The Yardbirds

Ultimate! (Rhino ’01) Rating: A
Although they were primarily known for housing three of the greatest guitarists of all-time (Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page) and for a handful of spectacular mid-60s singles, The Yardbirds were more than that. Simply put, The Yardbirds were one of the greatest bands of the ‘60s, and their immense influence in pioneering heavy metal, psychedelia, group jamming (i.e. “rave ups”), guitar solos, Middle-Eastern experimentation, and bluesy garage rockers simply cannot be overestimated.

Unfortunately, up until now this band has been endlessly (and often shabbily) repackaged, and their original albums are erratic and often difficult to obtain. But this Ultimate! Yardbirds collection rectifies any previous wrongs by living up to its title in spectacular fashion. This generously packed 2-cd set gets all the details right, as 1 cd would’ve left most listeners wanting more and 3 cds likely would’ve been overkill considering that the band were known for incendiary peaks rather than consistency.

But what peaks! This chronologically sequenced compilation rightfully begins with the Eric Clapton era, which was highlighted by catchy hits like “A Certain Girl” and “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl” that demonstrated the band’s underrated pop smarts. But it was bluesy rave-ups such as “Smokestack Lightning,” “Here ‘Tis,” and “I Ain’t Got You” that launched thousands of Nuggets-styled garage bands and bedroom guitar heroes. Clapton left the band after their breakthrough hit “For You Love,” fearing that they were going too pop (though the atmospheric song was actually quite adventurous for its day) and wanting to delve further into the blues.

This parting of the ways would prove fruitful to both parties. Clapton immediately went onto legendary exploits with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and Cream, and The Yardbirds really hit their stride with Clapton’s virtuoso replacement, Jeff Beck. According to the late Cub Koda (in his entertaining liner notes), “if the band had an Achilles heel, it was that their main strengths lay in playing and arranging rather than in songwriting,” but this was less of a problem when they were being given brilliant songs such as “Heart Full Of Soul” (famous for its sitar-like riffs from Beck) and “Evil Hearted You” from the likes of Graham Gouldman (later of 10cc). Even the band’s lesser songs from this period had an exotic air of experimentation, as the band were adventurous sonic explorers who were consistently searching for new sounds and seeking to transverse uncharted musical territories. Other prime highlights from this era included “You’re A Better Man Than I,” “Train Kept A Rollin’” (later taken over by Aerosmith), “New York City Blues,” “I’m A Man,” “Over Under Sideways Down,” and “What Do You Want.” In addition, the gothic Gregorian chants of “Still I’m Sad” were unprecedented in the rock music of the day, while the band’s piece de resistance was the brilliant “Shapes Of Things,” which featured a transcendent Beck blast that still seems to have been lifted from a future dimension.

Burnt out, Beck left the band, but not before cutting a few sides with new recruit Jimmy Page. They both play some scorching lead guitar on “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago” and “Stroll On,” the latter of which reworks the melody of “Train Kept A Rollin’” to superior effect. It’s hard not to think about what that lineup might have accomplished had Beck stuck around, but the overlooked Jimmy Page era also had its share of gems. Though producer Mickie Most had the band headed in a much-criticized, more pop oriented direction, songs such as “Puzzles,” “No Excess Baggage,” “White Summer,” and “Think About It” showed that each of the band’s lineups were capable of greatness. And, of course, “White Summer” and parts of “Think About It” (the solo should sound familiar to fans of “Dazed And Confused”) were later integrated into the repertoire of Page’s next band, the incomparable Led Zeppelin.

It should be mentioned that it was far more than just having great guitarists that made these sonic innovators special. Drummer Jim McCarty and bassist Paul Samwell-Smith (also the band’s primary producer and arranger) were a crack rhythm section capable of starting and stopping on a dime, rhythm guitarist Chris Dreja kept the chaotic rhythms coming, and Keith Relf was one of the era’s most underrated singers, not to mention a fine harp player. The raw energy that these men put into their performances ensured that their songs would remain vital to this day, and they sound better than ever here courtesy of Rhino's stellar sound engineers.

Of course, serious fans of the band will likely find room to quibble, as perhaps more live material (such as their BBC sessions) could’ve been included, while the two Italian songs (“Questa Volta” and “Pafff...Bum”) and three Keith Relf solo performances seem unnecessary and out of place. But mere quibbles they would be, for in addition to their glorious hits, Ultimate! rescues many b-side treasures and album tracks, all of which makes Ultimate! the single best Yardbirds collection that you'll ever see or hear, maybe the only Yardbirds album that you'll ever need in fact

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