After somewhat of a career resuscitation with “Untitled,” their previous album, the Byrds would release what most critics and fans consider the band’s worst effort.
Produced by Terry Melcher, Columbia Records, Released June 23, 1971, Length 34:06
Roger McGuinn and his ersatz-Byrds hired-hands (Clarence White, Gene Parsons, Skip Battin) took a break from their demanding touring schedule to begin recording the tenth “Byrds” album at Columbia’s Hollywood studio on January 9, 1971 under the direction of producer Terry Melcher. Melcher later added orchestration and choir during mid-March sessions when the band was not present.
“Byrdmaniax” was released on June 23, 1971 and peaked at a surprising #46. The single “I Trust”/”My Destiny” was released May 7 but failed to chart. “Glory Glory”/”Citizen Kane” was released on August 20 and peaked at #110.
The album was met with scathing reviews in the music press. Richard Meltzer of Rolling Stone went so far as to describe “Byrdmaniax” as “increments of pus.” The ersatz Byrds stated they were extremely disappointed with the finished recording. The Byrds’ instruments were largely buried beneath the orchestration, choir, and session musician Larry Knechtel’s overstated piano parts. Parsons branded the record as “Melcher’s folly.” In his own defense, Melcher later stated he added the overdubs in an attempt to “save” the extremely weak material. While Parsons and White voiced their objections, Melcher said later that it was “inconceivable that McGuinn did not know about the orchestration.”
Perhaps the most disconcerting part of “Byrdmaniax” were songs 4 through 6; “Tunnel of Love” and “Citizen Kane,” written by Skip Battin and Kim Fowley, followed by McGuinn’s “I Wanna Grow Up To Be a Politician.” All three novelty tunes are dominated by horns, organ, and ragtime piano giving them an other-era feel that’s completely out of place in the Byrds’ oeuvre. The sheer kitschiness of the three songs, one following right after the other, overwhelms the entire album.
There were claims the eerie cover art featuring “death masks” of the four Byrds was symbolic of the lifeless music within. Asked many years later to comment on the failure of “Byrdmaniax,” McGuinn stated, “We were just idling artistically, the album sounds like we really weren’t concentrating on doing good work, good art.”
Most fans consider “Byrdmaniax” to be the Byrds’ worst album, but I believe it’s in competition with “Farther Along” for that dubious distinction with “Ballad of Easy Rider” and “Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde” following close behind.
- Glory, Glory (Reynolds) – The Byrds attempt to duplicate the success of “Jesus Is Just Alright” with another Art Reynolds gospel number. Merry Clayton, who contributed the memorable vocal part on the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter,” leads the chorus. Larry Knechtel’s rollicking piano playing dominates the recording. This is another Gospel song from the Byrds which mentions Jesus Christ and had my teenage self wondering what was going on? The Lord gets His message across even in the strangest places. Listen here.
- Pale Blue (McGuinn, Parsons) – An enjoyable, plaintive tune. The strings are a bit overdone.
- I Trust (McGuinn) – McGuinn’s personal mantra (I trust everything is gonna work out alright) put to song. I like it even with the overstated choral backing. Producer Terry Melcher contributes the piano part and Sneeky Pete adds some pedal steel. Recorded at an October 6, 1970 early session.
- Tunnel of Love (Battin, Fowley) – Knechtel’s piano and organ monopolize this schmaltzy novelty tune. Sounds like something they used to play at roller skating rinks.
- Citizen Kane (Battin, Fowley) – Muted trumpets escort the listener through this decadent Hollywood party. First “Tunnel of Love” then “Citizen Kane”? What was going through McGuinn’s head when these tracks were recorded?
- I Wanna Grow Up to Be a Politician (McGuinn, Levy) – If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. McGuinn attempts to outdo Battin with his own version of schlock. Larry Knechtel’s ragtime piano complements a hot sax. Is this a Byrds album? After listening to the last three songs, Gene Clark, David Crosby, and Chris Hillman must have lifted the needle from the acetate and walked away shaking their heads.
- Absolute Happiness (Battin, Fowley) – Skip extols the virtues of Buddhism.
- Green Apple Quick Step (Parsons, White) – An enjoyable bluegrass performance. Some great pickin’ by Clarence and Parsons. That’s Byron Berline on fiddle and Clarence’s father, Eric White on harmonica.
- My Destiny (Carter) – Knechtel’s piano dominates this song. Sneeky Pete adds some sweet steel licks. Clarence’s unique nasal singing style had its limitations.
- Kathleen’s Song (McGuinn, Levy) – This song was actually leftover from the “Untitled” sessions. A sweet, simple number that’s overwhelmed by the orchestration.
- Jamaica Say You Will (Browne) – Clarence sings the best song – by far – on the album; an early Jackson Browne tune. Melcher got this one right. Hear the audio below.
2000 CD reissue bonus tracks
- Just Like a Woman (Dylan) – Knechtel’s piano and organ hold sway.
- Pale Blue (McGuinn, Parsons) – Alternate version without the orchestration.
- Think I’m Gonna Feel Better (Clark) – Clarence’s nasal vocals work on some songs but sound like nails on a chalkboard here. Roger reaches back for some vintage “Fifth Dimension” guitar.
- Green Apple Quick Step (Parsons, White) – Clarences father, Eric White Sr., converses with the fellas before recording an alternate take.
Would the Byrds be able to recover from this catastrophe? Stay tuned.