Quite possibly the best vocalist you’ve never heard of, you still have heard him if you are passingly familiar with rock music. Trust me. He was the voice of the Yardbirds.
Come on. You know, that semi-influential band that gave birth to the holy trinity of English guitarists. In order: Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page. Any questions?
Keith was born on March 22, back in 1943. His time in the sun was short, music-wise and otherwise. Once the Yardbirds briefly became the New Yardbirds (prompting Keith Moon to tell Jimmy Page a band with that name would go over like a lead zeppelin, and the rest, as they say, is history), Page broke off on his own and brought in fresh, young blood. Within a year Led Zeppelin crashed on the scene like a . . . New Yardbird. Relf lost his band, and that was pretty much the end of it. He died, in unfunny Spinal Tap fashion, being electrocuted in his home (by an improperly grounded guitar, which being neither a guitar player or someone with a sixth grader’s appreciation—or knowledge—of practical science, is somewhat incomprehensible to me).
In addition to boasting the guitar rotation of the gods (in Clapton’s case, literally, according to the London graffiti of the time), The Yardbirds were the real deal, understanding and delivering the blues better than any of the other white boys (the Animals, with the inimitable Eric Burdon, came closest). But even in their earliest work they were already straining against convention and concocting sounds that had not been heard before and, in many regards, haven’t been equaled since. Everyone knows the first smash, “For Your Love” (the big hit from the Clapton line-up), but for my money, it was when the brash and beautiful Jeff Beck came on board that things got heavy (speaking of Spinal Tap, look at a picture of Beck from the mid-‘60s and tell me who you think Christopher Guest had in mind when he invented Nigel Tufnel).
The songs made in mid-‘65 and ‘66 are as close to perfect as anything we got from rock. You can sense the old school sensibility, which had prevailed for decades, of writing a tight, focused hit that was ideally within the two-to-three minute range. But you can also taste the change in the air: within these succinct powder kegs are ideas, feelings and longings that would grow into the more free-flowing and, as the ‘70s commenced, sprawling artistic statements (see: prog rock). As such, the sheer weight of stuff packed inside these (again not just the sounds, remarkable enough though they are, but the energy and ambition, like a cocoon waiting to explode) endure as period pieces, but manage to defy the passage of time: they still feel fresh and furious, and they still, somehow, manage to surprise.
“Shapes of Things” (from March 1966: this is the penultimate psychedelic hit single, not necessarily setting the stage of the Summer of Love but anticipating it; Beck’s solo, like a harmonica-wail from hell, is a sound Jimmy Page was more than happy to rip off for “How Many More Times” from Zep’s debut):
“Heart Full of Soul” (you need the proper studio version to fully appreciate the perfection: that riff, those vocals, that groove, but there is much to be said to see them pull it off, quite convincingly, live):
Nothing else from the time sounded like this. Except maybe some of what the Rolling Stones were getting into. And there is little doubt that Brian Jones was picking up what these dudes were putting down; from the exotic, Eastern vibe (acoustic guitar approximating the sitar) to the almost menacing tempo and vocal delivery. It’s hard to imagine “Paint It Black” (and so many other songs from 1966) without the blueprints the Yardbirds laid down.
The best, arguably, was yet to come… “Still I’m Sad”, a Gregorian chant that trudges along equal parts martial drone and funeral march. Once again, the vocals from Relf and the deeper than a ditch backing vocals wash over like a sad wave. “Over Under Sideways Down”, where rave-up meets LSD and teeters just at the edge of full-blown psychedelia (and causes one to want to scrawl out Clapton’s name on that God graffiti). And possibly their finest—and certainly most remarkably unique moment, “Turn Into Earth”, like “Over Under Sideways Down” from Roger the Engineer, one of the very seminal (if criminally overlooked and underappreciated) albums of that decade.
It all worked out the way it was supposed to: Clapton got his “authentic” bad-teeth British blues on with John Mayall which fortunately segued into Cream (another band that died way too soon due to the colossal egos involved). Beck had the capable hothouse for his teeming creativity… and then the Train Stopped-A Rollin’: by late ‘66 Beck was fired (and/or quit, as always depending upon which version you prefer) and even with a ready-for-prime-time Page leading the charge, the band slowly fell apart.
Two years and change to make music that changed the world (ask anyone). Not long enough, but more than enough considering the shape of things that came. And as with Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett, no doubt better to have a brief, bright run that is impossible to forget than a long, predictable stroll. Right? It all worked out well enough, all things considered. The problem is that the Yardbirds are typically depicted as the delivery device that gave us Clapton, Beck, and Page, all of whom went on to do bigger and better… and with all due respect to Paul Samwell-Smith, Chris Dreja, and Jim McCarty, that seems fair enough.
But when the group ground to a halt we were deprived of more from Keith Relf, and that seems hard to reconcile. Certainly the man did not stop making music (indeed he was literally making it at the moment of his accidental, absurd death), but without the forum of a supergroup to support him, the world’s ears turned elsewhere. Did he, like Syd, have much more in him? It seems silly to argue otherwise. And yet, considering what we got, and how unsullied it all seems in hindsight, it’s difficult to quibble that however fleeting the glory, the music we got is everything we could ever have asked—or hoped—to receive.