The kind of sound they nurtured was nothing anyone had ever heard before; it was extremely abrasive, fuzzy, grooving, and quite fascinating. They were a band who would go on to open up the gates of psychedelia, blues rock, punk rock, and heavy metal. That’s right. Even before the likes of Led Zeppelin and Cream, the Yardbirds were serving up a hefty platter of sonically enhanced distortion with fast rhythms that put into place the very foundation of Metal.
Of course, that kind of lineup of legendary rock icons sounds too good to be true. That’s because Page, Clapton, and Beck were never actually in the band at the same time; well, Page and Jeff Beck were. Eric Clapton left the band in 1965 because of the commercial sound the band decided to pursue, and was replaced by Jeff Beck, who soon molded their style into something very experimental. Jimmy Page eventually joined the band as the bassist after Paul Samwell-Smith left; after rhythm guitarist, Chris Dreja learned the bass, Jimmy Page transitioned to second lead guitarist. From then on, the Yardbirds were a sheer force attack of the duel guitar threat that was Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck. It wasn’t until 1966 that Jeff Beck was fired from the band due to an illness and Page took over for the remainder of their final year together.
The core members of the group disbanded to take on other projects. Singer Keith Relf, drummer Jim McCarty, and Samwell-Smith would go on to form the criminally underrated progressive rock band Renaissance, while Dreja became a photographer. Page, left with the remnants of the Yardbirds, subsequently turned it into a band you all probably know of: Led Zeppelin! And even though the Yardbirds were only around for a few years, their impact on rock music would soon become self-explanatory. Nothing can beat the three-headed dragon that is Jeff Beck, Clapton, and Jimmy Page, so this list is dedicated to them.
The Top 10 Yardbirds Songs
# 10 – Jeff’s Boogie
Kicking off our Top 10 Yardbirds Songs list is a fun little instrumental that was released on their classic 1966 record, Roger the Engineer. Jeff Beck based its construction off of Chuck Berry’s instrumental Guitar Boogie, which in itself was an interpretation of the original by Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith; it was the song that went on to influence the basis of the boogie shuffle. Jeff Beck definitely pays proper homage to Chuck’s rockabilly version, but with the added flare of his own style.
# 9 – Psycho Daisies
This obscure song coming in at number 9 on our Top 10 Yardbirds Songs list was released as the B-side to the 1966 single, “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago,” and features Jimmy Page on bass and Jeff Beck singing lead vocals. It’s got one of the earliest known exemplars of the thrashing potency that would be an antecedent to punk rock. That chugging riff and those mucky licks are certainly a marvelous reflection of Jeff Beck’s evolution as a guitarist; here he’s relentless and incandescent, in stark contrast to his more refined and virtuosic solo work. Plus the song really gets you moving!
# 8 – Drinking Muddy Water
Even after the Yardbirds attained mild success, they still found time to pay tribute to their blues roots. Once Jimmy Page took over for their final record, Little Games, their sound progressed into something truly heavy, but with faint qualities that carried on the experimentation of Jeff Beck. Drinking Muddy Water is a cover version of the Delta blues classic “Rollin’ and Tumblin'” by Hambone Willie Newbern, but with altered lyrics. It’s also a fitting tribute blues legend Muddy Waters, with some early slide guitar work courtesy of Jimmy Page that makes this one an important addition to our Top 10 Yardbirds Songs list.
# 7 – White Summer
“White Summer,” was Jimmy Page finding his own element as a musician. He took this modal guitar tuning called DADGAD, a traditional Celtic tuning, and created sweet and exotic harmonies influenced by Arabian and Middle Eastern sounds. It would later become a staple for Led Zeppelin’s live shows; Jimmy Page would improvise this song along with his other Celtic instrumental piece, “Black Mountain Side,” from Zeppelin’s debut album. “White Summer,” is nothing short of unorthodox rock and roll brilliance.
# 6 – Smokestack Lightning
This was Clapton-era Yardbirds songs right here, folks; nothing but soul-engendering blues straight from the bowels of Chicago. It really is quite astounding how these English boys could feel the raw emotion of the Blues, while at the same time putting their own raving mad beat to it.
They regularly performed this rendition live, with their best-known version ultimately ending up on their 1965 classic, Having a Rave Up with The Yardbirds. With Keith Relf’s wailing harmonica and Clapton’s soulful understanding of the Blues, this tune serves as a living reminder of why the Yardbirds were one of the most proficient blues rock acts of the Swingin’ Sixties.
# 5 – Evil-Hearted You
Graham Gouldman of the band 10cc wrote this song for the Yardbirds in 1965. It was only released as a single in the UK, charting well at number three; it was later released in the U.S. on their Having a Rave Up record. Jeff Beck really shines here, putting on display the kind of spellbinding guitar work that was alien for its time. In fact, one could also hear traces of Italian film composer Ennio Morricone in Evil Hearted You. The sharp and boisterous guitar chords, the Spanish-style licks and melodies, and the overall foreboding mood most surely influenced the spaghetti western film scores Ennio became renowned for.
Evil Earted You is one of Jeff Beck’s most pivotal moments as a guitarist.
Fun Fact: The Pixies recorded a cover of this Yardbirds song as a B-side for their 1991 single Planet of Sound……in Spanish!
# 4 – Heart Full of Soul
Here’s another Graham Gouldman hit single right here. This is one of the few Yardbirds songs in the band’s catalog that took on a darker atmosphere than their lighter stuff. It was their first song with Jeff Beck after he replaced Eric Clapton, and their next big hit, climbing into the top 10 spots on both the UK and US charts. They originally recorded a version with a sitar player, but seeing as how it didn’t sound right, Beck decided to utilize the fuzz box he borrowed from Page and play the riff himself.
That Middle Eastern melody he mimicked through elaborate string bends and his use of the harmonic minor scale proved to be quite unheard of at the time, thus making “Heart Full of Soul,” the first rock song to feature Indian-inspired sounds; yes, even before the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood,” and the Rolling Stones’ “Paint it Black.”
# 3 – Train Kept A-Rollin’
Rhythm and Blues artist Tiny Bradshaw recorded this song in 1951 as an upbeat shuffle that would soon become a milestone for the early development of rock and roll when Johnny Burnette and the Rock and Roll Trio did their own rendition of it; this time with guitar-driven distortion. Jeff Beck, being heavily influenced by rockabilly, turned the rest of the band on to this version.
The Yardbirds soon turned “Train Kept A-Rollin'” into a psych-rock assault that would influence countless other bands to take on this interpretation; the most popular one being Aerosmith’s rendering. A live performance of it made its way on the album Having a Rave Up with The Yardbirds, but perhaps the better-known version would be the version that Jimmy Page performed with the band when he joined.
Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni, who made the classic 1966 art house film, Blowup, saw the Yardbirds performing this song at the Royal Albert Hall; he asked them to perform the song for his film.
Due to being unable to secure the movie performance rights for “Train Kept A-Rollin.'” The Yardbirds went into the studio and reworked a different variant of the song; naming it Stroll On. This heavier, more brutalized enhancement, brought to the forefront the militant exertion of Beck and Jimmy Page that would initiate an overpowering loudness to rock music during that period; their cameo in the film, by the way, is quite iconic too.
# 2 – For Your Love
This was the song that prompted Eric Clapton to quit the band and join John Mayall’s band, John Mayall & the Blues Breakers. Of course, Clapton did play on the track, but he sort of downplayed his presence on it because of his embarrassment for it; we’d have to disagree with him in that this is a certified masterpiece and one of the most classic Yardbirds songs ever released. This was one of the other hits that Graham Gouldman wrote for the band, stating in an interview that the Beatles influenced his songwriting.
“For Your Love,” is definitely one of the first psychedelic songs to hit a mainstream audience, but one can also hear the jingly pop elements of the early Beatles. It was their first top ten hit in both their home country and the states and introduced the world to a timeless band.
# 1 – Dazed and Confused
Before Led Zeppelin’s iconic version, there was this little number. It was originally written and performed by folk musician Jake Holmes, and soon become a live staple for the Yardbirds after they watched him perform the song during a tour they were headlining in the states where Holmes was the opening act. They took this already-haunting tune and turned it into something even more sinister, keeping the main riff and structure, but overlapping it with ungodly amplification and avant-garde ambiance; much of this was due to Jimmy Page’s innovative use of the violin bow, where he would scratch it against the strings and strum his chords. And how can one not single out the underrated talents of frontman Keith Relf?
Of course, everybody knows about the plagiarism involved with the Led Zeppelin version; where Page changed the lyrics, altered the melody, and kept the original title. That can be forgiven since they gave Holmes the credit he so rightfully deserved, because without Holmes’ version, we wouldn’t have the Yardbirds’ central version, thus we wouldn’t have had Led Zeppelin’s unforgettable version. This clearly defines why so many of the Yardbirds songs set the mold for Classic Rock.
Top 10 Yardbirds Songs article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2022
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