Reader’s Choice: Song #25/250: Shape of Things by The Yardbirds

The late, great guitarist Jeff Beck (Photo by C Flanigan/FilmMagic)

Today’s song choice was nominated by my pal, rawgod, and is a very inspired choice. “Shape of Things” is not just another song, and The Yardbirds are not just another band, and lead guitarist, Jeff Beck, is definitely not just another guitarist. With the recent passing of Jeff Beck, it seems like an appropriate time to take a closer look at a moment in musical history where Beck almost single-handedly transformed the course of rock n’ roll music with his virtuosic style of playing. But, in order to appreciate the depth of Jeff Beck’s talent and the impact he had on modern music, we must first take a step back in time and place into context the music world as it was when “Shape of Things” debuted. It was a world separated by geography, economical class and by race, but a world that Jeff Beck and others sought to bring together through their music. This is the story of Jeff Beck, The Yardbirds, the world of British Rock royalty in the 1960s and a song that exploded into the middle of it all and helped change everything. So get ready, this post is going to blow your mind!

Our story begins with a statement of fact. As creative and talented as the musicians who lived in the UK were in the 1960s, they were not the ones who invented rock n’ roll. The true origins of the birth of Rock happened across the Atlantic Ocean in places such as Chicago and Memphis and New Orleans, which were all home to a style of music known as The Blues. We can trace the evolution of Rock n’ Roll from those thumping notes that emanated from guitars of the originators such as Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Big Mama Thornton, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Little Richard, Fats Domino and others of their ilk. The lived experiences of black musicians gave birth to a form of music that the powers that be found dangerous and primal. It was a sound of heat and sweat and sex and it came from the very souls of those who performed those first great Blues songs in America. White American singers such as Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash were quick to recognize where the future of music was headed and swiftly acted to co-opt these Blues classics and make them their own.

Fortunately for those who lived in the UK, the original Blues masters toured there, too. They brought that brand of primal energy and searing heat to audiences who had never seen anything like it before and who were completely captivated by it. Future stars such as John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Ray Davies and Jeff Beck all have stated that they were inspired to become musicians because of what they saw Little Richard or Big Mama Thornton or Muddy Waters perform on their own hometown stages. As a result of exposure to authentic Blues, a localized Blues scene began to establish itself in England. At the time, in the late 1950s/early 1960s, much of the music scene was organized through a series of pubs. This music from this scene became known as Pub Rock and usually consisted of young upstarts like Mick Jagger and Keith Richards performing in house bands at a specific pub, or else, a band would form and would tour a circuit of pubs. In this way, young musicians got experience that enabled them to hone their skills, while at the same time, a formal Blues scene became established all across England and the UK. If a cinematic reference would help you, the Irish movie, The Commitments shows how the pub rock circuit worked in Ireland, as does the Elton John biopic, Rocketman. In fact, Rocketman showed how a young Reginald Dwight began to hone his musical chops under the mentorship of Long John Baldry and bands such as John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers, which were foundational members of Pub Rock Wave #1. Elton John’s experiences were part of the second wave of Pub Rock stars that included Dave Mason, Nick Lowe, Elvis Costello and many others. But, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Today’s story is found in the first wave of British rock stars, so let’s go back a decade in time and start there.

The Yardbirds: Reif, Dreja, McCarty, Samwell-Smith and Clapton

Not long after the original American Blues acts had come to England, young English musicians began to emulate them. Like-minded singers, drummers, guitarists and piano players all began to play as solo acts or in groups. Lennon found McCartney. Jagger found Richard. The Davies brothers already had found each other and so it went. Two friends who decided to pursue their musical dreams were a singer named Keith Relf and drummer JIm McCarty. They formed a local band called the Metropolitan Blues Quartet. They were soon joined by rhythm guitarist Chris Dreja, bassist Paul Samwell-Smith and lead guitarist Top Topham. They renamed their band The Yardbirds after Jazz legend Charlie “Yardbird” Parker. In this initial form, The Yardbirds gained attention for playing Blues classics by “Sonny Boy” Williamson, Howlin’ Wolf and others. As often happens to young bands, real life intruded and Top Topham had to bow out. His replacement was a young guitarist that you may have heard of called Eric Clapton. In 1963, Clapton was a strict devotee of The Blues as played by the masters. So when the band started writing original tunes, and The Yardbirds had a surprise hit with a Pop-Rock song called “For Your Love”, Clapton was not pleased. He wanted no part of what he termed “the watering down” of authentic Blues, and so, after just one album, Eric Clapton left The Yardbirds. He immediately joined a band that he believed played real Blues, and that was John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers. After a year or so there, he left to form Cream, and then Derrick and the Dominos after that (from which “Layla” would come). Finally, in the 1970s, Clapton became the solo artist that we know him to be to this day.

In 1964, after Eric Clapton left The Yardbirds, his spot in the band was filled by guitarist Jeff Beck. While Beck was joining The Yardbirds, The Beatles were releasing their first singles, The Rolling Stones were to follow shortly thereafter, along with The Kinks, The Who and a young singer from Scotland named Rod Stewart, who joined John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers. It was a wonderful time in the age of British music, for sure, and the most amazing thing was that as the 1960s reached their midway point, that music scene was just getting started.

As each of these great bands were beginning their careers, they often opted to do so by relying on Blues classics to hone their skills and help them to get a feel for this type of music when played live. After a period of exposure and exploration, all of these great bands began to create their own material and experiment with what was musically possible. Many of these great artists arrived at this period of exploration and experimentation around the same time. In 1966, The Beatles stopped touring after their disastrous American tour and became a studio band. This gave birth to a period of explosive growth and creativity that yielded innovative albums such as Revolver, Sgt. Pepper, the White Album and more. For The Rolling Stones, it was the time that innovative member Brian Jones brought sitars and mandolins into the studio and opened The Stones up to the world of eastern mysticism. For The Yardbirds, Jeff Beck was also experimenting with his music. For him, his guitar seemed like an untapped resource, so, in 1966, he spent time playing around with things like distortion, open tuning and fuzz boxes. His technical innovations in this area are not so important because they focussed on feedback per se, but more because Beck discovered new ways in which guitars could make and manipulate sounds. His work in this area opened up a world of sonic possibilities for others to follow. The first evidence of where this brave new world could lead was found in The Yardbirds song, “Shape of Things”.

The Yardbirds: Beck, Page, Dreja, Reif and McCarty

As 1966 began, The Yardbirds went on tour. Paul Samwell-Smith quit during the tour and was replaced by a popular London session guitarist named Jimmy Page. It was during this American tour that the song “Shape of Things” was written by Reif, McCarty and Samwell-Smith before he quit. The song was meant as an anti-war commentary against the ramping up of the Vietnam War and as a pro-environmental song. The lyrics were kept relatively simple and helped serve as a backdrop to a guitar solo employed by Jeff Beck that was the first time he really showcased all that he had learned about stretching the limits of his guitar’s capabilities. Many critics point to “Shape of Things” as ushering in the era of Psychedelic Rock. This form of music embraced the use of a variety of instruments such as the sitar and brought eastern style music to the forefront of the modern British scene. It also helped inspire the likes of Jimi Hendrix to know that audiences were ready to hear guitarists who played more than four basic chords. The era of the guitar virtuoso was dawning, and it all started with Jeff Beck and “Shape of Things”.

The Jeff Beck Group (clockwise from bottom): Jeff Beck, Aynsley Dunbar, Rod Stewart and Ron Woods

Not long after this, The Yardbirds broke up. The members of the band went in three different directions. Lead singer Reif and drummer McCarty stayed together and formed a new band called Renaissance, which became popular in Britain and remains so to this day. Jimmy Page formed a new band by hiring a relatively unknown singer named Robert Plant. Plant recommended his friend John Bonham as drummer. Page knew of a fellow session performer who played the bass guitar named John Paul Jones. Together, these four guys initially toured as The New Yardbirds. But with threats of litigation hanging over their heads because of the use of The Yardbirds trademark, they decided to change the name of their band to Led Zeppelin. I think that turned out OK for the lads. Jeck Beck went on to form a band named The Jeff Beck Group. His lead singer was a man named Rod Stewart. His rhythm guitarist was Ronnie Woods. Woods and Stewart would subsequently leave The Jeff Beck Group to help form a band called The Small Faces, which arose out of the ashes of the original band, The Faces. From The Small Faces, Rod Stewart would embark on a successful solo career that still has legs to this day. Ronnie Woods would be asked to join The Rolling Stones, replacing Mick Taylor who, in turn, had replaced Brian Jones after his death by drowning. Ronnie Woods remains with The Rolling Stones to this very day as well.

Every generation enjoys the luxury of viewing their own lives through the rose-coloured lens of nostalgia. The Boomer Generation certainly claims that the music of the 1960s was “the Golden Age of Rock n’ Roll”. It is hard to argue against the ingenuity, the creativity and the musical success of those who found fame during those years. However, there is a temptation to view the 1960s in a hierarchical, pecking-order fashion starting with The Beatles and then The Rolling Stones and going on from there. But in actual fact, as this post clearly shows, there was a fully-integrated, highly organized music scene in which The Blues were venerated as a genre. There was also a system of stages made available through the pub circuit which allowed young musicians to gain the experience they would need to become stars later on. Just as importantly, there was a group of young, talented musicians who all shared a common vision of what music could be and then supported each other as they set about changing music forever. To think that the likes of Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Rod Stewart, Ron Woods, Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Van Morrison, Keith Moon, Pete Townsend, Ray Davies, Roger Daltry and others all knew each other and grew up in the same British music scene and played separately and together in the same decade, well, it is almost mind boggling! But that is exactly what happened during the 1960s in the UK. What a golden age, indeed!

I will close by thanking my friend rawgod for nominating such a stellar song. The importance of “Shape of Things” as a song in terms of the technical innovations employed by Jeff Beck cannot be understated. I am not saying that The Beatles would not still have come up with “Revolver” without hearing “Shape of Things”, but Beck gave all other musicians license to expand the range of what was musically possible with guitars, while, at the same time, still honouring the essential music of The Blues. As this post has also clearly shown, The Yardbirds were an essential band in the evolution of the British music scene. They proved to be the launching pad for many other bands and artists, as well as being a grand band in their own right while they existed as a unit. So, thanks again rawgod. I think this was one trip down Memory Lane that was well worth taking.

The link to the video for the song “Shape of Things” by The Yardbirds can be found here. ***Lyric version is here.

The link to the official website for The Yardbirds can be found here.

***As always, all original content contained within this blog post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post shall be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2023

Author: Tom MacInnes

Among the many characters I play: husband, father, son, retired elementary school teacher, writer, Cape Bretoner, lover of hot tea and, above all else, a gentleman. I strive to make a positive difference in the lives of others. In Life, I have chosen to be kind.

5 thoughts on “Reader’s Choice: Song #25/250: Shape of Things by The Yardbirds”

  1. I knew you would do this justice, Tom, so thank you. Great work. And, while you dropped a lot of very important names of 60s British musicians and band members, I cannot help but be saddened the likes of the The Animals, especially Eric Burdon, the Hollies, the Moody Blues, Them, The Zombies, The Trolls, and so many others never made your cut. Even the Dave Clark Five. And there were still more I cannot remember offhand.
    I like to think of this time as The Exploding Age of Rock, because these English bands and bunches of American, Canadian, abd Australuan bands exploded on the scene at the same time, abd changed popular music forever!
    Again, thank you!

    1. Thanks. What a great time to be alive, eh? You are correct about listing other bands. The ones I named were just the tip of a very large musical iceberg. For the record, in previous posts I have profiled Eric Burden and the Animals “House of the Rising Son”, a well as The Moody Blues, “Nights in White Satin”. If I ever get my website reorganized, those posts should be easier to find. But what a golden age, indeed.

      1. I could not have asked for a better time to grow up, musically speaking. Socially speaking, having the chance to grow up free of constrictions was spiritually rewarding. But we still had our problems. Nothing is ever perfect!

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