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The Blog Kept A-Rollin’—Part Five: “Stroll On” by The Yardbirds

August 17, 2011

In the previous post, I marveled at the fact that The Yardbirds’ lead guitarists were “first Eric Clapton, then Jeff Beck, and finally Jimmy Page.” While that statement is true, there was a brief period (6/66 to 10/66) when Beck and Page were both in the group. Coincidentally, it was during that time that The Yardbirds wound up recording “The Train Kept A-Rollin’ ” again (sort of).

The Yardbirds’ original bass player Paul Samwell-Smith quit the band in June 1966 and they approached Jimmy Page about taking his place. He accepted and played bass in the group for about six weeks. While on a short U.S. tour that summer, Jeff Beck was hospitalized with tonsillitis. The rhythm guitarist, Chris Dreja, switched to the bass and Page filled in as lead guitarist for the rest of that tour. “But when the band got back to London in mid-September, a recuperated Beck and Page finally teamed up for the mother of all six-string fests—a two-guitar psychedelic hootenanny.”1 

Only two songs have been released that document this pairing. The first was the single “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago”—which is definitely psychedelic, if not exactly a hootenanny. The second was “Stroll On,” which was used in the film Blow-Up.

Blow-Up, the first English-language film by director Michelangelo Antonioni, was set in “swinging London”—the main character, Thomas, is a fashion photographer (played David Hemmings) who coolly observes this demimonde of models, drugs and parties.

To reflect another element of this trendy scene, Antonioni wanted to include a rock band playing in a club. Oddly, given that he was in London, Antonioni’s first choice was The Velvet Underground—a band closely associated with Andy Warhol’s New York scene. This may have been because, at that time, they were signed to a division of MGM Records (MGM was the U.K. distributor for the film). However, according to V. U. guitarist Sterling Morrison, “the expense of bringing the whole entourage to England proved too much for him.”2

Antonioni was fascinated by Pete Townshend’s guitar-smashing routine, so he approached The Who. Nothing came of that. A fairly obscure psychedelic British band called Tomorrow, which included guitarist Steve Howe (later a member of Yes) recorded two songs for the film—including one called “Blow-Up”—but neither was used.

“Simon Napier-Bell [The Yardbirds’ manager at the time] happened to run into Antonioni at the London discotheque Scotch of St. James and made his case that The Yardbirds were the group for his film. Antonioni caught The Yardbirds live on September 23 and was convinced that Napier-Bell was correct. The Yardbirds wanted to do original material and offered five tracks recorded at Sound Techniques Studios… but Antonioni loved The Yardbirds’ version of ‘The Train Kept A-Rollin’ ’·and felt it would work best within Blow-Up. However, copyright permission for the song could not be obtained by the October filming date, so Keith Relf modified the lyrics and created ‘Stroll On’ the day before actual shooting took place.”3

Here’s another version of the “Stroll On” story, with a bizarre added detail:

“Unable to secure permission from the publisher, Relf made a quick dash to the toilet to write new lyrics.”4

Ah, the glamorous life of a rock star!

Let’s take a trip back to London circa 1966:

Where “The Train Kept A-Rollin’ ” on Having A Rave Up With The Yardbirds was, for all its energy, very tightly focused, “Stroll On” threatens at every moment to go out of control—creating dramatic tension. The train whistle opening has been replaced by an extended blast of two-guitar feedback, reminding me of a whistling tea kettle on full boil (how English). Given the high-powered reputations of the guitarists, the dueling solos are, on first listen, somewhat disappointing… but, ultimately, they do go further out into the stratosphere than on the Having A Rave Up version.

As I mentioned, “Antonioni was enamored with the visual image of The Who’s Pete Townshend destroying his guitar and amp… he wanted Jeff Beck to do the same.”5

Beck was not happy about this:

“When Antonioni said that he wanted me to break my guitar I had a fit. I said, ‘Wait a minute, that’s Townshend’s thing.’ I didn’t mind playing a very wild number with lots of violence in it, lots of chords smashing away, but I didn’t actually want to destroy the guitar.”6

“To appease Beck, breakaway prop guitars [which earlier had been] made to Tomorrow guitarist Steve Howe’s specifications were given to him to smash during the three days of filming the scene and a studio recording of ‘Stroll On’ was used for the band to mime to.”7

Here’s the scene from Blow-Up with The Yardbirds performing “Stroll On.”

Jeff Beck had a unique reaction to the film: 

“I was thoroughly embarrassed. I had a f***ing hard-on in the picture, man! This chick I was going out with at the time said, ‘Oh my god, don’t go see that film, it’s so embarrassing, I didn’t know what to do, I took my mother to see it and there you were … this horrible, sinister thing hanging down the side of the screen.’ It gets hot under them lights, after all, rupturing myself with those tight trousers.”8

Hmmm… that gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “a wooden performance.”

For years, the only way to hear “Stroll On” was to purchase the Blow-Up soundtrack album—where it was incongruously sandwiched in the middle of Herbie Hancock’s jazz-oriented film score.

In 2001, that situation was remedied when the song was included on Rhino’s excellent two-disc set The Yardbirds Ultimate! which also includes a booklet with the liner notes by Cub Koda that I’ve quoted.

Next—wrap a scarf around the microphone stand; a future American Idol judge is about to mess with the song’s lyrics.

  1. Cub Koda’s liner notes for the Rhino two-disc set The Yardbirds Ultimate! © 2001 Rhino Entertainment Company, p. 17.
  2. Victor Bockris and Gerard Malanga, Uptight – The Velvet Underground Story (New York, New York: Quill, 1983) p. 67.
  3. Greg Russo, Yardbirds: The Ultimate Rave-Up (Floral Park, New York: Crossfire Publications, 1997-2001) p. 78-79.
  4. Koda, p. 40.
  5. Russo, p. 79.
  6. Andrew Bailey, “Jeff Beck Is Back In Action,” Rolling Stone June 24, 1971: p. 23.
  7. Russo, p.79.
  8. Bailey, p. 23.

From → The 1960's

  1. Jim Laffan permalink

    Mike: As I listen to the morphing of Train Kept a Rollin at the hands of its peformers, I’m reminded of the history of how the film of Bonnie and Clyde came to get made. At one point, according to Pictures at A Revolution–great book!–Jean Luc Godard was to direct (!) so long as Elliot Gould (!) would be Clyde and Buck Henry (!!) could be script doctor. Then Warren Beatty shows up…as a producer. Francois Truffaut (who’d earlier been the choice of the script writers) was really the ONLY choice to direct and just as inevitably Leslie Caron, who Warren happened to be banging at the time, was perfect for Bonnie. But then it fell apart: Warren was unable to get his first choice for the role of Clyde—Who? But who else? Ladies and gentlemen, a name that needs no introduction in the world of independent cinema; –won’t you please give it up for MISTER SHOWBIZ HIMSELF! The Fabulous! BOB!! DYLAN!!!

    The mind reels. And yet it would still be two years and a lot more before the cameras actually began to roll…

    Speaking of which, did I miss an installment or something? I still haven’t seen your take on the Capt. Beefheart cover from Trout Mask Replica. You know, the one where van Vliet messes with the melody line and renames it Dachau Blues. It’s okay, a lot of other people didn’t catch it either.

    Keep digging. This is more fun than reading the Drudge Report. Jim

    • Wow… Bob Dylan as Clyde Barrow? As you said: “The mind reels.” Even more amazing… this must be the only time Warren Beatty wasn’t Warren Beatty’s first choice.

      As far as Trout Mask Replica goes, I’ll need to discuss this with the Beefheart-Fan-In-Chief and get back to you.



  2. Ted permalink

    Look at how quiet and respectful the crowd is (until they get the guitar thrown at them)

    Is this how we remember the 60’s clubs, or is it just Antonioni’s take on it?

    • In 1966 I was going to the Avalon Ballroom in San Francisco — lots of folks were dancing and the ones standing around were at least moving to the music. I didn’t get to a rock club in London until 1971; it was basically the same — not like Antonioni portrayed. Everybody in Blow-Up (and pretty much all of his other films) seems detached and/or alienated — as you pointed out, the only thing that they react to is the destruction of the guitar.

      I’d better stop… this is a rock music blog and the deeper meaning of an Antonioni film is above my pay grade.

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