Reviewed by Raoul Hernandez, Fri., Sept. 21, 2001
Ultimate! (Rhino)With 52 tracks running two and a half hours, Rhino's 2-CD Ultimate! lends ample credence to the supposition that the Yardbirds are the not-so-missing musical link between Sixties pop and Seventies rock. Like their early-Sixties British peers, the Kinks, Who, Beatles, and Stones, the London quintet, which took its name from Jack Kerouac's love of jazz titan Charlie "(Yard)Bird" Parker, were enamored with American R&B. The band's big break, in fact, came in 1963, backing Mississippi harp monarch Sonny Boy Williamson on a European tour. Five Live Yardbirds, their debut the following year, captures the group's raw "rave-ups." Four cuts from that LP, sequenced soon after the spindly blues of Ultimate!'s opening demos, John Lee Hooker's immortal "Boom Boom" and their own would-be blues standard "Honey in Your Hips," demonstrate an almost maniacal rundown of Delta and Chicago styles. It's the flipside of the Yardbirds' first single, however, Allen Toussaint's "A Certain Girl," that the first of three Rock & Roll Hall of Fame axemen to hatch out of the Yardbirds sows the seeds of heavy metal thunder that defined the Seventies. Eric Clapton's fleet riffing, alongside the band's ripping tempo, helps "I Wish You Would" set the stage for the guitarist's next act, Cream, which in turn gave rise to the Jimi Hendrix Experience. Ol' "Slowhand," nicknamed for his onstage string replacement technique, quit two singles later on "For Your Love," because he feared the flock had copped to pop. They had, but Clapton's successor, Jeff Beck, more or less picked up where God left off and rode the Yardbirds train 20 months before leaving to form his own psychedelic warship, the Jeff Beck Group, which with a young singer by the name of Rod Stewart, became the model for none other than Led Zeppelin. Considering the Yardbirds' first choice to replace Clapton, Jimmy Page, joined briefly with Beck in a dual lead attack (captured in Michelangelo Antonioni's film Blow-Up) before taking over a quartet version of the group that eventually became the New Yardbirds then Led Zeppelin, the evolutionary cycle that eventually gave us hair bands is easy to trace. Disc one is mostly ace singles like "Heart Full of Soul," "You're a Better Man Than I," "Shapes of Things," "The Train Kept A-Rollin'," and "I'm A Man." The first 12 tracks of disc two comprise almost the entirety of the Yardbirds' only real "album," Roger the Engineer, with Beck's supersonic attack placing the LP in the same league as other 1966 classics like the Stones' Aftermath and the Beatles' Revolver. The remaining 14 tracks, save for Page's "White Summer," flounder, unfortunately, the group's sound gutted by pop svengali Mickey Most. If Ultimate! Yardbirds isn't as concisely crucial as the Warner Bros.' single-CD BBC Sessions, it's smokestack lightening nonetheless.