Jim McCarty, second from left, in 1966. Photo courtesy of Flickr.
Born James Stanley “Jim” McCarty July 25 1943 at Walton Hospital in Liverpool, England, Jim McCarty’s family moved to London when he was two years old. He attended Hampton School in Richmond upon Thames, where later band mate Paul Samwell-Smith was a fellow pupil.
Jim McCarty is today highly esteemed by both his peers and fans alike for his innovative drumming styles which he introduced into rock music during the 1960s. Some examples: “I’m A Man” has what later became known as a speed metal beat, “Train Kept A-Rollin’ ” features McCarty’s producing a train style beat, and in “Shapes of Things” he often changes tempo mid song as well as produces a martial beat, such as the fast military gallop which drives the song’s solo.
Though perhaps not quite as ‘flashy’ as contemporaries such as Keith Moon, Jim McCarty’s drumming set a precedent in rock music, as it went well beyond the normal rhythm patterns that were prevalent in early Rock ‘n’ Roll. As a result, he has influenced an entire generation of drummers, encouraging them to continue in his footsteps to take drumming to ever increasing heights of innovative, true artistry.
In Part 1 of a two-part interview, Jim McCarty, from his comfy home in Provence, France, discusses the early days of The Yardbirds with The Los Angeles Beat:
Unlike so many of their peers from the 1960s, whose music today sounds dated, critics and fans alike agree that the Yardbirds sound as exciting and innovative today as they did back in the 1960s. Why do you think that’s so?
I think we were always trying to look to the future and always trying to do something original;trying to think of different twists. We started playing old Blues covers that we heard out of America: all these Blues people that nobody had heard. None of the White people had really heard them because those artists had been on the Black circuit. People like Bo Diddley and Muddy Waters and all these people.
But we didn’t want to leave it just there; we wanted to make it a bit more original and put our own stamp on it. It wasn’t anything egotistical, we were just having fun with the music and thinking what we could do with it and how we could make it a bit more exciting and more unusual. I think particularly when Jeff Beck joined the band. He had loads of different guitar sounds. He loved to explore it. That was very exciting for us because all those sounds went into the pot! It came out being something quite interesting!
The Yardbirds continue to appeal to a vast array of age groups and fans of different musical genres. Why do you think that’s so?
I think the younger generation have latched onto us likely due to our history in Rock & Roll. Many of them have traced us back to Led Zeppelin. Led Zeppelin were a huge band with a huge amount of fans all different ages. I think a little of the young fans that liked Zeppelin have gone back one stage and they found us, and that’s why they latched onto us. Alot of youngsters come to our shows with their Led Zeppelin tee shirts on, so that’s probably why.
It’s remarkable. I never thought that we would still be popular for all these years. Before the band got going, I used to work on the London Stock Exchange; I was one of the London stock brokers. I thought that the Yardbirds were only gonna last a couple of years, and I asked my boss: “When this all blows over is there a possibility of having my old job back?” (chuckles). I didn’t think it was gonna get on much more than a couple of years!
In past interviews, you have credited American 1950s Rock & Roll and R&B as heavily influencing the music of the Yardbirds. Were there any artists and/or songs in particular that played a pivotal role in the development of the band’s sound?
The artists I mentioned prior were big influences: Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley and Howlin’ Wolf were big influences. Smokestack Lightening was a great song that even now we still play in the band. And then there were obviously classics like Diddley’s “You Can’t Judge a Book By It’s Cover.” There were some standout songs from that era; maybe ten great artists that we followed at that time. It then branched out as we found more and more.
Through these many years, The Yardbirds have had quite a number of different line ups. Which particular line up do you feel has been the most creative?
In 1966 we had a great line up; what to my mind was the most creative line up. That was Jeff Beck on guitar and Keith Relf, Paul Samwell-Smith, Chris Dreja and myself. We were quite a ‘happening’ band. We’d had a few hits such as “For Your Love”, “Heart Full of Soul”, “Still I’m Sad” and “I’m a Man.” We first came over to the States then, touring.
During your days with the Yardbirds, what was the most memorable event that took place while you were on tour or in the studio?
Well, alot of great events happened to us in 1966, and that was when our manager Giorgio Gomelsky had the idea to go into a couple of great studios to record. We went into Chess Studio and recorded “Shapes of Things” and that was a great moment in the studio. We also went into Sun Studios where we recorded “Train Kept a Rollin’” and “You’re a Better Man Than I.” Those were great moments, going into those legendary studios where so many great songs had come out, so many great artists had recorded there.
What was it like when the band had Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page playing simultaneously?
Well, it was very good…sometimes. I wouldn’t say it was very good all the time, or even very often (laughing). The sound was extremely full and they were battling with each other; their egos were battling with each other most of the gigs. But when it came together it was fantastic! I remember doing a show where we were playing on a tour with The Rolling Stones. It was 1966, and I remember doing this gig and it was a night where they were on and we did this great show, and we had to do more than one standing ovation for the thing. We’d done one encore and we went off, then you could see the crowd were really going off, wanting more and more. I saw the Stones looking very worried, and they left in a bit in order to calm down before they went on.
Ha! The Stones had to go leave a bit to calm down!
But most of the time it was a bit crazy, really.
Jim, what do you feel about comparisons between the Yardbirds and Led Zeppelin?
Well obviously there’s gonna be a comparison because they more or less started…Jimmy started the band on our stage act. They basically filled in some of the work. When they started they were the ‘New Yardbirds’, and they did a couple of tours we were due to do, but we weren’t doing because we had split up.
We’d split up because we were very tired and we were pretty fed up with playing night after night, and playing everywhere in the world and not having much of a rest. We were really sort of drained. We didn’t have much energy and we’d been playing basically the same material the whole time, apart from the next music single or whatever you know, a few different songs.
Jimmy went and found musicians who were really fresh. In their first album, they sort of had it all laid out, more or less. The songs must have come together fairly easily because some of those things were based on songs we’d played. And they were all fresh and technically great musicians at the time. John Paul Jones had played on a few of our sessions before, anyway. He was a great musician. John Bonham you know was a fantastic drummer. They had a great band, and they were all fresh. I think they were bound to sound alot better than we did, lol.
In the writing and/or recording of such, which of The Yardbirds’ songs is particularly memorable to you?
Well, I think it was always great to do something that worked. “For Your Love” for instance, we were really looking for a hit. All our contemporaries had enjoyed hits and we needed to have a hit to keep going upwards. The way we were going we really needed a hit, and we’d tried lots of different things. Suddenly, we were confronted with this demo disc that got pulled into our manager’s flat in London. It was a demo of “For Your Love”, and we actually took it in the studio and we decided to do it a certain way. Recording it in the first take it was obvious it was gonna happen and that was something very exciting when you could say “Wow! What a great sound!” It wasn’t a great Blues song, but it was an exciting sound, and we all locked together for the backing track.
I suppose that was the same on “Shapes of Things” and “Over, Under, Sideways, Down.” When we went into Sun Studios we were working with Sam Phillips, who’d done all those great Elvis songs and R&B songs, and that was great. That was funny because at the session we’d been sitting around waiting for him, and apparently he’d gone fishing or something, rather than come to the studio!
That was rude, lol!
It was another idea of our manager, who I must say did have some good ideas. Keith got a bit fed up with hanging around, and he’d been drinking a bit. So when we went in to do our stuff, he couldn’t really…he was a bit drunk and he couldn’t really sing properly! So Sam was saying: “Well, you know it’s a good band. You’ve got a good band here…but you’re gonna have to get rid of the singer, ’cause he can’t cut it!” not realizing that he was a bit drunk! But he did do the vocals at another time when he was sober. That was just a bad moment for him, but a funny story!
Of the many classic Yardbirds songs, which is your favorite and why?
I love “Shapes of Things.” I think that’s the best song that we wrote. I’m very proud of that song, and it’s very pleasing to think that other people have recorded it too:Rush and David Bowie and other people have done it. But “Smokestack Lightning” was always one of my favorites because it’s such an exciting groove. Howlin’ Wolf really had that groove about him; that very excitng sort of guitar riff going on. Then we’d sorta go down then we’d come up and build it up and it was a real classic. I think that’s my favorite, and we still play it now.
When you were writing and recording songs during your days with the Yardbirds, technology in music-in every aspect of music-was nowhere near as sophisticated as it is today. Did that affect how your songs were written, and how did that affect the creative process in the studio?
I don’t think it did affect it so much, because it’s only about getting a song down really to sound good when you’re creating. We didn’t really…well, I suppose we did create some of the stuff in the studio, but some of the best songs we’d work on elsewhere.
I think it was all about that combination of people in the band. Paul Samwell-Smith was a great, creative person. He was great to work with. It was a great team: Paul, Keith, myself, Jeff and Chris. Jeff would really come in afterward, after the structure was pretty well set, and just put his own stamp on it and really transform it into something really wonderful. We’re talking about things like “Shapes of Things”, where he came in with that incredible solo part of it, and also “Over, Under, Sideways, Down” where he really did take a part in that fantastic riff that really made the song. So I’d say it was a very good team and that’s not always easy to find: a good team of people working together for the same purpose. We were all quite fresh and young and enjoying experimentation, which is a bit more difficult these days.
Jim, you’ve said in previous interviews that when you first began writing songs it was a collaborative process, and only later were you confident enough in your capabilities to write solo. Do you prefer writing songs solo, or do you prefer writing as a collaborative process?
Well, I do prefer writing solo now, in that way I find it difficult to collaborate. I found it was something kinda magical in those days; we did have that chemistry within the band and we were at that stage where we wanted to experiment. But I do like to, sort of…yeah, I find it easier now because I find I can tune in a bit more. I do better on my own. They’re not always Yardbirds songs, they can be quite gentle songs. Yeah, I enjoy writing on my own now.
Part 2 on Wednesday, July 11, 2012