Forgotten Klassiks: Roger the Engineer
Alan Jacobson digs into his record collection to attempt to popularize a lost wonder.
1966 was a hell of a year. For the mainstream, Revolver and Pet Sounds were a mighty one-two zeitgeist punch, not to mention some of the best work by The Byrds, Stones, Kinks, Who, Dylan and so many others. No need to trickle it down to a torrent of superb garage acts, monstrously wailing away on their instruments in an effort to sound like the aforementioned pop successes and usually ending up inadvertently sounding a lot like the Troggs, who were also incredible in 1966. But this is about one particular album in 1966, a somewhat mislaid, minor, scuffed gem called Roger the Engineer.
Any exploration of the Yardbirds’ work, even their strangest and finest album, requires a bit of a prehistory--confusing and unstable as it may be. The band set out in the mid-sixties as replacement for the Rolling Stones at the legendary Crawdaddy blues club in mod London. At that point, they consisted of Eric Clapton, lead guitar, Keith Relf, lead vocal, Jim McCarty, drums, Paul Samwell-Smith, bass, and Chris Dreja, rhythm guitar. Early proponents of the “rave-up,” where a blues song is played louder and faster, increasing exponentially until breakpoint or end, these sides hold up extremely well and only barely hint at the career of Otis Rush and Albert King rippoffery that Eric Clapton’s life would become the second he got fed up and left the group.
And it was on the occasion of one of the best singles of the 60’s, the decidedly pop, but damned freaky for its times, Graham Gouldman tune, “For Your Love”, that Clapton ditched, citing the mental cruelty of not being able to ape his heroes quite as often any more. Jimmy Page almost replaced him then (and would later join), but for one reason or another could not. Clapton instead recommended his friend, Jeff Beck, who would become the preeminently inventive guitarist, easily the most influential of his era, next to Hendrix. For further proof check out Jeff Beck’s Truth, where hard rock essentially began.
With Clapton out of the fold, what followed were pop singles penned by mostly by Gouldman (later of 70’s soft rockers 10 CC, “I’m Not In Love”), blues covers, and wildly erratic originals. The Jeff Beck Yardbirds were pioneers of the wild rock frontier. Feedback, distortion, and musical amplification were the band’s strong suits. (Who really “invents” these kinds of things?) Beck and co. also penned one of the first truly psychedelic songs, the cliché-by-now “Shapes of Things”--and this brings us to their first full length album with Jeff Beck, Roger the Engineer.
Not as immediately accessible as the “For Your Love” era Yardbirds, this one takes a little time to appreciate and is daunting for a few reasons. What initially jumps out is the ugliest album cover in history, courtesy of...their rhythm guitarist, Chris Dreja (these guys have to find something to do, right?) and purposefully trippy liner notes by the drummer (for god’s sake!). But once you get past all of the 1966 trappings and delve into the album itself, Roger becomes a pretty damn rewarding little fellow.
Jeff Beck’s playing is nothing short of arson. The rest of the group is damn solid, too although the production by Paul Samwell-Smith, the bassist, tends towards the thin and meandering. So, you’ve got complete creative control by a group of highly innovative psychedelic/blues rockers who honed their chops in the British Invasion—releasing a record in possibly the greatest year rock will ever see. The result, upon initial listen, is a bit of a disappointment. Great blues, psychedelic, and freaky Asiatic rhythms are present throughout—often mish mashed in the same song. A lot of dippy lyrics scar the tunes, countered sometimes to inadvertently, yet ironically amusing effect by minor-key dirges. Maybe this group could have used a little more constriction, but would they have ended up producing such a weird, challenging, and fun album with Mickie Most at the boards? Probably not.
Regardless, Keith Relf (the underrated vocalist of the 60’s) displays top-notch, if at bit confused, vocal form throughout—you can always kind of tell he’d rather be singing one of their great blues covers pulled from his record collection, like “I’m Not Talkin”. This is especially evident in his strained delivery on the charts-grasping “Rack My Mind”. Jeff Beck’s guitar is stunning throughout, if occasionally produced to ill effect, with distorted blues riffs intermingling gracefully alongside freaky psychedelic fuzz and whine. However, he sings the legendary “The Nazz Are Blue” (yes those Nazz, which inspired the name of Todd Rundgren’s famed first group) an endearing yet anemic effort that indicates why Beck didn’t do much singing throughout the rest of his career. The rest of the group is solid and tight as hell, if all but overshadowed by the fame and fashion of Beck-ola.
The tunes are a bit “of the times”. Money is bad, the mind it does trip, and women—they’re evil, in the grand Chess-humping tradition of late 60’s blues rock acts. Jim McCarty even refers to Keith Relf in his Loog-Old-hammy liner notes as “Howling Relf”. Of course these songs are given unnecessarily comical depth with a contrapuntal aggregation of strange instrumentation, Gregorian vocalizing, minor keys, and absolute expert playing. A song about wanting to have sex with a woman while a mysterious “he” is “always there” really requires no tacked on gravity from the extremely heavy (and, coincidentally, fantastic) music.
Aside from the clumsiness always inherent of invention, these songs and this album itself—the full creation of the Yardbirds’ first set of originals with no creative limitations--speak of the joyful naivete that informs the best of garage and psychedelia. That this group of rock masters is able to counterpoise stupid lyrics with grandiose rock is not necessarily a bad thing. This feeling of joyful arrogant stupidity, in fact, is one of the album’s great strengths.
“Lost Women” kicks off Roger the Engineer in fine style. A deep bass groove that has been imitated ad nauseum ushers in so-so lyrics about--what else? A girl who was lost. This song thumps along until it slams into a couple of 1964-style rave-ups and then ends abruptly. Why? Why not? Hell: to prove that they were in absolute control over the entire process and could do whatever the they wanted.
The next song is the first great psychedelic treat of the album, “Over, Under, Sideways, Down” which follows a man’s trip through his mind to avoid squareness. Along the same lines is “I Can’t Make Your Way” which features a criminally under mixed Beck line, great vocal harmonies, and is an adorable little tune on the merits of selfishness a la “A Legal Matter”.
After we bid “Farewell to Future Days” (!), one of the most ripped off rock songs of all time, “Happenings 10 Years Time Ago”, a great psychedelic rumination on time, space, and freaking out, utterly blows our conscious minds. Mock depth was never more fun or savage, all while an incredible distorted guitar rips over vocals about a “well of time”.
The next tune, “Hot House of Omagarashid” serves to underscore what is so great about psychedelic experimentation and why it went so horribly wrong with prog. Here, we’ve got Chris Dreja chanting “yeah yeah’s” over crazy percussion and a quasi-classical melange. Minus the pretension that would scar later prog work—think, “In the Land of the Few,” by Love Sculpture--we have a group of people experimenting and actually having what sounds like fun with it. It is not only a great tune, but also a hell of a lot of fun.
On the Indian rhythms and Gregorian chants that begin the final track, “Ever Since the World Began”, a similarity to the incongruous exoticism of George Harrison’s “Love You Too” from that same year’s Revolver is evident. In the same damned song, we are then abruptly cast, like a doll a child has become bored with, into a straight blues about how we don’t need money. Then the entire album ends abruptly, shot off playfully by a group of arrogant enfants terribles with little regard for anything but their art.
As with all other Yardbirds releases, there are a ton of versions of Roger the Engineer available in varying sound and compilation quality. Good ol’ Roger has been reissued at least four times that I know of. There was also an alternate, Over, Under, Sideways, Down, released with some different tracks just to confuse. As I understand it, the one to seek out is a combination of the two albums. Mine, however, is the album as it came out in 1966, a classic of joyous experimentation in artistic rock unjustifiably lost amidst a torrent of other excellent records, which just happens to end up being one of the most enjoyable psychedelic/blues rock albums of all.
Roger the Engineer 9.5/10. Not a perfect album, but flashes of genius transposed with messy fun.
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