The latter half of 1966 brought a consolidation of commercial and artistic success in Roger the Engineer and “Over Under Sideways Down” as well as the most momentous developments in The Yardbirds‘ history. Following the departure of bassist/arranger Paul Samwell-Smith (largely responsible for the band’s “rave-up” dynamic), the group accepted the services of Jimmy Page, then merely the most accomplished session guitarist in Britain, as a stand-in. Content to fulfill bass duties until rhythm guitarist Chris Dreja could acclimate to the instrument, Page assumed dual-lead guitar responsibilities with Jeff Beck within a month and contributed, as his debut offering, the music for what would become the heaviest rock song ever recorded. Conceived either during Page’s final days in session work or his first studio visit with The Yardbirds, “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago” eclipsed any of the fuzz-laden, American garage nuggets or atmospheric, “psychedelic” recordings in sheer vehemence and dramatics. Rivalled in this regard only by The Animals‘ “Inside Looking Out“, released–obscenely–as early as February 1966, “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago” imposed an irreversible heaviness and depth upon rock music.
Fitted in the studio with lyrics discussing reincarnation (pointing toward yet another 1960s trend) from Keith Relf and Jim McCarty, the piece amounted to an eviscerating two-and-a-half minute plunge into hysterics. Truly unprecedented as a work of popular music, “Happenings” offers up a withering minor chord riff and haunting backing vocals before delivering listeners to its devastating instrumental section. Imitation-sirens, droning feedback, and turgid rhythmic chords treated to resemble explosions collide to maniacal effect as Page impels the group onward. Beck, contrary to popular assumption, was not present during the song’s composition and was nearly not present for the recording, arriving to the session with only enough time to contribute a stinging, twenty-second solo and the distinctive spoken excerpt (mimicking actual remarks from a doctor at a V.D. clinic the band had visited). Incidentally, John Paul Jones, joining Page and Beck in the studio for the second time in only a few months (the first occasion being the recording of “Beck’s Bolero”), contributes the bass guitar parts rather than Dreja or Page.
Despite the instrumental freneticism and the use of a fade-out to conclude, the composition retains a tight structure that lends a sense of resolution. Moreover, that the song bears any discernible structure represents a tremendous advance for rock in 1966 and positions it as a predecessor to the longer, more elaborate orchestrations and “symphonic” works attempted in recent years. These aspects elevate “Happenings” beyond any expectation and, even for The Yardbirds, constitute considerable innovations. Without extensive production or weeks of studio work, the record encapsulated and instilled the fondness for volatile backdrops and distorted instrumental salvos that sprouted up in the late 1960s. Moreover, the song commenced Page’s stylistic influence on the band, later assured by Beck’s withdrawal for a solo career in October, which would sustain The Yardbirds as one of the foremost live attractions in rock through 1968. Preceding the debuts of Cream and the Jimi Hendrix Experience by months, the release legitimately marked a shift in rock’s progression and a precursor to every subsequent inroad into heavier territory.
Naturally, the song heralded the decline in The Yardbirds’ commercial fortunes, peaking at #30 in the U.S. and a paltry #43 in the U.K.; incidentally, the thought of an AM Top 40 countdown including “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago” is a bit unsettling anyway. Notably, Yardbirds spiritual child Aerosmith rehearsed “Happenings” extensively during its formative period and performed the song at its first official gig in 1970, setting off a long line of covers.
“Happenings Ten Years Time Ago” (Released October 1966)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0AF8yMx9SvE (March 15, 1967 performance for German TV)