It is the trinity every classic rock fan is taught to revere. Clapton-Beck-Page. The three guitar gods all got their start in the seminal blues rock band the Yardbirds. The Yardbirds rose to fame after their manager’s previous act abandoned him for a protege of Brian Epstein’s named Andrew Loog Oldham. The band was the Rolling Stones. Starting in 1962 and over the next four years, the Yardbirds would have not one, not two, but three of rock’s most influential guitarists. Had he made it to England a few years earlier, Jimi Hendrix might have been in the band as well.
When the Yardbirds began, they had a young phenom named Anthony “Topper” Topham. And if that’s the first you’ve ever heard of him, it’s because the Yardbirds caught their break while he was still sixteen. Unlike George Harrison’s family, who let the young Beatle traipse off to Hamburg before his 18th birthday, Topham’s parents wanted him to finish his homework. So the ‘Birds went looking for a new lead guitarist. They found one from Kent named Eric Clapton. And soon the Yardbirds were bringing up the rear behind the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Clapton was their featured player, a blues enthusiast who could do something previous guitar players could not. He could shred it.
But Clapton, by his own admission, was a pompous blues snob until later in his career. So he would soon quit. But the Yardbirds were taking off on the wings of a hit called “For Your Love.” But Clapton did not leave his bandmates hanging. He asked a childhood friend named Jimmy Page if he’d like to take over. Pagey was busy making money being a highly sought-after session guitarist. (That guitar you hear on the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me” and “All Day and All Night” is Page.) But Pagey had an idea. How about their mutual friend, the moody future model for Spinal Tap’s Nigel Tufnel, a brooding genius named Jeff Beck. Most Yardbirds tunes you still hear these days feature Beck on lead guitar. Soon, though, the Yardbirds needed a bass player, and Jimmy Page decided to take the job. But he had a plan. The moody, mercurial Mr. Beck would get pissy and walk off, leaving Page to take over. And take over he did. By 1968 with three replacement players, the Yardbirds would become the New Yardbirds would become Led Zeppelin. Page would achieve heavy metal immortality.
But it was Clapton who hit big first by forming Cream, then reinventing it as Blind Faith. By 1970, he was no longer that guy from Cream. He was ERIC CLAPTON! And Clapton was my first concert back in 1984 at Cleveland’s Blossom Music Center. But better yet, I caught him in 1987 with Phil Collins on drums and at the peak of his skills. Clapton abandoned the heavy music theme for country-tinged blues rock. He went from being the most pompous blues man in rock to becoming the keeper of the flame for the black blues men at whose feet he learned. Clapton, like Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour, has never been the flashiest guitar player. He once even suggested, after a tribute by Eddie Van Halen and Brian May, that the two men couldn’t play. Well, most people, including me, had their doubts, but they don’t play like Clapton. Like Gilmour, no one puts more Clapton through the guitar than Clapton.
Beck, on the other hand, was not a singer and not a mysterious rock overlord. He was a guitar player. And after a series oflead singers that included Rod Stewart, Beck decided to shut up and play his guitar. It meant saying no to Pink Floyd and the Rolling Stones. He went jazz fusion, and against all odds, made a fortune as an instrumental artist. Appropriately enough, I finally saw Beck on his current tour at Cincinnati’s Riverbend, the counterpart to Blossom where I saw Clapton long ago.
But it was Jimmy Page who roared loudest. Led Zeppelin ruled the 1970s the way the Beatles would rule the 1960s and U2 would own the 80s. Every heavy metal trope you know of came from Zeppelin, and yet Zeppelin stayed original, never quite making the same album twice. They’ve regrouped a handful of times since the death of John Bonham in 1980, Bonham’s son Jason taking over in the late 80s. But a permanent reunion or a tour? They came close in the 90s, and I regret never catching Plant-Page. But I have yet to see my third Yardbird guitarist live. Robert Plant needs to get off his creeky ass and make a Zeppelin tour happen one last time.