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!

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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.”

Stephen Stills not “into” Jesus, just into “every day.” Hmm.

I was listening to our Amazon music stream the other day and it brought back quite a few memories. I’ve previously posted about how I was a huge fan of the rock group, Crosby, Stills, and Nash (and eventually became an even bigger fan of David Crosby’s first group, the Byrds). Throughout my teen years, I used to play those CS&N (and sometimes “Y”) albums until they wore out. As the music blasted from the turntable in my bedroom, I read along with the lyrics printed on the album covers like they were Scripture. I thought, “These guys got it ALL figured out with their gospel of peace, love, drugs, and sex.”

One of the band’s members, Stephen Stills, wasn’t averse to dropping Jesus’ name in his songs now and then. On the live, double-album, “4 Way Street” (1971), Stills sang:

“And I don’t know if I want white America to remember or to forget,
That Jesus Christ was the first non-violent revolutionary.
Dig it, ohh dig it, ooh right on, dig it, yeah.”

Jesus a non-violent revolutionary? Yup, a lot of people back then tried to characterize Jesus as just another Fidel or Che.

After CSN&Y broke up, Stills struck out on his own with a couple of solo albums and then assembled a rocking, seven-piece ensemble he named “Manassas.” On its 1972 debut album, Stills cited Jesus again, this time as a vague example of loving unconditionally, in his song, “Jesus Gave Love Away For Free.” I’m thinking Stills must have had some romance problems at the time.

But the song that really caught my attention was “Down the Road” from the band’s same-titled second album, “Down the Road” (1973): Capture4

“Some people into Jesus,
Other people into Zen.
I’m just into every day,
I don’t hide from where I been.”

Well, that’s a pretty bold statement. I was a “lapsed” Catholic when I first heard those lyrics, but I remember they struck even me as a bit arrogant.

I’ve since learned some of the backstory on Stills. His Manassas bandmate, Al Perkins (album photo, third from right), was part of the West Coast hippie, Jesus movement, and was witnessing to everyone he could, including Stills. “Down the Road” was Stills’ “no thanks” reply. Perkins would later join the Souther-Hillman-Furay Band and lead Richie Furay to the Lord (see my post here). Richie then tried a few times to witness to his old Buffalo Springfield bandmate, Stills, but Stephen wanted no part of Jesus.

Stephen Stills is now 73 years old and still performing. While he still plays some good electric and acoustic guitar, his distinctive singing style succumbed to the ravages of cigarette smoke long ago. Is Stills still “just into every day”? The reality is there’s not too many of those left.

Postscript: Back in 1969-1971, with the phenomenal success of Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, many predicted that multi-instrumentalist, singer, and songwriter, Stills, would have a singularly successful career, in the manner of a Clapton or a Springsteen. His former bandmates testify that no one believed in that notion more strongly than Stills himself. But his strong affinity for drugs and booze derailed him. Evidently, being “just into every day” somehow included a great deal of drug-induced escapism?

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.”

McGuinn pushes forward with hired hands (including a very talented guitarist)

It’s my first posting day of a new month, which means it’s time once again to take a break from theological discussions and return to our monthly review of albums by the Byrds.

Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde
The Byrds
Produced by Bob Johnston, Columbia Records, Released March 5, 1969, Length 34:25

By the time the Byrds’ sixth album, “Sweetheart of the Rodeo,” was released on August 30, 1968, Gram Parsons had already left the band, prompting the hiring of talented country guitarist, Clarence White, who had done significant session work on the previous three Byrds albums. Shortly afterward, drummer Kevin Kelley was dismissed in favor of White’s former Nashville West bandmate, Gene Parsons. When Chris Hillman quit the Byrds in September 1968 to join Grams Parsons in the formation of the Flying Burrito Brothers, Roger McGuinn enlisted bassist John York to fill the hole.

McGuinn’s decision to continue the Byrds after the departure of Hillman, leaving him as the only remaining founding member, was somewhat understandable. The Byrds had built a solid legacy as one of the most influential rock bands of the 1960s and McGuinn was reluctant to throw it all away. Plus, McGuinn felt obligated to fulfill the band’s contractual obligations. But several of the former-Byrds went on record saying McGuinn kept the band going strictly for the money. McGuinn has stated, in retrospect, that he wished he had folded the Byrds after Hillman’s departure.

McGuinn and his hired hands (McGuinn was the only member under contract to Columbia) recorded the seventh “Byrds” album at Columbia’s Hollywood Studio in October and December of 1968 under the direction of producer, Bob Johnston. Gary Usher had achieved tremendous results with the Byrds on their three previous albums, but when Usher was released from Columbia, McGuinn turned to Johnston who enjoyed a solid reputation after having produced both Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan.

With the album title and graphics and the backcover photos featuring the band members peeling off space suits to reveal country outfits, the Byrds were announcing their intention to straddle modern rock/psychedelia with country, a combination the band had mastered in “The Notorious Byrd Brothers,” but this album can largely be categorized as country rock, dominated by White’s virtuoso country pickin’. The Byrds later complained that Johnston’s finished recording was far too muddy with McGuinn’s twelve-string Rickenbacker often buried in the mix. But McGuinn’s Rick took a back seat to White’s Fender Telecaster after Notorious to the point where Roger essentially became the band’s rhythm guitarist to Clarence’s lead. “Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde” is notable for being the only Byrds album in which McGuinn sings lead vocal on every song. York provides the high vocal harmonies, but he’s definitely not in the same league with David Crosby. Parsons’ drumming sounds awkward even to an untrained ear. John Phillips of the Mamas and Papas would later take McGuinn aside and tell him, “Your drummer can’t play 4/4 time. He can’t play rock ‘n’ roll, he can only play country.”

In 2003, Rolling Stone magazine ranked Clarence White #41 on its list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time and that’s a pretty solid distinction. Drummer Parsons was also a mechanical wizard and had modified White’s Telecaster with a B-bender, a device which utilizes the manipulation of the guitar shoulder strap to mechanically bend the B-string, producing a pedal steel guitar-like effect. Guitarists and enthusiasts were simply amazed at the sounds White was able to coax out of his Telecaster using the B-bender (Jimi Hendrix stated Clarence was one of his favorite guitarists), but for my taste Clarence goes way overboard with the gimmick. The two distinctive trademarks of the Byrds’ original sound, McGuinn’s jingle-jangle twelve string and pristine vocal harmonies, are largely missing on “Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde” and the next four albums.

“Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde” was released on March 5, 1969 and sputtered at #153 on Billboard’s album chart, earning it the dubious distinction of being the Byrds’ lowest-charting album. The single, “Bad Night at the Whiskey”/”Drug Store Truck Drivin’ Man,” was released on January 7, 1969, but failed to chart.

“Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde” has some fine moments, but this first effort of the McGuinn-White lineup dramatically pales in comparison to the albums of the McGuinn-Clark-Crosby-Hillman Byrds. McGuinn  commented years later, “I’m not too happy with (Dr. Byrds).”

Side One:

  • This Wheel’s On Fire (Dylan, Danko) – Clarence switches from country pickin’ to soulful fuzz on this rocked-up, Dylan number, but confessed he wasn’t up to the task. “I felt I was faking it,” said Clarence of his efforts on the song. “‘This Wheel’s On Fire’ was the most embarrassing thing I’ve ever done.”
  • Old Blue (Traditional) – Yech.
  • Your Gentle Way of Loving Me (Guilbeau, Paxton) – White and Parsons pay homage to their former Nashville West bandmate, Gib Guilbeau. Not a bad tune.
  • Child of the Universe (Grusin, McGuinn) – A more embellished version of this song was included in the soundtrack of the 1968 film farce, “Candy.” Co-writer Dave Grusin went on to a highly successful career as a soundtrack composer. I like this tune although it’s out of place on this album.
  • Nashville West (Parsons, White) – Instrumental features some tasty licks from Clarence, but the hooping and hollering at the end is over the top.

Side Two:

  • Drug Store Truck Drivin’ Man (McGuinn, Gram Parsons) – McGuinn and the departed Gram Parsons penned this scathing smear of Nashville DJ, Ralph Emery, who had ridiculed the Sweetheart Byrds during their appearance on his WSM radio show the previous year. Sweetheart sessions alum, Lloyd Green, provides the pedal steel licks. Joan Baez and Jeffrey Shurtleff popularized the song with their rendition at Woodstock in 1969. Listen here.
  • King Apathy III (McGuinn) – Ho-hum.
  • Candy (McGuinn, York) – This was the second song written for the film, “Candy,” however this one didn’t make the soundtrack. Critics panned both of the “Candy” tunes, but I’m fond of them.
  • Bad Night at the Whiskey (McGuinn, Richards) – The best song on the album. Love that vocal sustain. Listen below.
  • Medley: My Back Pages/B.J. Blues/Baby What You Want Me To Do – (Dylan, McGuinn, York, Parsons, White, Reed) – York later stated the medley was included on the album to showcase the new lineup’s musical chops. Most listeners considered it as filler.

1997 CD Reissue Bonus Tracks:

  • Stanley’s Song (McGuinn, Hippard) – A less than mediocre outtake. Bob Hippard had also co-written C.T.A.-102.
  • This Wheel’s On Fire (Dylan) – Snappier alternate version. Clarence stated he preferred this take.
  • Medley: My Back Pages/B.J. Blues/Baby What You Want Me To Do? (Dylan, McGuinn, York, Parsons, White, Reed) – Alternate version.

McGuinn and his ersatz Byrds reached an artistic nadir with “Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde.” Would this be the end of the band? Tune in next month to find out.

A pope venerated during an evangelical worship service and nobody says a word?

I’ve mentioned before that my wife and I are both big ol’ square pegs when it comes to evangelical church membership. We’re too “liberal” for flag-waving fundamentalist churches where we started out as new believers decades ago, and too “conservative” for progressive mega-churches, which are generally well-on-the-way to ecumenical compromise and betrayal.

Two-and-a-half-years ago, we began attending a large non-denominational church, which leans much more towards a contemporary than a traditional worship-style, but, and this is huge for us, politics are never mentioned from the pulpit and there have been no overtures toward Rome. Phew! Until now. What?!?!

A couple of Sundays ago, we were sitting in the “sanctuary” and listening to the pastor finish a fine sermon on resting in the Lord. Immediately after the sermon, the worship band came out and performed a song called “Rest In You.” As the band played, a video was displayed in the background, which included both exterior and interior shots of what would clearly be manifested to be a Roman Catholic church. The video scenes included among other things:

  • A statue of a smiling pope wearing the three-tiered papal tiara (photos above and below)
  • Votive candles being lit (votive candles are often used in connection with prayers to Mary and the “saints”)
  • Statues of unidentified Catholic saints
  • A statue of Jesus exposing his “sacred heart”
  • The church interior showing the Catholic altar

The above images looped through the video twice while my wife and I sat there with our mouths wide open in disbelief. Watch the very same 5-minute video for yourself far below.

We went home and composed a letter to the pastor expressing our deep dismay and emailed it Monday. The pastor responded the next day. I don’t wish to publish the details of our private correspondence other than to say we were pleased with the pastor’s gracious reply.

But one has to ask oneself, how does a big evangelical church with a large staff and many eyes permit something like that video to slip through? C’mon! A statue of a pope?!?!?! Forty years ago, if such a video had been shown at an evangelical church service, the entire congregation would have rightly demanded an explanation from the elder board. But in this era of ecumenism and growing doctrinal ignorance, at a church with an average Sunday attendance of over 2000, we were told we were the only ones who raised a concern.

Capture27

I did a little research and found out the song, “Rest In You,” and the accompanying video were created by a now-defunct band named All Sons & Daughters, which was led by Leslie Anne Jordan and David Alan Leonard, the former worship co-leaders at Journey Church in Franklin, Tennessee. Their final album, “Poets & Saints” (2016), includes the song in question as well as “You Are Love & Love Alone,” which the band claimed was inspired by Catholic nun and saint, Thérèse of Lisieux. An article (see here) from a Catholic news source triumphantly cites “Poets & Saints” as a “Protestant album” that “finds some very Catholic inspiration.”

The Gospel is getting very muddied out there, brothers and sisters! Why don’t these accommodating and compromising Judas ecumenical evangelical ministers just padlock their church’s doors and send everyone a mile down the road to the local Catholic church?

“Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” – Luke 18:8

 

“You were running well. Who hindered you from obeying the truth? This persuasion is not from him who calls you. A little leaven leavens the whole lump. I have confidence in the Lord that you will take no other view, and the one who is troubling you will bear the penalty, whoever he is. But if I, brothers, still preach circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been removed. I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves!” – Galatians 5:7-12

Gram Parsons hijacks the Byrds to Nashville

It’s the first day of the month, which means it’s time once again to take a break from theological discussions (somewhat) and return to our monthly review of albums by the Byrds and the band’s sixth release.

In perhaps one of the most unusual chapters in rock-and-roll history, a fading but still-influential rock band totally immersed itself in country music in…

Sweetheart of the Radio
The Byrds
Produced by Gary Usher, Columbia Records, Released August 30, 1968, Length: 32:35

After David Crosby (rhythm guitar) and Michael Clarke (drums) were dismissed during the recording of “The Notorious Byrd Brothers,” the Byrds were down to the duo of Roger McGuinn (lead guitar) and Chris Hillman (bass). Kevin Kelley, Hillman’s cousin, was subsequently hired as the band’s new drummer and Gram Parsons was added as a keyboard player. McGuinn originally envisioned the Byrd’s next recording project as a concept double-album spanning the history of American music, from Appalachian folk to electronica, but Parsons, former leader of the pioneering country-rock group, the International Submarine Band, was interested only in recording a country album and found a willing ally in bluegrass and Buck Owens/Bakersfield enthusiast, Hillman. The Byrds had dabbled in country music in their previous four albums, mostly thanks to Hillman, but “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” would be a complete immersion.

“We hired a piano player and he turned out to be Parsons . . . a monster in sheep’s clothing. And he exploded out of this sheep’s clothing. It’s George Jones!” – Roger McGuinn in 1969

The Byrds and producer, Gary Usher, worked on “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” from March 9-15, 1968 in Columbia’s Nashville studios. Several notable session musicians participated in the recordings including John Hartford (fiddle, banjo), Lloyd Green (pedal steel guitar), JayDee Maness (pedal steel guitar), Earl P. Ball (piano), and Clarence White (guitar), who had also guested on the group’s two previous albums. Following their recording sessions, the Byrds made appearances in Nashville at the Grand Ole Opry and on DJ Ralph Emery’s popular WSM radio show where the “hippie” musicians received rather cold receptions. Remember, folks, this was 1968 and “hippies” and “rednecks” did not mix.

The Byrds continued working on “Sweetheart” back in Columbia’s Hollywood studios from April 4 to May 27. Parson’s lead vocals were replaced on three songs by McGuinn and Hillman with the explanation that problems involving Parsons’ contract with his former record label forced the changes. However, Usher later revealed Parsons’s contractual problems had already been satisfactorily resolved and the decision to alter the vocals was made in order to rein in newcomer Parson’s disproportionate presence on the record.

Parsons left the band in July and would team with Hillman a few months later to form the influential country-rock band, The Flying Burrito Brothers. Following Parsons’ and Hillman’s departures, McGuinn would carry on the Byrds franchise with the help of hired hands until 1973, producing five more albums of uneven quality.

“Sweetheart of the Rodeo” was released on August 30, 1968 and reached #77 on the album charts. “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”/”Artificial Energy” was released as a single on April 2 and peaked at #75 followed by “I Am a Pilgrim”/”Pretty Boy Floyd,” which was released September 2 and failed to chart.

“Sweetheart of the Rodeo” is considered to be one of the very first country-rock albums, blazing the trail for a flurry of succeeding bands. For a major rock band to have taken such a monumental turn in 1968 was seen as both foolhardy and stunningly courageous. Both rock and country audiences rejected the pioneering album at the time, but it remains a seminal influence to this day. That a newcomer was able to exert so much influence on an established band is a testament to Parson’s determination to popularize country music as well as to McGuinn’s puzzling willingness to relinquish control of the Byrds. McGuinn’s chiming twelve-string Rickenbacker guitar, featured so prominently in the first five albums and the unmistakable signature of the Byrds’ sound, is almost entirely missing from “Sweetheart.”

Rolling Stone magazine selected “Sweetheart” as #117 on its “500 Greatest Albums of All Time” list released in 2003. Personally, I was not a fan of country music when I first listened to “Sweetheart” in the early seventies and it took many listens before I learned to appreciate Parsons’ “Cosmic American Music.”

Side One:

  • You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere (Dylan) – The Byrds reclaim their place as Dylan’s ablest interpreters as they borrow this unreleased song from his “Basement Tapes” recordings. A great leadoff song. McGuinn does a nice vocal with Lloyd Green playing some fine pedal steel and with Parsons on the organ. A Byrds classic. Listen below.
  • I Am a Pilgrim (Traditional) – It’s ironic that Hillman sings this plaintive Christian tune as he’ll profess to becoming a born-again Christian years later. That’s McGuinn on the banjo and John Hartford doing a nice job on the fiddle. Listen here.
  • The Christian Life (Louvin, Louvin) – Chicago-native McGuinn’s imitation of a Southern accent is the album’s low point. JayDee Maness shines on pedal steel and Clarence White delivers some tasty licks on guitar. One of the three tunes in which Parson’s lead vocals were erased. Listen here. It’s ironic that, while this song was done tongue-in-cheek, McGuinn would eventually accept Jesus Christ as his Savior nine years later in 1977. I remember both “I Am a Pilgrim” and “The Christian Life” making an unsettling impression on my long journey to Jesus.
  • You Don’t Miss Your Water (Bell) – The second song in which Parson’s vocals were erased in favor of McGuinn. Earl P. Ball handles the ivories while JayDee masterfully supplies the pedal steel licks.
  • You’re Still on My Mind (McDaniel) – Parsons sings lead with Ball playing some honky tonk piano and JayDee on pedal steel. Parsons later claimed that this recording and “Life in Prison” were strictly warm-up versions and should not have been included on the album.
  • Pretty Boy Floyd (Guthrie) – McGuinn takes a Woody Guthrie folk tune to Nashville. That’s Hartford on banjo and fiddle.

Side Two:

  • Hickory Wind (Parsons, Buchanan) – Parsons’ wistful tribute to his Southern roots is considered by many to be one of his best songs. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame included “Hickory Wind” on it’s list of “500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll.”
  • One Hundred Years From Now (Parsons) – McGuinn and Hillman replaced Parsons’ lead vocals. Lloyd Green handles the pedal steel while White adds some tasty guitar licks. The song is one of the few on the album that sounds like the pre-Sweetheart Byrds.
  • Blue Canadian Rockies (Walker) – Hillman sings a nice lead vocal with Parsons on piano.
  • Life in Prison (Haggard, Sanders) – Parsons sings lead accompanied by Ball’s honky tonk piano and JayDee’s pedal steel. Hillman later remarked that pampered rich kid, Parsons, was a “fish out of water” singing this prison song.
  • Nothing Was Delivered (Dylan) – The second Dylan tune on the album also came from the unreleased Basement Tapes. Very catchy chorus. Green provides some sweet steel. That’s Parsons on piano.

2003 Legacy Edition CD bonus tracks:

  • All I Have Are Memories (Kelley) – Outtake. Stick with the drums, Kevin.
  • You Got A Reputation (Hardin) – Outtake. Parsons sings lead on this rocking number. This song and “Lazy Days” had more of a rock feel and did not mesh with the traditional country material on the album.
  • Pretty Polly (Traditional) – Outtake. McGuinn’s arrangement of a traditional folk tune.
  • Lazy Days (Parsons) – Outtake. A version of this rocker will appear on the Flying Burrito Brother’s Burrito Deluxe.
  • The Christian Life (Louvin, Louvin) – This version includes the original Parsons vocals.
  • You Don’t Miss Your Water (Bell) – This version includes the original Parsons vocals.
  • One Hundred Years From Now (Parsons) – This version includes the original Parsons vocals.
  • Radio Advertisement

Also included in the 2003 Legacy Edition are six International Submarine Band tunes from their album, “Safe at Home,” considered to be the very first country-rock album, followed by fourteen rehearsal versions from the Sweetheart sessions. The material is somewhat interesting, but will appeal to only the most ardent Byrds fans.

 

Postscript: It was recently announced that McGuinn and Hillman were going to commemorate the 50th anniversary of “Sweetheart” by performing the complete album on stage at The Egg, Center for the Performing Arts, Empire State Plaza, in Albany, New York in September with Marty Stuart, but the performance was subsequently cancelled.

The Notorious Byrd Brothers: The Byrds crumble, just as they peak

It’s time to take a break from theological discussions to return to our monthly review of albums by the Byrds and the band’s fifth release, the extraordinary…

The Notorious Byrd Brothers
The Byrds
Produced by Gary Usher, Columbia Records, Released January 15, 1968, Length 28:28

The Byrds were on the threshold of a major upheaval when they entered Columbia Studios in Hollywood on June 21, 1967 with producer Gary Usher to record their fifth album. Just a few days before, at their performance at the Monterey Pop Festival on June 17th, David Crosby (rhythm guitar) had alienated his bandmates with his controversial political comments from the stage and by helping out Buffalo Springfield with their set by filling in for an absent Neil Young.

During the sessions, tensions peaked when Crosby refused to participate in the recording of Gerry Goffin and Carole King’s “Goin’ Back,” which Crosby saw as an artistic regression in the same mold as “My Back Pages” on the band’s previous album, “Younger Than Yesterday.” As a result, Crosby was unceremoniously fired by bandmates, Roger McGuinn (lead guitar) and Chris Hillman (bass). Crosby had been difficult to work with since the band’s inception and his material was becoming increasingly too radical for AM Top 40 radio. Drummer Michael Clarke had left the Byrds of his own accord during recording, disillusioned with the direction the band was taking. With only half an album of material in the can at that point, McGuinn, Hillman, and Usher fleshed out the balance of “The Notorious Byrd Brothers” with amazing results. Former Byrd, Gene Clark, re-joined the band for a short spell of three weeks in the midst of the recording, but his contributions to the album remain unclear.

“The Notorious Byrd Brothers” was released on January 15, 1968 and reached to #47 on the U.S. album charts. The single, “Goin’ Back”/”Change Is Now,” was released on October 20, 1967 and peaked at #89. It’s ironic that, what many consider to be the finest of the band’s albums, had no Top 40 singles.

Despite the acrimonious recording sessions, “The Notorious Byrd Brothers” is widely acknowledged as the band’s finest album. As in “Younger Than Yesterday,” the Byrds explored the musical genres of folk rock, jazz, psychedelia, and country. Usher overlapped the songs in the same manner as the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” which gives the album a wonderful flow. Several highly regarded session players were brought in to augment the sound, including Clarence White, Red Rhodes, Jim Gordon and Hal Blaine. White’s country guitar pickin’ and Rhodes’ pedal steel guitar are prominent throughout the album and give it a noticeable country flavor. “The Notorious Byrd Brothers” was one of the first rock albums to feature the Moog synthesizer thanks to McGuinn’s fascination with the new technology. Usher relied heavily on studio experimentation to enhance the album’s psychedelic feel. At a total length of 28:28, “The Notorious Byrd Brothers” is the shortest album in the group’s catalog. The album’s cover photograph, with Hillman, McGuinn, Clarke, and a horse peering through windows, has been widely interpreted as the band’s parting jab at Crosby (for an interesting article on the stone house featured on the cover photo, see here).

Over the years, “The Notorious Byrd Brothers” has been held in high regard by critics and fans alike. In 2003, Rolling Stone ranked it as #171 on its “The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time” list. If I were limited to being able to listen to only one Byrds album, this would be it. In a 2013 interview, McGuinn stated, “In spite of all the strife that was going on with Crosby and everything, (Notorious) might be my favorite (Byrds album), the way it blends in from one track to another, and it’s got some sound effects in it. We kind of peaked at that point.”

Side One:

  • Artificial Energy (McGuinn, Hillman, Clarke) – By opening the album with this brass-driven oddity that’s totally out of place in the Byrds’ oeuvre, Usher was welcoming the listener to Notorious’ eclectic mix.
  • Goin’ Back (King, Goffin) – I share Crosby’s disdain for the saccharine lyrics and romper room ambience. Why were the Byrds recording Goffin-King material anyway? McGuinn hypothesized decades later that Usher and Columbia were fishing for a Top 40 hit.
  • Natural Harmony (Hillman) – Psychedelic rock at its very best. The studio effects are wonderful. Jim Gordon is a huge improvement over Clarke on drums. Listen here.
  • Draft Morning (Crosby, Hillman, McGuinn) – Hillman and McGuinn reworked this poignant Crosby anti-war song after he was fired. Special effect combat sounds were added by the Firesign Theatre. Crosby was incensed that Hillman and McGuinn had hijacked his composition.
  • Wasn’t Born To Follow (King, Goffin) – Country meets psychedelia. Was included as part of the soundtrack for the film, “Easy Rider” (1969).
  • Get To You (McGuinn, Hillman) – McGuinn later claimed this tune was actually co-written with Gene Clark rather than with Hillman. Another psychedelic trip. Many listeners were unable to decipher the chorus, “Oh, that’s a little better.” Hal Blaine expertly handles the drums. In a later interview, McGuinn said his main motivation in writing “Get To You” was to prove to the departed Crosby that he was also capable of writing a song in uneven jazz timing.

Side Two:

  • Change Is Now (Hillman, McGuinn) – Another excursion into countrified psychedelia. Usher puts together an otherworldly break featuring McGuinn’s Rickenbacker. Blaine is solid on drums and Rhodes adds just enough steel. Listen below.
  • Old John Robertson (Hillman, McGuinn) – This song already saw the light of day as the B-side of “Lady Friend,” but Usher added phasing to the orchestral bridge for this version. Clarence White supplies plenty of expert country picking.
  • Tribal Gathering (Crosby, Hillman) – A delightful, jazzy, 5/4-time Crosby composition about a hippie be-in. Jim Gordon is a remarkable contrast to Clarke on the drums. Listen here.
  • Dolphin’s Smile (Crosby, Hillman, McGuinn) – A lovely, Crosby tune with McGuinn providing Dolphin-like sounds on his Rickenbacker. The ocean would be a reoccurring theme in Crosby’s later work.
  • Space Odyssey (McGuinn, Hippard) – Paul Beever plays the Moog synthesizer on this space shanty salute to Arthur C. Clarke’s short story, “The Sentinel,” which Stanley Kubrick will later adapt into “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

1997 CD Reissue Bonus Tracks:

  • Moog Raga (McGuinn) – Groovy, man.
  • Bound To Fall (Brewer, Mastin) – Instrumental. Hillman will later bring this tune to Manassas.
  • Triad (Crosby) – To Crosby’s great annoyance, McGuinn and Hillman refused to allow this eyebrow-raising, self-indulgent number on the album.
  • Goin’ Back (King, Goffin) – Alternate version. Crosby participated on this early take, but withdrew from subsequent sessions.
  • Draft Morning (Crosby, Hillman, McGuinn) – Alternate version.
  • Universal Mind Decoder (Hillman, McGuinn) – Change Is Now instrumental followed by album radio advertisement and in-studio argument primarily between David Crosby and Michael Clarke during the recording of “Dolphin’s Smile.” Fascinating. Is there anything more ironic than Crosby accusing Clarke of being egotistical?

Down to only two members, McGuinn and Hillman, would the band be able to sustain itself? Find out next month.