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The Yardbirds: The Clapton Years Part 3

The Yardbirds' career was now barreling along, but guitarist Eric Clapton wasn't happy with the non-stop manic enthusiasm of the band's stage act. "Slowhand" itched to return to the basics of blues.

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Seeds of discontent

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Yet Clapton was not happy. The manic enthusiasm that hallmarked a Yardbirds show was swiftly translated to the Williamson gigs and, while the old bluesman took it all in his stride, Slowhand was seething.

And, as the Yardbirds’ own renown on the circuit rocketed ever higher, borne on the wildness of a stage act that made even the soaraway Stones seem sometimes staid, the guitarist itched to return to basics

There was little opportunity, however, for him to do anything about that. True, he could always rely on Mike Vernon to climb up onstage when he, Clapton, truly felt the need to play a song that didn’t race by at Mach Two. But The Yardbirds’ career was now barrelling along with a will of its own, with Gomelsky determined not simply to lock the group into a position of power, but to knock the Stones off their own pedestal in the process.

Before Andrew Loog Oldham came along, after all, Gomelsky was the nearest thing the Stones had to a manager, and though he had only himself to blame for letting them slip away, still the alacrity with which Oldham transformed the group from the raunchiest thing in Richmond to the baddest boys that pop had ever seen bothered him. He was not going to make the same mistakes again.

In February 1964, Gomelsky booked The Yardbirds into RG Jones recording studio in Morden, south London — the same cheap, but nevertheless utterly reliable, set-up that virtually every young band of the day turned to in their hour of fulfilment. With them went Mike Vernon, stepping away from both the microphone and the typewriter to take his first steps towards fulfilling another of his ambitions, to become a record producer.

The session succeeded on both counts. Three songs long (Sonny Boy Williamson II’s “Baby What’s Wrong,” John Lee Hooker’s “Boom” and Relf’s own “Honey In Your Hips”), the ensuing demo was more than sufficient to land The Yardbirds a deal with Columbia at exactly the same time as Vernon’s own enthusiasm and knowledge brought him a job at Decca as an in-house producer at their West Hampstead studios.

Naturally, the move shifted Vernon out of The Yardbirds’ own orbit; instead, Gomelsky shouldered the production duties himself, and by early summer, Columbia was gearing up to issue The Yardbirds’ debut single, “A Certain Girl.” The only problem was, the record didn’t actually sound anything like The Yardbirds. Live, the band was raw, rough and ready; in the studio, they were clean, bright and sparkling.

No matter that all but the last 10 minutes of the recording session were spent twitching “A Certain Girl” to perfection. When it came to actually releasing the record, even Columbia agreed that it was the B-side, the product of those final 10 minutes, which came the closest to capturing The Yardbirds they’d signed. A wiry cover of Billy Boy Arnold’s “I Wish You Would” was released in June 1964, and though it never threatened to storm the chart, it at least landed the group some national attention — an appearance on television’s newly-born “Ready Steady Go” included.

Though they remained sanguine about it, the failure of The Yardbirds’ first single came as something of a surprise. Even as it hit the stores, The Animals were topping the chart with “The House Of The Rising Sun.” The Stones were riding the Top 10 seemingly at will, and behind them, Manfred Mann, the Mojos, the Swinging Blue Jeans, The Moody Blues, Lulu And The Luvvers and The Kinks were all jostling for hits. So why weren’t the Yardbirds selling?

Squeezing in another session between the gig list that was now dragging them up and down the country, The Yardbirds tried again. Released in October 1964, Sonny Boy Williamson (the first!)’s “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl” was a Clapton favorite — onstage, he even sang it — but again it was too clean, again it sounded too polished. And when it, too, fell short of success, it was clear that The Yardbirds had only one alternative. Their next recording session, aimed this time at an album, pulled them back to the one arena where they could never fail.

Every Friday night, The Yardbirds took over the Marquee Club in London for a wild celebration of the Rave Up.

Now they moved a mini-studio in as well, and, leaving the bells and whistles in the deft hands of engineer Philip “the Spaniel” Wood, they played as loud and fast as they could, for as long as the tape kept rolling. Weeks later, Five Live Yardbirds was in the stores, an adrenalined blast which made up in excitement for all that it lost in fidelity, a brutal snapshot of the Yardbirds at their most frenetic best, and Clapton at his most unrestrained.

John Mayall hated it. “If you listen to the Five Live Yardbirds album, there are a couple of tracks where Eric takes a guitar solo, and it’s pretty wild. But it doesn’t have the technique or the finesse or whatever you want to call it. It’s pretty ordinary.”

He acknowledged, however, that the fact he was even listening to the record indicated that he had heard the rush of acclaim that now accompanied every mention of Eric Clapton’s name and was curious to find out more. When Eric Clapton finally quit The Yardbirds in March 1965, Mayall was on the scent immediately.

Stay tuned for Part 4!

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