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Roger the Engineer: An Appreciation

I don’t care that the album Yardbirds fans have come to know as Roger the Engineer didn’t include “Happening Ten Years Time Ago,” or the B side, “Psycho Daisies” on it originally.  I don’t care either that Epic called it Over Under Sideways Down in the U.S. when it was called The Yardbirds in England. It’s the Jeff Beck Yardbirds album, because whatever style is happening, going down, transpiring and/or taking place, Beck is nearly without exception at his all-time experimental best in a group format on this record.

There I said it, hedgingly. You can come after me if you like. I’ll make you tea and scones. Beck had set a tone, more accurately a fuzz tone on the psychedelic/blues single “Shapes of Things” earlier in 1966. And that's a mystery too: why was the Yardbirds’ biggest stateside hit left off?  “Shapes” came out in the winter of 1966, Roger in the summer. Go figure. But nothing about the Yardbirds’ legitimate recorded output and its subsequent marketing makes a whole lot of sense. No, not a whole lotta sense.

See, I’m not going to argue with Tom Henderson, Frank Portman’s rock savvy teenage protagonist in the wonderful King Dork when he says, “Now Led Zeppelin is all right (good  drums and guitar anyway, though that lead singer should have been silenced or muzzled or something—frankly, I prefer it in Yardbird form to be honest).” Me too. And I’m inclined to think of the Marquee and Giorgio Gomelsky’s Crawdaddy club as cauldrons of cool. From 1964-1966, the Yardbirds held forth famously at both.

By the time they got into the studio to make Roger (named for engineer Roger Cameron), the band still might have been thinking Chicago blues, but they’d also flirted with psychedelia. They’d had pop hits too, which loudly caused the departure of their second lead guitarist and the first of the hallowed three, Eric Clapton. Initially the hits were not with their own material, but later, with such songs as the down-tempo heavy, nearly chanted “Still I’m Sad” and “Shapes of Things,” Beck’s feedback, note-bending and middle Eastern influences had looped their way into the band’s gestalt. “Over Under Sideways Down,” and “Happening Ten years Time Ago,” which is the only Jeff Beck/Jimmy Page dueling lead guitar Yardbirds hit, were both released in 1966 and are quintessential proto-psychedelic tracks.

Get the expanded Roger if you’re going to get it. Tracks 1-14 are all Yardbirds, produced by one of their own, bassist Paul Samwell-Smith. Fifteen and sixteen are Keith Relf performances, which are interesting but find the Yardbirds lead singer in search of a style he can live with. Both are decidedly non-bluesy, which can't be said for Roger. And maybe one can do without “The Nazz Are Blue,” which is based on familiar Southside riffs and features the nondescript vocals of Jeff Beck and “Rack My Mind,” which too obviously quotes Slim Harpo’s “Baby Scratch My Back,” but the two instrumentals, Beck’s ripping roadhouse guitar boogie (Beck’s Boogie”) and the whacked out percussive and cartoon chorus cheer of “Hot House of Omagararshid,” are essential. The latter successfully leaves the rave-up style of “I’m A Man” in the rearview and makes the dreamy “Farewell,” and trippy “Happening 10 Years Time Ago,” possible.

Perhaps the best expression of the Yardbirds willingness to stick their necks out stylistically is “I Can’t Make Your Way,” which includes Relf’s trademark harmonica and reedy vocals, Beck’s snaky Middle-Eastern riffing, a snappy tambourine, and pub sing-a-long choruses that celebrate popular 60’s youth ideals: “Taxman, rentman, they all chase me/I ain’t home when they come round/Got no money, lived my life free/That’s the best way I have found.”  The singer goes on to predict that in ten years time he’ll be the same, but what is pop history without pop irony?

In two years time, no more Yardbirds, save Jimmy Page, the last of the hallowed guitar gods the band launched, wanting to carry the torch forward and somehow, according to the Yardbirds’ homepage at the Rock and Roll Musical Archive, retaining rights to the band’s name. His New Yardbirds would very quickly become Led Zeppelin and the originality, experimentalism and weirdness that was Beck, Relf, Jim McCarty (drums), Samwell-Smith (bass) and Chris Dreja (rhythm guitar) would become forever documented by Roger the Engineer.