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Yardbirds 101

Original Yardbird Jim McCarty talks about the legendary band in the ‘60s and today.
Jim McCarty of The Yardbirds playing acoustic guitar at the Iridium Jazz Club in 2012. Photo by Arnie Goodman.

Jim McCarty of The Yardbirds playing acoustic guitar at the Iridium Jazz Club in 2012. Photo by Arnie Goodman.

By Doug Koztoski

The year 1963 turned out to be an excellent one for English rock groups of note. With a few years under their belt, The Beatles were coiled to playfully pounce on the U.S. music scene, with historic implications in early 1964. The Rolling Stones came together in 1962 and were getting good traction, including having their sticky fingers on the impressive position of being the house band at the famed Crawdaddy Club in Richmond, Surrey, England. The Kinks and The Yardbirds, meanwhile, both formed in ’63.

The Yardbirds eventually replaced The Rolling Stones at the Crawdaddy. Drummer Jim McCarty was there from the beginning with The Yardbirds, a band that through their early years included, of course, guitar legends Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page. The group went on to have several hit records in the ‘60s, including “Heart Full of Soul” (No. 9, 1965), “I’m a Man” (No. 17, 1965), “Shapes of Things,” (No. 11, 1966) and “Over Under Sideways Down” (No. 13, 1966), but their most successful tune was “For Your Love,” which reached the No. 6 position on the record charts in 1965.

The Yardbirds dispersed in many directions in 1968. The band enjoyed a brief semi-reunion in the early 1980s, with occasional help from Beck and Page. In 1992, McCarty helped bring backThe Yardbirds with original bassist/rhythm guitarist Chris Dreja (now retired). Original lead guitarist Top Topham returned to the group in 2013 and left the band earlier this year, so that meant McCarty remained as the only founding member of the revamped ‘60s band. In the latter part of 2015, McCarty and the latest Yardbirds incarnation are doing a U.S. tour.

Goldmine recently touched base with Jim McCarty as he prepped for his visit to the U.S.

GOLDMINE: Taking it from the top, how did you begin playing the drums — and how did it lead you to the Yardbirds?

JIM McCARTY: I started drumming when I was in my teens. I was in a semi-military organization for young guys called the Boys’ Brigade. We had simple uniforms and a band consisting of drums and bugles. I really loved to play the military snare drum. Sometimes we would march through the streets, and I became the solo drummer who would play a little piece that all the other drummers had to copy.

My main drumming influences were predominantly jazz players, like Joe Morello (from The Dave Brubeck Quartet), but I liked the old rock drummers like D.J. Fontana and Jerry Allison from The Crickets. Slowly I got into rock drumming in the style of Elvis, The Crickets and Everly Brothers.

The Yardbirds came about when we met in a pub in Kingston, Surrey. I was at school with Paul Samwell-Smith (bassist), and we would play together in the school group. After leaving school, Paul met Keith Relf (vocalist) and started a blues band with him called the Metropolis Blues Quartet. Separately, I met Chris Dreja and Top Topham, who were also looking to start a blues band, playing covers of songs by Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and Elmore James, etc. It was music that we had never heard before in the U.K., until The Rolling Stones picked it up. They played near us regularly in Richmond, Surrey. Eventually Paul, Keith, Chris, Top and myself came together to form The Yardbirds.

GM: What was the band’s sound like soon after forming?

JM: The band sounded a lot like The Stones except we tried very hard not to do the same cover versions as they did!

GM: What do you recall about the inaugural Yardbirds’ gig?

JM: The first show we played was as support band to Cyril Davies, an older guy who sang and played harmonica. After we had played, Cyril stepped up and asked Keith Relf what the band was called. He said “The Yardbirds,” and that was the first time I had heard it! Later on I found out he had a book with many possible names written down. At that time we only did cover songs. Later on, when Jeff Beck was the lead guitar player, we wrote quite a few songs together, the main structures put together by Paul, Keith and myself.

GM: What were the Yardbirds’ main musical influences?

JM: The band’s influences were quite ranging, from blues to jazz to classical, even. Eventually we tried to get away from the regular 12-bar format, which was a bit predictable. Also, we put many ideas and different sounds into the pot.

GM: Any funny stories you can tell about being a Yardbird?

JM: There were quite a lot of funny stories — particularly playing with The Beatles, as we did a few times. When we did their Christmas show in 1964 at Hammersmith, Paul appeared in our dressing room asking if we wanted to hear a new idea. Of course we said yes, and he proceeded to play what was to become “Yesterday” on an acoustic guitar. He didn’t have any lyrics, but sang the words “Scrambled Eggs” instead.

GM: What was your favorite club to play?

JM: In 1966 we played a small club (Hullabaloo Club) on the Sunset Strip in Hollywood with the Jeff Beck lineup. Everything really worked and the atmosphere was phenomenal.

GM: What is the best big venue you have ever played?

JM: Playing big venues didn’t happen so much in the old days, but there are some good festivals that have happened more recently. We played a free festival last year in the small village where I live in France (Bargemon), and the whole event was so magical and well appreciated. It made me very happy.

GM: What is the best memory you have in the music business?

JM: I think the best memory for me was being honored in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (1992) along with all our heroes from rock music down the years. Standing in the jam next to Johnny Cash (another 1992 inductee) was some thrill for me.

GM: What is the biggest difference between touring in the 1960s and touring today?

JM: Touring is so much better now in that it’s not relentless. One can take plenty of time off and then tour in a more comfortable way. Also, the modern PA sound is now so much more rewarding to work with.

GM: In the ‘60s you would play two gigs a day at times, as well.

JM: Yeah we could do that, yeah. We did a horrible tour once. It was a Dick Clark (Caravan of Stars) tour and all the bands were in a greyhound bus and some times more than one gig a night and it was relentless. It was like every night. And that went on for about a month. (laughs) It was a killer. [Ed. Note: Such a killer that Jeff Beck quit the band at the very beginning of the tour.]

GM: Back then, how different was it performing in the U.S. than the U.K.? The British Invasion ... was it really all it was made out to be?

JM: Well, yes, it must have been quite a big thing for the U.S. because all of a sudden all of these British bands coming over all at once and they never had that before, did they? But for us it was like something out of a dream because we loved all the American movies and the American series on TV and it was all very glamorous and heavenly to us, after being in London, you know.

GM: What was your first impression of the U.S.? Was it everything you thought it was?

JM: Yeah, I remember New York for the first time. We were high up on the 20th floor or something of a hotel and Jeff Beck and I were looking down at all these American cars going by and we were just completely enchanted by it (laughs). And then, of course, going to California was something else as well. You know, that sort of beach scene and the surfing and the weather and the drug scene and all that. It was all very exciting.

GM: Were you as influenced by that California scene as other British bands were?

JM: We sort of got into it, eventually. It was funny because when we went there all these ... they called them “the freaks” in those days because they were so out to lunch ... all these freaks thought that we were taking acid, you know, because of our music, and we weren’t at all. We were straight, totally straight, and it was quite funny because they really took to us. We used to play a gig and they would all go mad. (laughs) Really funny.

GM: But didn’t you used to have the psychedelic lights behind you and all that stuff?

JM: We didn’t take it with us but at the Fillmore — mainly the Fillmore — where they had the light show. I thought that was really special.

GM: Tell us about what it was like going from The Yardbirds to form Renaissance with Keith Relf?

JM: Keith and I were a bit jaded playing The Yardbirds’ heavy blues music and wanted to create something different. As is often the case, the music of Renaissance just came together in an almost accidental way, with John Hawken suddenly playing Beethoven on the piano in the middle of one of the songs.

GM: In addition to bringing back The Yardbirds in 1992 and playing a key role in keeping the group, with several different member changes, going ever since, you have also participated in some other music ventures. What are some of your non-“bird” projects from the last decade?

JM: I’ve been lucky over the recent years to work with some great musicians on various different projects — particularly rewarding is the solo work I’ve done up in Toronto, with an album released in 2009 called “Sitting on the Top of Time.” I’ve also enjoyed a new role for me playing live as a singer-songwriter.

GM: What was the best part of the original incarnation of The Yardbirds and the best aspect of the current Yardbirds?

JM: The best part of the former group was shown in that club show I mentioned earlier: great sound, new and innovative, with all of us working off each other. The best part of the modern group is the energy and enthusiasm put into it by the younger musicians, and for the November tour coming, the keenness of all the U.S. guys involved. It’s nice for me that so many big name U.S. players are fans: Alice Cooper, Steve Tyler, Slash, etc.

GM: A lot of fans, when they think about the Yardbirds they think about three iconic guitarists — Clapton, Beck and Page — coming out of the band. It’s been covered a lot but it’s pretty remarkable when you do think about it. Did you think that those three players would have such an impact?

JM: Well, we always had high standards. Once we started and Clapton came into the band, he became very talented. He was just learning when he was with us. But he had a flair and he had a thing about him that sort of said that he was going to be a star. He had that aura thing about him. And then when he left, you know, we had to keep the standard up. I guess we were quite lucky because we had some great people because of that high standard. Jeff Beck was very happy to follow (Clapton). He knew Clapton was good and wanted to emulate him. He was very happy to be in the band. And likewise for Jimmy.

Jimmy was more enthusiastic than the others though, wasn’t he?

JM: He was, at the time. He wasn’t when we first asked him. I mean, we asked him when Clapton left. And he didn’t want to join then because he was doing all the sessions in London. He was very busy. He was probably one of the top session men for guitar in the London scene. But by the time (bassist) Paul Samwell-Smith left (1966), Jimmy was happy to come in on bass, of all things. So he was very enthusiastic to get out of that session scene, in the end, and go out on the road.

Let’s talk more about the musicians in The Yardbirds now.

JM: This tour coming up has a completely new lineup. The whole band is American. It was a bit of an experiment because what I was going to do was tour in April and Topham was playing with me in the band — and was the original guitar player before Clapton. John Idan came back to play with the band — the bass player and singer for quite a few years and on the “Birdland” album we did in 2003. And then I had a scare where I had to go and have an operation so we couldn’t do the tour in April. We pulled it back until now, and we then enlisted some American people to play. We had a bass player called Kenny Aaronson and a harmonica player called Myke Scavone who plays with the Doughboys, and now it’s transpired where we have Johnny A playing lead guitar. I’m the only Brit on this tour (laughs). It’s a bit of an experiment, so we’ll see how it goes.

GM: As you enter your late 2015 U.S. tour, is there anything else about your musical career that you would like to share with Goldmine readers?

JM: I consider myself very lucky to be able to live from playing and creating music, and still be able, also. GM

— Patrick Prince contributed to this article

For a copy of the magazine issue that this article appeared in (The "British Invasion" issue which also includes a Jim McCarty 10 Albums That Changed My Life), click here.