There are two schools of thought when it comes to band legacies. The first being—once the original lineup is disbanded, the band is dead forever, its name included. The second being—as long as a founding member or two remain involved, as long as a spark of the band’s core identity somehow remains, the band can go on living and using its name. The Yardbirds are of the second school, and for the past few decades, drummer-composer Jim McCarty has led the blues-rock group that he co-founded in a way that maintains its awe-worthy history and simultaneously insists upon a perpetual newness. The same kind of newness that accompanied the Yardbirds’ nightly rave-ups during their early ‘60s Crawdaddy Club residency, once the Rolling Stones had outgrown the role.
The Yardbirds have had several lineups since then and demonstrated a knack for choosing wow-worthy guitarists: Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page all served time in the group. The latest Yardbirds features McCarty alongside several other stellar rock musicians bearing an affinity for blues-rock and the Yardbirds’ rich artistic past: Johnny A (guitar), Kenny Aaronson (bass), Myke Scavone (vocals, blues harp, percussion), and John Idan (vocals, guitar). Frequently touring, and working on new material, the group is determined to keep its sound going.
Jim McCarty has a bountiful legacy all his own. He established The Yardbirds with Paul Samwell-Smith (bass), Chris Dreja (rhythm guitar), Top Topham (guitar), and Keith Relf (vocals) in 1963. Though the band broke up in 1968, McCarty has reclaimed it and its sound since the early ‘90s. In addition to his Yardbirds tenure, he was part of several other groups like Renaissance (1969-70), Shoot, Illusion, Box of Frogs, Stairway, and Pilgrim. Not to mention the solo albums McCarty has released, the most recent being Sitting on the Top of Time (2009).
Since their inception in 1963, The Yardbirds’ have issued forth a mysterious sound that communicates a deep knowledge of blues music history, an ongoing dialogue with Eastern and world music, a closeness to aural psychedelia, and a penchant for penning songs that felt right at home as hit singles. The first was the stellar “For Your Love” in 1965, and it was followed by such gems as “Heart Full of Soul,” “Shapes of Things,” “Mister, You’re a Better Man Than I,” “Over Under Sideways Down,” and “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago.” It was Jim McCarty’s drums and musical ideology that helped navigate the group’s quest for new sonic discoveries. Fitting then, that he would still be navigator of the band, set on propelling it into the future with confidence, while never forgetting from whence the Yardbirds came and their powerful contribution to the history of rock and roll.
In conversation with Jim McCarty, we learn more about the origins of the latest Yardbirds lineup and 2017 tour, his and the band’s musical creeds and histories, and the guitar-hero legacies left behind by greats Clapton, Beck, and Page.
How did you arrive at this latest lineup of the Yardbirds? Had you known the other musicians for a while beforehand?
The earliest ones I had known were Johnny A, and John Idan, who was in the band before—he was the singer on the Birdland album. John Idan was involved in the new formation of the band, then he left for a while to work on a solo project, but he came back and has been back for about two or three years. Johnny A I had also known from the Birdland era, because he also had an album with Steve Vai’s Favored Nations label. The other band members were all recommended. Kenny Aaronson was recommended by John Harris, another bass player who I had asked originally. Myke Scavone was recommended by one of the guys in the Doughboys who I knew. The Doughboys are a very good New Jersey band, who we’d played with a couple of times. I’d had an idea to get an American band together, partly to cut down on the visa situation and travel. It was a slightly economic thing, but it worked out artistically as well, and was a great improvement upon the band I’d had before.
How do you and the rest of the band decide what you’ll play every night? You have so much material from the different incarnations of the Yardbirds, and your other bands, like Renaissance.
It’s a very strong repertoire. Probably about three-quarters of it is an obvious thing to play—just about all of our hits. “Still I’m Sad” is the only one that comes in and out; we’re not playing it on this tour. But all the other hits are in there; we sort of have to play “Train Kept A-Rollin,’” it’s a Yardbirds standard, and “Smokestack Lightning.” But the other quarter of songs can vary a little bit. We’ve been playing a pretty similar set for the last couple of years. We’ve done about three or four tours now.
What drew you to the drums?
When I was a teen, I was in this semi-military organization called the Boys’ Brigade. We had a bugle and drum band, where I took to playing the snare drum, for the military style, and I really liked it. I learned all the rudiments and then was sort of the solo drummer in the band. Sometimes we’d all march down the street playing. Then I heard early rock and roll music from America, like the Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly, and Gene Vincent. We had a school group that used to play that sort of stuff. So I gradually developed from playing the snare to playing the kit, building up the kit slowly with a high hat and bass drum, making it bigger. When the Yardbirds came along, I was already a rock drummer, but I sort of changed my style because I liked that R&B shuffle drumming. I adopted it and then brought in some of the military things—looking back now at songs like “Shapes of Things” and “I Am a Man,” there is that military rhythm.
What was your first meeting with Paul Samwell-Smith like? Did you first meet each other in school?
Yes, he was in school with me and was sort of the Yardbird I knew the best. We’ve known each other since we were about sixteen. We were in that same school group together. Paul used to play lead guitar before he played bass. We were always friendly, hanging out at each other’s houses. Paul used to experiment with recording methods at a young age; he had an early tape recorder. We used to mess around with that and make silly tapes, you know, joke tapes. When we left school, I lost touch with him for a bit. Then I met him again, right when R&B music was slowly coming into England on an underground level. Paul and I started to get together and play that music.
The small clubs, where The Yardbirds started playing in the 1960s—do you think that the spaces contributed to the development of the band’s sound? Those small low-ceilinged, dimly-lit, cool-looking rooms?
Yes. We followed the Rolling Stones as residents of the Crawdaddy Club in Richmond, which was relatively small, holding maybe three or four hundred at the very most. It was just a rugby club, a social club, with a bar down at one end. Very simple, but you could get a real sort of sweaty atmosphere there. The Stones got that sort of atmosphere, and then we did. We took their place at the club when they got bigger and went out on the big UK tour. But the basis of the Yardbirds’ sound was always sort of a club sound, and sometimes when we play a smaller club now, that same vibe is there and it’s very enjoyable. That excitement gets going.
The Yardbirds have never really been pigeon-holed, musically-speaking. When considering the band’s history and series of recordings, it seems that you guys were always willing to try something new, willing to go for a new sound. It’s the more artistic way to do things, but could be riskier in terms of maintaining public favor or keeping atop the Billboard charts.
Well, we were always interested in the music, rather than just putting a show on. We called it R&B in those days, but it was blues music. We loved it, and we loved to play it. We put our stamp on it, put different ideas into the pot. Particularly when Jeff Beck came along, he had lots of different sounds, as opposed to Eric Clapton, who sort of stuck to that blues style and sound the whole time. Jeff was much more into doing weird and wonderful sounds—feedback and distortion and wah-wah and all that stuff. We liked it because it made the sound interesting, and that’s where we got the reputation for being psychedelic. To us, it was just a name for what we were doing. It was just fun to us.
Do you have a favorite line-up of the Yardbirds? There have been some great ones over the years.
My favorite would have to be the one with Jeff Beck and Paul Samwell-Smith, because that was the time when we started having hits. Jeff played on all the stuff after “For Your Love,” he played on “Heart Full of Soul,” “Over Under Sideways Down,” “Shapes of Things,” and “Still I’m Sad.” We first went to the States with that line-up, and it was all very exciting for us. We were experimenting a lot then, particularly when we got to Chicago. We recorded “Shapes of Things” in Chess Studios—even though it was the blues studio, we didn’t do that much blues recording there—though we did do “I’m a Man.” But “Shapes of Things” wasn’t really a blues record, it was quite different.
What led to your decision to have your debut record album be a live record album—Five Live Yardbirds in 1964?
We tried to get down our exciting sound in the studio, but it was always very difficult somehow, just going into a recording studio cold to get the feel and sound. The British engineers weren’t as good as the American engineers. I think that’s why we recorded “Shapes of Things” and “I’m a Man” and “Train Kept A-Rollin’” and “Mister, You’re a Better Man Than I” in America. When we recorded in England, it seemed a bit more tame. And it was kind of our policy to get an atmosphere going.
Were you influenced by Eastern music? “Turn Into Earth” has such a great sound, with echoes of Eastern-ness.
We were influenced by all sorts of stuff and listened to all sorts of music. That song was mainly written by Paul Samwell-Smith, and he liked vocal chants, Gregorian chants, like in “Still I’m Sad.” It sounded like monks singing—Paul liked all that stuff, we all did. Indian music as well. “Heart Full of Soul” we originally recorded with sitar playing the bit in the beginning. It was interesting but didn’t have the vibrancy that Jeff Beck’s guitar version had, which had a lot more presence to it. “Over Under Sideways Down” had a vague Eastern thing going in it as well. We loved all sorts of world music and classical, and we were putting in ideas from all sorts of stuff—jazz, too.
We touched on how great your live sound was, and how perhaps it was a bit difficult to translate it into studio work. I do think that your studio album Roger the Engineer (1966) works so well as a studio album and serves as an intensely cohesive listening experience. Did you guys discuss that ahead of time, utilizing the recording studio to maximum effect?
Yes, we did, and it worked really well. It was the first time we’d gone in and recorded an album as an entire album. Up until then, it was just that live album at the Marquis, and compilation albums and rave-up stuff. It was great fun to go in and record an album like that. We spent time with the engineer, Roger Cameron, who was Roger the Engineer. We spent time getting the drum sound to sound good in the studio, and for the overall sound to be exciting. We had a great time doing it, and some of it we actually made up there and then, which was fun. Probably at least two-thirds of the material we sort of played anyway; that was sort of live-ish. “Rack My Mind” and “The Nazz Are Blue” we slightly changed. And then “Turn Into Earth” and “Ever Since the World Began,” we made up in the spur of the moment.
The Yardbirds’ sound has a bit of an ominous and spooky aura, at least in some songs—like “For Your Love” and “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago” are sort of sinister, though they do make for great listening experiences.
I don’t know if I would call them “sinister,” but moody, definitely. That’s what I liked when I first heard “For Your Love,” I thought it was a moody song, and not a Blues song. We really wanted a hit record, so it was a moody song that had a bit of commerciality to it. It had the change in tempo, which was nice, because we used to mess around with that. I don’t know about it being ominous—maybe it was.
What was it like composing with Jimmy Page? You wrote “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sailor” together.
He was good, very professional. He’d been working with session players and playing on records. He worked out things very carefully and put a lot of thought into them, and into the way he played things. We wrote a few songs together. He was very good, in a different way from the way that Jeff Beck was. Jeff was more off-the-wall, and Jimmy was more business-like in his approach to everything. It worked with Jimmy on a very practical level. It worked much better playing live shows, because it was always very predictable, whereas with Jeff it was always unpredictable. You’d get a good night, and then you’d get real bad ones because he wouldn’t like the sound or something.
The Yardbirds have such a great history of being involved with guitar heroes—Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck. Was that happenstance, or did you always seek out really good guitar-players?
It was sort of a mix, really. It’s funny, because all of those guys were brought up within twenty or thirty miles of each other. They all sort of knew each other. We started off with a guy called Top Topham, and then got started with Eric Clapton. I suppose we began at quite a high level, though they were all learning when they joined. The sort of music we were playing was a sort of platform for lead guitar, with a lot of space in the music for lead guitar to fill up. That sort of music really invited a guitar to shine and relied a lot on guitar—a very important part of the music. We were lucky, in some respects—keeping up a really high standard.
Your appearance in Antonioni’s 1966 film Blow-Up is so terrific. How did the band get involved in that project?
It was through our manager at the time who was more involved in the film business. He had a contact come through with the idea of doing that film. I believe they wanted The Who to do it, because they liked the idea of guitar-smashing. I’m not sure why The Who didn’t do it, because Antonioni was quite a good film director and high-profile. The film was much better to do than some of the silly comedies that were out at the time. I thought it was quite an interesting idea; a strange film, and it sort of worked and didn’t work. I’m happy that we were in a movie like that, an art house film.
How did you decide which song to play in the film?
We went into the studio and made up some songs, but Antonioni didn’t like them. He’d seen us play, and he wanted us to play “Train Kept A-Rollin’.” We changed the lyric, to “Stroll On,” for copyright reasons.
Do you have a favorite cover of a Yardbirds song? I really like Warren Zevon’s “A Certain Girl.” There’s David Bowie’s “Shapes of Things” too, and so many others.
Rush did a great version of “Shapes of Things” and “Heart Full of Soul,” and David Bowie did a good version of “Shapes of Things” and “I Wish You Would.” I don’t know what my favorite would be. The Chesterfield Kings did “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago.” There are quite a few good ones around. Rainbow did “Still I’m Sad.” Al Stewart did “Turn Into Earth.” It’s always nice when other people do your songs, it’s very gratifying, and then you make some royalties as well. It’s very nice to be honored in that respect.
Do you think that your personal ideology or approach to making music has changed a lot over the years? You’ve released some more solo material somewhat recently, there was Sitting on the Top of Time in 2009. Do you work in the same way?
Yes, but my solo stuff is quite different, I like to go a bit deeper when doing that, and there’s quite a nice freedom. With the Yardbirds, you have to stick to more of a format, it’s a little bit more tricky. But I like to get a message over, and I like to get a positive message over if I can. I’m still influenced by different world music and all sorts of things. It’s great fun, I love singing and recording my own stuff—and playing it too. I do a few gigs here and there. Someone said to me “how great, because you do your own stuff, and then for your day job you go off and play with the Yardbirds.” It’s a nice way of putting it.
How did you arrive at the formation of your band Renaissance?
Keith Relf and I were very close, and we were writing songs. It sort of built up. We started with some songs that we were doing just on our own. Then Paul Samwell-Smith got back together with us, and he got involved on the production level. We got in touch with a manager, who said it would be a good idea to form a band again, because just doing session stuff was a bit limited. We asked around for recommendations. Louie Cennamo was recommended to us, John Hawken was recommended by Chris Dreja because he was forming a country band with him. Then the sound just happened. We were playing some songs; John started to play some classical stuff that we didn’t know he knew—we’d just thought he was a rock and roll player. It became the basis of our sound. We went into a different direction, a sort of classical keyboard sound, rather than a rock sound.
How do you feel about your own musical journey? You’ve worked with some many fellow rock and roll legends.
It’s nice to have different roots, working with other people. You get different ideas working with different kinds of people. Working with the Pretty Things was good fun, because I knew the guys but we’d never really gotten very close. We were always playing in the sixties in our own way, but we’d never really met up. Then it was the idea of a producer to get together some of the sixties people and release a couple of albums under the British Invasion heading. That was great fun, because we all had a lot in common. I like working with different people because you get different energies going. It keeps everything alive and interesting.
What’s up next for you project-wise?
There’s a lot going on. I’ve got a solo album coming out, it’s recorded already. Jerry Brown was involved who did a lot of Rush stuff. We worked on that In Toronto, and I’m looking for an outlet for it. I’m working on a book, sort of an autobiography, with a couple of guys—one is Rob Bowman who’s from Toronto as well. He won a Grammy for his work on the Stax sessions. Probably those two projects will be released early next year. At the end of this year we’re planning to do another Yardbirds studio album, so we’re getting songs together for that. Then there’s the Anderson Theatre recordings from 1968 with Jimmy Page, that didn’t really come out properly at the time. It’s all been remixed and will come out soon.