‘Happenings Ten Years Time Ago’ was the first single released by the iconic motley crew The Yardbirds. Released in 1966, it features what was arguably the best lineup of the band, with Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page both dovetailing brilliantly with their dual-lead lines.
The track is a whirlwind of psychedelia while containing nods to the avant-garde. It was groundbreaking upon release, and dynamically speaking, no one had ever heard anything so visceral. Even today, it remains a mind-blowing effort.
The song was the first of three recordings that Page played with Jeff Beck, so in a sense, it’s a rare piece of sonic history where we’re treated to the convergence of two of the most influential guitar players of all time. Even more interestingly, though, the bass part was recorded by John Paul Jones. He had previously joined Beck and Page to record the important ‘Beck’s Bolero’ in May that year. Weirdly, without these two instances, it’s likely that goliath rock heroes Led Zeppelin wouldn’t have existed in what remains a somewhat dizzying truth.
Jones would then also go on to play on the band’s later songs ‘No Excess Baggage’ and ‘Goodnight Sweet Josephine’. After The Yardbirds broke up in July 1968, the lineup of Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones, Robert Plant and John Bonham would tour Scandinavia as ‘The New Yardbirds’ before eventually settling on the name Led Zeppelin in October 1968 – but we digress. In what is an important side note, this was the first taste of the ‘heavy’ kind of music that Jimmy Page wanted to create, which led to creative tensions within the band and fuelled their band’s split. Coming back to the song’s composition, though, it wasn’t solely the music that marked it out from the crowd; it was also the dense lyrical content.
Vocalist Keith Relf wrote the lyrics alongside drummer Jim McCarty, and they are about as psychedelic as they come. They look back on past events and discusses the confusion that they stoke, wondering if they ever really happened at all. This is a very tangible experience for every listener.
Reflecting on its conception, McCarty told Songfacts years later: “On ‘Happenings Ten Years Time Ago,’ Keith and I were trying to write a song about reincarnation. We’d seen everything before, and it was all happening again. That was quite an interesting viewpoint, really. Meeting people along our way that we’d seen from another day. Sort of bringing in that situation that we’d been there before.”
The following set of lyrics reflect this sentiment clearly: “Happenings ten years time ago / Situations we really know / But the knowing is in the mind / Sinking deep into the well of time”. Relf and McCarty’s karmic lyrics helped to lay the foundations of the burgeoning psychedelic genre, infusing it with that Eastern ‘mystery’ that would quickly become one of its key blueprints. The following year, the genre would be in full swing, and the release of albums such as Cream’s Disraeli Gears, The Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s and The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s Are You Experienced made 1967 the year of all things psychedelic.
Of the song, Yardbirds bass player Chris Dreja explained: “It’s psychedelic disco for me, this song. ‘Happenings’ is a bit like a miniature rock opera. You get that great riff, explosions, the Cockney voice, all sorts of little influences. It’s immensely powerful as well. We dropped a voice in there like the original, which says, ‘Pop group, are you? You should get your haircut.’ I really wish now we’d put in, ‘pop group, are you? It’s about time you got a day job.’ I thought it would’ve been much funnier.”
The voice that you can hear in the solo is thought to be Jeff Beck’s, and, given just how Cockney it is, it wouldn’t be a surprise. The complete lines the mocking voice says are: “Pop group, are ya? Bet you’re making money… (laughing) / Why you lot wear your long hair? / I bet you’re appearing in a club again, are you? Singing every night there on stage.”
This only adds to the songs complex genius. A visceral psychedelic journey, not only was it one of the most pioneering ever released at the time, but it was also highly subversive. As well as helping to establish the era’s most important genre musically and imaginatively discussing the concept of reincarnation, the band also managed to add in a sprinkle of sardonic social commentary, all in under three minutes. Incredible.
The gift that keeps on giving, 55 years after its release, ‘Happenings Ten Years Time Ago’ is as refreshing today as it was back then. If you’re ever looking for musical inspiration, this would be a great place to start.