Monday 8 January 2018

Byrds Essay: Why This Band Were Made For Turn! Turn! Turning!/Updates

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The Byrds weren't like other bands. Most groups of the 1960s didn't have a career trajectory or a flight-path exactly, but it's fair to say that they at least knew vaguely the direction they wanted to take off in - forward, in roughly the same genre, but possibly into deeper territory and exploring new mind-altering side-steps along the way. By and large most 1960s bands progressed and evolved and while the place they ended up in (say 'Abbey Road') might not have been immediately apparent to where they started (say 'Love Me Do') the stepping stones along the way meant that this journey actually made a lot of sense when viewed as a whole. It's not so much that an ending resting place was inevitable so much as that it made perfect sense as a straight line from A to B and possibly Z as well. The Byrds, however, tore up their flight-map almost as soon as they could and they spent their career navigating a series of u-turns which meant that every time their audience thought they got a handle on what The Byrds were and what their signature sound was, it changed - not just a little bit, but often completely and frequently overnight, without warning.
At first who The Byrds were and what they were meant to be was obvious. They came right in the middle between The Beatles and Bob Dylan, somewhere between electric folkies and acoustic rockers. Everybody knew it and talked about it as 'The Byrds sound'. Except The Byrds themselves never intended this to be their sound - they weren't that keen on Dylan and were largely reluctant devotees of his work; by the sound of their pre-fame demos they were already developing their own style which had a lot to do with folk but very little to do with the protest or surrealism that was Bob's stock-in-trade. It didn't help that the one person around the band who wanted them to sound like this - manager Jim Dickson - was soon persona non grata within the band after 'playing favourites'. So when The Byrds got the chance to play around with their own style more they took it and moved as far away from that beginning sound as they could, blasting out in five different directions at once as their personalities allowed. Now The Byrds never got 'rid' of Dylan - indeed there are a total of seventeen Dylan covers on the band's album (more on the solo albums), which means Bob wrote more songs for the band than any original member outside his champion Roger McGuinn. But even these show development from folk to country to all-out rock by the end. What The Byrds did with those covers and most of their other songs was very different to the hybrid folk-rock of their early years and they abandoned their initial sound completely after their first year together, leaving the band's audience puzzled and their commercial status in free-fall. Of all the 1960s bands none changed their sound quite this much so readily - the closest artist doing this at the time, ironically enough, was Dylan himself.
What The Byrds did best however was hold onto that idea of being in the 'middle' of something. Several songs in the Byrds' back pages try this trick, finding a hybrid somewhere between folk and pop, rock and bluegrass, country and psychedelia, jazz and rock and homedown folk and universal epics. People often talk about The Byrds as a 'traditional' act, whether it be folk rock or country, but actually there's nothing traditional about what The Byrds do, fitting styles together like Lego and coming up with combinations few other bands ever discovered - and certainly not as often. Take a song like [82] 'Space Odyssey' - it's a sea shanty, as traditional sounding as any song can be and McGuinn is a folk traditionalist who instantly understands the roar of the waves and the motion of the melody lines. Only this traditional song happens to be set in space and sounds that way with the recording techniques used too, without ever sacrificing the characteristic jaunty gig of a nineteenth century sailor . Or have a listen to [79] 'Change Is Now' which is one of 1968's most psychedelic of battlecries about the idea of fluidity that seems to be bending and breaking minds - that then pauses for a middle eight that couldn't be more country if it was sitting on a horse holding a banjo and shouting 'yee-ha!' Or then there's [63] 'Renaissance Fair' with its bunch of blissed out Medieval hippies from the middle ages. Or [123] 'Jesus Is Just Alright', which takes the most anachronistic un-hip set of lyrics the band could find about Christianity and make them sound as contemporary as they ever sound with a so-1969 funk strut setting (usually The Byrds sound either that little bit before or after their time - only with [13] 'Tambourine Man' do they ever capture their zeitgeist perfectly and that wasn't really their idea but their manager's). The band clearly know this too: just check out the sleeve to 'Dr Byrds and Mr Hyde' where the band are dressed as cowboys underneath their space-age suits which they then proceed to strip off, swapping their spaceships for horses. Or, indeed, the similar cover on 'Untitled' where the band shot on the front is a mirror image of the band on the back - but looking at two such very contrasting images. Turn turn turn indeed - the band's  first real style of their own choosing was in retrospect a highly apt song choice for a band who Byrds never stopped turning or chasing their own tails.
If anyone remembers The Whazzles (the Disney franchise that combined unlikely parts of two very different creatures together) than that's what The Byrds were, always doomed to look forward and back all at the same time. They're a hybrid band who don't just go forward or back but somehow exist in at least two space-time continuums at once. The Byrds' philosophy always seemed to be that our best way of learning about ourselves wasn't just to embrace the future (and McGuinn's love of space-age technology) but to embrace the past (and the traditions of country music) at least as often. That sounds terrible: what do psychedelic pioneers know about bluegrass? And what do country bumpkins know about LSD? But somehow, for the most part, The Byrds made it work. It's as if the band argue that every space-age planet must have a homespun love of country they can call their own or that every travel eight miles high into space has to return to the barn eventually. Learning is learning, whatever source you learn from  - be it [85] 'The Christian Life', the drugs of [73] 'Artificial Energy', Gene Clarks' exploration of romantic relationships or even on [46] when you are lost in a new dimension: everything is a source of curiosity and awe to The Byrds. The only thing these disparate songs have in common is a need to know how the world works. It's a dichotomy that only really fails once, on 'Sweetheart Of The Rodeo', when for all the band's reputation for 'inventing' country-rock they actually turn into country musicians whole-hog thanks to Gram Parsons, after a career of doing country-rock (on [37] 'Satisfied Mind' among other early songs) as well as everything else-rock.
It sounds as if the band that recorded the forward-thrusting 'Notorious Byrd Brothers' and the traditional retro 'Sweetheart Of The Rodeo' have absolutely nothing in common with each other - and in many ways they don't. The Byrds were surely one of the least stable bands in history, buffeted in the wind by whatever musicians happen to be in the band at any one time and none of their line-ups secure enough to last more than four albums at a time without flying off. Roger McGuinn aside, every line-up of The Byrds appeared fragile and merely people passing through whatever the band members themselves thought, which in itself feels a little like information gathering from as many different sources and viewpoints as possible (its true to say McGuinn never 'replaced' a band member with anyone similar and the only thing in common with the bassists, drummers and rhythm guitarists in the group were often the instruments they played and nothing else). Birds of a feather may flock together, but for The Byrds hardly ever. Hard as the band tried to gel and coalesce (and as well as they succeeded at different times in their history, such as 1965 and 1970), something always drove them apart - and often that something was the grandest AAA version of what you might call 'musical differences'. The band felt a call for the country here, possessed a psychedelic streak here, had a love of rock and roll there and never quite forgot their folk beginnings, their pop-loving fanbase or their rock and roll rebellious side. We've recently written about The Buffalo Springfield, Byrds protégés who were at least eleven bands in one and unwilling to trap themselves in by doing any one thing. That band, however, only lasted for not-quite-three albums that all did different things; The Byrds lasted for twelve very different sounding records of which only the first and second and tenth and eleventh sounded anything like each other. Perhaps that's why The Byrds sing war standard [31][ 'We'll Meet Again' with such delicious irony - for their parental generation life was a fixed path, laid out through repetition and only interrupted by bombing raids and wars. For The Byrds' generation they're never going to go back to the same place twice, not with a whole universe of things new and old to explore. There's no continuity in The Byrds' career, just crazy-paving as the band pick out a random flight-path across the sky.
Which is no bad thing. All too often you hear bands of old, especially from the first half of the 1960s, and their best work always appears at the beginning of a compilation album, before blander and safer re-treads suck all the joy out of what was once so sparkly new and minty fresh. From the second single onwards bands are desperate to repeat themselves, to release something as close to their establishing hit as they possibly can, with a series of diminishing returns (it speaks volumes that the only time The Byrds did this, with [28] 'All I Really Wanna Do' on the back of [13] 'Mr Tambourine Man', it flopped badly and the band never tried it again). If you follow The Byrds releases in order though (or read this book from first page to last) then what strikes you is that you never know what's coming next. It could be a Dylan cover. It could be a serious protest song about Hiroshima victims ([51]). It could be a silly song about spacemen ([48]). It could be a traditional song about a horse [138] 'Chestnut Mare'). It could be a vision of the future involving alien visitations ([62] 'CTA-102'). The next song on an album could be a heartfelt love song ([150] 'Kathleen's Song'), a cynical diatribe against commercialism ([60] 'So You Want To Be A Rock 'n' Roll Star?') or a filler instrumental ([173] 'Bristol Steamboat Convention Blues'). The Byrds don't come in three dimensions, but in five, with time (you never know what century, past present or future, a song is coming from next) and space (the setting of many a song) presumably the other two. One of the most hated of all Byrds songs is [180] 'Born To Rock and Roll' perhaps because The Byrds' fanbase instinctively realised that out of all the1960s bands connected to rock and roll The Byrds weren't this was a band that clearly wasn't - unlike most of their peers this was a band born to rock, pop, folk, country, jazz, blues, psychedelia and roll, often all at once. Limiting the band to just one genre is like limiting yourself to one flavour for the rest of your life when you have a band that can sound like any food combination you ever dreamed of and these moments when The Byrds pick one style and stick to it are easily their worst. Sure some of the combinations don't work and others give you stomach ache (1970s folk-1950s rockabilly hybrid [156] 'Tunnel Of Love' isn't one of their better ideas), but this is a band to be celebrated for possessing one of the widest palettes in the business. Sure, other bands walked further in one direction in their expedition to chart unexplored territories in the name of popular music, but The Byrds never stepped in the same place twice (well, not after that second single anyway) and arguably covered more ground that way.
It's fitting, then, that this band who so loved randomness and changed direction with the wind ended with a reunion album that at least tried to take the band back to where they started, albeit making use of everything the five original Byrds had learnt in the meantime. The Byrds' work as a group should have ended not with the Neil Young covers of their reunion album (or indeed the Bonnie Tyler covers of the box set) but with Gene Clark's [182] 'Full Circle', the song chosen to start that reunion album instead. Here both life and the band's career are cyclical, circles to go round and round after years of living life in a zig-zag. It's the only band original that played up to what was The Byrds' biggest career statement and if only the band had put it at the end of that album it would have been perfect. Out of the rest of the band's career only [77] 'Wasn't Born To Follow' chuckles at the idea that you can take a Chestnut Mare to water and also make your listeners think. Not born to follow - the band sure got that right - no other band had such fun exploring or combining, dreaming of the future while looking back constantly over their shoulders.
The Byrds' story represents quite a flight. Sometimes soaring, sometimes crashing, sometimes down to Earth, sometimes Eight Miles High, theirs is a catalogue full of more peaks and troughs than perhaps any other band in this book series. But inconsistency is merely the downside of an exploratory nature and a drive of curiosity that means the band have to explore every large part of the great untapped wilderness. Ironically the band that once had a hit with [83] 'You Ain't Goin' Nowhere' was the band that most refused to sit still.

"The 60s: The Byrds"
(Import,  September 2014)
Mr Tambourine Man/All I Really Want To Do/I'll Feel A Whole Lot Better/Turn! Turn! Turn!/Eight Miles High/So You Want To Be A Rock 'n' Roll Star?/My Back Pages/Lady Friend/Goin' Back/The Ballad Of Easy Rider
"I ain't looking to compete with you, beat or cheat or mistreat you"
Yet another Byrds compilation, done on the cheap and with a playing time of not quite half an hour - stingy in the CD age. There's a quite ugly cover of the band on the front where they look more like The Addams Family than the 1960s' coolest American band and packaging that would have looked out of date in the 1980s, but at least the track selection offers a good overview for newcomers who are only interested in the 'proper' hits. Well those and [118] 'The Ballad Of Easy Rider', which seems a strange inclusion at the end. It probably took the compilers about ten minutes to throw together, but there are worse compilations out there and especially given that this CD set is, to date, the cheapest official Byrds CD on the market and therefore a useful stepping stone for fans who don't want to buy pricey best-ofs to sample one or two tracks they might not know. To be honest though the album re-issues don't cost much more than this and a purchase of 'Notorious Byrd Brothers' or 'Untitled' still offers much better value for money.

Gene Clark "The Lost Studio Sessions 1964-1982"
(Sierra, December 2016)
The Way I Am/I'd Feel Better/That Girl/A Worried Heart/If There's No Love/Back Street Mirror/Don't Let It Fall Through/Back To The Earth Again/The Lighthouse/The Awakening Within/Sweet Adrienne/Walking Through This Lifetime/The Sparrow/Only Yesterday's Gone/She Darked The Sun/Roll In My Sweet Baby's Arms/She Don't Care About Time/Don't This Road Look Rough and Rocky?/Bars Have Made A Prisoner Out Of Me/One Hundred Years From Now/The Letter/Still Feeling Blue/No Memories Hangin' Around/I'll Feel A Whole Lot Better
"A smoke-filled room full of inclinations"
Well, this was an unexpected festive treat - so unexpected I assumed I'd written the last page for this book until this release around Christmas 2016! The rehabilitation of all things Gene Clark in the 21st century continued with another fine set of unreleased (and mostly unbootlegged!) recordings taken from seven key moments in the life of the 'Tambourine Man'. In truth little of what's here lives up to the best of what Gene offered during his lifetime, again, but then that's rarity sets for you - what's more surprising is how much of this two-disc set is more than worthy of release and approaches a few miles high, if not always as much as eight. The set starts with a quintet of songs from 1964 taped alongside the 'Preflyte' ones with Jim Dickson producing. Was Gene being groomed to be a solo star the way that Crosby had been? Well, maybe, but Clark sounds even more uncomfortable here than he did surrounded by harmonies and other musicians, straining in a crooning voice throughout and these simple pieces don't rank anywhere near his songs for The Byrds the same year. 'That Girl' is rather nice though, a Scott Walker-ish piece about wondering why a loved one 'went away and left me alone' despite the very obvious connection between them. Obviously this song sets the tone for all of Gene's songs to come! The next pair of songs date from 1967, the year after Gene had left the Byrd and feature him collaborating with band friend Hugh Masekela for a joint project that sadly never happened. The actor David Hemmings picked Gene's song 'Back Street Mirror' for release as a single, which is how most fans know it but Gene's original demo is better (obviously) and as Dylanesque as he ever got; 'my mind pasted to the window with exaggerations' indeed. I prefer the rocky 'Don't Let It Fall Through', though, which takes what Gene always did (wordy intellectual emotional rock) and stuck a rock and roll beat and horns to it - the results are certainly different as Gene comes to terms with the end of yet another relationship in feistier form than normal.
Next up are seven unheard acoustic songs intended for a record that never got made somewhere between the Doug Dillard pair in 1968 and 1969 and 'White Light' in 1971. 'Back To The Earth Again' is one of the set's highlights, a beautiful and (for Gene) simple ballad about having got your hopes back up and prepared yourself for perfection when something goes wrong and you're back nursing your wounds again. 'The Lighthouse' - taped forty-five years before the Crosby album of the same name but by coincidence released the exact same year - is another great song about surviving storms and features a terrific vocal Gene would have struggled to beat in a 'proper' studio. 'The Awakening Within' uses meteorological metaphors to good effect, 'Sweet Adrienne' has Gene purring like Gordon Lightfoot on a love song much more 'normal' than usual, 'The Sparrow' is a Stephen Stills-style song equating a bird with a bird as it were as a lover becomes a symbol of countryside domesticity and 'Only Yesterday's Gone' is a pretty nostalgic number with more of a Beatley lilt than anything since The Beefeaters days. The other highlight though is surely the moody 'Walking Through This Lifetime' where Gene ponders many philosophical thoughts including whether 'freedom' is 'reality' or only a figment of his idealistic imagination. Hearing a song this good after so many years without him is a real treat.
Next comes the only song previously released 'She Darked The Sun', although it's not the version that appeared on the first Dillard and Clark album but a re-recording made with The Flying Burrito Brothers in 1969 during the five minutes or so Gene was in the group. It's rougher and rawer and rockier and clearly not as good and arguably the weakest thing on the set and was right to be replaced on record with the more impressive [4] 'Here Tonight'. After that comes a quartet of songs from an abandoned album from 1972, started in between 'White Light' and 'No Other' and while not up to either album it's still an impressive piece of work. Terry Melcher, first Byrds producer, taped these songs without quite knowing what to do with them and later took the unusual decision to make it an album for his own voice, replacing Gene's guide vocals for the final record released as simply 'Terry Melcher' in 1974. Fans had long wondered if Clark's vocals existed and they do, but don't get too excited as they're clearly guide vocals and Gene sounds even more lost in the production melee than Melcher did. The re-make of [42] 'She Don't Care About Time' as a slow country weepie is a worthy idea though and Gene's cover of Earl Scruggs' 'Don't Let This Road Look Rough and Rocky' is sublime, more heartmelting even than the similar slow ballads on 'Two Sides To Every Story'.
The final five songs all date from 1982, a period when Gene was struggling financially, creatively and healthily. Gene wasn't alone but the token songwriter and occasional singer for a new country-rock group named 'Nyteflyte' (with Michael Clarke and - briefly - Chris Hillman in the line-up) - though the name was suitably Byrdish the results were more like boiled-over Flying Burrito Brothers, being easily the weakest section of this set. However the band shines on an oddball mournful re-make of [25] 'Feel A Whole Lot Better'. This set also marks the first time Gene ever recorded a song by his Byrd 'successor' Gram Parsons, a mark of respect soon after his tragic death from one country-folk-rock star to another  - something that happens twice over on this compilation! There's an (oddly) more country and less rock country cover of [90] 'One Hundred Years From Now', which sounds much more like The Byrds than the final recording ever did and the 'GP solo song 'Still Feeling Blue' which wouldn't be my choice (Gene would have sounded great on 'She' or 'Brass Buttons') but does its job just fine.
Overall this set is an excellent reminder of just what a talent Gene Clark had and how frustrating it is that he had so little chance to do anything with it in his lifetime. While little here matches up to the very best of his solo work, much of it is good and a majority of it revealing as Gene shines whether singing solo to his own guitar or fronting (uncomfortably) a middle of the road country band. Heard together these different snapshots of Gene's life sound like various cul-de-sacs that might have been and any one of them could easily have led to big things, although there are no other 'No Others' here. Treat it as Gene's solo equivalent of 'Preflyte' though and you won't go wrong - no mean feat given that Clark had already seen the release of one odds and ends set ('Roadmaster') in his lifetime already and still had this many great things in the vaults left over!

A Now Complete Link Of Byrd Articles Available To Read At Alan’s Album Archives:

'Mr Tambourine Man' (1965)
‘Turn! Turn! Turn!’ (1965)

'(5D) Fifth Dimension' (1966)

'Younger Than Yesterday' (1967)

'The Nototious Byrd Brothers' (1968)

'Sweethearts Of The Rodeo' (1968)

'Dr Byrds and Mr Hyde' (1969)

‘The Ballad Of Easy Rider’ (1969)

'Untitled' (1970)
'Byrdmaniax' (1971)
'The Byrds' (1973)

Surviving TV Appearances
Unreleased Songs
Non-Album Songs (1964-1990)
A Guide To Pre-Fame Byrds Recordings
Solo/Live/Compilation Albums Part One (1964-1972)
Solo/Live/Compilation Albums Part Two (1973-1977)

Solo/Live/Compilation Albums Part Three (1978-1991)
Solo/Live/Compilation Albums Part Four (1992-2013)
Essay: Why This Band Were Made For Turn! Turn! Turn!ing
Five Landmark Concerts and Three Key Cover Versions

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