In the southwest of London, in 1962 a young Richmond band called The Metropolis Blues Quartet was staring to become England’s probably most innovative rock band. This band would become the nucleus of a guitar based outfit that later significantly altered music history and start, among other things, the American psychedelic and garage rock period.
The band’s singer, one Keith Relf (1943-1976) then and in the years to come would lend his unique, if not full voice to a huge number of great recordings from the fields of blues, beat, psychedelia, and rock music.
As with some minor personal changes, mostly their lead guitarists, some of these songs, like “For Your Love,” “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago,” “Think About It,” “Over, Under Sideways Down,” and the book’ title (song) “Heart Full of Soul” became immortal classics by the band The Yardbirds, as the band renamed itself in 1963.
And although probably most people who were born with asthma would decide against playing a wind instrument like the harmonica, let alone singing excessively long and loud, he did both, and his blues harp sound had a very distinctive “European” tone, much diffident than that of his black American idols. His trading of riffs with the band’s guitarists became one of the many trademarks of the Yardbirds.
And even though the band may mostly be remembered for the creme de la creme of rock guitarist they employed over the years – Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page – Relf’s singing always provided their recordings with some sort of mysterious, dark, almost sinister sound. His mellow and somewhat detached approach, as he did not posses the volume of other contemporary British rock singers, made his voice a perfect fit for the many esoteric and psychedelic lyrics that he presented (before anybody had even heard about psychedelia rock). One important thing often overlooked by rock historians is that the Yardbirds created psychedelic rock gems almost without any electronic toys (with the exception of the Tone Bender and Vox pedal used by Beck and Page) or studio gadgets like the Beatles. That means two guitars and Relf’s voice were enough to have audiences freak out in ecstasy; without the help of keyboards, tape samples, backward recordings or synthesizers.
David French’s book is not – unlike many others – on the band’s guitar players, but tells Relf’s story, and reconstructs the way too short life of a very gifted and special singer, seen through the eyes of band mates, managers and his widow April Mannino. Relf unfortunately was not a very healthy person, even his asthma left aside, he often was depressed, very insecure and had a strong introspective tendency and even if judged by all as the most lovely and amicable guy, possessed a rather dark and negative air.
However, he decided on a career in music business, that meant tight travel schedules, permanent high pressure, deadlines to meet, exposure to raving fans and the press. Even for a healthy and strong person this would be a most difficult task, as the music business would show no mercy for any sensitive, introverted and quiet character. So Relf’s poor health, his massive smoking, alcoholism, later heavy use of mind-expanding drugs, and feelings of loneliness led to many situations where he not only stayed drunk for days on tour, but was on the brink of nervous breakdowns and about to quit the music business forever.
When the Yardbirds finally broke up in 1968, after their eighth US tour that meant mostly a lot of hassle, pressure and another very tight schedule, Relf was rather relieved for a short time. Nevertheless, one major problem on tour for him were his constant disputes with a very loud and unreliable Jeff Beck who would make it impossible for him to hear his own singing at a show, and later his complicated situation as the front man to be squeezed onstage between two world-class guitar players, who had most of the attention and volume.
As a consequence, he tried to find new musical projects as singer and producer, tried a number of new band projects, each one a health probing adventure as he founded Renaissance, had a try at recording and joining Medicine Head and ended up in a heavy rock band Armageddon, that musically was very far removed from the brilliance, importance and quality of past fame.
Finally, probably the toll of six years of almost constant touring with the Yardbirds, his health deteriorated significantly. Being the father of two boys in 1969 also had him facing money issues after he left the Yardbirds. As royalties from all of the band’s recordings and his previous solo singles came in only rarely. He desperately tried to find a compromise between regular income from making music without heavy touring and the urgent need of free time he needed to connect to himself again.
As offstage he always preferred to keep to himself, loved only the company of his family and wanted to stay away from the media, headlines, journalist, fans and photographers alike. Instead, he preferred to go fishing, away from any sound or noises and, most of all, people. A separation from his wife and further financial problems forced him to move to even smaller apartments and had him spend his last weeks in very bad rooming conditions. Seemingly, he was mostly forgotten by producers, labels and the music business; almost as if his past Yardbird fame had made him toxic.
Furthermore, the huge commercial success of all the Yardbirds’ former lead guitar players must have caused further doubts about his quality as a musician, as all of his projects after 1968 had failed. As he was still trying to start something new (while again bad luck finally eliminated all possibilities concerning his last band Armageddon, such as no manger, no promoter or record label interested), he experimented with new songs in his small home recording studio in Whitton, Richmond, close to the area where are he grew up. The few electrical devices and a guitar he used in a corner of his bedroom were badly wired and on May 12th, 1976 he died of accidental electrocution.
This book pays tribute long overdue to an introverted, fantastic, most versatile and unique singer who died at age 33, who would easily switch between blues, rock and pop tunes or classic blues band and rock/experimental setups.
Naturally, French’s book is also a history of the Yardbirds in their own words, as he interviewed Relf’s band mates, family, friends, producers, and fans (who were in US bands back then) and worked his way through shelves of fanzines, newspaper and magazine articles.
This first full-length biography of Keith Relf is well worth reading (as it may give you goose bumps reading it), and the book would sit perfectly right between other titles on the British Invasion and the early days of psychedelic rock. It comes with a short discography, 40 photos, and a bibliography.
Review by Dr. A. Ebert © 2020