Monday, 2 February 2015

The Byrds: Unreleased Songs 1965-72

Compared to some of the AAA bands we cover, The Byrds don't have the embarassment of riches left behind in their studio vaults. The Byrds rarely left any of their work unfinished to begin with and an excellent series of official CDs out on Columbia in the 1990s and 2000s have already pulled out the cream of what's left: the abandoned Gene Clark songs left behind because he already had half-a-dozen on an album, the risque Crosby tracks nixed by the others and 'Sweethearts Of The Rodeo' in particular now lasts about three times as long as it used to thanks to a generous helping of outtakes on the deluxe CD set. However, there's still plenty of scope for this article, split fairly neatly between studio outtakes and backing tracks (the master tapes for most of the first two Byrds albums were 'leaked' to bootleggers en mass in the 1990s), TV appearances (where the band occasionally tried cover versions of songs they couldn't possibly have got away with doing on an album) or one-off songs performed in bootlegged concerts (where the band were still trying hard to be a true country band long after they'd gone back to being a rock one in the studio). As with all these articles, none of these recordings are currently available, but we bring you this list as a taster of what's out there and might be heard in the future. Please note: almost uniquely in these books there's already quite a comprehensive list of what's out there, thanks to Johnny Rogan's book 'Timeless Flight'. However a chronicler as well versed as Rogan isn't too sure whether all these tapes exist so we've plumped for the songs that we know for definite exist somewhere, because we've heard them. Hopefully tantalising sounding tracks like 'Maybe You Think' 'Words and Pictures' 'I Love The Life I Live' and 'I Don't Ever Want To Spoil Your Party' will join this list in being released professionally one day, *sigh* one day...]

1) Mr Tambourine Man (Backing Track 1965)

Where better to start than right at the beginning, with the first session under the Byrds name. Not that this is really a 'Byrds' session - Roger (then still 'Jim') McGuinn is the only one of the original five present, with everyone else the group of session musicians who played on everything in America back in the mid-60s (Hal Blaine, Carol Kaye, etc). Terry Melcher's nervous voice keeps interrupting, worried about the tempo and the switch from McGuinn's atmopsheric opening to the main part of the song but already from the first take the magic is ever so nearly there. Hearing the song without the vocals isn't the revelation of some other Byrd songs (it's not as complex as most of Gene's for instance), but it does allow the listener to spend more time in the company of McGuinn's gorgeous guitar work, which never sounded better than here.

2) I'll Feel A Whole Lot Better (Alternate Takes 1965)

Unlike many of their conemporaries, The Byrds tended more often than not to sing a 'live' vocal with each attempt at a take, even though the vocals were always meant to be replaced by a more polished version by the end. That's the case with a terrific outtake of Gene Clark's early classic, where he sings a raucous, gritty vocal that pushes the song ever closer to rock and roll than the finsihed take, especially with the folky harmonies not yet added (except the occasional line). A breakdown during the solo is only a temporary setback and after some entertaining discussion over how upfront the vocals should be in the mix, Gene is off again with an even better vocal. There's even a slight lyric change in this version, probably by accident, as Gene sings 'Now I have to say' instead of 'Now I've got to stay'. Magical stuff.

3) It's No Use (Alternate Takes 1965)

A vocals-too early attempt at a backing track for 'It's No Use' is interesting too, with a quite different arrangement. Roger's voice is louder, smothering Gene's in this version, with Crosby's darting in and out rather than singing in tandem as per the finished version. The guitar work is quite different too, with Roger adding a lot more frills and punctuating most of the lines with some expressive snarls from his Rickenbacker. The guitar solo too is jaw-dropping: instead of the Chuck Berry style no frills part heard on the finished record this is an early example of an 'Eight Miles High' freakout, chanelling the free jazz spirit of John Coltrane even this early in the band's lifetime. The result is a lot rougher and less pleasing on the ear than the finished version (even the chorus isn't there yet, falling like a ton of bricks on the word 'more' rather than soaring to the havens), but fascinating nonetheless and adding a nicely gritty feel to what's actually quite a rough and tumble song.

4) Not Fade Away (Shindig Soundtrack June 1965)

Already tiring of plugging an endless round of 'Tamboruine Man' 'I'll Feel A Whole Lot Better' and 'All I Really Wanna Do' on just about every American TV channel in existence in 1965, The Byrds decided to have fun during one of their Shindig appearances. Heavily influenced by The Rolling Stones' harmonica-puffing R and B arrangement, The Byrds tackled Buddy Holly's classic with aplomb. McGuinn sounds patticularly good as the gruff blues singer, while Clark plays the mouthorgan and Clarke has fun adding his favourite 'military drumming' style, a sound which works rather well. While The Byrds never showed their R and B roots as much as some (folk was their main style in the early days), they all had an interest in the genre to greater or lesser extents and this Animals-style huff and puff suits them rather well - it's a shame they never did more cover songs like this.

5) Long Tall Sally (Shindig Soundtrack June 1965)
Talking of which, on the same show some bright spark had the idea of getting every guest on that week's show to sing a verse of a 'hits medley', usually made up of 1950s classics. This results in such unlikely scenarios as Glen Campbell tearing up the house with a tribute to Jerry Lee Lewis and The Byrds (or at least Roger and David) gamely tackling the garbled first verse of Little Richard's classic. McGuinn loses his way pretty quickly but Crosby just about gets to the end, their R and B pride intact. Sadly this clip lasts for all of 20 seconds before some other guest joins in and drops replaces all that rocking with some dire folk blues.

6) It Won't Be Wrong (Outtakes 1965)

The Byrds really struggled with this song, especially the opening and went for it take after take. A lovely slow variation of the song finally gets past the introduction and it's a revelation - especially the middle eight which even has something of a 'reggae' flavour about it (compared to the finished product where it's treated with the same folk-rock feel of the rest of the song).

7) The World Turns All Around Her (Backing 1965)

Gene's beautiful song sounds even more beautiful shorn of the distracting vocals. Two guitars mesh together in a delightful cacophony of sound (presumably played by Roger and Gene), while Crosby's angry jabs on rhythm guitar and Hillman's sturdy bass snap at their heels. The result is one of the tightest recordings the original Byrds made together, sounding 'whole' even without those clever lyrics and classic vocal harmonies.

8) Do You Believe In Magic? (Hullabaloo Soundtrack October 1965)

Similarly, a sort of wannabe Byrds consisting of Roger, David and Chris (with roadie Jim Seiter sitting in for Michael Clarke and without Gene) tackled The Lovin' Spoonful's hit song during one of their appearances on TV show 'Hullabaloo'. The song lasts for all of a minute and again originally appeared as part of a medley with various guest stars taking part, but it shows that as early as 1965 The Byrds are identifying themselves strongly with the Summer Of Love and can play a poppier, more laidback style than their usual one. Crosby no doubt chose the song, as he was good friends with the Spoonful's John Sebastian, a figure who was for a time hotly tipped to become the fourth member of CSNY.

9) I'm A Loser (Shindig Soundtrack October 1965)

Needing another song extract to sing as part of a 'hits medley', The Byrds throw their lot in with the fab four and sing a quick burst of the chorus from 'I'm A Loser'. A comparatively obscure song from the 'Beatles For Sale' LP, the track would have been ten months old when The Byrds did their version (it's interestig they didn't choose something off the more recent 'Help!' LP, the mop tops' most Byrds-like LP full of folk rock and jingly-jangly Rickenbacker guitars). Brief as it is, this is a strong version, with McGuinn treating the vocal with something between a sigh and a sneer.

10) The Flower Bomb Song (Studio Outtake 1965)

Johnny Rogan's notes for this track sound tremendously exciting: an early David Crosby composition, intended for second album 'Turn! Turn! Turn!' but the first of many Crosby songs rejected for being 'too weird'. Crosby is said to have semi-improvised a spoken word part over the top of the backing track (effectively inventing rap 20 years early) and already pointing ahead to the summer of love with a freak-out chorus that runs 'I'm going to make the love gun that will blow your mind!' Alas Crosby stays quiet for the version I've heard, which is simply a typically Byrdsy sounding backing track, not unlike a cross between Crosby other unreleased-but-out-in-the-1990s backing track 'A Stranger In A Strange Land' and an even earlier Byrds backing track 'You and Me'. Hillman's bass plays the central role, while Roger and David's guitars kind of mesh in behind it, coming to a sudden dur-dur-dur-dum halt in the chorus. It's hard to make out how any lyrics would have sat on top of this song, but knowing Crosby he'd have made it work somehow (I think the same when I hear CSN backing tracks, even if its a song I've known inside out for 30 years...)

11) Eight Miles High (Backing Track 1966)

Alas very few studio varities of Byrds songs exist after 1965, so hurrah for the existence of this fascinating back track of one of the band's key songs. Alas it isn't the famous single version but the earlier 'RCA' recording with Gene Clark still involved, but even so it's a fascinating glimpse into all the many ingredients that went into making this extraordinary track. Heard here McGuinn's guitar sounds less on the edge than it does flicking between the vocals (both McGuinn and Crosby 'break out' during the solos but play relatively normally during the verses), while possibly Michael Clarke's greatest ever drumming sounds even more amazing.

12) Why? (Backing Track 1966)

The same goes for the superior 'B-side' version of Crosby's classic song, which shorn of vocals offers up a whole list of delights you can't always hear from the finished version. Hillman's busy bass wins by a nose, sounding like a 'lead instrument' rather than a bass rumble here without a 'melody' to get in the way, although this is another impressively tight band performance, full of 'hiccups' from all and sundry that keep the song rolling with great excitement until the end. Effectively it sounds like one long version of the already pretty long 'solo' section from the middle - not that there's anything wrong with that!

13) 5D (Fifth Dimension (Session Tapes 1966)

The latest session to have leaked out on bootleg is for McGuinn's ponderous title track to the band's third album. A fun, rolling blues that hops about from foot to foot, this isn't quite as revelatory as some of the other tracks (the whole point of this song is the phislophsical lyrics, rather than the beat or tune), but is nevertheless an interesting glimpse into how far the Byrds have dived into psychedelia by 1966. Crosby effectively gets to play the 'tune' which is unusual, McGuinn rolling round the same phrases on his Rickenbacker and playing about four times as many notes.

14) Milestones (TV Soundtrack 1966)

'Milestones' is another track that makes for fascinating reading: a version of this song was apparently taped as part of a '5D' era studio jam based around Miles Davis' autobiographical track 'Miles' (presumably the Byrds' new title was a 'mistake' - 'Milestones' is the name of the LP its on. not the track itself). Those who've heard it (ie the band and producer Gary Usher) claim it's one of the best things The BYrds ever did, lasting for six minutes and light years ahead of the rather sorry issues Byrds instrumental 'Captain Soul' recorded soon after. Alas the tapes don't seem to exist any longer and frustratingly haven't bootlegged either. The version of the song I've heard comes from a rare ABC documentary on The Byrds (also long since lost sadly) which happened to choose that day to call in on them in the studio and film them 'working' (the band may have delibaretly chosen to record an 'unimportant' song if they knew a film crew were coming to shoot them). Thankfully an enterprising fan taped the soundtrack of that documentary and a 40-odd second extract of it exists, complete with patronisingly voice over ('Like most of their generation they write how they feel, songs that reflect the viewpoint and aspirations of a generation finding their own voice. To understand this generation we must understand their music...') The music doesn't sound that great - it's more what you'd expect from aimless jamming than the superlatives Usher gave it in the 'Timeless Flight' book - but it's still unreleased Byrds and so something to savour.

15) Time Between (Backing Track 1967)

Moving forward to fourth album 'Younger Than Yesterday', a crackly acetate exists of a slightly different take of the backing track for one of Chris Hillman's first songs. McGuinn's guitar part is subtly different, with a louder dur-dur-dur-dum-de-dum hook in each of the choruses and a very different solo (which basically repeats the opening rather than the more melodic tones heard on record). The Byrds clearly are't quite there yet, but it's interesting to hear them in the process of getting from A to B.

16) Have You Seen Her Face? (Alternate Version 1967)

On the record 'Face' is an interesting combination of folk, country and rock a full year before Gram Parsons gets all the credit for inventing said mixture. An earlier version of the song exists, though, which is almost pure folk. The band sing to just Chris' acoustic guitar part, with no bass, lead guitar or drums to get in the way. This adds a rather earnest feel to the song, with some subtly different lyrics too and instead of heading into the solo simply loops round to repeat the chorus a few times over. The band were right to ditch this early version - the later one is much more appealing - but again it's nice to hear all the same.

17) Under Your Spell Again (Live 1968)

Rather neatly the second half of our compilation picks up the story after the departures of three original Byrds. By now Gram Parsons is fully in charge of the band's career and the sound is pure country. This and most of the following selections were taken from Byrds concerts that thankfully still exist and reveal a Byrds eager to play around with their set, perhaps preparing for a second album in the same vein as 'Sweethearts Of The Rodeo' till Gram's departure puts an end to that direction. This song for instance was taped during what turned out to be Gram's last show with the band as a 'regular' at London's Roundhouse Theatre.Originally a Buck Owens song, this choice of cover material is far more impressive than most of what appeared on the album and a much more natural candidate for country-rock: Gram's twang and the honky tonk backing is pure country, but in comes a stinging McGuinn guitar attack a la 'Lover Of The Bayou' and suddenly this song is a double-headed beast, pulling every which way.

18) Blue Suede Shoes (Live 1968)

Taken from the same issue, this is the other extreme: a nicely raw and gritty take on Carl Perkins' 1950s classic slice of rock and roll, played by a band who've clearly been doing a lot of country recently. McGuinn rattles off the guitar lines with the same country hoe-down style he uses for most of the 'country' side of that set and the result is a fun two minutes, possibly left over from McGuinn's original intention for 'Sweethearts' : an attempt to sum up a thousand years of musical development on one double album. On this showing The Byrds could have handled it easily!

19) Sing Me Back Home (Live 1969)

Merle Haggard's memorable song was one of Gram Parsons' lifetime favourites and seems to have been taped (or at least jammed) duyring the 'Sweethearts' sessions more than any other song. Sadly no studio outtakes for the song seem to exist and nor do any live performances of Gram singing the song. A later version from a show in Boston (titled 'Boston Tea Party' by historical loving bootleggers) in February 1969 suggests how this song might have sounded though, with a Roger-does-country vocal similar to those that made the album. The song is a good and suitable one for The Byrds, though, with a nice reflective lament and a melody that suits a heavy drum attack and some great psychedelic-meet-scountry style Clarence White guitar. All in all, this is one of my favourite 'Byrds does country' songs - a shame it never made the record.

20) Get Out Of My Life Woman (Studio Jam 1969)

One of the greatest Byrd outtakes is this heavy, funky jam on Lee Dorsey's angry 1966 soul song, one actually taped first by the Byrds during the sessions for '5D' when it would have been brand new. Sadly that version doesn't seem to exist but this later version does, with Roger and John York sharing the vocals as the band try to exorcise their demons thanks to some thundering Gene Parsons drumming and some screaming wild McGuinn guitar. Better than practically everything else taped during the sessions for the 'Ballad Of Easy Rider' album, a little of this song's grit would have made that patchy record far more welcome. A live version from the same era also exists and is ever so nearly as good.

21)  I Shall Be Released (Live 1969)

A rare case of The Byrds rehearsing but ultimately passing on a Bob Dylan song. Perhaps that's because the vocal comes not from Roger but from bassist John York, who turns in a nicely passionate lead. Alas the rest of the band aren't playing ball - McGuinn is badly off key and a little of mike while Gene Parsons' cheeky falsetto doesn't fit the 'weight' of the song one iota. Ah well, everyone makes mistakes - and had The Byrds cut the song like this in the studio, but with a lot more polish, then this could have been one of their better Dylan covers with a quick Clarence White country guitar solo the highlight.

22) The Long Black Veil (Live 1969)

John York, the Byrds keenest on adding to the band's set list across 1969, also sings lead on the folk standard 'Long Black Veil' - a dark song narrated by a man who dies at the start of the song and haunts his loved ones thereafter. The Byrds struggle to come together for the choruses and Parsons struggles to find a suitable rhythm that gives him space for all his drum-rolls, but McGuinn and White come up with a great gruff guitar part between them and this version of a rather overheard song manages to be both different and suitable.

23) Take A City Bride (Live 1969)

Gene Parsons then takes the lead for 'Take A City Bride', one of his first compositions which finally found a home on his 1973 solo album 'Kindling'. He may have been reminded of it because of that night in Boston's special guest: fiddle player Gib Guilbeau who was Gene's first musical partner long before he joined The Byrds. A fun novelty song about falling in love but having to fight through lots of obstacles to win over his 'city bride', it would have made a fine Byrds B-side.

24) Break My Mind (Live 1969)

By now we're slightly later in 1969 and The Byrds are performing in Los Angeles' Ash Grove. Special guests that night are LInda Ronstadt and - for the very last time with the band that made him famous - Gram Parsons. Linda takes the lead for this rather clumsy country song written by John Loudermilk and recorded - but not initially released - by The Flying Burrito Brothers. McGuinn tries some high falsetto harmonies that really does suit him and the result is one of the weakest recordings on this list, with only Gene Parsons on the ball.

25) I'm Moving On (Live 1969)

Later the same night The Byrds introduce another guest, blues singer John Hammond. Having started his career more or less when The Byrds did, Hammond was particularly close to Bob Dylan (he's thought to have introduced him to mutual acquaintances The Band). The Byrds do a fair job at fitting in with Hammond's usual style, which basically means the two guitarists letting fly in tandem, CSNY style, while Parsons keeps the drum beat hard and heavy.

26) Home Sweet Home (Live 1970)

This is another oddity from around the same period - an unreleased Jackson Browne song with Clarence taking lead vocal. The Byrds were early and enthusiastic supporters of Browne, recordcing two of his songs in the studio before he even got his first record contract. This song is less fun than 'Mae Jean Goes To Hollywood' but more interesting than 'Jamaica Say You Will', with Clarence at his most mainstream and poppy. The narrator falls in love but it all goes wrong and he soon wants to come home - effectively the same plot as 'Mae Jean' but slightly less wordy here.

27) Mary Don't You Weep (Live 1970)

One of the hardest to track down of all these songs this is a traditional English folk tune that McGuinn later re-recorded solo for his 'Folk Den' project. Roger tries to get a rather drunken sounding crowd to join in with him on this simple song that has all of one verse ('Oh Mary don't you weep don't you moan, devil's army got grounded, oh Mary don't you weep'). McGuinn keeps urging the crowd to 'get off the ground' but somehow this folk tune doesn't really suit The Byrds' style and it's with some relief the band give up and try something else.

28) Louisiana Man (Live 1970)

Bobby Gentry's fun country song was recorded by all sort of acts who weren't really considered country at all, including The Hollies in 1968. The Byrds are closer to Gentry's natural style than most of the less suitable cover versions around but even their version doesn't really take fire, missing the light touch of the original (the point most covers miss is that the song is narrated by a 'child' - it's a kid's view of a country lifestyle and a deliberate attempt to write a country song that wasn't about death and gloom and divorce and pet dogs and horses).

29) Citizen Kane (Alternate Take 1972)

When The Byrds were asked to write a film for the soundtrack 'Ciao Manhattan', they unexpectedly gave the film producers an early mix of a Skip Battin song about a different film entirely. Now, 'Ciao Manhattan' is hardly the 'Citizen Kane' of the film world - it's simply a 'glory' project of writer Edie Sedgwick's years working with Andy Warhol told in retrospect via home footage and audio interviews. Interestingly 'Citizen Kane', while not an obvious choice, fits the film's theme of decay and fake glitter really well, with the 'diamonds that fell like rain' line actually fitting this song better than 'Kane' in terms of plot. This mix isn't all that different to the version on 'Byrdmaniax' but it is subtlely different with a 'bigger' gulf between the main verses (which sound harder-edged and grittier) and the orchestral-led choruses (which sound ever more elaborate). The vocals are also a bit different, with Skip taking the lead single-tracked more often than not, with less double-tracking all round.

30) I'm So Restless (Live 1971)

A highlight of Roger's first solo album, The Byrds had the song in their set list as early as the 'Byrdmaniax' years, which makes you wonder why they didn't record this superior song on either that album or the two that follow (its Dylanesque style - and possibly namechecks for Dylan as 'Mr D' and his writing partner Jacques Levy as 'Mr L' - would have fitted the 'reunion' album particularly well). The song has never sounded better, with a nice 'alternate' guitar part from Clarence that puts the song closer to country and some great bass-drum interplay from Gene and Skip. Roger's vocal is also far better than on the album, full of 'Lover On The Bayou' style punch.

31) Rollin' In My Sweet Baby's Arms (Country Suite TV Soundtrack 1972)

All The Byrds had their own 'spots' during the 'country unplugged' section of their live show, though only Skip's never appeared on album (or archive box set - to date anyway). This fun take on Flatt and Scrugg's original is a nice showcase for Skip's thudding bass and gruff vocals, while Gene's banjo and Clarence's acoustic guitar both work overtime too.

32) The Water Is Wide (Midnight Special TV Soundtrack 1973)

Raped during the final show under The Byrds' name until their Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame induction 18 years later, McGuinn takes the lead on this nicely nostalgic traditional folk song, later re-recorded by Roger for his 'Folk Den' project. Originally known as 'Waly Waly', the song may have expressed all that was on Roger's mind: 'I leaned my back against a young oak, thought it were a trusty tree, but first it bend and then it broke,  thus did my love prove false to me'. John Guesrin's one and only surviving Byrds concert proves him to be a similar player to Gene all round, adding a nice rock and roll kick into the last verse, while Roger and Clarence mesh on 'Bayou' style guitar work one last time. What with this song and the four attampted during aborted sessions for one final album in 1973, The Byrds actually had a lot of nice material to choose from, with that record at least having the potential to be the band's best since 'Untitled' in 1970. 

1 comment:

  1. the Byrds MIlestones performance and film footage was not lost. here is the link http://teachrock.org/resources/video/embed/the-byrds-milestones-turn-turn-turn-1966/


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