http://www.jamesmccarty.com/ 305 pages paperback ISBN 978-0-244-96650-8 [Publication date: May 2018]
‘Nobody Told Me’ is a suitably titled autobiography that documents the life and times of Jim McCarty, The Yardbirds founder member, drummer and rock and roll hall of fame inductee.
He’s also a former member of Renaissance and Box of Frogs and continues to be a creative singer-songwriter who has just released a new album called ‘Walking In The Wild Land.’
‘Nobody Told Me’ is a suitably titled book because McCarty embraces the role of what sociologists call participant observation, while his recall of his colourful past is shot through with a Zen like quality that always looks for the positive in the face of adversity.
The Yardbirds story is played out against the backdrop of one of significant social change, and while the title might refer to the major events in the band’s history, Jim McCarty deals with it all with what Jimmy Page in his foreward to the book calls “his cool persona.”
Then there’s the musical events that come to shape the author’s life, as The Yardbirds outgrow their blues and r&b roots to embrace rock, pychedelia and even heavy metal, while years later the quintessential English band morph via countless line-ups into becoming an American outfit still helmed by Jim McCarty of course.
Deep in the book the author succinctly summarises the real legacy of the band as: “It was what we made possible for others to accomplish.” And he elegantly takes us through the chronology of the band’s evolution via an insider’s view of how it all happened.
Co-author Dave Thomson helps provide the balance. He’s already known for penning Clapton, Cream, Beck and Plant’s biogs and here he provides the literary framework for Jim’s consistent inner voice.
There’s a warm refreshing honesty and plenty of insight at the heart of the book, as evidenced by McCarty’s comment that the band’s music was originally shaped by what the audience demanded. Then years later when they are about to split up, he still worries about: “Empathy for the remaining fans who would be disappointed by our demise.”
It’s the author’s honesty, some might say his young naivety that draws the reader into his world. He remembers The Yardbirds original manger Georgio Gomelsky as: “signing us away without any consultation. At the time, though, we didn’t know any better, and to be truthful, I don’t regret things, either.”
Given the book later dwells on countless re-issues of the band’s early material, and the paltry royalties, it’s a very magnanimous view, which he later explains on behalf of himself and Chris Dreja: “We were quiet…resigned might be more appropriate, to watch what was happening and hope for the best.”
The book also uses the clever literary device of running one chapter into the other via portentous summaries that lead into further the twist and turns in the band’s career.
For example, when recalling Top Topham’s departure, Jim reflects that: “We were older but we were wiser too, and I caught a glimpse of what might have been…of what I might say should have been. Five live original Yardbirds.”
‘Nobody Told Me’ plunges us into the unsuspecting world of Jim’s South West London suburbia, an orderly place in which the generation gap is illustrated by his mum laughing his favourite record Chas McDevitt’s ‘Freight Train’.
The Boys Brigade leads him to the drums, and more particularly: “a solo snare drum that I quickly realised was the best friend I’d been searching for all my life.”
And warming to his theme, he notes that his early musical efforts with Paul Samwell Smith led to: “A feeling that, if the radio was not playing the music we wanted to hear then we should play it ourselves.”
There’s tales of his early band The Country Gentleman, and end of term dances at Hampton Grammar school in an era when trad jazz and pop held sway.
A Jimmy Reed album provides a musical glimpse of something more exciting, though when initially confronted with the early Stones he’s bemused.
He mostly describes his various band members by focusing on their musical acumen, rather than the headline grabbing extremities, for as he perceptively notes: “the real accomplishments are caused by chemistry and timing and those things are utterly unquantifiable.”
He describes the younger Clapton thus: “As good as everyone else. Not as good as he became, he was still young, still learning, still developing his style.” And then in an open- ended observation, he says: “Maybe he was better than Top, maybe he wasn’t”, before noting his:”confidence, dedication and incredible timing.”
And while he concedes that: “It was the purity of the music he valued”, he draws a strong contrast between Clapton and Jeff Beck: “He saw music as a wide-open palette…Jeff was forever experimenting with sound, pushing his guitar far beyond its stated capacities. Jeff looked ready to blow the blues out the water.”
Telling he adds “We (The Yardbirds) didn’t want to abandon our roots.”
Re Jimmy Page, he notes: “Hire Jimmy Page, and you would get everything he was capable of giving.”
There’s also a priceless comparison between Beck and Page during the brief period both guitarists were in the band: “If Jeff did something out the ordinary, then Jimmy would smile as if to say, ‘nice try’. Now watch this.”
He talks about Page’s “melody and control” and Beck’s “unpredictability and experiment”, and yet once Beck had departed, and the band toured the UK with Page, McCarty drops his own bombshell. “We hung out together, we chatted, we played our shows, we drove home. It was so calm, so restful…and so dull.”
There are tales of countless US tours, of gigs where sometimes: “I could see more tumbleweeds than fans”, and of support bands that played half The Yardbirds set before the real band went on.
Then there are those feel good moments of cruising down Sunset Boulevard: “For five kids whose vision of the open road was the South Circular that was heaven.”
Meanwhile the business ground on, without the band’s knowledge, as their second manager Simon Napier Bell is succeeded by Peter Grant: “We didn’t know a thing about it.”
The last third of the book is really about Jim McCarty’s struggle to find a niche for his natural creativity within a changing musical backdrop. There are the dashed hopes of Renaissance, the “superstar circus” of Box Of Frogs etc and a return to his R&B roots with Ruthless Blues.
There’s also an unexpected tour of the States with the British Invasion All Stars and a further reconnect with Top Topham for low key pub gigs, and a left field dabble in New Age music, before an eventual triumphant return of The Yarbirds, who are asked by Jeff Beck if he can play on their all-star album.
‘Nobody Told Me’ is an enjoyable read, both for Yardbirds and rock fans in general. It could have done with a few more photos and certainly an index, but it’s still a compelling bird’s eye account from a drummer who helped shaped one of the most significant bands of our time and whose dependability and karma go a long way to explain his musical longevity.
Review by Pete Feenstra
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