Last time Chris Dreja toured the U.S. with the Yardbirds, people were marching in the streets against the war in Vietnam, and American garage bands like the Count Five and the MC5 had lustily inhaled the fumes of groundbreaking Yardbirds singles like "I'm a Man" and "Over Under Sideways Down." Thirty-five years later, anti-war demonstrations are back (courtesy of Pee-wee Bush's Big Adventure), as is blues-powered garage rock via the White Stripes, the BellRays and the Mooney Suzuki. Also back are the Yardbirds; Birdland, the legendary British band's first studio album since 1967's Little Games, will be released here April 22.
"It's very strange timing," says Dreja, the band's rhythm guitarist. "And totally coincidental, I might add. Here we are, releasing another album when the world's on another wobbler. It has nothing to do with us at all, but I find it very interesting."
Originally formed in 1963, the Yardbirds are often remembered as the launching pad for three illustrious lead guitarists Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page but the band's records went far beyond mere fretboard wizardry. From the bluesy early days with Clapton, through the pioneering psychedelic pop of their Beck period, to the heavy rock recorded with Page, each successive Yardbirds single expanded what was permissible in pop. "I'm a Man" brought "rave-up" blues jams into the Top 40, while "Heart Full of Soul" and "Over Under Sideways Down" did the same for Indian ragas. The lyrics of the fuzz- and feedback-laden "You're a Better Man Than I" and "Shapes of Things" pondered discrimination and world destruction well before those topics were common coin for pop songwriters. And 1966's mighty "Happenings Ten Years Time Ago" the band's only single to feature the dueling leads of Beck and Page remains one of the most apocalyptic-sounding records ever waxed.
"I don't think anything we did was a conscious business plan," says Dreja. "We just wanted to be very experimental; our ears were very wide-open to strange influences and world music, even Gregorian chants. It was a very democratic band in the sense that everyone had good ideas, and we'd all try them out to see how far we could develop them. Just a 'no rules' thing, really."
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In 1968, diminishing commercial returns and a grueling tour schedule finally took their toll. Of the final Yardbirds lineup, Page found superstardom with Led Zeppelin, singer Keith Relf and drummer Jim McCarty formed the progressive folk band Renaissance, and Dreja opted to pursue a career in photography. Relf accidentally electrocuted himself in 1976, but Dreja, McCarty and original bassist Paul Samwell-Smith reunited in the mid-'80s for a few albums with the all-star studio aggregation Box of Frogs. "We worked with people like Graham Parker and Ian Dury," says Dreja. "It was very much a 'project'; it was never a working band in any sense."
But in 1992, when the Yardbirds were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the demand for a Yardbirds reunion increased. A one-off gig at London's Marquee Club went well enough that Dreja and McCarty decided to make the band a going concern again, with help from vocalist-bassist John Idan, blues harpist Alan Glen and former Dr. Feelgood lead guitarist Gypie Mayo.
This lineup can be heard to excellent effect on Birdland, a surprisingly vital 15-song effort on Steve Vai's Favored Nations label. Produced by Ken Allardyce (Goo Goo Dolls, Green Day, Weezer), the record features the band cooking alone through six new compositions and a hard-hitting cover of Mose Allison's "I'm Not Talking," while guest stars such as Vai, Slash, Brian May, Joe Satriani, Steve Lukather, Jeff "Skunk" Baxter and even old mate Jeff Beck appear on covers of eight vintage Yardbirds hits. Such a diverse crop of players might easily make for a bloated "super session" vibe, but the sound and spirit of classic Yardbirds is present on every track. "They just joined the band, in a sense," says Dreja. "There was a concern that it would become a 'Satriani track' or 'Slash track' or whatever. But all of them did stunning contributions."
If Birdland isn't enough of a treat for American Yardbirds fans, the band is currently planning a three-week U.S. tour, to begin at the end of May. "We did a few gigs over here while recording the album, and I have to say that America is a great audience for us," says Dreja. "This is very much a rock & roll country. It's a great honor, of course, that you inducted us into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But originally, we took your music and sold it back to you!"