time to go through. I’m very gratified about things people have said about us since the ’60s. And we’ve had some very good people covering our songs. The Yardbirds play Monday, June 9, at the Vogue. Music starts at 8 p.m. Tickets are $13 advance, $15 day of show. Scott Hall is the music columnist for the Daily Journal of Johnson County and The Zone in Columbus. Visit him online at www.onthebeat.org, and send him an e-mail, for chrissake.