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Yardbirds Bassist Recalls Photographing Early Days of Led Zeppelin


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Even though he'd been a member of the most impressive guitar band in rock music, Chris Dreja abruptly quit the music business after the Yardbirds split in 1968. While bandmate Jimmy Page went on to form Led Zeppelin, Dreja worked with the rock legends not as a bassist but as a professional photographer.

"I got fed up with how my life was being controlled by often half a dozen people who were out of order," Dreja tells Spinner. "I wanted control of my own destiny."

Dreja is currently one of two original members of the reformed Yardbirds (drummer Jim McCarty is the other), which just ended their most recent tour. For more than three decades, he was a commercial and editorial photographer, and while it might seem odd for him to quit rock 'n' roll for photos, Dreja says he intended to be a visual artist even before the Yardbirds.

"I was at art school along with many other creative people," says Dreja, who is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with the Yardbirds. "And I always had a love for photography."

In fact, he says, he was actually shooting photos while with the Yardbirds in the '60s.

"I was there with the Detroit riots and Watts," he says. "And I used to sell the photos to American magazines."

While the Yardbirds didn't have longevity on their side, the band was a significant link in the evolution of British blues with songs like 'For Your Love,' I'm a Man' and 'Shapes of Things.' The three lead guitarists were never in the band at the same time, though Beck and Page were briefly in the group together.

"They were friends," Dreja says, noting that Page had recommended Beck for the band. "But they've got egos, big egos in one way or another. It was a bit of a cacophony of sound, two gunslingers shooting at each other. It didn't work for us."

Beck left the group after 18 months and eventually the band split when singer Keith Relf and drummer Jim McCarty wanted to pursue acoustic music while Page wanted to veer toward hard rock. Page formed a new band -- the future Zeppelin -- briefly calling it the New Yardbirds. While various sources have reported that Dreja was initially a part of that band, he claims that's not true.

"I was never asked," he says. "John Paul Jones was the best bass player in Europe at that point. He was a perfect match."

Dreja would have a significant contribution to Zeppelin's first album, though -- he shot the band photo, which appeared the back of the self-titled record. "They paid me $15," he says, noting that the band was still playing gigs in pubs at the time.

"I thought Page had a pretty good chance of putting a good band together," he says. "Of course, I didn't know how good they were going to be."

Two years later, he was hired to do promotional photos for the band -- for $25 -- and Zeppelin had changed considerably from the young and naive musicians in that first photo.

"With Robert Plant, you could tell how much more of a rock god he had become," Dreja says. "And with John Bonham, you could tell he was spaced."

Dreja would shoot other famous artists, including Andy Warhol, but his photography career was much quieter than his rock career. However, it did provide more money than his rock 'n' roll royalties, which, he says, added a little extra income every now and then.

"It was just like Christmas money," he says.


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Thanks for this. I'd heard Chris Dreja was also a photographer and had done work with Led Zeppelin. Just for the hell of it, here's a link to the website of "Top" Topham, the first Yardbirds guitarist, and the only guitarist in the band never to become an icon (not counting the reformed line-ups; no idea how that band is doing currently): http://www.toptopham.com/.

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