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Music

The Yardbird's Keith Relf, a bluesman of great restraint and romance

The Yardbirds were one of the more impressive bands of the 1960s. From their taut, thrilling guitar demonstrations, to their scintillating production numbers, the band were never anything short of excellent. But no matter who played lead guitar – whether it was Jimmy Page’s fiery arpeggios, or Eric Clapton’s slower, more blues-oriented, guitar lines – the band were typified by Keith Relf’s howling voice.

He sang the anthems with a style that was equal parts poise and persuasion, charming with his tales of wit and murder, in a genre that was traditionally more visceral than cerebral. He even sang it with great reverence to the writers in question, bringing padding that was categorically slender in delivery.

But Relf was much more than an everyday bluesman, as he was capable of performing with all sorts of mercurial musicians, many of them of hot-tempered attitudes. Page recalled a near-fatal altercation between Relf and Jeff Beck: “One time in the dressing room, I walked in and Beck had his guitar up over his head, about to bring it down on Keith Relf’s head, but instead smashed it on the floor. Relf looked at him with total astonishment and Beck said, ‘Why did you make me do that?’ Fucking hell. Everyone said, ‘My goodness gracious, what a funny chap.'”

Relf was boisterous, singing with tremendous urgency, ensuring that The Yardbirds had a wiry frontman that drew the attention of the audience, whenever the band went into protracted instrumental segments. He was naturally ebullient, creating a great sense of character onstage, and even brought a certain degree of intellectual gravitas to the numbers.

He tended to bring added elements of swagger to Graham Gouldman’s compositions, and songs ‘Evil Hearted You’ and ‘Heart Full of Soul’ held an added sense of pathos and danger that weren’t heard in Jack White’s renditions of the songs. As it happens, the vocals were cemented with a sonic degree of ingenuity, noting the difference between singing in a pub, to the proclivities of dynamic style needed for the studio.

The breakup of The Yardbirds led to two very different bands. Guitarist Jimmy Page formed Led Zeppelin, the beguiling Robert Plant performing in Relf’s place, while the singer went on to form Renaissance, a progressive rock outfit who captured the more pastoral elements of Relf’s trajectory.

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They had yet to hit the heights of ‘Northern Lights’- that’s for another article altogether – but Relf helped put Renaissance on the map, bringing a mosaic that was diverse, dense and decidedly new sounding. In many ways, the band were cognisant of the “renaissance” they supposedly represented, and capably showed their mastery of pastoral, medieval instruments.

Relf sang like his heart depended on it, but the orbit was too small for him, and he bravely raced on with his work, feeling that were new forms of work he could mould in his image. He formed Armageddon with Rod Stewart mainstay Martin Pugh, who released an album of great ambience and texture in 1974. The decade was growing more ironic, and the music needed to carve a more colourful slant if it wanted to stay relevant.

He never enjoyed the level of success afforded to Stewart or Plant, but that’s not to say he necessarily wanted it either. Instead, it was the vitality of the work that interested him, earmarking a more maniacal form of singing that can be still be heard in the likes of Alex Turner and Matt Helders. There was a jocularity in his singing style that was sincere, even if it initially seemed flippant in its demeanour. Instead, it was a form of singing style that was quintessentially British, stemming from a genre that was decidedly American in its outlook.

Relf was, to put it simply, a bluesman of great restraint and romance, bringing the many layers that pads out the American songbook.
Relf was represented by his widow April at The Yardbirds induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992. U2 songwriter The Edge did the opening ceremony, commending and congratulating the group on their achievements.

It’s hard to imagine a world where Dr Feelgood, Buzzcocks or Rory Gallagher could slot in, even it wasn’t for the steps taken by The Yardbirds during the 1960s. The band hold a timeless quality that is their’s alone, but the music has been captured in a variety of successive bands, each more animated and more angular than the one that came before them.

He died at 33, the victim of an electrical shock emanating from a guitar. He was erroneously declared dead on May 14th, 1976, but actually died two days earlier. The world lost one of its most singular singers that day, and it’s likely never recovered since. Relf’s finest vocal was on ‘Happenings Ten Years Time Ago’, a turbo-charged heavy metal monster that created the trappings of heavy metal and hard rock.