Interview with JIM McCARTY (THE YARDBIRDS) – Part 1

June 2014

Jim McCarty

He was a pivotal figure in the development of rock music, and without him heavy metal and prog rock – and, of course, British blues – would have sounded different from what we know now, for it was out of THE YARDBIRDS, a band whose backbone Jim McCarty’s been for many years, that both LED ZEPPELIN and RENAISSANCE emerged, both somehow sharing his original vision. But innovative drummer which he is, the veteran’s also a great songwriter, and the pieces McCarty co-wrote – “Shape Of Things,” “Still I’m Sad,” “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago” – were covered over the decades by artists as diverse as NAZARETH and David Bowie, Todd Rundgren and BONEY M. More so, in addition to the band he formed, Jim has a solo career, so there’s a lot to talk about, and though this interview has taken ten years to arrange and complete it was worth it. Over to the legend, then.

– Jim, THE YARDBIRDS. A milestone in the line of great British blues bands, you started it all and then passed the baton to the likes of FLEETWOOD MAC. Then, there’s your compositional talent: you had many great original tunes. So don’t you find it amusing – or abusing! – that the band is famous for their guitarists?

I can understand why [it is so] because the electric guitarists are such a popular thing to people, and Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page were very good guitar players; we were lucky to have three of the greatest, really. But in a way that all helps the name so that helps me as well! (Laughs.) So I’m part of that, and it’s all positive.

– Yeah, but those three guys wouldn’t have been up there where they are if not for you and Keith Relf and, possibly, Paul Samwell-Smith?

Oh yeah, yeah, I can see that. But we worked as a team, and I suppose in some ways none of us would be there without each other. And, of course, THE YARDBIRDS were a good stepping stone for them.

– And how do you rate now, from today’s point of view, your original compositions such as “Shapes Of Things” or “Still I’m Sad”?

“Shapes Of Things” was one of the best things we produced because it was original and it had the talents of all the band in it, and everyone put in their best – it had great vocals and fantastic guitar sound and good lyrics – and it was an interesting song that encompassed everything from the band. “Still I’m Sad” was a bit different but it was still very original, and I think we were always trying to be original: this is what we aimed for.

– There are many versions of your songs, and I don’t know any single composition, other than “Still I’m Sad,” that could be covered by such different bands as BONEY M and RAINBOW.

Yes, very funny! Very strange! (Laughs.)

– So which cover of any of your songs you think is the best?

Wow, I don’t know! The RUSH version of “Shapes Of Things” was very good and even the David Bowie one was quite good. We’ve heard a few more, and we actually played with BONEY M about ten years ago, in Germany, and they did a very nice version; [Liz Mitchell] is a very good singer.

– THE YARDBIRDS were an English band that played American music, but you immensely influenced American musicians such as AEROSMITH who recorded “Think About It,” and their version of “Train Kept A-Rollin'” is basically a copy of yours. Were you ever aware of your influence on the US rockers?

Oh yes, of course! We’ve been more and more aware of that recently, meeting up with Alice Cooper, AEROSMITH, Steve Vai and lots of people who were very influenced by us and played our songs when they started.

– And then you were the originators of so-called “rave-up.” Do you think that it influenced the quiet/loud dynamics of many modern bands, like NIRVANA?

Well, probably, I imagine we did, yeah. But I don’t know if anyone’s done a rave-up quite the same – I haven’t really heard it played by anybody else. We were just trying to make the music a bit more exciting, and I think it was Paul Samwell-Smith’s idea to pump up the bass and the drums, and build the band up to this crescendo: it was all in order to get the audience going.

– But you mentioned the drumming. I find your drumming on “For Your Love” and “Shapes Of Things” quite fantastic. It draws more attention that this single Clapton’s lick on “For Your Love.” So many years later it still sounds exciting.

(Laughs.) Yeah! It’s sort of an old-fashioned sort of rock ‘n’ roll style that I developed, and it just fitted. It fitted with the bongos and they went together quite well. It’s good, actually, because some old bands now and some of the old records sound awful now, and I think we’re quite lucky in that our work sounds so good. (Laughs.)

– There was a five-member line-up of THE YARDBIRDS and a four-piece, quintet and quartet. How did it change the band’s dynamic?

The four-piece was much tighter, with a much tighter sound than the five-piece, especially with Jimmy Page. It was much more sort of businesslike – I don’t know what the right word would be – it was much more of what was expected, it was steady, but I don’t think we quite had the creativity of the five-piece. The five-piece with Jeff Beck and Paul Samwell-Smith was a very creative line-up that produced lots of things, like “Shapes Of Things,” “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago” and “Over Under Sideways Down.” The four-piece was good, but it was much better live, and it didn’t really work in terms of creating new songs.

– I always got the feeling that you and Keith Relf were just starting to bloom as composers when the band broke up. So were there limitations from producers posed on you to play compositions by other authors or you were quite to push and try something of your own?

I think it was a bit of both. We went to Mickey Most who was a very successful producer but he was the wrong person; he was very strong-willed and he really wanted to have these silly songs that were poppy and it didn’t work at all – the chemistry between him and us just didn’t work. Looking back on it, it was a mistake, it was one of the first things that made us think about breaking up.

THE YARDBIRDS: Giorgio Gomelsky (manager), Paul Samwell-Smith, Chris Dreja, Jim McCarty, Eric Clapton, Keith Relf

Giorgio Gomelsky (manager), Paul Samwell-Smith,
Chris Dreja, Jim McCarty, Eric Clapton, Keith Relf

– But had you felt that the band had run its course and it was time to be diversifying?

Yeah, I did, actually. It was very, very full-on the whole time, gigging for years and years without any time off and it was very exhausting playing pretty much the same repertoire and not really having much time to breathe. When we did break up, we were all really tired and needed a lot of rest and a lot of healing after all that. (Laughs.)

– Before you broke up you did a version of “Dazed And Confused” that LED ZEPPELIN developed later. Was there ever any envy toward their success?

Not really, no, I think we realized that we had our run, and ZEPPELIN were all very fresh, energetic guys, they were all very good. It was a bit odd, though: somebody who was doing a book about LED ZEPPELIN came ’round to my house to interview me and he had all these photos of them playing on tour in America, playing the biggest-ever concerts. And it was very strange after looking at the way we were when we broke up; we were popular but not THAT popular.

– And it was the first time that you did this curious trick of leaving the name to the non-original band members. Later on, you did that with RENAISSANCE, but why did you leave the name to Jimmy Page?!

(Laughs.) Well, I suppose he just wanted to carry on and get moving on, and at that time Keith and I weren’t really interested in carrying on with that [band], we were going to leave it behind. But I’ve never been very good at business, I must say, but I’ve always made big mistakes when it came to business! (Laughs.)

– Everybody say so, save for Jon Hiseman. He was an accountant, so he never left his business unattended and he still pays all the royalties to COLOSSEUM and other people.

Very good. It’s great! Some people are very good at it, and I think THE ZOMBIES – I know them very well, they’re very nice guys – kept all their copyrights to their material, whereas we signed it all away by mistake, and we were conned and we lost the rights. We never really made any money from “For Your Love”!

– It is always painful for old musicians who just have to keep touring…

To make money!

– …while other guys, like Ozzy Osbourne, can sit on their asses and do their own wacky TV shows.

We were, actually, quite lucky in that we got the songwriting. I know some guys who didn’t write very much – Eric Burdon, people like him – they didn’t make much out of the songwriting. But that was a side that kept going, particularly for me, earning something or other, so the royalties have kept coming in. But as for “Dazed And Confused,” although I didn’t write the song, Chris Dreja, myself and Keith Relf had a hand in the way it was arranged. And it was one of the songs that created rock ‘n’ roll, wasn’t it? And it’s made a huge amount of money.

– So you felt as if the YARDBIRDS’ name was like an albatross around the necks of Keith Relf and yourself, right?

Yeah, we’d done it really, we were so tired! We didn’t want to fulfill any more obligations. We didn’t want to do any more tours. We just wanted to get out of it.

– And you went out under the name TOGETHER?

We did. We were still contracted with EMI and we’d written some songs together, Keith and I, and so we went in the Studio One in Abbey Road and did some more recordings under that name.

– You positioned yourself in the press as a folk duo, but when you were recording, you were a full-blown five-piece with Nicky Hopkins and others.

We just got them in as backing musicians, really, and it was good fun to do. Someone suggested that we should have a full-tine group again: it’s much more solid if you have a band.

– And it was then that the seed of RENAISSANCE was sown?

Yeah, there was a guy that we met called John Michel who was sort of a manager figure, he was introduced to us by Paul Samwell-Smith. Paul came back on the scene as our producer and he’d always been a good influence and we always got on well; Paul and I were at school together so we knew each other very well. So this guy suggested we got a band together, so we’d look out for all the people. I was living in Southwest London, down in Surrey, and we set all the gear up in my house and we just played there and had various auditions, but most of the people that came, they were the band. We didn’t really see many people. Chris Dreja was forming sort of a country band with John Hawken, so he brought him down to play with us and that clicked and then we found Louie [Cennamo] through some other friend, and Jane [Relf, Keith sister] came onboard, and we thought we’d do almost like a FAIRPORT-type thing.

– Like FAIRPORT with Judy Dyble or with Sandy Denny?

Whoever, whoever… Just with a girl singer! It seemed like a nice idea because that was the sort of music we were doing. Jane was very keen to join, and she always looked good, so it was a good combination.

– There was this interesting turning point. Previously, you’d played American blues and the reconfiguration of it, but in RENAISSANCE you started to play strictly European music, never more so than on “Face Of Yesterday.” How did you become interested in this symphonic, classical music? Was it down to Hawken?

(Laughs.) I think Keith and I were always interested in different types of music; we always liked classical music as well, and jazz and all that. We always quite liked THE SWINGLE SINGERS, remember them? So we brought that vaguely into the pot. It just happened by chance. John suddenly started to play classical stuff in the middle of one of the songs. We thought, “That’s great!” because it was just completely spontaneous. It was just a bit of luck that we suddenly played the sort of Beethoven and we thought, “This sounds good! This sounds unusual!”

– After THE YARDBIRDS, most of the music that you’ve been doing sounds piano-based and with a very prominent bass. How large was your role in the arrangements?

Yeah, yeah, yeah. When it really happened, we were there as a team again. Keith and I had ideas for the songs, and every one of us worked on the arrangements. Someone suggested, “Oh, let’s do this bit,” and Louie joined John, and he was a very dexterous player, very busy sort of bass player, and he fitted in great. With the two of them, we just kept doing this little classical thing all the time. And they made it fun; it was fun to do it. But it was quite important for me, too, prominent bass.

– Important to you as a part of the rhythm section, as a drummer who has to lock in with the bass player?

Yes, of course. Louie and I used to play very well together because I was quite simple; I played quite a simple beat and he was quite elaborate, so we went together and he sort of filled in all the holes. I actually play pretty well now with David Smale who plays in THE YARDBIRDS. We play very well together with bass and drums.

– It’s interesting, because if bass tries to play more melodically than rhythmically, it gets down to the drummer to keep the rhythm, but a drummer like you also wants to be playing melodically.

Yes, I know! But I was always a very steady drummer, not really an elaborate one. I never did too many fills: I think the blues drummers were always very steady and they weren’t supposed to play fills. (Laughs.)

– Yeah, sure, but the drummer plays a very important role in making the blues composition very soulful, very emotional.

Yes, yes! Very important!

– Back to RENAISSANCE… On the second album was a composition “Mr Pine” by Michael Dunford. Was that recorded by the time you decided to leave the group?

Yes. We all fell out of the band at different times, and it was very odd to do it, because we were half into recording an album. By that time I think Keith and I had left already, and it was John Hawken that was still in the band and he enlisted his friends he knew from before: Mick Dunford had been in THE NASHVILLE TEENS, and the singer, a guy called Terry Crowe, he knew him as well, so he brought him. So John Hawken a whole different band.

– So you relinquished the name not to Dunford but to Hawken?

Well, yeah, we did, sort of. (Laughs.) There was nothing done officially but we were just leaving the band, because basically it seemed to be getting like THE YARDBIRDS again: [it got] out of control and became too much touring and very tiring again. We were losing our creativity.

– Then you stayed in: on “Prologue” there is “Kiev” and “Bound For Infinity” that you wrote, then there is…

“On the Frontier.”

– I was going to ask you about this one later, because it’s by SHOOT: it’s like RENAISSANCE did a cover version of it. (Jim laughs.) But on “Turn Of The Cards” from ’73, you wrote “Things I Don’t Understand.”

Yes, yes! Well, I was still involved in the band because at that time I was just going to be a writer, I wasn’t going to play live.

– Doing a Brian Wilson thing?

Yeah; I was just going to be a sort of writer behind the scenes, and I’d heard about Betty Thatcher from Jane Relf because they both lived in Cornwall, in England, and Betty was a poet and she started to send me some of her poems, which I was starting to put to music. I said, “Send me your poems, I’ll see if I can make songs out of them,” basically. And one of them was “Bound For Infinity” which I put music to, and then there was “On The Frontier,” and then there was a Russian one, I think “Kiev.” And then when it came to “Things I Can’t Understand,” I actually wrote that with Mickey. That was the only song we wrote together.

– How was the experience?

Good! It was fine, yeah. I liked Mickey: we didn’t hit it off madly, but it was OK.

– Was it like two acoustic guitars?

When we wrote it? Yeah, I think we sat with guitars. And I think I had the lyrics. And I did the lyrics and he did the music.

– When did you start to play guitar?

It was right after THE YARDBIRDS, when Keith and I used to spend a lot of time together and we used to have guitars, and then I gradually learned chords and he basically taught me how to play. And I looked in books and I thought, “This is wonderful, I can make up songs and play my own chords now.”

– Then it progressed into piano playing?

Yeah, I thought I’d play piano as well. But it was just a way of writing, a way of writing songs, being able to write, because I used to write in THE YARDBIRDS but I couldn’t play anything then, you know, I used to make up the tunes. (Laughs.) I think I made up the tune of “Over Under Sideways Down” without being able to play guitar or piano. The difficulty is that not everyone accepts you for that, I’m not really accepted widely as an acoustic guitar player and singer.

THE YARDBIRDS: Chris Dreja, Jeff Beck, Jim McCarty, Jimmy Page, Keith Relf

Chris Dreja, Jeff Beck, Jim McCarty,
Jimmy Page, Keith Relf

– And still you were asked to write a soundtrack for a film called “Schizom.”

It was after RENAISSANCE split up. It was just an amateur thing, I don’t even know if it ever got shown anywhere. It might have done, as a B-movie. I think it came through our management: somebody came and said they wanted some music for a small movie about skiing film, and they commissioned us to do it. We just said, “Oh, we’ve never done that before and let’s have a go and see.”

– One of the songs that you and Keith recorded for this movie was “Prayer For Light.” Was it your first lead vocal?

No, I sang on “The Golden Thread.” On RENAISSANCE’s second album.

– For me, “Prayer For Light” throws an arc to the other song of yours, “Mystery Of Being,” that you re-introduced on THE YARDBIRDS’ “Birdland” album. Does it show the spiritual side of you?

Yes, I think so. I’ve followed up a spiritual path, so to speak, and I’ve always been interested in spirituality, and I think “Mystery Of Being” really does put that into words.

– And its melody! It creeps into your soul and stays there.

(Laughs.) The melody is quite sort of Eastern European, isn’t it?

– Yes, but the peak of your spirituality channeled through music, was it a STAIRWAY project with Cennamo?

I don’t know whether it was the peak, but we were looking for spiritual music, music that would make you feel good, that was very pleasant to listen to. I suppose it was music for relaxation (laughing) that was a bit different.

– But did you play the keyboards there?

Yeah, yeah, I did, yeah.

– I wouldn’t say I could distinguish it from a Kitaro album…

All right! Kitaro is good!

– …but there is a composition called “Base Chakra.” To me, it sounds very trance-y and tribal.

Funnily enough, there’s been a lot of music around like that, a lot of young music. Very tribal and very chanty.

– On that particular composition you did play drums, didn’t you?

Yeah, I did.

To part 2

7 Responses in other blogs/articles

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  7. […] Jim McCarty recalled "Shapes of Things" as one of his favorites in an interview with DME. “[It] was one of the best things we produced, because it was original and it had the […]

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