When I hit play on The Story of the Yardbirds, the only things I really knew about the band was the music (which is incredible) and the very surface story of their proto-"super group" status. In their five years of operation, the British rock group had no less than three legendary axemen in their line-up: Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page, with the latter two crossing over for a brief period. They had several hits, most notably "For Your Love" and "Heart Full of Soul," and they were the featured band in Antonioni's Blow-Up.
To say I don't know much more about the Yardbirds after watching the documentary on this DVD than I did going in is a bit of an overstatement, but not by much. According to the date at the end of the closing credits, The Story of the Yardbirds was produced back in the early 1990s, and given the short 52-minute running time, I'm guessing it was made for a television channel. It runs rather quickly through the band's history, avoiding any backstory on the band members or even looking too far into their future, as if their existences began and ended as Yardbirds. The surviving members of the band--Jim McCarty, Chris Dreja, and Paul Samwell-Smith--are on hand, as are all three of the guitarists, with Jeff Beck putting in the most time (and sporting his best Chris Guest/Spinal Tap look). Additionally, two of the band's managers, Giorgio Gomelski and Peter Grant, and one of their main producers, Mickie Most, also chime in. The only folks missing are manager Charles Napier-Bell, for reasons unknown, and singer Keith Relf, who passed away in the mid-'70s.
Even so, with all of these folks participating, The Story of the Yardbirds only skates the outer edges of the tale. There is little about Clapton beyond his quick departure following recording "For Your Love," not much in terms of explanation why the management kept changing, and only the barest hint of money woes or Relf's excessive consumption of alcohol.
What we do get, however, is a large cache of old photographs to look at and a substantial number of television performances by the band, ensuring a constant stream of music. Each incarnation of the band is represented, including Clapton running through "Louise" and "I Wish I Would." Even if the narrative is a little sparse, if we don't exactly go "Behind the Music," we at least still have the music itself, taking us from the blusiest roots of the band through to the innovative psychedelia of "Happenings Ten Years Time Ago" and an early version of "Dazed and Confused." For that alone--and for the four-song bonus set also on the DVD--early rock fans should get a kick out of this somewhat slight release.
Alas, if there is a bigger tale to be told on film about the Yardbirds' career, we're going to have to wait for it to come along.
The Story of the Yardbirds is a full-frame release, originally produced for television and released on VHS in 1993. I doubt very much was done to prepare this for its digital release. The picture is mostly decent, with very little by way of blocky pixilation, but the resolution is fuzzy and the colors are a bit pale. Overall, the image is clean, but low-grade.
The DVD has a barebones monaural mix that isn't amazing, but certainly could be worse. For as simple as it is, the music actually sounds pretty decent without any real distortion.
The DVD comes in a clear plastic case with a double-sided cover. It has an 18-page booklet that, in addition to some credits, inexplicably reprints liner notes pertaining to the band's 2003 reunion/reformation album Birdland. These have little bearing on the movie, particularly in the section where Chris Dreja breaks that newer album down track by track. The packaging is also full of typos, including not-quite-right song titles.
The true attraction on the disc is a full 14-minute performance by the Yardbirds on the 1967 German television show "Beat Beat Beat." The film quality is in pretty good shape, and the four songs performed are "Shapes of Things," "Happenings Ten Years Time Ago," a rollicking "Over Under Sideways Down," and an extended "I'm a Man" that includes Jimmy Page showing off his skill for playing his guitar with a bow.
Recommended, but probably for fans of the music only. Though music documentaries that dig deep into a group's history can be compelling in and of themselves, The Story of the Yardbirds is fairly slight, playing more like the summary of a better film than its own thing, lacking that added oomph needed to appeal to the uninitiated. For music aficionados who want to hear the Yardbirds' unique blend of blues and psychedelia, however, there is a lot of music on here, with most of the film being put together with footage of the band on 1960s television shows--as well as a bonus four-song full performance.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the superhero series It Girl and the Atomics and the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.