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1966 - The Year That Built Rock: The Brit Blues boom

Before 1966, the blues was tired, worn out and unsexy. But then four British six-string geniuses helped birth blues rock – and the modern guitar hero too.

1966 was the year the guitar hero was born. It was the year that Eric Clapton, aged 21, recorded the landmark Beano Album with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and then walked away to form Cream; the year that Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page, both aged 22, ended up smashing guitars and bashing through sonic barriers together in The Yardbirds; the year that marked the arrival of 19-year-old wunderkind Peter Green and a game-changing 24-year-old named Jimi Hendrix. It was, in short, the year when a new generation of guitar giants transformed the American deep blues songbook into a new strand of rock music.

Things were happening at a grass roots level too. The British R&B/blues circuit was a hothouse for new musical talent, many of them the stars of the future. Steampacket featuring Rod Stewart, Julie Driscoll and Long John Baldry, an amazing triumvirate of singers, along with the organist Brian Auger, was one such band. Ten Years After, boasting the speed-king Alvin Lee, Chicken Shack with the wiry blues warrior Stan Webb, and The Paramounts with apprentice guitar hero Robin Trower criss-crossed the country in their Commer van, playing a network of clubs, bars and town halls that stretched from the Club A’Gogo in Newcastle to the Florida Rooms in Brighton.

“There was an underground feeling in the air,” John Mayall says of the period just before the Beano Album came out on July 22. “The people in the clubs were flocking to see us, regardless of what was happening in the record business or the pop charts. We were playing to capacity crowds, six or seven nights a week, everywhere we went. So we figured something was about to happen.”

And happen it did.

The electric guitar has always been part of the British pop dream. At the start of the 1960s, the immaculately groomed Hank Marvin and the Shadows, with their gleaming red Stratocasters, gave way to a wilder breed of player with the arrival of Keith Richards and Brian Jones. 

The Rolling Stones themselves had been mentored at the outset by the bandleader/guitarist Alexis Korner and harmonica player Cyril Davies, who had introduced the blues to jazz audiences when they formed Blues Incorporated in 1961. The players who passed through the line-up of this loose collective included Jack Bruce, Ginger Baker and Charlie Watts, while those who made guest appearances with the band on their regular Rhythm and Blues Nights at the Ealing Jazz Club included Mick Jagger, Mayall and Page.

By the start of 1966, Korner was about to wrap up Blues Incorporated and – at the grand old age of 38 – embrace his well-earned status as an elder statesman of the R&B scene he had done so much to inspire. All around him his protégés were flourishing. In the pop charts the Stones were second only to The Beatles, while R&B-influenced bands such as The Animals from Newcastle and the Spencer Davis Group from Birmingham were dominating the airwaves on the ever-more popular pirate radio stations.

Foremost among the British blues pioneers who had followed the Stones into the world of pop stardom were The Yardbirds. Their album Five Live Yardbirds, released in December 1964, was an early prototype of the blues rock genre, thanks to the advanced musicianship of the band, and in particular that of its young lead guitarist, Eric Clapton. Although poorly recorded, the album’s wild-eyed versions of Smokestack Lightning, I’m A Man and others provided a template for the instrumental wig-outs that two years later would become the stock-in-trade of Cream and many other groups that emerged in their wake.

Clapton’s tenure with The Yardbirds ended abruptly in March 1965 when he deemed the group’s first hit single, For Your Love, to be insufficiently bluesworthy for him to be associated with. He was replaced by Jeff Beck, another supremely gifted guitarist with a similar art school background and fascination for the blues, but a more mercurial and experimental nature. 

By the start of 1966, The Yardbirds had already travelled a long way from their blues beginnings. In February, they released the pivotal single Shapes Of Things. With its bold, philosophical lyric and Beck’s heavily distorted guitar solo, it found them exploring new frontiers of psychedelic pageantry. “We were all on the threshold of this new thing,” Beck later said. “The Yardbirds were the very first psychedelic band, really.”

But back in the clubs, bars, town halls, student unions and speakeasys of the UK, Alexis Korner’s legacy was clearly in evidence. There, a dedicated cadre of young musicians immersed in the history and artistry of the blues played to fans rammed into smoke-filled rooms who spread the gospel further afield with every day that passed. Like a gathering storm, the blues was about to break.

“It all happened very quickly,” recalls Mayall, who had relocated from his native Manchester to London, and by the start of 1966 had taken over from Korner as the torchbearer of modern blues in Britain. “British audiences had been listening to trad jazz for ten years, and a new generation was ready for something new. There was a really great energy that suddenly came about.”

Nowhere was that energy more concentrated than in the latest line-up of Mayall’s Bluesbreakers that featured John McVie on bass, Hughie Flint on drums and Eric Clapton on guitar, who Mayall had snapped up as soon as he’d left The Yardbirds.

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