Up Close with Chris Dreja of The Yardbirds
Chris Dreja with Beverly Paterson
With special thanks to Katy Levy and Joe Stella.
Born during the British beat boom of the early sixties, The Yardbirds went on to become one of the most influential acts in the history of rock and roll — and for good reason. What allowed the London band to stand apart from their countless peers was not only their willingness to experiment and step above and beyond conventional pop modes, but they also boasted an aggregation of brilliant musicians. Each player possessed a singular style that, as a whole, smacked of esoteric creativity. Here it is, years later, and the band's records still shock the system and sound like nothing that has gone before or since.
In the beginning, The Yardbirds, which featured Keith Relf on lead vocals and harmonica, Eric Clapton on lead guitar, Chris Dreja on rhythm guitar, Paul Samwell-Smith on bass and Jim McCarty on drums, specialized in the blues, and their gigs consisted of cover tunes by Bo Diddley, Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker. But the band was clearly not content to stick to a strict formula and gradually developed a vision of its own.
Being the blues purist that he is, Eric Clapton wasn't too keen on what The Yardbirds had started doing and soon exited the fold. His replacement was Jeff Beck, whose killer chops provided the band with an extra dosage of power and innovation. By now, The Yardbirds were filling their sets with lengthy, improvisational jams. Duly referred to as rave ups, these heated exercises entailed barking, distorted guitars, the wailing cry of a harmonica and extended drum expeditions that climaxed into mesmerizing masses of hissing feedback.
Properly credited as psychedelic pioneers, The Yardbirds further fathered heavy metal music. But they were actually much more than a hard rocking guitar band. The Yardbirds embraced and invented a number of different fashions, making it virtually impossible to pigeonhole or label them. Highly respected session guitarist Jimmy Page eventually joined the band, and shortly thereafter Jeff Beck dropped out of the picture.
Summer 1968 was when The Yardbirds dissolved, but their songs and spirit proceeded to live on. Leaving behind a stellar body of work orbiting anywhere from pumping treatments of blues standards such as "I'm Not Talking," "Smokestack Lightning" and "I'm a Man" to the progressive pop arrangements of "For Your Love," "Heart Full of Soul" and "Shapes of Things" to the belly dancing rhythms of "Hot House of Omagararishid," The Yardbirds sure treaded a lot of ground in a relatively brief period of time.
Splashed with gothic chants and haunting atmospherics, "Still I'm Sad" and "Turn into Earth" additionally forged a novel path, and the spellbinding psychedelic slopes of "Over Under Sideways Down" and "Happenings Ten Years Time Ago" elevated the band's already fertile imagination to greater heights. Marked by forceful instrumentation and manic energy, "The Nazz Are Blue," "Lost Woman," "Rack My Mind," "Psycho Daisies," "Think About It," "Little Games" and "Drinking Muddy Water" are straight ahead, ripping rockers that have yet to be matched or surpassed. No matter what the band did, they forever managed to create music that was interesting, challenging and ambitious.
On January 15, 1992, The Yardbirds were inducted into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. For the past fifteen years, Chris Dreja and Jim McCarty, along with a team of equally exceptionally talented musicians, have been touring the world as The Yardbirds and reap piles of praise wherever they park their gear. Buoyed by the positive response, the band, with Jeff Beck in tow, entered the studio and in 2003 their first album in thirty-six years was released. Staying staunchly loyal to their initial instincts and insights, The Yardbirds unveiled a certified masterpiece with Birdland," which offers a nice balance of new material and revisions of vintage tracks.
Prospering to the same kind of surrealistic tenor that put the band on the map, "Mystery of Being" and "Crying Out for Love" gush with incisive movements, "My Blind Life" assumes a funky posture, "An Original Man" is a poignant ode to the dearly departed Keith Relf and "Please Don't Tell Me 'Bout the News" resonates with bluesy might and muscle. And the rest of the record is just as stunning.
There's no denying The Yardbirds are as vital and important today as they were in the sixties when they were radically changing the pop music landscape with their wild ideas.
[Beverly Paterson] I see The Yardbirds have a new album available. That's wonderful news! How exactly did Live At BB King Blues Club come to be and what made you decide to release a live album?
Chris Dreja That was recorded in July of 2006. BB King Blues Club, which is located in New York City, has a great vibe and is a good place for us to play. XM, the radio satellite station, asked us if they could record a live show and we told them to go ahead with it. So we heard the master recording and thought it didn't sound bad at all. Steve Vai, the guitar player, who runs our record label, Favored Nations, wanted to release the recording, from beginning to end. So the album has our whole set on it.
What's interesting is that Live At BB King Blues Club is actually the first live album The Yardbirds have put out since we recorded our first album, Five Live Yardbirds, which was released in 1964. There's lots of live bootlegs around, but that's not the same thing. This album is official, the quality is much better, and that makes a big difference.
[Beverly Paterson] Are there any plans to record a new studio album? It's been about four years since Birdland came out, and we're all dying to hear some more new songs from the band.
Chris Dreja Ha, ha, ha! It took us, what, thirty-five years to get around to doing Birdland, so I don't expect another album to happen too soon. But I never rule anything out. It's just that we went through a lot of blood, sweat and tears to put Birdland together. Recording that album was not an easy thing to do. Jim McCarty and I were very concerned about keeping the original spirit of The Yardbirds intact, while at the same time making the songs sonically good. A lot of thought went into writing new material for Birdland and we wanted to make sure everything was just right.
[Beverly Paterson] And everything was just right! Birdland is a major accomplishment and remains true to what The Yardbirds were known for in the sixties. The songs and performances all are so daring, and there's a lot of energy there.
Chris Dreja We were very conscious of all that. The songs we recorded in the sixties have a great excitement about them, but some of that stuff was quite crudely recorded, as was the way things were recorded in those days. That was part of the sound then and there's no doubt it still sounds exciting. But this time around, we wanted to record an album that was sonically good. We wanted to make sure the tambourines didn't sound louder than the guitars, and just little things like that.
[Beverly Paterson] A number of celebrated musicians, like Brian May from Queen, Slash from Guns 'N Roses, Joe Satriani and even your former band mate Jeff Beck, made guest appearances on Birdland. Did you invite them to play on the record or did they volunteer their services?
Chris Dreja People started contacting us once word got out we were recording an album. In fact, there were so many people wanting to do something with us that we would probably still be recording the album if we accommodated everybody! Steve Vai wanted to play on a track, which was "Shapes of Things," and then it just grew from there.
[Beverly Paterson] The one track Jeff Beck plays on is "My Blind Life," which is a song you wrote yourself. It's very catchy and has a great funky sound. What inspired you to write this song?
Chris Dreja That song came up in a rehearsal. We were just kind of knocking stuff around and that song just kind of happened. The Yardbirds were and still are a no-rules band. We just do what we want and see where it takes us. So Jeff Beck came around and we ended up recording some songs at his house, down in his basement. "My Blind Life" has a real live feel to it, just like in the old days when we recorded and played almost simultaneously. As for the other new material on Birdland, we collaborated in bits and pieces.
[Beverly Paterson] How did you go about selecting what songs to remake for Birdland? Aside from "Shapes of Things," there's new recordings of "Train Kept a Rollin'," "Happenings Ten Years Time Ago," "Over Under Sideways Down" and a few other trademark Yardbirds’ classics.
Chris Dreja Those are songs we always perform live and thought why not cut them for the album. We also wanted to introduce a new generation to the songs.
[Beverly Paterson] Were you nervous about releasing a new Yardbirds album after all the years? Or were you confident that it was a good recording and people would be happy with it?
Chris Dreja Well, at first, we were wondering how the album was going to be accepted. And that was only because it had been so long since we had put out a record. But Birdland did get great reviews and that was a big relief. A band like The Yardbirds should not be brought back unless it's done right. There's special ingredients in this band that have to be done with integrity. We never just wanted to lean against the bar and say, "We were there; we're the band so let's just live off that." I wouldn't be out here playing as The Yardbirds otherwise, and we're certainly not doing any of this for the money.
[Beverly Paterson] How did you and Jim McCarty go about picking musicians for the revised line up of The Yardbirds? I know some of the musicians in your band now are different than the ones you have worked with over the years.
Chris Dreja Just recently, in the last year and a half, we have been lucky to find some amazing talent. Gypie Mayo, who had been with us for years, left the band because he was tired of being on the road all the time and I can't say I really blame him. Touring isn't the easiest thing to do and you can grow tired of it after a while. So after he left, we started auditioning guitar players and how depressing that was. We weren't coming across anybody who fit in with what we do. But then we met Ben King through John Idan, our lead singer and bass player. The moment I heard Ben play, I was blown right out of my seat! He reminded me of Jeff Beck, there's that same excitement there. I knew right away he belonged in the band. Ben is a young guy, only in his early twenties, but his talent is astronomical.
We've also added Don on percussion, and Billy Boy is an amazing harmonica player. There's a lot of energy in this band, and I am sure you will agree with me when you hear us play. Your head has to be in the right place to be in a band like this. We can't just pick any musicians and say, "Here are our songs, now play them." To play in The Yardbirds you have to have the roots and spirit. Ben is very young, but fortunately his father guided him in the right direction by having him listen to the music. It's great to pass our music onto a younger generation and we actually do have a lot of younger people checking our music out.
[Beverly Paterson] When did it first occur to you that The Yardbirds were more significant than just another rock band?
Chris Dreja Well, we never set out to be different. We were always just being ourselves. But our personnel was very unique. We were an eclectic bunch, coming from art school. What we did was break all the rules because there were no rules to follow in rock music at that time. Everybody in the band had [his] own input, and fortunately it worked. But it is very hard to be original. All musicians beg, borrow and steal.
What The Yardbirds started out doing was copying the blues. Just like The Rolling Stones and The Animals. We were all coming from the same place. I had friends who went to America and brought blues records back with them, so that's how I heard the music. Jimmy Reed, Howling Wolf, John Lee Hooker; those guys were absolutely wonderful. Their music had so much space and emotion, and that's what turned me on.
So at first, The Yardbirds were really no different than any other British band in the early sixties, copying the blues. But we realized right away that it would have been quite difficult for us to keep playing only the blues on a long-term basis. And that's when we started going in different directions. It's too bad we lost Eric Clapton along the way, but in the end he may have done us a favor. He was so locked into the blues format and didn't want to stretch out and try other things.
[Beverly Paterson] As you well know, the British bands in the sixties breathed new life into the blues. A lot of those artists would have been forgotten if you guys hadn't introduced their songs to a new audience.
Chris Dreja What the British bands did was put an acceptable face on black music. We were totally unaware there was a segregation system in America until we came over here in 1965. We didn't know anything about the racial problems in this country. We actually thought everybody in America knew all about these great blues artists we were listening to, and when we found out that wasn't so, we just couldn't believe it. As Jim McCarty said when The Yardbirds were inducted into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: "Thank you for giving us your music that we brought back to you." So yes, it was through bands like The Yardbirds that the blues artists got recognized.
[Beverly Paterson] How did The Yardbirds arrive at your famous rave up jams? Up until then, bands were playing simple three-minute songs that were easy to sing along with: verse, chorus, verse, chorus, that sort of thing. It's safe to say The Yardbirds were the first band to break out of that mold and just go crazy!
Chris Dreja What happened was that we started playing every night of the week and our sessions were getting longer and longer. We were pushing the envelope, so to speak. We were having a great time up there on the stage, doing whatever we wanted to do. The kids we were playing to were enjoying themselves as much as we were, and things just took off from there. The kids were going absolutely nuts, and we would feed off each other's energy.
You have to remember how dismal England was back then. We were crawling out of a dreadful recession and war. Everything was so damp and dark. Rock and roll was the perfect outlet for the kids. We were all looking for something new and exciting, and we found it in the music.
[Beverly Paterson] As you well know, The Yardbirds made a huge impression on bands everywhere, and it wasn't long before rave-ups became an integral part of the rock and roll sound. Bands have recorded millions of versions of your songs, but I was wondering if you're familiar with Count Five's "Psychotic Reaction?" That song cops your rave-up cover of Bo Diddley's "I'm a Man" note for note, and is definitely the ultimate tribute to The Yardbirds.
Chris Dreja Somebody mentioned that song to me just the other day. Well, they say imitation is the most sincere form of flattery, so that's all right with me! And don't forget, we started out copying blues artists, so nothing is really original.
[Beverly Paterson] What are your memories of touring America in the sixties?
Chris Dreja To us, America was a place of wonder. That's where the music we loved came from and we had all these glorious images of the country. America seemed like a great place altogether, but, of course, when we got there, things were different than we expected. Ha, ha, ha! No, really, America is a fantastic place and a very diverse continent. But the first time we came here, we had problems with the musician's union and were unable to tour. So we ended up dropping in on radio stations and playing private parties.
Some of those parties have been written into rock-and-roll history and are apparently still talked about today. This one party we played at, in the Hollywood Hills, had people like Marlon Brando and Bob Dylan come by. I remember Lenny Bruce was chucking clumps of dirt at me the morning after the party. He was pissed off at all the noise we made!
But once we got the problems with the musician's union sorted out, we did a lot of touring in America. The audiences were great and the kids were really into us, but I think some people thought we were quite freaky. Jimmy Page, wearing that confederate uniform, was rather strange, for instance!
[Beverly Paterson] Did you enjoy recording as much as performing live?
Chris Dreja Recording was often difficult for us because we could never get our sound on record. The Yardbirds were a powerhouse live act and there were problems transferring that kind of sound onto record. In those days, especially in England, recording engineers were not used to working with the kind of sound we had.
[Beverly Paterson] The amplifiers and speakers were so tiny back then that it's almost hard to imagine how you were able to convey such a powerful sound like that. You must have blown the equipment out!
Chris Dreja Just recently, I was contributing to a documentary about The Beatles and I was on the stage at The Odeon Hammersmith Theater in London. We played some dates with The Beatles there, and I was picturing us up there on the stage, with our little boxes and wondering how we were able to produce such a powerful sound in spite of the equipment. It actually worked in a live setting, but not so good in the studio.
[Beverly Paterson] Did you ever intend to become a hit singles band?
Chris Dreja I personally never felt pressured about any of that, but the record company was concerned about those things. They eventually handed us a couple of songs, "For Your Love" and "Heart Full of Soul," that were written by Graham Gouldman. We thought these songs were great, but we had our own ideas about arranging them in our own eclectic way. So we added our own touches to the songs and they both became hit records. "For Your Love" and "Heart Full of Soul" were the songs that lifted us to become internationally known.
Then we decided to write our own material, and that led to "Shapes of Things," which was the song we finally got our sound on. That song is a personal favorite of mine, and it was recorded at Chess Studios in Chicago. Talk about life following itself in circles! It was a big thrill for us to record there, as that was the home of all those blues artists we loved so much. So anyway, after "Shapes of Things" took off, we decided to keep writing our own material and that's when we started doing some real crazy stuff, like the songs you hear on the Roger the Engineer album.
[Beverly Paterson] Yeah, that's a great album! You also did the artwork for Roger the Engineer. Those cartoons are real cool!
Chris Dreja As you know, I'm a photographer and have been for many years. Music and photography are my passions. Occasionally, I'll get involved in other kinds of art projects and the cartoons I did for Roger the Engineer were basically just doodles. The drawing on the front cover of the album is of our poor old engineer, Roger Cameron. We drove him nuts! On the radio the other day, I heard some DJ talking about the album and he was saying how dreadful that drawing was. And I thought to myself, "Well, that's his opinion!" That album was never officially called Roger the Engineer. I just wrote that on the cover of the record and people started calling it that.
[Beverly Paterson] Every track on Roger the Engineer, which holds the honor of the first full-on psychedelic album to be released, is so weird and wonderful. No two songs sound alike. At the time you recorded the album, did you realize how much new ground you were breaking?
Chris Dreja We were just following our noses and breaking all the rules, but that's how we always did things. We were just being ourselves and did what we wanted to do. But mainstream pop audiences weren't quite prepared for all that. So that's when the record company stuck us with Mickie Most. Mickie Most is a great singles maker, but he just wasn't right for us. We were not what you would call a pop band and that's where his head was at. It was a real roller coaster ride at times, but I certainly don't regret any of it.
[Beverly Paterson] The Yardbirds were a band that never stood still. Compare the songs on Five Live Yardbirds to the variety of styles you played on the Little Games album, and it's mind-boggling to hear all the changes you went through.
Chris Dreja Even though our music never stayed in one place, I think you can still tell we're the same band playing those songs. There's a genetic thread there. But there was always a twist in our music. A band like The Yardbirds could not exist today. Record companies these days are too concerned with following a certain pattern. If there was any pattern we followed, it was an eclectic one. That's what I like about The Yardbirds and that's what made us so amazing. And let's not forget there were some phenomenal guitarists in the band! But a lot of it was also in the timing.
It was a time when we were young and energized. Lots of people were coming out of art school or they were still in art school, and there was so much creativity around. The music, the arts, the films and the fashions were all so exciting. I know people get tried of hearing about the sixties and how great they were, but that time period was very unique. I don't know if there will be another time again when all those parameters come together like that.
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