55 Years Ago: Yardbirds Introduce Psych-Rock With ‘Shapes of Things’
No song heralded the psychedelic era better than the Yardbirds' 1966 hit “Shapes of Things.” Released on Feb. 25, 1966, the song introduced the world to an exciting frontier with new sonic possibilities in less than three minutes.
It's difficult to say what the first true psychedelic song is. Kim Fowley's “The Trip,” the Kinks' “See My Friends” and another Yardbirds track, “Heart Full of Soul,” all showed hints at things to come, but “Shapes of Things” is the first to really dive into the genre. And while most of their contemporaries were treading similar grounds by 1966, the Yardbirds took a uniquely heavy approach to the genre.
The group's single scored with audiences worldwide; the song hit No. 3 in the U.K. and No. 11 in the U.S. Its sound would soon be imitated in almost every garage on both sides of the Atlantic. With its scorching feedback-drenched guitar solo (played by Jeff Beck), the song predated the proto-noise rock that Jimi Hendrix and the Who's Pete Townshend would popularize the following year.
Recorded before the sessions for their self-titled 1966 album (aka Roger the Engineer), "Shapes of Things" marked the start of a more mature era for the band. The Yardbirds, who formed in 1963, had spent much of their early career playing aggressive blues covers.
The hits started to come in 1964, the first being “For Your Love” (which was penned by future 10cc bassist Graham Gouldman). Original guitarist Eric Clapton left the group after that single (claiming his band had “sold out”). Beck stepped in as his replacement and introduced a heavier style of playing to the band.
Listen to the Yardbirds' 'Shapes of Things'
Although the group was still mostly relying on cover songs as late as 1965, “Shapes of Things” proved the Yardbirds were capable of speaking for themselves. The song's lyrics point to a radical new direction many psychedelic artists would take in the following years.
The surreal landscape described in the song by singer Keith Relf is full of antiwar and conservationist references, not exactly familiar topics in pop songs at the time. Its U.K. B-side, “You're a Better Man Than I,” also included progressive lyrics, these about racial equality.
Yardbirds drummer Jim McCarty recalled "Shapes of Things" as one of his favorites in an interview with DME. “[It] was one of the best things we produced, because it was original and it had the talents of all the band in it," he said. "Everyone put in their best – it had great vocals and fantastic guitar sound and good lyrics – and it was an interesting song that encompassed everything from the band.“ The rest of the band likely agreed, as it was frequently played live for the rest of their career.
Watch Jimmy Page and the Yardbirds Perform 'Shapes of Things'
Live performances by the Yardbirds were notoriously raucous, and the addition of “Shapes of Things” only reinforced their reputation as one of England's heaviest performers. The song remained popular in the group's live sets, even two years later during the Jimmy Page era.
Coincidentally, Beck revisited the song at the same time when it was rerecorded (and sung by Rod Stewart) for the opening track to his debut album, Truth.
The Yardbirds' original version remains one of the band's best tracks and one of the most important songs in the history of psychedelia, opening an entire new universe for forward-thinking artists to explore.