Friday, November 2, 2012

The Yardbirds: "Boom Boom"

Or, Notes for a Skeptical Deiography of Eric Clapton (i.e., We Don't Believe He's God, but His Story Is Worth Telling Anyway), #1.2.

We tend to think of Eric Clapton as the original guitar hero, and his first band, the Yardbirds, as the guitar hero band par excellence, unleashing not just EC but Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page on all the foes of guitar heroism.

But that wasn't Clapton's role in the Yardbirds, at least not at first.  For most of Clapton's tenure in the band you can make the case that it was vocalist Keith Relf's outfit, and that Clapton was playing a supporting role.  Not that it was a vocal band:  it was that Relf's harmonica was the featured instrument.

It was that way on their first studio recordings, which come from a demo session at R.G. Jones Studio in 1963 - the date I've seen is December 10, just a couple of days after the show backing Sonny Boy that was later released as an lp.  At first they don't seem to have been deemed worthy of release, but eventually time proved otherwise.  In 1966, two songs from this session, "Boom Boom" and "Honey In Your Hips," were released as a single in Europe, and now they show up on many Yardbirds compilations.  They make perfect sense if heard as an imaginary Yardbirds first single.

"Boom Boom" is, of course, a John Lee Hooker classic.  It was also a favorite among the British r&b groups - it was the Animals who had the hit with it, in 1965.  And, perhaps ironically, the Animals' version has more of a guitar-heavy feel than the Yardbirds'.  The Yardbirds' version is largely a feature for Relf's harmonica.  Like Sonny Boy's on the live set a couple of days prior, Relf's harp is loud and clear, a contrast to the somewhat muffled sound of the guitars.  But it's not just an issue with the recording:  as the Five Live Yardbirds performances attest, Relf's harp work was the focus of the early Yardbirds.  He gets the first solo (although Clapton takes over halfway through the first instrumental break).  And the same thing happens on the second instrumental break, the one that ends the song.  Relf starts it out, and then he tries to step back to let Clapton take over, but Clapton doesn't really step up.

In both cases what Clapton plays is nice enough blues - he's got the chops and the taste - but in a mood and tone that's a bit at odds with what Relf's doing.  Relf's harp work lacks the teeth of Sonny Boy's, so what he plays ends up sounding a little skiffley, but at least he's trying to be loud and aggressive, which of course are the qualities the song demands.  Clapton's tone, meanwhile, is subdued and even a bit jazzy. Nice licks, but cooler than the song leads you to expect.  A bit underwhelming.

It's not a bad record, however.  Overall the impression it gives is a bit tentative, but it shows off the band's capabilities much better than "Take It Easy, Baby" does.  In fact the band is what's remarkable about this:  the two solo voices don't steal the show, but the whole record hangs together nicely because the drumming, the bass, the rhythm guitar all create such a confident (if typically Brit-tight) groove.  The solos work fine as part of a short, snappy pop-blues record.

That may not have been what Clapton aspired too, but it would turn out to be what he was best at.

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