Something Else! Interview: Co-founding Yardbirds drummer Jim McCarty

Drummer Jim McCarty, who has participated in all of the Yardbirds’ many Rock and Roll Hall of Fame incarnations, talks about a line of guitarists from the Surrey area that stretches back to their 1960s heyday.

First came Surrey-bred Eric Clapton, of course, and Jeff Beck and then Jimmy Page — all between 1963-68. Each of them grew up a stone’s throw from one another. Today, as the Yardbirds celebrate a new live film called Making Tracks, it’s young Ben King — discovered by a former McCarty bandmate at a university … in Surrey.

The Yardbirds rebooted in the early 1990s around a nucleus that also included original rhythm guitarist Chris Dreja — who’s featured in the new concert film, along with bassist David Smale and dynamic current singer Andy Mitchell. Dreja was part the 1980s Yardbirds spinoff group Box of Frogs with McCarty as well, following McCarty’s turn-of-the-1970s co-founding of the prog-rock outfit Renaissance with the Yardbirds’ late frontman Keith Relf.

Unfortunately, Dreja suffered a stroke not long after the shows featured in Making Tracks were filmed. McCarty, in this rangy SER Sitdown, discusses some of their most memorable times — and the likelihood of his old friend’s return …

NICK DERISO: The Yardbirds have always been a hotbed for guitar talent, going back to its earliest incarnations with Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page. How did you come to discover Ben King? As a player, he seems to both recall those past glories and to build upon them.

JIM McCARTY: The Yardbirds did start quite high with guitar players; I think the sort of bluesy music we played was a great platform for lead guitar. Interesting thing was that the UK produced so many good ones compared to the U.S. even — and also Eric, Jeff and Jimmy grew up in Surrey, all within about 30 miles of each other! Ben King was recommended by John Idan, who sang with the band from when we re-formed in 1996 up to 2009. John had a part-time job in a contemporary music college in Guildford, Surrey and got to know Ben, and saw that he was the best guitar player in his year. He is indeed very good, and has lots of attitude and confidence for someone his age.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: A new live set called 'Making Tracks' makes clear that the Yardbirds' newest edition can rekindle the flinty passion of their 1960s-era blues-boom heyday.]

NICK DERISO: The band’s passion for American blues music was made clear from the first, and the Yardbirds became one of the leading figures in the 1960s resurgence of the music. A highlight from the period came when you toured with Sonny Boy Williamson II. What was the most memorable thing about that experience?

JIM McCARTY: Yes, the band loved blues — we called it R&B in those days — and would go and see the concerts by the big blues stars when they came to the UK. One of those blues stars was Sonny Boy, and thanks to our manager Giorgio Gomelsky, who was involved in organizing these tours, we did get to play with him. Of course, it was daunting to play with him, and very exciting too — but what I remember most was rehearsing a set of songs with him during the afternoon of our recorded show, only to find that he played a whole load of different ones on the night!

NICK DERISO: The addition of Beck led to a shift into more experimental areas, with new international and psychedelic influences finding a home in the Yardbirds’ repertoire. Yet he was unceremoniously dumped while the group was in the midst of a 1966 American tour. What brought everything to a head?

JIM McCARTY: Jeff Beck was a great addition to the band after Eric had left, and it was he mainly who was responsable for taking those blues ideas into a different world of crazy sounds, feedback and irreverence! Jeff was a pretty wild character, very highly strung and unpredictable. When it worked with him it was great, but could be very difficult. We were contracted to do a Dick Clark tour of the U.S. which meant playing about 30 nights in a row, maybe more than one show a night, travelling in a bus with all the other bands. Not the best decision for us, as the other bands were all so different — Gary Lewis, Sam the Sham? Jeff couldn’t take it and disappeared after the first show. That was it as far as we were all concerned.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: Released in the fall of 1966, “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago” saw the Yardbirds pushing the envelope so far that it ripped right in half.]

NICK DERISO: “Dazed and Confused” was initially a cover song in the Yardbirds’ live set, with a few lyrical changes to the Jake Holmes original. Later, the song emerged with still another rewrite on Jimmy Page’s first album with Led Zeppelin. It remains a staple in the Yardbirds’ sets today. What has been that tune’s lasting appeal?

JIM McCARTY: “Dazed and Confused” is a song with a great rock ‘n’ roll story. We played with Jake Holmes in New York when we had the last line-up — Jimmy, Keith, Chris and myself — and were looking for songs, as a lot of the group creative chemistry had suffered after Paul and Jeff had gone. As usual, I wandered backstage to watch the support act and heard some quite pleasant folky songs. Then they played this song in a minor key with a very haunting guitar run down, and I immediately thought it would suit us. I went down to the record store in Greenwich Village, bought Jake’s album, and we worked out our version — later to be recorded by Zeppelin, becoming one of the classics of all time. Of course, we love to play it still.

NICK DERISO: You, along with the late fellow Yardbirds member Keith Relf, later helped co-found Renaissance, a band that combines folk, rock and classical forms — making it one of the prototype progressive bands. That still seems like such a dramatic shift. Had you always been interested in a broader musical palette?

JIM McCARTY: Renaissance was formed by Keith and myself. Although we loved the blues music and also playing it, we would listen to all sorts of other music, reflected in some of the Yardbirds work like “Shapes of Things,” “Turn into Earth,” “Glimpses,” etc. We liked jazz, classical, folk and at that time — when we broke up — we’d had enough heavy rock stuff and I suppose wanted to mellow out a bit. Basically we just got the personnel together that we thought would work, and then, like lots of good things, it was a total accident that we would incorporate classical into the group’s sound!

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: Eric Clapton biographer Chris Welch, a longtime friend, surveys the guitarist's life and career in the 2012 book 'Clapton: The Ultimate Illustrated History.']

NICK DERISO: Your time in Renaissance overlapped with Michael Dunford, who recently passed. He would become a cornerstone of the band, performing in every incarnation through to the current one. Did you stay in touch with Michael? What does his loss mean to music?

JIM McCARTY: The group disbanded quite gradually and when the only one left was John Hawken, the pianist, he brought in a couple of people that he knew from the old days, one of who was Michael Dunford, who had played with him in the Nashville Teens. I met him a few times, and we actually wrote a song together, “Things I Don’t Understand.” Other than that, I didn’t really know him that well and never saw him again since the early ’70s. He seemed to be a good songwriter and musician, and I’m sorry about his passing.

NICK DERISO: Many thought that your 1980s-era Box of Frogs band with former Yardbirds bandmates Chris Dreja and Paul Samwell-Smith might lead to a full-fledged reunion. But it would be 1992 before you started touring again under the Yardbirds moniker. What sparked your return?

JIM McCARTY: The Box of Frogs was just a recording project. Bit of a shame because I feel that if we had toured just a bit, it would have raised our profile a lot. By the ’90s, I was playing in a little blues band again in a pub in South London. It was great fun, and had all the atmosphere of the Crawdaddy Club in the ’60s.The singer was a young guy from Detroit called John Idan, and Chris Dreja, Paul Samwell-Smith and Jeff Beck sometimes came down to watch. Chris and I were called up by an agent who was booking the Animals with Hilton Valentine and John Steel and asked us if we wanted to have a go, so we thought we’d get a band together and try it out. John Idan would be the singer/bass player.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: The 1967 release 'Little Games' marked the end of the initial incarnation of the Yardbirds, but Jimmy Page made sure they went out with a bang.]

NICK DERISO: You took a lead role on the 2003 comeback album Birdland, writing the bulk of the originals for that guest-packed project. One of the more notable names to join you and Chris was Jeff Beck. What was it like to work together with him again, after all of those years?

JIM McCARTY: It was nice to be able to write so many original songs for the project. I did have a few old ones in the pipeline! Birdland was an interesting project. It was on Steve Vai`s record label and Steve was a great guy to work with. The idea was to do some original songs with our line-up at the time, and also do versions of some of the old hits with guest players. It was nice to meet some of them and, of course, to work with Jeff again after all that time.

NICK DERISO: The Yardbirds’ lead singer Andy Mitchell brings such an interesting dynamism to your sound. He can handle the straight rock songs, but also boasts a deep blues feel and a sizzling soul shout, too. How has his presence changed a band that was so closely associated in the beginning with Relf’s vocal style?

JIM McCARTY: I like Andy Mitchell’s singing, and the fact that he’s a front man very much like Keith was, and it does help the band. It was a conscious decision to put the band back to that configuration when he joined in 2009. Hes best when he goes for the raw bluesy style.

NICK DERISO: Chris sat out when the Yardbirds mounted a tour earlier this year. How is his health? Can fans expect him back?

JIM McCARTY: Unfortunately, I don’t know if Chris will ever come back after his illness. It’s really left him in a difficult state, in terms of working again. Fine if he just stays at home and takes it easy. Touring is very demanding physically and mentally at our age.

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Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has also explored music for publications like USA Today, Gannett News Service, All About Jazz and Popdose for nearly 30 years. Honored as newspaper columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section that was named Top 10 in the nation by the AP in 2006. Contact him at nderiso@somethingelsereviews.com.