The departure of Eric Clapton (pictured) from the Yardbirds in March 1965 became like a shifting tectonic plate in the landscape of British blues rock. When everyone had recovered their senses, not one but three guitar gods had materialized, each spawning his own set of groups or supergroups that would dominate rock ‘n’ roll for the next few decades.
Tracing the relationships that developed at this time is like drawing a crazy family tree of the British Invasion. It all results from what I think of as “musical mitosis.”
Not familiar with that last word? The best—and certainly funniest—explanation of this phenomenon was offered on an episode of The Big Bang Theory, in which Howard Wolowitz explains how his asexual friend Sheldon Cooper might reproduce: “I believe one day Sheldon will eat an enormous amount of Thai food and split into two Sheldons.”
The band realignment involving Clapton became perhaps the maddest mitosis to occur in mod London’s music scene in the mid-Sixties. In short order, three young men, destined to be acclaimed as masters of their instrument, had been thrust to the forefront: Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page.
It all began with what Clapton, at least at the time, regarded as a move toward artistic freedom but that others in the music industry saw as career suicide. He had joined the Yardbirds only two years before at age 18, as the replacement for Anthony “Top” Topham. But with the group finally on the cusp of achieving success, he didn’t like the direction it was taking.
“The truth is, I was taking myself far too seriously and becoming very critical and judgmental of anybody in music who wasn't playing just pure blues,” the guitarist recalled four decades later in Clapton:The Autobiography. Specifically, as an admirer of the American blues, he had grown contemptuous of pop music. And so, where his bandmates saw the yellow brick road with a tune brought to them, “For Your Love,” Clapton smelled a sellout and became “constantly argumentative and dogmatic about everything that came up.” His sole contribution to “For Your Love,” their breakthrough hit, was a short blues riff in the middle.
Eventually, with his dissatisfaction becoming plainer and plainer for all to see, Clapton was taken aside by the Yardbirds’ manager and producer, Giorgio Gomelsky, and told that the group would not stand in his way if he wanted to leave.
Though this was something like the outcome he desired, Clapton was still stunned that the group—really, anyone—would not want him around. Yet within a month, he was feeling far more pleased about his decision after he was asked to join John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers, who shared more intensely his affinity for the blues.
Before leaving the Yardbirds, Clapton recommended a well-regarded studio musician as his replacement. But the heir apparent to “Slowhand,” Jimmy Page, declined the offer at first, recommending in turn his boyhood chum Jeff Beck. The latter was on board when the Yardbirds rode the wave of their “For Your Love” success with a hot streak that included "Heart Full of Soul", "I'm A Man" and "Shapes of Things."
The Yardbirds part of the story can be wrapped up relatively quickly. When the group’s bassist, Paul Samwell-Smith, departed a year later to become a record producer, his spot in the band was taken, surprisingly, by Page. Well, for awhile, anyway, until he began to share lead-guitar duties with Beck.
The last Yardbirds single to feature Beck, “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago,” came out in October 1966. A month later, he began to exhibit an even more conspicuous case of what might be called “Clapton Disease”—i.e., unmistakable dissatisfaction—and, after a tour of the U.S. in which he did not show up at times, was fired for what was termed “health” reasons.
At this point, it’s probably easiest if we take each of the three separately:
*Clapton, after his stint with Mayall, went, in succession, to Cream, Blind Faith, solo, back to a group setting in Derek and the Dominoes, and back on his own, with "Layla" becoming an FM standard, in both its fiery electric guitar and acoustic versions, two decades apart;
*Beck, no sooner out of the Yardbirds, formed The Jeff Beck Group, featuring lead singer Rod Stewart; another incarnation of the same group in the 1970s; a short-lived power trio Tim Bogert and Carmine Appice; and solo (I saw him in 1976, on a bill with Jan Hammer and headlined by Jefferson Starship, where I came away gasping at the sounds he coaxed from his guitar); and
*Page, with the Yardbirds breaking up, formed the New Yardbirds, then decided to rename it as Led Zeppelin (legend has it, on the advice of Keith Moon). Of all the groups in which the three men participated, the latter lasted the longest, only breaking up in 1980 in the wake of drummer John Bonham’s death.
In 2011, Rolling Stone Magazine updated its list of the “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.” Clapton, Page and Beck were all listed among the top five (#2, 3 and 5, respectively; Jimi Hendrix and Keith Richards took the #1 and 4 spots, respectively).