Posted by: Dominic Umile | 05/12/2009

Close Listen: The Yardbirds, ‘Five Live Yardbirds’

Five Live YardbirdsSix years after England’s Marquee club first opened its doors, it closed and relocated to London’s Soho area. On its premiere night in its new location, the venue hosted rhythm & blues act The Yardbirds, who’d already established a popular Thursday residency at the previous spot.

Five Live Yardbirds, recorded live on March 13th, 1964, documents the band’s powerful debut appearance at the Marquee’s new setup, with a baby-faced Eric Clapton offering lead guitar for this, the act’s first full-length record. Ironically, Clapton’s final Yardbirds studio contributions are also captured on the 1999 Prism label CD edition of the album (there is more than one Five Live CDs floating around), as “For Your Love” is among the six recorded bonuses tacked onto the album’s end.

Advocates of 1960s pop/rock history, or the history of British kids playing American music, should recognize that Five Live Yardbirds is an important piece for the collection. Alongside the early Stones singles or the Story of Them discography (more Irish kids, really, but you understand), the Yardbirds’ live set is a celebration of the blues artists that young mods so admired in this era, and its intensity was never really duplicated in the band’s subsequent studio sessions.

The Yardbirds hammer out a set of Howlin’ Wolf, Bo Diddley, and John Lee Hooker compositions on Five Live with ferocity and creativity. Of the bands playing this type of stuff in sweaty, poorly kept clubs back then, the Yardbirds were innovative and exciting, and this early representation, with its jamming and jittery tempo experiments, offers a peek at the band that would soon contribute a hallmark of psychedelic rock in 1966’s Roger the Engineer / Over Under Sideways Down, an album that critic Tom Moon called “essential listening for anyone who cares about rock guitar.”

In his voluminous 1982 book about The Who, author Richard Barnes lamented that the Detours, his subject’s early incarnation, were covering these blues artists “exactly like the original record…They (The Detours) played it very well, and very competently; they were by then a lot better than most bands, but they didn’t do anything with it. When the Yardbirds played, for instance ‘Smokestack Lightning,’ it lasted for at least fifteen minutes.'”

The live album is crazed — the levels are all over the place, the crowd is manic, and you can almost feel the feedback hum from the weathered amps onstage. The Isley Brothers’ “Respectable” is the highlight of Five Live Yardbirds, in my opinion — its remarkably tight stop/starts and syncopation nearly disintegrate around “Slowhand” Clapton’s leads, which are far too buried in the mix on this one, but the song is in its most undressed, raw form. Before it ends, in an unexpected third act, the band allows for their recreation of “Respectable” to slump into a jangly ska cousin of the original, and then races it back into its proper, hustled tempo. Listen to the Yardbirds doing “Respectable” here, and think about exactly why this record isn’t sitting on your shelf.

  • Read The Yardbirds: The Clapton Years series in Goldmine Magazine here.
  • Over-tweaking in the studio hurt 1964 EMI A-side “A Certain Girl” (complete with Clapton’s searing solo), but it’s still a muddy, bass-heavy stomper. Listen here. They should’ve had Glyn Johns behind the boards — that first Small Faces record is fantastic.
  • Watch the Yardbirds play “Train Kept A-Rollin'” here with Clapton replacement Jeff Beck on lead guitar. More videos/tracks here.
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