Fifty-years of The Gilded Palace of Sin

The Gilded Palace of Sin
The Flying Burrito Brothers
Produced by Larry Marks, A&M Records, Released February 6, 1969, Length: 37:24

5 Stars

The Byrds had recorded the groundbreaking country-rock album, “Sweetheart of the Rodeo,” in 1968, but personal and artistic differences led members Gram Parsons followed by Chris Hillman to leave the band shortly afterwards. The two country music enthusiasts soon teamed up again to realize their vision of country and rock-and-roll fusion with the formation of the  Flying Burrito Brothers. For a couple of months, Parsons and Hillman holed up together in a rented house dubbed “Burrito Manor” in Canoga Park in the San Fernando Valley and wrote a collection of excellent tunes. With Hillman on rhythm guitar and Parsons on acoustic guitar and keyboards, they rounded out their sound with the addition of Chris Ethridge on bass and Pete “Sneaky Pete” Kleinow on pedal steel guitar (four session drummers were used on the debut LP). A&M Records was attempting to beef up its rock and roll footprint at the time and unwittingly signed the Burritos, not knowing what they were getting themselves into.

When “The Gilded Palace of Sin” was released in early-1969, it landed with a huge thud, peaking at only #164 on the Billboard 200. Rock and roll audiences were not quite ready for the synthesis of country and rock music. But recording artists and music enthusiasts are keenly aware of this excellent pioneering effort.

The Burritos’ legacy was a short one. Their second studio album was disappointing as Parsons descended deeper and deeper into a spiral of alcohol and drug abuse. Hillman fired Parsons in 1970 and released the third and final Burritos studio LP in 1971. After two uneven solo projects (both prominently featuring a relatively unknown, young vocalist by the name of Emmylou Harris), Parsons died of a drug-overdose in 1973. Hillman would go on to have a long career, most notably as the front man for the successful country group, The Desert Rose Band, from 1985 to 1994.

While the Flying Burrito Brothers’ tenure was brief, music fans have been enjoying the “The Gilded Palace of Sin” for fifty years.

Side One

  • Christine’s Tune (Parsons, Hillman) – A bitter diatribe lambasting the former founder of the Byrds’ fan club who was meddling in the band members’ already-troubled marriages. A great tune. As in the rest of the album, Hillman’s steady harmonies perfectly complement Parson’s more adventurous and fragile lead vocals. Sneaky Pete’s rocked-up pedal steel solos are overdone here, but most of his contributions on this disc are excellent.
  • Sin City (Parsons, Hillman) – Hillman takes aim at the Byrds’ money-grubbing, former manager, Larry Spector. This is a country-rock classic that has been covered by many artists over the years. In this case, “Sin City” isn’t Las Vegas, but Los Angeles, and the former manager is portrayed as the much-anticipated object of the Lord’s retribution. Listen here.
  • Do Right Woman (Chips Moman, Dan Penn) – Parsons included this and another Moman-Penn penned “Southern Soul” tune immediately following, showing his interest in fusing country, rock, and blue-eyed soul into a gumbo of “Cosmic American Music.” That’s David Crosby providing some vocal harmonies.
  • Dark End of the Street (Chips Moman, Dan Penn) – Sneaky Pete’s use of the pedal steel guitar as a rock-and-roll lead guitar was radically innovative.
  • My Uncle (Parsons, Hillman) – Parsons received his draft notice in the mailbox during the height of the Vietnam War, prompting this tongue-in-cheek promise to head “for the nearest foreign border.” Parsons subsequently received a 4-F deferment. He was actually the very last person in the country the U.S. Army would have wanted in uniform. In this song, Hillman goes back to his bluegrass roots with some nice mandolin weaving around Sneaky Pete’s tasty steel licks.

Side Two

  • Wheels (Hillman, Parsons) – Parsons’ paean to motorcycles following a minor accident with his BSA bike. He sings, “I’ll turn to Him who made my faith so strong.”
  • Juanita (Hillman, Parsons) – His woman left him and he’s lower than the floor; the grist for about 90% of country music songs.
  • Hot Burrito #1 (Ethridge, Parsons) – Speaking of a song about a woman leaving her man, Parsons scores the very best vocal of his short career with this lament dripping with palatable pathos. Ethridge brought the melody to Parsons who added the lyrics. Listen here.
  • Hot Burrito #2 (Ethridge, Parsons) – What? Yet another song about a broken relationship? Yes, and another Ethridge melody with lyrics by Parsons. An outstanding Parsons vocal. The improbably titled Hot Burrito #1 and #2 are the finest songs on a great album.
  • Do You Know How It Feels (Parsons, Barry Goldberg) – The fourth song in a row about a relationship breakup. Parsons sings in a traditional Country-Western style. Co-writer, Goldberg, would have a long career and eventually end up in Stephen Stills’ The Rides.
  • Hippie Boy (Hillman, Parsons) – Hillman talk-sings through a dirge about a hippie and “redneck” trying to find common ground over the death of a hippie boy. The song was generally a plea for the generations to be more tolerant towards each other at the time of the turbulent sixties and specifically a plea for the country music community to be more accepting of “hippies” like Parsons and Hillman.

There are references to the Lord throughout the album, and much of that no doubt can be attributed to Parsons’ upbringing in Waycross, Georgia, deep in the Bible Belt. Parsons, like many other people, knew ABOUT the Lord Jesus Christ, but he didn’t KNOW Him. Parsons tried to find peace, truth, and fulfillment in the bottle, the pill box, in music, and in fame, but there was no lasting peace or redemption to be found in those things.

Chris Hillman Reflects on The Flying Burrito Brothers’ ‘The Gilded Palace of Sin’ at 50
https://www.billboard.com/articles/columns/rock/8496642/chris-hillman-flying-burrito-brothers-gilded-palace-sin

 

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Bob Dylan’s Christian “phase”

As I’ve mentioned previously, I began working at Kodak in 1976 at one of its huge manufacturing plants here in Rochester N.Y. I started out in the warehouse division with a great bunch of guys. Forty-plus years later, I still remember them very well. One of the guys was Jim Moon, a large, strapping man with an equally big smile. Jim had a few Christian-themed items boldly posted above his desk, so I knew he was one of those “crazy” born-agains. We had a few conversations about religion, although it would be several years later that I accepted Jesus Christ as my Savior.

One day in conversation with Jim, the subject of Bob Dylan came up. Dylan had been an international cultural icon beginning with his folk-protest albums released in the early-1960s. I had not been a fan of Dylan’s music directly, however my favorite band, the Byrds, had covered several of his songs, most notably, “Mr. Tambourine Man.” But Dylan was making waves again in the late-1970s by claiming to have accepted Jesus Christ as his Savior. I remember Jim taking great satisfaction in the fact that such a popular icon as Dylan had accepted Christ.

Dylan recorded two Christian-themed albums, “Slow Train Coming” in 1979 and “Saved” in 1980 (see photo above). I had no interest in listening to those albums at the time they were released. I subsequently heard roundabout that Dylan eventually put his “Christian period” behind him, but I never forgot about it, especially after I accepted Jesus Christ as my Savior in 1983.

A few months ago, I mentioned to my wife about Dylan’s “Jesus phase.” We briefly discussed whether he had really accepted Christ at the time or whether it was all a disingenuous “experience”? Still curious, a couple of weeks ago I played “Slow Train Coming” and “Saved” via our Amazon Echo. Wow! There are actually some outstanding songs on those albums, once you get past Dylan’s raggedy voice. Hmm, Dylan certainly “sounded” like he understood the Gospel and trusted in Jesus. I then proceeded to read some articles that examined Dylan’s “Gospel period.” Turns out he had heard about the burgeoning “Jesus movement” in Southern California from some of his friends and at a 1978 concert in San Diego, Dylan picked up a cross that someone had thrown on stage. He claimed that later that evening in his hotel room he had a mystical experience in which Jesus appeared to him. That “encounter” was followed with studies at the Vineyard Christian Fellowship near Los Angeles. If you know anything about the Vineyard churches, you know they’re all about religious experientialism and emotionalism with some Gospel parlance thrown in. The two Jesus albums followed, along with concerts where Dylan preached to his puzzled audiences. But Dylan backed away from his “Jesus phase” after 1981. He took up Orthodox Judaism for awhile, and eventually settled into a widely-inclusive, “whatever works for you” religious relativism (see articles far below).

“Whoever said I was Christian? Like Gandhi, I’m Christian, I’m Jewish, I’m a Moslem, I’m a Hindu. I am a humanist.” – Bob Dylan, 1983

I’m not able to see inside Bob Dylan’s soul, but from his own words it appears he most probably had a false religious experience in 1978. I’m guessing Dylan knew ABOUT Jesus, but didn’t KNOW Jesus. That should not be surprising because the Lord said there will be many tares within the church. Some stay a short time, while others park themselves on a pew for the temporal duration.

The Parable of the Wheat and Tares – Matthew 13:24-30
https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew+13%3A24-30&version=ESV

Postscript: Jim Moon wasn’t a youngster in 1979 and has most probably gone on to be with the Lord at this point. He had no idea at the time, but his testimony was one of the many things the Holy Spirit used to lead me to salvation in Christ several years later. Are you letting the light of Jesus shine through you like Jim Moon? Just keep planting the seed and leave the rest to the Lord.

The year Bob Dylan was born again: a timeline
See article here.

Bob Dylan, Recovering Christian
See article here.

CSN&Y: Squabbling Troubadors II: The Whole Enchilada

Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young: The Wild, Definitive Saga of Rock’s Greatest Supergroup
By David Browne
Da Capo Press, 2019, 465 pages

5 Stars

What? Another book about CSN&Y? This year is the 50th anniversary of the formation of the seminal singer-songwriter “supergroup,” Crosby, Stills, and Nash (and sometimes Young). To commemorate the milestone, two excellent biographies were recently published. Fortunately for my wallet, our local library system has both books on its shelves. Three weeks ago, I reviewed Peter Doggett’s book, which focused mainly on the band’s first five years, 1969 to 1974 (see here). In contrast, David Browne’s book spans the entire life of the band, the whole messy enchilada, from 1969 to 2015, discontinuous and painful as it was.

Following the releases of their highly-successful eponymous debut album in 1969 and “Déjà Vu” the following year, Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young was arguably the most popular rock and roll band on the planet (made possible only by the official break-up of the Beatles in April 1970). However, the reasons for the band’s great success also precipitated it’s downfall. The old saying about “too many chefs in the kitchen” certainly applied to CSN&Y; a volatile combination of four very talented and very strong-willed performers with contrasting temperaments. Copious drug use added to the constant disharmony. Unable to perform as a unit, CS&N put their energies into solo projects, although Crosby and Nash remained on friendly terms and recorded several albums together. Young, a prolific songwriter, was able to achieve an unusual degree of success on his own and increasingly distanced himself from CS&N.

Crosby, Stills and Nash were able to occasionally put animosities aside and unite briefly for various projects, but Crosby’s spiraling heroin addiction was a major impediment. After having spent five months in prison in 1986 on drugs and weapons convictions, Crosby was released and (somewhat) sober, but CS&N found that their style of music was increasingly out of favor with the MTV generation. From 1988 to 1999, the trio released multiple joint and solo projects of uneven quality to a declining audience. I had already stopped listening to CS&N back in 1977 because the political rants began to grate on me. By the early 00s/aughts, CS&N had largely devolved into a touring oldies band.

After their phenomenal initial success, CS&N began their very long and sometimes tortuous decline. Browne devotes 303 of the book’s 418 pages of text to that post-1970 decline. Being the nerdy, former-fan that I am, I found that information very interesting. Most readers wouldn’t.

It’s revealing that Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young won’t be reuniting this year to celebrate their 50th anniversary because of the bitter acrimony between the ex-members. It’s easy to sing about peace and love, but “the heart [of man] is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked.”

CSN&Y: Squabbling Troubadours

Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young
By Peter Doggett
Atria Books, 2019, 359 pages

5 Stars

My five older sisters always had the record player or radio constantly playing in the house when I was growing up, but I began listening to AM Top 40 in earnest for myself in 1969 at the age of thirteen with my inexpensive Panasonic AM radio/cassette player combo. My oldest sister happened to be in college that year and she came home for winter break with a box of her roomate’s LPs in tow. Flipping through the albums, I was intrigued by three grungy looking hippies; David Crosby, Stephen Stills, and Graham Nash, on the cover of their eponymous debut and gave it a spin. Wow! I was captivated by the trio’s songcraft and soaring vocal harmonies. No more Top 40, bubble-gum pop music for me. Neil Young joined the group before they went on tour and I became a hardcore fan of CS&N and CSN&Y and all of their various solo and collective permutations and faithfully bought ALL of their albums (see far below) for the next eight years. I was such a dedicated fan that I even collected the back catalogs of their previous bands – the Byrds (Crosby), Buffalo Springfield (Stills and Young), and, to a lesser extent, the Hollies (Nash) – and would subsequently become a lifelong fan of the Byrds. CSN&Y had a huge fanbase, which began with their appearance at the 1969 Woodstock festival from whence they were subsequently crowned the “voice of a generation.” 

However, after the release of their “CSN” album in 1977, I lost interest in the group. Why? Their music seemed to grow stale and their never-ending political rants began to grate. In recognition of the group’s 50th anniversary, a couple of biographies were just published, including this one by music journalist, Peter Doggett, who focuses mainly on the first five years of the band (I’m currently reading the second biography). I thought I knew all the stories pretty well, but Doggett provides a lot of interesting new information.

It’s tough enough when a group has one prima donna, but CSN&Y had four by design. Although they were the #1 rock group in the world after the release of their second album, “Déjà Vu,” their demise was already guaranteed. These guys made millions by singing about peace and love, but after their initial start, they couldn’t stand being in the same room together. Copious drug intake and hyper-inflated egos fueled the interpersonal animosity and the declining quality of the music. The internecine squabbling within CSN&Y was symbolic of the false promises of the Woodstock Nation. Yes, there is peace eternal and perfect brotherhood, but they are only found in salvation by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone.

CS&N (and occasionally with Y) periodically joined together to pay the bills from 1977 until 2015, although they had largely devolved into an oldies band. Crosby then permanently alienated his bandmates with some rather infelicitous remarks. However, freed from the restricting confines of CS&N, Croz has recorded four interesting solo albums in the last five years.

Just for grins, I plugged my memory battery into my CPAP machine and came up with the list below of all of the CSN&Y records that I bought between 1969 and 1977. Rather than spend a lot of time reviewing the albums, I’m providing just a simple 1-to-5 star rating:

  • Crosby, Stills, and Nash (1969) – CS&N  5 Stars
  • Neil Young (1968, remixed and re-released in 1969) – Young  3 Stars
  • Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (1969) – Young  4 Stars
  • Déjà Vu (1970) – CSN&Y  5 Stars
  • Stephen Stills (1970) – Stills  4 Stars
  • After the Gold Rush (1970) – Young  4 Stars
  • 4 Way Street (1971) – CSN&Y (live)  4 Stars
  • If I Could Only Remember My Name (1971) – Crosby  3 Stars
  • Songs for Beginners (1971) – Nash  4 Stars
  • Stephen Stills 2 (1971) – Stills  3 Stars
  • Graham Nash/David Crosby (1972) – Crosby and Nash  4 Stars
  • Stephen Stills/Manassas (1972) – Stills and Manassas  5 Stars
  • Harvest (1972) – Young  5 Stars
  • Wild Tales (1973) – Nash  2 Stars
  • Down the Road (1973) – Stills and Manassas  1 Star
  • Time Fades Away (1973) – Young (live)  1 Star
  • Byrds (1973) – Crosby and the other four original bandmembers 2 Stars
  • On the Beach (1974) – Young  2 Stars
  • Wind on the Water (1975) – Crosby and Nash  4 Stars
  • Stills (1975) – Stills  3 Stars
  • Stephen Stills Live (1975) – Stills (live)  3 Stars
  • Tonight’s the Night (1975) – Young  1 Star
  • Zuma (1975) – Young  3 Stars
  • Whistling Down the Wire (1976) – Crosby and Nash  2 Stars
  • Illegal Stills (1976) – Stills  2 Stars
  • Long May You Run (1976) – Stills and Young  1 Star
  • CSN (1977) – CS&N  4 Stars
  • Live (1977) – Crosby and Nash (live)  3 Stars

Yup, twenty-eight albums was A LOT of recorded output for four guys in eight years. They cranked ’em out like pizzas.

The Byrds’ Albums – 1965-1973

I had the pleasure of reviewing all twelve of the Byrds albums over the previous twelve months. Below is a handy listing with links to the reviews:

Mr. Tambourine Man (1965) 5-stars
The Byrd’s debut album ushers in folk-rock and is met with critical and popular acclaim.
https://excatholic4christ.wordpress.com/2018/01/07/the-byrds-take-flyte-and-dylan-and-the-beatles-take-notice/

Turn! Turn! Turn! (1965) 4-stars
The band’s sophomore album is good but lacks the sparkle of the debut disc.
https://excatholic4christ.wordpress.com/2018/02/02/folk-rock-102/

Fifth Dimension (1966) 3.5-stars
Gene Clark’s departure opens up opportunities for David Crosby and the band breaks out of its folk-rock mold to explore new musical genres with mixed results.
https://excatholic4christ.wordpress.com/2018/03/01/the-byrds-awkwardly-break-out-of-the-folk-rock-mold-with-fifth-dimension/

Younger Than Yesterday (1967) 5-stars
Chris Hillman’s development as a songwriter helps the band to fire on all cylinders.
https://excatholic4christ.wordpress.com/2018/04/03/younger-than-yesterday-an-underappreciated-work-that-would-be-recognized-decades-later/

The Notorious Byrd Brothers (1968) 5-stars
The band remarkably produces its finest album in the midst of the departures of Crosby and Clarke.
https://excatholic4christ.wordpress.com/2018/05/02/the-notorious-byrd-brothers-the-byrds-crumble-just-as-they-peak/

Sweetheart of the Rodeo (1968) 4-stars
Newcomer, Gram Parsons, hijacks the Byrds down to Nashville. A pioneering country-rock album.
https://excatholic4christ.wordpress.com/2018/06/01/parsons-hijacks-the-byrds-to-nashville/

Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde (1969) 2-stars
Hillman and Parsons quit and McGuinn goes it alone with hired hands, including talented country guitarist, Clarence White.
https://excatholic4christ.wordpress.com/2018/07/02/mcguinn-pushes-forward-with-hired-hands-including-a-very-talented-guitarist/

Ballad of Easy Rider (1969) 2-stars
McGuinn and the ersatz Byrds attempt to leverage their connection to the popular counter-culture film.
https://excatholic4christ.wordpress.com/2018/08/01/the-byrds-and-the-ballad-of-easy-rider-resurgence-or-hype/

Untitled (1970) 3-stars
Might be the best of the five weak albums from the McGuinn-White ersatz Byrds.
https://excatholic4christ.wordpress.com/2018/09/04/the-mcguinn-white-byrds-peak-with-untitled/

Byrdmaniax (1971) 1-star
Almost unlistenable. Producer Terry Melcher added keyboards and choirs post-production in an attempt to save the unsavable.
https://excatholic4christ.wordpress.com/2018/10/04/byrdmaniax/

Farther Along (1971) 1.5-stars
The faux Byrds on life support. The forgettable swan song of the McGuinn-White ersatz Byrds.
https://excatholic4christ.wordpress.com/2018/11/01/the-collapse-of-the-ersatz-mcguinn-white-byrds/

Byrds (1973) 3-stars
The disappointing reunion of the five original members didn’t come close to meeting expectations.
https://excatholic4christ.wordpress.com/2018/12/04/the-byrds-disappointing-swan-song/

By the way, Roger McGuinn, the leader of the Byrds and the only member to appear on every album, accepted Jesus Christ as his Savior in 1977. See here. His testimony was one of the many influences used by the Holy Spirit to eventually lead me to Christ as well.

The Byrds’ Disappointing Swan Song

Byrds
The Byrds
Produced by David Crosby, Asylum Records, Released March 7, 1973, Length: 34:54

In the summer of 1971, discussions began amongst the founding members of the Byrds regarding a reunion album and possible follow-up tour. The five original members – Roger McGuinn, Gene Clark, David Crosby, Chris Hillman, and Michael Clarke – hadn’t recorded together since January 1966. The project gained steam with the backing and encouragement of David Geffen, president of Asylum Records. Sessions began on October 16, 1972 and ended November 15 while McGuinn was still touring with the latter-day Byrds line-up. In February 1973, McGuinn finally pulled the plug on the ersatz “Columbia” Byrds.

The release of “Byrds” on March 7, 1973 had been eagerly anticipated by fans of the band. Crosby had achieved world-wide fame as a member of the hugely successful supergroup, Crosby, Stills, and Nash, while McGuinn, Hillman, and Clark were all recognized as talented singers and songwriters in their own right. “Byrds” peaked at a very respectable #20 on the album charts. Singles, “Full Circle”/”Long Live the King” was released on April 11 and reached #109 while “Cowgirl in the Sand”/”Long Live the King” was released in June but failed to chart.

I remember being overjoyed at the news of the reunion of the founding members and eagerly anticipated the album with high expectations. I rushed to Midtown Records in downtown Rochester, New York to pick up the album on the day of its release. I wasn’t the only excited fan. Copies of “Byrds” were literally plastered all over the store. I didn’t know it then, but the cover photos were taken at the Troubadour Club in Los Angeles where McGuinn, Clark, and Crosby had first gotten together in 1964. The photos told quite a bit about the music inside with Crosby taking center stage and McGuinn shoved off to the side with a lost look on his face. After I played the LP a few times, I had the same reaction as critics and fans; I expected much more than this. Plans for a follow-up tour fell apart after the lukewarm and negative reviews. Years later, the Byrds gave various reasons for the albums shortcomings: not enough time, better material kept aside for solo projects, and fear of stepping on each other’s toes. It’s a bland album with only a few shining moments that relies far too heavily on covers (TWO Neil Young tunes?). McGuinn’s 12-string Rickenbacker, a trade mark of the Byrds’ sound, is largely buried in the mix as are Clarke’s drums, but I do enjoy Hillman’s mandolin. Years later, McGuinn, who had always been credited as the “leader” of the band, complained that nominal producer Crosby had deliberately minimized his contributions to the reunion album as a “coup d’état” in retaliation for his 1967 firing.

“Byrds” is not a bad album. I would argue it’s better than any post-Sweetheart recordings from the ersatz, McGuinn-White Byrds. But outside of Clark’s two tunes it certainly did not live up to expectations. The Byrds had a great opportunity with this album but dropped the ball. Regrettably, the five would never record together as a group again. We can only imagine what this album could have been if McGuinn, Crosby, and Hillman had actually taken the time to develop some good songs under the direction of a talented producer who didn’t have an axe to grind and who valued the Byrds’ legacy.

Side One:

  • Full Circle (Clark) – Gene Clark starts off the album with a great acoustic tune. Lot’s of Hillman mandolin.
  • Sweet Mary (McGuinn/Levy) – Not one of the better McGuinn/Levy tunes. McGuinn sings about his failed marriage. Again, lots of Hillman mandolin.
  • Changing Heart (Clark) – Gene’s take on his disappointing solo career. A largely acoustic tune featuring Gene’s harmonica. McGuinn’s electric Rick has some moments, but is buried too deep in the mix. Another good song.
  • For Free (Mitchell) – Crosby gives a nice vocal but this cover was a poor choice for the album.
  • Born to Rock ‘n’ Roll (McGuinn) – A mediocre tune. McGuinn must have thought this was a great song and tried it again on his third solo album.

Side Two:

  • Things Will Be Better (Hillman, Taylor) – A catchy, throw-away. At least we can hear McGuinn’s Rick.
  • Cowgirl in the Sand (Young) – This cover is one of the best songs on the album. Clark and the Byrds give a soaring vocal performance. Listen here.
  • Long Live the King (Crosby) – One of Crosby’s weakest tunes ever. Crosby led the crusade to record this album, but his contributions are noticeably weak.
  • Borrowing Time (Hillman, Lala) – Another Hillman throw-away. Years later he completely dismissed his two contributions to this album.
  • Laughing (Crosby) – Why would Crosby include this song? A far superior version with Jerry Garcia shining on pedal steel guitar had previously appeared on Crosby’s spacey 1971 solo album.
  • (See the Sky) About to Rain (Young) – Byrds chronicler, Johnny Rogan, believes the guitar crescendo at the end of this number is the high point of the album, but I don’t care for this song at all. Two Neil Young covers was one too many.

Fans of the Byrds were universally disappointed by this highly-anticipated reunion album. It reminds me that the things of this world can never fully satisfy. We will only find lasting satisfaction in the Lord, Jesus Christ.

Well, folks, that’s the last Byrds album and the last of my reviews. I’ll be posting a summary of all the albums with links to my reviews down the road. Thanks for accompanying me on this year-long flyte!

The end of the road for the ersatz McGuinn-White Byrds

The last album of the McGuinn-White Byrds borrows the name of a Gospel hymn for it’s title.

Farther Along
The Byrds
Produced by The Byrds, Columbia Records, Released November 17, 1971, Length 32:02

Deeply annoyed with the heavy orchestration and gospel choir backup vocals added by producer, Terry Melcher, to their previous album, “Byrdmaniax,” Roger McGuinn and his ersatz Byrds hired hands (Clarence White, Gene Parsons, Skip Battin) were anxious to record a simpler, pared down response. The band self-produced the eleventh Byrds album, “Farther Along,” while touring in England in July 1971, only one month after the release of “Byrdmaniax.”

“Farther Along” was released on November 17, 1971 and peaked at #152 on the album charts, making it the second-worst performance by a Byrds album, charting only slightly ahead of  the #153 position by “Dr. Byrds and Mr. Hyde.” The single, “America’s Great National Pastime”/”Farther Along,” was released on November 29, but failed to chart.

Several of the songs on “Farther Along” featured a 1950s rock-and-roll theme. There’s very little to recommend about this album. In my opinion it’s the Byrds’ worst effort. After the release of this album, as the McGuinn-White Byrds sputtered to an end, McGuinn would fire drummer Parsons in July 1972 (to be replaced by John Guerin and others) and bassist Battin in mid-February, 1973. McGuinn officially dissolved the McGuinn-White Byrds just prior to the March 1973 release of the reunion album from the five founding members.

Side 1

  • Tiffany Queen (McGuinn) – McGuinn pays tribute to Chuck Berry. Catchy but unoriginal.
  • Get Down Your Line (Parsons) – Parsons stumbles badly with this loser.
  • Farther Along (traditional arranged by White) – Another Gospel song recorded by the Byrds. The Lord used these Byrds renditions of Gospel hymns along with many other things and people to eventually draw me to Him. Listen to the Byrds’ version of “Farther Along” here.
  • B.B. Class Road (Parsons, Dawson) – For years, music writers questioned why McGuinn had allowed roadie “Dinky” Dawson to sing lead on this throwaway tune when it was actually Parsons performing the vocal. Has my vote for the very worst Byrds song.
  • Bugler (Murray) – Excellent tune. Clarence does a nice job on the vocals given his limitations. Song writer Larry Murray was a member of the Scottsville Squirrel Barkers, which also featured ex-Byrd, Chris Hillman. Listen here.

Side 2

  • America’s Great National Pastime (Battin, Fowley) – More of the same Tin Pan Alley piano-driven schlock Battin-Fowley brought to “Byrdmaniax” (Tunnel of Love, Citizen Kane).
  • Antique Sandy (McGuinn, Battin, Parsons, White, Seiter) – Has a few moments.
  • Precious Kate (Battin, Fowley) – McGuinn sings this mediocre Battin-Fowley number.
  • So Fine (Otis) – The Byrds cover this 1959 single from the Fiestas.
  • Lazy Waters (Rafkin) – A pretty good tune from folkie, Bob Rafkin, but Battin’s vocals are overdone.
  • Bristol Steam Convention Blues (Parsons, White) – A simple bluegrass tune.

2000 CD reissue bonus tracks

  • Lost My Drivin’ Wheel (Wiffen) – McGuinn and session musicians.
  • Born to Rock and Roll (McGuinn) – The Byrds and Charles Lloyd on sax.
  • Bag Full of Money (McGuinn, Levy) – McGuinn, White, Battin and drummer John Guerin.
  • Bristol Steam Convention Blues (Parsons, White) – Alternate version

Next month we will review the Byrds’ final album, the 1973 reunion misstep recorded by the five original founding members of the band.

The Byrds hit rock bottom with Byrdmaniax

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.

Byrdmaniax
The Byrds
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.

Side 1

  • 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?

Side 2

  • 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.

The McGuinn-White Byrds peak with “Untitled”

Yes, it’s the beginning of the month, so once again we take a break from theological discussions and return to reviewing albums by the Byrds.

Untitled
The Byrds
Produced by Terry Melcher, Columbia Records, Released September 14, 1970, Length 71:27

The Byrds broke their fall from popularity with 1969’s “Ballad of Easy Rider,” a weak recording which managed to successfully capitalize on the band’s presence on the “Easy Rider” soundtrack. Bassist John York was fired shortly after “Ballad” was recorded and replaced by journeyman, Skip Battin.

The McGuinn-White Byrds had developed a reputation as a hard-working, live act, honing their sound with numerous gigs at colleges and small auditoriums. It was decided their next release would be a double-album; the first disc comprised of live recordings and the second comprised of studio material.

Producer Terry Melcher and the Byrds (Roger McGuinn, Clarence White, Gene Parsons, Skip Battin) entered Columbia’s studio May 26, 1970 to begin work on the band’s ninth album with sessions completed on June 11. The live material had been previously recorded at Queens College on February 28, 1970 and at the Felt Forum at Madison Square Garden on March 1. The Byrds’ original manager and producer, Jim Dickson, was enlisted to produce the live tracks. “Untitled”* was released on September 14 and reached a respectable #40 on the album charts. The single, “Chestnut Mare”/”Just a Season” was released on October 23 and peaked at #121.

“Untitled” is widely recognized as the finest of the five albums from the McGuinn-White Byrds. Whereas “Ballad” was largely covers, seven of the nine “Untitled” studio tracks were written by band members. In June 1968, McGuinn began collaborating with theater impresario, Jacques Levy, on songs for a new musical, “Gene Tryp.” The play never reached the stage, but McGuinn brought four of the compositions to “Untitled.”

I like “Untitled,” but despite some fine moments it’s not on the same level with the first six albums from the founding members. The live disc is somewhat enjoyable and the McGuinn/Levy songs are pretty good. In contrast to uncritical Byrds fans who give every post-Sweetheart album four or five stars, the best I can say about “Untitled” is it’s okay. Clarence overdoes the B-Bender as usual. Parson’s drumming is noticeably awkward. Battin’s odd songs portend the disastrous Battin/Fowley novelty tunes to come. However, McGuinn’s Rickenbacker is thankfully much more pronounced here than on the previous two albums. The Eve Babitz-designed album cover ranks as the Byrds’ best.

Side One (Live):

  • Lover of the Bayou (McGuinn, Levy) – The first of the four Gene Tryp songs. The Byrds imitate CCR. One of the best songs on the album. McGuinn later attributed his rough vocals on the live cuts to heavy cocaine use.
  • Positively 4th Street (Dylan) – A forgettable number with the distinction of being the last Dylan-penned tune to appear on a Byrds album.
  • Nashville West (Parsons, White) – Nothing special in the studio or live.
  • So You Want To Be A Rock `N’ Roll Star (McGuinn, Hillman) – Nice to hear McGuinn crank up the Rick for a change. Clarence and Roger do a nice job on this Byrds classic.
  • Mr. Tambourine Man (Dylan) – It’s interesting to hear the McGuinn-White Byrds play this classic.
  • Mr. Spaceman (McGuinn) – Never cared for this novelty song.

Side Two (Live):

  • Eight Miles High (McGuinn, Crosby, Clark) – The band turns this classic into a sixteen-minute jam. Clarence’s B-bender is annoying. Parsons’ drumming is weak as usual and I don’t care to listen to Battin’s unremarkable bass lines for five minutes but I do enjoy the closing crescendo.

Side Three (Studio):

  • Chestnut Mare (McGuinn, Levy) – Could be McGuinn’s best Byrds song next to 5D. The only post-Sweetheart Byrds tune that compares with the best of the material from the first six albums. Listen here.
  • Truck Stop Girl (George, Payne) – It’s almost painful to listen to Clarence cover this Little Feat number with his nasally whine.
  • All The Things (McGuinn, Levy) – Not a bad tune. That’s ex-Byrd Gram Parsons helping out on backup vocals.
  • Yesterday’s Train (Parsons, Battin) – Parsons sings this enjoyable, slow number. Sneeky Pete helps out with some steel guitar. McGuinn wasn’t present for the session.
  • Hungry Planet (Battin, Fowley, McGuinn) – McGuinn rearranged this Battin-Fowley tune and got a writing credit. Yech. McGuinn sings lead and adds some Moog.

Side Four (Studio):

  • Just A Season (McGuinn, Levy) – One of the better songs on the album. Listen here.
  • Take A Whiff On Me (Ledbetter, Lomax, Lomax) – Clarence and the Byrds do a nice job on this Leadbelly classic.
  • You All Look Alike (Battin, Fowley) – McGuinn sings lead on another Battin-Fowley number, a tribute to long-hairs everywhere. Byron Berline makes a guest appearance on the fiddle.
  • Welcome Back Home (Battin) – Otherwise known as Well Come Back Home. Skip finally gets to sing lead on one of his songs. An anti-war number written at the height of the Vietnam War and student unrest. The longest Byrds song ever at 7:40. Skip ends the song with the Buddhist mantra chant, “Nam Myoho Renge Kyo” (I devote myself to the Lotus Sutra of the Wonderful Law). McGuinn should have had his antennae up. Battin-Fowley will contribute songs on the following two albums that will be completely at odds with the Byrds’ oeuvre.

2000 CD reissue bonus tracks:

Studio

  • All the Things (McGuinn, Levy) – Alternate version
  • Yesterday’s Train (Parsons, Battin) – Alternate version
  • Lover of the Bayou (McGuinn, Levy) – I like the live version better.
  • Kathleen’s Song (McGuinn, Levy) – Nice tune. Will be held over for the next album, “Byrdmaniax.”
  • White’s Lightning Pt.2 (McGuinn, White) – Jam.
  • Willin’ (George) – Parsons sings this Little Feat country rock favorite.

Live

  • You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere (Dylan)
  • Old Blue (traditional arranged by McGuinn)
  • It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding) (Dylan)
  • Ballad of Easy Rider (McGuinn)
  • My Back Pages (Dylan)
  • Take a Whiff on Me (Ledbetter, Lomax, Lomax)
  • Jesus Is Just Alright (Reynolds)
  • This Wheel’s on Fire (Dylan, Danko)
  • Amazing Grace (traditional arranged by McGuinn, White, Parsons, Battin)

*The choice of “Untitled” as the name of the album was actually a mistake. As McGuinn tells it, “Somebody from Columbia called up our manager, Billy James, and asked him what the title was. He told them it was ‘as yet untitled’ and so they went ahead and printed that.”

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.”