The Byrds and the “Ballad of Easy Rider” – Resurgence or Hype?

It’s the first day of the month, so once again we take a break from theological discussions (for the most part) to review the next Byrds album…

Ballad of Easy Rider
The Byrds
Produced by Terry Melcher, Columbia Records, Released November 10, 1969, Length 33:55

The Byrds’ prospects appeared to be rather dismal after the very disappointing “Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde” album, but help was soon on the way from LA-scene hipsters and friends, Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper. Their counterculture film, “Easy Rider,” hit the screens in July, 1969 and quickly became a national sensation. The Byrds were featured prominently on the soundtrack with “Wasn’t Born to Follow” from “The Notorious Byrds Brothers” album, along with Roger McGuinn’s interpretation of Bob Dylan’s “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” and the closing tune, “The Ballad of Easy Rider” (see the YouTube video at bottom), written mainly by McGuinn with a little help from Dylan. Unbeknownst to the film audience, the music wasn’t the only Byrds connection. Fonda and Hopper later revealed they had based their characters, Wyatt and Billy, on McGuinn and ex-Byrd, David Crosby.

McGuinn and his faux-Byrds hired hands – Clarence White, Gene Parsons, and John York – had already begun recording the eighth “Byrds” album on June 17, 1969 and sessions would continue through August 26 under the direction of Terry Melcher, the producer of the Byrds’ first two albums.

Columbia Records and the Byrds were eager to exploit the band’s connection to the popular movie. The album cover featured a clumsy photo of Parsons’ father astride a vintage Harley clutching a rifle along with rambling liner notes from Fonda declaring “whoever the Byrds are is just alright. OH YEAH!” The marketing promo declared, “The movie gives you the facts, the Ballad interprets them.” Despite the hype, the album had absolutely no connection to the film outside of the title song. Due to the misleading marketing, many consumers would purchase the album thinking they were buying the film soundtrack.

“Ballad of Easy Rider” was released on November 10 and peaked at a respectable #36 on the album charts thanks in large part to the publicity connecting it to the popular film. The single, “Ballad of Easy Rider”/”Oil in My Lamp,” was released on October 1 and peaked at #65. The second single, “Jesus is Just Alright”/”It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” was released December 15 and peaked at #97.

Surprisingly, McGuinn contributed only the title song. York and Parsons each wrote one song apiece while the rest are covers. Bassist York would be fired from the band shortly after the sessions concluded. Clarence’s pickin’ is both brilliant and annoying at the same time with too much emphasis on the B-bender. Parsons’ drumming is distractingly subpar. Melcher’s production certainly resulted in a crisper sound than “Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde,” but the material is no better and may even have been a step down. Most of the songs are very slow and melancholy.

Over the years, many Byrds fans have bought into Columbia’s original hype, hailing “Ballad of Easy Rider” as the band’s return to respectability. However, objective Byrds enthusiasts eagerly disagree with Fonda; the band and the music were not “just alright.” Regarding the post-Sweetheart recordings, McGuinn stated in a 2013 interview, “When we did studio albums, I think I was too democratic. I allowed too many of the guys (hired hands Clarence White, Gene Parsons, John York, and later, Skip Battin) to have their own songs on there.”

Side One:

  • Ballad of Easy Rider (McGuinn, Dylan) – One of the better songs on the album although the orchestration is a bit overdone.
  • Fido (York) – Yech. Parsons is sometimes noticeably behind the beat.
  • Oil In My Lamp (traditional arranged by Parsons and White) – The Byrds follow up Fido with another dog. Clarence demonstrates his unique, nasally singing style.
  • Tulsa County (Polland) – York brought this song to the Byrds. Ho-hum.
  • Jack Tarr The Sailor (traditional arranged by McGuinn) – McGuinn would feature sea shanties throughout his career. Somewhat entertaining.

Side Two:

  • Jesus Is Just Alright (Reynolds) – A catchy number suggested by Parsons. Listen to the Art Reynolds Singers’ original 1966 version here. This song would be a hit for the Doobie Brothers three years later in 1972. This song is a good example of how Jesus gets His digs in through some amazingly unconventional means. In addition to many other contributing factors, the Holy Spirit used this song and the other Gospel-themed songs in the Byrds’ repertoire to help me start thinking about Jesus Christ and eventually motivating me to read God’s Word.
  • It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue (Dylan) – The original Byrds attempted this tune during their sessions for “Turn! Turn! Turn!” McGuinn tries again in slo-mo.
  • There Must Be Someone (I Can Turn To) (Gosdin, Gosdin, Gosdin) – I kind of like this slow, sad song with Parsons singing lead. McGuinn was absent for the recording of this tune as well as for “Gunga Din.”
  • Gunga Din (Parsons) – Nonsense lyrics but a very nice melody.
  • Deportee (Plane Wreck At Los Gatos) (Guthrie, Hoffman) – Zzzzzzzzzz.
  • Armstrong, Aldrin And Collins (Manners, Seely) – McGuinn continues his fascination with space travel.

1997 Reissue Bonus Tracks:

  • Way Beyond The Sun (traditional arranged by McGuinn) – York sings lead on this mediocre bluesy number.
  • Mae Jean Goes To Hollywood (Browne) – Jackson Browne is a brilliant songwriter but this tune disappoints. Almost sounds like one of the later Battin/Fowley novelty numbers.
  • Oil In My Lamp (traditional arranged by Parsons and White) – Alternate version. Parsons’ vocals are given more emphasis on this one.
  • Tulsa County (Polland) – Alternate version. York sings lead on this one.
  • Fiddler A Dram (Moog Experiment) (traditional arranged by McGuinn) – Country meets 60s technology. Mildly entertaining.
  • Ballad of Easy Rider (McGuinn, Dylan) – Long version. Clarence’s solo is included in this take.
  • Build It Up (White, Parsons) – Instrumental.

 

Would the ersatz Byrds be able to continue their positive momentum after unabashedly cashing in on their connection to the popular “Easy Rider” movie? Find out next month when we review the Byrds’ ninth album, “Untitled.”

10 thoughts on “The Byrds and the “Ballad of Easy Rider” – Resurgence or Hype?

      1. Yup, but it was definitely a different sound when McDonald came on board. Another popular band that changed their style was the Eagles. They started out doing mostly country-rock but then shifted over to rock, getting rid of country guitarist Bernie Leadon and picking up rocker Joe Walsh.

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  1. Sorry long day and I finally got around to this! That’s a cool album cover by the way. Fascinating to see that God used the song “Jesus Is Just Alright ” to begin you thinking about things!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! Yup, the Byrds had a good number of Gospel songs on their albums so I kept hearing about Jesus over and over. The peculiar thing was none of the band members were saved or even religious at the time they were recording those tunes.

      Liked by 1 person

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