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The Yardbirds: The Eric Clapton Years Part 4

The year’s-end release of Five Live Yardbirds coincided with The Yardbirds’ most prestigious outing yet — a place on the bill for The Beatles’ Christmas concerts at the Hammersmith Odeon. Backstage, The Yardbirds came face to face with their immediate future, in the form of a quietly spoken young Mancunian named Graham Gouldman, who had written a song he thought they might like.

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Eric Clapton, Sting, Jeff Beck

Eric Clapton, Sting and Jeff Beck at "The Secret Policeman's Other Ball." (Photo credit unknown)

Clapton leaves

The year’s-end release of Five Live Yardbirds had coincided with The Yardbirds’ most prestigious outing yet. Earlier in 1964, the group toured as support to Billy J. Kramer And The Dakotas, one of the other Liverpudlian lights in Beatles manager Brian Epstein’s NEMS stable.

Epstein caught several of the shows and pronounced himself utterly bowled over by the opening act — so much so that, as he set about organising The Beatles’ Christmas concerts at the Hammersmith Odeon, he personally invited the Yardbirds onto the bill.

The shows themselves passed off as well as they could under the circumstances — a hall full of screaming kids at the height of Beatlemania, each of them keening their Fab fave’s name, was scarcely conducive to any musicians who actually wanted to play a strong show. Backstage, however, a degree of peace reigned, and it was there that The Yardbirds came face to face with their immediate future, in the form of a quietly spoken young Mancunian named Graham Gouldman, who had written a song he thought they might like.

Though they probably weren’t aware of the fact, Gouldman was actually a labelmate of the Yardbirds — his own group, The Mockingbirds, was newly signed to Columbia and had already decided that their debut single would be “For Your Love,” a song Gouldman wrote in the changing-room of the men’s clothing shop where he worked. Columbia, however, had other ideas. They rejected “For Your Love” in favor of another Gouldman original, taped on the same day, “That’s How It’s Gonna Stay.”

But Gouldman and Mockingbirds manager Harvey Lisburg retained their faith in the earlier song, as Gouldman detailed. “Harvey said, this is such a great song, let’s play it to The Beatles, to which I replied, ‘I think they’re doing alright in the songwriting department, actually.’” But Lisburg still mentioned the idea to a publisher friend, Ronnie Beck, who suggested that they should offer the song to The Yardbirds instead.

Gouldman was already a confirmed Yardbirds fan — “the first time I saw them, they blew my head off.” Now he was making his way backstage, so nervous that he handed his demo tape (the Mockingbirds’ own scrapped version of the song) to the first Londoner he met.

As luck would have it, he’d found Yardbirds bassist Paul Samwell-Smith, and the rest of the tale is history. Samwell-Smith played the tape that same evening, and fell hopelessly in love with the song, then confirmed his own talents as an arranger by introducing the bongos, harpsichord (from a guesting Brian Auger) and bowed bass that gave The Yardbirds’ performance its so-unique flavor.

Gomelsky, too, was stunned; abandoning the Otis Redding cover that Clapton was determined should be The Yardbirds’ next single, he presented Columbia with “For Your Love,” and the record gave the band their first Top Three hit.

Looking back on a record that the New Musical Express accurately described as “unusual, it makes you sit up and take notice,” Graham Gouldman admitted, “Their version took me by surprise, because I thought it was so weird. Ours used an acoustic guitar instead of a harpsichord, which was what really made their version work. It was amazing. It was fantastic having such an entry into The Yardbirds; they did try things, and even though they sort of failed, they did stick with it.” (Gouldman went on to write several other numbers for the group, alongside smashes for The Hollies and Herman’s Hermits.)

“For Your Love really suited the band’s personality,” Chris Dreja agreed. “Or most of the band’s personality. Unfortunately, it didn’t fit Eric’s. He was a purist; he wanted a purist sound, and the idea of bringing in a harpsichord and conga drums and things like that just weren’t in his parameters.”

Aghast at Samwell-Smith’s arrangement and Gomelsky’s immediate decision to elect the bassist as the Yardbirds’ full-time musical director; horrified by the gimmick-strewn pop turn that events had suddenly taken, Clapton announced that he was leaving the group, seven days before “For Your Love” was released.

Pressed for an explanation, he admitted that he had felt himself losing interest in The Yardbirds almost since he joined. The day the Stones broke out of the Crawdaddy scene, he said, was the end, because it “ ... sparked ambition in some members of the [Yardbirds]. The Stones were getting on big package tours; they were on TV, they got a Chuck Berry song [‘Come On’] onto the chart, and some of The Yardbirds and Giorgio began to see a future in being internationally famous.”

Clapton, on the other hand, “ ... couldn’t see what was so wonderful” about that and was still in thrall to the internal purist who insisted “ ... music is this, it’s not that.”

The Yardbirds would not suffer from his departure. They replaced the single-minded Clapton with the decidedly less finicky (but equally monumental) Jeff Beck and continued on their merry way. Within a year, The Yardbirds were die-hard chart regulars, and they scarcely remembered the days of Slowhand. And Clapton didn’t do so badly for himself, either.

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