Led Zeppelin: Rising Stars
Beck’s lead guitar“Jeff’s time with the Yardbirds was the most groundbreaking era for that band,” Page says. “It grew by leaps and bounds, really.” work with the Yardbirds helped create a vogue for minor-key improvisation based loosely on scales used in Indian classical music. (He was actually a few months ahead of the Beatles’ George Harrison getting this kind of sound onto disc.) Beck excelled at employing distortion, sustain and feedback to simulate the resonant drone of Indian instruments like the sitar, sarod and tamboura. At the same time, his playing remained firmly rooted in the blues. This potent combination was another Yardbirds legacy that Page would bring into Led Zeppelin.
Along with Beck, Samwell-Smith and McCarty, the Yardbirds’ lineup included the solid, if unspectacular, rhythm guitarist Chris Dreja and singer Keith Relf, whose vocal range was somewhat limited, but who blew a mean blues harp.
A lack of competent management was another challenge the Yardbirds faced. Their string of hit singles came at the price of punishing “package tours” into the wilds of America and overly hasty recording sessions. Samwell-Smith tried to improve the situation by assuming more control and formed an alliance with the Yardbirds’ second manager, Simon Napier-Bell, who had taken over from Gomelsky. Together, they produced some of the band’s best tracks, and Samwell-Smith discovered a vocation for production that would serve him for years to come.
The idea of record production by an actual band member was still pretty novel in 1965. Nobody produced their own records back then, not even the Beatles, Stones or Dylan. In that respect, Samwell-Smith’s move into coproduction helped smooth the way for Page’s full assumption of production duties on the first Led Zeppelin album a few years later. Even with increased artistic control, however, Samwell-Smith continued to grow discontented with the Yardbirds, and he left the group in mid 1966. Jeff Beck was quick to recommend his old friend Jimmy Page as a replacement.
“Jimmy was not a bass player, as we all know,” Beck says. “But the only way I could get him involved was by insisting that it would be okay for him to take over on bass, in order for the band to continue. And gradually—within a week, I think— we were talking about doing dueling guitar leads. And then we switched Chris Dreja onto bass in order to get Jimmy on guitar.”
By this point, Page was more eager to join the Yardbirds than he had been in 1965. While session guitar playing was certainly profitable, the hackwork element that went with the job had begun to take its toll. “I finally called it quits after I started getting calls to do Muzak [easy-listening “elevator music”],” Page recalls. “I decided I couldn’t live that life anymore; it was getting too silly. I guess it was destiny that, a few weeks after quitting doing sessions, Paul Samwell-Smith left the Yardbirds, and I was able to take his place.”
His first recording with the Yardbirds was “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago,” made in September 1966. This tour de force track ranks among the greatest in the rock canon, a moody slice of psychedelia with nightmarish overtones. John Paul Jones, at the time a top London studio musician, was drafted to play bass on the track, which makes “Happenings” a key Led Zeppelin precursor. The Beck/Page Yardbirds lineup lasted for only a handful of live dates. There is no recorded document of these performances, but those who were there report amazing feats of harmonized and unison guitar leads, not to mention tandem soloing. “It could be brilliant with Jeff and Jimmy,” Jim McCarty recalls, “but it got a bit messy sometimes. A bit too much going on.”
“Obviously the two-guitar thing with Jimmy was a great idea,” Beck says. “But it was also fraught with disaster, because sooner or later one of us would have been cramped, stylewise.”
As it turned out, things never reached that point. Two dates into a particularly grueling package tour of America in October 1966, Beck became Page’s vehicle for formulating much of the sound and approach that he would employ in the creation of Led Zeppelin, not to mention the swaggering onstage persona that would set a new style for rock guitar performance. But back in England, there was plenty of business to transact. With the Yardbirds rapidly unraveling, Simon Napier-Bell also jumped ship, selling his managerial interest in the group to Peter Grant in January 1967. An imposing figure of a man, Grant was partnered with the aforementioned producer Mickie Most in an organization called RAK Management and Production.
Back in those days, management and production were very closely allied. Early recordings by the Rolling Stones and Who had actually been produced by their managers at the time. But having no flair for production, Grant needed Most’s studio expertise.
And so it was arranged that Grant and Most would take on the Yardbirds and also launch a career for Jeff Beck as a solo artist. Having worked with Most in his session days, Page was perhaps more aware than anyone else that Most was hardly the ideal producer for the Yardbirds. An old school “hit factory” guy and master of the three-minute pop single idiom, Most was great at making something of nonentities like Herman’s Hermits, but he was hardly the ideal man for an evolving, experimental guitar rock group. At the time, however, the Yardbirds didn’t have much choice.
Their career had starting going off the rails right at a time when a dramatic shift was taking place in the way rock music was perceived, consumed, conceptualized and created. Around 1965, youth culture split into two factions of music fans: those who were content to hear hit songs on the radio and purchase hit singles, and those who wanted to dig deeper and buy albums by their favorite groups. Rock musicians, meanwhile, began to view album tracks not as mere “filler” but rather an opportunity for musical exploration outside the bounds of commercial radio accessibility. And so a culture of fans began to form around tracks like the 11-minute “Going Home” from the Rolling Stones’ 1966 Aftermath album, Bob Dylan’s 11-minute opus “Desolation Row” from 1965’s Highway 61 Revisited and the Byrds’ “Eight Miles High” from their 1966 Third Dimension disc. The Yardbirds’ mid-Sixties guitar rave-ups also slotted very nicely into this growing rock culture.
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