In my last entry in this occasional history, I made the claim that the Yardbirds were the most important band of the 60s in term of their lasting influence through the 70s. Why? The main reason is that three of the four most influential guitarists (and possibly musicians) that came out of rock and roll passed through this band: Jimmy Page went on to form Led Zeppelin; Clapton formed Cream, Blind Faith, and Derek & the Dominoes before embarking on a prolific solo career; and Jeff Beck’s technique has been respected and imitated throughout rock music despite a less prolific/critically lauded output following his collaborations with Rod Stewart. Beck’s 70s power trio Beck, Bogart, and Appice possibly matched Cream for sheer brilliance.

Note: Most influential != greatest

The fourth would be Jimi Hendrix. We’ll get to him in a future post.

whiteboybluesI also discussed in the last post something of the love these bands had for the old blues artists. What I didn’t know is that many of them played with the blues greats when they toured England. I recently read Ian MacLagan’s autobiography. MacLagan was a keyboardist in a number of bands (including The Small Faces and The Faces (the latter of which featured Rod Stewart on vocals) with whom he’s most closely associated, the Rolling Stones, The New Barbarians, and in the last decade or so, Billy Bragg -Alas he passed away a couple of months ago. MacLagen got his start with an act called The Muleskinners. He discusses first a missed opportunity to back Howlin’ Wolf (the agent told them a date that was a week early and they had to hustle to get enough petrol to get back to London from Sheffield).

“We got another chance to play with The Wolf later though, when Marquee Artists brought him, Sonny Boy Williamson and Little Walter over from the States. As a rule, the Yardbirds backed Sonny Boy, and if they weren’t available, the Authentics got the job. This pecking order for backing blues legends ended when it eventually reached The Muleskinners. We didn’t mind. We were more than honoured to get the chance to meet and play with such fabulous players. Let’s face it, we had a lot to learn and who better to learn it from than the greats?” (All the Rage, Kindle edition, Location 793.) )

Clapton’s path is interesting: He ditched the Yardbirds claiming they were abandoning their blues roots. Fair enough. His tenure in John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers provides much evidence of his dedication to the form. The weird thing is, he took this side trip into psychedelia with Cream. Cream didn’t last long as a band (less than two years, IIRC), but they produced four or five classic albums. Cream’s bassist, Jack Bruce passed last year, though most thought drummer Ginger Baker would be the first to go. As with almost all the songs on Fresh Cream, Bruce supplied lead vocals. Blind Faith only released one, but it’s also six tracks of classics.

Derek and the Dominos also only released one, but it contained the classic Layla, the solo on which would have cemented the reputation of any guitarist. And along with the cover of Hendrix’s Little Wing, the least of the tracks on the album. The extant Derek and the Dominos live albums don’t even feature it. Later FM play cemented it as a so-called classic. (I saw Clapton on the Behind the Sun tour in ’87 or so on which, alas, he felt it enough to play Layla note for note. Not quite the same thing.) I’ve added both a studio and a live version of Why Does Love Got to Be So Sad to show how Clapton was stretching as a live soloist at the time. Robert Johnson’s Crossroads was a staple of Cream’s live sets, and the Dominos version also shows how electrifying his solos were. The song became so connected to Clapton, that his mid-80s box set was also called Crossroads. It’s on the evidence of these songs that graffiti popped up around London at the time proclaiming Clapton is God.

And there’s shedloads more to write about Blind Faith, Cream, and the Dominoes. Blind Faith featured Steve Winwood on vocals, fresh out of the Spencer Davis Group, but before he and Jim Capaldi formed Traffic. Derek and the Dominoes also featured members of  Delaney and Bonnie and Friends, a group who had opened for Blind Faith, and to whose music Clapton was drawn. This group also backed his 1970 solo debut (which featured Clapton’s cover of JJ Cale’s After Midnight). To be honest, though, from ’71 or so, he was doing an easy blues-based rock that produced a few hits (Cocaine, I Shot the Sheriff) but nothing so brilliant and prolific as those first post-Yardbirds years.

Jeff Beck recorded prolifically in the 70s, though much less so in the decades since, though he has toured regularly. The fact is, I know Beck mostly by reputation. Of note, however, is a 1984 recording of People Get Ready with Rod on which his playing is almost as heavenly as the song would suggest. Much of his 70s output also had a soul and blues component evidenced by, among other things, a cover of Stevie Wonder’s Superstition. Beck’s Bolero was a one-off that featured Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones, keyboardist Nicky Hopkins, and Keith Moon on a rocking take off on Ravel’s Bolero. You Shook Me is an old Muddy Waters track that, like the first Jeff Beck Group albums, features Rod Stewart on vocals. When Beck appeared on three tracks on Stewart’s 1984 album Camouflage, there were rumours they might tour together again. A record seller I knew at the time named Robert had tickets to an LA show, but sold them when that deal fell apart. ‘No Beck, no Bob,’ he told me.

On occasion I enjoy a Rod Stewart vocal, but in general I find him a little annoying, a little same-y, and not very interesting. My feeling is that he draws the life out of much of what his collaborators do. Take for example, this Jeff Beck Group version of the Yardbird’s Shapes of Things. The vocal is a howl with none of the subtlety of the original, or any attempt to match the intensity of the other band members except in volume. MacLagen found him too much to take – the Faces backed Rod Stewart on tour for several years in the early 70s and were treated like hired hands. He did work well with them, however, as evidenced on this kick-ass version of Paul McCartney’s Maybe I’m Amazed.

While the guitar is important on Beck’s post-Yardbirds work, he makes a lot of room for the work of his collaborators. Hopkins’ solo on Jailhouse Rock stomps on Stewart’s vocals. Bobby Tench, who took over lead vocals for the ’71’s Rough and Ready has a much better feel for the blues than Rod did – it’s interesting how much New Ways/Train Train feels like the work Clapton was doing as well.

And Page. For almost twelve years, Led Zeppelin was the pinnacle of rock and roll. From the acoustic beauty of White Summer (a Yardbirds track often in Zep’s live repertoire) to the blues histrionics of Dazed and Confused which often pushed 30 minutes in live renditions. To get an idea of what the Zep touring monster was, check out the movie Almost Famous. The director wrote for Rolling Stone in the 70s and it’s based, in part, on his experience on the (I think) ’75 tour.

I’m not doing Zep many favours with this dearth of text. And the music doesn’t necessarily speak for itself forty years after the fact. It’s very much a case of writing about music being like dancing about architecture. Alas, when Bonham did himself in (40 shots of vodka in 24 hours) on the eve of rehearsals for the In Through The Out Door tour, Plant, Page, and Jones closed up shop. The fact that Plant had lost a young son to illness in ’77 as well didn’t contribute to any desire to proceed. We were lucky to get another album out of them.

Side note: Cameron Crowe wrote Fast Times at Ridgemont High (fantastic, at least to the teenage me), and directed Vanilla Sky (good) and Elizabethtown (awful awful awful). He’s also married to Nancy Wilson of Heart, another damn fine guitarist.

Zep’s albums always ran a gamut of blues, hard rock, folk, and soul. With the emphasis most of the time on the hard. Of course one of the problems with saying anything about the original monsters of rock is that it’s all been said before. That said, it’s worth looking into the debt to old blues musicians was rarely acknowledged as it should have been, even though many were still alive when Zep was making their fortune. (At the moment, the estate of Spirit’s Randy California is suing Led Zep with a claim that Stairway to Heaven’s intro is lifted from their song Taurus. As the two bands toured together, it’s a pretty valid claim that Page was familiar enough with what Spirit was doing.

That said, there’s also the astounding wealth of truly original stuff. Or at least stuff that later imitators took from Zep, not from Zep’s progenitors. D’yer Ma’ker, Achilles Last Stand, Kashmir, Night Flights (which might be my very favourite Led Zep track and is one they never played live – Jeff Buckley did an interesting cover of it, but not in the rocking style it deserves), Carouselambra.

Another thing that must be said about these three guitarists and others in their class, is that they make it seem effortless. I would point you to this performance from 2009. At his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Beck does a sweet version of Beck’s Bolero before Page joins him to shred Immigrant Song. (Watch past the five-minute mark only if you dare – Metallica and a few other folks join in a performance of Train Kept A Rolling. Alas, James Hetfield can only sing two notes, and it hurts to hear him try to sing more.