#350: The Yardbirds, "Roger the Engineer" (1966)

Writing about music from the 1960s invariably involves writing about "The 1960s." I place the decade in quotes because of the mythical qualities that attend the writing about it, as if it were the decade, the one where everything happened that made us in the present (many of whom perhaps were not alive in the 1960s) into the animals we are. Something like that. I hate this abstraction but I don't know how else to talk about an album like Roger the Engineer, which was released on July 15, 1966. It is a month before the Beatles would put out Revolver. Bob Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited is one year old, and Rubber Soul is going on eight months. I could go on and on laying the groundwork of creative foment that no doubt the Yardbirds were involved in and responding to. But I am less interested in this endless teasing out of an archive in the name of the grand abstraction of "The 1960s" than I am in the amazing accident that Roger the Engineer dropped the day after Bastille Day.

Focusing on the French commemoration of their bourgeois revolution seems a bit odd, but I like the way it frames a lot of what goes on in the 35 minutes of Roger the Engineer. For instance, the album begins and ends with two halves of a whole proposition about quantification: "Lost Woman" starts with a familiar count-off of the beat on a cymbal, and "Ever Since the World Began" fades out with Keith Relf singing "you don't need money" over and over again. If you listen through the whole album and start it over again immediately (I recommend this, even if you are unconvinced by this stuff about money), suddenly the cymbal-counting trope, one of the most ubiquitous and pleasurable of rock tropes, seems inextricable from this denunciation of the thing that organizes most of our social life around the activity of counting.

Between these two bookends, the Yardbirds elaborate a celebration of life. Why not focus on that, then? Well, I will. Or I am. But without setting up the role that money plays here, it's hard to see the celebration. You might see "The 1960s," but then miss the trees for the forest. Or some forest, not the one I see in the 60s—which is to say if we're going to talk about the 1960s, better to do it in terms of revolutions (French or otherwise: and it's worth noting another French "event" is on the horizon; Roger the Engineer came out in 1966, two years before the May 1968 riots and demonstrations) and opposition to the tyranny of money than some vague Geist or another. After all, the refrain of "you don't need money" appears at the end of a song that uses "Satan" as a symbol for human greed and the profit motive that have lorded over the world since the beginning of time. Leaving aside the historiography here, the transition from a droning, nasally-sung passage that practically invents Black Sabbath's aesthetic in a single gesture, to a danceable, major-key hook in "Ever Since the World Began" makes it hard to ignore the importance of money for Roger the Engineer. The Satan of la société de consommation has to appear so that the Yardbirds can respond to it.

The response we get is not quite the storming of the Bastille, or the occupation and transformation of the Sorbonne into an "autonomous university." It might, however, give pleasure in ways that are consistent with the positions that begat such revolutionary foment. The album's big single, "Over Under Sideways Down," is a case in point: an insouciant call and response between a shout of "hey!" and a guitar riff builds into a song whose lyrics we might summarize as a simple and indolent plaint about not wanting to do anything, were it not for the appearance in the first verse of wages as the thing that keeps civil society and its various compulsions moving. It's not just "laughing, joking, drinking, smoking," but it's all this "till I've spent my wage." It is no accident, then, that in the second verse another quietist sentiment—that we should just go enjoy ourselves rather than argue about it with others—appears alongside a recognition that fun "is all for free." Obviously these are complicated, circumscribed sentiments, but it's interesting to think about them in light of a more overtly politicized structure of feeling.

Of course nobody listens to the Yardbirds—or any rock music for that matter—solely for the lyrics. If they tell you as much they're lying. And the music here is quite the opposite of the indolent tone of the lyrics. It's up-tempo, energetic, improvisatory, even hopeful. Jeff Beck is determined to prove that he never met a rhythm section he couldn't build a riff around—is this an allegory for mutual aid, some kind of Utopian vision of human cooperation? That would be very "The 1960s" of me to say, wouldn't it? But then I suppose it's worth conceding to the hagiographers of 60s rock the point that, in whatever ways it could, this music attempted to develop a way of seeing the world not beholden to money.

Not that we need a hagiography to get at this kernel of truth. We have songs that do the work of expressing it for us. And they don't necessitate a turning away from the world, but rather an indignant and perpetual confrontation with it. "I want somebody to tell me why there's always smoke up in the sky," sings Relf in "What Do You Want," in a way that suggests that the anti-cash conclusion—"you don't need money"—is not merely crudely idealist. Or, if it's crudely idealist, its crudeness and idealism have their roots in a serious concern about the world, whose basis in some antipathy toward money has a striking resonance for us in the present. What better slogan for our present situation could there be, than "you don't need money!" And where better to be reminded of this than in the songs of the Yardbirds.

—David W. Pritchard