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Thursday, 4 August 2011
The Byrds "Younger Then Yesterday" (1967) (News, Views and Music 108)
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The Byrds “Younger Than Yesterday” (1967)
So You Want To Be A Rock ‘n’ Roll Star/Have You Seen Her Face?/CTA-102/Renaissance Fair/Time Between/Everybody’s Been Burned//Thoughts and Words/Mind Gardens/My Back Pages/The Girl With No Name/Why?
In 1967, The Byrds were in freefall. Well, thinking about it, there never actually was a time when The Byrds weren’t in freefall, but 1967 was a particularly difficult year. Lead singer and lead composer Gene Clark, who would have been the star in any other 1960s band, has been gone for two albums now and the band are only just realising how badly they need him to get by. Stories about inter-band politics and arguments have followed the band around since their first recording session, but it’s here on album four that the difficulties are really beginning to show. In fact, many fans following The Byrds and hearing tales of all the fist-fights and no-shows at gigs assumed the band had enjoyed it’s last flight and were more than a little surprised to see the arrival of another album. But even then, fans would have had a bit of a shock reading through the writing credits. Surprisingly Roger McGuinn, the de facto leader of The Byrds on the last album who’d had a hand in choosing or writing practically all the material, is having a bit of writer’s block, with only one song and a co-credit and just two vocals to his credit. David Crosby is to some extent the band’s new leader and at his zenith with his first band (he’d be fired during sessions for the next record), enjoying the summer of love with some of his weirdest and least commercial material that to this day has many of his biggest fans scratching their heads. The biggest surprise, though, is the presence of Chris Hillman, the shy retiring bass player who’s never had a single song to his credit released by the band before and takes almost all the lead vocals on the album. With all these factors working against it – the ‘talent’ of the band in fans eyes gone or silenced, to make way for the looser style of Crosby and the unknown factor of Hillman - ‘Younger Than Yesterday’ should be terrible, the sign of a once-great band making its last gaps. Instead, ‘Yesterday’ is regularly rated as both one of the band’s best albums and one of the greatest American psychedelia albums, with a respect few other Byrds albums still have. Things will all change by the time of follow-up ‘Notorious Byrd Brothers’ (AAA review no 20) where the quartet become a duo (with Gene Clark arriving and leaving once more along the way) and the band will change forever by the time of that album’s country-rock follow-up ‘Sweethearts Of The Rodeo’, but for now, for once, for possibly the one and only time, The Byrds are realising their potential.
There’s a quote on the back of the band’s first album ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ where McGuinn talks about being at the forefront of a ‘jet age sound’, one that reflected the aeroplanes and machines of the day (rather than the more mechanical sounds of the 1940s; ‘krrrrrrrriiiiiiiiiiiiiisssssssssssssshhhhhhhhhh’ versus ‘rrrrrrrrooooooooooooooaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaarrrrrrrr’ as the band succinctly put it). Arguably, they were a bit premature there, as in 1965 with folk-rock on the rise the sound was a little bit quieter and more thoughtful than that. But in 1967 their slogan had become true – along with that ‘other’ band dedicated to ‘flying high’ the Jefferson Airplane, The Byrds have a special style true just to themselves in this period, made up of Hillman’s unique swooping bass, McGuinn’s ever-jangly guitar, Michael Clarke’s simple rock attack on the drums and Crosby’s jazz and Eastern influences. No other band of the day sounds like this, with this same mix of eclectic styles, and even The Byrds didn’t sound like this for very long (indeed, The Byrds never stood still from one LP to the next).
There are two major themes on this album, that of disgruntlement and that of things not turning out the way you expected them to. Indeed, by 1967 standards this is a very depressing album indeed, although it fits nicely the swing of mood that will occur in 1968 when revolution hangs in the air. We spoke above briefly about the ’27 club’ when artists get fed up of the fame and glamour and having to repeat themselves. Most of the band were 26 when they made this album but, heck, the Byrds always were earlier than their contemporaries and they certainly do sound fed up of the music business here. A lot of fans and critics missed it, what with the batch of songs about girls and aliens in the middle, but you could see ‘Younger Than Yesterday’ as an early tirade about the gloomy side of being a star. After all, the first track is an open letter against the music business – and the rise of The Monkees in particular – and ends with an only slightly more disguised diatribe against David Crosby’s mother about not being appreciated for his talents. Along the way, lovelorn narrators are ‘burned’, girls are made distant by ‘time’ ‘geography’ or ‘emotions’ and there are ‘walls’ we use to protect ourselves when life gets harsh. No wonder the band nearly broke up during the making of this record, as this really is about as far and away from teenage love songs as it’s possible to get.
The title itself is a weird one. On first glance it’s wonderfully psychedelic nonsense-filled motto, one that links itself back to childhood and the notion that things were better before the adult world corrupted us. But the title actually comes from an old Bob Dylan song that was already a good few years old at the time – and despite coming to fame with a cover of a Dylan song, by 1967 standards this was old news. ‘I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now’ is one of Dylan’s better phrases, saying much without actually saying anything at all, and you can see why it appealed to The Byrds. But for The Byrds Dylan was history at this point, having disappeared after a mysterious motorbike accident where nobody quite knew where he was (the answer – holed up in a barn recording country songs with The Band but people didn’t know that back then) and decidedly out of fashion. By contrast the Byrds are striding forward on this album and it sounds very out of place when they try to keep in touch with their past (Crosby hated the song and campaigned long and hard to have it kicked off the album – in the end, the band came to a compromise, allowing him to keep the song’s polar opposite ‘Mind Gardens’ on in return for his help with the recording). The result is a schizophrenic album with a full melange of styles both forward thinking and back, one that takes in everything from aliens from the future to the Renaisance, as summed up by the typically Byrdsy cover which features ghostly images of the band members looking over their own shoulders (a theme later developed for Dr Byrds and Mr Hyde, with a ‘country’ Byrds shadowed behind their ‘futuristic’ selves).
Variety is the spice of life, so they say, and it certainly helps on this album, which goes in several hundred directions at once. There’s one aspect that stops ‘Younger Than Yesterday’ from being perfect, however. Well, actually there’s two but we’ve already discussed the loss of Gene Clark. This album clocks in at just 29:36, missing out on a ‘top five’ shortest album placing by less than 10 seconds, and would have seemed short by 1964 standards, never mind 1967 ones. It’s also the shortest Byrds album and with just 11 tracks badly needs something extra to make it feel more substantial. That fact is even odder when you consider that, unlike The Beach Boys and Beatles, The Byrds only had to make one record a year not three or four according to their contract and that they had a bunch of other songs under consideration. In one of the strangest moves the band ever made, the band nixed the recording of Crosby’s ‘It Happens Each Day’ from the album at the last minute, even though it’s among the strongest songs The Byrds ever did and far less controversial than ‘Mind Gardens’, the Crosby track that everyone else but him seemed to hate. Perhaps Crosby was tired from fighting, but it’s hard to see why a band this short on material and time vetoed the inclusion of both this and flop single ‘Lady Friend’ for an album that could have been close to perfect. As a result, it’s sad that in-band bickering spoilt what could have been the Byrds’ best shot as posterity on album – as it is, fans are split over whether it’s this one, ‘5D’ or ‘Notorious’ which is their best album – personally I’d pick the latter, but all three are bright, blossoming, quirky albums with more than their fair share of success stories.
I’d love to say that ‘Yesterday’ was a great band record, but then The Byrds hadn’t really been a ‘band’ since their days as the ‘Jet Set’ in 1963 – and then they were a trio without a rhythm section. In truth, this is Chris Hillman’s show, the future Flying Burrito and Manassas member plugging the gap with some excellent material which manages to bridge the gap between the band’s older, more accessible material and Crosby’s weirder songs. The others may have resented Crosby’s growing ego, one that led him to preach about politics and conspiracy theories on-stage in between songs (something that fitted in perfectly for CSN crowds but must have really riled pop fans wanting to hear The Byrds’ biggest hits), but they also badly needed him at this point, with Crosby the ‘hippest’ Byrd at the period in time when being ‘hip’ meant more than ever. His songs for this album, both released and unreleased, are a staggering move forward from his earliest Beatlesy songs (‘Burned’, although written much earlier, is still only the second song ever credited just to Crosby – and despite its early 60s vintage still manages to sound futuristic here). McGuinn is, unusually, just along for the ride, taking one clear lead vocal on a Dylan cover and offering just one new song, although that is one of his best and most-under-rated. Finally, Michael Clarke doesn’t quite as sure of himself as he did on ‘5D’, possibly because he has to cope with such a mix of styles, but he’s still learning pretty quickly given that as late as 1964 he was still playing on cardboard boxes because the band couldn’t afford a full kit (the first two Byrds albums sound like it too, although on the next three his drumming is pretty darn good). This is Chris Hillman’s show, however, the start of a great six year run that will see him write many of the best songs for The Byrds, Flying Burrito Brothers, Manassas and the Souther-Hillman-Furay Band, and the bassist couldn’t have blossomed at a better time for his band.
Like all Byrds albums up until this time, ‘Younger Than Yesterday’ kicks off with what was then the band’s current single. And like the last album’s ‘5D (Fifth Dimension)’ ‘So You Want To Be A Rock ‘n’ Roll Star sold too poorly to be a hit but too well to be a flop. Most fans regard it highly, with its somewhat mischievous tone and cheeky damnation of bands who don’t have the same integrity as The Byrds. It certainly has a rattlingly great tune, with McGuinn’s busy riff perfectly placed and the horn riff from guest Hugh Masekela is a delight (ducked in the mix here, his solo really comes alive on The Byrds’ Monterey Pop Festival performance). But, for me, the lyrics aren’t as clever as they think they are and the potshots at a band who had never met before they were famous (long hinted to be The Monkees) are hypocritical, given that only McGuinn played an instrument on the Byrds’ biggest hit ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ (chief writer Hillman wasn’t on the song at all!) As co-writer McGuinn (who fine-tuned the guitar riff and helped with the lyrics) pointed out, the song was written at a time when there were more new bands around than ever, most of them only lasting a few months before fading back into obscurity, and in his words ‘all of a sudden here is everyone and his brother and sister-in-law and his mother and even his pet bullfrog singing rocvk ‘n’ roll!’ To be fair, the words are just about vague enough to sound cheeky rather than offensive and there are some good lines, especially the one about ‘selling your soul’ to a company who see you as money-spinners, even whilst the fans wait for a religious experience from your ‘plastic prayers’. Everyone is wrong, in other words – the bands and fans who take themselves too seriously and the record company that doesn’t take them seriously enough. The song then, annoyingly, sticks to the same groove without changing – perhaps a damnation of the lack of imagination of the band in the song, with the only release from the tension a very Eurovisiony chorus of ‘la-la-la-la-la! La-la-la-la-la! – but even though the band are laughing at other bands for being boring, they sadly are pretty boring themselves here. The end result is a mixed bag really – the horns and guitar-work are genius, but the rhythm section and most frustratingly the harmonies sound lacklustre and there are too many filler lyrics to go with the spot-on observations (‘and when your hair’s combed right and your pants so tight it’s a gonna be alright’), the sound of a talented band trying too hard and only hitting the mark occasionally. Still, considering Hillman had never had a song released by the band before, it’s pretty good for a first attempt – and it’s hilarious to think that Chris’ first songwriting credit (barring the group jam ‘Captain Soul’) was for a track that poked fun at songwriting! The screams, by the way, come from a Beatles concert (if you listen carefully you can just hear someone shouting ‘Ringo!’ in the instrumental section) and were probably ‘loaned’ by Derek Taylor, the publicist for both bands in this period.
For my money, Hillman’s lesser known ‘Have You Seen Her Face?’ is far superior and sets the tone for most of his country-rock hybrids to come (The Byrds may have had all the fuss about creating the genre with their ‘Sweethearts Of The Rodeo’ album in 1968, but really they started playing with the idea as early as their second LP). This simple song has a lovely flowing melody that seems to jump from one foot to the other in it’s excitement at falling in love and being caught up under his girl’s ‘spell’. In fact, this song is almost McCartneyesque in the way the song sounds complete and fully formed and so seemingly obvious you’re surprised it hasn’t been around for decades longer. You can also hear the Hillman-Crosby blend at its best, the two friends handling the lion’s share of vocals for this album without McGuinn adding his own parts for some reason and they sound so similar in parts it’s like hearing one voice. Interestingly, Byrds expert Johnny Rogan (whose book on The Byrds ‘Timeless Flight’ is still the only one ever published about the group, perhaps because it’s so detailed and definitive there’s really not much more to add) reckons this song’s basslines are McCartneyesque too – had Chris just been turned ‘on’ to the moptops, some years after his band members and started writing in their style? (as a mandolin player in the early 60s Chris had the least pop background of all The Byrds, a background dominated by country and folk). Interestingly, though, its Beatle fan McGuinn who adds the most exotic touches to the song, with an intriguing guitar part that burbles underneath the main tune in contrast to what everyone else is doing, with a sound more akin to a pedal steel than his usual Rickenbacker trademark (actually, it’s a Gretsch Country Gentleman, making its only appearance on a Byrds album). Less ambitious than most of the other tracks on the album, ‘Face’ is actually one of the most impressive songs on here, rattled off by the band with a casual breeze that makes it a delight and far more in keeping with their past work than the other songs here. A quiet triumph for the band and especially for writer Chris Hillman.
‘C.T.A-102’ is, in contrast, one of the weirdest songs in my collection and is easily the most outrageous thing The Byrds ever tried (well, until Skip Battin joins the band anyway!) McGuinn was famous for his love of both gadgets and science and he gets to indulge in both here, with a bleeping synthesiser-laden soundbed that sounds like an alien world – and futuristic lyrics about contact with aliens on top. The song was inspired by a scientific article Roger read about quasars, which in the 1960s had only just been discovered and weren’t yet that well understood. We know now (well I say we, I wouldn’t have a clue!) that qasars are random pulses of radiation given out by imploding stars – but, back when they were first discovered, the noises picked up by distant telescopes fascinated scientists and even led some to believe they were the sounds of aliens making contact. Inspired by this, McGuinn turns in one of his funniest works, far more hilarious than his similar but gauche ‘Mr Spaceman’, with a jolly group of scientists who speak directly to the aliens and send their own pulse-waves across the stars. There’s a poignancy here too, though, with, the line about ‘we don’t care whose been there [in space] first!’ a defiant cry against the space wars between America and Russia. Remember, this is two years before man had landed on the moon, with the whole universe up for grabs by one or other leading power, and the Byrds here embrace the idea that space discoveries should be for the benefit of all mankind. It’s the ending, though, for which this song will be best remembered, with a sped-up McGuinn and Crosby (both still pretty recognisable despite some great effects) trading lines of gibberish while a synthesiser pulsates behind them. The band also borrowed from Stockhausen for some of the more out-there noises (such as piano pedals being banged with fists and being treated with echo to provide a suitably spacey, monotonous sound) and what sounds like a xylophone being struck very heavily. The result is a fun piece, one that successfully conjures up images of aliens and space and makes it sound like a fun place to be (which, in 1967 before Nasa’s accidents and any casualties, it was), in steep contrast to McGuinn’s later space anthems ‘Space Oddysey’ and ‘Hungry Planet’, both of which portray space as being big, black and scary. One of the gems of the record, so 1967-sounding and yet so timeless at the same time. Oh and McGuinn must have had some friends in high places, as respected radio astronomer Dr Eugene Epstein (of Jet Propulsion Laboratories) references the song in his scientific paper ‘The Astrophysical Journal’, something which must have pleased science fanatic McGuinn no end!
‘Renaissance Fair’ is a Crosby song which McGuinn helped him complete, a song that somehow manages to sound very 60s and also true to the Renaissance period of the title. Crosby, always one of the hippie dream’s biggest champions, fondly imagines that people will look back on ‘his’ decade with as much fondness and admiration as people do about the Renaissance with its sudden uprising of poets, artists and scientists. On the one hand a simple list of exciting things happening, on the other ‘Renaissance Fair’ can be seen as quite a deep song about the parallels and similarities of the two eras, both of them happy times when discoveries are constantly being made and the old monotonous order is being overthrown. (Actually, I’ve only just learnt while researching this article, that there really was a ‘Renaissance Fair’ festival in L.A. in late 1966, with hippies dressed up in medieval clobber, which is presumably where Crosby got the idea). The chorus line ‘I think that maybe I’m dreaming’ is quite a famous one, being recycled by Eric Burdon in his hippie tribute song ‘Monterey’ (which also includes the line ‘The Byrds and the Airplane did fly...’) and the whole song sums up well a feeling of disbelief, not out of confusion for once on this site but from happiness. The tune switches several times throughout the song and together with McGuinn’s frenetic guitar riff and Hillman’s ever-moving bass riffs it really does sound as if there are too many good things for the narrator to take it at once. I’m especially fond of the middle eight – it doesn’t change the song that much, but the slight slowing tempo and reflective minor key is very Crosby and sums up the feeling of nostalgia well, until the song happily resolves itself on Hillman’s plunging bass riff. Considering most of the band hated Crosby’s contributions, this one went surprisingly smoothly and lasted in their set for quite a while and its perhaps the best example of Crosby matching his hippie ideals and desire to push the limit of music with the sort of three minute pop songs the Byrds specialised in. Enticing and exciting, there’s just two factors preventing this from being among the best ever Byrds tunes – a rather tired sounding Hillman and Crosby sharing the vocals and the brevity of the song, clocking in at under two minutes (there’s so much happening all around, surely we can spend longer looking at it all?!) Still, a fine song.
‘Time Between’ is another Hillman song that sounds at one with other AAA songs about being on tour (10cc’s ‘Lifeline’, Jack The Lad’s ‘Back On The Road Again’, etc), with the narrator out on the road desperate to phone home and speak to his girlfriend. The only problem is, he’s so far from her she’s in a different time zone and he has to compensate for the time difference, with a metaphor there also for how far apart they are geographically and emotionally – describe it as he can, there’s no way the narrator can reconcile these two very different ways of living with each other. There’s also a dual meaning there too – the ‘time between’ the pair is also the narrator’s regret that two people who have just met and were so in love have had so little time together. A love letter turned into a song, this song sounds both very personal and honest and very crafted all at the same time (like many a Hillman song, this one is a lot of little melodies perfectly stuck to each other so that you can’t hear the join). Clarke’s frantic drumming slightly on the off-beat is an excellent underpin to this song, sounding like someone really tired running really fast, while guest Clarence White (who’ll become a Byrd himself in two years and three album’s time) is as great as ever on the country guitar part. Hillman himself doesn’t think much of this song – allegedly the first he ever tried writing – but he should, as it shows many of the character traits that will mark his songs for years to come, with clever half rhymes, a staccato rhythm delivered at speed and a chorus that somehow manages to sound happy and sad all at the same time (‘Through love and trust I know it’ll work out fine – the only pain I feel is all this time between you and me’). A forgotten gem.
‘Everybody’s Been Burned’ is also Crosby’s first song – give or take a couple we don’t know about, although it’s certainly the first many of his early followers remembers hearing from Crosby’s early club-singing days, along with a cover of Dino Valentini’s ‘Get Together’. I was amazed when I first learnt that fact, partly because this fragile, spacey song which speaks in metaphors sounds so much of its time, partly because the band hadn’t chosen to revive it before (its certainly better than Crosby’s other songs on the first three Byrds albums) and partly because from the first Crosby has already found his ‘style’ of unusual guitar tunings, moody atmosphere and controversial lyrics. The idea of the song is that everybody in love suffers at some point – an idea at loggerheads with the 1950s image of ‘one true love’ and childhood sweethearts’ – and branches out to the idea that love only matters to the two people sharing a romance and that no one else’s opinion counts, whatever the criticism. I can just see that idea going down well with the other Byrds! There’s also plenty of other Crosby images he’ll pick up on later in his career – there’s a ‘bitter wall’ with ‘doors’ (reminiscent of both ‘The Wall Song’ from the first Crosby-Nash record in 1971 and this album’s ‘Mind Gardens’ – was Crosby inspired to write that one after re-discovering this song perhaps?) and an ending where Crosby’s narrator ignores all of his fears and decides to just love instead. Manager Jim Dickson (see below) reportedly hated this song, perhaps the reason why it never came out until his influence over the band was coming to an end) because it was ‘so off it’s time’ – if so then its hard to understand what he means. Sure, ‘burned’ is a phrase that was slightly anachronistic by the mid-60s, but fans would still know what he means and the intense atmosphere gets the claustrophobic atmosphere across perfectly well. Impressively the other Byrds – less than supportive of Crosby’s other songs in general – do the song proud, with a tender guitar solo from McGuinn that reeks of both pain and strength and Hillman’s uncharacteristic bass rumbles add an ominous air to the song that’s very fitting. This is Crosby’s show, though, and his vocal (only his third solo vocal of all released up to that time) is delightful, dripping with pathos and sympathy and his acoustic guitar playing too is sublime, pulling on the notes as if trying to drag some response from the narrator’s partner. A strong song expertly presented, this may well be Crosby’s shining moment with the band in their lifetime – although see this album’s outtake ‘It Happens Each Day’ for perhaps Crosby’s greatest Byrds song of all.
Now onto the second genius song in a row, Hillman’s ‘Thoughts and Words’, a song I rated highly on my ‘gold, silver and bronze’ award list a few months ago (see the forum!) At first glance this is another simple song with Hillman’s characteristic clipped sentences and half rhymes, this time stretched out across three lines so that the bassist is out of breath by the end. It’s also another song about being caught up under someone’s ‘spell’, but this time it’s the underside of that thought, with the narrator trapped in a relationship he doesn’t want because he’s terrified to leave. As the chorus tells us, this guy thought he was in charge of the relationship but he hadn’t realised just how powerful a hold his girl had on him. Just at the point where you’re beginning to work that out, in comes the most memorable moment of the song, a cascade of backwards tape loops and sound effects that sound like nothing short of the world ending, propelling the narrator further down his hypnotised trance, especially when played in counterpart to each other. By 1967 standards or, well, even today’s standards this effect is mesmerising, so other-worldly and modern it sounds like it can’t possibly be coming from a record made 44 years ago, but there it is – a scary, scary moment on a quite terrifying song. So much for Hillman writing the more conservative songs for The Byrds! Many fans and critics dismiss this song as being all about the sound effect, but even without this would be quite a powerful song, with the whole band performance full of tension and crackling with fear. Hillman’s vocals, seemingly deliberately ducked in the mix, makes it sound as if the narrator isn’t really there while the group harmonies on this song have just the right amount of menace and politeness, so that we too can’t quite work out what’s going in this song. Listen out too for Crosby’s counterpart harmony at the end, singing his own cut down version of Hillman’s part which in its own way makes just as much sense (‘One day you came into my mind and everything it was all mine...loveliness, I feel your magic, feel your magic ways’ against ‘One day you came into my mind when everything it looked as thought it was all mine, loveliness to gaze upon, to feel your magic pulling me away’). Wow, quite possibly the highest peak The Byrds ever reached, powerful and progressive without losing the commercial feel of the song, its criminal how so few fans know about this track and how lowly regarded it is (it didn’t even make it onto the Byrds box set!) Full marks to everybody for this one, especially Hillman.
Alas, from this point in the album on, ‘Younger Than Yesterday’ seems to lose its way a bit. Crosby’s latest epic ‘Mind Gardens’ is one of those marmite Byrds tracks you either love or hate – even the band and management were heavily divided in their opinion of it at the time and it only made it onto the LP after a protracted argument. Considering how much I love Crosby’s other-worldy most out-there songs (‘Where Will I Be?’ ‘I’d Swear There Was Somebody There’ ‘Tamapalpais High’ ‘Flying Man’ etc) I have to say I was quite disappointed by this track, although its not as bad as some fans suggest. Less of a song and more a monologue set to music, this piece has no lyrics in the traditional sense (no verse or chorus structure; no rhyming scheme) which was outrageous for the times, but this is less of a problem than the backing, with its squawking tape loops and backwards guitar parts. The backing just gets in Crosby’s way too often, which is a shame as much of this song contains some very moving images, with Crosby telling us about the garden inside our minds that gets over-run with problems and shut off behind defensive ‘walls’ that block the ‘sunlight’ man needs. It’s all very psychedelic, possibly the most out-there the Byrds ever got, but unlike the other psychedelic pieces on this album, it’s not quite timeless enough to work as well now. I have to say though that I love Crosby’s voice on this one, soaked through with passion and steering it’s way through Cod Shakesperian English (‘The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’) and Indian melismas, a circular held note usually heard on sitars (‘and when the sun ca-a-a-a-a-a-me’). In lesser hands than Crosby’s this song would have been a mess, but if you can put up with this song’s left-field approach there’s much to love about. Listen out too for Crosby’s triumphant ‘I tore the walls all down!’, a full dozen years before Pink Floyd yelled ‘tear down the wall!’ The irony, of course, is that the struggle to get this song on an album against the wishes of the other Byrds added more undergrowth to Crosby’s ‘garden’ than ever before – and took up time that might have been better spent pushing for the inclusion of ‘Lady Friend’ and ‘It Happens Each Day’ on this album, superior songs both. Still, ‘Mind Gardens’ is a fascinating experiment and even though its a flawed one you still have to give credit to The Byrds and Crosby in particular for trying to pull off something this complex. As an aside, I actually prefer the unreleased ‘demo’ version on the CD re-issue, which makes up for a lesser Crosby vocal by toning down the sound effects and letting McGuinn’s bubbling guitarwork shine through.
‘My Back Pages’ is an awkward backward step, a Dylan cover that only made it to the album after another lengthy argument, as part of the compromise for including ‘Mind Gardens’, this cover’s polar opposite. Now, I’ve never been that much of a Dylan fan, whether in the hands of The Byrds or The Hollies or the original, and this cover is played particularly badly. Crosby, famously, hated it and argued they shouldn’t be throwing back to the past with cover versions when their own songs were so strong – if its a choice between this rubbish and ‘Mind Gardens’ then I’m with Crosby, but then again that would have left McGuinn with just the one song and vocal to his name. McGuinn tries hard, but this is a song less suited to The Byrds style than any of their other covers (I still say the menacing live version of ‘Positively 4th Street’ from ‘Untitled’ is the best) and none of the band seem to know their parts that well (McGuinn’s solo is played so slowly even I could make a stab at playing it, Michael Clarke’s drumming gets slower as the track wears on and in contrast to his excellent playing on the rest of the album, Hillman’s bass part here is looped and literally wanders round and round the same part on the final verse, as if in search of the tune). Sure there’s that clever line that gave this album its title and its very fitting for an album released just before the summer of love – but, seriously, what were The Byrds thinking, putting this on the album whilst ‘It Happens Each Day’ missed the cut? Ironically only Crosby sounds at all comfortable, repeating his old ‘innocent’ harmony vocal he used on the band’s previous Dylan covers. Again, I slightly prefer the unreleased version included as a bonus track on the CD, although the differences are slight with just a chirpier organ part that makes the recording sound more ‘involved’ somehow.
‘The Girl With No Name’ is Hillman’s last song on the album – amazingly, it’s his fifth, more than McGuinn or Crosby – and probably his weakest. Like ‘Time Between’ it’s a country-rock number that tells the story of a relationship in the style of a Western (Crosby must have been listening, as his 1971 solo track ‘Cowboy Movie’ – which tells the story of the breakup of CSNY – is very similar). The events are true too - well, in as much as Hillman’s friend of the time really did have the unusual name ‘Girl’ as her Christian name – and it may well be the same person who inspired Hillman’s other songs on the album. The tale is another simple one linked by Hillman’s quick stabbing lines and quick, clever rhymes, with the pair on the beach finding that they’ve just fallen in love despite the warnings of their friends and, by the final verse, watching the relationship die. Hillman doesn’t sound that upset, though, with a vocal that treats the song as a joke rather than a real moment of loss and heartbreak. The rest of The Byrds sound less at home, especially Mike Clarke’s drums which are off the wall even for him, a basic drum pound on the off beat of the off beat! (Well, you’ll know what I mean if you hear it!) Thank goodness for the presence of Clarence White again on guitar, adding a typically complex yet understated part that chimes in well with the country and western vibes of the song, although it seems odd that yet again McGuinn is missing (he’s not a part of the harmonies on this track either and might not be on this track at all). Fun but inconsequential, especially next to the other strong Hillman tracks on this album.
The album ends with ‘Why?’ That sounds like a good name for a recording that’s caused much debate among Byrds followers over the years – namely, why did the band decide to resurrect this track so long after it’s first release (as the B-side to ‘Eight Miles High’ – what a great pairing that was! – in early 1966), a full year before this re-recording. And why then was this revisitation so bad? The answer seems to be that Crosby, the chief writer of this song (with McGuinn’s credited for changing the lyrics of the first verse to make them more ‘universal’) didn’t like the first recording and wanted another – but alas the band either hadn’t bothered to learn the song again or were in a bad mood that day, as this second stab is a pale shadow of the first. Still, ‘Why?’ is a strong song, one of Crosby’s finest Byrds pieces, with an updated lyric of ‘What’s Happening?!?!?’ from the ‘5D’ album asking first why a relationship isn’t working and then why the world is suffering. The song allegedly begun as a diatribe against Crosby’s mother (the first line read ‘keep saying no to you since I was a baby’) and acted as a sort of metaphor for the 60s generation and the battle against their conservative 1940s/50s parents. In McGuinn’s hands, however, the twist became that the narrator has only just realised how pretty his friend is, whose rebuttals he’s been giving since early childhood. The whole track is held together by a great riff, a sort of staccato stabbing punctuation mark after every sentence and McGuinn’s solo is one of his best on the first recording, a maelstrom of anger, pride and defiance, channelling the hopes and fears of the hippie generation through his Rickenbacker. Hillman’s bass swoops, like an Eagle looking for prey, are also fantastic on the original (as heard as a bonus track on the re-issue of ‘5D (Fifth Dimernsion)’, but here on this re-recording the whole thing sounds lacklustre and unmoving, particularly without Gene Clark’s gruff bass to hold the song together, and all but collapses by near the end (with McGuinn and Clarke way out of time with each other). Perhaps the band should have gone for another take, used the original (which few but the band’s biggest fans would have heard) or dropped the idea entirely. As so often happens with The Byrds you have to ask: why?!?
If you’re a Small Faces or a Pink Floyd fan, say, then the choice is easy: your favourite group’s best album is ‘Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake’ or ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’, give or take a fan or two. For Beatles and Rolling Stones fans then it’s harder – ‘Sgt Peppers’ often gives way to ‘Abbey Road’ or ‘Revolver’ nowadays, whilst Stones fans traditionally plump for ‘Exile On Main Street’ with ‘Beggar’s Banquet’ ‘Sticky Fingers’ and ‘Let It Bleed’ catching up fast. But for groups like The Hollies, The Moody Blues and The Byrds there is no real contingency over what their best album is. If push comes to shove, most fans probably plump for this one – which is why I elected to leave it off the reviews page proper, given that we wanted to give people heads up on under-rated albums. To be honest, I wish I’d added ‘Yesterday’ to the list anyway, even though it isn’t as adventurous as ‘5D’, as consistent as ‘Notorious Byrd Brothers’ or as much of a neglected gem as ‘Untitled’. There’s plenty to love about this album and the first side is superb, with the album as a whole containing three of my all time favourite Byrds tracks in ‘CTA-102’ ‘Everybody’s Been Burned’ and ‘Thoughts and Words’. But things go badly wrong on the second side, as if this album was rushed (though goodness knows why seeing as The Byrds were on quite a lenient schedule by 1960s standards) and at a running time shorter than any other Byrds albums – only slightly more than half of Jefferson Airplane’s ‘After Bathing At Baxters’ from the same year for instance – you can’t help but be disappointed that such a great ride is over so soon. There’s also two songs in ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Star’ and ‘My Back Pages’ that are among the nadir of The Byrds’ catalogue, backward looking pieces that don’t belong to stand beside the gems of the record. But if you’re a fan who hasn’t got round to buying this record yet, or even a follower curious about how America’s premier folk-rock act sounded in the psychedelic years, then this album’s for you, every bit as wild eclectic and powerful as you’d help. In fact, had I come to this album first in The Byrds’ canon before the albums outlined above I might well have agreed with critics who say that The Byrds couldn’t get any higher because parts of it really are that good – but then I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.
Five Landmark Concerts and Three Key Cover Versions https://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2018/02/the-byrds-five-landmark-concerts-and.html
Five Landmark Concerts and Three Key Cover Versions https://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2018/02/the-byrds-five-landmark-concerts-and.html