Poker Face Depicts Every Musician’s Worst Deadly Nightmare
Poker Face plugs into rock history for “Rest in Metal,” but The Yardbirds’ Keith Relf should be remembered as electrifying, not electrified.
This article contains spoilers for POKER FACE episode 4.
With a charged reference to the 1976 death of The Yardbirds singer Keith Relf, Peacock’s Poker Face teaches a valuable music industry lesson: Song pluggers should check their cables before plugging in. Especially drummers, surrounded by metallic conductors, trying to break out original material. When they do, as Phil Collins of Genesis or Don Brewer of Grand Funk Railroad can attest, those songs can change the group dynamic and take center stage. Electricity like that should be channeled.
Which is why the human lie-detector goes metal detector in Charlie Cale’s (Natasha Lyonne) case-of-the-week, “Rest in Metal.” The signature hit song for Robin Ruin’s (Chloe Sevigny) metal band Doxxxology, “Staplehead,” was written by the drummer. Said drummer moved on, and not only is the band now stuck with it as the closing song for every show, but they have to pay the ex-member just to perform it. The new drummer, young metalhead Gavin, introduces his own killer tune, and it’s just the thing to redefine the playlist. Not wanting to make the same mistake twice, the band rigs the drummer’s amp, symbolically during the song “Staplehead.”
The band credits the amp electrocution idea to a music tragedy which became rock mythology. Keith Relf was the founding lead singer and harmonica player for the influential British invasion band The Yardbirds, as well as co-founder of pioneer prog rock ensemble Renaissance. Relf died, tragically, practicing electric guitar in his basement, when he made contact with a gas pipe, completing an electrical circuit. The current sent a severe shock through Relf’s entire body. The singer suffered from chronic, and occasionally life-threatening asthma, as well as emphysema, which may have further weakened his system, contributing to the fatality.
Getting electrocuted is an occupational hazard for live-playing musicians. If you are wearing an electric instrument and your fingers touch a string when your mouth brushes the mic, you stand a chance of at least a few painful seconds. It happens to big bands and small. The Beatles’ George Harrison, in the relative safety of a recording studio session, gets shocked several times on camera in the documentary Let It Be. It’s possibly the reason Eric Clapton had curly hair for a year. The more voltage the act requires the more dangerous the consequences.
The Rolling Stones’ seemingly indestructible guitarist Keith Richards was knocked backwards in an explosion of blue sparks at a 1965 concert at the Memorial Auditorium in Sacramento, California. The song he was playing when his guitar touched his mic stand was “The Last Time,” and many didn’t think he’d get up. KISS guitarist Ace Frehley’s hand brushed against a railing while he was standing in moisture from a leaky dry ice machine at a concert in 1976. The roadies had to kick him free. He wrote the song “Shock Me” about it.
Faulty microphone wiring was blamed for the death of Agustín Briolini. The 21-year-old guitarist and lead singer of Argentinian rock band the Krebs got a massive electric shock during the opening set of a show at the Theatre of the Sun, in Villa Carlos Paz.
Keith Relf was 33 years old when he died playing an ungrounded guitar on May 14, 1976. Born William Keith Relf on March 22, 1943, he was playing guitar and harmonica or singing in bands by the time he was 13. His baritone howl and insinuating harmonica made The Yardbirds sound darker and bluesier than the other groups to come out of the British Invasion.
The Yardbirds is legendary for launching guitarists Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page, but Relf formed the group and named it. He’d played with bassist Paul Samwell-Smith in the Metropolitan Blues Quartet, which drew in guitarists Chris Dreja and Top Topham, and drummer Jim McCarty. They rechristened themselves the Blue-Sounds to back singer Cyril Davies at a May 1963 show at Kingston Art School. The Yardbirds either got their name from Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road or Charlie “Yardbird” Parker.
The Yardbirds exploded on the growing British rhythm and blues scene when named the house band at the Crawdaddy Club. The next group to get the honor would be the Rolling Stones. Blues purists, The Yardbirds drew the attention of Clapton, who replaced Topham in October 1963. Crawdaddy Club owner Giorgio Gomelsky managed the band and produced their first record, as well securing them the gig backing blues legend Sonny Boy Williamson II for the 1964 live album Sonny Boy Williamson and the Yardbirds. Columbia released Five Live Yardbirds in August 1964. It didn’t sell very well, but the industry noticed how good it sounded for a live recording.
Clapton’s time with the band was short. His slow hand slapped rhythm and blues urgency into the first two singles, “I Wish You Would” and “Good Morning, School Girl,” but they didn’t make the charts. “For Your Love,” written by Graham Gouldman, hit No. 1 in the U.K., and No. 6 in the U.S. With guest musician Brian Auger featured prominently on harpsichord, the song wasn’t bluesy enough for Clapton. He quit to join John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers, suggesting the Yardbirds replace him with Page, who passed the gig to Beck, whose fingers found the pulse of the band two days after Clapton quit.
Beck’s distorted tone brought buzz to the hit “Heart Full of Soul.” The band recorded “You’re a Better Man Than I” and “Train Kept A-Rollin’” at Memphis, Tennessee’s legendary Sun Studios with mythic producer, and Elvis discoverer, Sam Phillips at the dials.
The protest-infused “Shapes of Things,” released in February 1966, is the first psychedelic rock classic, coming out three months before the Beatles’ “Paperback Writer”/”Rain,” and a month ahead of The Byrds’ “Eight Miles High.” Written by Relf, “Shapes of Things” was the first hit the band composed themselves. Relf and McCarty wrote all the material for the following albums Over Under Sideways Down, and Roger the Engineer.
While still a member of the Yardbirds, Relf released the solo single, “Mr. Zero” backed with “Knowing,” which hit No. 50 on the UK Singles Chart. The psychedelic follow-up, “Shapes in My Mind” backed with “Blue Sands,” topped out at No. 1,210.
Samwell-Smith quit the Yardbirds at a gig at Queen’s College in Oxford, Page played bass for the show and stayed with the band, later taking lead guitar duties when Beck fell ill in San Francisco during a tour. Dreja switched to bass, allowing Page and Beck to explore the dual lead guitar work which defined the last era of the band.
The Yardbirds became the New Yardbirds in 1968, which Page turned into Led Zeppelin. Relf and McCarty continued their partnership. They first performed as an acoustic duo called Together, then formed Renaissance, with Keith’s sister Jane Relf on vocals. The group would shift musicians and develop into one of the most imaginative prog rock bands of the next decade. By then, Relf was producing other artists and looking to play heavier music. Relf had sung “Dazed and Confused,” a Led Zeppelin standard, in the Yardbirds.
Steeped in authentic blues when he formed The Yardbirds, Relf never embraced a pop sound. In 1974, he formed another prog rock group, Armageddon, with drummer Bobby Caldwell, who’d been in Johnny Winter’s band, guitarist Martin Pugh, who played on the Rod Stewart album, and in the band Steamhammer, as did bassist Louis Cennamo, who also played in Renaissance.
Relf, who was posthumously inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1992, was a producer as well as an artist. He was constantly on the lookout for ways to expand music. For years, rumors have persisted that the accident occurred in the bathroom. Even if it did, the experimental sound purist may have been testing acoustics rather than the questionable-death-by-misadventure insinuations of the gossip.
Relf’s body was reportedly found by his eight-year-old son, who later said he thought his father was asleep because he routinely worked through the night. When Relf was found, he still had his headphones on.
The first four episodes of Poker Face can be streamed on Peacock now. New episodes premiere Thursdays.