As drummer for The Yardbirds, Jim McCarty co-wrote many of their classic songs and helped create an innovative new sound that shaped the history of rock. It was a tumultuous five years where Jim played with Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page. He went on to form the progressive rock band Renaissance with Yardbirds vocalist Keith Relf, and released solo albums in 1994 (Out of the Dark) and 2009 (Sitting on the Top of Time).
The Yardbirds were a no-brainer for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, going in with Jimi Hendrix and Johnny Cash in 1992.
The Yardbirds were a no-brainer for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, going in with Jimi Hendrix and Johnny Cash in 1992.
Carl Wiser (Songfacts): Jim, I was reading this old NME article from 1965, and somebody asked you about what the Who were doing, and you said, "Well, the Yardbirds and the Who are the only groups doing anything new right now." What were you doing that was new?
Jim McCarty: Right. Back in '65, we were experimenting with our sound. Experimenting in sounds and experimenting with different rhythms, changing rhythms within songs. We started playing like the Who, as well. We started playing R&B songs that we had coming from the States: Howling Wolf, Jimmy Reed, Bo Diddley and stuff. We were very keen on that sort of music, because it was something very fresh to us, and very exciting. It had all the elements of rock and roll music, and something else on top, some sort of raw emotion to it, so we started playing that. And then we wanted to put our own identity into it, so we all put our ideas into the pot and we came up with things like those big buildups we did, which became known as the Rave Up, sort of all coming up to a big crescendo and then coming down again very quietly and changing the tempos within the songs, and also using mad effects on the guitar, which Jeff was very good at, Jeff Beck. We were really trying to find an original sound and having fun doing it, as well.
Songfacts: Were you ever consciously trying to create a hit song?
Jim: It was very difficult, actually. (laughing) That's probably the hardest thing to try and do. Every time we tried to do that it never really succeeded. I suppose we were lucky in that when we did "Shapes of Things" it was like a hit song, but we were really coming from not trying to create a sort of a 3-minute piece of music, it was just something that seemed natural to us. We started with the rhythm, we used a bass riff that came from a jazz record, got a groove going with that and then added a few other bits from elsewhere, other ideas that we'd had. And I think it was a great success for us, it was a good hit record that wasn't really selling out. And it was original.
Songfacts: Where did the lyrics come from to the Yardbirds songs that you wrote?
Jim: Well, the "Shapes of Things" was very much about the state of the situation in the country with the Vietnam War, so it was sort of an anti-war song. "Over Under Sideways Down" was more about the situation of having a good time - a bit of decadence, really - in the '60s. Cars and girls are easy to come by in this day and age, and laughing, drinking, smoking, whatever, till I've spent my wages, having fun. "Still I'm Sad," Paul (Samwell-Smith) really came up with those lyrics. It was very reflective, quite sensitive about losing it, losing a girlfriend or whatever, and about things he saw in nature. We had all sorts of ideas, and then obviously there's the typical blues lyric. I think the lyrics were something we were quite interested in doing. But they ranged from all sorts of things. Keith and Paul were particularly good at those.
Songfacts: Was it a group effort?
Jim: Yeah, it would have been a group effort. On "Over Under Sideways Down" I think we all put in our bit. I put in a tune, somebody else said, "How about the state of things at the moment, it's all over the place, so it's sort of over, under, Sideways, down." On "Happenings Ten Years Time Ago," Keith and I were trying to write a song about reincarnation. We'd seen everything before, and it was all happening again. That was quite an interesting viewpoint, really. Meeting people along our way that we'd seen from another day. I can't remember exactly the lyric, but sort of bringing in that situation that we'd been there before. "For Your Love," that was written by someone else. (laughs) But we liked to explore lyrics.
Songfacts: Would the lyrics come first, or would the music come first?
Jim: The music always came first. Yeah, the best thing was getting the groove first. The groove, the riff of the song, and then the lyrics came on top of that. And then the tune maybe, as well, that would come before the lyrics. But the tune would usually come over the groove. But we had a good combination of people, with Paul and Keith, Jeff, Chris and me, and that lineup. We all contributed and worked very well together. We seemed to work well as a unit to make up stuff. And, in fact, Roger (Cameron), the engineer of the album, we did one of our first albums, it was originally called The Yardbirds, and we recorded that in about a week in the studio. And a lot of it was written at the time, so we sort of made it up as we went along, and it was great fun. And at the time the albums didn't sell too much; albums were looked upon as just a group's wasting a bit of time in the studio. But now it seems to be taken as a classic album.
Songfacts: Tell me about how the grooves come together. I'm trying to get a sense for if you would start it off, or if you would start with a guitar lick, or just how these musical tracks came together.
Jim: Yeah. It's a good question. With "The Shapes of Things" I came up with a marching type of rhythm that I tried to make interesting. And at the end of each line we'd build up like we used to do with some of our stage stuff - the rave ups. And then the bass riff came on top of that. And the bass riff was loosely based on a Dave Brubeck song, sort of a jazz song, around a doo doo doo doo doo doo, and then the chords came over that. The chords were very basic, came between the two tones, I think G and F, and then resolving it in D, each verse. And then the tune came on top of that. In fact, I remember putting the backing track down, which sounded great. I wasn't at the session where Keith made up the tune, and when I heard the tune, I thought, Oh, that's great. It's a real surprise. He made up the tune, and then we had this sort of "Come tomorrow," but that was part of the song, anyway, at the beginning. So it was an exciting song to be involved in.
Songfacts: A lot happened in your five years with the Yardbirds. At the time, were you enjoying yourself?
Jim: It's very much up and down. Yeah, it was very much like a microcosm of a life, really. Very extreme, because we'd go from being on top of the charts and going to fantastic places and traveling to places like California that were just our dream after being in a sort of post-war London, which was rather dismal and rather miserable. Suddenly we were going to sunny California where things were happening and things were rich and there were lovely girls and cars and everything. From that to sitting all night in a bus driving to a gig and not being able to stop and feeling absolutely wretched from being so tired. And getting on each other's nerves and arguing. (laughing) So it's very much the extreme life.
Songfacts: It sounds like you guys learned a tremendous amount working together. And it's interesting following your solo career and how you're not just a drummer; you do write the lyrics, you do have an overall knowledge of music. Did that come from your work in the Yardbirds?
Jim: Well, it must have helped a lot, yeah. I've always been interested in lots of different musical ideas and I've had tunes going through my head, and it did help me to express those. So to contribute those to the songs and gain some confidence that I could do it was important. And after the Yardbirds split up I taught myself the chords, because at the time I couldn't really play any other instruments. So I taught myself how to play chords on the piano and guitar. And then I could have a lot more fun because I could write songs with the chords as well. But I relied very much on Paul and Keith, really, to work in those days, to write songs. But yeah, it must have helped me an incredible amount.
Songfacts: How did you guys feel about the Graham Gouldman songs? (Gouldman, who later formed 10cc, wrote the Yardbirds hits "For Your Love," "Evil Hearted You" and "Heart Full of Soul.")
Jim: Well, they were always very original. Very interesting songs, very moody, because they were usually in a minor key, the ones we did, anyway. "For Your Love" was an interesting song, it had an interesting chord sequence, very moody, very powerful. And the fact that it stopped in the middle and went into a different time signature, we liked that, that was interesting. Quite different, really, from all the bluesy stuff that we'd been playing up till then. But somehow we liked it. It was original and different. "Heart Full of Soul" also, very moody, gave us the ability to play the riff in sort of an Eastern way, give it an Oriental touch. Another very good song. Same with "Evil Hearted You," they were all very moody but very good songs. And of course the stuff he did with the Hollies also were very good. "Bus Stop" and "Look Through Any Window," great songs.
Songfacts: And you guys had no problem recording the work of another songwriter?
Jim: No. No, really. To try and get a hit song in those days was quite a difficult thing to do for us. We could come up with ideas, but our first hit song was very important for us. And with "For Your Love" we heard it and had the demo of it and it sounded like a hit song to all of us. Yeah, there wasn't a problem doing that. It was the sort of thing that you relied on to get into that other echelon, to have a hit song. All our contemporaries were having hit songs: The Beatles and the Stones and the Moody Blues and Animals, they were all having Number 1 hits and we were really trying to keep up.
Songfacts: That's interesting. I can see how at the time it must have been frustrating not having a hit. Because you would have no idea how validated you guys would become - being so revered and in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Jim: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. But it was quite an art, because everything we recorded, all the stuff that we played live and we recorded in the studio, it just sounded really tame. The studios weren't so good then, they weren't really geared for playing rock and roll or blues music. And all the ideas that we'd had up to "For Your Love" just sounded awful. And so "For Your Love" was the song that would sound good anyway, because it was a much more commercial song.
Songfacts: Based on that answer, it sounds like a problem was the production, or was it the fact that when they put you guys in a studio, you just couldn't play like you could when you were on stage?
Jim: It's a sort of funny combination, really. If we went in the studio today, if we went in the right studio and played some of our live stuff now, it would sound exciting. But in those days it was difficult to produce that excitement. And it was only on our live album, live at the Marquis, 5 Live Yardbirds, that we achieved some excitement out of playing live. We had some sort of magic that was missing playing in a very cold studio room.
Songfacts: And Jimmy Page then went on to be a very successful producer. He was able to take that live sound for Led Zeppelin and put it on the records.
Jim: Well, I think studios had improved by then, and some of the English engineers he worked with, people like Andy Johns, who was a great engineer, Glyn Johns and Andy Johns, they were some of the first engineers that were very good. And they managed to get that rock and roll sound. I think Led Zeppelin were one of the first groups in those days, like late '60s, early '70s, where they really achieved that sound for that sort of music, for that really heavy rock music. Up till then, you couldn't really turn the guitar up, or turn the guitar down too much, for the studio.
Songfacts: Which of the Yardbirds guitarists were your favorite to work with?
Jim: Well, they were all very good. I liked them in different ways. I think Jeff was very good to work with in that he was a very spontaneous, very wild player; very creative, and he would never play anything twice. So I enjoyed it playing from that point of view. But of course he was very - well, how can I say - you never really quite knew what was going to happen with him. So he could go into a mood at a gig and lose his temper. So although he was spontaneous, you never really knew. But Jimmy Page in those days was much more grounded. And much more business-like. I know people laugh when I say that. And he was good to work with, because you more or less knew how a gig was going to be. But maybe he wasn't quite as creative and spontaneous as Jeff.
Songfacts: What about Clapton?
Jim: Eric - yeah, Eric was very good. He played some great stuff. Very pure guitar player, very purist, very blues oriented guitar, great timing. But he also was quite difficult to work with in that he'd be quite moody and he was really destined, like Jeff, to be his own guy, to be a solo player. And he had trouble working with a band, in a band situation. So he'd often be very moody and very stand-offish with the rest of us.
Jim's 2009 album Sitting On The Top of Time is more in the style of Renaissance: easy on the drums with a prominent flute by Ron Korb. Musicians on the album include George Koller, Steve Hackett and Jean-Michel Kajdan.
Songfacts: I thought it was interesting when you were talking about how quickly you were recording some of these Yardbirds songs, and then when I look at your Sitting On The Top of Time album, you recorded that over the course of years.
Jim: (laughing) Yeah, that's only because I was in and out of the studio. It was quite quick, really, because I just did it in slots. So it was more of an add-on after a tour. So I'd do a tour in America, and then go back to Toronto for a couple of weeks and record a few sessions. And then wait for the next tour and do the same. So overall it wasn't really that long a time in the studio.
Songfacts: All right. So it wasn't like you were agonizing over every note.
Jim: (laughing) No, no. And I'd go back home and write some more songs or change songs around and come back again and do a different arrangement. It was quite a nice way to work.
Songfacts: What's one of the songs that you're really proud of off of this album?
(Jim's "Sitting On The Top of Time")
Jim: Well, let's see, I think "Living From The Inside Out," I'm proud of that, I think that worked out very well. "Hummingbird" worked well. "Sitting On The Top of Time," those three I'm quite proud of.
Songfacts: Describe to me lyrically what's going on in the album as a whole, and in some of the songs.
Jim: Lyrically it's about very much being in the present moment. "Living From the Inside Out" is about coming from the inside, how you live your life, rather than letting everything else affect you. Capturing a strength inside and living from that, as opposed to relying on everything else for your life. "Sitting On The Top of Time" is about just living in the present moment. I always felt somehow that everything I did was about being in front of time. In fact, I was maybe having ideas that were too advanced for people to understand, and then I suddenly had this thought that suddenly I was sitting on top of time, so I would say right on the time. Difficult to explain it. But it's about living in the present moment, everything coming from that state of mind.
Songfacts: I'm getting the sense that you're a rather spiritual person?
Jim: Yeah, I suppose I am. I've followed various philosophies during my life. I've gone through spiritual healing and also I've studied Buddhism - I've been a follower of Buddhism for a while. So I've been through quite a few different spiritual journeys as part of my own journey. And yeah, I would say I'm quite a spiritual person.
We spoke with Jim on November 3, 2010. His website is jimmccarty.co.uk.