As promised, today we begin our weekly series counting down the Byrds’ Top 25 Songs (in my humble opinion).
“Gunga Din” (3:03)
Written by Gene Parsons
Produced by Terry Melcher
From “Ballad of Easy Rider,” Columbia, November 10, 1969
After the poor showing of their previous album, “Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde” (March 1969), the Byrds got a boost by having three songs included on the soundtrack of the popular counter-culture film, “Easy Rider.” Roger McGuinn, guitar, and his three hired hands – Clarence White, guitar, John York, bass, and Gene Parsons, drums – shamelessly exploited their connection to the movie by naming their next album, “Ballad of Easy Rider.” The band’s original producer, Terry Melcher, was enlisted in hopes of repeating some of that “Mr. Tambourine Man”/”Turn! Turn! Turn!” success. Columbia’s advertising execs hailed the album as the band’s rebirth, but it was largely a collection of cover tunes and unremarkable musicstry.
Most fans would follow the undiscerning crowd and select “Ballad of Easy Rider” or “Jesus is Just Alright,” the two singles, as the album’s best songs, but I’m partial to the deep cut, “Gunga Din,” written by Parsons and arguably the finest composition of his career. The song has a nice melody paced by multi-instrumentalist Parsons’ rollicking acoustic guitar fingerpicking, York’s lilting bass-line, and a catchy chorus. Parsons isn’t the greatest vocalist in the world (notice the enhanced double-track), but his plaintive singing style fits this tune perfectly. The lyrics have Parsons recalling the band’s disappointing tour stop in rainy New York City while traveling back to sunny L.A. aboard a DC-8. Parsons refers to two incidents: 1) a concert in Central Park in which another act, Chuck Berry, “Mr. Rock ‘n’ Roll,” failed to show, which infuriated the crowd, and 2) bassist, John York’s foiled attempt to have breakfast with his mother at the Gramercy Park Hotel where the Byrds regularly stayed when in town. The dining room maître d’ refused York a table because of his scandalous black leather jacket attire. After the disappointing tour stop, the listener can’t wait to get back, with Parsons, to sunny L.A.
Amateur Byrds fans continue to perpetuate the mistaken notion over the internet that “Gunga Din” was Parsons’ nickname for York, however, Parsons has stated that he “threw in the nonsensical ‘Gunga Din’ part to make up the rhyme.”* Legendary keyboardist, Glen D. Hardin, plays organ on the cut although his contribution is somewhat buried in the mix.
*Byrds: Requiem for the Timeless, Volume 1, p. 528.