The Yardbirds - Roger the Engineer

The Yardbirds
Roger the Engineer

Released 1966 on Columbia
Reviewed by Brandon Tenold, 06/10/2008ce

The Yardbirds were one of the most groundbreaking bands of rock music’s most groundbreaking decade, their best singles from “For Your Love” all the way through “Think About It” offering up a fantastic combination of Gregorian chants, middle-eastern inspired melodies and proto-heavy guitar flash. So why then, are they not held in as high esteem as their peers, many of whom were actually behind The Yardbirds in their innovations? Well, despite being one of the all time great singles groups, album wise the ‘Birds were a lot more patchy, with frothing at the mouth garage rave-ups and ethereal psychedelic experiments often sitting side by side with more inoffensive pop pabulum, the result of often clueless management and producers. Most of their studio albums have their brightest moments dimmed by such regrettable decisions, the most tragic example being their final studio album, 1967’s “Little Games”, which should have been a classic that could sit alongside other boundary-breakers of that year like “Are you Experienced” or “The Velvet Underground & Nico”. Fortunately, the year before “Little Games”, the boys managed to cut an album that was one of the most exciting and forward-thinking records produced up to that point, and set a standard for electric guitar psychosis that would only be topped by Hendrix’s debut the following year.

Having had success with singles like “I’m a Man” and “Shapes of Things”, which combined the experimental guitar pyrotechnics of new guitarist Jeff Beck, and perhaps spurred on by the Beatles move to more adventurous material with “Rubber Soul”, the band recorded “The Yardbirds” (later re-named “Roger the Engineer” after rhythm guitarist Chris Dreja’s crude but striking cover art of album engineer Roger Cameron) in the spring of 1966. “Lost Woman” sets the tone for the record, beginning with a spiky hi-hat count-off from drummer Jim McCarty before Paul Samwell-Smith’s slinky and memorable bass line kicks in. The band remains restrained for the verses, with Beck and Dreja only coming in on the chorus. The band then switches to a simmering jam initially led by lead singer Keith Relf’s harmonica before Beck’s feedback undulations fight for supremacy. The track gradually builds in intensity, eventually coming to a climax of wailing harmonica and crashing guitars, when all of a sudden it breaks down to the fantastic opening bass line again, the band having a final go around before bringing it all back home. The dynamics in the song are fantastic, and amazingly, the band manages all these shifts in just over 3 minutes. The Yardbirds were nothing if not masters of the frenzied build-up, and “Lost Woman” is one of their best “rave-ups”, as concise and tightly constructed as it is exciting.

If “Lost Woman” is representative of one of the Yardbird’s greatest strengths, then “Over, Under, Sideways Down” is representative of another: the quirky, psychedelia-tinged pop song. Kicking in with another memorable, eastern-inspired riff (this time played by Beck) and aided and abetted by handclaps and chants of “Hey!” in the background, Relf proceeds to paint a picture of rock star hedonism and youthful exuberance and uncertainty in swinging London. After the bouncy and somewhat arbitrary chorus, there is a sudden drop in tempo and shift to a minor key, with Relf singing “Wheeennnn will it ennnddd” and the backing vocals indulging in his Gregorian fetish. Almost as quickly as it began, the band is back to the opening riff, as well as the handclaps and Hey-falootin’. During the last chorus, Beck lets loose with a brief outro solo before the track fades out. Proof that pop can be inventive and exciting, “Over, Under, Sideways, Down” remains one of the group’s best singles, and light years beyond what Mickie Most would make of some of their final A-sides.

“The Nazz Are Blue”* displays yet another Yardbirds specialty: the (relatively) straightforward and energetic blues. Jeff Beck handles the lead vocals here, and in sharp contrast to the throwaway sounding vocal he would put on another Yardbirds song, “Psycho Daisies” (and pretty much any song he sang now that I think about it), Beck actually sounds like gave it the old college try here vocal-wise. Using his thin yelp to the best of his ability, he sings over top of the bands blues shuffle about how he “can’t find a woman” no matter how hard he tries, baby. But we know what Mr. Beck’s real strength is, and during the guitar solo he again manages to show his guitar prowess in an unexpected way, with more than half the solo being taken up by a single sustaining note. Considering that rock guitar ability is often measured in miles per hour, it’s great to hear a true master reveal the power a single note can have when used properly.

Most of the other songs on the album generally follow the pattern established by these opening three songs, although the one that deviates from that pattern the most is “Hot House of Omagarashid”, a song as wacky as its title, full of bubbling sound effects, percolating percussion and nonsensical vocals. There is an almost Zappa-esque sense of the absurd in this song, and this was slightly before “Freak Out!” was released too. Oh, and of course Mr. Jeff Beck, A.K.A. rock music’s heaviest and most adventurous pre-Hendrix guitarist, lays down a hot solo at the end too. Another standout is “He’s Always There”, which combines an ominous descending riff with a pseudo-bossa nova feel, and once again hand claps and droning background vocals make their welcome appearance, as well as an outro guitar solo from Beck that ends a few seconds too early.

Although it is primarily The Yardbirds guitar players who get all the credit for laying the foundation for heavy metal, one should not overlook the influence of the mope-rock vocal stylings occasionally employed by Keith Relf. Don’t believe me? Then take a listen to the song that originally ended the album, “Ever Since the World Began”. Over top a Gregorian inspired dirge, Relf sings the following lyrics:

Ever since the world began,
Satan’s followed every man.
Trapping evil if he can,
I tell you now his greatest plan.

Not too hard to imagine Ozzy singing those lyrics, now is it? Even the vocal melody has a Sabbath-esque feel to it, only lacking Tony Iommi doubling it on the guitar. Of course, the song then switches to a much happier section that hippie-dippies where the Sabs would have boogied, but nevertheless, I wouldn’t be surprised if a light bulb appeared over the Birmingham boys heads the first time they heard this album.

If I have one complaint about Beck’s guitar playing on this album, it’s that there isn’t quite enough of it. Although hyper-extended guitar showcases are not necessary (Beck would do plenty of those later), just a few more seconds would’ve been appreciated, as the songs often fade out just as he’s starting to cut loose. To top it off, the song designed to show off his guitar playing, “Jeff’s Boogie”, is not as fiery as it should have been, although it’s pleasant enough.

Although not on the original LP, CD reissues of the album include the single “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago” and its b-side, “Psycho Daisies”, both of which feature Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page together. The Seth Man goes into greater detail about these songs elsewhere, but suffice to say it’s one of the group’s best singles, and indeed one of the greatest and most important in all 60’s rock, featuring the swirling psychedelic euphoria and police siren breakdown of the former and proto-punk blues frenzy of the latter. Both of them fit perfectly alongside the other songs on the album and are a great way to top off The Yardbirds best studio album.

Beck would soon leave and despite Jimmy Page and the rest of the band’s best efforts and an inspired last blast with “Think about It”, they would never regain their 1966 peak. However, that peak remains one of the highest in all of rock and roll, and “Roger the Engineer” is a fantastic collection of the groundbreaking music they made during that time.

*In case you were wondering, the title apparently refers to Beck’s mode of transportation, since at one point he sings; “Well I got myself a car, and that thing is painted blue”. Your guess as to why the title is not the grammatically correct “The Nazz IS Blue” is as good as mine.

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