It was 40 years ago this month that Chris Dreja, a 16-year-old kid from southeast England, started a band with four other young lovers of American blues and R&B. The job lasted five years and two months, before three members of the quartet -- Dreja included -- got tired and packed it in.
But what a 62 months it was. Dreja's group, the Yardbirds, started as a virtual tribute band to Chicago blues, doing the best British white-boy impressions of such classics as "Smokestack Lightning," "I'm a Man," "I Wish You Would," and the rockabilly ripper "Train Kept A-Rollin.'" A year and a half after forming, the band became a hit-making machine, cranking out such rock gems as "For Your Love," "Heart Full of Soul," and "Shapes of Things." The Yardbirds then experimented with psychedelics, Hindu and North African sounds, and -- by 1967 -- English folk, all the while keeping the blues as a starting point for whatever they were doing.
Unfortunately, the Yardbirds ended with a whimper rather than a bang. Founded in 1963, the group burned through a pair of soon-to-be-legendary guitarists (Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck) before bassist Dreja, drummer Jim McCarty, and singer-harmonica player Keith Relf called it a day in '68. This left lead guitarist Jimmy Page, the only member interested in keeping the Yardbirds going, with a slew of concert dates to honor and the task of finding new guys to help play them. Page found those men, changed the band's name to Led Zeppelin, and conquered rock music in the 1970s.
Thirty-five years later, Dreja, McCarty, and the Yardbirds are back with a new lineup, a new album, and a new set of challenges. Joining the duo is Detroit native John Idan, a singer-bassist who Dreja claims resembles Relf (the frontman was electrocuted at his home studio in 1976); harmonica player Alan Glen; and esteemed six-stringer John "Gypie" Mayo.
Despite boasting a strong group of musicians, though, the Yardbirds remain a band more respected than popular, and their legacy derives from their being a breeding ground for rising guitar superstars who overshadowed their mates. Moreover, Dreja and McCarty have already taken a stab at playing together again, launching the Box of Frogs project in the '80s with a slew of English rock greats. Dreja is quick to point out, however, that Box of Frogs was not the Yardbirds.
"It was never meant to be a touring band," Dreja says of the group that paired McCarty and him with original Yardbirds bassist Paul Samwell-Smith and ex-Medicine Head and British Lions guitarist John Fiddler. "That was basically Jim, Paul, and I, and John Fiddler -- a bunch of middle-aged guys getting together to have a little fun."
And they had their fun, with heavyweights such as Rory Gallagher, Graham Parker, Ian Dury, and two old Yardbirds mates, Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck. But Fiddler, the principal songwriter, wanted the band to be touring; instead, Box of Frogs suffered an acrimonious breakup. The band left behind two excellent albums, an eponymous debut (1984) and Strange Land (1986). Seventeen years after the last record, Dreja insists that he and McCarty are not a couple of aging geezers looking to milk the cash cow one last time.
"Young is in your blood," Dreja says. "I have two grandchildren, but I still feel young. I think that's the big reason I wanted to start playing again. There's people out there who not only remember us, but want to hear this sort of band again. Why should the Rolling Stones have all the fun?"
Maybe because Keith Richards didn't hang up the guitars to become a photographer for 32 years, as Dreja did. Still, the facts bear Dreja out. The 21st-century edition of the Yardbirds wasn't tossed together to profit from any nostalgia Baby voomers have for the British Invasion bands of the 1960s. Dreja and McCarty have been working on getting things right since 1993. It all culminated in the April release of the Yardbirds' first studio album in 35 years, Birdland, which has gotten strong approval not only for the eight remakes of Yardbirds' classics, but also for seven new songs that rest neatly next to the vintage stuff. With guest guitars from the likes of Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, Brian May, Jeff Beck, and others, the album is a sterling comeback, full of the driving, imaginative garage rock that made the Yardbirds (almost) famous three decades ago. Granted, the three guitar heroes who got their start in the group -- Page, Beck, and Eric Clapton -- are not part of the current lineup, but Dreja insists that's beside the point.
"This is a continuation, not a re-formation," he says of critics. "Those people don't get it. Gypie is our sixth guitarist. We had two guitar changes in the '90s before we got the chemistry right. The Yardbirds were never a band for which you could just pick up the telephone and say, 'Send me over a great guitarist.' There are lots of great guitarists. We wanted one who would be simpatico."
The group found their man in Mayo, a fiery player who gained some renown in British R&B unit Dr. Feelgood.
"Gypie is more like Jeff Beck," Dreja says. "He's a great improviser -- especially live. Nobody knows what's going to come out when Gypie plays."
And that's what makes this group so exciting. The Yardbirds must be considered in the premier division of British Invasion blues bands, along with the Rolling Stones, the Animals, and Them. Their place in rock history would be secure despite their reunion, as they were the first group to elevate the lead guitarist to the starring role.
"Come tomorrow, will I be bolder than today?" Relf asked in song in 1965. Yes, Keith, your pals have been bold enough to retool a musical legend, 35 years later.