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Yardbirds Exalted Drummer and Songwriter Shares an Afternoon With Me
I spent a delightful Thursday afternoon chatting on Skype with legendary drummer Jim McCarty. McCarty is a gifted songwriter and a brilliant drummer who is best known as a founding member for British Invasion rockers The Yardbirds and also for pioneering progressive rock with his band Renaissance.
Besides being one of the most commercially successful and innovative bands in the 60’s, the Yardbirds also produced three of the greatest rock guitarist on the planet with Clapton, Beck and Page. The Yardbirds were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1992.
It’s ironic how the Brits were influenced by American R&B- while Americans were captivated by the Brits playing their electrified versions of American R&B music.
I found Mr. McCarty to be enchanting, ingenious and spiritual. (And just a heck of a nice guy)
Here’s my interview with Jim McCarty.
First I’d like to say, thank you Jim for taking the time to spend a few moments with me today.
“It’s my pleasure.”
I’ve always thought that you were a great drummer. And if it were you that had been Led Zeppelin’s drummer from the start, I believe you would have done just as good a job as Mr. Bonham.
“Thank you Ray that’s very nice of you to say.”
How long have you lived in France Jim?
“About seven or eight years now, I’m down in the South of France in Provence, we love it, very inspirational, makes it very nice to write music and songs.”
First of all, I think the Yardbirds were in a class of their own and definitely way ahead of their time.The band had that bad boy image much like the Animals and the Stones. And it didn’t hurt to have three of the greatest guitarist on the planet in the group.
“Funniest thing of those three guitar players that are big worldwide stars now, they were born within a radius of 20 or 30 miles from each other. Isn’t that odd? They all played in the same band and became worldwide known.”
Keith Relf and Paul Samwell-Smith were originally in a band called the Metropolitan Blues Quartet. Then you, Chris Dreja, and Anthony “Top” Topham joined in late May 1963. Did you have to audition for the band?
“No. Paul had this blues group with Keith. Then myself and “Top” Topham the original guitar player and Chris Dreja we were starting another band because we all use to go see the Stones as well. We all use to listen to this blues music coming in from America, it was all very underground at the time and we were all very excited about it. Paul wanted me to come in and play drums; he knew I was more of a rocker. They wanted to extend country blues into a blend of rock R&B. That blues quartet -they were the four runners of the band. Paul and I went to Hampton Grammer and played in the school group and we did the whole holiday camp thing… and it was very funny. We put the two bands together, they joined up with our band and some of the guys had to go. We made one band out of two.”
I heard that the name Yardbirds was an expression for hobos hanging around rail yards waiting for a train? Who came up with the name?
“Keith thought it up.”
Original lead guitarist Anthony “Top” Topham left and in came Eric Clapton in 1963. Did you know Clapton prior to joining the band?
“No I didn’t actually, Chris and Keith did because at the Art school where they went in Kingston. (Referring to Kingston University- Clapton did not graduate) I don’t know how well they knew him. I didn’t know him until he came to the audition.”
Eric Clapton auditioning, that’s a good one. (We both laughed)
John Bonham once said he was impressed by drummer Ginger Baker. Did you take up the drums to emulate one of your heroes?
“I use to be in a youth organization called the Boys’ Brigade sorta-semi military, we set up a drumming band, so I use to play the snare drum and I always use to like making the noise. And we use to walk up and down the street and I use to play roles and these sort of marching drum solos. And then I heard early rock and roll- Buddy Holly and the Crickets and Elvis and all that stuff.”
Who were some of your favorite drummers?
“I use to like early D.J. Fontana (Elvis drummer) and all that and the old rock drummers and Jazz -Art Blakey and all those jazz people. I’ve always loved drumming. “Apache” was always a great drum song done by the Shadows.”
We just lost a member of the Shadows recently.
“Yes, Jet Harris.” (Bassist of the Shadows)
Did you ever play skiffle music?
“We played skiff in our high school band. I suppose sort of early Johnny cash wasn’t far away either you know- Lonnie Donegan was the biggest skiffle star in England, he use to have hit record after hit record. Lonnie use to play ukulele with a trad (short for traditional) jazz band. And he started doing spots playing the skiffle and of course people loved that better then the trad band. He played with Chris Barber’s Trad Jazz Band”
By the way, your You Tube drum instruction videos are wonderful; I didn’t realize how many different variations there were in playing the drums.
“Oh you like those do you.”
So Eric Clapton left the band after about a year or so. Then Clapton recommended Jimmy Page?
“I’m not sure if it was Clapton that recommended Page or our first manager Giorgio Gomelsky. Have you heard about our funny mad Russian manager? American people use to think he was Fidel Castro, he had that sort of image he had a beard and Russian accent. He wasn’t totally Russian. But he new Jimmy Page and Jimmy Page use to come to some of our gigs. Of course he was playing all the sessions in London, so he wasn’t really interested in joining us at that time. He was doing quite well as a session player and didn’t want to go out on the road. Jimmy was a prodigy really.”
Was Jeff Beck a referral from Jimmy Page?
“Jeff Beck was recommended by Jimmy. He use to do some sessions with Jimmy. He was an old friend of Jimmy’s. He was like Clapton, he could play all the Blues stuff and he could play something else as well. He had quite a wide range of styles. He’s really taken off the last couple of years. He changed his manager a couple of years ago. Well his manager must have said the only way you’re going to get on now is to play all the time. He seems to be playing all the time now. We actually did a track from our 2003 album in his house, the track “My Blind Life” (from Yardbirds Birdland) right around 2003 and he played on it and we recorded it at his house. We stayed there, had some food and drink and a bit of a party and it was fun.”
Do you think the Beck-era was the most successful Yardbirds era?
I think the lineup was probably the best lineup that really were while he was in the band, and of course he was in the band with most of the big early hits, and that sort of worked, the band worked well together, it’s a combination in those days. We all put our ideas into the pot and that funny sound came out. And everyone had an interest on it. There were a lot of quite talented musicians in the band.
In 1966, Paul Samwell-Smith decided to leave the group and work as a record producer. Jimmy Page joined the group and played bass?
“He did. It’s quite funny now isn’t it? He joined the band on bass. After awhile Chris swapped with Jimmy. He said this is a bit silly. Chris had never played bass before but actually played quite well at the end. So then the two of them played lead guitar. (Beck and Page) It use to work now and then but not all the time. It would probably work better nowadays.”
What was your favorite Yardbirds song?
Favorite Yardbirds song -I suppose “Shapes of Things” was always very exciting for me and “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago,” “Shapes of Things” was recorded in Chicago- right when we were at the very top, I like what it spoke about, a great guitar solo and a good performance by everybody. I reckon that was probably my favorite.”
Was “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago” written by you and Keith and was it about reincarnation?
We wrote the basic song. We thought we based it on that, meeting people along our way that we’d seen from another day. I think it was a little before its time.”
Do you believe in reincarnation?
“Yea, I do really; I’ve been through sort of quite a lot of Buddhism. Not quite as serious as Richard Gere is. But it’s sort of a basis of what I believe in.”
I feel you’re a very spiritual person.
“Yea, I’m interested in all that stuff you know. Last time we were over we went to Virginia Beach, to Edgar Cayce’s place. It was very interesting; he wrote lots of books, they’ve got a library with all of his books and gave a talk about what he used to do. He used to do healings for people. He would fall asleep and dream about what they needed or something like that.”
Is it true that Jeff Back was actually fired from the band in 1966?
“Well I suppose it is really. We were doing a Dick Clark tour. Quite a grueling tour actually. Forty date tours- two venues a night, with all the other bands on a greyhound bus. Jeff only did a couple of the dates and he disappeared. He said I can’t handle this and he went to California with some girlfriend out there. We ended up doing the whole tour without him. Touring was the only way we could make any money, no record royalties and such.”
Talk about Mickie Most, how instrumental was he?
“After Jeff left Mickey Most came in. We were just a 4 piece and really missed having Paul around and of course Jeff.We didn’t still have that same nucleus of creative guys. Jimmy suggested Mickey -he was a hit man, he made all the hits. We went to him and to be honest we really didn’t gel. No one could argue with him, it wasn’t an open discussion and that’s it you know, Take it or leave. Some of the songs I didn’t even play on, or Chris, we’d come into the studio and there’d be whole lot of session people playing. He had an arranger working for him, and he’d tell us that I could easily teach you all the songs and they’d probably sound a lot better.”
Sounds like the beginning of the end.
“We just didn’t have the spark and ability to be able to create new songs. We were all very tired as well.”
Peter Grant was your manager, what was he like?
“He was the manager yea. He was very good to us. He always made sure we got treated well and got paid. It sort of worked as a four piece. It was very professional and tight. We didn’t have Jeff going mad. But then it didn’t have that sparkle. And it didn’t have that creative thing going on. A song like “Dazed and Confused” was the sort of song we needed -so we brought that into it. Lots of songs like that we brought into our act.”
It seemed like at this point the band was transforming into Led Zeppelin? I mean Page was playing his guitar with his violin bow; Grant was your manager, playing “Dazed and Confused” Why wasn’t it you behind the drums instead of John Bonham?”
“We got to the point where we just had enough, Keith and myself in particular. We needed a year off or something which is crazy or we had to stop. They really did a couple of our tours and played our set list. At that time it was all based upon a hit single and all the money was on the road. You couldn’t afford to stop, it was only when Zeppelin started that the album market got huge. Zeppelin was in the right place at the right time, they had all the energy, they were fresh and they had the set list to start with.”
So you and Keith left the band in 1968?
“We started Renaissance and we did a couple of albums with his sister and John Hawken and Louis Cennamo. We put an awful lot of work into it and we set it all up in my house when I use to live in Surrey. And we use to rehearse every day. We just planned on getting this hour set together. That’s what we worked on. And we worked on that for quite awhile. And finally we had a whole set. We used to just go and play without stopping. We played it around London and people just loved it.”
Renaissance may have been the catalyst for so many progressive rock bands. I’m reminded of bands like -Gentle Giant, Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span, King Crimson etc. Do you think Renaissance was an influence to other progressive rock bands?
“Yea I think so. In Renaissance we sort of put in bits of Beethoven. That’s really good fun. That’s really interesting. We were one of the first Prog (progressive) Rock bands.”
Then after two fantastic albums, the band broke up -but it continues even today without any of the original members. How was that possible?
“It’s pretty strange isn’t it? We all dropped out. At first we didn’t really worry about it you know. We saw it really wasn’t working, the touring wasn’t really happening, it was too hard. We sorta got into something we had been in before. Sorta that touring sequence. At first we didn’t really mind. But somebody said you should have got a percentage or something. I’m not so good at holding on to things.” (Referring to leaving the Yardbirds and Renaissance)
I heard you didn’t like to fly?
“I don’t really like to, no. I’m a big claustrophobic. But I’ve gotten over it really. It’s the only way to get anywhere isn’t it; I’ve learned to get over it.”
So you formed another band after you left Renaissance?
“I formed this little band called Shoot and did an album, just a band to play my own songs.”
Then Keith formed Armageddon in 1975. Great album- I remember getting excited when I bought it.
“Yea, they all went to America and lived in California, I think they took over where Humble Pie left after they broke up. They became the new Humble Pie of A&M.”
In May of 1976, Keith Relf was electrocuted.What do you remember about that day?
“Keith got electrocuted. He was going through a bad time with his wife at the time, his wife was an alcoholic, and he was looking after his two boys, having quite a problem dealing with them. At that time we were trying to reform Renaissance with all the original members. The records were still selling, we were all getting royalties. So we all started playing around, messing around with some ideas, and Keith was going through this very bad time with his marriage. And then I went out for a drink with him one night and then the next day I heard he was dead. He was electrocuted, he plugged in his guitar and he didn’t have a proper plug, he plugged his guitar into sort of an early synthesizer, he didn’t have a proper plug, he just stuck it in the wall and matched it sorta and got a belt and it killed him. I guess he was on his own, nobody could resuscitate him or whatever and also he had a weak system, he only had one lung. He’s had some problems with his chest and emphysema, asthma and all that stuff. A great talent gone.”
In 1977 you formed Illusion with past members of Renaissance. And then in 1983 the Box of Frogs was formed with members of The Yardbirds.
“Well that was fun. That was all to do with a reunion birthday at the Marquee. (Marquee Club) An agent we knew said the Marquee was having its 20th birthday week and they would like the Yardbirds to play, so will you reform the band. We ended up with Paul, Chris and myself. We said this is all good fun. For a couple of nights we had Mark Feltham whose now in a band called Nine Below Zero. He’s a very good Harmonica player. And we had a guy called John Knightsbridge (guitars) who actually worked with me in Illusion that was a band that came out of that Renaissance reunion thing in the 70’s. Then, from their Paul, Chris and myself started to write songs. We gradually built up these songs and then we met John Fiddler, he was in a band called Medicine Head. And John seemed a good singer for the project and got some songs together and it sort of grew. On the first album Jeff Beck played on about four tracks. We recorded in a recording studio down in Surrey. We stayed there and had a bit of a party atmosphere. We got various other guests, Steve Hackett (Genesis) played on it, Rory Gallagher, and on the second one Ian Dury actually sung a song. Jimmy Page also played a track. (On the second album) All those albums have just been rereleased for Box of Frogs. The big song was “Back Where I Started,” where Jeff played on.”
The Yardbirds were then inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1992 -along with The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Booker T. and the M.G.’s, Johnny Cash, Sam & Dave, and The Isley Brothers. Keith’s wife April and son Jason were there to honor him. How did it feel to be honored at the event?
“It was fantastic- Great! It was great to be honored like that, very nice.
How is Keith’s wife, have you seen her lately?
“I saw her about a month ago, we did a gig near London and she came, she was with Jane her sister. I saw John Hawken as well from Renaissance and the Strawbs. The Strawbs are going to be touring with the Zombies. We did a tour with them a couple of years ago in America.”
We started talking about crop circles and unearthly events. We shared a common interest in the unknown
“I went in one once- it was quite odd. (Crop circles) Nobody knows where they come about.”
Do you believe in life in other universes?
“Of course, you can’t really say that there can’t be.”
Your latest solo project Sitting On The Top Of Time is a magnificent composition with inspirational messages of positivity, hope and peace. You wrote and sang all the songs on the album, played acoustic guitar, drums and percussions.
There are also many other brilliant musicians showcased on the album like- Pianist Donald Quan and Lou Pomanti, Flautist Ron Korb, Canadian Bassist George Koller, your friend Steve Hackett, (Illustrious guitarist from Genesis) French progressive/Jazz guitar virtuoso Jean-Michel Kajdan and Toronto-based cellist Anne Bourne. I thoroughly enjoyed the album.
“Steve Hackett is a big Yardbirds fan. He always goes on about the Roger the Engineer album. It’s all about being positive, loving and kind.”
And what is it like working with young Yardbirds now?
“We have two musicians in the band in their 20’s. They’re very energetic, the kind of energy Chris (Chris Dreja) and I need to keep going. They’re all very good musicians what else can you need.”
You’ll be headlining Zep Fest soon on May 27th through 29th at National Harbor near Washington DC with Vanilla Fudge. Are there any other upcoming U.S. shows for the Yardbirds?
“Zep Fest seemed a bit strange since we weren’t really a Zeppelin tribute band. It seems to be quite organized though and they asked us, and we’re going to do it. We planned to tour with John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers but may be only a few dates. The Yardbirds are going to tour all over beginning in September.”
Important note- Check the Zep Fest website- The event was recently cancelled!
Thank you Jim, it’s been a pleasure talking with you today. If you’re ever in Florida, please feel free to be my guest.
“Well, I’ve got your Skype number now; don’t be surprised if you see me ringing in.”
I look forward to it Jim.
I want to thank Anne Leighton of Leighton Media. This interview would not have been possible without her generosity.
Visit http://www.theyardbirds.com/tour.html for tour date information.
You can order Jim McCarty’s latest solo album Sitting On The Top Of Time at http://www.amazon.com/
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