This Week in History: March 5-11

By: David Ball

This Week in History: March 5-11

On March 25, 1965, Jeff Beck joined The Yardbirds after his fellow UK-based session guitar ace, Jimmy Page, recommended the hotshot young axeman as a replacement for the recently departed Eric Clapton. This lineup change marked a rare time when a replacement actually improved an already great band! With Beck in the fold, The Yardbirds went from suped-up - but fairly straightforward - producers of (mostly) blues covers to groundbreakers in the burgeoning UK British psychedelic rock scene.  Sure, blues purists tend to prefer the Clapton era highlighted by the magnificent Five Live Yardbirds, but the London-based quintet became far more ambitious, interesting and quite frankly, better, with Beck as a collaborator. Even by the mid ‘60s, Clapton was regarded as one of the greatest guitarists in Britain ("Clapton is God"), but he was more rooted in conventional blues than his Yardbirds super-sub. Beck's genre-bending guitar style was full of menace and ambition while his solos went for the jugular at every twist and turn. Clapton chose to leave because he didn't like the band's evolving musical direction (mixing orchestral, Indian mysticism, pop, rock and psychedelia with blues), so he exited during the recording of 1965's For Your Love, but not before laying down his iconic solo on the title track. Beck came in and finished the LP's session, appearing on only three tracks. Beck stayed with The Yardbirds for just two years, appearing on the near-masterpiece Having a Rave Up (includes the classic songs "Heart Full of Soul", "Shapes of Things" and "Stroll On", the latter was used in a key scene from the Antonioni film, Blow-Up and features a twin guitar assault courtesy of Page and Beck). More significant is Beck's adrenaline-fueled guitar that helped lift 1966's Roger the Engineer to lofty heights where it is rightly considered as one of the great rock albums of the 1960s. Beck and Page duel again on Roger the Engineer's exciting and historic "Happenings Ten Years Ago"; with John Paul Jones sitting in on bass. For those not keeping track, Page eventually replaces Beck as the band's full-time lead guitarist while the latter went on to form his own band. All hail The Yardbirds for being one of the finest of the British Invasion and especially for siring three seminal rock bands: Cream, Led Zeppelin and The Jeff Beck Group.

Tommy, Ken Russell's musical film adaptation of The Who's 1969 rock opera about a deaf, dumb and blind boy who could sure play a mean pinball, premiered in North American on March 26, 1975. Tommy stars Roger Daltrey in the title role, Ann-Margret and Oliver Reed (Tommy's parents), Tina Turner (the Acid Queen), Elton John (The Champ), Keith Moon (Uncle Ernie/Himself), Eric Clapton (Preacher), Jack Nicholson (The Specialist) and playing themselves were Pete Townshend and John Entwistle. Interesting cast given that the plot is kind of crazy. Captain Walker was believed dead, but he arrives home after serving in the RAF for 6-years, only to have a very young Tommy witness his biological father's murder at the hands of his evil step-father (played by Reed). The horror of this act causes Tommy to shut-down all of his senses, although he receives visions by staring into a massive mirror. Jump a decade into the future and we see Tommy defeating The Champ in a pinball showdown and in turn, he becomes an unwitting leader of a religious cult bound by his uncanny abilities. Eventually the cult tries to cash in on his pinball fame, but Tommy doesn't want to commercialize his message and his followers eventually turn on him. Sounds insane, but it all seems to work in an idealized ‘60s/'70s sort of way.

As musical films go, Tommy is pretty good. I certainly like it better than Jesus Christ Superstar simply because Andrew Lloyd Webber can't produce authentic rock ‘n roll if his slimy soul depended on it - although I don't like the film song versions of Elton's "Pinball Wizard" or Tina Turner's over-the-top theatrical take on "The Acid Queen". Only a deaf and really dumb fool would ever want to own the largely unlistenable soundtrack, especially after comparing it to the original Who album. Tommy grossed more than $34 million and although it is kitschy and flawed, the film remains an important rock document. Thankfully, Des McAnuff's 1993 Tony award-winning Broadway production of Tommy got everything right.

I'm old and old enough to tell you that upon its March 29, 1982 release and continuing on throughout the rest of that year, you couldn't turn on a pop or rock radio station or hang out at any record store and not hear Iron Maiden's The Number of the Beast. The English metal band's breakthrough album was everywhere. The Number of the Beast was the first to feature new lead singer, Bruce Dickinson, who was instrumental in its success as he took an active role in the creative process, although because of previous contractual problems with his old band, didn't receive songwriting credits. No matter: Can you envision anyone other than Dickinson singing the sinister title track or Beast's other hits, "Run to The Hills" and "Hallowed Be Thy Name"? Still, as with most other Maiden albums, bassist Steve Harris was Beast's visionary and principle composer. Reception ranged from fans and critics revering the album as a metal masterpiece to calls for an outright ban in parts of the US for being "satanic". It isn't. Even alleged Christian offender, "Number of the Beast", was based on Harris's nightmare and the Omen II. No real rock record collection is complete without this mad classic as it still has the power to inflame and offend and kick a fair share of ass in the process.

Here's a new and hopefully ongoing SoundProof series: "Ill-advised Concert Pairings". On March 31, 1967, Jimi Hendrix played his first British concert ever, at the Rainbow Theatre in Finsbury Park, England. On the same "stellar" bill with Jimi were Cat Stevens, The Walker Brothers and noted debauched rock ‘n roll madman, Englebert Humperdink. During his gig, and perhaps out of disgust, Hendrix lit his Stratocaster on fire with lighter fluid. Unfortunately, he burned his hands badly enough that he had to be rushed to hospital. I'm thinking the tradeoff was worth it: Hendrix need not worry about being "upstaged" nor did he have to finish his gig. All of this didn't stop another UK concert promoter from later booking Hendrix as the opening act for The Monkees. I'm surprised Jimi didn't light Mickey Dolenz on fire using his Strat as kindling.


Next week: Metallica and Pink


Video: “Stroll On” by The Yardbirds (from the film Blow Up)





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