THE YARDBIRDS: FIVE LIVE YARDBIRDS (1964)
1) Too Much Monkey Business; 2) Got Love If You Want It; 3) Smokestack Lightning; 4) Good Morning, Little Schoolgirl; 5) Respectable; 6) Five Long Years; 7) Pretty Girl; 8) Louise; 9) I'm A Man; 10) Here 'Tis.
Every time I listen to this record, I am reminded of just how irrepairably skewed our modern perception is of all those young R&B bands that sprang up all over Britain in the early Sixties. We hear them somewhat timidly recording short, thin, quiet covers of Chicago blues and Chuck Berry in the studio; see them properly dressed and, most of the time, lip-synching to the same studio recordings on scant TV appearances; read condensed biographic descriptions of their early years that largely focus upon their managers, producers, and girlfriends; and, if we are very lucky, treat ourselves to awful quality bootlegs that are a total chore to enjoy.
The club scene, however, is where it was all really happening — where bands like The Animals and The Rolling Stones felt themselves free from public image shackles and studio restrictions long before the psychedelic revolution. This was where you could really go wild, where you could extend your three-minute singles into lengthy jams or dance grooves; at the expense of clarity and precision of sound, perhaps, but with the added benefit of releasing the BEAST inside you. We know the huge difference between a studio and a live Stones, or Who, or even Led Zeppelin album from the late Sixties / early Seventies, but, if anything, this difference was even larger in the early Sixties — it's just that we don't get to experience it all that often.
Consequently, manager and producer Giorgio Gomelsky's pioneering decision to make the first album by his latest acquisition, The Yardbirds, a real live one was nothing short of entrepreneurial genius — and exceptionally favorable for The Yardbirds themselves, a band that had not yet properly found its studio wings, and had a lot going against it in terms of competition. Its strict separation between rhythm and lead guitar left rhythm guitarist Chris Dreja without any active voice whatsoever. In the rhythm section, bass player Paul Samwell-Smith was, at best, competent, and drummer Jim McCarty, even being somewhat more than just competent, was, after all, just a drummer. The weakest link, however, was their frontman: Keith Relf, next to the wildman image of people like Mick Jagger and Eric Burdon, looked and sounded like a well-behaved, clean-cut college student, probably very nice to know, handsome in an almost teen idol sort of way, but clearly loving his blues and R&B idols much more than he could imitate them.
Their best bit of luck came along in 1963, when their lead guitarist Top Topham had to leave for art school and cede his place to Eric Clapton, of The Roosters' (non-)fame. With the young guitar prodigy at their side, The Yardbirds finally had something that nobody else had in the British R&B scene — a top-notch blues guitarist who could not only cop all the black dudes' licks to perfection, but put his own stamp on those as well. However, as their first album clearly shows, The Yardbirds never had the slightest intention of turning into «The Eric Clapton Revue» (or, for that matter, any guitar player's revue, be it Eric, Jeff, or Jimmy). The man was too shy to sing, too stiff to show off on stage, and he did not even take solo turns on at least half of the numbers that they performed — drastically underused, some might say; admirably humble, others might object. Regardless, Clapton's presence on these tracks is a good, but far from the only, reason why Five Live Yardbirds still deserves your attention more than half a century since its release.
The most important thing about Five Live Yardbirds is that it is the only document of its epoch, at least outside the territory of crappy-sounding boots, that lets you hear what a genuine club-based «rave-up» sounded like at the time. Those of the album's songs (recorded, by the way, at the Marquee Club on March 20, 1964) that go well over three minutes usually turn, sooner or later, into loud, noisy, «primitive» jams, with all the band members kicking the shit out of their instruments — about as far removed from one's idea of an Eric Clapton-led band as possible. And in those blessed moments when the band reaches its energetic peak, any individual shortcomings on the part of the players just melt away, and what remains is an awesome tribal groove, perhaps best felt on dance-oriented R&B numbers such as the Isley Brothers' ʽRespectableʼ or Bo Diddley's ʽHere 'Tisʼ that closes the show. ʽHere 'Tisʼ, in particular, features a mammoth groove from the rhythm section — for a short while, Jim McCarty ceases to be a suburban British kid and becomes one of those Loa-possessed mythical African savages... yes, clichéd praise, I know, but you really don't get such tribal bombast from anybody else in the Britain of 1964.
Straightahead rock'n'roll and blues numbers are, of course, generally saved by the young Mr. ʽSlowhandʼ Clapton — with ʽToo Much Monkey Businessʼ, if you want great lead vocals, hear The Hollies, if you want young punk flavour, your best bet is The Kinks, but if you want top level lead guitar with the rawest, sharpest, screechiest tone of 1964 and the speediest, most easily fluent picking style of 'em all, you'll have nowhere to turn to but The Yardbirds. The sound quality is hardly ideal, and Eric's soloing on ʽFive Long Yearsʼ is too deeply embedded in the mix (you'd have to wait thirty more years to hear Eric truly let rip on the song), but you can already hear all the principal reasons for the ʽGodʼ tag here. That said, ʽMonkey Businessʼ, ʽFive Long Yearsʼ, and John Lee Hooker's ʽLouiseʼ are pretty much the only songs on which Eric gets a proper solo spot — all the more ridiculous considering how often Keith Relf gets a solo spot with his harmonica, which he really only plays because he's a non-guitar-playing frontman and if you are a frontman without a guitar, you have to play harmonica. Like Mick Jagger, you know? Even on ʽGood Morning Little Schoolgirlʼ — the studio version had Eric playing a solo, but this live version only has Keith. What the hell?.. (Admittedly, he is not a bad harp blower, and the performance on ʽSmokestack Lightningʼ is suitably evil, but too much of this is perfunctory).
Anyway, all criticism aside, Five Live Yardbirds is more than just a priceless historical document: it is a special experience that lets you penetrate those «wild and innocent days» like nothing else — before egos and drugs took over and added extra wildness, but took away most of the innocence. Never mind that the band remained unable to carve out an unmistakable identity for themselves: Five Live Yardbirds has no need for an identity, as long as a certain nameless power can clench all five of them in its grip from time to time and make them produce such exciting, truly bacchanalian pandemonium. And on top of that, you get a few of those Clapton solos — as a bonus for getting into all the grooves. Thumbs up.
PS: since the dawning of the CD era, Five Live Yardbirds apparently has been released in a million different repackagings, many of which throw on tons of bonus tracks — such as the band's early studio singles (which shall be tackled in a separate review for For Your Love), or additional live performances from the Crawdaddy Club and other venues: seek out the one that has a rippin' version of Chuck Berry's ʽLet It Rockʼ on it, a really tight performance and another great occasion to hear Eric do Chuck Berry, something you would almost never get a chance to hear again in the post-1964 universe.