Thursday, July 31, 2008

Yardbirds 1: Little Games

As with most of the British blues boom bands, balancing integrity with teenybopper appeal, the Yardbirds catalog is a mess. At one time or another one could find all their “classic” songs on one collection or another, but often they’re mixed with multiple takes of various blues covers. Their main consistency through all the changes was singer Keith Relf, he of the bleach-blonde bowl cut and surprisingly nasal voice. He’s the one singing on the hits, no matter which of the legendary guitarists—Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, and of course, Top Topham—who passed through the organization is playing. Chances are, if it gets airplay today, Beck is playing lead. (The drummer is always Jim McCarty, but good luck picking him out.)
Rather than try to navigate through the albums that once existed and may be in print today (though that day might come), a good place to dive in is near the end, with Little Games. At this point the band was down to a quarter, with Jimmy Page on lead. Given his experience playing countless sessions for potential pop hits, he was probably the best person yet able to handle the more commercial material foisted upon the band by producer Mickie Most, while still flirting with experimentalism. As it is, the album presents what Jimmy was doing immediately before Led Zeppelin, and demonstrates what led to it.
The title track bears an simple, repetitive bar chord attack, with some signature Page leads and a cello arrangement for that chamber pop feel, provided by one John Paul Jones. “Smile On Me” is a fairly simple blues, played in two tempos depending on the section; think “The Lemon Song” without the power. Then there’s Page’s solo acoustic showpiece, “White Summer”, accompanied by tabla and oboe, which led to countless Zeppelin ideas. “Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor” sports a couple of chords in the intro that will be heard again on “The Song Remains The Same”, along with the first instance of Page’s violin bow technique. The potential of that approach to create spooky sounds is taken further on the psychedelic “Glimpses”, complete with tape loops, sound effects, distorted voices and Relf’s Gregorian-style chant on top (a genre he’d been courting for years).
The blues return on “Drinking Muddy Water”, a blatant rewrite of “Rollin’ And Tumblin’”, with Ian Stewart on piano, while “No Excess Baggage”, while strong, is another misplace pop song. The band’s view of the material thrust upon them is best demonstrated on the nutty rearrangement of “Stealing, Stealing”, the old jug band chestnut; here, the part of the washboard is tackled by somebody blowing raspberries. “Only The Black Rose” is very English folk, which is where Relf would go next, albeit with only two chords. “Little Soldier Boy” is another in a line of protest songs disguised as a nursery rhyme; rather than hire a trumpet player, that part is played by a vocal imitation.
The album’s lack of sales ultimately played a part in the band dissolving, leaving Page to take charge of his future, and boy, did he. Beginning in the early ‘90s, Little Games has had a few reissues, starting with 1992’s Little Games Sessions & More. This double CD presented the original album in excellent sound, with session chat and alternate mixes, and also attempted to complete the picture with further Page-related recordings of the period. These include the excellent B-sides “Puzzles” and “Think About It”, and less impressive A-sides, such as “Ten Little Indians”, “Ha Ha Said The Clown” and “Goodnight Sweet Josephine”. A few tracks by Together, Relf and McCarty’s next project, take some of the spotlight off of Page. (Later reissues kept it down to one disc, tacking on some of the singles and sometimes BBC sessions, including unique takes on Dylan’s “Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine)” and even an early incarnation of “Dazed And Confused”.)

The Yardbirds Little Games (1967)—3

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