3:08 p.m. - November 10, 2005
…talk amongst yourselves…
Now it’s back to music week (with a detour tomorrow – Saturday will be an off day and Sunday will be the last music week post. That’s your Smed community calendar update. Stay tuned for traffic and weather on the sixes with Flip.) and I just wanted to write about one band in particular that really touches me on many levels. They are a well-known band, but much of their material is unknown and unheard on the oldies stations. In their career, they evolved from album to album, but are well known for just one sound and genre.
They may be the most versatile American rock-and-roll band ever.
I’m writing about the Byrds.
Like everyone, I knew some basic Byrds songs growing up (“Mr. Tambourine Man”, “Turn! Turn! Turn!”, “Eight Miles High”) and thought they sounded neat on the radio. I then bought a CD with their first few singles and b-sides and realized that the b-sides were just as good as the a-sides.
Then in 1991 the box set came out and I became a total Byrds freak.
They were known as a folk-rock band, but spent more time as one of the first country-rock bands than as a folk-rock band.
They were known as Dylan cover artists but most of their best work are original songs penned by Gene Clark, Roger McGuinn, David Crosby and Chris Hillman.
They were the original space cowboys.
They were known for the 12-string guitar sound of McGuinn, but in their later years they had one of the best ever country and bluegrass guitarists on board in Clarence White.
Each version of the group brings me joy. Almost every album is well worth the purchase price. Let’s begin our exploration of their albums. I own each and every one as an expanded CD filled with bonus tracks and b-sides.
Mr. Tambourine Man - Many albums of the time were 10 songs of filler with two hits. Not so with the Byrds. Starting with the title track hit, the material on this album is pretty strong. “The Bells of Rhymney” and “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better” are especially strong. The covers of Dylan’s “All I Really Want to Do” and “Spanish Harlem Incident” are also stellar. The signature Byrds sound of soaring 12-string guitars with harmonies is heard throughout. Instead of being a singles band and / or Dylan’s mouthpiece, this sets a tone of excellence for the group.
Fifth Dimension - The Byrds were labeled as a druggy band after “Eight Miles High”, even though the song was about a plane ride to London. Clark left the band, but McGuinn and Crosby pick up the songwriting slack. There’s a lot of great material on this record, with “5D”, “Mr. Spaceman”, “Wild Mountain Thyme”, “Why” (a bonus b-side) and “John Riley” (a great version of a traditional folk tale) all classic Byrd songs. I always thought “Eight Miles High” was kind of free form, but an alternate cut shows that the guitar madness was planned out. Only some really weak filler cuts mar this album. (It’s the first time that you wanted to tell David Crosby to shut it, but it won’t be the last.)
Younger Than Yesterday - Chris Hillman emerges from the background and steps to the fore as a songwriter and a shaper of the Byrds evolving sound on this album. He adds a country flair to the proceedings (the bassist used to be in bluegrass bands before he joined the Byrds) on great cuts like “Time Between” and “Have You Seen Her Face”. The band releases probably its best ever Dylan cover in “My Back Pages”, and the hit “So You Want to Be a Rock and Roll Star” is the last big hit single by the band. But after listening to “Mind Gardens”, you wish Crosby fell down a deep, deep well.
The Notorious Byrds Brothers - This is my favorite Byrds album. There are no hit singles on this one, but it’s filled with classic cuts. “Wasn’t Born to Follow” was later used in the film “Easy Rider”. “Draft Morning” was an anti-war song cut before the movement really took off, and “Goin’ Back” may be the best song in the Byrds canon. Crosby left during a fit of pique during the recording of the album. His place on the cover is taken by a horse (no kidding)! One of the hidden bonus tracks on the CD is a legendary band blow up that was recorded when the Byrds were trying to get “Dolphin’s Smile” down on tape. First they denigrate the skills of drummer Michael Clarke, and then everyone jumps on everyone, especially Crosby. The vibe wasn’t good, but the record is great.
Sweetheart of the Rodeo - So you haven’t had a hit single in a while, you have a two new members, and your fan base is drifting away. So what do you do? Record a straight country album, 1968. This album is legendary, though the hype is greater than the end result. Gram Parsons was a Byrd for six months, and he was the brains behind this album of country and western. McGuinn sang lead on most of the record, which caused some consternation (and really, the cuts are better when Parsons sings them). The cuts “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”, “You Don’t Miss Your Water” and “Hickory Wind” are standouts that hold up to any Byrds song, no matter what genre.
Dr. Byrds and Mr. Hyde - Soon after the last album was in the stores, Parsons and Hillman left to form the Flying Burrito Brothers, leaving McGuinn with a shell of a band. Fortunately, Clarence White was ready to step into the breach, and they recruited John York and Gene Parsons to form a new version of the Byrds, a version that wasn’t folky, but not all country. They carved out a unique niche, which while miles away from folk rock was still quality. This album is a bit tentative, but it’s a lot better than some people think it is. McGuinn shines on “King Apathy III”, “Bad Night at the Whisky” and “Old Blue”, the instrumental cut “Nashville West” shows what chops the new band had, and their version of “This Wheels on Fire” is chilling and razor sharp.
The Ballad of Easy Rider - Falling on the heels of McGuinn’s contribution to that movie, the Byrds released a strong album that same year. However, McGuinn, the leader of the band had writer’s block, but the rest of the band filled the breach with some great contributions and cover ideas. “Tulsa County” and “Deportee” are great covers, while Gene Parsons’ “Gunga Din” is one of the best originals of the later Byrds. You can tell the Doobie Brothers stole their arrangement of “Jesus Is Just Alright” right from the Byrds.
(Untitled) - Out goes John York, and in comes Skip Battin, which is regrettable in the long run, but that’s not evident now. This is a double album, with one live record and one studio record. The live stuff is interesting, because you hear how the presence of Clarence White changes the original sound, and there are great new tracks in “Lover of the Bayou” and a cover of “Positively 4th Street”. The studio album isn’t that strong, save for the classic “Chestnut Mare”, “Just a Season”, and “Truck Stop Girl”. One would consider this studio album the weakest of any of the Byrds albums to date, even though it has its merits. Sadly, that wasn’t the end of the decline.
Byrdmaniax - The band complained this album was overproduced, and that’s why it failed. Well, that and the weak material is why it failed The best cuts - “Glory, Glory” and “I Trust” - were overproduced, but nothing could save most of these songs, especially the ones written by Battin. I rarely listen to this, and have only put a few songs on my iPod.
Farther Along - The proper band’s swan song, this was a gentle album that had some good songs amongst the mostly mediocre set. “Bugler” should be remembered as a classic Byrds song, and “Tiffany Queen” is good fun. One again, Battin shows that hiring him was a mistake, and McGuinn just simply runs out of songs. The band split up later that year.
Soon after, the original band reunited for an album that I haven’t heard, and I guess I don’t want to. It was full of songs that people like McGuinn and Crosby rejected for their solo projects. Ick.
In the 90’s, Sony released “Live at the Fillmore West: February 1969”. This is a pretty decent live album. The band at the time really hadn’t been together that long, so the harmonies of Gene Parsons, White and York aren’t fully worked out yet. White plays a great guitar throughout, though, and that’s worth the price of admission.
The Byrds seem to be a footnote at times, and that’s not right. While the band did peter out at the end of their career, the body of their material is strong, and most all of their albums are stellar and well worth the purchase. So seek them out and revel to the Byrds.