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Saturday, January 17, 2009

DVD Review: The Story of The Yardbirds

The Story of The Yardbirds
2008 MVD Visual/ABC Entertainment/HIQ Entertainment
Ray Van Horn, Jr.



Does it ever cross your mind why The Yardbirds never reached greater prestige in the annals of rock history considering they housed three of rock's most legendary guitarists in the form of Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page? That statistic alone should've made The Yardbirds more than just a cult band emerged from the Swinging London era, yet rock 'n roll purists and garage addicts seem to be the only ones who genuinely embrace them.

The Yardbirds could've been The Rolling Stones' legitimate successor and not just their well-received replacements at the famed Crawdaddy Club in Britain. Despite the pedigree of these blues and soul twangers who each brought a different level of fortitude to The Yardbirds, it's each guitarist's departure that likely prevented The Yardbirds from achieving a greater stature than they enjoyed during the sixties. Of course, by the time Jimmy Page arrived, The Yardbirds were in a reinvention phase that was perhaps in reaction to what the Stones and The Beatles were experimenting with to much succes, yet was ironically off-kilter in relation. Also, the Jeff Beck-era "Still I'm Sad" may have been a momentary hit for The Yardbirds, but it was dark to the point of suicidal tendency. Even one of their best-written songs during Beck's tenure (and overall career) "Evil Hearted You" contained a deep moroseness out-of-step with the Yardbirds' largely upbeat contemporaries.

It's possible The Yardbirds were more in-tune with the sour social climate of the sixties and while they dabbled with psychedelics during Jimmy Page's run with them, The Yardbirds unfortunately lost touch with what initially made them striking: the blues.

The Story of the Yardbirds is a well-executed documentary outlining a band that had been enamored with American blues as many British Invasion acts of the day were. Accordingly, The Yardbirds had the distinction of playing with one of their sister country's swamprat legends, Sonny Boy Williamson. The Story of the Yardbirds shows a fledgling group led by the mop-topped Keith Relf on vocals and harmonica and a potent rhyhtm section in the form of Paul Samwell-Smith on bass and Jim McCarty on drums with guitarists Chris Dreja and a clean-cut Eric Clapton. As one of The Yardbirds' early managers describes Clapton of the day as a "dandy," fate would usher the disgruntled guitar icon out of the band, balking at the commercial overtones of the band's biggest hit, "For Your Love."

You have to wonder at Clapton's choice to leave, considering we got the bombastic Cream thereafter, yet Clapton himself ventured on the mainstream path with Derek and The Dominoes and his solo work. Although Clapton has produced some magnificent blues albums outside of his radio-friendly music, could The Yardbirds have gone further had Clapton stayed with them?

An even bigger question lies in what would've happened had Jeff Beck not grown distempered with sharing the limelight with Jimmy Page. Together the two were the KK Downing and Glenn Tipton of their time, yet Beck's disgruntlement left him shambling off to the tune of The Yardbirds' "Jeff's Blues" while Jimmy Page altered the course of the group before leaving himself to stake a claim at rock immortality with Led Zeppelin.

The Story of The Yardbirds moves briskly and makes its points while recovering lost footage complete with hand-clapping loudness and go-go dancers in the background, lending credence that they might've had a chance at bigger stardom had fate not intervened so forcefully. In the end, the confused Yardbirds rolled out as a foursome with inventive music still yielding some of the blues that initially launched them. Still, Clapton's exodus was the writing on the wall, despite the prowess of the band's core members. The survivors appear in the documentary to reflect on what was and where some of their London haunts were.

The triumvirate of Clapton, Page and Beck all give testimony to their contributions and their reasons for leaving a band at-large that probably had more to give than they were allowed. Ego certainly played a hand in dismantling The Yardbirds, yet when you watch this documentary, you see a band that clicked and were largely in the pocket. Even watching the bonus footage with Jimmy Page for a German television program in 1967 shows a veritably tight unit that sadly unfurled a year later, random reunions notwithstanding. Tragically, Keith Relf was electrocuted to death in 1976, effectively destroying any true shot at rekindling the Yard magic.

Arguably some of The Yardbirds' best music was done during the Jeff Beck years given "I'm Not Talking," "You're a Better Man Than I," "Shape of Things" and of course "Evil Hearted You." Regardless, this documentary presents other Yardbird tunes such as "Louise," "I Wish I Would," "Train Kept Rolling," "My Girl Sloopy," "I'm a Man" and "Dazed and Confused," all of which keeps things jiving harmoniously.

All-told, each guitarist brought a unique kitsch to a band revered by music heads and blues rockers. If there's a legacy The Yardbirds have left to rock's annals, it's having the savvy to recruit the best of the best of their time and place.

Rating: ****

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