Monday, 28 October 2013
The Byrds "Byrdmaniax" (1971) (Album Review)
"I love you in the morning, when the sun comes shining through, and I love you in the daylight, when the sheets turn pale blue" "Well I want to be your lover, and to have you all alone, but I haven't got another, and I haven't got a home" "In times of despair I think about the good things that you've done, and though you're not there I ask myself 'is anyone?', it's hard being human when the world is so uptight, but somehow I know that everything is going to work out alright!" "I want to thank you for the gentle loving that you give, it brightens my feelings and gives me the strength I need to live" "Up in Xanadu diamonds fell like rain, Citizen Kane was king - poor citizen Kane!" "Fatty Arbuckle waddled by on his way to the bath house green, Frankenstein ate the leading lady and licked the carcass clean" "I wanna grow up to be a politician and take over this beautiful land" "I'll always be tough but I'll never be scary, I want to shoot guns or butter my bread, I'll work in the towns or conservate the prairies, and you can believe the future's ahead" "If I win election day I might give you a job, and I'll sign a bill to help the poor to show I'm not a snob" "Dressed in country cloth and sitting on the floor, warmed by antique sun amidst the green timber, held together by uncertainty, climb the Babel tower, look up instead of down - we need room to gamble" "Absolute happiness unties the ropes that bind, greatness and unity shines within the mind" "God in heaven surely meant, for every man somewhere a mate, someone stole my love from me, is this my destiny?" £Each spring my life starting anew, and I will be waiting for you" "Jamaica say you will help me find a way to fill these sails, and we will sail until our waters have run dry"
The Byrds "Byrdmaniax" (1971)
Glory Glory/Pale Blue/I Trust/Tunnel Of Love/Citizen Kane/I Wanna Grow Up To Be A Politician//Absolute Happiness/Green Apple Quick Step/My Destiny/Kathleen's Song/Jamaica Say You Will
If you were a Byrds fanatic in 1970 you probably couldn't believe your luck. After several long hard years of struggling and line-ups more unstable than the Coalition The Byrds had a top ten single in the charts ('Chestnut Mare'), an album that was selling well and critically acclaimed ('Untitled') and if you were a British Byrds fan then you might have just been lucky enough to have seen the band play one of the best and most worshipped sets of their whole career (the gig the band played at the Albert Hall). Better yet, the band are already back in the studio re-recording another a follow-up, even though 'Untitled' is still so new it's still soaring up the charts - and they're back with Terry Melcher, their producer from the old 'Mr Tambourine Man' and 'Turn! Turn! Turn!' days as well as 'Untitled'. Surely, you think as the Byrds head into a press conference straight after the gig, The Byrds are going to be as big as they ever were and the past five years of fallen record sales, line-up changes virtually every record and the zig-zagging through more genres and styles than an I-pod on shuffle have just been a bad dream.
But this is the Byrds and that run of good luck and great form is already at an end, the very same week 'Untitled' becomes the band's biggest selling record since 1966. 'We hear you're working on a new record, how's it going?' somebody asks (or words to that effect). The band shuffle uncomfortably, talk about the fact that they were so outraged by what producer Terry Melcher did that they're thinking of sacking him and admit that even they don't like the album they're working on much themselves. How on earth could a band as tight a unit as the one that played on 'Untitled' come up with such a lacklustre, lukewarm album mere weeks after the superb 'Untitled'? How could they spend twice the length and about five times the money on the 'Byrdmaniax' single album they did on the double that was 'Untitled'?! (when record label Columbia asked for a working title for the record so they could plan the cover art the band joked it would be called 'Expensive', as they'd already spent more time on it than any other record they'd made). And how the heck did the band come up with an album where even the best songs couldn't match up to the weakest tracks on it's predecessor?
You see, Byrdmaniax is ones of those albums that even committed fans can't bring themselves to love. From the eerie 'death mask' sleeve (more on that story later, as they say) to the off-key vocals to the ridiculously OTT orchestration, there's something about this album that not even a mother - or a Byrdmaniax - can love. This penultimate album of the Byrds career is generally agreed to be the worst collection of Byrds songs, features some of the band's worst performances and it speaks volumes that only the track 'Citizen Kane' ever made it to a mainstream collection of Byrds greatest hits (and even then it sounded quite different to anything else, like a cuckoo nestled amongst the other Byrds). I generally come to the aid of poor unloved albums, using this website as an RSPCA (or in this case an RSPB) for the protection of records that might otherwise become extinct - and I have to say that 'Byrdmaniax' isn't even close to being as bad as the ear-numbingly awful eponymous reunion album The Byrds released in 1973 - but even I can't muster up much enthusiasm for this record except to note that there are further two (sadly the weakest) songs from the best project Roger McGuinn was ever involved in (an abandoned updated musical version of 'Peer Gynt' re-named 'Gene Tryp') and that 'Pale Blue' sports one of McGuinn's better tunes. If this was a Spice Girls record then finding two nice things to say about it wowould be such a novelty it would make my head explode - but this is The Byrds, for crying out loud, and only weeks before the 'Byrdmaniax' sessions started they were delivering one of the greatest LPs of my collection!
History generally ropes producer Terry Melcher into the hangman's noose at this point. The son of Doris Day, it was Melcher's lucky day when he first came into contact with The Byrds and the session tapes of most of the first two Byrds albums that have 'leaked' onto Youtube show him as a very assertive aggressive style of producer, actively cutting off takes in the middle because of small errors when a George Martin or a Ron Richards would have just left the tapes roll, not really endearing him to the rest of the group in the process. The Byrds have long claimed that they left the tapes for 'Byrdmaniax' in a perfectly acceptable condition when they went out on tour, but that Melcher had overdubbed all sorts of unsuitable choirs, strings and horns that made the rough-and-ready sound they'd perfected on 'Untitled' sound lost underneath all that lushness and sounding unreal under all that artificial excess. 'Byrdmaniax' does, after all, sound like a score to a film no one particularly wanted to see, Hollywood's idea of what a rock and roll band should sound like wrapped in so much tinsel the band are barely recognisable. But that doesn't explain both why 'Untitled' happened to get everything so spot on (as it too was a Melcher production), nor why the Byrds obviously had so much trust in their producer that they effectively gave him carte blanche to do what he wanted while they were away (opinions differ as to how much Melcher went 'round the back' of the four Byrds - and whether McGuinn knew about it - but surely all of them at least knew that some overdubbing sessions were taking place and turned a blind eye until they actually heard the results). I'd have loved to have been in the control room the day the Byrds heard back the tapes, probably expecting something similar to Melcher's sensitive handling of strings on 'The Ballad Of Easy Rider' and instead got Mantovani in one of his expansive (and expensive) moods.
In his defence, Melcher claims that he had to something with the material on this album (although quite why he chose to do that is anybody's guess) because the playing was so severely under-par - and he has a point as far as that goes (a lot of these songs are all too clearly overdubbed by the song writer/finder and 'overdubbed' without much input from the others, in contrast to most of 'Untitled'). But surely The Byrds should never have sounded better - they'd played 200 shows together across 1970 and 1971 and according to McGuinn knew each other's playing so well they didn't even have to rehearse except to add the occasional new song into the set, even if they were arguably rather tired and sick of the sight of each other (did no one in the band suggest taking a holiday first before starting this album?) Most AAA bands are at their best when they come off the road, especially straight after a best-selling album; 'Who's Next' may have had a troubled birth but you can tell that The Who know each other inside and out after the string of gigs that culminated in the famous 'Live at Leeds' gig and it's no co-incidence that Pink Floyd just happened to pick the best-selling 'Dark Side Of The Moon' as the album they'd play every night for months on stage before going straight into Abbey Road to record it. But by contrast The Byrds seem to have done their best to avoid each other for the full six months of off-and-on sessions (no mean feat!), had almost no discussion about what should be on the album and left the pieces of the jigsaw up to the producer to fit together, without even letting him in on what they wanted for the picture on the box. It was no surprise to learn in Johnny Rogan's excellent (and much re-issued) tome (the word 'book' hardly does this work justice) 'Timeless Flight' that the band were distracted during the making of this album by bust-ups between the band and between all four band members and their wives. Some groups can handle keeping work and home life separate (for artists like Brian Wilson and Ray Davies, the studio is the only place where life makes sense), but for the Byrds the studio was a useful distraction from a troubled home life and nobody wanted to go home (or get sober). No wonder these sessions dragged on for months and months - nobody wanted them to finish.
However, that doesn't excuse the fact that the songs themselves are, by Byrds standards, a pretty miserable bunch. Actually individually some of these songs aren't bad at all (McGuinn rarely got as many as four songs on an album and three of them are amongst his best post-Notorious Byrd Brothers work, while Skip Battin's 'Absolute Happiness' is a better song than all his detractors generally make out - although even I struggle to make it to the end of 'Tunnel Of Love'). The problem is that none of them belong together and 'Byrdmaniax' is one of those albums where because there's no real 'stand out' classic and so much material you could kindly describe as 'filler' (or unkindly describe as absolute tosh) the whole ends up sounding much less than the sum of it's parts. The traditional Christian hymns that were once such a part of Byrds mythology now sound at odds with the 1950s retro rock of Skip Battin and writing partner Kim Fowley, the out-and-out country of Clarence White's Nashville-style instrumental and sickly, treacly orchestral ballads. The slight gosh-where-is-this-going? excitement of 'Untitled' (which got away with its eclecticism by having the band play everything more or less together) is now a schizophrenia even worse than the one The Byrds suffered on 'Dr Byrds and Mr Hyde' - and frustratingly the band seem to have given up collaborating with each other, knocking off each other's rough edges and extreme tastes (how can the delightful oddball and novelty song writer Skip possibly have spent so long in the same band as straight-as-an-arrow country gent Clarence?)
The trouble is that the four writers in the band are increasingly going in separate directions from each other. While McGuinn has retrospectively stated that he wished he'd kept more control of the band and more of the writing credits for himself, the songs the others were writing were at least as important a part of each Byrds LP as what the 'founding' Byrd came up with himself. Where would 'Dr Byrds and Mr Hyde' be without Clarence White's stinging guitar and country twinges? Would 'Easy Rider' amount to anything like as much without Gene Parson's one song and two vocals? Could 'Untitled' possess as much 'heart' and 'weight' without Skip Battin's Vietnam hymn 'Welcome Back Home' to round it all off? The Byrds as songwriters simply don't belong together anymore - and it's becoming increasingly clear from the things that have been written about this album and this period in Byrds history that the band didn't seem to think they 'belonged' together either (Skip and Gene will be fired in less than a year, Roger claiming to this day that he didn't like the playing of either of them - despite the fact that this quartet is the single most stable line-up in the band's eight year history, lasting a whole three albums together!) Even the original album's inner sleeve seems to pick up on this confusion, 'separating' the four band members into 'columns' each with their own list of 'instruments' and photographs that are strangely cropped, as if the illustrator was under strict instructions not to let the band's photos mingle with each other under pain of death.
Talking of death, 'Byrdmaniax' has also had the mickey taken out of it many times down the years for the 'death masks' on the cover (those really are masks of the band's faces on the cover; clockwise from left Gene Parsons, Roger McGuinn - with beard unusually -,Clarence White and Skip Battin) which do seem to imply that the band, err, didn't have much life to it in 1971. But I've always considered the 'death mask' cover idea to be a great one - just look at the detail captured in all four faces, from Skip's gritted teeth to the tear that seems to be coming out of Clarence's right eye but which was probably as 'mistake' in the casting process - that deserved to get more credit at the time than it did. What other band were brave enough to put their features on display like this? This is also such a simple yet striking cover that it deserved the same iconic status as, say, the Beatles in polo necks for 'With The Beatles' or on that level crossing at 'Abbey Road'. Anyone who has ever owned one of those toys where you put your face through metal bars to create a shape (or one of those 'fuzzy felt' faces where you can add beards and hair through iron filings moved with a magnet) can have great fun re-creating their own 'Byrdmaniax's 'Byrdmaniax' cover. The problem is that, a bit like the record, bad money seems to have spent after good. Far from revealing that the band's faces are 'masks', enticing the listener to look inside for the 'real' Byrds, the cover designer has 'dropped' the four faces into a murky husky blue background that makes the band look as if they're rising up from the water. The back cover even has their faces seemingly 'pressed' through the same murky 'pale blue' surface as if the bands has just been cryogenically frozen. Also, while I can't day I recall any 'death mask' taken of anyone smiling, did the band have to look quite so solemn and severe when the casts were being taken? Also, the cover is quite eerie when you think that two of the Byrds featured with 'death masks' on the cover are no longer with us (and that Clarence died barely two years after his cast was made for this cover). For all that, though, I like this sleeve which is more striking than any Byrds album since 'Notorious Byrd Brothers' (there's certainly more imagination being used here than on the film still used for 'Easy Rider' or the old circus poster re-printed for 'Sweethearts of the Rodeo' - and even as a huge fan I have to admit the 'past and future' concept behind the cover for 'Untitled' doesn't exactly come off).
Still, back to the music. Is 'Byrdmaniax' really as bad as fans always make out? Well, sadly this album does seem to get out of it's way to magnify this latter-day Byrds' worst features. McGuinn sounds as if he's 'playing' at being in a rock and roll band he knows has had it's time and barely plays any guitar on the whole album, Clarence White has two nasally-sung cover songs (both of which were re-recorded to a higher standard, apparently, but Melcher decided to use 'outtakes' either by purpose or accident; sadly none of them have come out as outtakes yet) which show off perhaps the most unusual, un-commercial vocal sound of any AAA band member (no mean feat considering that list includes Neil Young, Roger Waters, Dave Davies, Dennis Wilson, John Enwtistle and Keith Moon); Gene Parsons - so often the star of late-period Byrds albums - is all but silent, with no vocals to his credit and only one co-write on an instrumental, whole his drumming is even more wobbly than normal and finally Skip Battin has never tried so hard to return to his first love of novelty doo-wop records from the 1950s, which are sweet in their way but more anachronistic here than ever. There's no real heart, no real soul and the only songs that the listener might 'connect' with are either written by other people (and played and sung sloppily by The Byrds) or McGuinn's songs 'Pale Blue' 'I Trust' and 'Kathleen's Songs', although even these are slim pickings for those expecting another 'Lover Of The Bayou' or 'Chestnut Mare'. You could add in the fact that this album is also staggeringly, stingingly short (33 minutes) given the era (1971, the year of double albums and excess) and the amount of time and investment that went into it (although some may count the shortness of this album as a blessing). Sadly the CD re-issue for 'Byrdmaniax' in the otherwise excellent Byrds re-issue series is also rather stingy, adding just a couple of ok outtakes and an odd unreleased Gene Clark track (that shouldn't belong here - yes Gene did re-join the band, many times, but in 1968, 1972 and 1973, not 1971!) instead of, say, a remix of the whole album without strings (as The Byrds intended) or the couple of Clarence White outtakes that the few people who've heard them still salivate over.
And yet...for all that, I can't bring myself to completely hate this album the way so many Byrds reviewers and fans do (have a read of some of the reviews on Amazon if you get the chance - they're much crueller about this album than I would ever be, even if a small portion actually out and out love this record). This is a flawed album that knows it's flawed, but is on such a crash-course and so badly needs a driver that the outcome is sadly inevitable. Little bits catch your ear and surprise you, like the opening surge on 'I Trust' that sounds like a genuinely great pop song (until the wordy chorus comes in and you realise the song has nowhere else to go), the delicate fragilility of both 'Pale Blue' and 'Kathleen's Song' (before the orchestra comes in and all hope of subtlety go out the window), the clever national anthem-style plodding beat to McGuinn's satire 'I Wanna Grow Up To Be A Politician' (before the song's lack of bite and satire really gets to you - imagine this song in the hands, of say, David Crosby or Gene Clark?), the lyrics to 'Absolute Happiness', one of the better Skip Battin parables on buddhism (shame about the music though...) the pounding finale to 'Green Apple Quickstep' (before you curse the fact this instrumental has finally worked out what to do a minute-and-a-half too late) and Clarence's heartfelt renditions of both 'My Destiny' and 'Jamaica Say You Will' (if the rest of 'Bydrmaniax' is flawed because it has no heart, that's certainly not true of Clarence's contributions - sadly, though, neither outpouring is particularly in tune). 'Byrdmaniax' has many small moments of magic, and two slightly longer ones in McGuinn's pair of ballads and no Byrds record could ever be quite the 'excrement of pus' one colurful reviewer described this record as. But it could have been better (hell, it's by The Byrds!) it should have been better (can a band really fall apart this soon after 'Untitled'?) and it's still a mystery why none of the better parts ever add up to one really great moment. It would take a real Byrdmaniax to enjoy this album - and yet even this record can be a joy to listen to once you've lowered your expectations sufficiently and surprise yourself with hoe many songs 'nearly' get to where they should be going. Certainly if this was the worst The Byrds had to offer I'd be very pleased - sadly there's still the 'Reunion' album to come in two record's time and that record doesn't even have these few moments of charm and promise, Gene Clark's contribution aside...
Hopes are high after the barnstorming opening to 'Glory, Glory', 'Byrdmaniax's token Christian song after several tracks from 'Sweetheart Of The Rodeo' and the mini success of 'Jesus Is Just Alright' in 1969. Larry Knechtel's opening flurry of piano chords (not dissimilar to his gospelly work on Simon and Garfunkel's 'Bridge Over Troubled Water', but played at about ten times the speed) is very ear-catching and the sudden rising crescendo of McGuinn and Wgite's twin guitars married together with Gene Parson's whomping drums may well be the single greatest ten seconds on the album. Sadly, though, the song itself is one of those repetitive gospel songs that don't really work in a rock and roll setting that pretty much dictates that each verse has to offer something new. Surprisingly, this traditional sounding song only dates back to 1969 (although it does have it's roots in 'When The Saints Go Marching In'), having been written first performed by the Art Reynolds Singers who also first sang 'Jesus Is Just Alright' (no I haven't heard of them either, but Clarence was a big fan). McGuinn has the same trouble he had on the 'Rodeo' album, made more or less against his will: great as he is at pop, rock and folk he's just not a natural country singer; this song should be all about faith and devotion and instead he sounds as if he's reading the words for the first time and reading the newspaper simultaneously. The rest of the band fare better - Gene Parsons always sounds more at home on these 'joi de vivre' songs where his often unstable drumming sounds more natural and Clarence's fairly rocky guitar solo makes a virtue out of not actually playing many notes - but even they sound like they've been pushed for a few too many takes to get this song right and they'd rather be anywhere than a cold, dark studio trying to artificially create a song about how wonderful life is. 'Jesus' worked - sort of - because The Byrds treated an out and out gospel song as a more or less straightforward rock song that just happened to have Christian lyrics, but 'Glory Glory' is a little too far down the gospel road and while Gram Parsons would have sounded mighty fine singing this song, poor Roger is lost in a world he really doesn't belong in. Melcher's additions work better on this track than most of 'Byrdmaniax' (at least having a gospel choir on a gospel song makes sense), but I reckon most fans would still rather have this song 'unadorned'. Still, I've heard worse cover songs from The Byrds - and at least this song doesn't feature, say, Roger McGuinn's hoover doubling as a lear jet or a sea shanty from space or something.
'Pale Blue' is the one mini-masterpiece on the album, a fragile beauty and devotion of love that's mighty unusual for Roger's writing (this is arguably his only love song 'out of character' as it were - ie not written for 'Gene Tryp' to sing). Lyrically this song is clearly inspired by 'Nights In White Satin' only with the love affair is happening in present time not the past - and the white sheets turn 'pale blue' when the sunlight hits them rather than staying white. he melody for this song is one of McGuinn's loveliest, Paul McCartney-esque in it's roundedness and completeness. The lyrics aren't quite as convincing but even they sound heartfelt and believable and at three short verses they don'ty overstay their welcome. The band at their best on the backing track too, with Gene Parsons abandoning his drumkit for a classy harmonica break that really makes the song. Some fans have issue with Melcher's orchestral backing too (mainly along the lines of 'what is an orchestra doing playing along with a folky harmonica?') but I don't have any problems with it (I really admire the way this song goes from subtle fragile folkyness to sudden epic when the 'sun' comes out during the song and the narrator's declaration of love, turning it from a small one into a big one very cleverly). Indeed, Melcher gets this song spot on, draping the orchestra round the track without covering them up like the bed sheets in the song - and while it's hard to hear dubbed so low in the mix I'm willing to bet the accompaniment would be every bit as lovely as the song if heard on it's own. The one thing that lets this track down is McGuinn's uncomfortable, nasal whine of a lead vocal which makes the song hard to understand and to listen to - could it be that he wrote this song while deep in the thralls of love with his wife Linda - but that the two were already splitting at the time he came to sing the song so he couldn't get himself in the 'mood'? (legend has it McGuinn spent most of these sessions hiding from his wife and refusing to speak to her when she visited or phoned up). Even so, 'Pale Blue' is easily the album highlight and one of the last truly classic Byrds songs, an under-rated love song that's amongst McGuinn's very best.
'I Trust' is another better-than-average McGuinn song that features him singing properly this time - indeed it's one of the best vocals of his career, full of short-term sadness and long-term happiness. The song is ever so nearly there too, cleverly written to go with what was becoming a McGuinn catchphrase whenever the music press would ask him if a latest setback really spelled the end for the Byrds. The opening verse with it's pedal-steel White guitar and trippy drumming is highly ear-catching and the sudden surge of gospel harmonies and dramatic switch to and from a minor key on the line 'It's hard being human when everyone is so uptight'....suggest we're in for a cleverly constructed masterpiece. But somehow there's something missing from this song. McGuinn sticks in a middle eight to distract us, which is always a welcome thing for a songwriter to do, but this song has nowhere else to go - we've already learnt everything we need to about this song in the opening 30 seconds and everything after this is simply delaying the point when the song can safely fade. As many fans and critics have pointed down the years too, there's simply far too many words in the song's chorus that leaves the message of the song sounding garbled ('Some how I know.... Thateverythingisagonnaturnoutalright!' - perhaps 'Somehow I know it will be alright' might have been better?!) The song is also slightly uninvolving and I can't put my finger on why - McGuinn drives the song well, Clarence is as great ever on the guitar and Skip and Gene are fine as a rhythm section too. But the mix has put wide gulfs between all the players so that they sound as if they're jumping around the song trying to get your attention rather than playing as a bona fide band and Melcher's addition of a choir makes the whole thing sound top heavy. I'd love to hear a remix of this song (or maybe even a re-recording as this song would sound great as an acoustic piece) and as a composition it's one of the better ones on the album, but as the album's big hope of a hit single it's sadly another failure. If I didn't know better about the time and money spent on this album I would have said it was rushed. Few fans even remember 'I Trust' today, which seems sad return for a song that had so much hope and effort invested in it.
'Tunnel Of Love' is easily Skip Battin's worst song on a Byrds album. If you're the kind of fan who thinks the better known 'Citizen Kane' or 'America's Great National Past-time' are the nadir of the band's back catalogue then you know what you're in for: no real melody, lyrics only a dictionary could love, a relentless unchanging rhythm and overall such an aura of 'bubblegum' that the song probably has the word 'novelty' written through the middle. Unlike most Byrds fans, it seems, I love Skip's off-beat humour (you only have to have a look for our Alan's Album Archives videos on Youtube...) and love him even more when he's doing a 'serious' song like 'Yesterday's Train' or 'Welcome Back Home'. But there's no reason for a song like 'Tunnel Of Love' to exist: it's a very dated (even - or perhaps especially - for 1971) doo-wop song that takes a painfully long extended metaphor about a marriage being as run down as the 'tunnel of love' where the couple first dated. Like many a Battin/Fowley song, it reads more like an essay than a song - and even by their standards these lyrics are strange (what do you make of a track with lines like 'The water was floating with graves where cotton candy should be'?) with none of the lines actually rhyming with each other at all. The music too seems deliberately made to be as hard to listen to as possible. Skip re-creates 'Blueberry Hill' on both chugging piano chords and a walking bass but the song doesn't move on from this or explode into a chorus as Fats Domino once did: this is all we've got, for the whole of the song's torturous 4:58 length (it seems an extra slap in the face that the longest song on this short album is the one least suited to being long) without even a single chorus line or middle eight or even a guitar solo to brighten the song up. Chances are only Skip and Gene play on this song, which McGuinn like much of Battin's work he apparently refused to play on - at least if you don't count the sea of choirs and overdubs added onto this song that simply a drab and heavy song sound drabber and heavier. I usually defend Skip for at least having the courage to do something different - but 'Tunnel Of Love' isn't different; it's the same old thing done with even less imagination than usual. One of the worst Byrds tracks of all time and easily the nadir of the album.
'Citizen Kane' is a slightly better Battin-Fowley song, but even with a half-decent melody and a catchy chorus you have to ask why on earth this song made it to a Byrds (or why this song seems to have become the only song from 'Byrdmaniax' that the casual Byrds fan might know). When this album came out it was the 30th anniversary of the Orson Welles film, which was some sort of milestone I suppose, but did the film really need a theme tune after all these years? Skip simply re-tells the plot of the film here, rather loosely (I only saw the film after knowing the song and I can't say I recognised the plot much from Skip's words - or understood why this film is quite the classic it's reckoned to be; have these film critics never seen The Monkees' 'Head'?!) and the closest the song comes to injecting any emotion or drama is the line 'Citizen Kane was king - poor Citizen Kane!' Like the film, the hint is that the superstar who seems to have everything and even builds his own mansion where 'diamonds fall like rain' actually has nothing, but he's cut himself off from the real world. The trouble with the song is, it made rather a better point of all this thirty years earlier and I doubt any film buff really needed advice from an obscure Byrds LP from three decades later. The one lyric that stands out is Skip's further development of all of Citizen Kane's famous movie friends coming round, adding in the detail that Frankenstein turned up and 'ate the leading lady ' it speaks volumes that everyone else at the party is too wrapped up in their own little worlds to even notice. Fowley, in particularly, really 'got' the part of the film where all the Hollywood stars attend empty endless parties and get rather too afraid to not be seen going to one in case their fans think they are as lonely and scared as they really are (Fowley came from a film background himself and attended more than a few of these parties). Dare I say it, though, Battin and Fowley seem to have 'missed' the 'true' message of the film - that Citizen Kane's millions couldn't compensate for the loss of 'rosebud', actually the name the millionaire had given to his sledge as a young boy (at the only time in his life when he was really happy) - at least, there's no mention of it in the lyrics, which rather makes you wonder what the pair thought they saw in the film. Producer Melcher apparently hated this song, which was why he tried to drown it out with as many extra horn parts as he could. While not terribly suitable for the Byrds sound, it does at least capture a period flavour and this song is arguably more exciting for them. Even a confident lead from Skip (in stark contrast to most of McGuinn's timid vocal work on this album), a truly great chorus and a stinging Clarence White guitar part can't save this song though. It's worth remembering that, despite it's iconic status, 'Citizen Kane' was a huge flop at first that cost their studio money after the excessive millions that were spent on it - there's a lesson in there somewhere for how these most expensive of all Byrds sessions seemed to be going...
'I Wanna Grow Up To Be A Politician' sounds like McGuinn trying to cash in on Battin's territory, a novelty song only a smidgeon away from the similar tongue-in-cheek of Skip's own 'America's Great National Past Times' from next record 'Farther Along'. Actually, this song is easily the weakest from the superb musical Roger had written during 1969 with Bob Dylan's writing partner Jacques Levy about 'Gene Tryp', a sort of hippie update of Peer Gynt who founds America rather than Norway (note the anagram; a lot of the better songs from 'Untitled' were from it, including the gorgeous 'Just A Season' and 'All The Things', as well as the hit single 'Chestnut Mare' when Gene tries to catch an American horse rather than a Scandinavian reindeer like he does in the original folk tale). This song comes from the point in the tale when 'Gene' decides he doesn't like the way 'his' America is shaping and runs for congress. The problem is that the song is the only one from 'Gene Tryp' that truly is dictated by plot (all of the other songs work as well out of context, so much so that few fans realise these songs are from another work) and in context it probably works fine - Gene means what he sings and the 'America' he's trying to found is the 'mythical' one of American Dreams and freedom from centuries before. In 1971, though, 'Politician' is released in the context of other anti-Nixon songs from the period (many of the best ones written by McGuinn's former writing partner David Crosby) and there's nothing in the lyrics to suggest this song is set in the past. As a result - and partly too from the tongue-in-cheek way Roger sings it - 'Politician' sounds like a sarcastic attack on the sort of righteous figures who think they're doing good when they're actually doing wrong. The problem is, the song was never written to sound like that - Gene is a 'hero', not a sarcastic wise guy and his ideas are genuinely for the good of all (ion his mind at least) and the fact that the tone has shifted but the lyrics haven't make 'Politician' a rather awkward hybrid. Who are we meant to be laughing at? The earnest but green narrator of the song whose wet behind the ears? The corrupt politicians actually running the country? Us for believing in the American dream? Or are we meant to be cheering along and not actually laughing at all? Putting this song right in the middle of three straight Battin songs rather colours our idea of it too - surely this is just another throwaway novelty song, whatever it meant in the context of 'Gene Tryp's plot? Some of these lyrics are odd to say the least: 'I'll always be tough, but I'll never be scary' - err, which politician has ever managed that? (Most of them just plump straight for 'scary'). At times the narrator sounds like a good guy ('I'll preserve the prairies'), at others like a villain ('I'll give the young the right to vote as soon as they mature') or simply out of touch ('I'll sign the bill to help the poor, to show I'm not a snob'). In the end 'Politician' probably didn't give the likes of Crosby many sleepless nights: it's not funny enough to be a true comedy novelty song and if it is meant as a scathing attack then it's one without teeth in the context of what else was around in 1971. But still, it's nice to hear McGuinn thinking outside the box and delivering something in a style he never touches again before or since and I dare say this song made one hell of a lot more sense in the context of the musical (to be fair to McGuinn, most of the lyrics are Levy's anyway, although his melody line - caught somewhere between a genuine national anthem and an oompah-ing bubblegum song - blurs the line between drama and comedy too).
'Absolute Happiness' is the best of the three Battin songs on the album and unlike the other two songs actually sounds like a proper song, even if it can't match the pathos of 'Welcome Back Home' or the beauty of 'Yesterday's Train'. Following on from those songs, this is a third attempt at trying to get the Byrd fanbase into buddhism and this song is all about trying to achieve a state of inner calm and find an inner nirvana. Many of Battin's songs read like textbooks, but this one is less patronising than some by having the song start off with the narrator himself taking part, 'dressed in country cloth and sitting on the floor', trying to empty his mind of all his worldly worry. Some of the lyrics are quite sweet ('Filling in the vacant spaces with dreams of truth'), others are less inspired ('Greatness and unity shines within the mind'), with the whole song recalling The Moody Blues' 'Ommmmmmm' from 'In Search Of The Lost Chord' in 1968 (although sadly there's no 'mantra' this time as there was on 'Welcome Back Home'). If you were charitable you'd say that this yoga instruction manual does a good job musically of conjuring up that inner calm and serenity. If you were less charitable you'd probably call it dead boring - there's no real development here again, none of the catchy choruses that were on 'Citizen Kane' and the whole recording sounds like the band are trying hard not to fall asleep (which, to be fair, is the point of the song I suppose...) Still, at least there sounds like a 'point' to this song (unlike 'Tunnel Of Love' and 'Citizen Kane' and this song is clearly close to Battin's heart, announcing in the last verse that he promised his conscious that he'd use his small amount of fame and standing to urge everyone listening to him to find inner peace (mission accomplished then). The trouble is that unlike the gorgeous 'Yesterday's Train' (which made re-incarnation sound both plausible and fascinating) 'outsiders' feel left rather cold by this song, which simply drifts away on a cloud without really doing much to encourage the listener to take part.
If you were meditating to that last track then chances are you'll be woken up straight away by 'Green Apple Quickstep', a collaboration between White, Parsons and occasional Byrds fiddle player Byron Berline which is a country-rock instrumental similar in feel to the previous 'Nashville West' (but played even faster) and similar to what the former pair would have been playing when McGuinn heard them play in 1968 (stealing first White then Parsons into The Byrds). The harmonica, overdubbed later, was by Clarence White's dad Eric, showing how much country music was in White's genes. Like many instrumentals, it's hard to know quite what to tell you - the trio are at the height of their instrumental powers and White especially really proves what a fine guitarist he was. However, this is a song that doesn't really suit The Byrds (it speaks volumes that two of them aren't even on it) and personally I'd take 'Nashville West' over this piece - at least that had a full band attack going on. Berline will later end up playing in Stephen Stills' Manassas by the way, although he reportedly hated being made to do this recording(his memory is of the trio being kept apart for technical reasons, which meant they couldn't see each other's faces when they played - and that although the 'first' jam around this song's chords was fun, the trio got asked for so many retakes the joy was quickly sucked out of the song). Had White and Parsons released a spin-off record of a full album like this the results might well have been exciting and adventurous - but as it is, this song sounds like a 90 second cameo from a parallel Byrds most fans are probably quite glad never actually came into being.
'My Destiny' splits fans like no other Byrds song. To many it's an off-key caterwauling on which the Byrds have never sounded so country (not without Gram Parsons on board anyway); to others it's all of those things but is also achingly beautiful. Clarence White may not have been the most together as vocalists go, but he does have the ability of making a song sound heartfelt, even when it's one that was written a long time before. The writer of this song is Helen Carter - you might know her younger sister, June, better (she's the one that married Johnny Cash) - although as far as I can tell she didn't record her own version of this song until as late as 1979 (when she was 52). Like most of Clarence's other choices of cover songs for The Byrds, it's a ballad lament with a distinct religious bent, the sorry tale of a hard done by man asking his maker why he has to go through such sorrow and whether 'this is my destiny'. Janis Joplin would have done a great version of this (this song is a close sister of her masterpiece 'Work Me Lord') and it's arguably the greatest cover song The Byrds do on this album - possibly their whole career (although Clarence's next cover, 'Bugler', from 'Farther Along' is neck and neck) - even if the recording sadly isn't up to the song. Unfortunately, emotional and heartfelt as Clarence's vocal undoubtedly is, it's very hard to follow and the rest of the band singing 'straight' behind him only makes the effect worse. Still, Clarence's guitar work is exceptional on this song and the other Byrds (with Larry Knechtel once again) do at least to be taking this song seriously. The fact that such a wreck of a recording, with such an out of tune vocal, is the second greatest highlight of the album probably doesn't say much for the rest of the album, but does say a lot about Clarence White who does this song almost singlehanded.
'Kathleen's Song' is another McGuinn piece from 'Gene Tryp', this time heard as a simple love song at the beginning of the work before Gene goes off on his journey to 'found' America. Short and sweet, pretty but pretty brief, it's the sort of thing that could have really been a lovely haunting song had the Byrds spent a little more time on it, but sounds woefully undeveloped as it stands. As it happens, the song was first started during the sessions for 'Untitled' and probably had more time spent on it than any other Byrds song of the period but still the band aren't quite sure what to do with it. Personally, I'd have done this song like 'The Ballad Of Easy Rider', understatedly but with a distinctive drum beat; that might well have sounded awful (I'm not in The Byrds after all, which is probably just as well), but this simple song about a pair on love keeping their relationship long distance is crying out for that sort of simplicity. It certainly isn't calling out for the full Mantovani works, with a full orchestra all but drowning the two lovers as they try to go their own simple ways. Of all the 'mistakes' Terry Melcher is meant to have made across this album, this is surely the worst lapse of judgement! That said, even this could have worked had the band done a 'John Riley' and had McGuinn sing properly to just an orchestral backing - unfortunately his vocal is off-mike and sounds like a rehearsal take, something to show everyone how the song goes rather than a vocal invested in meaning (perhaps he saw what Clarence was getting away with and thought he'd try the same?!) His guitar is also in the way, clashing with the strings something awful at times. A real shame, because the kernel of this song - the lovely expressive simple tune and the lyrics aping both John Lennon and David Crosby's 'Almost Cut My Hair' ('I'll be here letting my hair grow long and waiting for you') are pretty special too.
The album ends with 'Jamaica Say You Will', another Clarence White cover choice. Unlike many of Clarence's favourite songs, which often dated back years before he was born, this one was contemporary and written by a 'new' singer-songwriter no one else had heard of yet named Jackson Browne. Clarence doesn't have Browne's effortless optimism and commerciality, so the original's upbeat tale about a white ship's captain finding love unexpectedly on foreign lands ends up sounding more like a hymn for lost youth than the original intention of finding love in the strangest of places. I must admit I'm a bit worried that the girl in the song seems to be named after the country of her birth (there's no way anyone's naming me after my home town or country), although that is a very 70s thing to do (Cat Stevens may well be singing about the same girl in his own 'Sweet Jamaica' from album 'Izitso?') Like much of the album, the band seem to be sleepwalking through the track without really getting to know it, despite a quite lovely beginning when McGuinn's guitar and the orchestra finally sound 'as one' and Clarence's vocal is his wildest yet, wandering everywhere around the notes he should actually be singing. He clearly doesn't have as much emotion invested into this song as, say, 'My Destiny' and it's a shame that this song wasn't given to Roger to sing (not that McGuinn's harmony part is much better, it has to be said). The end result is a pretty damp squib of an end to a pretty wet album. Still, at least The Byrds clearly had their ear to the ground looking out for new songwriters and the fact that the band once voted 'America's answer to The Beatles' were covering his song must have been hugely positive for Jackson Browne.
Overall, then, 'Byrdmaniax' is far from the album fans were expecting after the heights of 'Untitled'. The four of them just don't sound that comfortable playing together (there's no single great band performance here, even if all of them shine at different moments) and none of the time or investment spent on this album (the most expensive record in the Byrds' history) seems to show through in the finished product. The band credits also seem very lopsided - poor Gene Parsons gets left with precious little to do despite providing most of the best moments on the past two Byrds albums, half of Roger McGuinn's work is taken from his already completed musical 'Gene Tryp', Skip Battin gets a full three songs to his name (when at best only one of them was good enough to get in) and Clarence White oinly gets one instrumental and two covers. None of the fire of the electric side of 'Untitled' and none of the intelligence of the studio side of 'Untitled' seems to have been here at work on this album at all and yet 'Byrdmaniax' does have one thing going for it. It is at times a beautiful record - just as parts of 'Untitled' were - and the melodies for both 'Pale Blue' and 'Kathleen's Song' are as good as anything in the Byrds' back catalogue (even if the arrangements and performances of both songs aren't). The Byrds' time is clearly up, with this album for the most part a collection of solo tracks swathed in orchestra - but when the foursome do play together even in pairs (as on the instrumental section of 'Pale Blue' or the boom beat of 'Citizen Kane') they still prove that this is a band worthy of the Byrds name and that even though this line-up isn't quite as inventive as the one that had the likes of David Crosby and Gene Clark in their line-up they are still capable of making great music. It's just a shame that this album followed on so quickly and so badly from one of the greatest albums the band ever made, when we expected so much more from them. Thankfully the next, slightly better album is only slightly farther along the road...Overall rating 2/10
Other Byrds reviews from this site that you might be interested in reading:
'Mr Tambourine Man' (1965) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2012/02/news-views-and-music-issue-134-byrds-mr.html
'(5D) Fifth Dimension' (1966) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2009/11/news-views-and-music-issue-49-byrds-5d.html
'Younger Than Yesterday' (1967) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2011/08/news-views-and-music-issue-108-byrds.html
'The Nototious Byrd Brothers' (1968) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2008/07/review-20-byrds-notorious-byrd-brothers.html
'Dr Byrds and Mr Hyde' (1969) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2010/07/news-viedws-and-music-issue-68-byrds-dr.html
‘The Ballad Of Easy Rider’ (1969) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2012/09/the-byrds-ballad-of-easy-rider-1969.html
'Untitled' (1970) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2008/07/review-38-byrds-untitled-1970.html
‘Farther Along’ (1972) http://www.alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2013/04/the-byrds-farther-along-1972.html