In honor of what would have been Lou Reed’s 75th birthday, here’s the Yardbirds covering the Velvet Underground in 1968.
You may recall that Michelangelo Antonioni considered the Velvet Underground for the club scene in Blow-Up before choosing the Yardbirds, but the connection between the two bands does not end there. As I learn from Richie Unterberger, the Yardbirds’ last lineup—the one with Jimmy Page on lead guitar—had “I’m Waiting for the Man” in its repertoire. A recording survives from the May 31, 1968 gig at the Shrine Exposition Hall in Los Angeles, one of the Yardbirds’ final shows.
“I’m Waiting for the Man” was a forward-looking selection in May ‘68. John Cale was still in the VU; White Light/White Heat had been out for a few months, The Velvet Underground & Nico about a year. Yardbird Chris Dreja, who remembers “hanging out with Andy Warhol at The Factory” on the Yardbirds’ first US tour, suggests the cover was Page’s idea. As a session musician and arranger, Page had worked on Nico’s 1965 debut single “I’m Not Sayin’,” whose B-side, “The Last Mile,” he co-wrote with Andrew Loog Oldham. The following year, as Unterberger points out, the Yardbirds and the VU both played at Detroit’s Carnaby Street Fun Festival.
The Yardbirds are one of those groups who didn’t quite make the jump when the drawbridge goes up between the R&B and “English invasion” beat group era and what came after, i.e the psychedelia and beyond. Very few groups of their vintage did, just a small handful when you think of it—the Beatles, Stones, Who and Kinks obviously come readily to mind—but not the Yardbirds who are often thought of as a mere footnote in the later careers of Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, and Jeff Beck. The Yardbirds go somewhat a little too far back for many music fans who might otherwise love what’s on offer from them. They are seen ultimately as a B&W era rock act, if you take my point. Unlike one group of their peers—the Pretty Things—they didn’t really last long enough to bloom in that same way, although surely the promise of the Yardbirds flowered within Led Zeppelin, Cream and the Jeff Beck Group (not to mention Renaissance).
But the Yardbirds were an absolutely amazing, astonishing and astounding group. To some, who know “of” them, but not much of the actual music they produced, they have the reputation of being merely a really good English blues band when that’s not even remotely accurate, although this still might be the impression one is left with if you end up introduced to them via a crappy CD compilation (and there are dozens of crappy Yardbirds comps). These guys were insanely great musicians, way ahead of their time, adding exotic instrumentation (sitar, tabla), Gregorian chant, shifting tempos, and screaming and distorted lead guitar solos (and feedback) to the three-minute pop song before any of that stuff was routinely done. Their exemplary mid-60s hit singles are amongst the most innovative and furthest-reaching pop music of its day. Even put up against the measure of what the Beatles were getting up to at the same time, the Yardbirds’ output demonstrated that they could more than hold their own with the toppermost of the poppermost. (Worth noting that the Yardbirds opened for the Beatles at at least one concert in Paris.)
The Yardbirds (their name a nod to jazz great Charlie Parker) were originally formed in 1963 by lead singer Keith Relf and bassist Paul Samwell-Smith who’d already been in a band together. They were joined by guitarist Chris Dreja, drummer Jim McCarty and the original lead guitarist “Top” Topham, who was then just fifteen and much younger than the rest of them. Top was pressured by his parents to take his education more seriously and he recommended his school chum Eric Clapton to take his place. Within a matter of months of forming, the group was approached by rock impresario Giorgio Gomelsky—who ran the Crawdaddy rhythm and blues club in Richmond—to replace the ascent Rolling Stones as the house band at his hip nightspot. He also became their manager and record producer getting them signed to EMI for Five Live Yardbirds, a recording of one of their sets, featuring blues standards stretched to 5 or 6 minutes with wailing guitar solos and feedback, something they called having a “rave-up.”
Below “Louise” with Eric Clapton on guitar:
But when the Yardbirds wanted to do something a little more experimental—like their first hit single “For Your Love”—Eric Clapton got all “blues purist” on them and quit on the very day the single was released, not even agreeing to appear in the promotional film made for the record. Clapton soon joined John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. Jimmy Page by that point a session musician boy wonder of some notoriety was approached to replace Clapton. Page turned them down and instead recommended that they hire Jeff Beck (who can be seen below miming Clapton’s guitar parts in the promo for “For Your Love” filmed soon after he joined the group).
With Beck in the line-up, the Yardbirds were on fire, turning out several classic hit singles and touring America many times, where they had several hit records. When Paul Samwell-Smith decided he wanted to go off and become a record producer, again the group approached Jimmy Page about joining and this time he agreed to help out, filling in on bass until Chris Dreja could learn the instrument, whereupon Page would switch to guitar. But as fate would have it, there was very little actually recorded with the dual guitar Page-Beck pairing.
The legendary guitar-smashing scene in Michelangelo Antonioni’s 60s classic Blow-Up used the Yardbirds to represent the violent energy of “mod” London. Originally—and for obvious reasons—Antonioni wanted The Who to do this, but they weren’t available. Eric Burdon turned him down, too. He thought about having the Velvet Underground in the scene but they couldn’t get a working visa in time and it would have been expensive to fly their entire entourage to London. The director thought about using a band called The In-Crowd (later Tomorrow) a group that featured future Yes-guitarist Steve Howe, but they were jettisoned in favor of the Yardbirds at the last minute. Since they’d already made prop guitars to be smashed, you’ll note that Beck is destroying a Gibson 175, the guitar Howe famously uses.
The song they’re seen performing here, one of the rare instances of a dual lead from Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck is called “Stroll On,” a rewrite of their earlier “Train Kept A-Rollin” hit with the lyrics changed by Keith Relf to avoid any legal problems with the original songwriters.