With its Eastern-sounding, feedback-laden guitar solo and anti-war/pro-environmental lyrics, several music writers have identified it as the first popular psychedelic rock song. It is built on musical elements contributed by several group members in three different recording studios in the US and was the first Yardbirds’ composition to become a record chart hit.
The song features Jeff Beck’s musical use of feedback, which he learned to control by finding the guitar’s resonant points and bending the strings. Music writers have called his work groundbreaking and cited its influence on Paul McCartney and Jimi Hendrix. Several live Yardbirds recordings with Beck and later with Jimmy Page have been released. In 1968, Beck reworked it for the lead track on his debut album “Truth”, with Rod Stewart on vocals. According to Beck, vocalist Rod Stewart suggested that they record the song and Beck added, “let’s slow it down and make it dirty and evil” The new arrangement, along with other album tracks, has been described as a precursor of heavy metal.
By the end of 1965, the Yardbirds had released three albums and several singles. However, except for a few B-sides, their material was adapted from older blues and rhythm and blues songs or composed by songwriters not associated with the group. According to drummer Jim McCarty, the Yardbirds were experimenting with their sound, but had yet been unable to translate it into a hit song:
We were really coming from not trying to create a sort of a 3-minute piece of music, it was just something that seemed natural to us. We started with the rhythm, we used a bass riff that came from a jazz record, got a groove going with that and then added a few other bits from elsewhere, other ideas that we’d had. And I think it was a great success for us, it was a good hit record that wasn’t really selling out. And it was original.
Beck confirmed McCarty’s account and added, “Somebody’d say, ‘Let’s do something modern and exciting; we know we can get a good blues sound, so let’s spread it out a little bit.’ It was all spur of the moment, man”. Over two days at Chess Records, a backing track was completed and the Yardbirds continued their American concert tour. Shortly after arriving in Hollywood, the group resumed recording at Columbia studios on 7 January and at RCA studios on 10 January 1966. Singer Keith Relf contributed lyrics and a melody for the song.
Although Beck had been impressed with the Chess studio’s history and sound, he had been unable to complete a guitar solo to his satisfaction.
I kept changing guitar sounds all the way through. So we did two or three takes of my guitars and blended them all together. But the solo on “Shapes of Things” was pretty honest up until that feedback note that comes in over it”, he recalled. During the recording, “there was mass hysteria in the studio when I did that solo. They weren’t expecting it and it was just some weird mist coming from the East out of an amp. Giorgio was freaking out and dancing about like some tribal witch doctor.
Beck played the solo on one string , using a 1954 Fender Esquire guitar he had purchased before the tour. Relf also benefitted from multi-tracking—two vocal tracks were recorded, allowing him to harmonise the vocal line.
Yardbirds’ biographer Gregg Russo describes the song “a quantum leap in their development …[it] proved at once progressive and commercial—the perfect marriage of socially conscious lyrics and a driving rhythm”. Unterberger also saw the group moving into the area of social commentary that had begun with an earlier song, “You’re a Better Man Than I”. Beck biographer Martin Power describes the lyrics as pro-environmental or anti-war, while McCarty feels that it reflected the opposition to United States involvement in the Vietnam War. The actual lyrics are subject to interpretation:
Now the trees are almost green
But will they still be seen
When time and tide have been
Fall into your passing hands
Please don’t destroy these lands
Don’t make them desert sands
“Shapes of Things” is credited to bassist Paul Samwell-Smith, Relf, and McCarty. Samwell-Smith, who is also listed as the song’s musical director, believed that Beck should have also received a composer’s credit for his contributions to the song’s development.
According to music writer Keith Shadwick, their arrangement follows a “simple and economical form that allowed its message to unfold naturally, inviting the sound enhancement at which Beck and bassist Paul Samwell-Smith were quickly becoming expert”. McCarty recalled that Samwell-Smith got an idea for a bass line from a song by jazz pianist and composer Dave Brubeck (identified as “Pick Up Sticks” from the 1959 “Time Out” album) to which he added a marching-style drum beat.
As they started to develop the rhythm, chords were added – “G and F, and then resolving it in D, each verse.” For the middle section guitar solo, the beat shifts into double-time and the instrumentation heightens the tension. This rhythmic device, originally used in jazz improvisation, was the Yardbirds’ signature arrangement. Dubbed a “rave-up”, it was a feature of several of their songs.
A key feature of the song is Beck’s innovative guitar playing. Shadwick comments it “suited Beck’s taste for shaping and sculpting guitar sounds through the control and manipulation of sustain and, on occasion, feedback”. Beck recalled he began incorporating feedback into his guitar solos after he realised that he could control it, adding “I started finding the resonant points on the neck where it came in best. I loved it because it was a most peculiar sound that contrasted wildly with a plucked string, this round trombone-like noise coming from nowhere. In addition to feedback, Beck’s uses a musical scale and bent notes variously described as Eastern, Indian, or raga sounding. Critics and biographers have called the solo “monumental[ly] fuzz-drenched”, “explosively warped”, and “climaxed with a solitary, gigantic burst of feedback”. For many, the song represents the Yardbirds’ creative peak, including Beck. He commented, “‘Shapes of Things’ was the pinnacle of the Yardbirds” and added “if I did nothing else, that was the best single”.
When Jimmy Page supplanted Beck in the Yardbirds, they continued playing this song in their live sets.
“Shapes of Things” is included in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame list of “500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll”. Q magazine placed the song at number 61 in its March 2005 list of the “100 Greatest Guitar Tracks Ever!”. Several artists have recorded renditions of the song, including David Bowie, Jeff Healey, Nazareth, Rush, and the Scorpions, with Led Zeppelin occasionally including a portion of the song in medleys during early concert performances.