“Roger the Engineer” by the Yardbirds (1966)
Album-oriented rock still was a long way off when the Yardbirds’ career got into full swing in the mid-1960s.
The band issued a string of hit singles that consolidated their status in their native Britain and the United States, classics like “For Your Love,” “Heart Full of Soul,” “Evil Hearted You” and “Shapes of Things.” Much of that material was compiled for two U.S.-only LPs, “For Your Love” and “Having a Rave Up With the Yardbirds,” which further enhanced their American reputation, particularly among fledgling guitar players who taught themselves to the riffs of Jeff Beck and Eric “Slowhand” Clapton.
In the summer of 1966, the Yardbirds finally released their first U.K. studio album, simply titled “The Yardbirds” but popularly known as “Roger the Engineer” because of the caption on drummer Jim McCarty’s distinctive cover portrait. Also confusing the issue is the name the album was given outside Britain: “Over Under Sideways Down,” after an LP track that became a hit single.
“Roger” turned out to be the only Yardbirds U.K. studio album, at least until the 21st-century version of the band released a CD called “Birdland” in 2003. The LP “Little Games,” featuring Jimmy Page on lead guitar, was a U.S.-only release in 1967.
Meanwhile, the overall Yardbirds discography has grown exponentially over the decades, with much of the band’s early material seemingly out there in the public domain for anyone who wants to slap together a collection for marketing purposes.
And so for music enthusiasts looking to dig into Yardbirds material, “Roger the Engineer” is a logical place to start. Not only does it represent the band’s most consistent full-length release, but it’s a damned good representation of the transition from garage rock to psychedelia.
Yardbirds bassist Paul Samwell-Smith co-produced the album, foreshadowing his transition from playing music to studio work. His bass guitar is the dominant instrument for the opening track as he provides the octave-scale hook for “Lost Woman.” At least, that’s until Beck fires off a scorching lead in the middle section, setting a precedent for much of the rest of the album.
“Over Under Sideways Down” features a fuzzed-guitar motif – Beck was a pioneer in getting that type of sound out of this instrument as vocalist Keith Relf provides a narrative worth of the band’s home of Swinging London:
Cars and girls are easy come by in this day and age
Laughing, joking, drinking, smoking ’til I’ve spent my wage.
When I was young, people spoke of immorality
All the things they said were wrong are what I want to be
The song represents the last major singles triumph for the Yardbirds: No. 13 on the U.S. charts and No. 10 in the U.K.
Beck spells Relf on lead vocal for “The Nazz Are Blue,” and although Jeff doesn’t sound particularly comfortable in that role, he started his solo career as a singing guitarist with the British Hit “Hi Ho Silver Lining.” As for “The Nazz,” it’s in a fairly standard 12-bar blues format, with Beck providing his usual stellar guitar. The song served as the impetus for the names of at least two American bands: Todd Rundgren’s band out of Philadelphia, which recorded three albums as the Nazz, and another group from Phoenix, until the members started calling themselves Alice Cooper.
“I Can’t Make Your Way” is an upbeat ditty that extols the virtues of living beyond the pale, so to speak: “Taxman, rent man, they all chase me, I ain’t home when they come around/Got no money, live my life free, that’s the best way I have found.”
Another Beck showcase is “Rack My Mind,” another blues-based, woman-done-wrong song driven by a memorable bass line. His guitar really comes to the forefront during the slowed-tempo middle section.
The brief, sparsely accompanied “Farewell” has Relf musing about the ills of the world throughout the days of the week, concluding on Sunday with the ominous: “On Sunday back inside my room, I draw the blinds, ’tis afternoon/I let my mind find its own ways, farewell to future days.” Who said the ’60s were all about flowers and sunshine?
“Hot House of Omagarashid” has the Yardbirds veering off into experimental territory, with rhythm guitarist producing a rhythm by shaking something called a wobble board and the band plunging into another bass-driven tune, this one enhanced by various members chanting an infectious “Ya-ya-ya!” lyric. The mono mix of the song features one of Beck’s most searing guitar leads.
“Jeff’s Boogie” pretty much is what the title indicates: Beck providing a workout to an instrumental line that strongly resembles Chuck Berry’s “Guitar Boogie.” He also throws in a few quotes from “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” perhaps as a nod to Buddy Guy.
The Yardbirds show their heavier side on “He’s Always There,” a lament about trying to hit on a girl when her boyfriend won’t leave her side. Beck’s playing is somewhat reserved until the outro, during which he plays a blazing guitar as Relf and others sing the song title repeatedly.
“Turn into Earth” is a foray into Gregorian chant territory, along the lines of the highly successful “Still I’m Sad.” Relf returns to the lyrical doom and gloom of “Farewell”:
Distant dreams of things to be
Wandering thoughts that can’t be free
I feel my mind turning away
To the darkness of my day
“What Do You Want” is the Yardbirds in rave-up mode, jamming to a catchy tune as Relf puts forth another lament about a fickle woman. As with many of the “Roger the Engineer” songs, this one is available in some collections in its instrumental form, again showing why Beck was regarded as one of the top young guitarists of the era.
The album closes on a foreboding note with “Ever Since the World Began,” a minor-key dirge that abruptly shifts to a much livelier tempo. Lyrically, it’s yet more familiar territory a la “I Can’t Make Your Way”: Band members chant, “I don’t need money,” as Relf expounds in a root-of-all-evil theme.
Most reissues of “Roger the Engineer” have included two additional songs, the single “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago” and its British B-side, “Psycho Daisies.” Both feature the short-lived lineup of Beck and Page sharing lead-guitar duties.
The A-side may mark the pinnacle of the Yardbirds’ creativity, but unfortunately it stiffed on the charts, peaking at No. 30 in the U.S. and No. 43 in the U.K. “Happenings” also represents an early collaboration between Page and John Paul Jones, who played bass.
In the United States, the B-side was “The Nazz Are Blue.” Rundgren must have bought the 45; not only did he name his band after one of the songs, but he covered the other on his “Faithful” album in 1976.
After “Roger the Engineer,” the Yardbirds’ commercial appeal declined significantly, and the band broke up in June 1968. Page put together another group to fulfill some contractual obligations, and so Led Zeppelin played its first several gigs billed as his previous band.
If he, Jones, Robert Plant and John Bonham played any “Roger the Engineer” material together, it has not been recorded in any Led Zeppelin histories.