So here's the big question: While many remember the Yardbirds as the quintessential '60s blues/rock/pop powerhouse, are they still mighty in 2011?
According to a recent glowing review in The Washington Post, the legendary U.K. band is still blowing away audiences.
"It often gets a laugh, news that a 1960s band is touring again. How can geezers still rock? But with the Yardbirds, you've got to hold the chuckles.
Guitarist Ben King (from left), bassist David Smale, singer Andy Mitchell, drummer Jim McCarty and rhythm guitarist Chris Dreja.
"Two of the original members - rhythm guitarist Chris Dreja and drummer Jim McCarty - are still with the band, but the three young musicians they've discovered clearly believe the Yardbirds remain relevant. The songs were vintage, but they were as politically current as ever, and they were performed with power and passion."
The rejuvenated band has even gotten the thumbs up from Jimmy Page, one of their former guitar god members.
"He rang me up and said, 'How are you old boy? I heard you the other day and it was jolly good,' " jokes Yardbirds' co-founder Chris Dreja.
The Yardbirds perform at the Maui Arts and Cultural Center's Castle Theater at 7:30 p.m. Friday. Tickets are $35, $45 and $55 plus applicable fees, available from the MACC box office, 242-7469, www.mauiarts.org. A portion of proceeds will benefit the Hawaiian Lifeguard Association's Jr. Lifeguard Program.
"Actually he rang me when I was buying something at Ikea and said, 'I just want to say you guys are keeping the legend really alive.' I was quite surprised; it was really nice.
"Jim (McCarty) and I were asked some years ago by an agent about the possibility of putting the band back together. It's a legendary band, so you don't want to screw it. You have to get the integrity right and we would only do it if that was in place. And luckily we've managed to get it back in place, and re-establish the band on quite a few levels. It feels really fresh to play that great music again."
One of the most influential, innovative bands of the '60s, the Yardbirds at their peak had no rival.
While not as famous as their British Invasion contemporaries the Beatles, the Stones and the Who, this iconic, pioneering blues-based combo introduced three of the greatest guitarists of rock - Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page.
"Their innovations - a revved-up instrumental attack, controlled use of feedback, distortion and fuzz, and live, improvisational jams they called 'rave ups' - paved the way for psychedelic rock, progressive rock, heavy metal, Southern boogie and even punk," noted a Rolling Stone profile.
Aerosmith's Steven Tyler raved about the band in Rolling Stone's "100 Greatest Artists of all Time." "I was in such awe," he recalled seeing them for the first time. "They played like no other band. I know how great the Yardbirds were, but I don't think everyone else knows it. The Yardbirds' music is a gold mine waiting to be stumbled upon."
The group's superb debut recording, "Five Live Yardbirds," (featuring incendiary covers of Howlin' Wolf's "Smokestack Lightning" and Bo Diddley's "I'm a Man") was recorded in 1964 at London's legendary Marquee club. It has been hailed as one of the best live albums to come out of the 1960s British rock 'n' roll boom. One reviewer proclaimed, "as for the music, this starts off being the greatest white fellow R&B rock 'n' roll show you've ever heard in your life."
"Every Friday or Saturday night we played one of the London clubs," Dreja recalls. "We had terrible trouble trying to get our sound out, because in those days with the technicians, nothing could go in the red. But the audiences were so great, especially at the Marquee. They propelled you forward with their energy. It was extraordinary.
"The timing was great too. Postwar it was all a bit dull for us kids. Everything was in black and white and that's why it's such a special decade. It wasn't just the music, it was the film and theater and fashion and writing. It was unrepeatable."
Like the Stones and Beatles, the Yardbirds were an antidote to the gloom of 1950s England. Pockets of rebellion included the port city of Liverpool and just south of London in the genteel county of Surrey, where a bunch of aspiring young musicians gravitated to Chicago-style blues.
"We were white kids who discovered black American blues," he explains. "There were a few of us who seemed to meet up with our odd albums, and we all seemed to have come from Surrey, like Eric (Clapton) and myself."
Initially formed as The Metropolis Blues Quartet, by 1963 the Yardbirds lineup featured core members Keith Relf (vocals, harmonica), Chris Dreja (rhythm guitar), Paul Samwell-Smith (bass) and Jim McCarty (drums), in addition to lead guitarist Anthony "Top" Topham, who was soon replaced by Eric Clapton.
After the band took over the Rolling Stones' residency at the Crawdaddy Club, they became a hot attraction on the city's R&B scene.
"It all happened so fast," Dreja notes. "We took over from the Stones at the Crawdaddy in Richmond. We hung around with them a bit. Brian Jones wanted to manage us for a while. We'd meet on the road and follow what everybody was doing. In those days there weren't that many bands around. In the south you had the Stones, the Who and the Yardbirds. In the middle bit you had the Animals, and up north you had those other nice guys, the Beatles. They did good."
At this moment in the story we'll fast-forward to December 1964, when the Beatles invited the Yardbirds to open their weeklong Christmas show.
"Every year they would do a Christmas show in London and we were an on-the-scene band at the time," he explains. "It was when we had Clapton in the band. It was more like a vaudeville show, quite amusing. At the time there was a TV show called 'Dr. Who' and the Beatles were dressed as yetis (alien robots in the series).
"At one point Rolls Royce brought all these cars to the backstage of the theater with these guys in chauffer caps driving around the parking lot with a whole range of cars. That was when John Lennon got the white one he painted psychedelic.
"We were looking for a single at that time and they didn't actually write anything for us, but John Lennon did recommend a couple of numbers. One afternoon Paul McCartney came into our dressing room and said, 'What do you think of this, guys?' And he sat down with an acoustic guitar and played a song he called 'Scrambled Eggs,' which later evolved into 'Yesterday.' It was an extraordinary moment.
"Another funny story - every night you couldn't hear the Beatles or us really because the girls were screaming so much. They used to throw things at them, and one night John Lennon came over to me. 'Look at this,' he says. It was a lump of coal, gift-wrapped. 'That's why I want to stop touring, they chuck things at us all the time.' Every time they were on, they had two guys with massive brooms to sweep the stage."
The Yardbirds' 1960s career can be divided into three periods, reflecting three amazing lead guitar players - the formative Eric Clapton blues period, the experimental pop of Jeff Beck's reign and the final quartet with Jimmy Page, which seeded the heavy rock of Led Zeppelin.
"I was an electric guitar player for a long time and when Jimmy joined he played bass," Dreja notes. "And we had Jimmy and Jeff together which was not such a great thing in many ways. When we became a four-piece, I switched to electric bass."
The band's first hit, the moody "For Your Love," prompted Clapton to exit to pursue the blues with John Mayall. In his place stepped the phenomenal Jeff Beck, who helped propel the band to new creative heights.
While "Five Live" was not released in the U.S., American audiences did get to hear a patched-together album "Having A Rave Up," which included some Marquee tracks and some of their greatest studio recordings including "You're A Better Man Than I," a stunning "I'm a Man," the majestic "Heart Full Of Soul" (where Beck transforms his guitar into a sitar), and the full-tilt rocker "The Train Kept A-Rollin,' " later adopted by Aerosmith.
Then in 1966 came "Over, Under, Sideways, Down" (just titled "Yardbirds" in the U.K.), an extraordinary work that included both Beck and Jimmy Page playing on the apocalyptic-sounding "Happenings Ten Years Time Ago."
Released around the same time as the Beatles' "Revolver" and predating both "Fresh Cream" and Hendrix's "Are You Experienced," the album paved the way for modern hard rock and the entry of psychedelic music, with no other guitarist at the time sounding as inventive as Jeff Beck.
"They did things with harmonics - minor thirds and fifths - that created this ethereal, monstrous sound," Steven Tyler noted in his Rolling Stone tribute.
The band's burgeoning popularity prompted "American Bandstand" host Dick Clark to book them on one of his "Caravan of Stars" tours.
"That was really grueling," Dreja recalls. "I think he got all these old, clapped-out Greyhound buses and refitted them for his stars, i.e. us and other people. It was really tough, driving all night long, doing two or three shows a day."
It was during this arduous trek that Beck quit.
"That was when Jeff decided to have his nervous breakdown," he adds.
With Page at the guitar helm, the band shrank to a quartet and released one official album, "Little Games," which included an adaptation of a traditional English folk song, the Middle-Eastern flavored instrumental tour-de-force "White Summer," that predated Page's Led Zeppelin folk influences.
A concert recording from this time at New York's Anderson Theatre, "Live Yardbirds Featuring Jimmy Page," captures the glory of the band.
Briefly released twice (and subsequently suppressed by Page), it features an extraordinary 12-minute rendition of "I'm a Man" and a dazzling, early version of one of Led Zep's future classics - "Dazed And Confused."
"It was by Jake Holmes and found by Jim," Dreja explains. "We thought it would be great for our band and we played it for quite a while and still do. Jim was fresh to the band and had a lot of ideas. The Anderson Theatre album has so many great arrangements, which he took into Led Zeppelin."
When the rest of the band members decided to throw in the towel, Page briefly carried on as The New Yardbirds to fulfill contractual obligations, and then changed the name to Led Zeppelin.
Deja was invited to photograph the musicians for the back cover of their debut "Led Zeppelin I."
"I wanted to follow my other passion, which was photography, and I'd had enough of waking up to deal with five other maniacs," he says of his departure. "I went on some auditions with Jimmy and it was a nice gesture to do the back cover."
For which he was handsomely paid about $35.
All three stellar guitarists - Clapton, Beck and Page - reunited with the living Yardbirds' members for induction in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992.
Ten years later, a new edition of the band recorded the studio album "Birdland," a guest-heavy comeback collection of new and classic songs featuring guitarists Beck, Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, Slash and Queen's Brian May.
Most recently they released the CD "Live at B.B. Kings," which USA Today praised: "The Yardbirds defy the odds by boasting a singer who sounds uncannily like the late Keith Relf, only maybe more versatile; continuing to employ hotshot guitarists; and playing with a solid approximation of the fire and desire of the original band."
And the Washington Post lauded their new lead guitarist: "The Yardbirds have done it again with Ben King. King cuts a disquietingly similar figure to the young Beck, but even more frightening is his apparent mastery of the Fender Telecaster."
"We've always been known for great guitarists and Ben is absolutely brilliant in all departments," says Dreja. "We're very lucky."
Reflecting on the history of the band, he concludes: "We were these white guys from the Surrey Delta, who loved the blues. That was our roots. But it was very important for us to make music for ourselves, and then we broke a lot of rules and we became very eclectic. Our songs were all very eclectic and different, from pop to rock to heavy metal and rhythm and blues.
"At the end of it, we thought, oh well, there you go. We'll be remembered for a couple of weeks and that will be it. But history has proved otherwise."