Monday, 12 January 2015

"The Byrds" (1973)



"The Byrds" (1973)

Full Circle/Sweet Mary/Changing Heart/For Free/Born To Rock and Roll//Things Will Be Better/Cowgirl In The Sand/Long Live The King/Borrowing Time/Laughing/See The Sky About To Rain



Ever since Gene Clark left the band in 1966 after the peak of 'Eight Miles High', fans had been asking 'gee I wonder what the next Byrds album with the original line-up might have been like?' After David Crosby was sacked and Michael Clarke left in quick succession in late 1967, it seemed as if we would never know. There was such bad blood between the five members that it seemed as if the flock had departed forever. But then a funny thing happened: after being adamant that he could put a new band together as good as the 'old' Byrds (which he very nearly did with 'Untitled'), Roger McGuinn grew increasingly fed-up with the new line-up (who bickered less than the original band but argued more over key decisions) and began to look for a way out after two disappointing final albums. David Crosby, now flying higher with CSN than he ever had as a Byrd, began to talk, encouraging McGuinn to 'drop' his new band and push himself artistically. Gene Clark's solo career, while sporadically as great as anything he'd made in the band, was falling apart. Chris Hillman was technically unemployed after the break-ups of his two 'interim' bands 'The Flying Burrito Brothers' and 'Manassas'. Michael Clarke needed to finance the semi-retirement he'd found himself in after the Burrito Brothers crashed.  For the first time since 1966 al five Byrds were in a position to talk and rekindle their old fire. A reunion album was on the cards at long last - after some eight years of the band increasingly trying to distance themselves from their early days in their separate ways the Byrds were set for lift-off again, having come full circle.

The stage seemed set for a Byrds renaissance. Now that the 60s were receding into the distance fans of many bands began to get nostalgic for the good old days and felt lost in an alien sea of pop, glam-rock and funk: what they needed was a bold and daring pioneering band from the old days to show these newcomers how things were done. The Byrds themselves seemed friendlier than they ever had, with  this album the first time ever that all four songwriting Byrds had a more or less equal slice of the songwriting pie (Gene Clark having left the band before Chris Hillman's first song). Hopes were high for a big tour, perhaps several tours, with a series of reunion albums to run throughout the rest of the 1970s (juggled round the five members' respective solo careers and CSN reunions, with one already on the cards for the end of the year). After being formed relatively quickly for an AAA band (with McGuinn, Clark and Crosby merely casual acquaintances before getting together as a trio, with Hillman and Clarke added at a later date through manager Jim Dickson rather than friendship), The Byrds were determined to do things properly this time: they all knew each other well enough by now, they'd all found success of their own away from the band and there were less ego hang-ups and squabbling for position. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, The Byrds reunion is generally seen as unmitigated disaster by fans, an anti-climax in every conceivable way. Heard back to back with the last album the quintet had made ('5D' - Clark left in the middle of the sessions) or the last time 3/5ths of the original band had been present ('Notorious') then the problem with this album becomes clear: it's nice and pleasant but doesn't try anything bold or daring and The Byrds aren't tight enough a unit to compete with similarly bland-but-competent bands (of which the early 1970s was filled with many). Most fans assumed that old wounds simply hadn't healed and the slanging matches that went on in the press afterwards seem to agree with that (with Crosby generally singled out for blame), but actually from what I can tell this reunion album was genuinely harmonious. It's just that the band's wings were clipped to some extent; The five members were so keen not to step on each other's toes that they made this record cautiously, holding back on their more progressive and courageous ideas. Back in the 1960s they'd been wild and with it and didn't know what failure tasted like: now, though, after so many years out of the spotlight this album suddenly matters a great deal and ironically the more thought they put into it the less spontaneous it feels. There are an awful lot of awful AAA reunion albums clogging up these books and the reason is simple: the spark that inspired a band to create and persevere with their muse rarely comes back again once extinguished: Paul McCartney calls it 're-heating a souffle'; we call it making a microwave meal after years of perfect baking: technically the two things do the same job but instead of baking all the way through over a longer time the microwave merely re-heats the same electrons over and over again for a shortened, less appetising burst of what came before (assuming the microwave doesn't set on fire that is). Put simply hardly anyone here is here for the right reasons: McGuinn is using the original line-up to restore his credibility after some patchy albums and a good excuse to kick the latest line-up out; Crosby is getting 'closure' - returning to the band who once kicked him out for having no talent at a time when he was the only member of the band most average music fans could name; Hillman and Clarke are filling in time between jobs and unashamedly enjoying the money after lesser years; only Gene Clark seems to have relished these recordings for the chance it gave him to repair old friendships and heal old wounds.

A band like The Byrds didn't simply create temper tantrums because they felt like it - they were a group who (by and large) thrived on friction to make things happen - on the competition between the members and their ability to tell each other to their faces what they thought of each other (well everyone except McGuinn perhaps, but it's interesting that while he 'chose' everyone who joined the band post-Gram Parsons they all tended towards the warring, combative David Crosby types with the possible exception of Clarence White). The Byrds were all about the friction between themselves pushing them to greater heights - all that 'after you' 'no, after you' business simply wasn't conducive to their strengths of daring brilliance and spontaneity. I mean just look at the portrait on the back sleeve of the Byrds gathered self-consciously around a bar, laughing a little too loudly at each other's jokes (it's like a school reunion from people who only just barely remember each other - not bosom pals who've been dying to work together). Luckily the front sleeve, where the band are playing, looks more convincing, although even here note how none of the band are making eye contact, each lost in their own worlds - there's a metaphor for the album in these two sleeves somewhere.

The other trouble with this album is how rushed it all was. Had the band spent a proper amount of time together planning and rehearsing this album not only would they have been a tighter (and more likely to push the envelope) but they would have had more time to write a decent set of songs. McGuinn had been struggling for a while - my guess is that he'd got so into writing his 'Gene Tryp' musical with Dylan lyricist Jacque Levy that he'd rather 'forgotten' how to write stand-alone songs again and his only stand out track of the first half of the 1970s is 'Tiffany Queen', a song about a lamp. Chris Hillman recycles two songs he had left over from the Manassas second album 'Down The Road' (co-written with either Dallas Taylor or Joe Lala, the drummer and percussionist from that band), possibly already with an eye to saving his best work for a solo record. David Crosby, never the most prolific of writers, simply has nothing left after so many intense years with CSNY and working on his first solo record - he even re-records one of the latter's best songs with The Byrds (as if to prove how far he's travelled without them?) However there's one member who shines like the diamond he was and who gives this record the two highest moments: Gene Clark has been waiting for this opportunity for years (he'd even temporarily returned as Crosby's replacement in 1968 but only seems to have lasted two months and a few TV appearances where he looks distinctly uncomfortable miming to songs he doesn't know; he never did re-record with the band till this album).

While even I can't find a good word to say about most of the record, both 'Full Circle' and 'Changing Heart' point to how 'right' a Byrds reunion album could have been for the times. 'Full Circle' was written a full year before the reunion album (Clark's solo version will appear on his surprisingly excellent 1977 collection of odds and ends 'Roadmaster') but fits like a glove: the band are older, wiser, their time has come again and they're better able to deal with it this time. A message of 'don't give up!' delivered to the world who never expected to see another Byrds album again, let alone one with the original five back in it, this is one track that sounds very much like The Byrds always did: McGuinn's guitar is upfront, the harmonies (now with Hillman joining in too - he only started singing to cover Gene's absence) are exquisite and anyone who'd been stuck in a time-warp for eight years would still recognise this as the same band who sang 'Mr Tambourine Man'. However the Byrds song it reflects best is 'Turn! Turn! Turn!', with everything left to fate and everything due to have its 'season' ; in many ways though, Gene's lyrics are even more moving and better written than the Book of Ecclesiastes that inspired the original! Although a surprise flop when released as a single, 'Circle' has undergone a bit of revisionism from fans in recent years to the point where it's nor regarded as the last great song put out under the band name - and quite right too; Gene may not have written it with The Byrds in mind but it's perfect for their strengths. Almost as good but almost never highly rated amongst fans is Clark's other song on the album, 'Changing Heart', a darker more brooding song about how people change that's related as a love affair (and was once more written before the reunion project) but naturally in context sounds as if he's singing about the band ('Falling victim to the game of time, I place my name in the lost and found' sounds very like the band before starting work on this project).

Unfortunately no other song manages to be either this deep or that lucky in terms of representing a new-look Byrds for 1973. McGuinn either can't remember or can't find the inspiration to write a 'folk-rock' song so does what he's been doing the last couple of Byrds albums anyway, coming up with a rocker and a folk song, neither of which quite fit  and both of which are woefully played (to be fair no band seems to have been able to play 'Born To Rock and Roll' convincingly - both the final Battin/Parsons/White line-up of The Byrds and the McGuinn band who played on his first solo band sound even worse). Hillman has clearly been writing with Manassas in mind, where his songs might have sounded fine, but the 1973 Byrds aren't clever enough at suddenly veering off into different styles: 'Things Will Be Better' should be laidback with sudden bursts of adrenalin, but just sounds like the same sort of thing played with different standards of sloppiness; 'Borrowing Time' would sound nice as calypso-Latin of the sort Manassas exce3lled in - as a simple folk tune it's a drag. The biggest surprise is how out of sorts David Crosby sounds: 'Laughing' is so obviously a CSN song (even if it technically appears on a solo album) that it was never going to fit The Byrds as well: while the single greatest composition on the record (it's one of Croz' very greatest songs) The Byrds aren't the sort of mystical philosophical sympathetic band to coax the best out of the song and really shows how integral guests Jerry Garcia, Graham Nash and Joni Mitchell were to the original: 'Mind Gardens' style fills from McGuinn are cute, but wrong. Crosby also gets to finally place his favourite ever song on a record (Joni Mitchell's 'For Free', which has been played him in concert more often than even old warhorses like 'Almost Cut My Hair' and 'Guinevere'). Alas this solo performance, while respectable, sounds deeply out of touch: Joni's lyrics about a beggar playing simply for the music is once again a CSN song, not a Byrds one (especially a potentially lucrative reunion album) and nobody else gets anything to do. His one new song for the album 'Long Live The King' is a nice try with some fine guitar meshing, but Crosby hogs all the vocals and The Byrds aren't used to his unusual jazzy tunings and awkward switches of tempos - a version of this song with Stills on guitar might have been terrific - this just sounds average. Crosby, remember, was treated as the 'producer' of the record at the time (although he took his name off the credits which simply don't list a producer - out of solidarity he claimed, out of horror at how it turned out according to McGuinn) and he at least should have been having a go at tailoring his songs to the band's sound.

That leaves two Neil Young songs. Nobody, including the band,  is quite sure why The Byrds are spending a precious seven minutes of their reunion album covering Neil Young songs when the band a) rarely covered anyone in their time together and b) tended to go for either pre-war standards done 'Byrds-style'. The Springfield always had close links to The Byrds of course, but Neil Young had even closer links to David Crosby and ends up sounding like an 'ersatz' CSNY. At the time 'See The Sky About To Rain' was an unreleased song (Neil re-recorded it for 'On The Beach' in 1974) so to some extent it makes sense - although poor Gene really struggles with the cryptic lyrics (Crosby guiltily recalled later that he should have got Roger to sing it and gave it to the slighted Gene to make a 'statement' - although while folky it's not really up Roger's street either; why didn't he sing it himself?) There's no excuse for 'Cowgirl In The Sand', though. At the time reviewers wanting to find something nice to say about an album they'd so eagerly waited for praised the band for revisiting Neil's electric ten minute Crazy Horse original as a fragile folky acoustic song - but presumably they didn't know the arrangement was already Neil's, having already been heard that way on CSNY's live 'Four Way Street' record. To his credit, Crosby was probably rallying behind his friend Neil who was going through a terrible period in 1973  (Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten had overdosed with the severance pay Neil had given him because he couldn't keep up with the band, the rest of whom rebelled on tour and asked for more money; the only bright spot came when Crosby and Nash dropped their own plans to tour to join their companion on stage and help out - you wouldn't have caught the original Byrds doing that!) Neil, right at the start of his poor-selling 'doom trilogy', seemed to be disappearing from the public consciousness and this might have been David's way of ensuring a regular royalty and a bit of extra critical acclaim (Stills, too, started covering his partner's songs on record in this period). A kind idea, then, but hopelessly wrong for the record: Stills or Nash's songs would have fitted the 'Byrds' vibe better as would a more pioneering, ground-breaking politically charged  Crosby song like 'Everybody Has Been Burned' or 'Draft Morning' (although the rest of the band were probably fearing exactly that, or perhaps a revival of the three-way love-story 'Triad'). If the band were two slots short on the record and didn't want to add a 'third' song by any band member (in the name of democracy) then why not cover a Dylan song like the old days? A gene Clark harmonica-led 'It's Alright Ma' could have been amazing; a re-make of 'The Chimes Of Freedom' poignant; a re-make of 'Mr Tambourine Man' or even better Pete Seeger's 'Turn! Turn! Turn!' would have been highly moving. Alas it wasn't to be. Usually this is the point in a review where I talk about an album 'theme' - but this album features so many disparate points of view that for once there isn't one (overthrowing out-of-date ideas crops up in 'Full Circle' and 'Long Live The King' - that's about it!)

All of the above can be excused: there was a feeling within the band that even if this record wasn't quite right the second would be, when everyone had settled back to working with each other and worked out what their updated sound would be. What can't be excused is how un-like The Byrds most of this album is: while there's a nice lot of acoustic strumming (which sounds good and something the Byrds had never really exploited until now), McGuinn rarely gets his Rickenbacker out of the case. Surely that more than anything would have proven that this really was 'The Byrds' . The band's other big selling point - the harmonies - are there but in bits and pieces. Sadly only on 'Full Circle' do we get all four singing Byrds in full bloom (and even then McGuinn and Hillman are so hidden you can barely hear them) - the rest of the album generally features just Crosby singing in harmony with which ever member of the band happens to be doing the lead vocal. Surely anyone attached to this album would have told The Byrds 'you can sing about what you want in whatever style you want - but do at least one song with the Rickenbacker jingle-jangling and for God's sake at least sing together even if you don't play together!' This more than anything else is the album's weakest hand and makes it sound more than ever like a collection of solo songs rather than a 'band' album.

One sad postscript: one possible reason Rogeer doesn't play on this album much might have been because he expected 'his' parts to be filled by Clarence White's. Roger desperately wanted his old friend to play with him - as well as being a fine guitarist who would have been especially good on fellow country lover Chris Hillmans' songs, he would have made a fine sympathetic buffer between the band members. Many people - including Gene Parsons - have speculated that's why he and Skip Battin were fired in 1972, so Roger could legally do exactly that with White still a full-time member but Clarence stayed loyal to his friends and quit soon after. Sadly it was a decision that might have cost him his life - Clarence returned back to his family band and was loading his van with his equipment late one Winter night in July 1973, just three months after the release of this album, when he got knocked down and killed by a passing drunk-driver and died in his brother (and fellow guitarist's) arms at the age of 29. Had he been 'hired' for the reunion album - or stayed with Roger - he might never have been playing that night and might still be around today, playing with a reformed Nashville West with his old buddies Gene Parsons and John York (sadly Skip died in 2007*). It goes without saying that if he had played on this reunion album it would have sounded an awful lot better.
As a result the Byrds flop reunion cost Roger more than any of the others - while everyone else slowly slunk away to their own separate lives (Chris joining another new band, 'Souther-Hillman-Furay', a CSN-like band who never quite gelled), McGuinn was stuck. I think reading between the lines from what he was saying at the time he still hoped to reunite with the last Byrds line-up if the reunion albums didn't last and hoped that having a more lucrative side-deal might shake them up a bit after two lacklustre albums - but without White he couldn't bring himself to put The Byrds back together. After looking healthier than they ever had, the failure of this reunion project effectively killed The Byrds stone-dead and forced McGuinn into the solo act he'd been  putting off since 1968. As a result the band name died too (at least until an even briefer reunion in 1990 with just three Byrds present) and the next talk of a reunion, in 1978, will end up as the unlikely sounding bunch of folkie solicitors 'McGuinn Clark and Hillman' (while nowhere near the original Byrds either, their three records with and without Clark do share slightly more Byrds DNA than most of this sorry record).
As for 'The Byrds', it's ironic that the only album named after the band and the only one to feature all four songwriting Byrds at the same time is the one that sounds least like them. A bit of a mess, but caused by kindness and politeness rather than arguments and fall-outs as expected, 'The Byrds' (oh let's just give it the perfect name everyone should have used and be done with it: 'Full Circle'!) is a sad and sorry end to a discography that tried more new and daring ideas than most bands did across 50 years together, chopping and changing styles all the way through to this rather bland and same-sounding end. Many fans wish this record wasn't here at all - and yet I'd hate to be without either 'Full Circle' or 'Changing Heart', two real highpoints from the band's time together. You see 'The Byrds' could have been far worse - however the sad fact is, with that much talent in the same room, fans expected this album to be a monumentous event and had higher expectations than normal. Come to this album expecting a common pigeon rather than a colourful exotic tropical parrot, however, and you might just find this under-rated album easier to love.

The Songs:

[183] 'Full Circle' is the obvious album highlight: a song that sounds so tailor-made for the occasion that everyone assumed it was until the fine-print on the back of Gene's solo version in 1977 revealed otherwise. Clark's song is everything you'd want an updated Byrds to be: older, wiser, with a melody that sounds like lots of old classics without recycling anything and lots of space for the whole band to show off, from Crosby's gorgeous harmony to McGuinn's Rickenbacker to Michael Clarke's sturdy drumming (sadly back on this album to where he was at the beginning of his career than where he left off during 'Notorious'). This is Gene's show and his double-tracked vocal is the most confident he ever made for the band, smoky and dark yet wise beyond his years on lines like 'you think you're lost...but now you're found again'. A complete 180 degrees sea-change from 'Bristol Steamboat Convention Blues' (the last track to be released under the Byrds name and on which Roger - the only links between the two line-ups - probably doesn't even play on), 'Full Circle' turns back the clock to 1965 when folk-rock was all the rage for one very good reason: it offered the chance to ponder deep and intellectual lyrics without diluting the power and force of rock and roll. Compared to Gene's original version The Byrds cut is noticeably happy: the backing track is a little quicker and Gene sings it with a big grin on his face instead of the timid way he sings his lines solo (which are cleverly worded to work either way - most fans assume the message is 'don't be miserable because sad times won't last forever' but could also mean 'don't be too full of yourself when things are going right because everything comes in cycles' - something the other four might have done well to ponder on). While many fans would gladly trade in this album with the big amplifier-carrying rock fairy of fate for an extra Gene Clark era Byrds album the first time round, I'm rather glad this reunion album exists if only for this one classic song about growing older and wiser.

[184] 'Sweet Mary' is a real jolt. McGuinn seems to have forgotten or wilfully wanted to ignore the Byrds' folk-rock past and instead returns to an even earlier part of his career when he was a pure folkie. In truth the Byrds should have done this years ago instead of dropping the folkyness from their repertoire altogether and it's interesting to hear the five Byrds (all of whom had played folk at some point before joining the band) return back to their roots. McGuinn still seems to be suffering from the lethargy that's struck him ever since finishing 'Gene Tryp' however: when uninspired he always borrows from old melodies and writes lyrics around a girl's name: this time the tune is nicked wholesale from the Byrds' already recorded 'Jack Tarr The Sailor' (see 'The Ballad Of Easy Rider' from three years earlier) and plucked for Mary rather than his earlier 'Sandy' and 'Kathleen'. The result is - believe it or not - another of the album's better songs, thanks to a sensitive reading from most of the band (Clarke sits this one out) and a nicely aggressive lead from McGuinn.

[185] 'Changing Heart' is another strong Gene Clark song, with slightly darker lyrics set to the same bouncy singalong tempo as 'Full Circle'. Clark never really spoke about this song (which got overshadowed by 'Full Circle') but like the later McGuinn-Hillman-Clark track 'Basckstage Pass' this sounds to me suspiciously like a summary of his memories of being a Byrd. Clark, of course, famously had many a change of heart (quitting the band at least twice - he should have got together with the Buffalo Springfield's Neil Young!) . The narrator is torn between the 'praise' he gets when he's reached the top' with a 'thousand faces' looking on in expectation - and the disappointment when he gives his all and think he's achieved his best only to be met with indifference (Gene Clark's solo career before and since is a sea of lost opportunities, glorious albums ruined by hurried productions or sessions and stalled collaborations). This song could easily have become one long superstar moan but Gene is a better writer than that: he's quick to point out what spurs him on as much as the dangers and traps that cause him to fall backwards scared. Listen out, too, for more references to 'wheels' - no wonder Gene is feeling a bit mixed-up as he tells us that one wheel is spurring him onwards and the other has come off. The roll-along tune also carries us away without the chance to reflect on this song's nastier points along with some excellent Clark harmonica-puffing (something he didn't often do in his solo years) and some great Crosby harmonies. Once again Gene Clark sounds better prepared for this reunion album than this comrades and has even worked out distinctive parts for everyone, with more McGuinn Rickenbacker (sadly for only the second and last time) and great bass-drum interplay.

Crosby's cover of Joni Mitchell's [186] 'For Free' finally gave CSN fans a chance to own a copy of a song that had long been a live favourite of his, performed at more gigs than not from 1970 onwards. The song is indeed a good one that sums up everything Crosby stands for: Mitchell's tired narrator, bored and angry after a lousy gig, walks home wounded until she's stopped in her tracks by the gorgeous sound of a busker down the street. He doesn't make any money for his work except the loose change people throw at him and her limousines and millionaire jackets suddenly look superfluous and superficial to her. Crosby does justice to one of his favourite writers (the Byrd was mainly responsible for Joni being discovered at all, right near the end of his time with his first band) with an endearing vocal, but this is a song meant for intimacy and resilience that all but demands to be played simply - the way the busker does in the song. This band arrangement just distracts from the message of the song and most of the band sound unsure and tentative, confused as to what their role on the track might be (with the exception of Michael Clarke who turns in a noisy drum patter that's woefully loud and unfocussed). The band should have taken the advice of the song: simplicity is better .

Side one ends with McGuinn's lacklustre [180b] 'Born To Rock and Roll'. While most of the songs on this album tend towards the non-descript, this is the one song that everyone remembers because it's really really bad: 'a rolling and a rocking' might have done for a song chorus in the 1950s and cliched chat-up lines like 'do you believe in magic?' might have done ok for lesser bands - but this is The Byrds. Only three years ago Roger was showing us how to rock properly with the atmospheric story-song 'Lover Of The Bayou' - by contrast this sounds lifeless and limp, less a tiger waiting to pounce on its prey than a rather fat and spoilt pussy cat falling face first into its breakfast bowl. There's just no tension on this track at all, which makes you wonder why Roger decided to give it lyrics about rock music at all - by rights this song should be called 'Born To Sing Mid-Tempo'. Roger's vocal is pushed way beyond its natural limits (as we've already said on this site, those limits are quite narrow but McGuinn usually gets away by sheer personality - here he just sounds nasal and shrill, with the entire middle eight unintelligible even after several listens to the record) and rather than backing him up the sea of voices and instruments on this track just add to the confusion. McGuinn was often nasty about the last Byrds line-up in press interviews, especially while promoting this album where he compared them unfavourably to the original line-up. But the truth is, however bad a song and however average the performance, the White-Battin-Parsons Byrds did a far better job of this track in their last aborted sessions of 1972 (as heard as bonus tracks on the CD re-issue of 'Farther Along') than the five supposedly better players do here. The question has to be asked, of course, why such an awful song was attempted twice without composer quite twigging that this wasn't one of his better ideas. Why on earth did McGuinn use this song on such a coveted project instead of other far more interesting tracks that we know he had ready for his first solo album (just think what Crosby's jazz timings might have done to enhance the already fascinatingly oblique 'Time Cube' or what Hillman's mandolin might have brought to the sweet folky 'Stone'). There are many other poor song choices in the Byrds' canon but the sheer fact that I've had to sit through this song twice has forced my hand and made me list 'Born To Rock and Roll' at the back of this book as The Byrds' nadir.

Side two is less of a rollercoaster ride than side two and by and large the songs and performances aren't bad, just forgettable. Hillman's [187] Things Will Be Better' at least sounds like a more focussed band performance and Clarke especially sounds on firmer footing on the drums (indeed so different is his playing suddenly that I wonder if it's him...). However the chance to hear Hillman use all the skills he'd learnt while a member of Stephen Stills' Manassas back with his former sparring partners is a wasted one: Chris tackles all the vocals  himself and by the sound of it most of the guitar work too (apart from McGuinn's sinewy lead that really should have been re-done). Co-written with CSN's long-term drummer Dallas Taylor, this may in fact be a Manassas backing track with just a few Byrds overdubs - that's how it sounds anyway. If this is one of the long lost songs kicked off the second Manassas album 'Down The Road' at the last minute (Atlantic boss Ahmet Ertegun wanted more 'Stills' and less 'Manassas' on the record and killed the band off in the process) then it's removal was a good one: just the year before Hillman had been on top form with songs like 'Lies' and 'So Many Times' - this slice of pointless optimism just sounds like every uninspired Hillman solo song to come.

[188] 'Cowgirl In The Sand' places The Byrds firmly back in folky mode  - but it's a strange kind of folk where instead of making obscure lines by 'poets' like Dylan accessible with harmony, the band simply make obscure lines by 'poet' Neil Young sound cosy. Not with-standing the fact that Neil cut the song like this too in concert during his acoustic gigs, the difference between the Byrds' version and Crazy Horse's original is striking: Young sounds furious, demented even, with a lyric that he wrote in bed with a 103 degree fever sounding both pained and sharp, a sub-conscious rap on the fact that an exciting new romance with an exciting new person might be more trouble than it's worth. The Byrds just sound like a sleepy good-time little 'ol' country band, re-telling a story that's so old it's being told by rote nowadays and no longer has any sense of expression. You can kind of see what Crosby meant - by giving Gene a song that sounded roughly like his own to sing and helping an 'old friend' having problems he no doubt felt he was 'killing two Byrds with one stone' as it were. But, truly, it's like asking The Beatles to cover 'Satisfaction' when they reunited in the 1990s or getting Pink Floyd to do 'Eight Miles High' at 'Live 8' (actually I'd have paid good money to see both of those...) Ok then, how about this is - it's like getting the reformed 1986 mark Monkees to cover Paul Revere and the Raiders' American hit 'Kicks' (this really happened, folks). However Clark's lyrics are poetry of a quite different kind - while far from straightforward all his lines mean something and he'd never write a line as open to interpretation as 'hello Ruby in the dust, has your band begun to rust?' Clark struggles but gamely carries on, adding two lots of nice harmonica puffing and a particularly fatherly lyric that's as 'straight' and as devoid from emotion as he can manage. Crosby's harmony is much better though - arguably if he wanted this song on the album this badly he should have been the one sing ing it but it's hard to work out why this cover is here at all. A false ending, which tacks another 30 seconds of instrumental on the end for no apparent reason, is a curious end to a curious cover.

[189] 'Long Live The King' is an extraordinary song. Crosby has had rather a quiet time of it lately - after releasing the first Crosby-Nash album and his solo debut 'If Only I Could Remember My name' in quick succession in 1971, he seems to have sat out most of 1972. Fans of the time would no doubt be expecting more of the same: glossy soaring harmonies, a bit of politics, lots about love, a lot of daring and a soupcon of rule-breaking. Instead they get perhaps the most straightforward Crosby song since before his time as a Byrd, a two minute ramble about how everyone in power will come a cropper one day. Fra from being another 'Long Time Gone' or 'Almost Cut My hair', though, this song ends up a nursery rhyme ('Ooh just like Humpty Dumpty now the king has fallen down!' while more Crosby's yell 'all the king's horses...' On paper this song has so much promise: Crosby sings about overthrowing old dated institutions several centuries past their sell-by-date and even makes a stab at how the king is really himself: with similarly mixed feelings to Gene Crosby reflects on his Byrd eras, his ego being stroked by people telling him he's a star while his head is an 'empty space' and he ends up betraying his colleagues. Unfortunately in practice this song is a mess: an angry rant that does indeed break all the conventional songwriting rules but not to any great effect - there's no chorus to hang this song on, no instrumental break, lots of out of tune guitars and what should be a huge climax at the end just sounds like the song collapsing in on itself. If this was a CSN or even a solo album this recording would never have been allowed out without being re-done (and once again why cut this song with The Byrds and then fail to use most of them - this sounds suspiciously like another solo track to me). The Byrds deserved better - this is the start of a long slow decline in Crosby's songwriting that will stretch all the way to his recovery from drugs at the end of the 1980s (though thankfully with more than a few classics still to come in the interim). Ironically titled 'Long Live The King!', never has Crosby sounded more like 'falling down'.

Everything said for Hillman's last song 'Things Will Be Better' can also be said for [190] 'Borrowing Time'. This time the Manassas collaborator is Joe Lala and the song has a slightly more Latin feel to it, but it still sounds like a Manassas or a solo cut with no real Byrd input. The song is upbeat and bouncy but doesn't really have much to say other than what a nice time the narrator's having. There's a neat middle eight when he tries to comfort a crying partner (suddenly shifting to the minor key on the line 'why do you worry? Why do you cry?'), but the narrator isn't listening for an answer, he's too busy going back to tell us what a swell time he's having. Fine if you've got a whole 40 minutes of miserable singer-songwriter angst that needs propping up with a bit of jolliity - but why include such a slight song (that only just reached two minutes) on such a crucial album intended to be delivered in the public eye? Perhaps the band should have borrowed some time themselves and made this song both longer and better.

I'm on record elsewhere on this site as saying that Crosby's song [191] 'Laughing' may well be the single greatest song in the universe: the narrator keeps thinking he's found the answer to life's problems but finds in turn that he is mistaken, caught out by shadows, reflections and ultimately the sound of a child laughing in the sun. The version heard on 'Id' Swear There Was Somebody There' (1971) is the perfect example of a band fully in synch with each other and with each member making the most of their talents - even if the band was a rogue one assembled from various members of the CSN., Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane families plus Joni Mitchell. Despite sharing identical lyrics and melodies and running for a similar amount of time (The Byrds' version lasts 5:39 and Crosby's 5:29) the two couldn't be more different listening experiences. The song should be light as a feather - the Byrds sound as if they're playing with boxing gloves on. Crosby's voice should float and soar - here it drops like a stone. The stop-start sections should come with a sense of realisation and etherealness - instead they sound like. every. note. comes. with. full. stops. after. it. (for. no. apparent. reason). If ever you wanted to hear how a poor band performance can scupper even the greatest of songs then you need look no further: The Byrds are woefully horribly miscast on a song that sounds as alien to them as Crosby would have sounded on the all-country 'Sweethearts Of The Rodeo'. If I didn't know my song dates better I'd have assumed the Byrds version came first - an example of a song that had to get bashed and boshed into shape before becoming the beautiful vessel CSN fans adore. Somehow the knowledge that Crosby got this track spot-on first and re-recorded the band version two full years later makes the pain worse somehow. Sometimes good motives just aren't enough - someone really should have stepped in and said 'hang on a minute - don't you think you've missed the point, guys?'

The album then ends equally limply on a second Neil Young song, [192] 'See The Sky About To Rain'. Whilst better suited to the Byrds than 'Cowgirl', with Gene much happier on a song of happiness disguised as misery much closer to his own style, you still have to question why The Byrds are recording an album so alien to their natural sound (in any era). The Byrds rarely sounded miserable, even when they were - by contrast the whole point of this song is that Neil's fans know he's 'playing' (if he really wanted to sound miserable the sky would be raining). The song sounds well suited to Neil's suite of gloomy songs from his 1974 work 'On The Beach' (where believe it or not this is the happiest song there!) - here it just sounds odd as the last track in the Byrds' official canon (depending on whether or not you count the 1990 recordings with just  McGuinn, Crosby and Hillman), a warning message of impending disaster that never quite arrives, even with another false ending not there on the original. Once again it's quite hard to tell what the original Byrds actually do on this song with the exception of Clark and Crosby and compared to CSNY their vocals really don't mix as well as they once had. Yes it's an ok performance of a fairly good song - but it's not the best of either. Once again the question is why record this track at all instead of something more suited to the band.


'The Byrds', then, is an uncomfortable blot on an admittedly rather patchy discography, but at least in the past when The Byrds were struggling for a 'new' sound you could forgive them because they found that sound eventually and used it as a stepping stone to something greater ('Dr Byrds and Mr Hyde' and 'The Ballad Of Easy Rider' are mixed LPs, but as the best on them points the way ahead to 'Untitled' I'll forgive them the lesser songs quite happily). We don't have that with this reunion record, which ended up leaving an even sourer taste and puzzled feeling in the mouths and hearts of Byrds collectors than when the original line-up went up in smoke across 1966-68. The tragedy is that, had the band done this album properly (i.e. with time to write all news songs, no cover versions and with all five playing on every single song) then this project could really have been something: The Byrds never did get the chance to grow like so many other bands did what with all that hiring-and-firing going on and the chance to hear all five members return to their glory days but in a slightly calmer, kinder environment should have made for the greatest single Byrds album. Instead, it's the worst with only Gene Clark coming out of this project with his head held high - yes 'Byrdmaniax' was pretty ropey too but at least you could tell what the band were trying (and failing) to do (making songs sound very big with orchestras) and yes in truth I find parts of 'Sweethearts Of The Rodeo' much harder to listen to (mainly the bits that mis-cast McGuinn as an all-American cowboy).  But 'The Byrds' is somehow worse partly because of expectation, because the whole scheme seems pointless most of the ideas on this record were never going to work - and already hadn't in the case of the revived 'Born To Rock and Roll') and partly because Gene Clark showed just how daring, inventive, bold and yet characteristic of the first band this reunion record could have been. The Byrds arrived with one of the biggest bangs in music (certainly folk-rock); they go out with an album that doesn't even have enough life in it for a whimper. 

Other Byrds reviews from this site you might be interested in reading:


'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

'Sweethearts Of The Rodeo' (1968) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2014/06/the-byrds-sweetheart-of-rodeo-1968.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
'Byrdmaniax' (1971) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2013/10/the-byrds-byrdmaniax-1971-album-review.html

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