ANTHONY "TOP" TOPHAM, A DEVOUT BLUES PURIST born in Middlesex, England,
was a very real—if overlooked—character in the development of one of the
most inventive British Invasion bands of all time. As the original
guitarist for the Yardbirds, he was the first in line of a 6-string
troika that would virtually rewrite the language of the instrument. Succeeded
by Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page, Topham would never shake,
rattle, or roll the guitar world the way those legends did. But in 1963,
Top was there and he had the best seat in the house.
Did you like Little Games and the Page-era Yardbirds?
I did. I think everybody’s heads were just so messed up at that time and it just didn’t happen. A weird thing happened over that period of time. When the Yardbirds packed up in 1969, Jimmy owned the name. I got three telegrams which I still have actually-two from Peter Grant and one from Page. They said, “There is very good news for you and would you please contact the office immediately?” I did and Jimmy told me, “I want to take the New Yardbirds back to America and are you interested?” I said, “No, I’m not, because I’m making my own album!” [Laughs.] And that’s what happened.
You would have joined the New Yardbirds as a second guitarist?
I don’t know. I don’t know what his plans were at all at that time. But I actually just said, “No.” People think that’s really weird but there you go.
Do you ever . . . ?
Regret it? I think history may have been different, but I think probably I would’ve been very much like Eric. I’ve had some wonderful opportunities to play. I left music for 17 years and went back to it when I was 40. Jim and I met up again and formed the Topham-McCarty Blues Band. It was a good experience, but he wanted to go back and do the Yardbirds again.
You didn’t want to come full circle?
No! [Laughs.] I didn’t want to sit there and play Yardbirds tunes; I wanted to do my own songs.
Do you think if you had remained in the Yardbirds that you could have brought to the music what Eric did?
Yes, I think probably I could’ve done it. Because if you take guitar playing at that time, there was some pretty awful guitar playing going around; I mean, it was very basic. And yes, what he did was basic, but it was also incredibly exciting. Maybe what I would have done wouldn’t have been quite as subtle.