Friday, May 14, 2021

A backdoor memorialization of Keith Relf

1969: Keith Relf, Hawken, Jane Relf seated; Dreja, McCarty standing

I was cruising the Internet this morning, landed on one of those This Week in Music sites, and found something interesting: Today is the 45th anniversary of the death of Yardbirds lead singer Keith Relf, who was electrocuted at home playing an improperly grounded electric guitar.

This story, new to me, is another entry on the mental list I have been keeping since Geezer Bob and I had a discussion a few weeks ago about rock musicians who have died under unusual circumstances. 

This one in particular caught my eye, not because I was ever a fan of Relf or the Yardbirds or ever have known much about them. But I have had tangential interest in Relf's career because he was a founder of a band that was a particular favorite of mine during the mid- and late 1970s.

Relf was not around when Renaissance blew me away as the opening act for Wishbone Ash, whom I had gone to see at Kiel Auditorium in St. Louis in summer 1974. At that time, Renaissance was touring on its fourth album, Ashes Are Burning, a record that immediately became one of my favorite finds ever.

By that time, the performing lineup had turned over completely from the one formed by Relf five years earlier. The band I saw was the one now regarded as the classic Renaissance, centered around the mesmerizing voice of Annie Haslam, whom I plan to talk about Sunday in a Geezerology on YouTube video.

For now, though, back to Relf. He and drummer Jim McCarty founded The Yardbirds in 1963 and provided a showcase for a string of superstar lead guitarists -- Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page -- for five years. The band dissolved amid a power struggle in 1968 -- and the bombastic Page went off to form Led Zeppelin while Relf and McCarty put together a new band to pursue their folksy, classical ambitions.

The new band, Renaissance, featured Relf and his sister, Jane, as co-lead singers, with Relf on lead guitar, McCarty on drums, John Hawken on piano and Louis Cennamo on bass. The self-titled debut album in 1969 -- one of the earliest examples of prog rock -- sold reasonably well in the UK, though US audiences paid it no attention at all. 

It wasn't long before people started moving in and out of Renaissance. The original band recorded a few tracks and a revamped lineup finished up the 1971 LP, Illusion, which got only sporadic release in Europe. Keith Relf and McCarty, the only remaining originals, soon stepped aside -- Relf to focus on producing and McCarty on his songwriting. And by the time of the band's third album, Prologue, in 1972, Renaissance was a completely different band.

McCarty bounced around for a few years with several bands before reforming The Yardbirds in 1992. He has kept The Yardbirds active since then.

Relf spent the last years of his life forming and dissolving a few bands. When he died, he was in the process of putting the original Renaissance lineup back together under the name Illusion. The other four -- Cennamo, McCarty, Hawken and Jane Relf -- did record a couple of albums in the late 1970s before dissolving once again.

Here's a video from 1970 of the original Renaissance lineup performing Kings and Queens, the opening track of the debut album:

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