55 Years Ago: The Yardbirds Fire Jeff Beck
“I have done other music after the Yardbirds,” Jeff Beck said when his turn came to speak during the band’s 1992 induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. “Anyway, somebody told me I should be proud tonight, but I’m not – because they kicked me out. They did! Fuck them!” If Jimmy Page, seen on camera standing right behind Beck, hadn’t burst into laughter, the moment might have been taken seriously, since it brought to public one of Beck’s most difficult career moments.
He was the second of three world-class guitarists to play lead in the British group. He replaced Eric Clapton in 1965, after Page turned down the opportunity and recommended his friend instead. Soon enough, Page, too, would also become a member and change the band’s direction as it became the New Yardbirds and then Led Zeppelin.
Beck’s tenure was brief but remains notable for three things: his experimental influence pushing the Yardbirds to the vanguard of the psychedelic movement, the fact they had most of their hits when he was there and how his time in the group had nearly ended his career. On paper, replacing Clapton seemed like a great move, and Beck’s more experimental approach to playing made a massive difference to the band’s sound, as evidenced on Over Under Sideways Down (titled Roger the Engineer in the U.K.), the only LP to include his work.
“The general buzz of the band was that they though they were finished when Eric left,” Beck told Classic Rock in 2021. “At my debut with the Yardbirds at the Marquee [in London], I showed them what was what, and I got a standing ovation, so that was the end of that. Two months after that, things took off in the States, which pissed Eric off big-time. I think he was hankering after going there – like we all were. That was our holy grail, going to America to see the blues players. Within a week, we were down in Chicago looking at Howlin’ Wolf.”
Watch Jeff Beck at the Yardbirds’ Rock Hall Induction
That’s when it all started to go wrong. While Beck's style was different from Clapton’s, they both regarded the blues as a musical form to be respected. But while Clapton retained a classic approach, Beck was far more experimental. “I vaguely remember [singer] Keith [Relf] being a purist,” he told Rolling Stone in 2018. “I thought, ‘You can be a purist, and you can be poor. I’m gonna do what I think is best.’ … The mechanics of what I was doing was making all the weirdest noise I could.”
But in the U.S. the Yardbirds were regarded as a pop group, part of the British invasion, and were pressed into service in that manner, something that drummer Jim McCarty said the “very highly strung and unpredictable” guitarist struggled to deal with. “Jeff Beck was a great addition to the band after Eric had left, and it was he mainly who was responsible for taking those blues ideas into a different world of crazy sounds, feedback and irreverence,” McCarty told Something Else! in 2015.
“We were contracted to do a Dick Clark tour, which meant playing about 30 nights in a row, maybe more than one show a night, traveling 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.”
“We all went through quite a bit of exhaustion; it was very hard work,” McCarty later explained. “We’d be playing somewhere every night and traveling or doing a recording session or doing interviews or photo sessions. … Of course, we all got really tired, and some people cope with it better than others.”
By the end of October 1966, following multiple absences and arguments, it was over. Accounts vary as to what actually happened. The points on which most parties agree are that Beck snapped after the fourth night of the Caravan of Stars tour, which could include as many as three shows per night in different cities as bands were bused back and forth to venues after another group just finished a set. He expressed his frustrations in a furious backstage outburst in Texas – something he was known to do on occasion – leaving his bandmates with the feeling that they couldn’t deal with such incidents any longer. Beck was dropped off at Corpus Christi Airport on Oct. 31 and flew to Los Angeles to rejoin his girlfriend. There were reportedly subsequent discussions – with or without Beck isn’t clear – about his position in the band before an announcement was made on Nov. 30 that he was no longer a member. Page, who joined the Yardbirds as a bassist, moved up to lead guitar, and the band's third era began
Watch the Yardbirds Perform 'Train Kept A Rollin’'
A later story in KRLA Beat magazine reported a "source" noting that Beck "is definitely not coming back to the group. The Yardbirds will continue with just the four boys — Keith Relf, Chris Dreja, Jim McCarty and Jimmy Page. In fact, Jeff has formed a group of his own.” The explanation was that the other members “just disagreed with him because they felt that while he had mental and physical problems, the show must go on. … They felt that Jeff was not holding up his side of it. So, they kind of agreed to disagree. Jeff had made up his mind that he was not going back with the group.” The source added, perhaps optimistically: “I don’t think it will make any difference to the success of the group. … I think it will carry on to bigger and better things … and in many ways Jimmy is just as good as Jeff.”
Meanwhile, Beck found himself at a loss and unwelcome in the home of his girlfriend. “It was the best thing,” he said in 2018 while noting that the change had come at “great cost.” “I hadn’t realized that by leaving the band I didn’t know where I’d go," he said. "I went back to the girl in Los Angeles. Big mistake. I got a lukewarm reception. I thought, ‘OK, I’m cramping her style.’ When she knew I was coming to town, it was fine. And then my visa ran out, so I had to go home and that was probably the worst, because I had nothing. I’d given my guitar to Jim [Page]. And I was living back with Mum with no money.
“And yet I had no desire to ring up and say, ‘Do you think I could come back? I feel better now.’ I wouldn’t have had the balls to do that. Even if they’d asked me, I probably wouldn’t have. When you get kicked so hard, you realize there’s a serious wake-up call and then you get up and do something about it. I thought, ‘OK, you need to get cracking now.’”
Watch the Yardbirds Perform 'Happenings Ten Years Time Ago'
While the Yardbirds faded and finally collapsed, leaving Page to reshape the remnants into Led Zeppelin, Beck was able to reconnect in the U.K., where he’d been voted guitarist of the year by leading music newspaper Melody Maker in 1966.
“I remember wondering if there were any scraps left for me in the music business. That was the lowest point in my life,” Beck reflected in 2013. “I went to a club where the Yardbirds used to go, and Rod Stewart sat at the bar. He’d just been kicked out of John Baldry’s band. I said to him, ‘Hey, here’s my number. Call me tomorrow.’ He gave me a big hug, and that was it. We met up the next day, and we both went to the science museum – like you do! It's because we were mad on steam trains. By the time we came out of the museum we had planned a band.”
That band became the Jeff Beck Group, which also included future Rolling Stone member Ronnie Wood – and the rest became history. Looking back in 2018, Beck reflected: "I could have easily never played again. That’s when I luckily came back with Rod.”