Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Yardbirds: "Honey In Your Hips"

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), #1.3.

The other notable track laid down at that first demo session was "Honey In Your Hips," a Keith Relf original.  It was the b-side of that 1966 single, but I think it should have been the a-side.  I understand why it wasn't, though:  in 1964 the Yardbirds, like their contemporaries in the British rhythm and blues underground, were trying to sell themselves as blues musicians, not pop stars.  A hit would have been nice - and they'd try harder for one as time went on - but it was, one suspects, more important to them at first to be taken seriously with "Boom Boom" than with "Honey In Your Hips."  But the latter is a much better record.

"When I get out on the dancing floor," intones Relf in that plummy young English tenor voice of his.  It's a record about dancing - not shooting your lover down, not grown-up concerns.  Yeah, it's about sex, but sex on the brain, sex conjured up in the imagination of a horny teenage boy on the dancing floor - sex as an unknown, sex as what might happen next once you've kissed him and you head on out that door.

Hooker's lyrics on the belated a-side were about the violence inherent in the adult male's sexual drive, and/or maybe the things that happen in grown-up lives when love goes wrong;  it's a street-wise menace that Hooker could deliver with a growl that was pure grizzly bear:  something cuddly with sharp claws.  Relf and the 'birds try to possess it, but they can't, quite.  They're too wet behind the ears.  The only choices for Brit blues-boom boys with this song were to fail to own it, or to convert that menace to snot-nosed malice, like the Animals did.  The latter insight, incidentally, was what made the Animals such an awesome punk band.  The Yardbirds weren't that;  and so they failed.  But on the belated b-side they delivered something that was much more authentically them, and taken together the two tracks capture the the British blues boom as well as any five minutes of music it produced.  You come to the club thinking to pay homage to the American blues giants of your imagination;  you fail;  but you succeed at what really brought you there, which was the age-old desire to dance with some cute birds, and maybe more.  Failure isn't always abject;  sometimes it's a near-miss that produces something new instead.

The musical bed for Relf's dance floor (excuse me, "dancing floor") fantasy is perfect.  Clapton, Dreja, Samwell-Smith, and McCarty are unbelievably tight here.  Tight in two senses:  they're playing in perfect calibration, each instrumental line interlocking smoothly with the others, but they're also playing as one tightly-wound adolescent spring, evoking a sense of abandon fueled by hormones, speed, and beat music.  Drums, bass, and handclaps in insistent syncopation, and those guitars, playing that nifty spiraling riff.  Even the production contributes, such as it is - the indistinction of the low end makes the drum/bass parts thunder (especially that ominous, pounding break behind the title phrase).

Clapton's contribution would be notable even if it was limited to that riff - and during the instrumental break it appears as if it might be, as Relf takes off on another harmonica solo.  But it's really a duet between Clapton and Relf, and then Clapton continues to dominate the record during the final verse, adding another standout lick every time the singer pauses, like a cute bird winking every time her partner's conversation starts to flag.