mon 26/07/2021

Reissue CDs Weekly: Yardbirds - Yardbirds | reviews, news & interviews

Reissue CDs Weekly: Yardbirds - Yardbirds

Reissue CDs Weekly: Yardbirds - Yardbirds

The ‘Roger The Engineer’ album is made-over as a box set

The 'Roger The Engineer'-period Yardbirds. From left: Paul Samwell-Smith, Chris Dreja, Keith Relf, Jeff Beck, Jim McCarty

Instability coursed through the Yardbirds in 1966. When their first studio album Yardbirds was issued in July, the band seen on stage was not the one which had made the album. Bassist and in-house producer Paul Samwell-Smith had left between its recording and release. His replacement was session player Jimmy Page.

In time, Page switched to guitar to play alongside Jeff Beck, and guitarist Chris Dreja moved to bass. Next, Beck was off and the new four-piece Yardbirds had one guitarist: Jimmy Page. All this happened between mid-June and the end of November 1966.

There had already been upsets. The album was begun in late March. Following a change in management, it was completed during the second half of April and in late May/early June 1966. While that was going on, Beck recorded a proposed solo single. Singer Keith Relf had already made one. Considering the bumps in the road, it’s a wonder anything as great as the album emerged.

Roger The Engineer Super Deluxe EditionThe album colloquially known as Roger The Engineer is actually titled Yardbirds but has picked up its ad hoc handle due to the cartoon of “Roger The Engineer” on its cover. It caught a band firing-off in many directions: rock ’n roll, blues, folk-influenced introspection, oddball percussion-dominated workouts. Its single “Over, Under, Sideways, Down” was conceived as a rewrite of “Rock Around the Clock”. Much of it was exploratory and as such it was as integral to setting the agenda for psychedelia as their blown-mind February 1966 single "Shapes of Things".

In his insightful introductory essay to the book in this new box-set version of Yardbirds – marketed as the Roger The Engineer Super Deluxe Edition (pictured above) –  the MC5’s Wayne Kramer says the album “exposes the profoundly experimental side of a gang of musical anarchists, meaning there is much here to enjoy. Their blues roots are clearly in evidence, but the real attraction is what they did to it. For years leading up to the Yardbirds, I had been searching for a sign indicating where music would go, what it would sound like in the future. I found my answer in the work these progressive musicians produced.”

Whatever the album’s merits, and those of the Yardbirds’ other records, the band’s successive guitarists (the first was Eric Clapton) have inevitably and distractingly defined how they were seen – as a hothouse entity. Be that as it may, the Yardbirds were a one-off, a band which followed its musical nose wherever it would lead them. Yardbirds exemplifies this to the Nth degree.

Yardbirds original stereoYet – setting the band’s internal turmoil aside – there was a problem. In 1966, before the rock era, the Yardbirds did not quite work as a pop group. Considering the “Over, Under, Sideways, Down” single for Disc and Music Echo, an on-the-button Peter Noone of Herman’s Hermits said “it’s a shame the Yardbirds have no image because [if they did] they would be the #1 group in England.” Hence, to a degree, the historiographic narrative’s emphasis on the guitarists rather than the band and its music. (pictured left: the original 1966 stereo pressing of Yardbirds)

There’s a lot of the music in this box set. It contains three CDs, two LPs and a single. The LPs are the mono and stereo versions of the album (each is essential, as each had a unique mix and some alternate takes). These also occupy two of the CDs. The third CD includes seven alternate versions from the album sessions: the set’s sole previously unreleased cut is a version of “Turn Into Earth”. This CD is appended by Keith Relf’s pair of singles, two versions of a milkshake ad, and “Stroll On”, “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago” and “Psycho Daisies” – the latter three the only recordings made by the Beck/Page version of the band. A repro of the “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago”/ “Psycho Daisies” single is included. There’s also a book and a poster. The former has a straightforward overview of the album, a track-by-track commentary, Kramer’s essay, an impressionistic one from Thurston Moore and very brief statement from Jeff Beck. All the music is familiar.

As it was more alive than its mono counterpart, the starting point is the stereo version of the album. What’s here is newly remastered, sounds pin-sharp and lacks the atmospheric, punchy compression of an original pressing. There’s a directness, clarity and a trebly edge most apparent on “The Nazz are Blue”, where Beck’s lead guitar sounds disconnected from the rest of the band – sounding more than ever like an overdub. In contrast, “Jeff's Boogie” (also with overdubbed guitar) is more unified. “Ever Since the World Began” is sonically bigger than ever. The mono version is more typically Sixties in feel aurally, with a more cohesive sound. The seven album alternates on Disc Three are interesting but do nothing to alter views of the album itself.

Roger The Engineer Super Deluxe Edition _tape boxOf the other stuff – the Beck/Page tracks, the milk-shake ad (with just Page on guitar) and the Relf singles – it’s here as what’s collected dates from the period when Simon Napier-Bell managed the band. An accident of contractual history has made this what it is. They signed with Napier-Bell in April 1966 and he bowed out in favour of Peter Grant in December 1966. Rather than being a Yardbirds box set, this is a Simon Napier-Bell-period Yardbirds’ box set (this is noted in the book). While “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago” is one of the greatest records ever and sounds fabulous here, it is not a part of Yardbirds. Nor are “Psycho Daisies”, “Stroll On”, the ad, and the solo Relf material. An imaginative approach would have been to ditch it all and bulk-up the album with contemporaneous album-period BBC radio recordings – they recorded a session for Saturday Swings on 6 May 1966. This is licensable (the label behind this box set is owned by BBC Studios).

An aspect of this set confuses. The book says “The stereo version of Yardbirds was remastered from the stereo ¼” master tapes. In 1981, the tapes were moved into new boxes at Maison Rouge Studios, whilst Paul Samwell-Smith was working with Jethro Tull.” The tape box illustrated (pictured above right) has the mono “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago” opening Side One and the also-mono “Psycho Daisies” opening Side Two. A box saying “copy” is ticked. Is this a copy master made later with the two non-album tracks added? Is the stereo album heard here sourced from a 1966-vintage master tape?

The Roger The Engineer Super Deluxe Edition box sells for close-to £70. It sounds great and is nicely packaged but says barely anything new. The album and the bonuses (bar the "Turn Into Earth") have been endlessly reissued. Yardbirds' post-fact history is as scrappy as the churn in the band while they were extant. There must be only so much demand, and the market may be saturated. If upgrading a previous reissue appeals, original stereo pressings can be picked up in decent shape for around £100. New or old? As it was meant to be then, or as it is presented now? Choices, choices.

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