Tuesday, 26 July 2011
Archive Interview with Chris Dreja The Yardbirds 2005
Interview with Chris Dreja:
Yardbirds 15th May 2005
Chris Dreja was a member of the Yardbirds. The Yardbirds were one of the most influential bands of the sixties and responsible for giving three of the worlds greatest guitarists their major debut into the music business. I am of course referring to Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page.
When the Yardbirds first split in 1968 Chris was originally pencilled in to be a member of The New Yardbirds although he very quickly decided he would rather concentrate on his other love of photography. The New Yardbirds of course very quickly became Led Zeppelin. Chris Dreja was responsible for providing the group shots on the rear of the first Led Zeppelin album.
In the early eighties Chris was involved in the Box Of Frogs project which featured former members of the Yardbirds. In the late nineties however Chris and fellow founder member of the Yardbirds Jim McCarty re formed the band with great critical and commercial success. Their most recent tour of America was with the Doors of the 21st Century.
Jon Kirkman spoke to Chris Dreja at his London home about the Yardbirds, Box Of Frogs and his photography. The conversation began with talk about the early days of the Yardbirds
Jon Kirkman If we start with the Yardbirds; most people would put them into three eras – early blues r n b period, then the pop period and then the rock period, which evolved into Led Zeppelin. How did the band start? Although they are famous for, if you like, the triumvirate of guitar players poor old Anthony Topham gets left out doesn’t he?
Chris Dreja He was quite pivotal actually. The band was made up of two halves originally. One half was Top and I at Art College and Clapton was in the same art stream In Surbiton, Surrey of all places. It was through Top Topham’s father actually who had this amazing collection of seventy eights that were brought from America and not available to anybody. It was black blues music and that was the initial turn on of course. Discovering that music was like the genie coming out of the bottle really. In those days we had really rather kitsch pop music with no free fall and very little emotion back in the depressing fifties and sixties post war.
JK What was it that attracted you at that time? What did that whole era that included Paul Jones, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Eric Clapton latch onto to begin that whole movement?
CD Those who did latch onto it went on to form bands, we were so energised by it. It was in short supply. Those of us who found a Howling Wolf record or a Lightning Hopkins it was a little clan really. I know what happened. Post war England was so depressing for young people; there was nothing for them. It was black and awful. It had loosened up a bit by the late fifties and the early sixties and we cottoned onto this music, which started in pubs really. This created a social forum for young people to get out their miserable existences and this inspired the musicians who weren’t very good initially. We were feeding them and they were feeding us. What we were creating was a way of getting out of that dreary post war crap but with exciting things. It wasn’t just music; it was fashion and all sorts of things. Don’t forget I am a baby boomer and after that dreadful business with the war that does mean an awful lot historically speaking, it felt safe to have children again I guess. That produced an amazing amount of young people my age that wanted to break out of the dreadful rigours of this establishment that seemed to want to control all England.
JK How long had the band been going before it was decided that Top Topham would leave? Did he decide on his own or did it happen differently?
CD His parents (Laughs). I say that but Topham is still a great guitar player. He went on to play for Chicken Shack He actually was out of all us the most talented artist around. Clapton and I were all into music but he got dropped at Kingston Arts School because his attentions were elsewhere but Top’s parents, when we were getting wages from it (It was totally obsessive for us you know. You have to be really for things like that) grounded him unfortunately and that is when we got Clapton. He was really the only professional player we knew out there who had any background in the music we were doing.
JK How special was Eric Clapton considered to be even then? Some say he was ok, the best of the bunch. Then others say he was really good.
CD There are various viewpoints. Don’t forget he was very young like all of us when he joined. Everyone forgets that apart from Jimmy Page probably we were very unknown and young in our obvious talent. Clapton used to rehearse phrases for a weekend or a week at a time. He was very much a journeyman. But he did have a charisma, no doubt about it. When I say charisma, I think it is well known from his family background being illegitimate and everything, he was very single minded and used to re-create himself fashion wise and all sorts of things almost on a monthly basis. He did attract people quickly because of his charisma and he did grow quickly in terms of stature as a guitar player too.
JK He got the nickname ‘Slow hand’ when he was with the Yardbirds didn’t he?
CD That was because he broke strings, people used to slow handclap while he changed them! In those days we didn’t have those convenient Ernie Ball strings and we used to use things like banjo strings and bend them. We were all terribly young. We all shared an apartment for a while in Kew; I had the same bedroom as Eric so I knew him intimately for a while – we were like brothers. He was a little bit of an enigma but talented, not like Jeff Beck was which was more of a genius mould really, but an exciting player. When I listen to some of those early recordings when he got quite an aggressive sound going you know it wasn’t weedy.
JK When Eric left there was all this – “Oh they have gone too commercial”. It was at the time of For Your Love and Jeff came in. How long was it before that before you knew that Eric was going to jump ship as it were?
CD I was a bit of a junior member and did not like to get too much involved in the politics. I guess we were an amalgamation of two bands as I said, that is Top and I and Jim McCarthy came in as a drummer. We were then looking for a singer and we came across Keith Relf who had another art school background. He was playing with Paul Samwell-Smith and a guy called Laurie Gaines In more of an acoustic country band. We amalgamated and they loved the fact that we were electric with amplification and solid guitars and trying to copy the black guys. Paul did take over the status quo. Eric wanted to pull it one way and Paul and Keith wanted to pull it another way. There was a bit of conflict going on there about who ran the band. At the time Eric was a real purist. He was digging around for anything he could and I admire him for that. We all learned quite a bit from him on the blues idiom. Then he was forever foraging for blues music and the history of the blues as well, ironically when you look at this career over the years. We wanted to do something for ourselves and not just be a blues copyist band. They were all talented guys musically and we wanted to try and create our own sound. We tried things like I Wish You Would and Good Morning Little Schoolgirl and they weren’t bad but they didn’t really dent anything. We still only had a local following. We did want to be known at that point further afield. We came across the For Your Love song and felt that if we recorded it in such a manner there was something eclectic about it that was suitable for the band. Eric just didn’t dig it.
JK How big a part did your manager at the time play in this because all the big bands had someone behind them – with you guys it was Georgio Gomelski wasn’t it?
CD In those days the manager was often the sixth member.
JK They always seemed to be very flamboyant and take a similar view to the artist as well.
CD Yeah they were artists sort of in their own right. Georgio had a film background. He was working with the National Jazz Federation with Harold Pendleton who brought over blues musicians from America. It was an incredible thing to do really. That is how we got to play with people like Sonny Boy and people like that. Georgio was a very flamboyant and creative guy, not with great business acumen but not all of them did.
JK Let’s look at the Jeff Beck period of the band. I find this probably the most fascinating period.
CD You and me both Jon. I find this the most fascinating period.
JK I think most rock biographers home in on this. I have spoken to guitarists over the years that say they have listened to Jeff Beck over the years and still can’t do what he was doing with the guitar then.
CD The man was a complete genius and it was our luck that we had this huge record and an unbelievable talent who joined the band. He came in at exactly the right time when we wanted to experiment and he was able, through his talent on the guitar to help make all those dreams come true.
JK Would I be right in saying though that although he was very good artistically for the band, personally it was a pretty rough two years. He was not the most reliable person.
CD Yeah, I love Jeff to death and still rate him as the guitar player but he is moody and he does get side tracked. We kept him on board and produced some wonderful things. Roger The Engineer for its time was a pivotal album. He was a large part of that. We would often write the songs without him in the studio and then bring him to put his top lines on because he always came up with such amazing stuff.
JK When I think of Over Under Sideways Down, which was pretty unique at the time, and there isn’t even anything like that now.
CD No there isn’t actually. Funnily enough it has just become the music for a Chevrolet ad in America. It still stands up today, we still play it, and it is a great song. Luckily for us very little of our catalogue has suffered the awful defeat of some numbers that are deemed to be awful these days. I am not much embarrassed by any of the Yardbirds material. It is incredible after all these years.
JK Do you think that is why in 2005 there is still interest in the Yardbirds?
CD Well we were rooted and influenced so much by black American blues music, which is such a strong music for anyway. Not that we were great at it but our roots were there. Also we were a rock and roll band. There were no rules in the band we were influenced by all sorts of things and managed to pull them off on the whole with integrity. Basically though I think it is because it was rooted in the blues and rock. It wasn’t too pompous.
JK The Yardbirds catalogue does still stand up to scrutiny today. Just before Jeff Beck left, Paul Samwell-Smith left and you brought in Jimmy Page. If you think about it now, Jimmy Page brought in on bass you’d go, “Go away!” Initially that was the premise, how long was it before it was decided that sorry Chris you're going to have to play the bass as Jimmy is going to play the guitar alongside Jeff?
CD When Eric left we did actually approach Jimmy. We knew him because we were all from the same area. He was pretty comfortable doing the sessions at that time. Paul left because he found being on the road difficult. It's a very uncivilised business, as you know, it doesn't suit everybody. So he had to pull out By that time a couple of years had gone down the river and I think Jimmy was really keen to join a live band. He was so keen that he would come in on bass!
JK How long did he play bass for?
CD Not long, it was such a waste. It did not take any of us long to realise that. I enjoyed playing the bass role, even badly so I wanted to change pretty quickly. Then for a while we had these two amazing gun slingers on stage which worked only occasionally well I must be honest live because of egos and I think Jeff thought his space had been moved over a bit.
JK The big record that people always cite with the twin guitars was Happenings Ten Years Time Ago.
CD I have to say that is absolutely right, if anything came out of it that is a great pop single; a mini opera in whatever it was. It is just brilliant.
JK There is another track that I remember from that time, Psycho Daisies? It wasn’t a long period but it was very influential wasn’t it?
CD It was in the realms of history I suppose. Like so many things they just happen – we didn’t think we were being pivotal at the time like the Doobie Brothers or something. We just had two great guitar players in the band. I suppose the history of that is Jeff Beck is still out there as a top guitar player and Jimmy Page formed the incredible Led Zeppelin.
JK When Jeff left the band and Jimmy took over as sole guitarist, was there much difference in the band chemistry or did it carry on pretty much like before?
CD That band was only together initially for five years; a ridiculously short space of time. It travelled in terms of music and everything else about twenty years I would have thought. It did so much in a concentrated period. It was always evolving. Jeff pulled out of an American tour because he had had enough. Jimmy was still very fresh and wanted to carry on. It worked quite well as a four piece to be honest especially as Jimmy was a master of chording and riffing.
JK There was some interesting material from that period.
CD The best has to be the rather rough but very interesting Little Games album.
JK What I find strange about that is that you were heading in a rock direction and then all of a sudden there was this jump back to the pop stuff. At the time it was probably a totally different feeling for the band but for me it is like two steps forward one step back.
CD Unfortunately the Yardbirds missed out by a couple of years on the album market and the whole thing that happened in the early seventies where the band come on and got it very well together certainly Led Zeppelin did. In those days you were known only for your last single; albums were not the thing. The album was just the afterthought. The record people had brought in Mickey Most who was a brilliant producer of singles but just couldn’t nail one for us and we always felt really uncomfortable doing some of that stuff to be honest with you. He pretty much left us alone with Jimmy to do the album on our own. I still think that the single Little Games is the only good thing to come out of that period. Some of those singles actually are really rather embarrassing I guess and it was very damaging to the band, mentally as well.
JK Recording wise you were doing these pop songs but live it was different. Did you do the pop stuff as well?
CD Well you had to do the latest one.
JK I have a live recording of you guys doing a prototype version of Dazed And Confused.
CD That was much more what we were into. We did one last American tour with Jimmy as a four piece and it was probably the best tour I have ever done with the Yardbirds with great audience reactions. We were developing things like Dazed and Confused and elongating all sorts of things. It wasn’t a pop act at all. The thing about the Yardbirds was, on the one hand it had great pop singles but on the other hand they were a cult band really with everything from punk to heavy metal.
JK The cult has become bigger than the band hasn’t it? It is immense.
CD It is immense. When we broke up we thought we would be remembered for two weeks so to have the thing out there after all these years is extraordinary. When I hear the music and play the music I can understand why. The crux of the band was that it was an original eclectic band that sort of kicked rock and roll and blues. We did change it from the original concept of copying black blues artists. We created something for ourselves. It is sort of deep down gut music.
JK When you split into two groups. Jim and Keith went off to do Renaissance and then it was going to be Jimmy and yourself in the new Yardbirds initially wasn’t it?
CD Yeah sort of. Unfortunately, and I do feel sorry for Keith, he was a great harmonica player and a great writer, with amplification such as it was in those days it was pretty hopeless with the guitar playing. It was a backlash to all that loud guitar music which was really what the Yardbirds was about in a way. He was a more sensitive soul. He also got pretty much into drugs and stuff during that period which didn’t help. Both Jim and he decided that they wanted to do something completely opposite. I loved the heaviness of what Jimmy brought into the band being a bass player. They decided to do just one last tour and then no more and then they went off and created Renaissance which was a very interesting band.
JK Their first album was incredible. Not the sort of album you would imagine coming from someone who had been in the Yardbirds.
CD Yeah but it never really happened after that and I think they walked away from it. Keith died anyway in 1976. It was sad. We had all these great guitar players but for some of the band it was all a bit too much.
JK How long was it before you decided that you did not want to be a part of The New Yardbirds that eventually became Led Zeppelin?
CD (Laughs) Well I was feeling increasingly pissed off that I was being manipulated by all these other people. I had little control in my life. Some of them were into drugs, alcohol, and extreme egos or were just plain crazy. I was finding it all a bit uncivilised to be honest. I had done something like thirteen tours of America and not in a luxury way. At art school I had got involved with photography, I obviously had no idea that Led Zeppelin was going to be as huge as it was. I had made the decision that I was going to be in control of my own life when I woke up in the morning. Apart from going with Jimmy and Peter Grant to check out some players like John Bonham and Robert Plant and of course I knew John Paul Jones because he was part of the session scene. I could see it was going to be a solid outfit but by that time, I must be honest the love I had for music had transferred itself to photography. I don’t regret it; the next thirty-two years were spent organising my own life.
JK You did actually take part in Led Zeppelin in that you took the photograph for the rear of the sleeve of the first album.
CD Yeah I did. That is a part of the history of all that, the link if you like. I am very proud to have done that on that first album. I did photograph Jimmy several times; we had a good rapport and he did like the way I photographed him as well funnily enough.
JK I suppose that is about having a feel for the artist when you take the photographs that are as important as anything else.
CD Well I had been an artist and can see it from all sides really.
JK So, you spent the next few years concentrating on photography but there was a return in the eighties with three out of the four or five members of the Yardbirds in a band called Box of Frogs. Why Box of Frogs and not the Yardbirds?
CD What was happened was that Jim and I were asked to play the Marquee for the twenty fifth anniversary and that seemed like a great thing to do. So we got together with Mark Feltham from Nine Below Zero and John Fiddler from Medicine Head. Paul joined us on stage and we really enjoyed that. Then we just got the idea of writing some songs sort of with that line up and Epic signed us again for that. We did not want to call it the Yardbirds because we were not going to go out on the road. It was always going to be a bit of conglomeration.
JK You did have Jeff Beck guesting on the album didn’t you?
CD Yeah, he did five wonderful tracks. We also had other players as well. It was very enjoyable. I enjoyed getting together with the guys, writing the materials and doing the studio work. I had no intention of going on the road much to the chagrin of the record company. Paul wasn’t going on the road either and I was very ensconced in photography still, as you know. By the time we did the second album it had fallen apart a bit, you know the nucleus. We found we were writing songs and thinking well would Ian Drury guest on this song? Would it be right for him? So it became more of a project I suppose whereas the first album was more cohesive you know.
JK I still find it strange though, a lot of people would just look at it and think, Box of Frogs, yeah but me being a bit of a musicologist would think that there is still a link to the Yardbirds apart from the obvious one in John Fiddler was in Medicine Head and Keith had produced and been a part of Medicine Head for a while.
CD Yeah, it was all linked again. It got a little bit unlinked on the second album. But it was kind of rolling out a family tree of backgrounds and similar bands.
JK After the Box of Frogs, what prompted the Yardbirds to hit the road again?
CD Not for more than a decade. The concept of doing the Yardbirds didn’t come until the mid nineties really.
JK You did seem to be all over the place at one point. The Yardbirds were doing gigs all over the place or so it seemed.
CD We were approached by a very proactive agent called Peter Barton who is still very much around today and is responsible for working with all sorts of bands like the Zombies. He approached Jim and I about reforming, Jim had never stopped performing as a musician and he had some fine blues bands. I think it was a gig in the New Marquee in Charing Cross Road that I thought I would love to play that Marquee as well and also by that time I personally was able to move a bit diagonally as opposed to just up and down. I hadn’t played that music for so long and I found it very enjoyable because it was fresh to me. Although as the original Yardbirds we tinkered with various layers until we got the format right with Gyppy Mayo. It just snowballed and people kept asking us to play more.
JK What is the current line up of the Yardbirds?
CD In a way it is de rigueur for the Yardbirds to go through various guitarists, it has almost become part of the business plan. Gypie Mayo was in the band for seven years – a great guitarist. He has come off the road now and we have Jerry Donahue on board. He approached us. We had thought of taking the band off the road this year but Jim was keen to play on and I thought that if we could find a player it had to be right. We did some rehearsals with some very fine players but it didn’t seem to work, then Jerry approached us and I thought that was so lateral – how weird! His resume is outstanding. We had a rehearsal with him and yes he is very different and his style is very different but I liked that because it is very lateral. He has been playing with us for a few shows and he is feeling his way around and it is rather good.
JK So there is you, Jim, Jerry Donahue and who else?
CD There is John Idan of course who has been a complete stalwart; he replaced Keith Relf and has wonderful integrity as our singer. He is an extraordinary musician, a very good guitar and bass player. We are now on our third harmonica player from Nine Below Zero we've had all their harmonica players bless them (laughs) Billy Boy Miskimmin. It is a wonderful line up still. We never play the same thing quite the same way twice and now of course Jerry is in the band he is bringing different things to it.
JK I can’t imagine Jeff Beck ever playing the same thing twice when he was in the Yardbirds.
CD Well I'm used to that, it was often Eric who used to play the same thing at that time. Sometimes it is scary, you will be out there playing and someone will stick something into it and we are going up this path thinking when will we get to the clearing!(Laughs) Somehow we do and often that bolts on to the material.
JK What is lined up for the Yardbirds for the rest of 2005 then?
CD It is not set in stone but we have been asked to join the Doors on a big American tour.
JK That makes perfect sense.
CD We think it could be good; it is logistically a bit tricky so we are not totally confirming it but I do think that if it can be sorted it could be a great tour. It would be great really.
JK You made an album a couple of years ago that got very good reviews.
CD Yes, Birdland. Some people did not know we released a new album but I am very proud of it. Jim and I were very conscious that it was a blood, sweat and tears job to get that out and were conscious that people were going to crap all over us. I think we did keep our integrity with the sound and the excitement and everything else; although we split the album into new material and old classics redone. Yeah, ninety five per cent of the press was incredibly kind about that album. It is still out there and is still our current album. If you want to check out the Yardbirds in the twenty first century I would firmly recommend from the old catalogue Roger the Engineer, Little Games and stuff. I think the Birdland is a sonic twenty first century look at the band and is also not a bad one to go for.
JK Let’s have a chat about your photography. It has been the prime interest in your life for thirty-seven years now. It must have been easier for you to move into something like that with the connections that you’ve got.
CD Well, I have always found photography very similar to music in certain respects. One is creating visually and one is creating with sound but I quickly became a studio-based photographer with a lot of that discipline (or undiscipline if you like!) the same as being in a recording studio. It suited me very well. I had an art school background and if I am honest I am more talented visually than I am musically and I do know that. I have always been a visual energiser with the band and had ideas about covers and whatever as well as ideas on music arrangement. So it was pretty natural for me to move into photography, yeah. I found the music fairly uncivilised at the time I left it and I stepped into another world. Ironically I was working in New York in a studio and after two years or so no one had ever at that point equated Chris Dreja of photography with Chris Dreja of the Yardbirds! Some messenger came to the studio and said something like "Ain't you that Chris Dreja with that Yardbirds band". It was great in one way. I never told anybody, I still don’t tell a lot of people that a lot of people I am in or was in the Yardbirds and anyway Photography in that sense was such a different world and I got involved in advertising and design as well as some editorial and it was a very complete world for me.
JK Is there a session or anyone you have photographed that sticks in your mind as being your favourite?
CD That is always a dangerous question! I don’t know, there have been pivotal moments. I suppose photographing Andy Warhol was quite a thing and being part of that whole scene…
JK What was that like photographing Andy Warhol? I would have thought it could be quite intimidating.
CD In a way he was a faceless image wasn't he Andy. He never spoke to anyone, he was just there surrounded by people who kind of ...Did the thing. I just did a reportage Job on him for a happening concert in Detroit where he would have created this happening of two people getting married in the stadium coming out of a fake cake. It was completely stupid. He was also there with Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground at the time. So that is a nice bit of history. I have photographed everybody from Richard Branson to Robert Maxwell and some interesting figures in the history of things. There have been a lot of people of the years that I would never have known as a portrait photographer and I suppose looking back over the years it is some of the portraits that seem the most outstanding. I suppose that again is history
JK Is there anybody that you haven’t work with but would like to?
CD Oh blimey, that is half the world!
JK Narrow it down to the music side of things
CD I wish I had photographed the Beatles more and I wish I had picked up a camera in the early years of the Yardbirds as well especially in the Jeff and Eric periods. There were some wonderful historic moments, not just photographing the band but that whole scene really in the sixties as it was developing and in America too. I found myself standing next to every artist who was anybody in America. Dylan, Righteous Brothers, Ike and Tina Turner; the list is endless.
JK I can tell from the way you are talking that photography is still a great passion for you.
CD I suppose in reality I am a split personality. People who know me sometimes think, my God, that is a different person than we know; we know the one who is a photographer. I guess I have a chameleon like double personality. I am probably more comfortable with the photographic one.
JK That seems like a great place to end. Chris it has been great talking to you today.
CD And you Jon. Thanks very much
© Jon Kirkman 2005 and 2011