Heart Full Of Soul:
Keith Relf Of The Yardbirds
By David French
McFarland Books (198 pp.)
What becomes a legend most? The answer seems obvious, but the outcome is never so clear-cut, as David French makes plain in this thoughtful, first major biography of the Yardbirds' lead singer, whose life ended up brutally cut short at 33, by an accidental electrocution at his home, on May 12, 1976.
However his death passed largely unnoticed, outside of hardcore fan circles, and the handful of colleagues who attended his memorial service. Yet most accounts wrongly gave his death as May 14, grim confirmation – for anyone who needed it – of Keith's nether status at this time in his life. The struggles of a former Yardbird whose glory days seemed long behind him rated fewer column inches, presumably, than the coming of punk rock in Britain, along with the economic convulsions that would give birth to it.
Fortunately for Yardbirds fans, French is keen to set the record straight, and he does so, with gusto. In some ways, it's surprising we've waited this long to see a biography of Relf, the voice of the Yardbirds, who created an insistent, gritty and urgent harmonica style that inspires musicians to this day.
In other ways, it's not that surprising, as the Yardbirds' story is typically told as a training ground for future star guitarists (Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page). As the old joke goes: you've probably heard of these guys. That focus has often left the lesser-known Yardbirds – Keith, Chris Dreja (rhythm guitar, bass) and Paul Samwell-Smith (bass) – in the dust, which Heart Full Of Soul aims to correct.
On one level, it's the story of a fiercely introverted man who battles asthma and emphysema en route to becoming one of the Swinging '60s' gutsiest and most distinctive frontmen. He achieves it by learning on the job, essentially – first, as a street corner busker, and then on the bandstand, as the Yardbirds take off. Naturally, that process brings plenty of growing pains, as fellow busker Laurie Gane tells the author: “We got by, but frankly, we were all learning – learning to play, learning to sing.”
That DIY determinism served Keith well all through his life. As Heart Full Of Soul chugs along, you learn that he was responsible for naming the band; choosing much of the material, especially in the early days; and helping lead the charge to more adventurous terrain. “No one was playing harmonica like that, no one,” Dreja asserts. “No one was riffing with a guitar player like he did.”
Like many lyricists, Keith displayed a knack for coining distinctive phrases, such as his description of the Yardbirds' sound as “new wave pop music” to the Leeds University Union News – a good decade or so before such terms became common currency! Then again, as French points out, the Yardbirds' singer showed himself as someone consistently ahead of the curve, like his colleagues.
Heart Full Of Soul's readers will especially appreciate its middle chapters (“Pop Up,” “Blow Up”), where those “five live Yardbirds” spring vividly to life. Through French's tightly-paced writing, we witness the collision of the band's experimentalist streak – which reached a feverish peak on their '66 LP, Roger The Engineer – against the pressures of chasing the next hit (Keith: “You've got to keep producing new sounds to keep in the running”), and a relentless schedule that slowly erodes morale (such as the 19 gigs, seven TV shots, and four BBC appearances for October 1965 alone).
By 1967, the Yardbirds are splintering apart, as French vividly documents in the aptly-titled chapter, “Dazed And Confused.” The hits are drying up, along with the band's UK profile, while the band sounds increasingly hobbled with poor production and mediocre material. The Yardbirds find temporary solace in America, where crowds seemingly can't get enough of a newly aggressive, improvisational streak that emerges in songs like “Dazed And Confused.”
Yet the center doesn't hold for long. By July 1968, the Yardbirds are no more, leaving their final star guitarist, Jimmy Page, to refine the original blueprint with his next band, Led Zeppelin, to international success. By contrast, Keith is more interested in pursuing the quieter, folkier sounds that have caught his ear, which he does in Renaissance, with drummer Jim McCarty, his closest friend in the Yardbirds, and sister Jane, who joins as an additional vocalist.
At first, all seems well, as Keith vows to keep the PR hounds at bay (“We don't rely on pretty faces”), and forge ahead with his unlikely fusion of folk and progressive rock (“I think our music is the valid new music”). But before long, Renaissance's promise unravels, amid niggling reviews (“sounds like a harpsichord factory struck by a bomb”) and a grueling five-week US tour with bands that sound nothing like them (The Kinks, Savoy Brown).
Feeling worn to a nub once more, the former Yardbirds bail out, even as Led Zeppelin climbs their self-styled “stairway” to platinum nirvana. The news comes as a surreal, if unwelcome reminder of rock's ever- changing fortunes, as McCarty recalls: “We'd given it up and then it really took off big.”
Though he doesn't know it yet, the remainder of Keith's musical life yields more modest returns. He carves out a fairly successful production career with colorfully-named obscurities like Hunter Muskett, and Smokestack Crumble, plus Medicine Head, whose unexpected Relf-produced hit single, “Pictures In The Sky” (#22 UK, June 1971), leads to him joining as their bassist. Only in the freewheeling '70s, right?
Satisfying as these ventures seem, however, Keith can't resist reaching for the brass ring once more. He heads to America and forms Armageddon – whose rip-roaring progressive metal leanings seem as unlikely as anything he's ever done. Still, despite a stellar cast that includes drummer Bobby Caldwell (Captain Beyond), bassist Louis Cennamo (Renaissance, Steamhammer), and guitarist Martin Pugh (Steamhammer), Armageddon's momentum dissipates amid a steady drip-drip-drip of bad breaks.
Eventually, after a difficult slog in the studio, the band's lone album – the last one Keith lived to complete – appears to mixed reviews (“The music is too fast for comfort”), though it's considered an overlooked gem today. Superstar manager Dee Anthony bails out, while a promised tour with Eric Clapton also fizzles, forcing Armageddon to settle for five nights at the Starwood (Santa Monica, CA) – the only shows they'd ever play.
Frustrated and fed up, Keith rejoins his family in Britain by the end of 1975; less than six months later, he'll be dead. French does a fine job of sketching out these developments with crucial insights from his bandmates, and widow April Mannino, who clears up the cobwebs of myth that have surrounded her late husband's death for so long.
We also get equally astute observations from shock rocker Alice Cooper – whose pre-fame band, The Spiders, actually supported the Yardbirds – and Chocolate Watchband lead singer, David Aguilar, who sheds additional light on how they influenced his own presentation style. Anthony “Top” Topham, the “forgotten Yardbird” – whose departure at his parents' behest enabled Clapton to take the guitar slot – offers colorful and useful insights on the band's development, and Keith's role within it, along with McCarty (who's led a revived Yardbirds lineup since 1992).
Notable omissions include “those other guys,” Beck, Clapton, and Page – who are represented through quotes from other magazines – as well as Jane Relf, and Keith's son, Danny. As desirable as these contributions would have been, their absence honestly doesn't hurt Heart Full Of Soul, either, though Beck's quotes are well-chosen. A deep dive critical discography/overview and lots of period photos round out the book's presentation nicely.
Although he died tragically, Keith's life was hardly the slow-walking train wreck it's often made out to be. In reality, French notes, the overall picture was more complex, since Relf and McCarty had planned on forming a new band (Illusion), buoyed by royalties from their Renaissance work. That may have given Keith one more shot at wider success, though he'd probably have benefited from the '80s-era Yardbirds revival, if only he'd lived to see it.
One other measure of Keith's influence are all the bands that reached greater glory without him – notably, Renaissance, and Medicine Head. Yet, with so much going for him, why didn't Keith achieve more as a producer or a solo artist? The major impression conveyed here is a man out of time, one often at odds with himself, and a business that doesn't seem able to understand him.
The best explanation possibly comes from Keith himself, when he sat down for an unlikely interview with the compilers behind the More Golden Eggs bootleg (TMOQ: Trademark Of Quality, 1975): “I guess it's a failing of mine; I walk out of things.” Maybe so, but he still left a considerable body of work, anyway, one that makes him more than a mere footnote to his Yardbirds bandmates.
Thanks to Heart Full Of Soul, Keith Relf finally gets the chance to speak for himself, and come alive once more, if only through its pages – allowing us to see him as he saw himself. There's no higher tribute than that.
"HE REALLY WAS THAT GUY": INTERVIEW WITH DAVID FRENCH (7/14/20)
One other piece of business remained, with the excitement of reading Heart Full Of Soul still ringing fresh in my mind. Naturally, I had to track down the author, and find out more about the thinking that went into its creation. Heart Full Of Soul's Amazon.com blurb states the premise sweetly and succinctly: "Numerous books have been written about the Yardbirds' famous guitarists--Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page--yet Keith has remained a mysterious and elusive figure since his death by electrocution at age 33."
With that sentiment in mind, I had to ask myself: "What sets a person off on that type of mission?" Well, wonder no more. David French has written about music for Downbeat, JazzTimes, The Los Angeles Times, The Oxford American, Interview, Paste, The Boston Globe, and many more. He's also involved on the activist side of things, too. He works at Lenox Hill Neighborhood House, a historic nonprofit organization, leading their efforts to create a healthier and more equitable food system.
French, who lives in New York City, recently took time to answer my questions about the experience of writing Heart Full Of Soul, via e-mail, and the detective work he undertook to tell this story of the introvert who followed his own path, "as the band's guitarists became household names playing blues-based rock," Amazon's blurb states. "Keith insisted on pursuing new musical paths, always searching for something new and trying to extend the Yardbirds' spirit of curiosity and innovation." Our chat follows below.
CHAIRMAN RALPH (CR): As you mention, for many people, Keith had essentially become a “whatever happened to” story at the time of his death in 1976. What inspired you to tell that story, beyond your own appreciation of him, and what do you feel refutes that perception?
DAVID FRENCH (DF): The first piece of music writing I published was a profile of a Swing Era trumpet player named Ziggy Elman, who played with Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey in the Thirties and Forties and achieved some lasting fame for a song he wrote and played on called “And the Angels Sing.”
Ziggy’s career nosedived in the 1950s and he drank himself to death by 1968, but at the time I was working on that article, in the early 2000s, there were still a fair number of people alive who had known and worked with Ziggy, though most were then in their mid-to-late eighties. It was an amazing experience but even as I was working on the article people I’d spoken with started to pass away – now, twenty years later, they are all gone. It was a really profound lesson for me that if nobody writes down the stories they will disappear.
The Yardbirds had been my favorite band in high school in the early 1980s – I was a complete obsessive going to used record stores to track down all the rare singles and bootlegs I could find. I particularly identified with Keith – he was a really important hero to me – and his story always seemed so poignant. After years of listening mostly to jazz, I rediscovered the Yardbirds a few years ago and couldn’t believe how much material was now available on the internet – but there was still so little information about Keith. It made me sad to see him so ignored when there were dozens and dozens of books about the guitarists, most of which were pretty dismissive of Keith’s contributions to the Yardbirds. I suddenly realized that if I didn’t do this book nobody would and Keith’s story would disappear forever.
Keith was pretty much forgotten in his lifetime. By the time he died it had been a decade since he’d had a hit with the Yardbirds. That’s a long time to be out of the limelight in popular music. I think he was always searching for his next thing and excited to further himself but did not have the drive and the ego to build a career second act that was as successful as the Yardbirds. He also struggled with some serious health challenges, as well as depression. As his friend Louis Cennamo said, “He wanted a quiet life.”
CR: Getting Alice Cooper to write your foreword is impressive! Did you consider trying to chase up Messrs. Beck, Clapton and/or Page, or did you think they've been heard from enough already?
DF: Alice was amazing – both he and his manager, Toby Mamis, are huge fans of Keith and the Yardbirds. Alice told this amazing story about opening for the Yardbirds in 1965 when he was in high school with his band the Spiders – I think it was really a defining moment for him. I did reach out to Clapton, Beck and Page’s people but never seriously expected they would contribute.
I think they are quite happy with how the Yardbirds story has been told all these years – focusing almost entirely on the guitarists – so it really isn’t in their interest to undermine that narrative by giving away any of the credit. Fortunately, I was able to uncover decades of interviews with the guitarists that do give them full presence in the book and help detail Keith’s relationships with each of them. Jeff Beck, in particular, has said some really thoughtful things about Keith over the years.
CR: Why didn't Jane and Danny Relf participate? I'd think that she could have shed a lot of light on various aspects of her brother's life and thoughts – plus aspects like the Renaissance era, in which she played a key part.
DF: When I first reached out to Jane Relf in 2016 – pretty much exactly 40 years after Keith’s accidental death – she sent me back a quite emotionally raw email telling me that “it is too soon” to talk about Keith. That was an eye opener. After meeting Jane and Danny and communicating with them at length, it became clear that Keith’s death had been extremely traumatic to the family and in many ways they have still not fully come to terms with the tangle of emotions that left behind. Ultimately, I think it really was too soon for them.
CR: What were the most challenging aspects of trying to tell Keith's life story properly? Any big surprises that you ran across, that changed some of your own perceptions?
DF: Writing about an introvert is always challenge. They generally don’t generate lots of colorful anecdotes or make big pronouncements about their thoughts or feelings that people file away in their memories. So I had to dig deep on the research but it really paid off because I found many articles and interviews with Keith that helped to bring him to life.
The biggest surprise for me was the extent to which Keith really was the person I’d imagined him to be in high school by listening to his voice and lyrics and looking at his pictures. He was this really sensitive, earnest introvert fronting a rock band and he also grappled with depression throughout his career. Think about someone dealing living with depression having to navigate the machinery of Beatlemania-era teen magazines and music coverage – it’s like a premise for either a tragic or an absurdist novel. It must have been very, very difficult for him.
So many interviews I found he talked about how he didn’t like to be in cities or around other people – he wanted to be out in nature or in an English churchyard. He was like a throwback to Wordsworth and the Romantic Poets. And he drew on that, unconsciously most of the time I think, to give the Yardbirds this tinge of melancholy and depth that was way ahead of its time. That’s why I used the title Heart Full of Soul – he really was that guy. It really meant something to me when the book came out and people that knew Keith reached out to say what a perfect title it was.
CR: What's your take on the source material that's already out there – particularly the various magazine articles that you consulted, along with the more cinematic (shall we say) efforts of Richard Cole's and Stephen Davis's respective Led Zeppelin tomes?
DF: I think writing about rock’n’roll has come a long way since I was in high school. At this point, the lives and careers of Clapton, Beck and Page have been documented in exhausting detail. My taste in rock’n’roll – with a few big exceptions – goes up to 1966 or 1967 and then leapfrogs up to the punk and post-punk era. So in the process of writing this book I had to consult a lot of sources that I’m personally not that interested in, but it also highlighted for me just how different Keith was from your typical big-ego rock star and how challenging it must have been for this introverted, depressive guy to function in the music industry.
What was thrilling for me was to uncover so many original interviews from throughout Keith’s career. For years, the interview Keith did for the More Golden Eggs bootleg has been the primary source used for a quote in any article about the Yardbirds, so you tend to see the same few quotes over and over again. I was able to find dozens of interviews in which he gave extremely honest and personal answers to questions about himself and his music and the contemporary music scene, so those were just incredibly valuable for giving Keith voice throughout the book and seeing his evolution as a musician and as a person.
CR: How do you think people look at the Yardbirds now, in general, and Keith's contribution, in particular – since he's often been overshadowed by the “guitar god” angle? Actually, the overall talent level in the band was amazing – with Dreja going into photography, Samwell-Smith to production, Topham, to an art career, and Keith to his various production/progressive pursuits. Do you see a more balanced perspective these days?
DF: If you follow #yardbirds on Instagram, it’s pretty obvious that people still like to see pictures of Jimmy Page in his dragon costume with a Les Paul down below his crotch – so I think the guitar god angle persists! At the same time, music writing has gotten so much smarter and more inclusive and so many great artists have finally gotten the attention they deserve.
A quick example: I recently found a band bio – Hadley Lee Lightcap by Sam Sweet – about Acetone, a band I really liked but knew nothing about in the Nineties. This is a self-published book about a band most people have never heard of and it is one of the best music books I have ever read, a very powerful and beautifully told story. So, while I don’t need to ever read another word about Clapton, Beck or Page, I am delighted that so many writers are finding incredible new stories and that is what I was trying to do for the Yardbirds.
In the process of writing this book I spent a lot of time listening to the Yardbirds, especially live recordings like Five Live Yardbirds and the BBC sessions. I came away even more impressed by what an incredible and interesting band they were, no matter who they had on lead guitar. I was also so interested to learn more about the early years with Top Topham and how far they came professionally in just a few months – even before Keith invited his art school friend Eric Clapton to join. I have always loved Jeff Beck’s guitar playing with the Yardbirds. And Clapton recorded a couple of solos – on “A Certain Girl” and “I Ain’t Got You” – that are mind-blowing compared to what anybody else in England was doing in 1964. But for me it was always Keith’s voice and harmonica that really made the Yardbirds exciting.
After Keith, the other guy who really deserves more attention for the Yardbirds’ innovations is Paul Samwell-Smith. He was the architect of the Yardbirds’ sound, produced their records, arranged many of their best known songs, arranged and sang their very distinctive background vocals, contributed some of their best songwriting, supplied the monster bass that drove their famous rave ups and also shared with Keith and Jim McCarty a very introverted, poetic nature that gave the Yardbirds that sense of mystery and intelligence that set them apart. Jim and Chris were amazing, as well. These guys weren’t just lucky nobodies that kept getting the big break of backing all these guitar players – they attracted that talent and enabled it to grow because they were an amazing band that was breaking down barriers from the start.
CR: I've always seen the Yardbirds as an example of a great band ground down through sheer attrition and indifference – constant touring, crap material ("Paff Bum," "Questa Volta," for example), and hack production (the Mickie Most era coming to mind).
Yet the grit of the band still survived on B-sides, as Keith himself pointed out in his interviews with the TMOQ guys. Could anything have been done to forestall those developments, or would they have run out of steam anyway, once the glam rock brigade, mirror ball army (“Disco, disco duck”) and the soft rock flotilla had all gotten into full swing? Or could Jimmy Page's stewardship have steered that good ship safely through those tides?
DF: It's interesting – Jim McCarty speculated to me that they might have turned things around if they’d had better management, if they’d been encouraged to take some time off from touring to focus on song writing and recording. While that is certainly true, I also think the Yardbirds suffered a fatal blow when Paul Samwell-Smith left in 1966. They were never again as powerful and really seemed to lose their musical identity.
Plus, Keith did not like Jimmy Page as a person and his musical taste had evolved since the early days – by the time they split up in 1968, Keith was done with the blues and basically wanted to play contemporary folk music, like Simon and Garfunkel or Tim Hardin. On top of that, he was worn out after five years touring full-time for not a lot of money. He just wanted out and I don’t think anything would have changed his mind.
CR: As you point out often in your book, Keith always seemed ahead of the curve, whether in his prog era (Renaissance), the folkier one (Medicine Head), or his return to balls out rock 'n' roll (Armageddon) – yet none of these ventures, as tantalizing as they seemed, quite panned out. The same story seems to hold true for his forays into production, where he could have built a good track record.
Why didn't all these efforts work out? Do you think he lacked confidence, since he tended to walk away from things – or was it simply a case of, “Too much, too son,” which is the plague of many an artist, underdog or not?
DF: My sense is that Keith did not have a clear vision for what he wanted to do in music or in life. He was a dreamer, always coming up with new ideas in the short term but not really able to bring something bigger into focus for himself. I also don’t think he had a strong enough ego or belief in himself to push through projects once he ran into challenges. He was the front man of all his bands – the Yardbirds, Renaissance and Armageddon. If he had really wanted to, he could have pulled rank, replaced the musicians that were pulling the band off course or making him unhappy and powered through to fulfill whatever vision he wanted to pursue.
But he was not that kind of person. I think he also suffered from depression that dragged him down and made him give up on things as soon as they started to go wrong. If he had just stuck to one thing – Renaissance or Armageddon or building a career as a producer – I’m sure he could have built a successful career. If he’d lived longer, he probably would have pulled things together for himself somehow – as so many of us do gain confidence as we grow older or change careers or otherwise figure out what we really want to do in life. Unfortunately, he ran out of time before he could reach that place.
CR: As you point out, had he lived a bit longer, Keith might have benefited from the Yardbirds revival of the early '80s – but let's take that parlor game a step further. You mention playing intimate rooms as a solo artist, but what else do you think he might be doing, if we still had him today?
DF: This is pure speculation but I’ve lately been getting into some of the early ambient music from the Seventies and Eighties and it really resonates with me that if Keith had had a few more years, he might have gone in that direction. I don’t know if he ever heard No Pussyfooting or other things that were coming out toward the end of his life, but Keith always talked about wanting to make “pictures in sound” and left behind hours and hours of tapes of very spacey synthesizer and guitar noodling. I also think making ambient music would have dovetailed beautifully with his deep interest in Buddhist meditation.
I know his close friend Jim McCarty got involved in ambient music under the name Stairway in the 1980s. There’s some great footage of Stairway on YouTube, with both Jim and Louis Cennamo playing in a church in London. It’s far, far removed from the Yardbirds but it’s beautiful music and I can 100% imagine Keith being involved in something like that – it would have been a perfect combination of all of his talents and interests.
CR: What are the key takeaways from Keith's life story, especially for a young musician who's diving deep into the Yardbirds – or his other bands – for the first time? What do you think his greatest achievements are, in the grand rock 'n' roll scheme of things?
DF: First, I think that Keith and the Yardbirds typify the magic of rock’n’roll – that you only need to know a few chords to start making music, that sometimes a group of young people can come together and just hit that thing with energy and attitude and volume and make something extraordinary.
At the same time, the thing that really set Keith and his bandmates apart from their peers was their interest in experimentation – as they developed musically, they kept advancing, whether it was stretching out and improvising on these simple blues songs or bringing in new sounds like the fuzz boxes just being developed then, or harpsichord, Gregorian chant, Latin percussion, feedback or sound effects – whatever was around they were always looking for new things to try.
We take it for granted now, but it’s so interesting to see all these articles from the period that refer to their “modern” or “futuristic” sound – the Yardbirds were really innovative in their prime. Keith had gone to art school, he was very aware of the radical cultural changes taking place around him in the 1960s and he very much wanted to push boundaries and make music that was innovative and different from anything that had been done before – he used to refer to their music as “pop art” and referenced things like musique concrete and third stream music in interviews. So he was pretty hip. That was the main reason he didn’t want to keep playing blues rock – he’d done that already, he was restless, he was always searching for the next thing.
Finally, while I don’t want to lose sight of what a kick ass belter Keith was on tunes like “I’m a Man” and “Train Kept a Rollin’,” Keith was ahead of his time in expressing emotions beyond teenage heartache through pop music. Partly this was through lyrics and arrangements, but it was also just the sound of his voice – it is there on “Heart Full of Soul” and especially on songs like “Still I’m Sad” and “Turn Into Earth” and “Farewell.” He brought an edge of melancholy to the material that gave the band an element of mystery and depth that was unique.