Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, and the Yardbirds – An Exercise in Team Building
A common theme in business is the building of teams. The idea of a team has been kicking around forever. I am sure it is still a great niche for business consultants. Team building is often the butt of jokes, but still there is something to the idea of building a team. Finding the right people with the right skills, at the right time who want to contribute and be there, and management doing all that they can to make sure that they continue to want to be there, can mean a lot! If ever I teach a Business 101 class and the syllabus includes a lecture on team building, this would be the business case I use – my one example of one team.
Perhaps dated, but most folks still know who Led Zeppelin is. Sadly, this is not about Led Zeppelin. It predates them, though not by that much. We are talking from 1965 to 1967 or so. Roughly 50 years ago. It focuses on our man Jeff Beck, who at that time was in the Yardbirds, his friendship with Jimmy Page, and the evolution and intertwining of these two in and out of the Yardbirds.
Jimmy Page of course had introduced Jeff Beck to the Yardbirds. He himself had passed on the Yardbird’s offer of the lead guitar role. And then proceeded to point them to Jeff. This was when Eric Clapton decided it was time to move on in early 1965. Page was content at that time to continue on as a session guitarist. It could be said that for the first year as a Yardbird, Beck was kind of the same. He was a session player exclusively for one band – the Yardbirds.
Oh, he was a Yardbird. He toured with the Yardbirds. He dressed like a Yardbird. When they hired him, they realized they better go shopping with him and get the proper attire for him as he was a now a Yardbird. Regardless, he was the newcomer. Everyone else had been on the bus and in the studio and so forth for the past three years. Beck was the new guy, and and it took him awhile to get acclimated.
The story goes that he largely kept to himself during much of his time with the band. It was a whole year and a half, but with multiple singles, at least two albums, and all kinds of tours. Throughout all of this he just did not really engage. He would not appear in the studio till the last minute and do what was needed to make it work, work his magic. He was able to listen to what they had put together before he arrived, and often enough offer up something that typically worked.
If you go back to “Heart Full of Soul”, which was recorded right after Beck joined the Yardbirds in April 1965. It was he who made that song work. Before he arrived in the studio that day, the band had been trying to incorporate an actual sitar into the intro of the song. The sitar player they had brought in, however, was just not up to the 4/ 4 time. It was not his thing. Jeff observed this and disappeared again.
Apparently, he went and borrowed his
buddy’s, Jimmy Page’s, new fuzz box. Page was in an adjacent
studio working on another project. With a little work Jeff came back
with something of a sitar sound that worked nicely. It is a sound we
still appreciate today.
It turns that he and Page had previously listened to Ravi Shankar albums together, pondering how to get that sound with a guitar. That listening session, whenever that was, apparently had made an impression on Jeff Beck. With it, along with Page’s new fuzz box, the challenge of that recording session complete with sitar player trying to figure out a 4 / 4 time signature basically resulted in the “Heart Full of Soul” we know today, complete with Beck’s take on the Sitar at the start of the tune.
And this tale just illustrates the relationship between Page and Beck, which has been documented in numerous places. You can see it in their interactions through the years. They grew up two towns apart outside of London proper. Both had been intrigued with electric guitars. Both loved Les Paul, Gene Vincent, and the blues. They both made their own homemade guitars in their youths. They just were and are kindred spirits.
This tale continues proper in the making of Beck’s Bolero, which was ultimately released as a B side to Jeff Beck’s first solo single, “Hi Ho Silver Lining”. That was released in 1968, after the Yardbirds. It was in fact recorded, however, in early 1966 when Beck was still a member of the Yardbirds. Management of the Yardbirds, concerned about the longevity of the band, encouraged Beck and others to explore solo projects. Beck’s Bolero was the result of one such session.
Ideally it would be a side project, a way to diffuse and to distract. That was the intent of management. It was seen as a distraction for Beck who despite the success of the band and his career, was not happy with constant touring and the focus on pop music. Beck throughout his time with the Yardbirds was challenged by the tensions between the pop audience that his English management catered to, and a new audience that was evolving and that he was much more sympathetic to in America.
This new audience was first found in college auditoriums, and later on the FM dial across the States. An audience with a palette or ear more appreciative of Beck, Page, and of course soon enough Hendrix and the rest of what was to come. Really when you listen to Beck’s Bolero, recorded in 1966, you can see he was dealing with that transition from a pop act to the rocker we know today.
And we need to keep in mind, rock did not exist at that time, not as we know it. Rock had its predecessors, its inspirations, but nothing quite like it that merged the blues of the Delta, a dash of R&B, a heavy dose of electronics including the amplifiers, the distortion pedals, the FM signal, and lastly the mass media of America. And all of this delivered with a certain English sensibility. Nothing like that existed previously. These were the things that were converging and effecting Jeff’s mood and his playing throughout this period. And it is certainly evidenced in “Beck’s Bolero”.
So as this was a solo effort, Beck reached out to quite a cast of characters. He had his friend Jimmy Page. Jimmy was a session artist after all. That is what he did. In addition to Page, he had John Paul Jones, another session musician at the time. Of course, he went on to become Led Zeppelin’s bass player. Likewise, there was Nicky Hopkins, a pianist, a Royal Academy of Music graduate, who would go on to play and tour with the Jeff Beck Group in 1968. Not to mention the Stones, the Beatles and others. Lastly, there was Keith Moon, the Who drummer, much to the chagrin it seems of one Pete Townsend. Others are rumored to have passed through, but these are the key players.
Becks Bolero’s guitar is largely inspired by the rhythm made famous by Ravel’s Bolero, a ballet composed in 1928. Ravel’s piece was in turn inspired by Spanish dances of the eighteenth century, which also led to a style of flamenco known as “boleras”. This rhythm, which Ravel captured famously, inspired them all, the flamencos, the ballet and now a rock instrumental piece.
So, you have this Bolero rhythm, this percussive guitar rhythm played by Jimmy Page, which Nicky Hopkins with his piano later joins in on, and then this melody that to this day Page and Beck both seem to claim. An amazing melody that is than commingled with a bit of slide guitar, before shifting into hyperspace, or treated to what the Yardbirds called a rave.
Basically, just doubling up the time. That is when you hear only Keith Moon’s cymbals. Apparently, in the course of his playing, he busted the mic dedicated to his drums. So, you just get his cymbals. His cymbals and him yelling over them and the others. So you have Keith Moon going crazy, yelling over this hyped-up moment in this song with this percussive rhythm, guitars and piano, and this flowing wicked melody. Ending with a bit of orchestrated piano courtesy of Nicky Hopkins.
Of course, Keith Moon’s comment at the end of that session has become legend. Prophetic. His response to the suggestion that this crew go out and play shows, he surmised would go over like a lead zeppelin.
The Oxford May Ball
Jump now to May of 1966. It was then that Jimmy Page joined the Yardbirds. He replaced Paul Samwell-Smith on bass guitar. Somehow, Jimmy Page was hired as a replacement for their bass player. He was not a bass player, and Samwell-Smith was really not just a bass player, but involved in the production efforts of the band and simply played a key role in keeping the band functioning. At least he did, until May of 1966.
What drove Samwell-Smith’s decision were the two sets they performed at Oxford University’s May Ball. Those were the final straw. The Oxford Ball was an annual event attended by students, who arrived in suits and gowns it appears. It seems Keith Relf, the vocalist for the band, just did not take the whole event too seriously. And with that just proceeded to get trashed or whatever they called it at that time. He just indulged through out. He barely got through one set and the second was simply a fiasco, requiring Jeff Beck to just provide guitar fills where Keith’s vocals were normally expected.
Of course Keith Relf had an issue with alcohol that did ultimately kill him. And for Samwell-Smith it was not just this incident at Oxford. It was not just Keith Relf getting drunk. The fact was that this was just one incident in a series of such incidents. Samwell was just tired. He was tired of touring and after three years, three years that involved numerous tours of the UK, Europe, and the US, he had had enough. He much more enjoyed the studio and the production of the music. So backstage at the end of the Oxford show he gave his notice and it seems a piece of his mind.
Also there, backstage, a guest of the band and primarily Jeff Beck, was Jimmy Page, who took all of this in. Keith getting trashed, and Samwell-Smith giving his notice. Jeff, in part kidding, in part serious, urged Jimmy to fill in on bass as it appeared that Samwell-Smith was serious. Samwell-Smith insisted he was done, and the band did have a show in the next few days at the Marquee.
Jimmy Page had just taken in this drunken rowdy show featuring an incoherent Keith Relf, and his friend Jeff Beck covering for the singer with his guitar. He had watched two sets of such. All for a bunch of Oxford University students who really did not care, who were in their suits and ties for this formal end of semester spring affair. And now, at the end of the night, at the end of this, he witnesses Paul Samwell-Smith just letting lose on Keith Relf, the band, the show, and quit. In the midst of this he is invited to join in the melee.
How could one not accept such an invitation? Even though he was not really a bass player, Page had to accept the offer. Remember, he had declined an offer from them a year back to replace Eric Clapton on guitar. Now he was being offered the bass. A year later, after watching this chaos, he realized it was time. How could he not? Again, like Beck’s Bolero, the timing was right.
Six Months Feels Like Happenings Ten Years Time Ago. . .
So with this, the Yardbirds now have Keith Relf on vocals, Chris Dreja on rhythm guitar, Jim McCarty on drums, and Jimmy Page on bass, and Jeff Beck on lead guitar. In recording sessions Jimmy Page does go back and forth between guitar and bass.
A few weeks after Page joins the band
they record Happenings
Ten Years Time Ago,
A song initially conceived by Relf and Dreja in Relf’s apartment and
then brought to the studio where Jimmy Page now contributes guitar
and it seems John Paul Jones, who was part of the Beck’s Bolero
session, returns and offers up some bass. Jeff Beck of course arrives
to the session late and provides a more than tasty solo and an
interesting interlude mid-song where he speaks several verses, a
spoken-word type thing.
It is another tune where they venture into pyschedelia. It is basically this tinny repetitive guitar riff over this amazing bass line. The vocals hinting at deja vu. The whole song hints at deja vu, this going back and forth. And then, mid-way through, Jeff Beck comes in with this warm fuzzy toned solo. In the end it is dizzying and then back to that repetitive riff, almost like a disturbed metronome. And then at the end there is another bit of guitar, this time fuzzy and distorted and sounding as if going through a set of gears. I don’t know who did what exactly. Regardless, in 2019 it sounds lovely. In 1966, apparently not so much.
They had jumped ahead of themselves. With Page and Beck now in the group, feeding off of each other, and likewise John Paul Jones on this occasion, the song had gone beyond both the Yardbirds’ pop and rock audiences. It sadly got to only #43 in the UK and #30 in the US. It was innovative, original, challenging, but not recognized as something listenable. Not yet at least. This tune at least they had gotten ahead of their audience.
So the studio recordings were one part of the equation. The second and really the larger part of the equation were the numerous tours the Yardbirds engaged in. That was the case throughout the band’s history, and this period was no exception. In 1966 they supported the Rolling Stones’ UK Tour along with Ike and Tina Turner. And then there was the US tours. The first bringing them to Minnesota and ending in Hawaii. The second, Dick Clark’s Caravan, putting them on a bus with a bunch of 60’s pop acts, and both tours having consequences for the band. Jeff Beck made it through neither of the later.
Jeff Beck never quite got acclimated to the road during this time. Perhaps later in his career he made it work but during his time with the Yardbirds, he struggled. His tours with the Yardbirds just entailed him dealing with long tedious hauls in tight uncomfortable buses, fatigue, various ailments and ultimately exhaustion and the Yardbirds were largely just a series of tours. That is what they did.
He went through one tour apparently destroying his amplifier at every show. Granted that was a common thing back then. The Who is the band commonly known for such. It seemed, at least in Beck’s case it was out of frustration. The gear was just not up to the task. Not in 1966. The scale and the quality of amplification just had not arrived as of yet. So if Beck was just having one of those nights where things were not cooperating, he would just start beating on the gear.
So the Yardbirds first tour of the US in 1966 starting Minneapolis, made it perhaps halfway before Jeff bailed? Once again, Jeff was just not up to the task of performing due again to exhaustion, and illness. He was dealing with tonsillitis. The band, however, was in luck this time as they in fact now had two lead guitarists. Jimmy Page, moved to lead guitar and Chris Dreja moved to bass. For the rest of the tour they were a four-piece, eliminating the rhythm guitar. It worked. Jimmy Page of course held his own. In various interviews he concedes it was a challenge covering Jeff’s leads on tunes that were basically Jeff’s. I wonder if the audiences realized it was not Jeff Beck? The important thing was that he did it. A band that was always more about the guitarist than the singer now had two serious guitarists.
And once back in the UK, the band had to now decide how to proceed. It was never a question it seems whether Beck was still in the band. No, the question was now, how do we proceed with both Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page? Prior to this, It had been Jeff Beck doing the guitar, and Page doing bass. But the last part of that US tour illustrated that they in fact had two more than able lead guitarists. Why not take advantage of that?
This was again uncharted territory. Having a lead and rhythm guitarist were common. That was what the Yardbirds had, at least up until now. Now they were going to a model where the guitarists shared the lead duties. Over the next few weeks Beck and Page devised a scheme to make such a model work. Basically they worked through the Yardbirds’ material, specifically Jeff’s leads, and worked out ways to harmonize them. The challenge though was that it required some coordination. It required some constancy on the part of both Beck and Page.
Which gets to who these two are or who
they came to be. Today, you look at the basic history of the two and
you can see it. Jimmy Page went on to create one of the biggest acts
in rock n’ roll history. He is simply a much more disciplined artists
in this regard. His project was led Zeppelin and all that it
Jeff Beck, first off is known as an amazing guitarist, but if you go the next step of exploring what he did on the guitar, you can see. Just in this little bit of history with the Yardbirds, he went from blues player to psychedelic and back. And this continued through the years. From Superstitious with Stevie Wonder to his explorations of fusion to his foray into rockabilly and everything in between. He collaborates with everybody and plays and explores what he feels.
You could say both play what they feel but for Page it is always through the filter of Led Zeppelin, even though they have not played or recorded in thirty years now. Beck does not have any such filter. That lack of filter, that freedom, can be seen in the variety of his playing. It can be seen in his frustration and destruction of gear, his walking out on the Yardbirds multiple times, and ultimately in his playing. He simply did what he felt. The man has matured since then. He was in 1966 only 22. You routinely read that in this period you were never quite sure what you were going to get from Jeff Beck, or his guitar. It was often marvelous but sometimes he was simply a no-show.
Again, we have jumped way ahead of ourselves. This issue, however, of two different players trying to make it work was right there before them in those sessions, trying to work out how to now share the lead responsibilities. And this was with gigs and tours days and weeks away. The good thing is that they had that friendship, which at times was strained, but seems to have survived to this day. They share much musically and are coming from the same place. It seems they simply liked and respected each other. They still do.
The first show they did with this new model was warming up for the Rolling Stones on that UK tour with Ike and Tina Turner. Jeff Beck was impressed at the end of that show, but one reviewer in NME did not see anything all that amazing. The next couple of shows were hit or miss. When it worked it was good it seems. Other nights, not so good. Assuming the amps cooperated and Beck and Page were on the same wavelength, things could work out nicely. Other nights they were not on the same wavelength, and often the two were more competing than harmonizing. There was a tension there, an uncertainty.
No doubt that was part of the challenge, the fun.
It was with this uncertainty that they headed back to the States. This time to tour as part of Dick Clark’s “Caravan of Stars”. A 33 date jaunt across the US. Twenty-five of those dates involved two shows a day, which meant you did an early show, hop back on the bus and go to a second venue a little further down the road.
The stars being groups such as Sam the
Sham & his Pharaohs. Who? These were groups that had some success
on Dick Clark’s radio and TV shows, his American Bandstand and the
like. So it was very poppy. They were not playing to the audience
they wanted to play to. Certainly not Beck. There was some exposure,
being on this tour, but to who? A grueling month plus in a bus with a
bunch of musicians you had little in common with performing for an
audience you were really not sure about. It did not quite work.
So you had Jeff Beck pondering all of this as he got on stage again and again that month doing their half hour set and then getting back on the bus again and again, perhaps in the same day. Tired, fatigued, with the inadequate amps and gear, that often all sounded like crap. And then back on a crowded uncomfortable bus, only to head to the next town so they could do it all again.
And on stage you are competing now with a guy who is a good friend and pretty damn good, but who obviously had his own plans and agendas. They were I am sure stealing licks from each other, discretely keeping track of who did what solo and who stole what solo. And again, these were Jeff Beck’s solos. They were his songs. And now Jeff had to comply. He had to stay on track. He could not or should not deviate too far from what him and Jimmy had agreed upon, and for Jeff that was really not playing. It seems though that he often did deviate, leaving Jimmy wondering at moments what to do. Improvisation?
All for an audience that had no idea what they were listening to, much less what they were watching. It was in the midst of Dick Clark’s “Caravan of Stars” that Jeff Beck decided he had enough. It was in the midst of this tour that he decided he was done. He had left other Yardbirds’ tours, but this time he was done.
The Yardbirds were again a four piece. Jeff Beck went and visited his girlfriend in CA for a bit, and then headed home to London. So that brings us back to my opening query. How do you build a team? We had two of the greatest guitarist on stage together for multiple tours and recordings. It was obvious to some even then that there was something there. And in hindsight, it is more than obvious. Just imagine if all of what I describe, could have been overcome. That a peace had been brokered proper somehow on stage.
The reality, however, was that such a peace was not happening. It was just not sustainable. There was really no way to keep that group together, With Jeff’s inability at that time to endure the challenges of touring, his frustration with the equipment of the time, the transition from pop music to rock, and lastly this rivalry onstage with his childhood mate, requiring him to be a bit. . . structured and perhaps even mature. You add all of that up and you do feel a bit tired, a bit exhausted, even a bit of rage. And sometimes all of this must have translated to wonder. Other times not. In the end, there really was no way to keep this going.
I guess my imaginary business class would fade into pessimism. Or perhaps we would ponder what doors would open as others close.