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McCarty and The Yardbirds are still rockin' the roost

Yardbirds alumni Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page have influenced many artists. But it is drummer Jim McCarty who influenced an entire musical genre.

By Pat Prince

Musicians and music lovers alike are quick to mention the influences of The Yardbirds on genres as diverse as folk and heavy metal. Yes, superstar guitarists Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page all were members of the short-lived group, and they’ve all gone on to inspire a variety of other artists, too. But it is Jim McCarty’s drumbeat in The Yardbirds’ version of “I’m a Man” that is cited as an early influence on speed metal.

Yardbirds circa 1966

The Yardbirds had a constantly evolving lineup. This incarnation, circa 1966, featured (from left) guitarist Jeff Beck, drummer Jim McCarty, rhythm guitarist Chris Dreja, guitarist Jimmy Page and singer Keith Relf. Publicity photo.

And it was McCarty and fellow original member Chris Dreja who resuscitated the band some 35 years after it disbanded in 1968. That led to the 2003 studio album, “Birdland” and the 2007 effort “Live At B.B. King Blues Club.” Today, the Yardbirds offer up a blend of mod and modern with newcomers Ben King (guitar), David Smale (bass) and Andrew Mitchell (vocals). Setlists include the band’s 1960s hits, blues classics like “Smokestack Lightning” and “Drinking Muddy Waters,” as well as new songs, like “Crying Out For Love.” Goldmine caught up with McCarty to talk about the band’s past, present and immediate future.

Goldmine: For those who haven’t seen The Yardbirds perform in quite some time, can you talk about the current lineup?
Jim McCarty: For a few years, it’s been the two originals, Chris and myself. But Chris has actually been ill. I don’t know if you’ve been aware, but we did a tour (in 2011), and he had a series of strokes on the road. And he ended up in UCLA [medical center], which was probably the best place to be. And he was in there for about a week, and they finally let him go home. So he hasn’t been playing with us since then. He’s just recovering at home, and we’d been playing as a four-piece — me plus the three young guys.

GM: How is he recovering?
JM: He’s getting better. Recovering slowly. He’s not well enough to play or to travel in an airplane, but he does go out and drive in his area. So he gets out and about. His coordination is still a bit odd.

Yardbirds 2012

The Yardbirds' original drummer Jim McCarty (second from left) and rhythm guitarist Chris Dreja (second from right) have worked to keep the band's musical legacy alive. Dreja had to stop touring in 2011, after he suffered a series of strokes while on the road, but the band has soldiered on as a four-piece, featuring bassist David Smale (left), guitarist Ben King (center) and vocalist Andrew Mitchell (right). Publicity photo.

GM: Do you think he will recover well enough to tour again?
JM: I really don’t know. That’s the question. But we’re doing quite well, because we are basically like the Jimmy Page lineup — you know, the four-piece. We’ve got two young guys in their 20s — a guitarist called Ben King, who is very good, and bass player David Smale — and the frontman, singer and harmonica player Andrew Mitchell.

GM: How did you connect with Andy Mitchell?
JM: We had an American as a singer who was a bass player, John Idan, who decided he wanted to go solo a few years back. And so we thought we’d revert back to the original sort of lineup where we had the singer playing harmonica, same as we did with Keith (Relf, the original singer). And we came across Andy sort of by accident, really. It’s a long story, but somebody had recommended someone who was Andrew Mitchell, who was a singer-harmonica player, who I vaguely knew. We auditioned him. And at the same time, Ben, our guitar player, saw that there was an Andy Mitchell playing in London, too. He went to see him play and thought he was really good. And so there were two Andy Mitchells (laughs). Really funny. And the one that he saw was a very good singer but he really couldn’t play harmonica. So he taught himself, and this is about four years ago now, on a tour we did with The Zombies. So he worked out actually really well.

GM: Do you find playing New York City as exciting as when you first played there?
JM: Yeah, I like it very much. I must say, it’s always a bit of a hard audience. I find that they can be quite a tough audience. They’ve probably seen so many bands. They’re a good audience — don’t get me wrong — but relatively to some of the other audiences, they can be a bit tough.

GM: You mean “tough,” as far as winning them over?
JM: Yeah.

GM: Some fans probably don’t realize how different a rock band’s tour would have been back in the 1960s compared to now. The venues, the sound quality and certainly there was no merchandise to be sold.
JM: (Laughs.) Yes, I know, and the sound quality must be 100 percent better. It was very hit or miss in the old days. I remember playing with Jeff Beck; he always had problems with his sound. He never seemed to get the right amplifier, because he never took his own. We always hired them on the road. He was never happy and quite often would lose his temper with the amplifier. Sometimes he would even kick it off the stage. So that was very hit or miss, you can imagine.

GM: It’s been 45 years since the album “Little Games” was released. What’s your impression of that album now, as compared to then?
JM: Well, the songs still stand up. I would say probably “Roger the Engineer” was a better album. It had a bit more freshness, a bit more spontaneity. But I would say “Little Games” still stands up. It’s good that everyone says that the sound never sounds dated. I don’t know why that is, but I guess that must be some sort of luck, or maybe what we were trying to do then was look into the future.

GM: Well, you were experimenting and you weren’t following trends, really.
JM: Yeah, we were doing our own thing, starting with the basic R&B blues songs and trying to make them a bit different.

GM: “Roger the Engineer” was the first album where you really kind of explored songwriting as a band, right?
JM: Yes, and it was good fun to do, because a lot of the things we made up in the studio. We had a good start. We did the songs we played live. And some of the other songs we made up just for fun, and they seemed to work. And we recorded it over about two weeks, which is fast compared to nowadays — certainly in the ’80s anyway.

GM: It was a time when The Yardbirds were trying to be an album band, when it was all about putting out singles.
JM: Yes, that was our problem.

GM: But looking back, you were really respected for that.
JM: I guess there was that. I suppose we were respected for that, but it sort of went against us in a way. We split up before the album market really became huge. Led Zeppelin didn’t even have to do a single. They went the other way.

GM: Did you feel you were constantly fighting for that? You hired (producer) Mickie Most, who was a big singles guy. Do you feel he limited you sometimes?
JM: In retrospect, I’d say it was a big mistake. Because even though then Mickie was the great hitmaker in those days, I don’t think he really understood what we were about. And he really didn’t give us too much freedom. You know, he was imposing these songs on us. He thought they were gonna be commercial, and they really weren’t our sort of songs.

GM: I heard you never liked performing “For Your Love” and stuff like that.
JM: Back then, yeah, maybe. It was always difficult, because playing blues songs and then suddenly going into that ... It was a bit different. And it needed a bit of a different approach. I think now, with the modern PA, we can play it as a good rock song, and we can get it to come over with the set and it fits in fine.

GM: Do you think there is a specific Yardbirds song that best describes the band?
JM: I would say that “Shapes of Things” and probably “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago” really show the band for what it was — you know, the heavy guitar riffs and the guitar solos and the time changes. “Shapes of Things” is a good tune and good lyrics about the time, so I am quite proud about that song.

GM: The band was always innovative. Were you surprised when Jimmy Page first whipped out that violin bow to play guitar?
JM: (Laughs.) Well, I think in those days, anything went. Anything like that was welcomed. He had all those gizmos and all the effects. He was very much encouraged to use them to make the sound as different as possible. The violin bow was part of that whole scene — feedback and anything like that was weird and wonderful. That worked.

GM: There’s a certain part of rock history that is often talked about. It was a night off for The Yardbirds in New York City at the Cafe a Go Go. Were you one of The Yardbirds who had heard Jake Holmes perform “Dazed and Confused” for the first time?
JM: Well, it wasn’t quite like that (laughs). See, we actually played with him. We did a gig at the Village Theater [Greenwich Village, Aug. 25, 1967]. The Youngbloods were on, if you remember them, and we were on and Jake Holmes was on. And we were looking for a song. I remember going to look at Jake from side stage, you know, as you did — sometimes you watched the support band. I thought it was quite a folky sort of group, and then all of a sudden he went into the “Dazed and Confused” riff. I thought, ‘That’s a very moody riff, sort of thing that would suit us.’ I went down to Greenwich Village the next day and bought his album. And so we had the song, and we did our own version. Then, of course, it became a big Zeppelin song.

GM: Do you feel like you guys nicked the song? Did you ever hear from Jake Holmes?
JM: Well, I don’t know. Apparently, there was a lawsuit quite recently between him and Jimmy Page. I don’t know what the outcome was (laughs). So there you go! We didn’t make anything out of it, I’ll tell you that.

GM: Did you know that song would turn out to be so special? It obviously had a big first impression on you.
JM: Yeah, I thought it was a very good song. I liked his [Holmes’] version very much. A sort of moody ... a very nice version. Kind of a lot different than everything else he did. It’s on an album called “The Above Ground Sound of Jake Holmes.” It might be on CD, but it’s definitely on vinyl.

GM: And the Yardbirds played it as “I’m Confused,” correct?
JM: Yeah.

GM: That tour, the last American tour, went down as if the band had checked out at that point, and Jimmy Page was the only enthusiastic one. Is there truth to that?
JM: Sort of, yeah. We sort of had been done to death. We’d been traveling around for quite a long, long time, and playing
night after night – making money on the road as opposed to royalties. That was the way of the world in those days. We were playing about four to five years pretty solid. And Jimmy hadn’t been with us all that time — a couple of years. We were quite frazzled and, at the time, quite pleased to stop.

GM: Page was a studio guy. I guess he wasn’t as much of a road warrior yet.
JM: No, he wasn’t. But when he did join us, he was very keen to join. Very enthusiastic to stop playing the studio stuff and get in a band.

GM: Did you ever feel upset that Page kind of took over the band from there?
JM: Not really, because we’d had enough, and good luck to him. The guys he got were all very good, very fresh musicians. John Paul Jones had played on a couple of our tracks, too. And the other two guys were great as well. They were a good band. They had a lot of energy.

GM: I have a quote from you, where you said, “The worst thing was, after we split up the whole thing exploded, didn’t it?”
JM: Well, that’s right. That’s what I was saying before. The whole market exploded, and suddenly people were buying albums, big time. And you didn’t need a single, so we just missed that. We missed that part and that would have been nice, but ...

GM: You really don’t sound like you were bitter.
JM: No, we weren’t bitter about it. We made the decision, so we had to stand by that (laughs).

GM: You seemed like you were getting more into folk music anyway, right?
JM: That was another side of our music that Keith and I liked. We took that and wanted to be a bit more experimental, wanted to go in a different direction and do something quite different. But we tried that, as well. I suppose we created one of the first prog rock bands.

GM: Do you get upset when the band is sometimes described as being best known for starting the careers of three legendary guitarists [Clapton, Beck and Page]?
JM: Yeah, that comes up the whole time. Ha! (Laughs.) The usual question is, ‘Who was the best one?’

GM: Does that piss you off?
JM: No, not really. You just get used to that, you know.

GM: It’s probably hard to say who the best one is.
JM: They were all great. For my money, it was Jeff who was the most spontaneous.

GM: Well, especially on tour, right?
JM: Very spontaneous, but very difficult to work with at the same time, because he was so nervous. And you never knew what was gonna happen, because he was spontaneous in every way.

GM: He sounded like he was a perfectionist.
JM: He was. Of course, it was very very loud (laughs), and he would have been the loudest thing. There was no great PA. The guitar would have been louder than the vocals, and louder than the drums, so ... it was quite loud. Especially with Jimmy, as well, at the same time. In the early days, I don’t think the audience had seen anything like it, you know. From what they’ve said, they sort of couldn’t believe it.

GM: You think any of those three legendary guitarists will get on stage with The Yardbirds again?
JM: I don’t know. We wondered about that with the 50th coming up next year. We vaguely talked about it, so you never know.

GM: I’m sure Jimmy Page is itching to do something.
JM: Well, I think he’d be the most likely, yeah.

GM: Would you have ever imagined all these bands still playing, including The Yardbirds?
JM: Not at all. We didn’t think we were gonna last much more than a couple years. Initially, we thought we’d last as long as we had a hit. And once the hits stopped, it would be over.