The Yardbirds - Yardbirds ’68 album review
Plant-free proto-Zep. What wonders might have been, eh, readers?
As historical rock documents go, there are few quite as significant as this. These 18 tracks, spread across two discs, capture the final four-piece Jimmy Page-led line-up of The Yardbirds in performance and studio experimentation, as the 24-year-old guitarist coaxed drummer Jim McCarty, bassist Chris Dreja and vocalist Keith Relf toward a musical vision he’d ultimately only realise with Led Zeppelin.
In many ways, this is Zeppelin lite – and, arguably, the better for it. But before we embark on sacrilege, let’s consider specifics. Disc one captures a newly remixed version of a March ’68 live recording from NYC’s Anderson Theater (originally released by Epic in ’71 as Live Yardbirds: Featuring Jimmy Page). In this incarnation it’s sadly stripped of the original’s between-song banter, though it’s audibly crisper.
Disc two corrals contemporaneous studio sketches, hitherto confined to bootlegs – not least Knowing That I’m Losing You, an instrumental take on Zep III’s Tangerine (with Plant’s eventual vocal line mapped out on pedal steel).
Also present is a gutsy reading of Jerry Ragovoy and Mort Shuman’s My Baby (latterly forever associated with Janis Joplin after its inclusion on her posthumous Pearl album), and the acoustic-driven Spanish Blood, with spoken-word atmosphere courtesy of McCarty. Avron Knows’ riff bowls along, hinting at future heaviness, while Relf’s parping harp kicks along a ferocious romp through live Yardbirds staple Drinking Muddy Water.
Yet the main attraction here is the live set. While pre-Page-era stalwarts predominate (Train Kept A-Rollin’, Heart Full Of Soul, Over Under Sideways Down, Shapes…), actual things to come are represented in White Summer – its instrumental Indian/Arabic nuances latterly incorporated into Zeppelin as a whole, and Over The Hills And Far Away specifically – and Dazed And Confused.
The latter, featuring Page’s cello-bowed solo, is almost there, but lacking one key ingredient: the young Robert Plant and his towering machismo. It was Plant’s priapic howl that made a Zeppelin of the Yardbirds’ next line-up, and though Relf was technically incapable of taking Page’s next step, he had a measured vocal restraint that some – and judging by recent pronouncements, even today’s Plant – might have preferred in a Zeppelin vocalist.