Judge Victor Valdivia's band has also gone through three guitarists, but that's mainly because he's a hothead who punches people.
The most blueswailing band.
Though they enjoyed a few hit singles and influenced a generation of bands throughout the United States and England, the Yardbirds were frequently considered the also-rans of the British invasion, not as reviled as Herman's Hermits but not in the same league as the Rolling Stones or the Who. One reason for that is that the band was famously volatile. In their six-year history, the Yardbirds employed no less than three lead guitarists, and these frequent lineup changes prevented them from ever really defining a consistent sound or touring and recording with any sort of regularity. Those three lead guitarists, however, would become arguably the most recognized and prominent guitarists of their time: Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page. Their talents would ensure that even with shifting members and frequent mismanagement, the Yardbirds would make groundbreaking and influential music that defined the parameters of hard rock and heavy metal even before anyone knew what those terms meant.
If any group ever deserved to have its story told, it's the Yardbirds. Founded in London in 1963, the band began as a purist R&B and blues quintet, with singer Keith Relf, drummer Jim McCarty, bassist Paul Samwell-Smith, and guitarist Chris Dreja. However, it was the band's other guitarist, a then-unknown teenager named Eric Clapton, who earned the band its first record deal, resulting in a successful live LP. Clapton, though, resented the possibility of mainstream pop success and quit the group in 1965 just as they recorded their first hit, "For Your Love." His replacement was another then-unknown, Jeff Beck, who led the Yardbirds through their most successful period. A string of hit singles followed: "Shapes of Things," "Over Under Sideways Down," "Heart Full of Soul," and "I'm a Man." In 1966, London session guitarist Jimmy Page joined (after Samwell-Smith quit) and for a brief period, the band actually had two spectacular lead guitarists. It wasn't to last. Beck, famously temperamental and mercurial, had enough of the band's non-stop touring schedule and quit the band before the year was out. Reduced to a four-piece, the Yardbirds soldiered on without any more hits until early 1968, when they finally broke up and left Page holding the bag for most of their debts. Undaunted, Page assembled a new quartet he dubbed the New Yardbirds to fulfill some contractual obligations, and then quickly renamed his band Led Zeppelin.
The Story of the Yardbirds marks the first time the story of this remarkable band is told. It contains interviews with Clapton, Beck, and Page, as well as the other surviving band members and managers. The real heart of the documentary, though, is the clips taken from live performances presented, almost all of which were taken from '60s TV appearances. Though the technical quality on these isn't always the best, the performances are so extraordinary that any flaws are easy to overlook. The Yardbirds, after all, made their reputation as a live band, and while they not always able to capture a definitive sound on record, their live concerts were always astonishing. Though it's a shame that a full Yardbirds performance was never filmed, this is as close as anyone who wasn't actually there can ever get to seeing one.
The Story of the Yardbirds was originally issued on home video way back in 1991. Consequently, it contains interviews with some people, such as manager Peter Grant (who later earned even more notoriety as the manager for Led Zeppelin) who died several years ago. Because such a relatively short time had passed then, the interviewees recall the band's story quite clearly, and they have plenty of interesting stories to share. Of course, most fans will want to hear from Clapton, Beck, and Page, but the other band members are also worth hearing from. Dreja, Samwell-Smith, and McCarty are all articulate and thoughtful, sharing stories about how the band formed and how they dealt with the arrival and departures of three iconic guitar talents. Though the perspective of Relf, who died in a freak electrical accident in 1976, is missed, there is no shortage of stories about him. The ever irascible Beck, in particular, is fond of relating most of the funniest and bluntest tales about the band's career on the DVD. His account of the Yardbirds' appearance in Michelangelo Antonioni's Blow-Up is scathingly hilarious, although Antonioni fans might not find it too amusing.
Because this documentary was originally released back in '91, the video quality isn't particularly great. As with most videos of the era transferred onto DVD, the image looks rather soft and grainy, and there's a layer of haze that never lets up. That's on the recent interviews; the archival footage is sometimes passable, and sometimes barely visible. The PCM Mono mix sounds fine, given the quality of the footage. The extras, however, are a real treat. This DVD was originally reissued by the Rhino label in 2003, with identical audio and video quality but no extras. For this reissue, MVD has uncovered four songs performed by the band at a TV appearance in Germany in 1967, as a four-piece with Jimmy Page. The four songs are "Shapes of Things," "Happenings Ten Years Time Ago," "Over Under Sideways Down," and "I'm A Man." These are not only stellar musically, but are in the best audio-visual shape of all the performances. It's a shame that this is the only incarnation of the band that survives in acceptable quality, but considering how spectacular the performance is, it's hard to quibble much. Led Zep fans, in particular, will be fascinated to see just how many of the ideas Page would later use in that band began here.
All of which means that if you have any interest in the Yardbirds, or any of the bands that followed in their wake, including Led Zeppelin, Cream, or the Jeff Beck Group, you need to get this DVD. If you already own the earlier Rhino issue, this reissue is superior because it actually comes with extra performances not present on that version. Though it would have been nice to get some updates on the band since 1991, these are not grievous omissions. The Story of the Yardirds does a superlative job of telling a story that needs to be told, and is most assuredly not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: MVD Visual
• Bonus Performances
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