Gary James' Interview With
Chris Dreja Of
Their name is one of the most recognized names in all of Rock 'n' Roll's history, as well it should be. Their hits include "For Your Love", "Over, Under, Sideways, Down" and "Heart Full Of Soul". Some of the most famous guitarists in the world passed through the band, guitarists like Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and Jeff Back. They are The Yardbirds. Yarbird member Chris Dreja spoke with us.
Q - Chris, I understand you're in the U.S. for only a week or ten days?
A - On this run we finish on the 30th of May (2010). We're doing eight shows on this trip. Then we return back to Europe on the 1st of June (2010).
Q - Do you then tour Europe? You break up the dates, do you?
A - Yes, we're doing some U.K. stuff. Stuff in Scandinavia, Germany, Portugal and then later in the year we're working with John Mayall, doing a tour in France actually. So it's kind of gets spread around.
Q - You would probably burn out on a three or four month tour, wouldn't you?
A - Well, I think it is a bit too much 'cause if you do these couple of week hits, you're fresh. You can give a lot of energy into it. You don't sort of tire out. Then you take a break and then you're fresh for the next set of shows. It seems to work well for us, I must be honest.
Q - Where are you booked to perform?
A - As always with The Yardbirds, it's eclectic. So far, we've done one theatre show for a few thousand seater. Then we did the Chesapeake Blues Festival with Buddy Guy. That was great. They must've had quite a few thousand people there. Day before yesterday we did a smallish club in Ohio and we're playing a theatre tonight and then we head down to New York to play B.B. King's. So it's kind of real mixed up, which is great because you can get close-up audiences. It's the way I like to work because you get a bit of everything. You meet people. It's not like doing big shows where you never get to meet anybody. You never have that contact.
Q - What are fans saying to you after they've seen The Yardbirds perform?
A - Well, what they say to us is why do I perform still, how much affection there is for our music and how timeless it is, what we bring to their lives, just don't stop. (laughs) I mean, that's young and old 'cause we're picking up a real cross breed of audience now. We're getting teenagers coming to say hello afterwards, our generation and the generation below them. It's amazing really. As they say, it is the reason to do the shows, to do the music. We took a long break don't forget and then came back to it. So that music still has that freshness and of course we've added new material which sounds well with the old material and has been well accepted with the fans. So yes, it seems to work good.
Q - It's so nice to talk to a rhythm guitar player. So often I'm talking to lead guitarists. In the '60s you had rhythm players like Brian Jones, John Lennon and yourself. How important was your rhythm guitar playing to the success of The Yardbirds?
A - I'm part of the rhythm section. My ears have to pretty much be open to all the nuances going on with the lead player and picking up the vibe from the audience. I guess we're like The Jam really. We're the... Other-wise you get gaps if you just have a lead player. I guess like Lennon and especially Brian Jones I provide a certain sound which is typically very Yardbirds. I don't know how essential it is. I hope it is fairly essential. (laughs)
Q - Rhythm guitar playing seems to be a lost art.
A - It's funny, I do documentaries a lot in Europe with Arte and the BBC and people like that. They've just done a series called I'm In A Rock 'n' Roll Band, which is a major production from the BBC. It's sort of tackling drummers, guitar players, lead guitar players, rhythm players and bass players 'cause I was a bass player as well.
Q - I knew that.
A - And they sort of categorize us as the others. It's kind of interesting because you have your lead players who sort of have their gimmicks, egos and everything else. You've got crazy drummers and you've got the front man who's always sort of linked up with the lead player. Then you've got the others which is the bass players and the rhythm guitar players. Inevitably the personalities of those people like the rhythm and the bass guitars are very much that we can work between everybody in the band. We're not up front. We don't appear into the black, but we kind of keep it all sticking together.
Q - Did you come up with the name for this group? The Yardbirds is a great name.
A - We came up with that with the original members of the band because we were a band formed from two bands. The Yardbirds was originally Top Top, myself and Jim McCartey. Then we met up with a band that was calling themselves The Metropolis Blues Five or something like that, which is an incredibly boring name. So, we just sat down one day and went through a lot of possibles and it was very much Jack Kerovac country in those days and there was this Yardbird thing that came up. It was basically like a hobo that traveled from town to town and we felt very much as we were traveling from town to town. We thought that was not only very original sort of sounding name for a sort of Beat group as you like, but it kind of matched what we were doing. I'm glad we chose it. Had we been The Metropolis Blues Five, we probably would never have been heard of. (laughs)
Q - There's probably some truth to that. The name Yardbirds is sort of ageless and timeless.
A - Well, that's how I hope the music is as well.
Q - I ask this next question to any musician who started their career in Britain in the '50s; what accounts for all these young kids picking up guitars and starting bands? It had to be more than just Lonnie Donegan and Elvis, didn't it?
A - Well of course it did. You're talking especially in Europe. You're talking just a few years after the war ended and we had a very tough time in England and Europe. I mean, it was pretty dismal. There was nothing for the kids to do. We also had a society that was very... How can I put it? Structured. You don't have that in this country. We have like aristocracy, establishment. They can't rule the roost. There's nothing for kids. But the British government did an amazing thing. They opened up an education system called The Arts School System. If you draw anything you get in, a lot of musicians come from that background, Clapton, myself, Lennon. What it did is, it just gave us terrific freedom. I know we all skived off and played guitar in the cafes. We didn't attend lessons. Very few of us had discovered your amazing Black Blues stuff. Music was very stilted back in those days in our country. This amazing music was so emotionally...how can I put it? It just hit the button. A few of us traveled across towns to meet someone who maybe had another album. Basically it was about creative freedom. It was about kids saying "Hey! Here we are. There's no war on. We're alive. We need to do something for ourselves." Of course you could buy a cheap guitar from a pawn shop and try and create a band. It all stemmed from suppression I guess and not having a voice. It exploded very quickly 'cause it wasn't just people picking up guitars. It was people becoming photographers. It was people becoming designers. Suddenly it was hip to be young and we were able to crack the establishment and get into a position of acceptance.
Q - So, The Yardbirds got into the Blues, but not Pop music. What Pop music would have been around at the time? Cliff Richard?
A - Cliff, bless him. He's an institution in England, but he's a pale imitation of Elvis. The French have Johnny Halliday, who's huge in France, but probably not known elsewhere. We wanted to do something original. As I say, we had people like Adam Faith. Very nice little Pop songs, but no emotion, whereas with the Blues we started to stretch the Blues' power changes. If you played that music with the energy our band had in front of a young, 'live' audience, they just came alive. They weren't the polite thing anymore. (laughs)
Q - Over here in America, besides groups like The Beach Boys, we had novelty songs. I'm talking about that period before The British Invasion of 1964.
A - There was a period in the '60s where there were novelty songs, The Monster Mash, but they are novelty. The music we wanted to play, we wanted it to have emotion and be eclectic and be ground-breaking. That's why The Yardbirds broke every rule in the book at the time, and I thank God we did.
Q - Did you guys play the Hamburg, Germany clubs?
A - We got our chops by playing clubs in London. We were a London band. We used to play like nine nights a week. We did all-nighters, triple gigs and God knows what. We didn't do what the Northern bands did like The Beatles. We kind of did our chops down South, clubs like Studio 51, The Scene Club, The Marquee, The Crawdaddy, The Riki-Tik.
Q - You performed at The Crawdaddy where The Stones performed. Had you seen The Stones perform there?
A - Oh, yeah, yeah, regularly.
Q - Did you feel they were a hard act to follow?
A - Absolutely. We were different then The Stones. We decided we would play different sort of material. We were very different from The Stones. In fact, Giorgio Gomelsky, who sort of managed The Stones at the time, auditioned us and realized luckily we would be a perfect foil. But going into the club, The Stones had a huge following. But luckily, within three or so weeks we had our own following and it all worked out really well.
Q - Your first tour of the U.S. was in August, 1965. That was really at the height of The British Invasion. What was that like for you guys?
A - Well, you have to understand that in our country we did not understand the situation with Black and White people, the Apartheid that really was going on over here. Initially it was a shock to us. We thought that you'd know the Blues...the White people. But you really didn't know the Blues. That was certainly one thing that stuck us. And of course, we were fed a sort of diet of a couple of show like 77 Sunset Strip. America was sort of the land of milk and honey to us Europeans. (laughs) And it was. Let's be honest, you know. It was quite a shock to come over and we learned very quickly there were problems in America. The crossover with music was kind of strange. We didn't realize that. I suppose we were the bridge, that British Invasion. The bridge between getting Black Blues music to make a crossover into the White audience. Although we were a copy band, we did sort of instigate that change, The Stones, The Animals.
Q - I always find it rather strange that prior to 1964, here in the United States, we didn't' hear about what was going on musically in England. Then I remind myself there was no internet, cable TV or cell phones back then.
A - America is an isolated country. You're a world with your own world here. Let's be honest here, only 10% of your population has passports, according to statistics. You have everything in this country. You're very self-sufficient. In those days things were done by telegraph (laughs) and then sort of primitively. The English, to the Americans in those days, were butlers. We lived in Tudor houses, we wore bowler hats and we very, very parochial. So finally when these young kids came over playing these hot guitars, it was revelation and your youngsters just went for it. And I guess they liked the English accent too.
Q - And don't forget the long hair.
A - Yeah. We brought long hair, crazy clothes. We shook you up, man. (laughs)
Q - That you did.
A - It's like writing Americans were all taught American calligraphy. And of course English people don't write like that. They all have their own handwriting. Very individual. So when we came along, a lot of people realized we weren't conformists. It was a huge revelation. I don't blame the kids for sort of wanting to branch out and experiment at all.
Q - According to Billy Harry's The Ultimate Encyclopedia, "the Yardbirds appeared on The Beatles' Christmas shows at The Odeon, Hammersmith in 1964, during which they had a ten minute spot."
A - That's right.
Q - Ten minutes? What can you play in ten minutes?
A - Well, on a lot of those shows in the early days were a bit Vaudevillian. They weren't as modern Rock shows as we know them now. The Beatles actually appeared as television characters from Dr. Who. There were various spots and there was a compere. And in those days, if you went on a tour and had a hit record you would only get ten to twenty minutes to play because there might be three, four or five acts on the show. Anyway, the kids just screamed pretty much. (laughs)
Q - You didn't care?
A - Well, we cared 'cause we were into the music. You could play your hit and maybe a couple of other songs, but that's really all you had time for.
Q - You were also on the bill for The Beatles' final concert appearance in Britain on May 1st, 1966 at the Empire Pool, Wembley. What was that like?
A - That was in Paris wasn't it?
Q - Bill Harry has it in England.
A - I don't remember that to be honest. Well the thing with The Beatles was you could never hear the music. People were chucking all sorts of things at them. I remember once John Lennon, after the show, when they swept the stage, he came out to me with a gift wrapped piece of coal. That hits you on the head, that's not funny.
Q - At one point you had Peter Grant as your manager. What kind of a manager was he?
A - He was a great manager for the time. He was a hands-on, nuts and bolt. He traveled with the band. He made sure they didn't get screwed. He loved his artists. He changed the music scene. He was responsible, especially with Zeppelin of course because they had such a huge audience, he changed the percentage points around between the record companies and the artists and the promoters. He was just a fantastic manager.
Q - And he died so young! 60 years old.
A - He was very over-weight. He unfortunately had developed a drug habit. It's ironic because we had just done a documentary with Peter Grant which he appeared in. The night it went out, he died, which is kind of a coincidence really. A shame. He was great. He loved his artists. He would die for his artists. I can't praise him enough. I really can't. Musicians owe him a lot. Unfortunately the whole business has changed now in the last ten years because of technology, but he was a very un-sung hero in getting it more artist oriented.
Q - When The Yardbirds broke up, you did what? At one point, you were a photographer? Is that what you did professionally between 1968 and 1992?
A - Thirty-two years as a professional photographer. That's a pretty good career I thought. (laughs)
Q - What were you taking pictures of?
A - I started of doing reportage, even taking pictures on the road in the '60s, which I used to sell to American magazines. Then I discovered studio photography and went out when the band quit. I lived in America. I free-lanced with people like Irving Penn and Dick Richards. I learned a lot of my profession in New York. I lived there for three years. So, I personally have done the two things I love the most, which was both music and photography.
Q - The best of both worlds.
A - I have no regrets, I must be honest. The passion, the love for the art form did provide me with a living and that's all you need really.