Led Zeppelin: Rising Stars
As 1967 dawned, this underground culture was poised to go global as the hippie movement. The first freeform FM music stations began to appear in America’s coastal major cities, playing not only ambitious rock album cuts but also free jazz, avant-garde electronic music, Indian ragas, poetry readings…you name it. Touring America with the Yardbirds, Page was able to witness this phenomenon first hand.
“The Yardbirds were probably more popular in the U.S. than in Britain,” he says of this time period. “We had toured there extensively, and that experience allowed me to get in touch with the evolving tastes of the American market. There was a whole other underground scene happening that didn’t care about hit singles. In the late Sixties, American FM radio was very free form and would play entire sides of albums, including the more experimental music of bands like the Yardbirds, Cream and Traffic.”
But this was a trick that old-school guys like Mickie Most had completely missed. His ideas on how to revive the Yardbirds’ flagging career were very much at odds with Page’s vision for the group, a vision much more attuned to where electric guitar driven rock was heading in the late Sixties.
Page and his fellow Yardbirds entered De Lane Lea studios with Most in February 1967 to record the band’s next single, “Little Games,” a lightweight pop tune with vaguely psychedelic overtones. In keeping with Most’s production style, the tune was penned by an outside writing team, probably selected by the producer himself. Most also replaced Dreja and McCarty with John Paul Jones (once again) on bass and Dougie Wright on drums.
“Little Games” became the lead track and title of the album the Yardbirds made shortly thereafter. The album’s sessions were hurried— some accounts say the disc was made in as little as three days—and Little Games is a mixed bag, to say the least. Probably the most successful tracks are the album’s two blues-based numbers. “Smile on Me,” the first of them, was written by Page, Relf, McCarty and Dreja, and boasts some of the most scorching blues licks Page has ever committed to record.
The album’s other outstanding blues track, “Drinking Muddy Water,” is basically the Muddy Waters song “Rollin’ and Tumblin’ ” outfitted with a different lyric and attributed to the four Yardbirds as songwriters. Appropriation of older blues songs would serve Page again later on, most notably on Led Zeppelin II’s “Whole Lotta Love,” which drew from Willie Dixon’s “You Need Love.”
But several other songs on Little Games serve as noteworthy precursors to the direction Led Zeppelin would take. The instrumental track “Glimpses” has a moody, atmospheric vibe that makes it a significant antecedent to Led Zeppelin’s “Dazed and Confused.” It’s one of two tracks on the album (the other is “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sailor”) where Page uses a violin bow to play his guitar, enhancing the sound through a wah-wah pedal in this instance. It is, of course, a technique he’d employ more extensively in Led Zeppelin.
Another standout track, and an important Led Zep forerunner, on Little Games is the acoustic guitar instrumental “White Summer.” This is the song that would basically be reworked as “Black Mountain Side” on the first Led Zeppelin album. Like “Glimpses,” “White Summer” reflects Page’s interest in Indian classical music, but what’s also remarkable about the track is how it combines those Indian influences with the strains of Anglo-Celtic folk music. Page’s acoustic guitar on the track is in the popular folk tuning DADGAD. In his choice of this tuning he was influenced by two leading British folk guitarists, Davey Graham and Bert Jansch. Indeed, the main melody in “White Summer” was devised from the English folk tune “She Moved Through the Fair,” which had been recorded by Graham in 1963.
While Mickie Most strove to recast the Yardbirds as a light psychedelic pop act in the studio, Page took a completely different tack on the road, continuing to push the band in a more hard-hitting direction. Several of the many milestone rock albums released in 1967 confirmed that Page’s way was more in tune with what was to come. Cream’s debut album Fresh Cream appeared early that year, followed by Disraeli Gears by year’s end. Jimi Hendrix’s debut disc, Are You Experienced, came out in May 1967. These three albums cemented the arrival of the instrumental power trio and a new riff-driven mode of rock expression. Also in 1967, a new group out of Los Angeles named Iron Butterfly released a debut album that would give a name to this new style of rock music. It was called Heavy.
And heavy was the direction in which Jimmy Page pushed the Yardbirds as they toured across America and the world in ’67 and early ’68, lapping up the miles as their Little Games album quickly slid down off the bottom of the charts and into oblivion. Page seemed bound and determined to make the Yardbirds work, against all odds. This was the band that he’d abandoned his session career to join, and he stuck by them loyally. The group lived through three more dismal single releases following the commercial failure of Little Games. Although these discs are attributed to the Yardbirds, they were played entirely by Most’s session guys and bear no resemblance whatsoever to the Yardbirds’ style and sound.
Weighed down by such abysmal recordings, the Page/Relf/McCarty/Dreja Yardbirds finally called it quits, playing their last gig at the College of Technology in the small British town of Luton on July 7, 1968. McCarty and Relf went off to start a new band, Together, leaving the managerial custody of Peter Grant. This also left them free of Mickie Most. McCarty and Relf’s new group went to work on a debut album at Abbey Road, reuniting with Paul Samwell-Smith as their producer.
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