an interview with a Yardbird
by Lisa McDonald
Live Music Head
Jim McCarty (C) 2011 Arnie Goodman
Shapes of things before my eyes, just teach me to despise.
Will time make men more wise?
Here within my lonely frame, my eyes just hurt my brain.
But will it seem the same?
Come tomorrow, will I be older?
Come tomorrow, may be a soldier.
Come tomorrow, may I be bolder than today?
Now the trees are almost green, but will they still be seen?
When time and tide have been, fall into your passing hands.
Please don't destroy these lands, don't make them desert sands.
Come tomorrow, will I be older?
Come tomorrow, may be a soldier?
Come tomorrow, may I be bolder than today?
Soon I hope that I will find, thoughts deep within my mind,
that won't disgrace my kind.
~ Shapes of Things
written by McCarty-Relf-Smith (The Yardbirds 1966)
James Stanley McCarty was born in England on July 25, 1943,
delivered into the world at Walton Hospital, Liverpool.
He grew up to become best known
as the rock drummer for The Yardbirds,
but he also played in other groups,
most notably Renaissance.
The Yardbirds saw many changes in personnel
since their inception.
Originally they were Keith Relf (lead vocals, harmonica),
Anthony Topham (lead guitar),
Chris Dreja (rhythm guitar),
Paul Samwell-Smith (bass, backing vocals),
and Jim McCarty (drums, backing vocals).
Eric Clapton replaced Topham on lead guitar until 1965,
when Jeff Beck stepped into the role.
And then for a few months in ‘66,
Beck shared guitar duties alongside Jimmy Page.
By 1968, Beck was out, but Page remained,
until he too went off to form The New Yardbirds,
which later become Led Zeppelin.
Keith Relf died tragically in 1976,
while playing an improperly grounded electric guitar.
He was only 33.
The current Yardbirds lineup consists of only two original members,
McCarty and Chris Dreja.
And along with Andy Mitchell (lead vocals, harmonica),
Ben King (lead guitar),
and David Smale (bass),
The Yardbirds continue to perform to this very day.
Respected for innovative drumming styles
that have influenced generations of players since the psychedelic 60s,
McCarty also involved himself in songwriting over the years.
He taught himself to play simple chords on guitar and piano,
so that he could continue to write songs.
He also really likes to sing.
With his fellow ‘birds,
McCarty was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992,
and in 2003, Birdland was released under the Yardbirds name
which consists of re-recordings and new material penned by McCarty.
There are also guest appearances by Brian May, Joe Satriani, and Steve Vai.
The Yardbirds also released a cd in 2007 called Live At B.B. King’s Blues Club.
As a solo artist Jim has worked on many projects,
releasing an album in 1993 called Out Of The Dark
and Two Steps Ahead in 2003.
In 2009, he released Sitting on the Top of Time,
which was recorded with the help of Keith Relf’s son Jason,
and features guitarist Steve Hackett.
The cd was recorded at Q Music in Toronto,
which also saw local musician Lou Pomanti sitting in.
McCarty has strong ties to the city of Toronto
and has recorded here with other local musicians such as:
Ron Korb (flute), Donald Quan (pianist), and bassist George Koller.
The month of September 2011 saw Jim on a U.S. tour with the Yardbirds,
and upon finishing their last show in Chico, California,
Jim arrived in Ontario for two upcoming gigs.
One of them is at It Ain’t Hollywood in Hamilton on Oct 4,
and the other is a return engagement at Hugh’s Room in Toronto on Oct 5.
Jim McCarty, Ready Steady Go! July 1966
(C) Pictorial Press
You were born in Liverpool and grew up in London, England. Can you tell me about your childhood and how you got started in music?
I grew up in southwest London in a nice suburb near the Richmond area. My first real experience with music was at the age of 15 or 16 when somebody said, “You going to come round? There’s a band rehearsing in a house.” I went round and this band was playing songs by The Shadows set up in a room no bigger than this. I’d never seen anything like it, you know, that close up. And it was incredible. Around about that time, I taught myself to play drum rolls and things in The Boys Brigade, which was like a military version of Scouts. I marched around in a uniform playing a snare drum. (laughs) After seeing the band at the house in the neighbourhood, we started playing along to American rock and roll records by Elvis, Buddy Holly, Gene Vincent, Johnny Cash, and all that. We also started a band at school and everyone went mad when we played at the dances.
(laughs) And what was the name of the school band?
We were called The Country Gentlemen, after the famous Gretsch guitar. And then we were called The Strollers. I borrowed some money from my dad to buy this very basic drum kit I saw in the local paper. It cost about ten pounds. It was a snare drum, a bass drum, and a high hat, thimble thing. And then I went down to a holiday camp in the north of England where a couple of the musicians who played in the school group, had a gig. I played with them at the holiday camp for a couple of weeks and made enough money to pay my dad back.
So your parents were supportive?
Were there any other musicians in your family?
No, I’m an only. I had one drum lesson where I learned some technical things, but basically I taught myself by playing along with the records.
Now “holiday camp” is not really heard much around here, so when you said it, the first thing that came to mind was the scene in the rock opera film by The Who... Uncle Ernie (Keith Moon) sings the welcoming song to Tommy’s Holiday Camp, remember?
Okay, yea yea!
Did bands like the Beatles, the Stones, or the Who have much impact on you as a musician, coming up at the same time?
Well that came later. After I left school and bumped into Paul Samwell-Smith again (we had gone to high school together), he said to me “you have to come by and hear this record I’ve got by Jimmy Reed.” Paul had been in the school band as well. After I heard the record Jimmy Reed, Live at Carnegie Hall, I said, “well this is great!” The Stones played every week near us in Richmond, and we’d go see them. Then we decided to form another band. We covered the same artists as The Stones, but we made sure not to play any of the same songs they did. Originally there was two bands because Paul had met Keith Relf at a bohemian place we used to hang around at called the Crown Pub in Kingston, and formed a country blues quartet. I had met Topham and Chris Dreja and formed a band with them, but when Paul wanted to get away from country and go heavier, he asked me to play drums. Basically the two groups amalgamated with me on drums, Topham on lead guitar, Paul on bass, Chris on rhythm guitar, and with Keith as the singer, we were the first Yardbirds lineup.
And then you got some gigs?
Keith and Paul would go round and meet people. They got us a gig playing at Eel Pie Island with a harmonica player called Cyril Davies who was quite big having worked with Alexis Corner. We played in intervals and Cyl said, “I like the band, but what’s the name of it?” Keith said, “oh, we’re called The Yardbirds”. It was the first time I’d heard this.
This was the first time you heard what the name of the band had become?
Yea! Keith had been reading a book by one of the Beat poets, Jack Kerouac’s On The Road I think, and the Yardbirds were people who lived in the yards on the old steam trains. It may have been an odd name, but I thought it was good enough. Cyl couldn’t do one of his gigs over in Harrow in southwest London (around where The Who came from), and asked us to fill in for him. It turned out to be our first show. We gradually built up a repertoire of covers from old blues records, which in those days were quite rare. There were only about three record shops in London; jazz record shops that also sold blues records.
So what were some of the covers you played?
Can’t Judge a Book by Bo Diddley, a couple of Chuck Berry songs, and Smokestack Lightning by Howlin’ Wolf. And then Keith and Paul approached Giorgio Gomelsky who was running The Crawdaddy Club in Richmond, the same place the Stones played every week. The Stones were getting too big for the club, and when Georgio came to see us rehearse, he gave us the job of taking over the Stones’ weekly gig.
The Yardbirds with Eric Clapton on front page of
Music Echo (March 1966) (C) Rex Features Ltd.
How exciting that must have been!
Apart from me and Paul, the other guys went to art school in Kingston, studying painting and stained glass windows. Lots of people went to art school back then, people like Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Syd Barrett. Top decided to leave the band for art college.
Not to get too far off topic, but Bob Dylan has been in the news the last couple of days having caused controversy with his Asia Series art exhibit at the Gagosian Gallery in New York. Apparently three of his paintings look exactly like photographs by Henri Cartier-Bresson, Léon Busy and Dmitri Kessel, and Dylan’s being accused of plagerism.
Oh no! But Dylan’s quite talented, isn’t he? I recently watched a program on tv about him.
Were you comfortable playing behind the kit at The Crawdaddy?
Yea, yea! Playing that sort of music was very simple really, for drums. I held it together by playing shuffles and simple rhythms. It was very basic for the bass player as well. The lead guitar had all kinds of space to play, and I was quite comfortable with it. I quite enjoyed it.
I’m a big fan of drummers (Bonham, Moon, Bozzio), and Neil Peart (drummer of Rush), who is also a writer of books, one of which I just finished reading.
I went to see Rush at the Air Canada Centre when I came to Toronto a few years ago.
Do you have a favourite drummer and have you played with any of them?
Not one particular favourite, no. But I do like Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa. And by listening to Dave Brubeck, I got to quite like Joe Morello. As far as playing with drummers, Ginger Baker was in the band when we played with Graham Bond. That was before Cream, and he was really good even then. And with the Yardbirds, we played with the Beatles a few times, and The Who quite a bit. I played on Keith Moon’s kit when it was covered in blood. Keith would play so hard!
Ew! Moon was such a mad man! (laughs). I know you get asked a lot about the three legendary guitarists who have played in the Yardbirds (Page, Beck, Clapton), so instead I’ll tell you that I was an enormous fan of Led Zeppelin when I was a teenager, and a rock and roll chick who was completely mad over Robert Plant. Do you have a story or something to say about him?
(laughs) Well, I only met him a couple of times. I remember him coming in the studio when I was with Renaissance, around 1969. He didn’t say too much. He shook my hand, but that was about it. And then I saw him at a wedding... and a funeral.
The Yardbirds with Jimmy Page, 1967.
(C) GAB Archives/ Redferns
Okay, well then maybe I will say a little something about Page.
I really like the scene in the film It Might Get Loud where Jimmy is at home, I believe in his living room or library, playing his record player, spinning some of his favourite albums; records I believe he listened to way back before and during the days of The Yardbirds. It was great to see because this is the Jimmy of today, getting excited playing his records like we used to do as teenagers. Do you, or have you, simply hung out and listened to records at home with Jimmy?
Well, not recently, but back in the day of course, we would sit around and write songs together. And Jimmy still has his ear to the ground. He’s come out to a few of our gigs. He’s got his wits about him. (laughs)
One of my top favourite video clips on Youtube is the 1967 black and white version of Dazed and Confused by The Yardbirds, with Page. What show was that from, and do you remember much about the performance?
I don’t really remember it that well, but we were performing on a tv program with a dj off to the side.
What I particularly like is that whoever shot it, didn’t just keep the camera on the singer or guitarist, but gave coverage to the drum kit as well. And maybe it’s just me being weird, but there’s something about the eerie vocals in the middle of the video that reminds me of the theme music from the Roman Polanski thriller, Rosemary’s Baby.
The Yardbirds on Bouton Rouge TV show hosted by
Pierre Lattès (March 1968)
Oh really! The tv program was called Bouton Rouge. There used to be a lot more of those kinds of shows than they have now. Another really good one that still stands up is The Beat Club, from Germany.
So after getting the gig at the Crawdaddy, it didn’t take very long before the Yardbirds became enormous.
It was incredibly quick. But we didn’t really get our big break until we did For Your Love. We were playing with the Beatles at their Christmas show in London when a publisher saw us. He had the demo of For Your Love. We listened to it and liked it, so we recorded it.
But it wasn’t just recording a hit song, it was also in the writing of your own songs that brought success.
We didn’t have any business idea, and we knew nothing about writing. We were just playing music and enjoying it. Further down the road, it was our manager Georgio (the same Georgio who ran The Crawdaddy) who got us to write songs. I suppose he knew there was money in publishing. (laughs)
On a rainy night in Memphis, the Yardbirds found themselves at Sun Studio where not only you met Sam Phillips, but recorded Train Kept a Rollin’ and Mister, You’re a Better Man Than I. I think the story goes that Relf had had a few too many drinks and overdubs had to be done, but how did you find being there? Did Elvis, Phillips, or simply being in the legendary studio carry any meaning for you?
We didn’t know a lot, but we knew it was a very important place. But again, it was our manager Georgio who was the real aficionado. Georgio was a big, funny, part Russian, Swiss and Italian guy, with a beard. In those days people thought he was a Communist because he also wore a hat like Fidel Castro. And he had a lot of ideas. It was his idea to go to Sun Studio and do a session, but Sam Phillips wasn’t there when we first arrived. I think he was off fishing. But when he got there and listened to us, he said, “good band, but you have to get rid of the singer”. (laughs) The recordings we made sounded great because the rock and roll engineers at studios in England were very much behind the Americans.
So it was a real learning experience for you.
Yes. And it was the same for us when we went to Chess studio in Chicago. We did Shapes of Things there. And again, it was Georgio’s idea.
Good manager that one!
Yea, but we never really saw much money.
Back in the eighties, I was hanging out with a few musician friends of mine (Jeff Graydon and Chris Merchant) who often busked or played local bars covering songs like Heart Full of Soul and Over Under Sideways Down. In fact, they still do. How does it feel to be part of a legacy of such great, timeless songs that musicians today, both young and old, are still influenced by?
The Yardbirds on cover of Rave magazine with
Jeff Beck, May 1966 (photographer unknown)
It’s quite something, isn’t it? It’s great, and it keeps growing more and more. The Yardbirds did an album in 2003 called Birdland on Steve Vai’s label. Steve is a fan, as is Brian May and Joe Satriani, who also play on it.
Ha! Do only the most incredible guitarists play with the Yardbirds, or what? Jeff Beck also returned to play on Birdland too, right?
Yes! We talked to Alice Cooper the other week, and he’s also a big fan. It’s amazing that all these famous people are Yardbirds fans. And it just keeps growing.
I love Alice Cooper! My friend Chris wanted me to ask if that’s you playing bongos on For Your Love?
No, it was some other guy. (laughs) A guy who was a presenter on BBC radio. And he only played bongos as a hobby! (laughs)
Wow! The bongos sound so cool on that song!
Was he using his hands because it sounds to me like he was using something else?
No, he was using his hands. It was funny how the session came together. I remember now... his name was Denny Piercy and he was fantastic. I was playing the drum kit with Denny on the bongos. We got a great groove going. And Brian Auger played harpsichord.
Wow, to think those bongos were played by some guy who wasn’t even a professional musician.
I heard you say that you’ve never been a big music collector, of vinyl or memorabilia of the bands you’ve been in, and that you wish you had been.
Well, I sort of wish I did, but it’s not particularly my nature, you know? Not like Bill Wyman who has everything, every last poster.
I read Wyman’s book way back, and I remember thinking he must have recorded every little detail along the way!
Yea, he’s incredible.
However, the Yardbirds 1967 drum head and the suede jacket you wore in the band the same year were on display at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland when I visited there last April. Is there a story behind these items being donated to the Rock Hall?
Well, you don’t actually donate to the Rock Hall, but rather, you lend. The jacket was made when we had some leather stuff done up by some guys we met in San Francisco on the last tour. They were beautifully done.
Back then, a lot of clothes were made for bands by fans. Fans who were very creative. I met Pamela des Barres (the world’s most famous groupie) last year, and as you probably know, she made clothes for Jimmy Page among others. She’s very proud of that, as she should be.
Yea, yea! Lots of people were making things, clothes and jewellery, especially the hippies in San Francisco. All sorts of things... drugs too.
Well, also on display in the San Francisco section of the Rock Hall was a sheet of blotter acid embossed with art by R Crumb that was apparently the property of Janis Joplin. But what I’d like to know is how the museum got hold of the blotter acid, and how they can be sure it belonged to Janis, ha!
I remember when we were playing at the Fillmore; a guy appeared in a black leather biker jacket, long hair and little glasses. It turned out to be Dr Owsley, who made all the acid on the west coast. He would give you packs of all these coloured things. (laughs)
Yes, Owsley Stanley, (also known as Bear, early manager and sound engineer for the Grateful Dead). Did you attend the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremony when the Yardbirds were inducted?
Yes I did. It was held at the Waldorf in New York and it was very nice. Jimmy and Jeff were there, and Keith’s son, too. (Keith Relf had already passed away). Chris and Paul were there as well. It was great!
Speaking of early American rock and roll, did you know that today is Jerry Lee Lewis’ birthday?
Oh, is it really?! (laughs) Oh wow! I saw Jerry Lee Lewis play a couple of times. Once in a little club in England in ’63-64, and he was as close to me as that door.
Jerry Lee caused quite a ruckus in England, didn’t he? Was that the same tour when he got booed and tossed out of the country? You know, when the British press found out he’d gone and married his cousin and all hell broke loose?
Oh yes, I remember that, but I think the time I saw him in the little club was before all that.
What was the bad boy’s energy like?
It was fantastic! Funny enough, John Hawken (Renaissance, The Strawbs), one of the guys I’ll be playing with at Hugh’s Room next week, also used to play with the National Teens who backed up Jerry Lee Lewis.
You know, I don’t really know much about Renaissance. Can you tell me more about that band?
Keith Relf and I formed Renaissance because we wanted to do something different than the Yardbirds. And although John Hawken was a rock and roll piano player, Renaissance was an early prog-rock band that John put classical piano into it. It was quite interesting, but we only kept it going for a couple of years. Later, we called the band Illusion.
Renaissance, March 1970
It’s also the birthday of Mark Farner of Grand Funk Railroad today, and Gene Autry, the singing cowboy.
Ha! (laughs) We played with Grand Funk years back, and I believe Gene Autry owned a hotel that we stayed at on the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles. Well, the first time we tried to stay there, we weren’t allowed in because of our long hair. (laughs)
And you yourself share a birthday with Manny Charlton, the guitarist from Nazareth.
Ah! Nazareth did Shapes of Things.
Shapes of Things, written by the Yardbirds at the time of the Viet Nam war, could easily have been written today. With the fallout from 9-11 still going on, and the delicate state of the environment and planet, it doesn’t seem that “time has made men more wise”. Here within my lonely frame, my eyes STILL hurt my brain. What about you?
Yes, exactly! (laughs) It sort of goes round and round, doesn’t it? It’s amazing, I know.
Can you tell me about when you wrote that song?
There was very good chemistry in the band when we wrote that song. It was a combined effort. I think we started off with some sort of jazz riff that we’d heard somewhere. I put a marching beat on it like I did from my days with the Boys Brigade (laughs), and then we ripped off something else for the next bit, you know (laughs), before all the lyrics started to come out.
Had you been talking about the state of the world and war and stuff?
I think we all had it on our minds. We wanted to write a song about something meaningful, but not just another love song, ya know?
Well the song is great, and it carries as much meaning today as ever. And what about the song you wrote about reincarnation?
Happenings Ten Years Time Ago, yes. No one quite got it when it first came out, and then it became something of a cult song when a record collector voted it the number one psychedelic UK song of all time. We still play it.
Is reincarnation something you believe in?
Yes, a lot of things that happened seemed to have happened before, you know? It’s all in the lyrics... “Meeting people on my way, seemingly I've known one day...” . I’ve been a follower of Buddha. Going through the drug thing in the sixties set me back a lot. I needed a lot of healing after all that. Buddhism can be quite strict, but picking it up has helped me along my journey. It’s helped me see the deeper nature of things.
As a follower of Buddha, have you travelled to spiritual places like Tibet or Peru?
Oh yea! I’ve been to many Buddhist sites. I’ve been to China, and a parts of Tibet, but I haven’t been to Lhasa. I’ve been to Shangri-La though, which was fantastic. I’ve been to Northern India and Nepal, but I haven’t been to Machu Picchu in Peru.
Obviously you’ve toured the world, and currently live in France, which I’ve heard you say has been a source of inspiration. What is it about France that adds to your well-being and creativity?
I don’t know particularly why France has been so inspirational, but I’ve been living there for about eight years... in a beautiful village. I love walking the countryside with my wife. It’s where I wrote the songs for Sitting on the Top of Time.
Cap Roux, South Coast of France, January 2011
(C) Jim McCarty
It must be a relaxed way of life there, unlike where I live, here in the city of Toronto! (laughs)
(laughs) Yes, I’m close to nature there and I love it.
Friends of mine that have been to France say it’s not the same there as it is here, as far as live music goes. It’s not like you can walk to many corner bars and find live bands playing in France, right?
Well no, that’s true. Toronto is buzzing with music, but it’s difficult to find in France. I mean, I can find it because I know, but the French like their own music, and it’s not easy to break into that. But musicians or artists that do break in, the French take care of them. You gain another level of respect as an artist or musician there. We toured France last year with John Mayall, and it was very good. We went all round and it went well.
I’ve been living in Toronto for far too long, and I could really use a change. I’ve never been to France... so Jim, if you could use any office help or a personal assistant, or know someone who does... or needs a journalist, just say the word and I’ll have my bags packed within the hour!
(laugh) You’d love it there! But I come back and forth between France and Toronto a lot, and actually what I really like is the contrast between the two. Every place has their problems, but I spend a lot of time in Toronto, and know a lot of people here. It’s quite possible that I may start having more of a life here, as well. When I spoke with Jimmy Page a few years back, he asked me what I was doing. I told him I was recording in Toronto. Jimmy said, “they got some good musicians there, don’t they?”
Really? I never hear of Jimmy coming here, but that’s nice of him to say!
The Stones like Toronto too, don’t they?
Yes, they’ve done a few surprise gigs here in small clubs over the years, used our local schools to rehearse... and I believe they started off tours here.
And you know, I rang up Jeff Healey another time when I was here. It was just before he died and he was having a jam at his bar. He invited me over, so I went. He covered Shapes of Things as well.
Wow, so you really are well connected to this city, aren’t you? For instance, how did you get involved with Terry Moshenberg, Topher Stott (another drummer), and coaching musicians for The League of Rock?
Well, Toronto for me is a bit like London was in the 60s. There’s a buzz here. All the musicians know each other. Thanks to my friend Ron (Korb), when I came here to record, I soon learned there were half a dozen bass players and guitarists all too ready to help me do it.
Yes, like the late Jeff Healey, Toronto is home to some of the finest musicians.
And it was when I was at Studio Q with Donald Quan (who has played with Loreena McKennitt) that I was introduced to Terry Moshenberg, who was also using the studio at the time. Ideas were thrown around and I started doing some work with The League of Rock, which is a great thing. They have chapters in New York and L.A. now.
When I watched you, along with renowned record producer Terry Brown, coaching the League’s showcase of new bands at Rock and Roll Heaven last year, I thought “now how cool is that?”
Yea, it was August last year, before tour, that I came to Toronto and went with Topher to the LOR rehearsals and coached there as well.
Jim McCarty, singer-songwriter, Barnaby's Blues-Bar,
Germany May 2011 (C) Jim McCarty
It seems you’ve become quite comfortable as a guitar player and singer-songwriter these days, and can most often be found performing in front of the drum kit as opposed to on it.
Well, when we were getting Illusion together and Keith suddenly died, I sort of stepped into the singing role with Jane. Some people still expect me to be playing drums, but I taught myself how to play guitar and piano, so I could write more songs. I quite enjoy being a singer-songwriter.
And it shows in songs like Sitting on the Top of Time and Living From The Inside Out; lovely songs that I can still hear your early roots within. The upcoming shows you are doing will be at This Ain’t Hollywood in Hamilton on Oct 4, and also at Hugh’s Room in Toronto on Oct 5. Tell me what we can expect to hear in Toronto.
I’ll be singing mainly, but I’ll play drums too. I’m working with John Hawken and we’ll perform some Illusion songs that we recorded in the seventies. Band members will also include Jean-Michel Kajdan, Ron Korb, George Koller, Donald Quan, and Larry Crowe. German-born singer-songwriter Jann Klose will be doing the warm up.
The rock and roll business is anything but kind, so it’s a pleasure to see Jim, that not only have you survived since the golden age of rock, but continue to grow as an artist and as a down to earth, compassionate human being.
Thank you. I believe in being positive. It seems like there’s not enough love and kindness in the world, but there’s lots of it in the songs.
Jim McCarty official website
Live Music Head’s favourite old Yardbirds clip....
Dazed and Confused (1967)
All photos courtesy of Jim McCarty.
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