The last founder
Yardbirds drummer Jim McCarty chats with SN&R about the early days of his influential rock band, which shares roots with Led Zeppelin, Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck
The Yardbirds are widely considered one of the most influential bands of all time. Rock historians credit the British group’s original run from 1963 to 1968 with paving the way for the blues-based psychedelic, progressive and hard-rock bands that dominated FM airwaves through the ’70s.
Most famously, legendary lead guitarists Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page used the group as a career-launching pad. After the Yardbirds split in 1968, Page formed the band that became Led Zeppelin, while Beck and Clapton went on to have celebrated solo careers. And that’s no surprise to the Yardbirds’ drummer Jim McCarty, based on his personal experiences with the three rock icons.
“Jeff and Eric were solo artists; they liked to call the shots,” he said during a phone interview with the SN&R. “They could be difficult. Once you’re in that high-pressure type of lifestyle, all of your weaknesses come out, and I think they both found it very difficult to be a part of a team. They rather separated themselves. Jimmy was more of a team member; he started as a session player on old recordings in London, so he was used to doing what people wanted. With us, he always very polite and accommodating. I don’t know what he was like in Zeppelin, because that was more of his band.”
The Yardbirds will perform at Ace of Spades on Sunday, June 3. The current is lineup rounded out by lead guitarist Johnny A., guitarist/lead vocalist John Idan, bassist Kenny Aaronson (known for his work with Bob Dylan and Billy Idol) and Myke Scavone on vocals and blues harp. Speaking from England, McCarty said he’s compelled to keep playing because he believes in the band’s wide-ranging repertoire. They play about 30 shows a year, a reasonable pace for McCarty, who is 74 years old.
“I enjoy it so long as it’s not five nights a week for the entire year,” he said.
McCarty is the sole remaining founding member of the Yardbirds. Bassist Paul Samwell-Smith left the band in the ’60s to become a producer; lead singer Keith Relf died from electrocution in 1976; and guitarist/bassist Chris Dreja recently suffered a series of strokes that left him unable to play his instrument.
“He’s OK—he can do things and go out around London, but he can’t really travel on an airplane or play a gig anymore,” McCarty said of Dreja. “I just saw Chris and Jimmy Page because we put out an old album, Live at Anderson Theater, which was recorded in 1968. Jimmy had done a remix of the original master and it sounded really good—much better than it was originally. He took all of the phony audience sound out of it.” The album includes The Yardbirds’ live take on “Dazed and Confused,” a song originally written by Jake Holmes, which, at the behest of Page, became a staple of Led Zeppelin shows.
McCarty has a lifetime’s worth of stories about the Yardbirds and his tenure in the progressive-rock band Renaissance, many of which he tells in his new book, Nobody Told Me. He’s had plenty of time to process the surreal fact that he manned the drum kit for one of classic rock’s seminal acts—and watched first-hand as three guitarists morphed into absolute monsters.
“The bar was quite high, and each one of them was trying to live up to the one who came before,” he said. “Jeff and Jimmy were both in the band at one point, always trying to outdo each other. That was a funny time—but it sounded quite good, as well.”