Something happened during my conversation with Yardbirds drummer Jim McCarty that caused me to stop and reflect on how far I’ve come as a writer. He was commenting on how many young people he has seen wearing Led Zeppelin T-shirts at his shows in recent years and then it hit me.
I was that kid. I was the 14-year-old aspiring scribe whose obsession with Led Zeppelin II served as a conduit for discovering everything else associated with the 1960s British music scene. The fact that I had journeyed from listening to “Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor” and “White Summer” at maximum volume in my bedroom to now interviewing one of the most influential drummers of his generation was certainly not lost on me.
While Jimmy Page’s bowel-shaking turns on the electric guitar drew me and so many others in, the breadth of sounds conjured up by each incarnation of the Yardbirds is what makes them such a cardinal piece of the rock ‘n’ roll puzzle. They’ve survived six decades of cultural change and nearly every lick played by a rock guitarist in 2019 can be traced back to something that Page, Jeff Beck, or Eric Clapton did during their tenure in the band.
Because of that, it can be easy for the casual listener to overlook Jim McCarty’s contributions to the legacy, but anyone who was around at that time would agree that they were plentiful. His later work with Renaissance, Illusion, and Pilgrim is indicative of someone whose talent runs far beyond the drum kit, so, if you only know him from the Yardbirds, might I suggest digging into the rest of his catalog before heading out to the Tralf on March 22.
MNOD: The lineup coming to The Tralf on March 22 is different than the one I saw there back in 2012. How did the current group come together?
McCarty: Well, starting in 2015, I decided to put together an all-American lineup and this one came together rather easily. We have John Idan on vocals, Kenny Aaronson on bass, Myke Scavone on harmonica/percussion, and Godfrey Townsend on lead guitar. John sang on 2003’s “Birdland” and was with us before. I’m not sure about Godfrey yet, because it’s an experiment, really. I’ve seen him play on YouTube, but haven’t actually met him in person yet. Things usually fall into place for me, so we’ll see what happens.
MNOD: What was it about American R&B that was so alluring for British bands of the 1960s?
McCarty: Before The Yardbirds, we listened to a lot of rock ‘n’ roll from America like Buddy Holly, Elvis, and the Everly Brothers, which was great. Then, we discovered black blues music, which was a very exciting thing to hear in 1962, because it was fashionable and almost underground in the sense that it wasn’t something that you were going to hear on the radio. We began to play covers of Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters during our gigs at the Crawdaddy Club, where we took over for The Rolling Stones as the house band. There was something very raw and emotional about the blues that was more than just the regular rock ‘n’ roll we had heard before.
MNOD: How did the band’s transition from the dirty blues of “Smokestack Lightning” and “I’m a Man” to the psychedelic pop sound of “For Your Love” come about?
McCarty: It’s a long story, really. We had been playing cover versions of American blues artists while at the Crawdaddy Club just like the Stones before us, but we also wanted to have a hit song. The Animals, The Kinks, The Beatles, and The Rolling Stones were all beginning to break through commercially, and we first heard a demo of “For Your Love” during a Christmas show with The Beatles in 1964. We came up with our own arrangement and the only one who didn’t like it was Eric Clapton. He thought it wasn’t bluesy enough. We established our sound on that song, which is the sound that we’re best known for. Eric left the band soon after and he was replaced by Jeff Beck, who had been an understudy for Jimmy Page at the time. Jeff came in and blew us away with what he was capable of. His unique playing and ability to take on different arrangements really made things happen for us.
MNOD: What was Eric Clapton like to work with?
McCarty: He could be very up and down. He was moody, but also deeply talented. I’ve heard that he himself has looked back on that period and referred to himself as rather arrogant. We had fun times, though. He was a dedicated musician and diligently taught himself all of these blues licks. He was also very into fashion and the Ivy League at that time, so he was usually ahead of the game in terms of his look. He even had a crew cut at one point. He could be great and terrible to deal with at the same time.
MNOD: How did his method of working compare to what you saw when Jeff Beck took his place?
McCarty: Jeff was much broader and not as deeply rooted in the blues, so he could also play jazz and rockabilly without committing too much to any one style. His sounds were varied and very futuristic in a lot of ways. People thought we were taking drugs and really into the psychedelic scene, but we really weren’t. We just experimented with different sounds. It was probably my favorite era of the band, because it was our first time in America in 1966 and we had only seen the States before in movies.
MNOD: How did Jimmy Page come to join after Jeff was gone?
McCarty: Jimmy had been a close friend of Jeff’s and decided that he had enough session work. He wanted to get out on the road and initially joined as the bass player before switching to guitar.
MNOD: Do you still enjoy being out on the road in 2019?
McCarty: I still enjoy it, because it’s not like the old days where you couldn’t even hear yourself on stage. PAs sound much better today than they used to. I think the audience benefits from the clean sound, as well. I was used to not being able to hear myself play, because I was drowned out by guitars. Touring is also more fun and comfortable now, because I don’t have to be out there doing it every day. The current tour works well for me.
MNOD: Have you noticed that the audiences are now filled with younger generations?
McCarty: I do notice that, which is interesting. Some shows have three generations of people represented, because families bring their kids and they know all of the lyrics. I see a lot of kids wearing Zeppelin shirts and they trace that back to us, so they end up coming out to see us.
MNOD: Your latest solo album, “Walking in the Wild Land,” was released in 2018. How was that process compared to others you’ve been a part of?
McCarty: I’ve been using Toronto as a stop-off during the US tours, so I went into a studio there to record this album. I worked with Terry Brown as producer, who is a friend of mine and known in Canada for working with Rush, which worked out really well. I sing all of my own material, so I tend to write stuff that suits my voice. I have a folky, melodic voice that is more akin to Renaissance or Illusion than the hard rock of the Yardbirds.
MNOD: You even had Alex Lifeson from Rush contribute a solo to the album. How did that experience work out?
McCarty: Alex is a friend of Terry’s and Rush had split up, so he wanted to be involved. I thought he did a great job and he was very nice to work with. He was also a big Yardbirds fan, which helped.
MNOD: Have you discussed any plans to record new Yardbirds material in the future?
McCarty: We’ve always talked about making a new recording, so it’s possible. It’s really about finding that magic thing that clicks into place, but I’m quite optimistic about that.
The Yardbirds will be at The Tralf Music Hall on March 22.
“Walking in the Wild Land” is available now wherever music is disseminated, but do us all a favor and pay for a physical copy.