Five Yardbirds by the Italian riviera-When London RnB heroes went to Sanremo Festival

Five young British guys are leaning on a rocking chair, looking slightly puzzled in their coats while listening to pop singer Bobby Solo, in the January chill of the Italian Riviera town of Sanremo. They look cooler than an average Italian teenager would do- one even sports a fur coat- they look like beat musician. What did bring five guys from Richmond to travel to Italy and certainly not in its warmest month? These Brits are The Yardbirds and they have crossed the English Channel to perform at Sanremo Festival, Italy’s pop institution and predecessor of the Eurovision Song Contest.
The Yardbirds with Italian singer Bobby Solo during Sanremo Festival 1966 - The Sir's Corner
The Yardbirds (left to right- standing: Keith Relf, Chris Dreja; sitting: Paul Samwell-Smith, Jim McCarthy, Jeff Beck) with Italian singer Bobby Solo, Sanremo (Italy), January 1966

Since the late ‘50s Sanremo Festival hosted foreign acts (Neil Sedanka, Louis Armostrong among others) to co-perform with home singers in the competition. In the economic-growing Italy of the ‘boom’ record-buying teenagers increased and Sanremo Festival came as an opportunity not-to-miss for labels. Foreign acts, not only gathered a broader and younger audience, in front of TV monitors and radios, but also doubled the output of Sanremo Festival singles – not to count the ‘unofficial’ cheaper covers on 7” and compilations.

In 1966 The Yardbirds, as many others British Invasion acts, benefit from a certain popularity among Italian beats, to the point they were paired with two performers. The Londoners used their mother-tongue when performing the onomatopoeic pop of Paff… Bum , brought to the festival by Italian bearded beatnik songwriter Lucio Dalla and his band Gli Idoli. Although penned by soundtrack heavyweight G.F. Reverberi the song was nothing more than ’60s Tin-Pan-Alley beat-pop. When paired with rockabilly-looking pop star Bobby Solo, Keith Relf tried his best singing Questa Volta a Sanremese-style smooth ballad which has to be considered as one of the worst tracks performed by The Yardbirds.

Both songs failed to reach the final stage of the ’66 Festival – Paff… Bum possibly because to beat and pop-arty for Sanremese standards and Questa Volta just because lacking of any catchy and worthy highlights in its pop ballad nature.

Other foreign acts – including P.J. Proby paired with Giuseppe di Stefano and The Renegades singing with Italian beat combo Equipe 84- also failed to reach the final stage in 1966.

Music sheet for 1966 Sanremo festival song Paff... Bum performed by both Lucio Dalla and The Yardbirds
Music sheet for Lucio Dalla and The Yardbirds’ Paff… Bum

By January 1966 Eric Clapton had already left the band, accused to move towards pop and psych sounds by the guitarist who was extremely attached to his blues roots. Some say that Clapton even refused to join the band in the studio when, months before Sanremo Festival, The Yadbirds recorded the two tracks for the upcoming 7”.

True or not, listening to the outcome, despite the nice picture sleeve, the pop single would not have surely met Clapton’s tastes once performing at Sanremo. On stage with the band was, in fact, new member Jeff Beck.

Questa Volta/ Paff… Bum was released in Italy on Ricordi International as part of its Crawdaddy Series (clearly referring to London’s British RnB seminal venue) with the same cover used for The Yardbirds’ LP Having a Rave Up. In the official Sanremo ’66 compilation the two songs are featured in their live versions. Paff… Bum is also featured as the B-side on the German release of Shapes of Things and on several Yardbirds’ LPs such as Having a Rave Up with The Yardbirds, For Your Love and the Italian  The Yardbirds N.2.

The Yardbirds single for the Italian market, released in 1966 and containing Sanremo festival tracks Questa Volta and Paff... Bum
The Yardbirds- Questa Volta/ Paff… Bum (Ricordi International Crawdaddy Series, 1966)

Still remembered is the way host Mike Bongiorno (imagine an Italian David Frost) introduced the band on stage. Calling The Yardbirds ‘I Gallinacci’ (Italian literal translation of the band’s name) he sounded slightly negative in the style mature men approached teen music in the ‘60s, framing an Italian pop culture highlight.

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