The Yardbirds were harbingers of metal, psychedelia, jam bands, and world music, but they were never England’s greatest hitmakers. In the U.S., they skidded into Billboard’s Top Ten only twice, with “For Your Love” and “Heart Full of Soul.” (In Britain they scored six top tens.) They were a typical Invasion band in many ways: They started as an indifferent blues unit, despite flash guitarists Eric Clapton and his successors, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page. The singer was weak and the rhythm section often lacked flair. In the studio, they ceded control to producers and other masterminds who sometimes booted them off their own records. The number of classic tracks they produced between 1963 and ’68 is small. Perhaps only breaking up saved them from becoming Spinal Tap, whose Nigel Tufnel is a knockoff Beck.

But the Yardbirds cut a few singles so bizarre and inspired they still stand tall, and not just because of hot guitar. Their lyrics nailed, maybe helped create, mythic swinging London, at least when you could decipher them: “Cars and girls are easy come by in this day and age / Laughing joking drinking smoking till I’ve spent my wage / When I was young people spoke of immorality / All the things they said were wrong are what I want to be.” Casting about for hits, they helped English rock over the hump, past its skiffle roots and on to its feedback-fueled future, and laid the groundwork for world music so deftly you can’t even blame them. Most of their story plays out across Rhino’s two-CD set Ultimate!, which starts with early demos and ends in classic Behind the Music decline–with time out for tracks that for better or worse seem to’ve inspired artists as diverse as NRBQ (the fast happy shuffle on a nursery rhyme lick, “Jeff’s Boogie”) and Jethro Tull (the histrionic chorus to “Puzzles”).

When they formed in ’63, in Surrey near London, three of them were just turning 20 and the other two were 16. When the guitarist’s parents made him quit, 19-year-old Clapton came in. The Rhino set has more than enough Slowhand: a dozen tracks, including half of the ’64 blues bash Five Live Yardbirds, where the solo space Clapton should get keeps going to front man and harpist Keith Relf, who here as on other club gigs sings himself hoarse. (The guests who’d relieve him on second sets included Rod Stewart, who may’ve heard inspiration for his own laryngetics.) Still, they were good enough to’ve backed Sonny Boy Williamson on a British tour, and Five Live’s take on Howlin’ Wolf’s “Smokestack Lightning” flies, thanks to an uncommonly galvanized rhythm section–Paul Samwell-Smith on bass, Jim McCarty on drums–plus Clapton’s ice-pick riffing and a few choice chords that grunt like a truck starter on a cold morning.

Clapton’s tone is supercharged, but the band concept is barely beyond Elvis’s Sun Sessions. Chris Dreja’s brisk rhythm strums on “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl” are baby steps from skiffle, England’s pale folk-blues-jazz amalgam of the 50s (which Jimmy Page started out playing too, by the way). The Yardbirds had already tried some nonblues material: Allen Toussaint’s cute “A Certain Girl” (a minor hit for Ernie K-Doe) with its goofy call-and-response chorus. But Clapton quit in 1965 over their unbluesy breakthrough, “For Your Love,” penned by pre-10cc Graham Gouldman, who’d been writing for Herman’s Hermits. The band barely played on the A section, but no one cared, given the B section’s big beat release, and the main theme’s clangor of bongos, crashing harpsichord, and bowed bass, framing a four-chord progression lightly revamped the following year for the future Monkees hit “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone.”

The Yardbirds never abandoned the blues, which always made good album filler at least. (Their LPs all feel slapped together.) But eventually they sought to personalize their approach. Like the Who and other Brit bluesmen, they took cues from Mississippi-born jazz singer Mose Allison, who sounded bluesy, white and erudite; they even covered his “I’m Not Talking” (though Relf garbled the sardonic lyric). Jeff Beck is all over the dad-with-a-shotgun tale “New York City Blues,” asserting himself more than Clapton ever did, with a more plastic sense of sound that relies on a raunchy tone, distortion, feedback, and special effects and barnyard cackles derived from blues and country pickers. (The divebomber glisses may remind you of the Who’s Pete Townshend; Beck says Townshend used to come hear him, pre-Yardbirds, but Townshend says that’s rubbish.) The machine-gun break on “I Ain’t Done Wrong” and Beck’s strangulated tone–as if he’s willing the wah-wah pedal into existence–show why Hendrix dug him. (The tune’s a rip from Elmore James; the Yardbirds were as lax as any other blue-eyed bluesmen about authorship.)

With Beck they created an identity apart from the blues (insofar as any riffy guitar music can really escape the blues). They’d generate original material in group improvisations–jams, or “rave-ups.” Spontaneous riffs would congeal or be shaped into tunes, a method previously employed by Duke Ellington and Count Basie and soon to be adopted by a few Euro jazzers seeking their own distance from American models.

One virtue of the rave-up method: whether you lived in 1930s Kansas City or 60s London, your compositions could quickly reflect new or distinctly regional material. In London, hub of a collapsed colonial empire, there was lots to crib from. Indian sounds, like Indian food, were part of the mix even before George Harrison met Ravi Shankar. In April 1965–six months before the Beatles waxed “Norwegian Wood” and Joe Harriott recorded Indo-Jazz Suite, the Yardbirds brought a sitarist into the studio to play the money riff on “Heart Full of Soul,” another and better Gouldman single. Relf’s new conversational style better suited his voice (and made him sound more like Mick Jagger); it was garnished with echoey background voices outlining a minor chord, and the mix aspired to the deep-focus power of a Chess blues 45. (At year’s end, in the U.S. on tour, the band would spend two days recording at 2120 S. Michigan.) Anyway, as the story goes, the sitarist kept screwing up the timing, so Beck kicked on his fuzz box to demonstrate and wound up playing the part.

In doing so, he connected the string-bending and flexible intervals of blues and Indian music years before John McLaughlin, and his Eastern inflections helped direct the band’s evolution. On the break on the follow-up “Shapes of Things”–livelier despite a doomy lyric portending nuclear or maybe ecological apocalypse–Beck’s ringing sustain, variable vibrato, and tumbling modal lines are sitar moves transliterated. Then came “Still I’m Sad.” No Indian touches there; the minor-chord gloom and atmospheric backing vocals have morphed into a cavernous fake Gregorian chant, happily obscuring the breakup-boohoo lyrics.

Those last two tunes were written by band members; 1966’s “Over Under Sideways Down” was credited to all of them. Like an Ellington tune, it reveals the band’s history as well as current position. Beck’s snaky guitar hook is in sitar mode again, but this lick is more catchy and complex. (The vocal chorus has two hooks, one fast, one droney as a tamboura.) The bass line is a simple blues walk on one chord, giving way to a massive didgeridoo drone on the chorus. (Australia was part of the Empire too.) Relf’s choogling harp moves to and beefs up the rhythm section, and there’s a typically unlikely detail: dancing-cossack heys behind the guitar lick. The lyric, quoted above, epitomizes mod hedonism, but whether all the available jelly was a new-age entitlement or just a rock-star perk they don’t say.

Beck could be inventive in the background too. On the mock-hayseed “I Can’t Make Your Way” his guitar, miles below the vocals in the verse, resembles a sawed fiddle. (The percussion behind his break sounds like “Working in the Coal Mine.”) Early in “Turn to Earth,” another Gregorian go-round, Beck’s low harmonics married to Samwell-Smith’s long tones sound like big gamelan gongs. The global references are habitually transformed, setting this crew apart from more literal style quoters like the Beatles, and because Beck played guitar better than Harrison did sitar, the Yardbirds’ raga rock actually got closer to the supple fluidity of Indian music. They were more about building a language from diverse elements than isolating them for inspection: modern, not postmodern.

They were finally getting somewhere, but by mid-’66 long tours were killing them. Samwell-Smith left, Beck’s chum Page came in on bass until rhythm guitarist Dreja learned to play it, and Beck started missing gigs. He’d soon leave to form a band with Rod Stewart and Ron Wood, leaving Page the guitar chair. But for a couple of months before he left, Beck and Page teamed up on lead, their lines dovetailing like Beck’s overdubs on studio sides. That edition produced one of the great 60s singles, the rave-up-derived “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago.” It has it all: a ferocious proto-Hendrix guitar hook, a spooky hallway-echo vocal, Evinrude bass courtesy of Page’s future bandmate John Paul Jones, and a 38-second interlude of genuine psychedelia: a layered collage of entwined raw guitars (Townshend plane crashes and sitar ornaments), Beck heckling the band over an open mike, and a two-tone ambulance siren (recalling the wobbly guitar on the refrain) fleetingly paraphrased by guitar, or maybe cello. So many things spill into the same space, it’s a rock ‘n’ roll Waste Land. (Todd Rundgren’s note-for-note, noise-for-noise cover version for 1976’s Faithful was a poignantly pointless homage.)

Page had been the band’s first choice to replace Clapton, and his fierce big-riff attack served him as well here as in Zep. But more changes were afoot. In 1967 new management turned the Yardbirds over to hitmaker Mickie Most. The party line is that he turned them into another Hollies or Hermits, and there’s ample evidence–for instance, their last grasp at AM airplay, “Good Night Sweet Josephine,” the bouncy theme to a mod comedy someone forgot to make. The lyric, too hedonistic for Herman, is a loving paean to the girl next door who’s also the neighborhood hooker. In the studio it was Relf and Page and a pickup band; Josephine wasn’t the only one being put to bed.

But Most also brought them one underrated gem whose arrangement brims with band DNA, their last good single, “Little Games.” The toppling rhythm figure grabs you right off: a fast 3/8, with heavy rhythm guitar accents on the first two beats. That gesture sounds transformed from rock steady, the pre-reggae Jamaican music in the London air. But it also relates to Clapton’s “Smokestack” chords and certain front-loaded Chicago blues beats McCarty used to play. (Never mind he’s not even on here.) Page’s sculpted break is the last of raga rock; the phase-shifted cellos were arranged by John Paul Jones, again subbing on bass. The glib lyric is all girls, girls, girls, but the melody ingeniously expands from a near-chant to an irresistible rising and falling last line.

The song was also 2:25: short. A few late Yardbirds tracks point the way toward Led Zep: Page’s acoustic romp with tabla accompaniment, “White Summer”; the furious twin-guitar “Stroll On” from the sound track to Antonioni’s Blow-Up. Zeppelin rose from their ashes, but for a guitar-hero band, the Yardbirds often got right to the point. Still, they did waste time in other ways, letting Relf run long on the blues, or letting Most shoehorn them into unsuitable material.

There’s a fair dose of dross on Ultimate!, three 1966 tracks under Relf’s name included. Regrettably there’s nothing from the early live album with Sonny Boy Williamson, or the late one with Page. Live Yardbirds was tardily released in ’71 after Zeppelin hit, understandably irking Page, who had it yanked. No harm in sampling it now, though, is there? Cub Koda’s liner notes contain much valuable info but fixate a bit on the Yardbirds as garage gods, and the discographical info is awkwardly scattered over ten pages in a 54-page booklet. But you get a clear picture of the rise and fall of a band that helped invent modern rock in between the missteps.