Friday 4 July 2008

The Byrds "Untitled" (1970) ('Core' Review #38, Revised Edition 2014)

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The Byrds "Untitled" (1970)

Track Listing: Lover Of The Bayou/ Positively Fourth Street/ Nashville West/ So You Want To Be A Rock And Roll Star?/ Mr Tambourine Man/ Mr Spaceman// Eight Miles High// Chestnut Mare/ Truck Stop Girl/ All The Things/ Yesterday’s Train/ Hungry Planet// Just A Season/ Take A Whiff On Me/ You All Look Alike/ Welcome Back Home (UK and US Tracklisting)

'Untitled' is an album with so much to say it doesn't even have time to waste on a proper title. Packed away inside it's 75 minute grooves is a double album that somehow manages to provide less filler than almost every single-disc Byrds album, with an atmospheric concert half that looks to the past before an equally atmopsheric studio half looks forward to the future, with everything seemingly poised to show what a great 'current' band The Byrds have now grown into. This has been a long time coming, with the band effectively playing 'catch-up' and making up for the loss of one member or another on every album since the second one, but finally The Byrds are stable (well, by their standards) and finally have a direction and vision: something that's been lacking ever since Gram Parsons hi-jacked the band and took them down a country road. This time it's the sound of The Byrds rolling down a highway, with their ideas suddenly sounding brighter, commercial and better thought through than they had in years and with their first top ten forty hit single in some two years under their belt The Byrds are at last flying high, their wings no longer clipped by arguments, confusion or lack of confidence. 'Untitled' is a joy to hear more or less from beginning to end - slightly less adventurous than earlier pioneering works like 'Younger Than Yesterday' and 'Notorious Byrd Brothers', perhaps, but covering more new ground than they'd allowed themselves to in an awfully long while. Legend has it that this album was only titled 'Untitled' by mistake, that producer Terry Melcher filled in that title meaning 'undecided' on some paperwork sent to a new artwork manager at Columbia who, misunderstanding, made it the name of the album. Before finding out that it was too late to change the Byrds had tentayively agreed on an album title of 'Phoenix', which would have made it the only Byrds album to ever play on their name - what a shame it wasn't used because, as Johnny Rogan's excellent CD sleevenotes point out, it would have been perfect: after several years of sracbbling in the dark The Byrds have risen from nowhere to prove that they still have so much to offer that could never be done better by any other band.

To these ears the Byrds had an electric stomp that few of their 60s contemporaries had, but annoyingly they never used that sound very often – labelled folkies after the successes of Mr Tambourine Man and Turn! Turn!Turn!, the band only got properly going with their true strength of power on Notorious Byrd Brothers (see no 20 on the list) and then suddenly gave the whole thing up for a diabolical series of country covers. Not to worry, that electric grit is all over this album, from the grinding warm-up of McGuinn’s guitar over the MC’s announcement of the band on the opening 'Lover Of The Bayou' which nearly knocks the audience off their feet to the seven-minute freak-out of the last song some 70 minutes later, an anti-war polemic that simply keeps coming and comcing and coming. In between there's a 20 minute jazz romp through the angriest version of Eight Miles High you’ll ever hear, the band's greatest ever Dylan cover on 'Positively 4th Street' ('You've got a lot of nerve!' barks McGuinn at the world, timid of his band and place within it no longer) and 50s throwback-with-then-deeply-duturistic-synthesisers ecologicak rocker 'Hungry Planet'. The Byrds never rocked this hard before and they never will again, sadly dropping the rock from their setlists in favour of more country and folk music with orchestras. Fun with strings (apart from a brief spell in 1967 when they spelled out class and sophistoication) is what artists tend to do when they're running out of ideas and aren't sure enough about the backing teacks in their own right. 'Untitled' however is nicely, powerfully raw with only a modicum of overdubs throughout both the studio and live performances, the band finally learning from the most successfuyl experiments on their last two albums (which are nearly all uncomplicated raw rockers like this: 'Bad Night At The Whiskey' 'This Wheel's On Fire' 'Jesus Is Just Alright' - everything successful except 'Gunga Din'!) Yet these rock songs areb't even the best on the album: that accolade belongs to the brilliant string of ballads that add a touch of class and beauty across this record, from hit single 'Chestnut Mare' to McGuinn's poignant twin compositions 'All The Things' and 'Just A Season' (candidates for the best two songs he ever wrote!), and Skip's cautionary tale of hippie politics 'You All Look Alike' (which would have been perfect for the soundtrack of 'Easy Rider') and Gene and Skips' gorgeous debate over life and reincarnation 'Yesterday's Train (released, funnily enough, just six months after ex-Byrds David Crosby does excatly rhe same thing on the title trtack of CSNY's 'Deja Vu'!), exquisite songs all. Best of all, the weird experiments are kept to a minimum: only Clarence's 'covers of Litle Feat's 'Truck Stop Girl' and Ledbelly's drug quoting 'Take A Whiff On me' don't quite hit the same heights and even these are of a higher grade quality than lesser songs from other Byrds albums.

There are two major reasons the Byrds manage to turns things round so quickly from 'Easy Rider', one of their more disappointing (or at least uneven) efforts. The first is that McGuinn has recently stepped back from being a Byrd for the first time in five years - and the busman's holiday has clearly done him good. He'd spent most of the year working feverishly away on 'Gene Tryp' with Dylan lyricist Jacque Levy (in a nutshell most of the famous Dylan songs from the 1970s people love have words by Jacque rather than Bob, from 'Knockin' On heaven's Door' down!) 'Tryp' was a musical the pair were hoping to put on stage (they still try and revive it every few years or so, but sadly without success to date) which re-told the story of 'Peer Gynt' from the point of view of an early American settler (the name being an anagram of Gynt's which also happened to use a first name shared by two Byrds!) While there have been several differing versions doing the rounds, depending on whose telling the story, the general consensus was that Tryp was one of the last great explorers, landing on the continent as a sort of loveable rogue ('Lover Of The Bayou'), covering vast acres of the Unites States on horse-back (where the album's best known song 'Chestnut Mare' really comes from, replacing theNorwegian deer of the original story), before hanging around to become a politician and founding father ('I Wanna Grow Up To Become A Politician', held over for next album 'Byrdmaniax'), falling in love ('All The Things') and eventually growing oldened and wisened in his new homeland ('Just A Season'). 'Stanley's Song' and 'Kathleen's Song' from later albums were meant to be part of the 'story', too, about incidental characters Gene met along the way. The cleverness of these songs, though, is how universal they are: you don't need to know any of the story for lines like 'Too busy talking to prove that I was not afraid' and 'I had my fun in the bull ring and never got a scar' to resonate. McGuinn always sounded a little lost to me when trying to come up with Byrds-like songs to appeal to Byrds fans and he never really got the same songwriting identity that love-lorn poet Clark, eccentric questioning Crosby or even country-psychedelic Hillman did. Roger's songs have ranged from the deepest things the Byrds ever did ('5D') to the silliest ('Mr Spaceman') - and that just on a single album! Writing using a set of characters seems to have really helped his writing though, ironically inspiring the most heartfelt, poignant songs of his career. McGuinn even sings his best vocals across this album too, fully convincing as a petty criminal from the swamps or a love-lorn balladeer. Someone, someday, surely is going to out a version of 'Gene Tryp' together properly featuring all these seven classic songs and many more that must have been written for the project but never used. I'm willing to bet it would be one of the greatest albums ever made with a Byrds connection - till then the studio side of 'Untitled' will have to do. McGuinn always seemed to work best as part of a democracy, encouraging his fellow musicians to greater heights and the Byrds were never more of a democracy than they are here. This album is still dominated by McGuinn’s songs, however, and his tracks here are all among the best he ever wrote.

The other reason for this album's success is their new line-up. Not co-incidentally, this double set was created by the band’s most stable and long-lasting line-up (McGuinn, Clarence White, Skip Battin and Gene Parsons who were together for - shock horror - three whole albums), but considering that they've just lost their bass player sound right on the money from the word go here. White and Parsons had been around for two albums by this time and have used the time wisely, gradually moving away from their pure country style to something more befitting a band worshipped for their eclecticism. Clarence White leads a full-scale charge throughout the songs on this album, leaving McGuinn to revert back to his preferred position as a rhythm rather than a lead guitar player, particularly on the live side, and although White’s vocals and song choices are probably the album’s weakest links, his instrumental skill and magical guitar interplay with McGuinn more than make up for it. Parsons isn't quite the star he was on 'Easy Rider' but is still on great form, adding a softer, folkier touch to the album's studio side and a heavy rocky edge to the live half. His rich, warm bass voice, multi-instrumentalist skills and rat-a-tat drumming are a key and under-rated part of the band's sound in this period and what's most interesting to me is how closely he can mimic Michael Clarke's work on the 'live' side while still adding a touch that's pure Gene. In total both Clarence and Gene play on five albums - as many as Hillman and more than any other Byrd except Roger; while they lose their way a little later (as the whole band do) they arguably reach their peak here, by now fully integrated into the band's sound.

New boy Skip Battin will become something of a love-hate figure amongst fans , either revered or reviled for his looser, funkier bass playing and even more so over his off-the-wall humour and wild and wacky songs. Some eight years older than the rest of the band back in the days when that really meant something (a difference of merely a year meant quite a different background when bands formed mainly at schools, with rock and roll changing every week), Skip started off as a Tin Pan Alley songwriter and will add the unlikely sound of music hall to the band's albums (with many of these songs co-written with pre-Byrds friend and star in his own right Kim Fowley). Most fans tend to not go near those songs with a bargepole and yes, indeed, there are many horrors to come on the next two records. For now, though, Skip is the creative driving force the band desperately needs and is at his most serious and most palatable across this album. Battin’s songs on here show a fine spiritualist bent – the musician was a practising Buddhist at the time and keen to get his new insights into life down in song – and on Welcome Back Home provides one of the most impressive songs in The Byrds’ canon. Indeed, Battin's relish of tackling 'big' subjects again (sometimes in partnership with close ally and rhythm partner Gene Parsons) gives 'Untitled' a weight other Byrds albums lack. His bass solo-ing on the live Eight Miles High (which takes up nearly half the 18 minute song) is highly impressive too, showing just what an under-rated performer he was when the Byrd is allowed to fully stretch his wings.

Generally speaking, the musicianship of the Byrds in the late 60s is exemplary, but their choice of material isn’t—sea shanties mixed in with 90-second Bob Dylan co-writes, a rowdy song about a barking pet dog, obscure country covers and a minute fragment that name-checks the three men who were the first to walk on the moon is quite normal for the Byrds, whose other fine material often got lost in the mix somewhere because the band covered just so many contrasting styles, seemingly for the hell of it (this little list unbelievably all comes from just one album– The Ballad Of Easy Rider—which is Untitled’s predecessor). Anyone whose ever sat through this album or the similarly uninspired Byrdmaniax and Farther Along will agree with me how hard it is even sitting through these album’s best moments when you know another badly-thought out oddball track is going to appear from somewhere any minute and you’ll have to reach for the skip button—and yet you may also sympathise with me when I say how annoying it all is given that these album’s best tracks (Gunga Din, I Trust and Tiffany Queen respectively) really are extremely good all round and with more tracks like these the later Byrds albums would never be off our turntables. Well, imagine how good it would be for a post-January 68 Byrds album to be made up of all good stuff.  Untitled is that album—a few throwaway hits played live and a Ledbelly cover or two aside. And not just one album, but two whole glorious records full of the stuff, jam packed at 75 minutes (putting 'Untitled' well inside the ten longest AAA albums of all time).

You can’t ever picture founder member Gene Clark, the Byrds’ chief songwriter in their early days, fitting into the band’s more explosive middle psychedelic years somehow. Gene’s magnificent brooding ballads and twists on the pop format had been perfect for 1965, but 1966 and 1967 called for something less gentle and thoughtful and more wild. Now though, things have gone 'full circle' (funny how ther circle is a wheel...) and once again The Byrds sound largely back where they started. In many ways 'Untitled' is also return to the formula of 'Tambourine Man' and 'Turn! Turn! Turn!', but now with Roger the sensitive, prolific songwriter ably assisted by the folky leanings of Gene and Skip. Our final reason why Untitled is such a success is that it is perhaps the most ‘Byrds’ like of any recorded post 1965, the one that ‘sounds’ like a natural path for the Byrds to follow and what all their records might have sounded like had Gene Clark stayed for a longer spell with the group and if psychedelia never happened.

There might only be one Dylan cover this time around - and then one of his least folkie songs - but there's a lot more Rickenbacker here than there's been for a long time, some gorgeous classy harmonies and a sense that once again The Byrds are treading the halfway house between Dylan and The Beatles - only contemporary Dylan and Beatles in both cases (the more reflective post-motorbike-crash Dylan singing about death and mortality and the road-weary Beatles mixing the depressiosn of 'Let It Be' and joyous encore of 'Abbey Road'). In many ways it's a shame The Byrds had to travel 'farther along' the same road to lesser success over their next and last three albums - 'Untitled' would have been a rather neat and rounded way to say goodbye. Rather like the cover in fact (an inverted photograph that runs across front andf back sleeves and the spine, one and another shot of the band sitting on some steps in the middle while multi-coloured planets sit in space) which effectively means the Byrds are waving 'hgello' to themselves, with the colours 'switched' round to imply they are positive and negative imagesof each other... as if the Byrds’ future selves is being transmogrified by the polarity of their past which in turn meets in the middle... Oh heck, just find the flipping picture somewhere on the internet if you want to know about it, because it’s really difficult to describe (as you can probably tell!) Suffice to say, this is a band who have come to terms with their past, are ready for the future and have an awful lot of things to say in the present.

Recorded some 30 months after the band’s last real pioneering moments, most fans who have heard the records immediately before and after Untitled never get around to buying this album, unaware of all the great things they are missing. But they should; Untitled is the last great moments of a great band that somehow knows it’s an endangered species, soaring to the heavens for one last magical flight. Untitled remains unbowed in the Byrds' discography, bucking the downwards trend of several records to return The Byrds back to being one of the greatest American bands that ever were, unafraid to tackle pastures new but confident enough to sound like their older selves once again. In short, the Byrds are a ‘band’ again, for the first time since, well, when were they a band exactly? (As early as their first long player Mr Tambourine Man they were busy grumbling over who got what percentage for doing what in the band). At last the Byrds are behaving how we always wanted them to, a group of equals or near-equals that musically shone in each other’s company night after night – gelling far more than the squabbling first-line up ever did. Whether flying eight miles high and travelling down the dangerous Bayou on the live record or reflecting on life, death and meaning on the studio side in betwen trying to catch that horse if only they can, The Byrds once again prove that McGuinn was more than right to keep on with his 'family firm' and proved that there was still a long way to fly.

The Songs:

The first, live record neatly displays the band’s new found energy. However, with Eight Miles High taking up a full 16 minutes of the CD (it took up the whole of side two on the original double album), there isn’t much space for the band to show off their full generic leanings and the other songs included here are a bit of a mixed bag. The best of the bunch is the only true ‘new’ song that opens the set, a fierce McGuinn rocker  [136a] Lover Of The Bayou. Like most of his best songs of the period, it comes from the abandoned Gene Tryp and finds McGuinn acting out one of his better characters. This swampy, nasty sounding song is one of a handful of tracks with a similarly snarling style that suits Roger’s voice surprisingly well, given that he himself was always the most gentlemanly and reserved of the Byrds. Despite making himself out to be a no-gooder, sweeping into town for one night-stands before leaving again in case people become too attached to him, this tale about light theft to make ends meet and a series of unflattering portraits (‘I drink the blood from a rusty can’ is a particularly un-Byrds like phrase that rather jolts the listener partway through the track) takes on a whole new meaning in the context of Gene Tryp. McGuinn and Levy altered Ibsen’s original setting to Civil War-era America and although you wouldn’t know from this one song, the narrator is actually more of a by-standing innocent, doing his best to stay heroic despite being on the run from a war he doesn’t believe in and being forced to choose sides, a task he finds impossible. A fine song, none of the three released recordings of this track ever catch fire in quite the way they should, though this live version comes the closest (it sounds pretty woeful on McGuinn’s later studio re-recording in 1974 for the hilariously titled Roger McGuinn and Band, a follow up to an album called - no kidding - Roger McGuinn). Along with other late-period McGuinn gems like Bad Night At The Whiskey (about a poor performance at the concert venue, not the alcoholic sort!) and King Apathy Three, this is the Byrds at their heaviest and most raucous, with McGuinn perfectly cast as the wronged narrator desperate to put things right and protect his character in the process. 

Things then get back onto familiar territory, thanks to a quick steal from the Dylan back catalogue. [137] Positively Fourth Street might not be one of the Bobmeister’s better known songs to the world in general, but it’s often acclaimed by those who know it. A relatively early song from 1965, this song is full of the brimming anger that Dylan only saves for special occasions and sounds all the better segued into the menace of the last track. A bitter song about the narrator’s apparent betrayal by his so-called friends, Dylan might well have written the song as a backlash against the old folkie friends who had so badly slated Dylan’s attempts to go electric, so its no surprise that McGuinn really identified with the song given his own band’s recent reverse journey from electric lynchpins to all-out country singers on the half-loved half-loathed mainly-ignored Byrds album Sweethearts Of The Rodeo. Sloppy but sung from the heart, this is the Byrds trying to sound like Dylan rather than creating a sound of their own and is thus an interesting experiment but not a revolutionary recording like much of the album.

[113c] Nashville West will be familiar to fans of the Dr Byrds and Mr Hyde album (I know there aren’t many of you out there but I have soft spot for this album myself!), this short instrumental ditty is perhaps the first obvious sign that the new-look Byrds were aiming to be a full country band. Written by White and Parsons during their stint together in an earlier band of the same name, this song was in effect their theme tune, the one they often played when first coming out on stage to set the tone for their act. Strangely coming partway through the Byrds’ set, this song shows how much more of a ‘band’ the Byrds were in 1970 than they were two years earlier when they first cut this song. Now far noisier and much closer to rock and roll than country, the band complement rather than compete with each other and really tap into this song’s simple groove well. Like many instrumentals, it’s not the sort of thing that’s ever going to be a 100% favourite classic with every fan, but for what it is Nashville West works pretty well and is a useful warm-up exercise for the rock and roll improvisations to come on the record.

[60b] So You Want To Be A Rock and Roll Star? has always sounded like one of the Byrds’ dodgier hit singles to me, a sarcastic put-down of The Monkees and other so-called ‘manufactured’ groups, which might have hit the spot were it not for the fact that 1) The Byrds were fairly close friends of the Monkees (Crosby knew Peter Tork quite well through Stephen Stills during the 1966-67 period this song was first written and recorded) and 2) The Byrds themselves could be accused of the same ‘manufacturism’ they charge others with during the song’s lyric (McGuinn is the only band member playing on first single Mr Tambourine Man, a fact that wasn’t well known at the time). The Byrds often ruined much of their ‘back pages’ catalogue by sprinkling these occasional bitter and hollow songs throughout their albums – which is a great shame given that this McGuinn-Hillman collaboration has one of The Byrds’ better guitar riffs and most developed melody lines about it to recommend. This new live version loses out on the Younger Than Yesterday original in many ways, notably the loss of the great trumpet lick (played superbly as ever by Crosby’s friend Hugh Masekela) and the first line-up’s classic harmony vocals. However, this later live version is far less arch, full of rocky swagger and power and played by a band who this time sound as if they mean it. In other words, a draw.

New live versions of [13c] Mr Tambourine Man and Mr Spaceman fare similarly well, losing out on breezy optimism but making up for it with sheer oompah power. The version of the former still pales in comparison to the version on Live At The Filmore East 1969 (released long after the band’s demise sometime in the early 1990s), though, and it’s painfully obvious that the 1970 line-up of the Byrds has only the tiniest of associations with its original incarnation, as the harmonies, musicianship and general atmosphere couldn’t be more different this time around. As for the song, this folk-rock Beatles-meets-Bob Dylan hybrid was a masterpiece of forward thinking in 1965 but sounds woefully backward here, re-cast for a now-electric band that can’t quite give it the subtlety it needs.

As for [48b] Mr Spaceman, a dryly witty McGuinn song from 1967, the song has not worn as well as other sci-fi Byrds songs of the period and also sounds very out of place in the Byrds’ 1970s set (although I am just thankful they didn’t do the dreaded Lear Jet Song again…) The tale of McGuinn being abducted by aliens sounds more silly than scary or thoughtful, with its ridiculous clod-hopping metre and off-key band harmonies. The electric bite of this version brings out the best in the song, however, as if the original Byrds had been abducted by aliens and replaced by a heavy metal-garage band! As an aside, I’ve often wondered about the advertising gimmick band manager Eddie Tickner put forward at the time, putting in a legal insurance claim serving against the loss of his clients to ‘being abducted by extra-terrestrial visitors’. Much laughed at at the time, given McGuinn’s sci-fi experiments and the general ‘there’s something different about this band’ aura the Byrds gave off, surely the gimmick wasn’t that far fetched – the Byrds’ music was never of this world anyway…

What the band perhaps should have done throughout side one is update their sound just a little bit more, like they do on the brave, jazzy version of [52c] 8 Miles High that takes up the whole of side two. Realising that his band are no longer built for three-minute pop singles but are quickly shaping up into a great improvisatory band, McGuinn re-arranges the song to let each member of the band in turn show off their skills and paying only the briefest of nods to the original tune (the ‘old’ Eight Miles High now takes place 12-13 minutes into this version and the rest of the song is all instrumental!) It takes almost 10 minutes before you even begin to recognise the song, so exploratory are the musicians at times, but the band are tight and well practised enough to make the song stretch out gloriously rather than end up in the befuddled noisy jam it might have done. With any other classic Byrds song this might have sounded sacrilege, but 8 Miles High is the perfect vehicle for space-flight, having been re-arranged by McGuinn and Crosby from Gene Clark’s original draft to consciously take the middle ground between the jazz of John Coltrane and the sitar music of Ravi Shankar, just as they’d tried to find the middle line between the Beatles and Dylan in their early days. Clark’s words, a wonderful psychedelic swash of surreal images based on the group’s 1966 trip to London (‘Rain grey town, known for its sounds…’), sound even more suited to this later incarnation of the track. The gentlemanly but fiery guitar exchanges between McGuinn and Clarence White spark both men on to higher things, being a two-way conversation sympathetic to the spirit of the original whilst giving it a new bark all of its own making. Much of the song is made up of a fierce duet from the band’s rhythm section, however, which interestingly contrasts greatly with their personalities. Wild man Skip Battin, the newest member of the group, prone to writing wildly extravagant and unique songs that frequently gave his fellow band members and fans apoplexy, turns in some solid tight groove bass playing, keeping the wild antics of the others in check. Gentle, affable Gene Parsons, meanwhile, offers a complete contrast to his velvety golden voice: his wild Keith Moon style drumming finds its true home on this live portion of the record, particularly with the improvisation of 8 Miles High, sounding far more comfortable than he ever does in the studio. Listen out too for the song’s poppy coda, a trick the Byrds last used at the end of Dr Byrds And Mr Hyde to signal the end of their first incarnation to the ever-faithful fans who would have known that this jingle always came at the end of the band’s first set and represents the end of their ‘first phase’. One of the last great Byrds moments, this new version of Eight Miles High finds the foursome back at their pioneering best, updating one of their already key contributions to Western music as a whole to sound even more pioneering and thrilling.

If the live record looks firmly to the past, though, the rest of the album points firmly towards the future. [138] Chestnut Mare is a relatively famous song that literally gallops its way through its pretty tune. Another Gene Tryp song, this found the Peer Gynt-like narrator exploring American countryside in the company of a stallion horse and is one of the Byrds’ better hymns to their homeland. Familiar to anyone with access to a Byrds Greatest Hits CD, this track is something of a farewell to all the genres the Byrds made their own in their short career. Part pop, part folk, part country, with a little bit of a rock kick going into the last verse, this song is nothing short of a history of the Byrds’ many musical influences. Yet strangely, given this song’s high-standing with fans of the band, the lyrics are bizarre in the extreme, telling the tale of a lone soul who can only find love in the arms of his horse (‘she’ll be just like a wife’ McGuinn sings at one point). Just about tight-roping walking itself out of danger for much of the song, this piece then gets truly iconic for the middle eight when the narrator’s chestnut horse leaps over a cliff and time seems to stand still over one of the most beautiful 30-seconds in the Byrds’ canon. A Bach-like fugue McGuinn had been trying to get into a song since his pre-Byrds college days, this reflective flowing sequence is perfectly cast in this song. Ironically, the song started out life not about horses at all but about the reindeer that was meant to have represented freedom to Gene Tryp. 

[139] Truck Stop Girl brings us the husky falsetto (you’ll know what I mean when you hear it) of Clarence White and the result is strangely affecting, but not something you’ll want to hear many times. This isn’t actually a Byrds song at all but one selected by White from a demo tape by Little Feat member Lowell George (later a producer, of the Grateful dead LP Shakedown Street amongst others, in the days before he became - relatively - famous). The lyrics of this song are hard to decipher, but seem to involve some sort of run-in with the law sparked by a passing romance between the narrator and a pretty girl he spots from his car, a liaison that results in a car accident that kills them both, with the narrator sounding somehow more pleased than upset about things as at least he was happy for the short space of time before he died. Irony of ironies, Clarence White was himself killed needlessly in a car accident just three years after this song came out, being hit by a speeding truck whilst unloading his guitars out of a van after playing a gig just months after the Byrds disbanded. In this context, lines like ‘he was so young’ now sound eerie and nearly un-listenable, despite the song’s poppy charm and gentle vibe. 

McGuinn’s [140a] All The Things is another Gene Tryp refugee and one of his greatest ballads, placed in the musical to give Gene some reason and incentive to overcome the problems he faces in the civil war and why he should fight on to serve his homeland despite his doubts and misgivings. Like the other songs, however, this song works just as well out of context, being a gorgeous hymn to mother nature and the importance of life in general, with the narrator un-expectedly in love and unable to believe that he’s never noticed such beauty in the world before now (even if McGuinn’s rather nasal vocal makes you think it’s a depressing song until you start paying attention). The sweet rolling tune of the song, which musically yanks its head up to escape the clouds overhead several times during the song, is matched by some delicate guitar and piano picking and a choir full of Byrds (including ex-Byrd Gram Parsons during a flying visit back with his old band). Very similar in theme and tune to CSN’s Wasted On The Way, with McGuinn determined not to pass up any more chances after suddenly realising what life has to offer him, this is another strong song for Roger who almost single-handedly rescues his fading reputation on this album. However, the recording used on the album is far inferior to the out-takes of this song – slower, rougher and longer but far more heartfelt, the version included as a bonus track on the Untitled CD re-issue is very much the keeper, although either version of this lovely song is pretty magical.

[141a] Yesterday’s Train is another gorgeously laid-back song all about future promises and coming to new understandings about the past. This time the song is by the one-off writing team of Battin and the always under-rated Gene Parsons, easily the equal of his more famous Byrds partner country legend Gram Parsons (amazingly no relation, despite their similar names and overlapping times with the same band). Gene’s lovingly warm deep voice suits this gentle song about reincarnation and the song’s tale about meeting past loves in present lives is handled well. Debating what ‘spark’ it is that makes us feel we have known certain strangers for much longer than a few minutes or hours, this is Parsons and Battin tapping into their shared Buddhist beliefs about re-incarnation and déjà vu , especially given lines like ‘from dust to dust, nothing dies’. A fine pastoral song, well up to the high standard of ballads on this album, this track is still no match for former Byrd David Crosby’s take on the subject on Deja Vu just four months (and four reviews on this list) earlier. The yearning middle 8 of this song (‘Yesterday’s train is rolling…’), with drumming that really does sound like a rolling train, may well be the album’s greatest individual moment however, perfectly poised between the minor and major keys and rocking back and forward between the two before deciding to take the happier option.

Battin, now working with his more usual writing partner Kim Fowley, ends the third side of the album with an unusual rocker called [142] Hungry Planet, a song that sounds as if it’s a band jam with some in-decipherable lyrics added afterwards. These lyrics – for what they are – represent an early ecological plea to treat our ‘hungry planet’ with respect, which is at least a pioneering idea for the time if not one of the better examples of moving environmental songwriting. More a chance for McGuinn and White to show off their guitar interplay - and for McGuinn to half-sing and half-slur the words - than a fully fledged song, what this track lacks in compositional qualities it more than makes up for by featuring some of the band’s best studio ensemble playing, with each member backing the others up superbly. Ironically, this fine band performance is partly obscured by some really weird synthesiser noises added later by McGuinn (who even gets a writing credit for them), which recall the badly dated sci-fi experiments he was writing in the 60s. Put that mellotron away McGuinn, you don’t know where it’s been! (With one of the Moody Blues probably…)

Side four’s [143a] Just A Season is an odd song to kick off the side with, another gossamer-light ballad from Gene Tryp with philosophical lyrics about the passing of time and man’s small role to play in the cosmos thanks to his tiny human lifespan. Another classic folk-rock hybrid, somehow McGuinn manages to fit his writing partner’s terribly complex and poetic imagery to his own simple and easily flowing tune easily, summing up in music the simplicity of Gene Tryp’s character when set against the complicated backdrop of mankind as a whole. There’s also an idea that Gene is a wide experienced traveller but one that still yearns for the comforts of home and the girl he used to love, although again this song works so well out of context that its easy to see this song as a more personal piece of writing from McGuinn (indeed, the line ‘I had my fun in the hull-ring and never got a scar, it really wasn’t hard to be a star’, much debated in Byrds circles as to whether or not it sums up the guitarist’s view of his time with this most tempestuous of bands, sounds like a far more Byrds-like idea than a Gene Tryp one). McGuinn wraps the song up with a fragile vocal that is among his best work and the backing swings along nicely behind him, creating yet another under-rated classic for the studio side of Untitled.

[144] Take A Whiff On Me is one of those jokey songs full of drug references you used to hear on several albums from the early 70s, but thankfully we don’t hear very often anymore - mainly because 30 years on rock stars have come to realise that writing jokey songs about things that cause death and devastation probably aren’t a good idea. A perfect advert for how drugs can sap your inspiration - the repetitive chorus of this old Leadbelly song makes even Agadoo seem inspirational - the anti-drug foundation ought to buy the rights to this song and screen it to imaginative musicians who don’t believe that drugs can sap your creativity. An annoying blot on the record, it’s incredible to think that McGuinn and White fought each other (in a nice way) over who should get the chance to sing this song (Clarence ‘won’). A shame, because the sudden return to country backing offers some welcome breathing space on this largely electric album and the band are on fine form in the harmonies side of things too.

[145] You All Look Alike is another curious track, with an understated vocal and an accompaniment so fragile that it almost isn’t there at all. The lyrics – a hippie shot dead for another’s crime because the ‘straight’ gunslinger can’t tell people with long hair apart – would have been a battle-cry in any other 70s band’s hands; here it sounds like an impersonal news report set to music. It also sounds just a bit too similar to the plot of the Easy Rider film, a project which had rather a close connection with the band. For those who haven’t seen the film or haven’t read our earlier list comments about Easy Rider yet, two hippies on motorbikes whose adventures we have been following for an hour and a half are killed by a passing driver for no reason other than ‘looking different’ (could it be the very American driver is seeking his revenge for losing his girlfriend to the hippies and that as in his mind they all seem one and the same killing any of them will do?) Easy Rider brought the band some badly needed kudos with the ‘hip’ generation of 1968 after one of their old songs I Wasn’t Born To Follow was included on the soundtrack, along with two strangely subdued McGuinn performances recorded without the other Byrds. McGuinn must have been ecstatic he beat ex-partner David Crosby’s band CSN to the soundtrack – their offering of Find The Cost Of Freedom for the end scene got binned in favour of a McGuinn Dylan cover! Rumour has it that the makers did more than just use the band for their music: Peter Fonda’s character is meant to have been based on the icy-cool McGuinn and Dennis Hopper’s fiery personality on Crosby; certainly the film’s co-creators Jack Nicholson and Bob Rafelson, using the money gained from the Monkees film Head, would have known the band through Crosby’s connections with that group’s Peter Tork and through the pair’s mutual friend Stephen Stills.McGuinn tries hard with Battin’s subdued and subtle song, but the style doesn’t really suit him or the band, despite its intellectual worth. Gene Parson’s ad libbed ‘well I guess I’ll just rock out here now’ and McGuinn’s amused retort (‘well, alright!’) before the pair start humming along to the solo is a glorious impersonal touch, however, revealing the band at their most relaxed and playful - always a pleasant thing to hear in the context of the band’s hire-and-fire reputation.

Closing track [146] Welcome Back Home is anything but playful, however; it’s nothing less than a Buddhist’s peaceful goodbye blessing for all the people who died in Vietnam on both sides of the war and is Skip Battin’s greatest shining moment with the band. Always off-the-wall, some fans just can’t take Skip’s dry sarcastic humour and by and large I’m one of them, but he judges things perfectly in this song. Inspired by both the high school friend of his who died un-recognised and forgotten while fighting in the Vietnam War and the American government’s general indifference to the soldiers returning back home, this political statement brings out the best in the Byrds and it’s a great shame they never did more political songs like this in all their years together. The play in the title on ‘well, come back home’ and ‘welcome back home’ balances America’s double standards in the war – too embarrassed to accept their soldiers as war heroes, they aren’t quite embarrassed enough to get them out of harm’s way either. ‘If you want to tell someone about it, tell me’ wails Skip, bravely breaking the taboo media silence surrounding the Vietnam war, with America’s band stepping in where the American government won’t. ‘I think that I’m afraid to hear it, I think that you’re afraid to say it, but tell me anyway you can’ goes the moving chorus, tapping into a nation scarred by a war that – largely for the first time – the world’s biggest superpower couldn’t convince people to fight without questioning. This moving song then ends with a long improvised fade out, bringing the length of the track to nearly eight minutes, an unusual practice for the Byrds barring this album’s earlier Eight Miles High. Skip sings the Buddhist chant ‘Nam Myoho Renge Kyo’ over and over, as if blessing the millions of innocent victims who have not been recognised by their leaders and trying to send them into the Buddhist version of the afterlife with some peace in their lives. Buddhists believe this chant to be the ‘highest’, most spiritual sound in existence, one that has great healing properties and is ‘above’ most usual human feeling (Extra note – now partly forgotten, this chant was better known to the public at large in the 1960/70s and The Monkees can be heard singing it with gusto in the last ever episode of their TV series from 1968). As a farewell blessing on behalf of the soldiers who risked their life ‘serving’ their country and whose deaths were never truly acknowledged, this song is extraordinarily moving and powerful and given the Iraq war’s presence as ‘our’ generation’s Vietnam this song seems suddenly very ‘current’ again. The band at their strongest, proudest, rightest and best, just like they are on most of this album.

McGuinn says today that he is embarrassed by the Byrds’ later albums and wishes he’d knocked the band on the head after fellow founding member Chris Hillman left in 1968. Seeing as this is a man who once put his hoover on centre-stage of a Byrds record, its no surprise that most of the Byrds’ casual fans give up collecting the band’s music somewhere around the Younger Than Yesterday record in the belief that most of these albums must be poor indeed. Largely speaking McGuinn’s probably right to say that the Byrds should have been left as a pretty memory, as most of the band’s late period albums are misguided messes, full of worn-out old ideas and wrong-footed new ones. But the guitarist is completely wrong in the case of this delightful record, which plays to all of this band’s strengths and only makes the occasional return to their ever-ready weaknesses. After the dazzling, unexpected heights of Untitled, what on earth went wrong with the band on the next two albums? (The highlight of which was written and sung by their new roadie!)… 

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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