Bird On The Wire
Yardbirds' founder Jim McCarty on his new book, album and a look back on a legendary career
One of the most interesting and experimental bands of the British Invasion was The Yardbirds. The blues-injected combo debuted without a name in 1963 and dissolved five years later as a major conduit between quirky English pop, psychedelia and the bombastic hard rock attack of Led Zeppelin.
Since its inception, the band's roster rapidly changed with versions featuring guitarists Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page. But co-founder/drummer Jim McCarty - now the sole original member - has kept the pace for every incarnation. From the group's late '68 demise to the project's revival in the early '90s, he also founded several avant-garde/progressive bands including Renaissance and Illusion.
Now on tour with his current Yardbirds, McCarty is also stepping from behind his drum kit with a flurry of recent releases. Nobody Told Me! is an interesting autobiography and Walking In The Wild Land is an engaging solo disc that finds the affable Englishman in acoustic-tinged singer-songwriter mode. For archivists, last year Jimmy Page remixed and released Yardbirds '68 on his own label, offering a definitive, band-approved edition of the group's transitional final performances from five decades ago.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Famer spoke with INsite by phone from Toronto for a wide-ranging conversation.
Nobody Told Me! contains a number of historic revelations that even hardcore Anglophiles probably don't know.
Well that was the idea. I thought there must be quite a few things that people didn't really know about me. Otherwise there's no point writing it, is there? I ended up working with Dave Thompson who has done a few of these-type books before. Being English, he'd been through a lot of the same experiences as me. Even now I keep thinking of more things we didn't put in.
While looking back on your life for the book, were there any surprises that really stood out?
Well I had no idea I was ever gonna make a living playing music. Or that it was gonna carry on until I was in my 70s. It was a very small world as I grew up, you didn't really know anything. So going to the US was very special to me. It was a huge, spacious place compared to little old [London suburb hometown] Teddington.
America is often cited as the promised land for English musicians, especially from the British Invasion.
Exactly. We saw it on TV and in films, in the Westerns and gangster movies and on the television shows so it really was the promised land for us. Of course, for me more than anything else, it was the music that came from there.
As a blues fan, it must have been a thrill to finally visit the birthplaces of the sounds that first influenced you as a kid.
It was fantastic! Coming to Chicago and Tennessee and Mississippi and seeing all those places.
When your generation of musicians was growing up, the BBC had such an open-ended format for everything - except the blues.
You'd hear the early hits like Buddy Holly or the Everly Brothers and big bands and all that, but definitely not the blues.
That must have made it even more appealing to you because it was like an underground movement.
It was! It was sort of the alternative movement. You had to find the right record shops in order to buy it. Blues records were usually in the jazz shops.
I still think it's interesting that the Brits latched onto American blues and R&B long before it was as popular in the States.
Yeah and it became a sort of fashionable thing. People like Alexis Korner and Cyril Davies and the Rolling Stones really got it going. Then the next wave, like us and The Kinks and The Who, really caught on to it. It was all from black music - like Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters.
Black American music as played by young white British men. Many stacks of irony there.
(Laughs) Yes and then us coming out with it and people not knowing the real origins of it, particularly in America! But then a lot of the black musicians finally got recognition for it, so that was really nice.
There's a great story in the book about The Yardbirds waiting until midnight to record with Sam Phillips in Memphis.
Yes, he'd gone fishing. There are a lot of funny little things like that; over time they become part of history. While waiting, [Yardbirds' vocalist and harmonica player] Keith [Relf] got a bit drunk and Sam said, 'Everybody else is ok, but you'll have to get rid of that singer.'
Another good story is when you saw the Rolling Stones play in a small church. That was a pivotal moment for you.
It was something we'd never quite heard before. You couldn't actually put your finger on what it was, 'Oh this is something rather nice but rather strange as well.' I liked it a lot.
Then you and the original line-up of the Yardbirds began playing in a similar blues-based style, well before you even had a band name.
I didn't know Keith was gonna say, 'Oh, we're The Yardbirds.' I'd never heard it before he said it after the show. I think he'd found it in a Beat Generation book, something like On The Road. Yardbirds were the guys who lived in the railyards and hitched on the steam trains.
What did you think of it?
You know, it's strange when you hear something for the first time. It sounded a bit odd to me. But it was like hearing Jeff Beck play that riff on "Over Under Sideways Down." You hear it for the first time and it's very odd. Then it starts to sort of sit with you and all-of-a-sudden it makes sense.
After the Yardbirds split, you finally stepped in front of the drums a bit, but it took until the '90s to record under your own name.
It's the other side of me, the singer-songwriter thing that I really love. It's interesting for people to see the rock drummer become the singer-songwriter.
How does it feel to finally record as the frontman after being a part of rhythm sections for so long?
I've really enjoyed it, but I needed a lot of help at first. I had a lot of support from my friends and then I finally got off to a good start with Matthew Fisher [formerly of Procol Harum] in a little studio in Croydon. It was quite frightening to go out and present it. It felt a bit like Karen Carpenter coming from behind the drums to sing, you know?
Are you including some of your solo material in the current Yardbirds show?
There's one of the new songs that [Rush guitarist] Alex Lifeson plays lead on. It's a little bit rocky and bluesy. Funnily enough, I just sent it out to the guys this morning and asked, 'Can we have a go at this?'
As the sole original member, does the band dynamic vary as each line-up changes?
Yeah but it was never the same - even in the '60s. It was always changing, wasn't it? But we have quite a repertoire. I think that's what keeps it fresh for all of us. Somebody said to me the other day, 'Those songs you did, there's still nothing like them.' And I suppose he's right.
Those songs were always unique. There was certainly nothing else on the radio in 1965 that sounded like the arrangement and performance of "For Your Love."
It was quite different. The amazing thing for me is that they all stand up. And I must say we still play them very wel.
As the '60s were evolved, the band did too and the material on the recently revived Yardbirds '68 shows just how far you'd progressed in a relatively short period of time. It isn't pop or blues anymore, it's proto-Zeppelin. It's good to see it get your official stamp of approval, 50 years later.
You know, it was originally released in '71 [as the sonically disappointing Live Yardbirds Featuring Jimmy Page] and was withdrawn very quickly. But it's been discussed a lot since. Ten or twenty years ago, I got a call from Jimmy Page's manager who said he'd only manage him if we could get this record back out because it was one of his favorites. Then last year, I got a call from Jimmy Page. He said he'd found the masters and remixed it. [The surviving members] all got together on it and I think it's turned out great.
The band had gotten quite experimental by that point.
Yeah and rather than sounding tired and end-of-the-line because we were almost done, it all seems fresh now.
I'm just glad we could all agree on it.
The Yardbirds perform June 19 at City Winery. Please visit citywinery.com/atlanta for more information.