Saturday, 22 September 2012
The Byrds "The Ballad Of Easy Rider" (1969)
“The river flows, it flows to the sea, wherever the river goes that’s where I want to be, flow river flow, let your waters wash down, take me from this road to some other town” “livin’ may be easy, dyin’ may be hard, but I’m wide awake, staying up late, sending my regards” “Give me oil in my lamp, keep me burning burning burning, keep me burning till the end of day” “I may not be a wise man, but I know this life you’re leading, you learned your tricks from lots of other men” “When I first came to Liverpool I went upon the spree, me money at last I spent it, fast got drunk as drunk could be” “I don’t care what they might say, I don’t care what they might do, I don’t care what they might know, Jesus is just alright with me!” “You better go now, take what you want, you think will last, but if there’s something you wish to keep, you better grab it fast!” “The empty handed painter from your streets is drawing crazy patterns on your sheets” “All my life I’ve been alone, got no friends, got no home, And there must be someone I can turn to” “All my so-called friends have turned their back on me, they were lookin’ for someone I just couldn’t be, let them go and have their fun, unaware of the harm they’ve done, as there must be someone I can turn to” “I’m writing this here letter from aboard a DC8, heading into Angel Town, hoping it’s not too late, it rained in New York City, Mr Rock ‘n’ Roll couldn’t stay, the crowd was mad and we were had, chasing the sun back to L.A.” “Some of us are illegal, others aren’t wanted, our work contract’s up and we have to move on, 600 miles to that Mexican border, they chase us like outlaws, like rustlers, like thieves” “You won’t have a name when you ride the big airplane, all you will be is a deportee” “Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins were launched into space, millions of hearts were lifted, proud of the human race, space control at Houston, radio command, the team below that gave the go, they had God’s helping hand”
The Byrds “The Ballad Of Easy Rider” (1969)
Ballad Of Easy Rider/Fido/Oil In My Lamp/Tulsa County Blue/Jack Tarr The Sailor//Jesus Is Just Alright/It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue/There Must Be Someone/Gunga Din/Deportee (Plane Wreck At Las Gatos)/Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins
Scenario #1: It’s late 1969. You’ve just walked home on air from the cinema down the end of the road (sigh they were everywhere in those days) having seen the film ‘Easy Rider’. You don’t know much about music but together with the motorbikes and the moral messages and the semi-improvised acting the film’s soundtrack thrilled you, full of songs about freedom, wild open spaces and sticking it to the man. You strain your eyes to read the credits at the end of the film and learn that three of the songs included feature at least one of The Byrds. Best of all, you read in the press later that week that the film was even loosely based on The Byrds – or at least their prime characters, the cool calm collected Roger McGuinn (Peter Fonda) and the fiery, rebellious David Crosby (Dennis Hopper in one of Crosby’s trademark capes). Having saved up your pocket money for the film soundtrack (now, alas, a regular in charity shops and second hand shops but in 1969 a highly prized item) you hear news that The Byrds are a real live band, that they’re touring in a town near you and, best of all, they have a new record coming out one that even – glory be! – features the same name and (on first glance) what appears to be a film still on the cover. Holding the record like a new born baby you proudly walk back home clutching the record so that everyone can see it. At last, in your neighbourhood at least, you’re hip.
Scenario #2. The ‘Crosby, Stills and Nash’ album is the album of the summer. It’s everywhere. Even grandmas seem to be singing along to ‘Marrakesh Express’ on the radio while rock fans who normally only trust their music if its stapled together with electric bolts are loving the acoustic softness of ‘Suite: Judy Blue Eyes’ and the radical hippies are falling over themselves in praise of ‘Long Time Gone’. With money to burn – and one hell of a long wait between CSN albums – you look at where the three men came from. Buffalo Springfield, alas, are defunct, but Nash’s English band The Hollies are still going; what a shame their new album ‘Hollies Sing Hollies’ is so hard to get a hold of and, quite frankly, the paisley shirts on the cover put you off (see next week’s review for more on this). No, your best bet is to buy The Byrds’ latest, a quaint little retro album named ‘The Ballad Of Easy Rider’. At last, in your neighbourhood, you’re hip.
Scenario #3 You’ve loved The Byrds since you were knee high to a Tambourine Man (whatever one of those is). You’ve grown up to the sound of the coolest band in the universe and even spent a year dressed in square granny specs and a long flowing cape, while desperately trying to get your hair to stick in the shape of the super-cool pudding basin hair cut like drummer Michael Clarke (only it won’t quite go). You were hip once in your neighbourhood, before the band lost their way and their members so fast it wasn’t funny. One minute it was Gene Clark, next it was David Crosby, soon even Chris Hillman was gone leaving the original Byrds a fading distant memory. You didn’t even bother buying the band’s records when they got all country – that wasn’t what ‘your’ band was about. But suddenly, joy of joys, The Byrds are back in fashion again. So many other bands – CSN included – are making folk-rock fashionable again that everyone wants to go back to the ‘beginnings’ of that sound and a new cult must-see-filmed-for-pennies road film has made them ‘cool’ again. Proudly you get your old Byrds LP covers out the loft and casually drape them around your room so all the neighbours can see through the window that, yes indeed, you are hip again.
In all those three scenarios ‘The Ballad Of Easy Rider’ fails and fails spectacularly. Far from cashing in on the allure and escape of the film, this album is an often slow and boring plod through songs on the one hand so traditional and on the other so new and strange that lovers of film songs like ‘Wasn’t Born To Follow’ don’t know quite what to make of. Even the film’s title song is re-recorded here in a far inferior, more polished version that seems like an antithesis of everything that movie was about. The CSN fans just laugh, say ‘Crosby was right to get out’, labelling The Byrds as squares who, far from kicking out a talentless troublemaker, couldn’t see the biggest talent in the group. And fans who’ve loved the band’s sound for so long are incredibly frustrated that so very little on this album sounds like The Byrds. Where is the jingly-jangly guitar? The strong songs? The effortless ability to record songs in at least three different styles at once? What do you mean I’ve waited this long to be in fashion and I’m still not hip?!
Looked at again in 2012, with the benefit of understanding where The Byrds have been and where they’re about to go. ‘The Ballad Of Easy Rider’ sounds like a much better album than it must have done at the time. This line-up is – almost – the most stable one, the quartet who made the effortless masterpiece ‘Untitled’ the following year but who are still coping pretty well for a band who’ve rise, phoenix like, from the ashes of the old Byrds, disintegrated for good when Gram Parsons left for country rock fame, taking old hand Chris Hillman with him. Less schizophrenic than predecessor ‘Dr Byrds and Mr Hyde’, this album is probably the least consistent the band ever recorded (bearing in mind that albums like ‘Byrdmaniax’ are at least consistently awful) but when it reaches its peaks its hard to see what all the negative fuss and feeling was all about at the time.
To be honest, though, the band don’t do themselves many favours. Only three of the songs here are original compositions and two of them (John York’s ‘Fido’ and Gene Parsons’ ‘Gunga Din’) are by writers who’d never released a solo song on a Byrds album before. Roger McGuinn is so busy with his ill-fated (but wonderful) Peer Gynt re-write of a musical ‘Gene Tryp’ (its an anagram folks!) that he gets just the one song on this album (lasting a paltry two minutes) and despite being the Byrds’ only original member by this stage often sounds like an extra on this record, which barely features his trademark Rickenbacker guitar. That means there’s a ridiculous (for the era anyway) eight cover songs on this album; when set against the almost-all original ‘Dr Byrds’ or especially the groundbreaking first CSN album, there’s simply no contest. ‘The Ballad of Easy Rider’ is a water-treading album released at a time when in musical terms anything was possible and people were covering ground no one had ever covered before, seemingly at random.
The album cover doesn’t help. The ‘Easy Rider’ film is about as dated as anything gets now we’ve had so many copycat versions and, in truth, is a plod to sit through for 21st century viewers, full of long talking sequences, forgotten politics and not enough action. But at the time, when this sort of thing had never been done before in a mainstream release– when long haired youngsters were painted as the ‘heroes’ not the enemy of America in a film for pretty much the first time since The Beatles – it must have seemed revolutionary. The Byrds’ take on the film, by contrast, is to feature a picture of a motorbike being used by part of the ‘old’ generation – drummer Gene Parsons’ dad Lem to be exact – and he’s clutching a gun and laughing, apparently straight at you. That’s not the image the hippie ethos loving film was trying to portray, in fact it looks like a straight pastiche of it and, for the band’s (almost completely) young fans it was a kick in the teeth. Even the use of the film’s name in the title is a bit ‘uncool’ for the day, a sop to non-hippie capitalism and cashing in of product (most modern stars get away with this by adding ‘as featured in the movie...’ stickers but they didn’t have those in 1969) and bound to annoy fans who thought there’s be more links to the film (why not include McGuinn’s take on Dylan’s ‘It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding’, possibly the best thing in the film which – while a live regular – was never put on record by The Byrds)? Even the liner notes are a ‘cheat’ – asked to contribute something Easy Rider star Peter Fonda takes the ‘easy’ way out and writes a sprawling stream-of-consciousness rap about what The Byrds mean to him which is printed, mistakes and all, on the back sleeve. Compared to Derek Taylor’s groundbreaking sleevenotes in the mid 60s, its a hurried mess (not that I’m blaming Fonda – what did he know about writing sleevenotes? They could at least have asked Easy Rider writer/director and head Monkee Bob Rafelson?!)
But what is here is often great, bordering on genius. Gene Parsons song ‘Gunga Din’ is rightly hailed by fans as one of the best songs on the band’s last handful of albums. Some of the cover song choices – Deportee, Tulsa Country Blue, There Must Be Someone, a long awaited third attempt at covering Dylan’s ‘It’s All Over Now Baby Blue – are brave ideas arranged with all the aplomb and subtlety you expect from a brand like The Byrds. Even the worst songs here - like ‘Jack Tarr The Sailor’ and the latest in a long line of head-scratching closing songs ‘Armstrong Aldrin and Collins’ – are well played, with much more cohesion than the band of ‘Dr Byrds’ and ‘Sweetheart Of The Rodeo’ and on ‘Fido’ in particular sound as raw and exciting as any line-up of the band ever did. Add in a couple of the excellent bonus tracks (John York’s take on a then unknown Pentangle’s ‘Way Behind The Sun’, McGuinn’s take on a then unknown Jackson Browne’s ‘Me Jean Goes To Hollywood’ and ‘It’s Alright Ma’ from the ‘Easy Rider’ film) and you suddenly have at least a chance at one of the more successful Byrds albums of the era.
It’s a stepping stone to later success, this album, and even if it only intermittently catches fire you can at least hear that the band are getting it together. It’s sad, then, to report that this is yet another case of The Byrds in transition. He only ever had two albums to show us what he could do but, in my opinion, bassist John York is the one who ‘got away’ from The Byrds. Younger than the hardened veterans in the band, he had a great voice and a strong songwriting instinct and was badly treated by the band he was so excited to join (York adored The Byrds in 1965, as did most sensible young Americans). His paltry one song released by them (this album’s ‘Fido’) is only the tip of what he was able to achieve and he had to give many of his choice of ‘cover’ songs over to McGuinn to sing who – if you compare the two singers side by side on the deluxe CD version where York’s vocals are added as bonus tracks - comes off even worse than he does against Gram Parsons on ‘Sweetheart Of The Rodeo’ (when a contract Gram signed when he was a teenager reared his ugly head and another company claimed rights to his ‘voice’). Given what I’ve read in Byrds biogs I’m also on York’s side when it comes to the band’s fights: why should the band turn up late to gigs and then give short sets instead of ‘repaying favours’ when an audience patiently waits? And why shouldn’t the band ‘junk’ the older material if they want to be a real live fresh new band? (Only McGuinn in the current line-up had played on the songs as it was). Dismissed for being ‘unprofessional’, it was actually McGuinn and co who were being ‘unprofessional’ in my eyes and its a sad loss to music that York’s only other contribution to the music business was playing back up to Gene Clark in a much maligned revived Byrds in the 1980s. To be fair to McGuinn, he must have been wary of the competition: he’d spent three years fighting with Crosby over the band’s sound, then fought with Gram and lost bassist Chris Hillman into the bargain. He really didn’t need another young buck telling him how to think. But in that case, why on earth isn’t he back in charge in this album, dominating the band’s sound as he should?
To my ears the York-Parsons rhythm section is the best the Byrds ever had. Many fans have criticised Parsons’ drumming, which often did get a bit wayward live, but in the studio with a chance to cut re-takes his drumming is always original and rarely overpowers a song the way some drummers do. Gene has quite a lyrical style that’s quite interesting, close in fact to Paul McCartney on the few occasions he plays the drums, perhaps because both of them were guitarists and keyboardists long before they picked up a drumkit (that’s also Gene you can hear on the mouthorgan on some tracks). Clarence White, now an old hand after playing on two Byrds as a session musician and two as a member, is also more than a match for McGuinn, the source of most of the albu’s country trappings whilst still able to play as fast and as raw as any rock guitarist (‘This Wheel’s On Fire’ on ‘Dr Byrds’ is a case in point). By contrast McGuinn is nearly silent on this album, content to write one song and sing lead on that and four others. Distracted by Gene Tryp, he’s missing at the one time the band really need him to stamp his authority – its his ‘return’ to the band on ‘Untitled’ that really makes that album such a gem (and the Gene Tryp songs are the best of all).
The other major player on this album is producer Terry Melcher, the son of Doris Day and the original producer with The Byrds circa 1965. Melcher left because of conflicts with manager Jim Dickson rather than any great upset with the band and got on particularly well with McGuinn. His return to the story in this period helped cement the idea in the fans’ eyes that this really was ‘The Byrds’ Mark Two (or is that three or four?!) and not just the band’s guitarist with three other guys and his desire to get back to the band’s original cross between Dylan and The Beatles gives this album many of its best moments (though surprisingly there’s only one Dylan cover – barring his possible co-write on the title track, see below – less than on any other Byrds record since ‘5D’ – and that nearly didn’t make the album). After their (largely failed) attempt to go all out country, its a relief to hear the band back in their natural environment, at least attempting to take the best of two genres without ever quite fitting with either one (again, better is still to come on the rockier and harder-edged ‘Untitled’) and thanks to Melcher’s typical sonic clarity this album sounds better than most records made and mixed in 1969 (CSN’s included), even if what we hear isn’t always that great. In retrospect its amazing he made the sessions at all: the killer Charles Manson was that year’s most talked about villain, after the Sharon Tate murders; it was an open secret that he was really after several leading musicians-come-music industry figures including Melcher and Beach Boy Dennis Wilson (whose gift of hospitality wasn’t enough for Manson).
Yet again ‘Easy Rider’ is a frustratingly uneven Byrds album that could – and should – have been so much more, especially to fans around at the time who’d already sat through two albums of filler waiting for the band to get their act together. But to dismiss it out of hand would be unfair, for there is much to admire on this album. Gene Parsons’ couple of songs (one original, one a cover) are among the best the band ever recorded, McGuinn’s take on the cursed Dylan song ‘It’s All Over Now Baby Blue’ in ballad form is well worth the wait and there’s still the title track to enjoy. Better is to come – with the ‘Untitled’ album next in line my favourite of any Byrds album barring ‘The Notorious Byrd Brothers’ – and even in dissolution, even in the middle of yet another line-up change this album paves the way back to greatness, even if it’s not entirely great in itself.
‘The Ballad Of Easy Rider’ is the one song on the album that does have links with the film, although its an entirely different recording from the one on the soundtrack (which I prefer, being looser and less polished than the album cut; alas it still hasn’t appeared on any Byrds CD at the time of writing). One of the strongest songs on the album, ‘Easy Rider’ is a yearning ballad similar in feel to the Byrds’ previous song ‘I Wasn’t Born To Follow’ (another song that made the film) in its depictions of freedom and space. When McGuinn sings ‘all he wanted is to be free’ he managed to conjure up the hopes and dreams of his generation, chiming with the mood of the era far more successfully than at any time since 1965 (I’m intrigued to know what old partner David Crosby made of the song, given how similar it is to his own work). However it’s probably fair to say that at barely two minutes this song is far from the epic that might have been and seems woefully light, with just two verses and (unusually) no chorus (the first verse is repeated at the end). Had McGuinn contributed another couple of verses this song might have been better still, but then again this song does have an unusual genesis. McGuinn’s love-hate (or at least fire and ice) relationship with Bob Dylan is well documented (thrilled with the Byrds’ take on ‘Mr Tambourine Man’, he loathed follow up ‘All I Really Wanna Do’ and actually started promoting the rival Sonny and Cher cover over the Byrds’ own) and it comes to a head on this song. Dylan was contacted by the film makers to provide a title song and even went out to dinner with them but, being Dylan, made things as hard as possible (he was never quite sure if he agreed with the film’s message or not – especially the hippies being blown up at the end of the film), scribbling the song’s opening two lines on a napkin and asking the film makers to hand it to McGuinn to finish. He also asked for his name to be removed from the film credits – which it wasn’t, a fact that for some odd reason McGuinn got the blame for – the pair didn’t speak for quite some time afterwards even though The Byrds were largely innocent in this (Dylan’s name was removed from the record packaging, for instance). In the end it seems like an awful lot of fuss for what is such a short and simple song, even if it is head and shoulders above a good half of the album.
‘Fido’ is John York’s only original song recorded by the band and is unloved by many fans (as well as most of the band). For these ears, though, its a lot of fun, putting twist on the latest runs of Byrds odes to dogs in their country period (‘Old Blue’ et al) and giving the song the rockiest feel of any Byrds song for a couple of albums. Rather than a remorseful song about the death of an old friend this narrator is being kept awake all night by wild howling outside his door and, in effect, wishes the dog was dead (or at least that he wasn’t ‘wide awake, staying up late’). York’s vocal is strong and impressive, given the mood of the recording (McGuinn doesn’t appear) and the song really suits the rest of the band: Gene Parsons’ only drum solo (on a part written into the song especially by York who wasnted to show off what the drummer could do) is one of his two greatest moments as a Byrd (the other comes later on this same album), while Clarence White at least appears to be enjoying the chance to play rock over country. If the idea of a dog sounds corny, well, the idea behind the song at least is a good one: York wrote the song when lonely and isolated in a hotel room on a Byrds tour, unwilling to spend any more time with the others: the fact that a dog could be heard next door howling his head off let him feel he wasn’t so alone. Sure there are some clunky moments (the rhyme of ‘chick’ and ‘feeling mighty sick’ could only happen in the 1960s), but ignore the lyrics if you want; the tune to this song is a good one, with some distinctive ear-catching hooks and played with far more energy than any Byrds song since ‘Notorious Byrd Brothers’. Ironically the Byrds are beginning to sound like a bona fide band again, just at the time when they appear to be splitting apart more than ever.
‘Oil In My Lamp’ is Clarence White’s vocal choice on the album and is the old traditional folk song given a new folk-rock Byrds twist. It’s certainly a lot more successful than the Byrds’ first attempt at the song (heard on either of the two box sets and as a bonus track on the album re-issue of ‘Easy Rider’) which equates ‘modern’ with noise and fire. This slower version is more subtle, held together by Clarence’s own fine fiery playing drenched in feedback and some lovely band harmonies from York and Parsons. White’s vocal itself, while hardly a strong voice in the way of the others, is more palatable here than elsewhere and his lived-in nasally quality suits this world-weary song a lot more than, say, ‘Take A Whiff On Me’ from the next album. Again, though, McGuinn is notable by his absence: should a band on only their second album together as a line-up really be spending so much time without the one link to their past sound? Considering its age and the fact that, really, ‘Oil’ is a Christian hymn quite unsuited to 1969, the song comes off quite well, sounding suitably spiritual without sounding completely at odds with other recordings of the period.
‘Tulsa County Blue’ features the return of McGuinn, but quite frankly I wish it hadn’t. The ‘bonus track’ version of the song with York in vocal is superior to this cut in every way: timing, sensitivity and tunefulness and you sense the only reason McGuinn replaced the vocal was because of the lack of belief in York rather than any belief he personally had in the song. Written by Pamela Polland, it sounds like another really old song but actually only dates back a year (its on her first album ‘Gentle Soul’) and fits the Byrds’ ‘old’ (ie Gram Parsons era) country sound much more successfully than the hackneyed attempts on the ‘Dr Byrds’ album. (In fact its not unlike the many Mike Nesmith country-rock songs he was writing and singing in this era, with its themes of waving goodbye to an old life and being lost in the present and would have fitted the wool-hatted one well). Byron Berline, later an associate member of Stephen Stills’ Manassas group, plays some fine violin and the group sound surprisingly at home throughout – especially Clarence who plays one of the definitive ‘country’ guitar solos in stark contrast to his feedback drenched solo on the last song. All that’s missing is a strong vocal from McGuinn to measure up to what the others are doing. Substitute the John York version in the running order and it sounds pretty good for a cover, though.
‘Jack Tarr The Sailor’ extends McGuinn’s love of the sea shanty, although unlike its nearest rival (‘Space Odyssey’ from ‘Notorious’) there’s no real attempt to modernsise the sound or put the sea shanty into a more modern context of space and exploration. At least the tune is slightly better this time around, although this traditional song is, like many traditional songs, uncomfortably repetitive and dirge-like for modern listening. Roger also does perhaps too good a job of getting ‘into character’ as the sailor and his vocal is impenetrable in places, with only some lovely band harmonies to add a bit of spice and colour. To be honest, though, the song isn’t that much more interesting when you do know what the lyrics are: a sailor is fooled into spending all his money, is forced back out to sea without any money for decent equipment and so makes no money whaling. On its own terms its not so bad, but if you compare it to, say, what Jack The Lad did with the similar ‘Wheary Whaling Grounds’ (a song that sounded at once contemporary and every bit in keeping with the 17th century origin) this is a disappointment, with only a mournful held organ note adding a distinctive touch. At least its fun to hear the very American McGuinn to sing the word ‘Liverpool’ (you just hope the rest of the song isn’t his idea of a souse accent!)
Side two begins with another peculiar cover, ‘Jesus Is Just Alright’, written by Arthur Reynolds and it’s another song that could have come from any era in the past 200 years but was actually first recorded as recently as 1966 (by the Art Reynolds Singers). If you think the title is an odd choice for a hip band in 1969, that’s nothing on the rest of the song which – like a noisy younger sibling to previous Byrds song ‘The Christian Life’ – is very un-Christian (at least on paper) in the way it refuses to listen to any other opinion and doesn’t care what anybody else thinks. More of a chant than a song, its another track on this album that takes repetition to new heights, although at least The Byrds sound interested in the song this time around, turning in a fairly strong band performance, complete with some delightful churning bass from York and some ‘answering’ vocals from Parsons. Presumably the song points a way forward to McGuinn’s ‘new born Christian’ conversion in the mid 70s, although he was still very much a part of the ‘subud’ faith at the time (its notable how often McGuinn chooses religious songs to cover with the Byrds – and also how little of that thinking makes its way to his own songs of the period).Then again some sources have it as Parsons’ choice (despite McGuinn’s lead), a song he nudged the band into recording after playing on the original session (certainly the Byrds’ version is much better known than the original, which is a pretty obscure choice even by Byrds standards). ‘Jesus Is Just Alright’ must be at least a candidate for the strangest song to ever come out of 1969 and yet it was still catchy enough to become a small hit when released as a single, although it sounded a lot better live than it ever did on record (the band generally played it with a much slower opening and sometimes with an a capella chant opening the song before the electric instruments kick in on a charge).
‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’ is a cursed song. The band first tried to cut it for their third single in 1965 (before adapting the superior ‘Turn! Turn! Turn!’), dismissing it as ‘too fast’ (this version, released on the Byrds box sets and the re-issue of the second album, is charming but slight and far too fast). They did it again when pushed for time and material the following year before deciding it was a little ‘out of time’ (this second version still hasn’t been released). McGuinn must have really liked the song to have revived it a third time, although even he confesses to being disappointed with his performance on this record and wishes it still hadn’t seen the light of day. While it’s true to say that slowing down the tempo to a crawl does make the song a bit of a drag by the end, for the most part this arrangement of the song is sound (unlike the others its a good match down the middle of the Dylan-Beatles road the Byrds started off pioneering). McGuinn’s performance, while not his best ever by any means, is still his best on the record; the slow regret of the opening verse, accompanied by a single acoustic, making for a really ear-catching opening. The band’s harmonies are also wonderful here, the only time they ever come close to aping Crosby, Stills and Nash, with the three voices (Clarence stays quiet) actually moving together like a single ‘fourth’ voice, the way good harmonies are meant to be sung. While, frankly, 4:53 of it seems like a waste, given how short many of the other undeveloped tracks on the album are, I actually rate this version of ‘Baby Blue’ as one of the Byrds’ best Dylan covers, adding to the emotion of Bob’s lyrics without spoiling the mystery.
‘There Must Be Someone’ is better still, a moody ballad again chosen by Gene Parsons, who was a close friend of writer Vern Godsin. The melancholy of the song is true: returning home after a back-breaking soul destroying tour, Godsin returned home to find his wife and family gone, a note on the table and almost all his possessions gone except for his guitar. With nothing else to do, he sat down with his acoustic and wrote this sad and aching song, asking for deliverance from someone, anyone, whether deity, friend, lover or stranger. He then walked to Clarence White’s house (another old friend and close neighbour) and played him the song, waking him up in the process! McGuinn reportedly hated the song (he’s missing again from this version) but its actually a fine ballad, invested with real feeling by Parsons in his most world weary voice. Slow, despondent and un-repenting, its great to hear The Byrds singing it straight (it could so easily have become a ‘joke’ song OTT) and playing what sounds like a ‘live’ take of the song, without the album’s usual polish and pizzazz. In the end the only ‘mistake’ about this song was that it was placed on the album directly after ‘Baby Blue’, thus putting the two slowest recordings in the Byrds’ entire canon side by side.
‘Gunga Din’ is better still, the album’s highlight in fact and only the third band original on the album. Parsons’ semi-autobiographical, rather obtuse and confusing lyric makes sense when you figure this song is simply a ‘see life from someone’s point of view’ song and that, as in the poem ‘Gunga Din’ your perception is changed when you learn the details (chased out of town as ‘long haired weirdoes’ out to subvert civilisation as we know it, the rock and roll band on board are sophisticated letter writers, keen on art). The opening verse finds the band on board a ‘DCA’ jet (yet another reference to aircraft on a Byrds album), facing ‘the wrong way’ in a metaphor for how badly the band are feeling and playing. The end of the first verse admits that the audience were ‘had’ when ‘Mr Rock’ n’ Roll couldn’t stay’ (reportedly bill headliner Chuck Berry) and the audience were ‘mad’ chasing the band back home. The chorus (‘Got a leather jacket on, know that its a sin’) relates to an incident where York – still eager at joining a band he adored – wanted to treat his mother and take her to a fancy restaurant, who refused to serve him because – shock horror – he was wearing a leather jacket (he probably wasn’t a wearing tie either, *faint*). Figuring that the proprietors of the place had jumped to the wrong conclusion, parsons fitted it into his song about being careful to judge by appearances and, by accident rather than design, came up with only the second song on the album that ‘relates’ to the theme of ‘Easy Rider’ (where the audience is meant to ‘care’ more for the hippies after getting to know them; given how irritating their antics are by the end of the film I’m not sure this scene works as well as it should). The end result is, like Kipling’s Gunga Din, a brave statement for its time, turning the ‘hero’ of the plot into a villain and the ‘villain’ into a hero by the end. Together with a delightful flowing acoustic guitar riff, some glorious harmonies and an excellent lead by Gene, it’s no wonder that ‘Gunga Din’ is one of the highest rated songs of the Byrds’ later period (it deservedly made the Mojo ‘Guide to the music of...’ Byrds best-of about ten years ago). Clearly the highlight of the album.
‘Deportee’ is another case of right song, wrong band, wrong album. Woody Guthrie’s original is a folk classic, bravely denouncing reports of a plane wreck that casually mentioned that the death toll didn’t matter because those on board were only ‘refugees’ being shipped out the country. Ashamed at the casual racism, Guthrie comes up with a casually sarcastic song of his own, albeit turning the dead of the song into ‘real’ people, bidding farewell to their home land not knowing what’s in store. There’s a hint that modern civilisation let these people down, the first example of Western might they see (an aeroplane) causing their death. A great song, then, but goodness knows what the Byrds have done to it; this cover version plods along awfully and no one sounds at all bothered. To be fair the original works well because Guthrie sounds so detached from the people’s fate, but you can still tell the hidden burning anger at the heart of the song – the Byrds don’t seem to have quite realised what this song is about. McGuinn’s lead is particularly poor and really truly should have been re-recorded; it wanders around all over the place and sounds like the talking clock talking in a Nashville accent. The song deserved better.
The album then closes with the Byrds traditional ‘what the hell is going on?’ slot. After such oddities as a souped up ‘We’ll Meet Again’, a falling-apart 10 minute blues medley and a sea shanty in space (not to mention McGuinn’s hoover doubling as a jet aircraft) comes a short 90 second long ode to the first men to walk on the moon. A very recent song by a country musician with the wonderfully space-age name of Zeke Manners, it features a rocket taking off (a superior one to McGuinn’s vacuum cleaner this time around) and McGuinn singing tinnily in the left hand channel. A verse rather than a song, it seeks to equate the space explorer’s achievement in the context of human understanding, ‘proud of the human race’ but still only achievable with ‘God’s helping hand’. Now that Neil Armstrong is sadly no more, perhaps someone could re-record this lovely song and do it properly – for all its good intentions this version is too deliberately quirky and space age to work. Worryingly my copy of the album lists Aldrin’s name as ‘Alorin’ – honestly what do they teach these people at school nowadays?!
A weird end to a too often weird album. ‘The Ballad Of Easy Rider’ is not an album you reach for when you want to impress people how good the Byrds are; nor is it – with the exception of ‘Gunga Din’ – an album that ever approaches their best work. However to dismiss this album out of hand would be unfair. Many of the cover song choices on this album are brave indeed and while the arrangements and performances don’t always work there’s enough good intentions and flashes of genius to help you get through the lesser moments. As we said earlier, this album is a stepping stone to bigger and brighter things and even if on its terms its not a good album it is at least an often promising one. Worth buying for ‘Gunga Din’ alone, its the sound of a band trying to work out once more what they stand for and what direction they should head in next and there’s no shame in that if the band do eventually find their direction (which they do with the wonderful ‘Untitled’ the following year). The only way you will truly be disappointed is if a) you’re a Woody Guthro fan b) you bought this album off the back of the film or c) you expect this shaky, inexperienced version of The Byrds to be as great and pioneering as they were in 1965. Overall rating: ♫♫♫♫♫ (5/10).
Other Byrds album reviews you might be interested in reading:
'Mr Tambourine Man' http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2012/02/news-views-and-music-issue-134-byrds-mr.html
'(5D) Fifth Dimension' http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2009/11/news-views-and-music-issue-49-byrds-5d.html
'Younger Than Yesterday' http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2011/08/news-views-and-music-issue-108-byrds.html
'The Nototious Byrd Brothers' http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2008/07/review-20-byrds-notorious-byrd-brothers.html
'Dr Byrds and Mr Hyde' http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2010/07/news-viedws-and-music-issue-68-byrds-dr.html