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Fantastically flash, inscrutably cool: How the Yardbirds shaped rock'n'roll

They had Eric Clapton. They had Jeff Beck. They had Jimmy Page. In the late 60s, no other band could get close to them. And without The Yardbirds, there would be no Led Zeppelin

Saturday night in New York: March 30, 1968 – the summer of hate almost upon us. Five nights later Martin Luther King Jr. will be shot and killed in Memphis. Two months later Bobby Kennedy will be similarly assassinated. By the end of the year Richard Milhous Nixon will be elected 37th President of the United States.

The Beatles’ Hey Jude may be the biggest-selling single of the year, but it’s the record’s B-side, Revolution, that speaks loudest to the generation of longhairs and acid trippers lining up outside the Anderson Theatre on 66 Second Avenue on this cold spring night, here to see The Yardbirds – Britain’s grooviest band. Or what’s left of them. Three dates into their eighth US tour in four years, although guitarist Jimmy Page and bassist Chris Dreja don’t know it yet, this will be the last tour the band ever do.

“We lost enthusiasm for it,” drummer and co-founder Jim McCarty says now. “We just didn’t have the energy for it. If we’d had a long break and sat down and had a rest and taken time to think of new songs, it might have been an idea. But everything back then was based on working, playing every night.” He sighs. “They thought if you had six months off no one would recognise you any more.”

Nevertheless, it seemed a strange time to call a halt to what had been one of the most inventive, famous and influential bands of the Swinging Sixties. The world may have been going to hell – aka Vietnam’s Mekong Delta – but rock music was fast approaching its apotheosis. When serious music fans weren’t out on a Magical Mystery Tour in chase of an under-dressed Mrs Robinson, they were tripping in a White Room listening to Janis screaming for them to take another Piece Of My Heart, or leaning over wide-eyed at innocent passers-by telling them Hello, I Love You, while all the while two riders were approaching…

The Yardbirds – famous for proto-psych hits like For Your Love, Shapes Of Things and Over, Upwards, Sideways, Down – had also been home to the three best guitarists in England: Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and, now, Jimmy Page. Had appeared in seminal art-house flicks like Antonio’s Blow-Up. Were worshipped by up-and-comers like David Bowie, Rod Stewart, Steven Tyler, Alice Cooper, Lemmy, Gary Moore, Alex Lifeson… The Yardbirds were walking, talking history – even by 1968.


From the archive

From the archive

From the archive

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