THE BYRDS “FARTHER ALONG” (1971)
Tiffany Queen/Get Down Your Line/Farther Along/B B Class Road/Bugler//America’s Great National Past-Time/Antique Sandy/Precious Kate/So Fine/Lazy Waters/Bristol Steamboat Convention Blues
Some AAA bands know their time is up. There’s more than a whiff of regret or nostalgia on The Beatles ‘Abbey Road’ and The Kinks’ ‘Phobia’ for instance, records that were made when the participants might not have said anything out loud to each other but clearly knew their time was up. The last Byrds album before they fly away seemingly for good, however, is not like most last albums. From the title on down, however, ‘Farther Along’ isn’t a last great farewell, a summation of all the eclectic moments that made the band what they were as one last goodbye to faithful fans; instead it’s simply one further stop on the road to a greater glory that never quite came up. By the time of this album’s release in 1971 The Byrds had seemingly found the stability they’d craved ever since a trio of songwriters named ‘The Jetset’ recruited a rhythm section, a manager and bob Dylan song back in 1965. Starting in 1970 The Byrds had regained some of their old popularity with the start of their most stable line-up comprising Roger McGuinn, Clarence White, Gene Parsons and Skip Battin and had been together for some three years – believe it or not a record for this most unstable of bands. The first record by this line-up, ‘Untitled’, had been a thrilling double album return to form that led many fans to believe that with another few months’ experience and newfound respect the next Byrds album would be the single greatest thing they’d ever done. Instead that album became ‘Byrdmaniax’, the runt of the Byrds’ canon, full of OTT orchestrated arrangements, unsuitable cover versions and a whole lot of nothing. Surely the next album would bring the Byrds back to where they should have been in the first place?
Well, yes and no. Some fans look upon ‘Farther Along’ with relief – the Byrds were so frustrated and disappointed with ‘Byrdmaniax’ (rarely has an AAA album had such a drubbing by everyone, with no one that I know prepared to stake a claim that the album is a ‘misunderstood treasure’) that most fans are just pleased that the Byrds ended their career on a slightly less frustrating note. Other fans love the fact that ‘Farther Along’ is a return to the bare-bones, recorded-in-five-days-with-minimal-overdubs feel that The Byrds began their career with and that without knowing it The Byrds appear to have ended their days coming full circle, a little like The Beatles on ‘Let It Be’. Yet more consider ‘Farther Along’ to at least have touches of the old genius, even if the band can’t sustain that musical height across a whole album like they used to in the old glory days of ‘5D (Fifth Dimension)’ and ‘Notorious Byrd Brothers’. However others looking for that last golden nugget to take from the last official Byrds release (barring an ill-fated reunion album) are inevitably frustrated; the eerie ‘Bugler’ aside (the last vocal Clarence White would ever sing about a beloved dog being run over in a senseless accident, mere months before the guitarist himself dies in similar circumstances) nothing on this album seems like a properly defined ‘ending’. The end result is a mixed record, with some tracks as good as anything the band had ever done – and others that struggle to match the lower levels of ‘Byrdmaniax’.
In fact the very last message The Byrds ever give to their fans is a whimsical bluegrass instrumental named ‘The Bristol Steam Convention Blues’, named by drummer Gene Parsons under mock protest at having to cancel a day off to go and work in the studio. Even by The Byrds’ own whimsical sense of humour (which saw them end albums like ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ with a revved up 60 s arrangement of war standard ‘We’ll Meet Again’ or 5D’s goodbye of ‘The Lear Jet Song’ where McGuinn’s hoover doubles as the sound of the titular aircraft), this clearly isn’t meant as a very ‘final’ goodbye. But goodbye it was. Whether it was a lack of unity at the heart of the band (Parsons and Battin are fired months after this record), frustration at the lack of sales or McGuinn’s sudden interest in reforming the original Byrds, ‘Farther Along’ is the last stop on an especially bumpy and unforgiving road. With even the band unaware that this would be the last stop, fans treated ‘Farther Along’ as merely another stepping stone towards the future greatness that was sure to come if only they were all patient and it’s surely that feeling of retrospective importance that’s weighed rather heavily on ‘Farther Along’ shoulders all this time; though by no means bad or the worst thing the Byrds ever did even the biggest fan of this record merely thinks of it as ‘ordinary’ and one of the greatest ever pioneering American bands of all time surely deserves a better send off than that.
Shocked by the reaction to the orchestral ‘Byrdmaniax’, the band at least tried to do the right thing. Figuring that the biggest problem was with their old producer Terry Melcher’s rather treacly orchestral arrangements, the band promptly fired him and went their own way, decamping to London for five days of simple, bare bones mainly live recording that stood in great contrast to the months fretted over ‘Byrdmaniax’. To some extent this new found freedom pays off too: few Byrds songs rock as hard as ‘Tiffany Queen’, while the simple arrangement of old folk standard ‘Bugler’ and new folk standard ‘Lazy Waters’ are amongst the best Byrds covers around, the band really benefitting from empty, uncluttered arrangements where the quartet can finally use the ‘fire’ of their live performances on record. By contrast the one song that does use lots of overdubs, Battin and Fowley’s ‘America’s Great National Pastime’, is a highlight of the record, shockingly daring for its time and frequently hilarious in its knowing put-downs of the US of A with a song ripped off a coca-cola jingle that actively flaunts the fact (how The Byrds never got sued I’ll never know!) It has to be said too that ‘Farther Along’ is one of the best-sounding Byrds albums, with a crystal-clear production that has a punch missing from their earlier work (one up to the London engineers!) and is, at least on first playing, inviting rather than off-putting. So with all this on its side what’s not to like?
Well when this album gets it wrong it gets it all very very wrong. Some fans and critics have argued that at least ‘Byrdmaniax’ had an epic orchestral; arrangement to distract the ear and that without that to fill the gaps these songs are just empty. Certainly few fans would argue that ‘Farther Along’ is a spotless record. No other band in the history of rock and roll allowed their roadie to write a song for them, which is what happens on the fun but frivolous ‘B B Class Road’ (although we can’t be too sniffy because admittedly the Inspiral Carpets could have done worse than ask their roadie, Noel Gallagher, to have a go at writing songs for them). There are also no less than four cover versions on an album only lasting eleven songs and with a rather short running time – something band could get away with 1964 but not really by 1971. One of these, the 1950s standard ‘So Fine’, is one of the worst cover songs I have heard anywhere by anyone, lazier in execution than a bunch of MPs on voting day for a matter that has nothing to do with them. Frankly, though, I think that many fans would have taken cover songs over some of the weakest material here: ‘Antique Sandy’ isn’t so much a song as a sketch and the fact that all four Byrds together could only come up with generic stuff like this beggars belief; ‘Precious Kate’ is also the most flawed and uninspired song the much-maligned Battin/Fowley writing partnership ever came up with (and when you consider that partnership also came up with the hated ‘Citizen Kane’ and ‘Tunnel Of Love’ then you know you’ve got a problem on your hands; finally ‘Bristol Steam Convention Blues’ is itself something of a throwaway, too obviously written in a few minutes to fill up space on the album in contrast to such past Byrds instrumental near-greats as ‘Green Apple Quickstep’ and ‘Nashville West’, which at least pioneered the country-rock sound. Since making the record many band members have expressed disappointment that this record was made so fast, without much time to get things right: that’s perfectly true, but actually the bare-bones approach suits the best of these songs – if only the band had come up with more and better songs and/or cover versions then we wouldn’t be talking about this as the ‘last’ Byrds album because they’d have won over all their fans back.
Perhaps that’s the main trouble with ‘Farther Along’ as a record. By 1971, with sales plummeting and McGuinn and co being overtaken reputation-wise by their old partners (Gene Clark’s well received if poor selling ‘Echoes’ album, mid-period Flying Burrito Brothers albums featuring Chris Hillman and Gram Parsons that made a big impact despite not selling many records and the first releases by Crosby, Stills, Nash/Young which set charts and most critics heart’s alight). The Byrds needed to release one of the best albums of their career to breath new life into the band, the same way they had with ‘Untitled’. ‘Farther Along’ gets many things right and is at least an improvement on ‘Byrdmaniax’, but there’s little here to rave about and certainly nothing to match the best of Clark or Crosby or Hillman’s work. The Byrds are beginning to look outdated, despite being a band that, only a few years before, offered everything if only in terms of eclecticism (pioneers in folk and country, with leanings towards rock and psychedelia). Suddenly compared to the sheer strangeness and unique sound of Gene’s highly respected ‘No Other’ LP in the works about this time and Crosby’s indescribable mix of ghostly harmonies, unusual guitar-tuned instrumentals and gossamer light fragile ballads songs written by roadies just don’t cut it.
Never the most prolific of writers, McGuinn really struggles on this record. Having used up all of his best songs on the musical ‘Gene Tryp’ (a 60s Peer Gynt – well done if you noticed the anagram) with Dylan’s usual writing partner Jacques Levy, McGuinn doesn’t know what to write about anymore. His writing was seriously in the doldrums from 1971 to 1975, perhaps because the chance to write about ‘someone else’ had so freed up his creative flow that, getting back to writing songs from the heart doesn’t seem to cut it as much. Perhaps too McGuinn was still smarting that his best song for some time, ‘I Trust’ from ‘Byrdmaniax, had been routinely laughed at by the music press (although admittedly for the gospel orchestra and choir backing than the song itself). His one genuine song for ‘Farther Along’, ‘Tiffany Queen’, might well be the album highlight, but by his own admission was written within a few minutes when the band needed something for the session (and recorded, in fact, only a few hours after the first draft was written). Gene Parsons, too, is suffering creatively after one too many cracks about his playing (personally I think Parsons is a great drummer, especially live, though even better as a vocalist and banjo player) and only comes up with three songs: one an instrumental, one a simplistic rock song co-written with the band’s roadie and only one, ‘Get Down Your Line’, up to his usual high standard (though even that’s nowhere near as high as past greats like ‘Gunga Din’ and ‘Yesterday’s Train’). I’ve always liked bassist Skip Battin’s songs more than most fans and the two on this album are as weird and quirky as ever: the hastily written ‘Precious Kate’ (which really doesn’t work) and ‘America’s Great National Past-Times’ (which does – it’s probably my favourite Skip song after Vietnam war protest ‘Welcome Back Home’). However fittingly it’s Clarence White who steals the show, less than a year before his untimely death, adding some typically fine guitar and arrangements of three covers and ‘Bugler’, especially, ranks amongst his best work with the Byrds and has an emotional resonance missing from everything else on the album.
It speaks volumes that all of the band bar McGuinn were spending more time on extra-curricular projects in this period than they were with the band. Skip Battin and his writing partner Kim Fowley were ridiculously prolific (unlike McGuinn, who struggled to write two or three a year) and plainly had more than would ever be used on the Byrds LPs however long they lasted as a band (amazingly the two that made this album, weird as they are, are still the most suitable they wrote for the Byrds!) Gene Parsons didn’t write quite so much but was clearly saving his better songs for his pretty impressive solo record ‘Kindling’, one which mixes originals and cover versions to good effect. As for Clarence, he was always in demand as a country music player and always had a band or two (or even three) on the side during his time with the Byrds. As a result, it’s no wonder that the band don’t really have much substantial work to offer to the band (I don’t know for sure but I’d be willing to bet that they weren’t actually planning another record so soon after ‘Byrdmaniax’ and only made ‘Farther Along’ so quickly because it meant they could ‘overshadow’ that album and blot it from their discographies). McGuinn seems to be the one who pushed for making another album so soon and so quickly, but by his own admission he wasn’t really a huge force in the sessions either (in an interview with Johnny Rogan for his excellent Byrds book ‘Timeless Flight’ he adds ‘I was in love so I wasn’t caring as much about the music’ (Roger had just met his second wife Linda at the time). Given the circumstances, it’s actually surprising that this album isn’t worse.
If there’s a lyrical theme on this album to be had then it seems to be one of quiet stoical acceptance of fate – a topic that had already been key to McGuinn’s Byrdmaniax song ‘I Trust’, which the band spent a lot of time on. ‘Tiffany Queen’ might sound like gibberish (much of it is) but the general theme (of sorts) is that the narrator trusted his heart in verse two and is happily ensconced in Malibu with the girl of his dreams by the end of the song. ‘Get Down Your Line’ has a chorus that continues the title phrase with the line ‘...and you’ll be just fine’. As for the title track, has there ever been a more accepting chorus than ‘cheer up my brother, live in the sunshine, we’ll understand it all by and by’? ‘Bugler’, too, may be about death and the heartbreak of a boy whose just lost his faithful dog but that too is about accepting life’s hand. because ‘life goes on’. ‘Precious Kate’, meanwhile, even uses the word ‘fate’ as two lovers finally get it together to admit their feelings for each other – and learn that they’re about to die in a California earthquake. Finally, ‘Lazy Waters’ is about a special magical place from childhood that can never be found again no matter how hard you look – and if that isn’t fate at work then I don’t know what is. Usually characters in Byrds songs are proactive (that ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ didn’t hang around and the narrator sure has a heavy grip on his ‘Chestnut Mare’), but here the only character that’s out for his own ends is good ‘ole Uncle Sam – and as the lyrics of ‘America’s Great National Past Times’ comment, that’s not necessarily a good thing. It’s as if The Byrds have only just got round to playing back their own ‘Turn! Turn! Turn!’ from 1965 and realised what those words mean: that to everything there really is a season and, to quote another album entirely, all things must pass. Maybe it’s the feeling that the band has run it’s course, maybe it’s an eerie premonition of Clarence’s death (two of his three song choices for the album are frankly scary given the way he blindly accepts what fate gives him in ‘Farther Along’ and ‘waves goodbye’ to his dear dog while looking death in the face) but there’s something mystical and slightly other-worldly about this album that even the basic, simple productions (and often simple songs) can’t hide.
Musically, though, this album couldn’t be simpler. There’s a real retro rock and roll feel about this record which was never really a feature of The Byrds as most people know them (although Gene Clark’s early songs in particular surprised many fans when some pre-fame recordings from 1964 were released in the late 80s; ‘Boston’ being a particular gem). Skip Battin, a few years older than the rest of the band, had started his career in the late 50s (you might remember the duo ‘Skip and Flip’ if you happen to be an American born around the 1930s reading this) and his writing had often leaned that way even when everyone else in The Byrds was looking forward. The sheer speed of the recording sessions, though, mean his bandmates follow him on this occasion, McGuinn being inspired to write ‘Tiffany Queen’ as a surreal take on his own memories of his teenage days and Clarence White reviving own of his favourite warm-up songs ‘So Fine’ (a genuine 1950s song that sounds so typically 1950s it probably features James Dean in sunglasses and on a Harley Davidson on the music sheet). After the rather ballad-based ‘Byrdmaniax’ this sudden shift in sound is quite a relief but, just as with The Beatles on ‘Let It Be’ there’s a feeling that this shift towards simplicity is more because of lowering horizons than any real attempt at trying to distinguish a new sound for the band. What the Byrds perhaps should have done is hold two separate sessions, one at speed and one as slow as normal to combine the best of their craft as on ‘Untitled’; alas, though, that would have meant a lot of hard work and after months on the road, a poorly received album and growing cracks within the group that was never likely to happen.
Suitably the cover for ‘Farther Along’ is equally simple-but-complicated; earthly-but-mystical, doom-ridden-but-stoical. The Byrds stand in a field staring moodily at the camera: not so strange so far, but on looking at this cover for a while a few things strike you. First of all, the countryside is clearly English not American, which is a first (I’m not sure exactly where this is but it’s probably not far from London, where the album was being made) and to boot it looks like rain in the sky, an ominous stormcloud of grey. The second thing that strikes you is how sepia-tones it is: not just monochrome (which is strange enough for a colourful band like The Byrds) but sepia – which is either a reference to those good ole’ country roots (which the band don’t actually show that much on this album) or a nod of the hat to the fact that this album might well be the last thing they ever do. Another shock is how serious the band look. All four are positioned so far away from the camera that you have to squint yourself to see their expressions (even on an original vinyl sleeve) and at first glance they appear to be smiling but no – McGuinn especially seems to be scowling into the camera, while Clarence White’s face is so bleakly framed that with his bright white trousers he already looks like a ghost. Taken together the sepia image, the serious expressions and the oppressive raincloud make for one hell of a stark image. Compare this to what else was around in the glam rock year of 1971 and it’s clearly from a different psyche altogether (then again, at least it’s message is a bit subtler than the ‘death masks’ of ‘Byrdmaniax’ – a cover taken less than two years before poor old Clarence was wearing one for real).
Heading back down to earth, this is usually the part in a ‘Byrds review’ when we talk about the album outtakes (The Byrds have more than most and almost all of them are out on CD now, thanks to one of the better re-issue series of AAA bands). However ‘Farther Along’ is unique in not having any, showing again at what a cracking pace this album was made (at an average of two songs a day). The three outtakes that do exist (the excellent ‘Bag Full Of Money’, the so-so ‘Lost My Drivin’ Wheel’ and the excruciatingly awful ‘Born To Rock and Roll’) are all that survive from an abandoned 12th Byrds album, made back in America before McGuinn lost his temper once too often and sacked both Battin and Parsons from the band (original Byrd Chris Hillman filled the bass role for the band’s very last tour, further cementing the gossip inside the band that Roger was getting rid of the current Byrds so that he could work fresh with the old Byrds). The first two songs are re-recorded by Roger for his first solo album ‘McGuinn’ (an album about on a par with ‘Farther Along’ in terms of quality that for some reason the music world went mad for) and the third ends up in a rather different form on the eponymous Byrds reunion album (where it has the ignominy of being by far the worst song on by far the worst Byrds album; to be fair the ‘bonus track’ version is a lot better though still pretty bad).
Alas, though, this was the last stop for the Byrds after seven years of often very different line-ups and so low had their standing fallen that few noticed when they were gone and even less cared. It should all have been so different: whilst nothing like as ground-breaking or as consistent as their best work there is much on ‘Farther Along’ that deserves to be cherished. ‘Tiffany Queen’ and ‘Bugler’ deservedly feature on many CD-length compilation CDs and are occasionally joined by ‘America’s Great National Past-Times’, an under-valued novelty song that deserves more respect from fans. Add in a bleak but memorable folky title track, a passionate reading of the lovely ‘Lazy Waters’ and a fun Gene Parsons original and you have the basis for a really good LP. The difficulties only really kick in when the Byrds give up trying to impress and drift back to auto-pilot, snoring their way through bluegrass instrumentals and empty banal rock songs as well as writing songs the easiest way, which self-respecting groups should never resort to: all four band members shouting out words based on where they happen to be and hiring their roadie, of all people, to write some lyrics for them. And anything with The Byrds name on it should be a ‘dang’ sight better than that!
‘Tiffany Queen’ demonstrates how great this album could have been. A pulsating retro rocker, with arguably McGuinn’s best and certainly fastest riff, this is more like the thunderous ‘live’ Byrds than the occasionally clumsy studio Byrds of the period. The song proves how tight a band the Byrds were at the end too, despite their growing differences, as they really nail this song with a whallop even The Who would have been proud of. This is all the more impressive when you learn that McGuinn wrote the song on the morning of the session and the band had little or no rehearsal time to get to know it (astonishingly, had inspiration not comer last minute to Roger, the only remaining original Byrd would have had no songs on the last Byrds album). Of course, like a lot of songs on this album, the speed and adrenaline rush of only five allotted recording days is both a blessing a d curse. The lyrics to ‘Tiffany Queen’ sound great fun to sing, being a garbled nonsense-like parody of the ‘wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-lop-bam-boom’ type choruses that first made McGuinn excited enough to pick up a guitar, but some of them do indeed sound like they written in five minutes and are not up to McGuinn’s usual standards (‘I went to Tasmania to buy a devil dog, where we were met by a young handsome prince who turned into a frog!’) That said, some of them are fun and the idea of a rock and roller ‘trying to do an interview and telling them all lies’, bluffing his way out of revealing anything about him self with surreal stories and bluff is a clever one. The idea of the narrator finally winning the girl of his dreams (presumably there’s something of second wife Linda in this song, who McGuinn met shortly before the sessions) and the two of them fleeing the restrictions and traps of life for escape and excitement is sweet too, even if you have to read the lyrics as oppose to hearing them to get hold of the full story. And the reference to tiffany lamps? Well, in the song the pair get interrupted in the middle of ‘something’ while she wears the lamp on her head, leading to some fans making up stories about kinky sex escapades, but chances are McGuinn was simply up against the clock, looking around his hotel room for inspiration of what to put into song (had he had more time to craft this song the title phrase would almost certainly have been changed: it should be ‘- - over her head’ not a four-beat phrase like ‘Tiff-an-y Lamp over her head’. Certainly had McGuinn spent a bit more time crafting this song then we could well have been talking about the last Byrds hit single here or even the basis for a whole new career – as it is ‘Tiffany Queen’ is another of those songs that just got away.
I’ve always loved Gene Parsons’ work, which I often feel is under-rated and under-valued compared to the contributions of other, louder members of the band. ‘Gunga Din’ (from ‘Easy Rider’) and ‘Yesterday’s Train’ (from ‘Untitled’) are the two best songs from the band’s final four years in my opinion and, while ‘Get Down Your Line’ finds Parsons on auto-pilot it’s still arguably an auto-pilot that’s a cut above most of the rest here. Musically this is something of a Parsons tour de force as Gene drums, sings and plays the wonderful mouthorgan part and possibly the piano and at least some of the guitarwork too. Again, the band really nail this simple singalong and spark off each other really well and the bright breezy melody is a wonderful concoction, moving gracefully from a thoughtful minor key verse to a strident pop chorus. However this song also shares the same problems as ‘Tiffany Queen’ with a lyric that’s nicely uplifting and philosophical but either rushed or poorly thought through (‘You think you’ve got it bad, and you think that you’ve been had, well you never were so wrong if you just listen to this song’). The idea of ‘getting down your line’ is also ,mildly confusing; is this a song akin to The Beatles ‘Long and Winding Road’ about fate and how our destinies are waiting for us all if only we can live long enough to take that journey? Or is it, as some have suggested, a weak nod of the head to drug-taking (a ‘line’ being a cocaine term for a ‘hit’)? Either way, the Byrds sound like they had a lot of fun recording the song and it’s nice to hear Parsons writing an uptempo song instead of his usual ballads, but for a second song in a row the deadlines have hindered as well as helped shape this song.
‘Farther Along’ itself is more like the songs on ‘Byrdmaniax’ – slow, stately and rather lacking in fire. Clarence White’s vocal is serene and heartfelt and his mandolin playing is never better, but as ever with his cover material White is not a natural singer and this song is probably a little too ‘country’ for most of the band’s fans. That said, his old friend Gene Parsons’ harmony vocal sweetens the rough edges a little and makes for quite a nice sound the band should have exploited more. Lyrically, this is ‘Get Down Your Line’ with more profound lyrics but more repetition, using the same melody line for two simple verses about how we shouldn’t get upset by the bad things in our lives – they were put here for reasons we don’t understand yet and there’s nothing we can do about them anyway. The mood is perhaps a little too serious and White’s nasal whine is not always pretty, but there’s a certain serenity in this traditional song that makes it one of the better White covers from his Byrds days. The title track of what turned out to be the final Byrds album and Clarence’s last recordings before his untimely death at the hands of a drunk driver ‘Farther Along’ is a spooky choice for a song in retrospect, stating that we only truly understand something after it is gone.
‘B.B. Class Road’ would get through to at least the semi-finals of the ‘weirdest AAA song’ competition (losing out to The Beatles’ ‘Revolution 9’, Pink Floyd’s ‘Alan’s Psychedelic Breakfast’ on points and The Beach Boys’ ‘Mount Vernon and Fairway’ fairytale EP on points). A song about being a roadie, co-written and started by one of the Byrds’ two roadies (Stuart ‘Dinkie’ Dawson) and dedicated to the world’s roadies, it’s a song that has ‘novelty’ and ‘B-side’ written all over it. For years it was assumed that Dawson sang lead on the song himself, further distancing the song from the Byrds’ sound, but Gene Parsons revealed in the 1990s that it was actually himself doing his ‘impression’ of his roadie and friend (and singing far deeper and more gruffly than normal; Dawson was asked but was apparently ‘too shy’ – it sounds to me as if he wrote the song as a ‘joke’ and was a little concerned when, desperate for material, the band accepted it for the record). There’s a nice guitar break where Clarence again proves what a fine rock guitarist he made (despite the fact that his whole background and training came in country and bluegrass bands) and another better-than-average band performance where Parsons’ drumming in particular really nails the song. However there’s a reason unpublished roadies never get their songs onto albums: ‘B B Class Road’ simply isn’t a song interesting or different enough from the crowd to make it worth recording and the opening speech allegedly from a ‘roadie’ (although its actually Parsons again) is excruciating, especially the clichéd ‘worth a dang’ part. At least Dawson had an excuse though: what on earth were four respected musicians doing accepting songs as poor as this one into the fold? Why does this song end with the sound effect of breaking glass (surely dropping things is not how a ‘first class roadie’ should act?!) And what on earth does ‘B B Class Road’ mean?!
‘Bugler’ is easily the album highlight, a classy obscure song that the band play with poise and style. The song was written by Larry Murray, an obscure songwriter who seemingly never had another song published which is a great shame as, like many fans, I want to hear more from this classy songwriter. His work was known to the band via Chris Hillman, who had briefly played with Murray in the wonderfully named bluegrass band ‘The Scotsville Squirrel Barkers’. A lovely lilting minor key folk song, even without the lyrics it seems to exist in monochrome, looking back over its shoulder to better times. With the lyrics as well, though, it’s superbly moving, completing a trilogy of Byrds songs about faithful canine companions (‘Old Blue’ from ‘Dr Byrds’ and ‘Fido’ from ‘Easy Rider’ being the others) with it’s tale of a faithful boyhood companion who goes to meet his maker (or a truck at least) and the boy is forced to grow up early. Even for those who, like me, have never owned a dog there’s something deeply emotional about hearing White being sadly told by his ‘mother’ to say goodbye and how the rolling fields of his childhood will never be the same without Bugler by his side. Sadly, of course, it wasn’t long after this track before Clarence himself was ‘saying goodbye’ to us – and that added poignancy coupled with arguably the best vocal Clarence ever delivered for the Byrds is tremendously moving. For once McGuinn sounds committed to this song too, adding a fine harmony vocal in support of his friend, while Clarence’s overdubbed pedal steel and mandolin playing (which sounds awfully like ‘Maggie May’ at one part – was Rod Stewart a Byrds fan?) is as superb as ever. ‘Bugler’ ends up being so much more than just another Byrds cover song: it’s a perfectly judged example of how truly moving music can be at it’s finest.
I also admire ‘America’s Great National Past-Times’, a typically quirky Skip Battin/Kim Fowley song that should also have been a B-side rather than an album track. Actually this song makes more sense nowadays, after 9/11 the Iraq war and ‘weapons of mass destruction’ where lies lead to a war both unnecessary and overly brutal. Battin was clearly still thinking about the friends of his who’d died in Vietnam (see ‘Welcome Back Home’ from ‘Untitled’) and how, as one of the last teenagers to undergo compulsory national service, he could so easily have been singing about his own experiences. America is given a really good kicking on this song, which is deliberately built to sound like a commercial but is actually very deep indeed, with killer triplets of line about how America’s great national past-times include ‘playing ball, taking it all – and thinking so small’. The song arguably stretches the joke too far when it tries to actively plagiarise a coca-cola advert in the chorus (‘The great taste of coke has refreshed players, the hot and tired – the weary and the sore!’), but the verses themselves are hilarious for anyone whose ever seen America, not as a great saviour of mankind as it’s supporters often see it, but as the neurotic fat kid on the playground who loves bullying others into submission. I’m shocked, quite frankly, that there wasn’t more fuss about this song in 1971 (with months still to go before Watergate made kicking America fashionable) because it sails pretty close to the censorship winds even today, even if it is of a piece with other politically aware songs of the period (especially ex-Byrds David Crosby’s work). Certainly it’s a lot more convincing than McGuinn’s surprisingly naive ‘I Wanna Grow Up To Be A Politician’ on ‘Byrdmaniax’ and played with much more conviction, especially White’s delightfully raucous feedback-drenched guitar just giving a hint at the menace below the surface of what appears on first hearing to be a happy song. Skip didn’t always get things right – and the chorus of this song is pretty awful – but at his best he made The Byrds the deep and relevant band they deeply longed to be in the post-Rodeo days of 1968 onwards. ‘National Past-Times’ and ‘Welcome Back Home’ are two very different side to the same coin, this one treating the subject of American hypocrisy in as offhand and casual a manner as the soldiers who go to fight pointless unwinnable wars but in its own way as moving and daring as Battin’s farewell to his old army veteran friend.
‘Antique Sandy’ is pretty poor by comparison, McGuinn’s Leslie filtered (i.e. the vocal is put through a speaker replaced in a revolving cabinet to give it a whispery, ‘old man’ effect) voice hard to get a handle on during a song so weird and flowery it needs every bit of clarity it can get. The song is another one written for the album in about five minutes, with all four band members plus band friend Jim Seiter chipping ideas in for a song that clearly has no logic to it or a tale worth telling. Seiter’s girlfriend of the time was a ‘Sandy’ who collected antiques so the song, as much as it is a song, is ostensibly about her – although in truth this ‘Sandy’ is more like the traditional country maiden pining from loneliness as heard in many a traditional folk tune. The fact that no one quite knows where to take this song ends up with such odd couplets as ‘She’d take down the washing for the old man to wear – and try not to get eaten by the bear’, although frustratingly the song just about gets going by the end, becoming a quite likable song about progress and industrialisation shoved onto a village that arguably is better off without entering the modern world (‘Electric lights and phone bells and every light insane, like a hundred thousand hungry miles meeting at her brain’). However, it’s all a tad too little too late – even the most psychedelic effects on a Byrds album since ‘Notorious Byrd Brothers’ can’t make us care about the characters in this song or feel any real attachment to this slow and rather dream-like mood piece. The guitar playing is nice, though.
‘Precious Kate’ is the other side of Battin and Fowley’s writing partnership, with a song so way-out and pioneering/completely bonkers that it never really had a hope of working. The Narrator has been pining for Kate, his childhood sweetheart, all his life through but only plucks up the courage to tell her when – wait for it – they’re both about to die a horrible death at the epicentre of a Californian earthquake. It’s not that far removed from The Kinks’ later ‘Lost and Found’ from 1986, when two ex-lovers happen to be meeting when a hurricane hits and they drop their differences in their fight for survival. The difference is that Ray Davies brings the story on gradually – The Byrds simply drop us straight into the heart of crumbling buildings after a first verse about how the pair seemed destined for each other. Even weirder, the narrator barely notices that the earth really is moving for him and not just in a romantic way, ignoring the screams and cries around him as he reflects more on how lonely he’s been. We never hear what Kate’s reply is but it’s probably something along the lines of ‘shut up! I’ve got bigger things to think about right now’ and if she ever does tell the narrator ‘I love you’, like he implores he to do in the song, then it will surely only be to keep him quiet so she can think, not because she really loves him. Like the lyrics, this song is languid in the extreme, Skip’s big fat powerful bass line the only sign of any chaos or devastation, while McGuinn’s vocal (which is arguably less expressive than Skip’s own voice would have been) has little of the power or majesty needed to convey such a song. Again the ticking clock rather works against this recording, which sounds hurried and rushed as if the band don’t even begin to understand how to play it yet and it’s arguably a little too wacky for its own good. Interestingly I’d have been quite happy to have dismissed this as an unlikely work of fiction, but apparently it does have some bearing on lyricist Kim Fowley’s relationship with his girlfriend Kate who did indeed come from California (although as far as I know the pair were never involved in an earthquake!)
‘So Fine’ really really isn’t fine at all. If you don’t already own this record then imagine to yourself the most hackneyed inane piece of rock and roll you’ve ever heard. Honestly, unless you’ve got the imagination of a Dr Who writer, it’s one hell of a lot worse than what you’ve been thinking about. Had the band at least been trying, written the song themselves or simply gone a bit loopy following through on the ‘bare bones production’ of this album then there would be something I could perhaps forgive. But no. ‘So Fine’ is a hoary old standard by Johnny Otis (famed inventor of the ‘hand jive’) who himself thought so little of his own song that he never even released it as one of his many singles. It must have sounded dated in 1958, never mind 1971 when the Byrds chose to revive it. Usually when an artist covers a bad song you can usually say that at least they improve on it or offer something which the original can’t offer. But no: The Byrds version of ‘So Fine’ is so close to the letter to the original that there seems little point in recording it at all and their version is actually a lot worse, McGuinn’s squeaky high harmony becoming especially trying by the end of the song. Chosen by Clarence White once again, this is by far the weakest of his ‘cover’ songs and proves, again, that the famed country guitarist knew almost nothing about real rock and roll, seeing as this recording has all the bite of a tiger with false teeth. Quite simply, ‘So Fine’ is one of the worst Byrds recordings of all time and a terrible comedown for a band who even when they got things wrong got them wrong entertainingly, full of pizzazz and sparkle. This just sounds like a rehearsal of a pub band who don’t know each other running on empty. The band’s fans, so desperate for a really good album in the shock wake of ‘Byrdmaniax’s disappointment must have heard this track and wept. To be honest, I feel like doing the same. I pride myself in finding at least something to like in each and every one of the AAA songs we follow but, blimey, it’s not even as if I can say that the band were trying hard or that I’m impressed with them for experimenting. ‘So Fine’ is lift music – and lift music for a pretty run down, low budget, there’s-a-permanent-closing-down-sale-on retailing outfit at that. Yuck!
At least I’m not alone in hating that song (many Byrds fans do too) but I differ from most of them in marking out ‘Lazy Waters’ as one of the better album tracks (if not quite up to ‘Tiffany Queen’ or ‘Bugler’). Yet another cover song, this time it’s Skip Battin’s choice of a Bobby Rafkin song which actually strays pretty close to ‘Bugler’ territory in its story of a childhood haunt that gets left behind in adulthood and never seems the same again, but where Bugler succeeds by understatement and word unspoken, this song is treated as too much of an epic, Skip’s characteristically unconventional straining under every line. The whole thing is awfully sombre and moody and apparently off-putting to most Byrds fans, but there is a good song in there somewhere and the Byrds are at least trying to be different. Rafkin’s song is a delightfully nostalgic, reflective affair that successfully sums up the idea of glorious isolation and having discovered something that no one else has and you can see why Skip took to this song so well. Both Rafkin and Battin were practising Buddhists (see The Byrds’ own ‘Yesterday’s Train’ for perhaps the most clearly marked AAA song about Buddhism) and share a similar message in their songs that the rest of the world is daft and the way forward is through quiet contemplation and understanding acceptance rather than rushing around being busy and making money. For The Byrds, who suffered more than most from elongated, never-ending tours and life out on the road this song clearly meant a great deal and Battin clearly intends his vocal well; it’s just a shame that it wasn’t this song that Skip gave to Roger to record, as McGuinn’s earnest harmony vocal is actually the best thing about the record. Still, ‘Lazy Waters’ has its heart in the right place and on any other Byrds album that didn’t lead to such direct comparisons with the similar ‘Bugler’ this cover song might well have fared better with the Byrds’ flock of fans.
Given the Byrds’ mania for closing their album on an unexpected, often irrelevant note then you’d expect the last track on the last Byrds album to be something special. Unfortunately the band didn’t know it was to be the last album so it was more by accident than design that ‘Bristol Steam Convention Blues’ came to sign off the album on perhaps the easiest, least affecting way. Parsons and White had pioneered the snappy country-rock instrumental during their time in the commercially failed but critically successful band ‘Nashville West’ and this is the pair’s third similar instrumental in a similar vein. Unfortunately, it’s also the weakest, having none of the sheer energy and punch of the other two (‘Green Apple Quick Step’ and ‘Nashville West’ itself). The curious name comes from the fact that Gram Parsons, a fan of many mechanical things, had planned to head over to Bristol while the Byrds were recording in London for a convention they had there of traction engines and the like. Unfortunately the recording dates for the band were changed and he couldn’t go – hence the rather tongue in cheek title protest at what Parsons should have been doing that day instead of making music. You could make a claim that the clash of banjos from Gene and Clarence are a pretty good mimic at an old steam train too and the whole piece has a suitably Victorian flavour too (it would fit pretty well to an early silent film, this music). As a throwaway with an interesting back story, this is quite nice and pleasant. But this song has little to do with the Byrds (both Roger and Skip appear to be missing) and seems like an awfully downbeat ending to the album (if I was producing this record – which thankfully given the tension in the room in 1971 I’m not – then I’d have rejigged the album to end with ‘Bugler’ or ‘Farther Along’ to give it a more caring feel and hidden this song in the middle of side one somewhere).
So, then, ‘Farther Along’ in the Byrds career and where has it brought them? Well, as we said before there’s a lot of ‘could have been worse’ reviews about this album and a general sense of relief all round that this album is at least a nose better than ‘Byrdmaniax’. The rough and ready recording techniques and tight deadlines mean that there’s even more filler and slightly rushed sounding recordings than normal, but in many ways this is the album’s saving, allowing the band to play together one last time and forget about playing around with orchestras, choirs and sound effects. Some of the songs that are here stand amongst the best work the Byrds ever did (well ‘Tiffany Queen’ and ‘Bugler’ anyway, so two songs out of eleven), which isn’t bad going for a band with a fading reputation and fanbase working on their 11th album in a little over six years. There’s a kind of neat and rather apt theme, too, with the idea of ‘fate’ casting a shadow over all of us in many ways the perfect send off for a band who only formed by chance, had an unexpected hit with a Dylan song they at first refused to record and seemingly went up and down with the tides of whoever was in the band during their many many line-ups over the years. But even so, it seems such a shame that the Byrds ended their never less than exciting and earnest career with such a shamefully average record, full of so many unnecessary errors from poor originals to poor cover songs to the band clearly having no idea how to play certain songs or even be in the same room together at times. This album could have been really really good, had The Byrds followed the template of ‘Tiffany Queen’ with the odd folky ballad included but, like The Beatles before them on the all-round similar ‘Let It Be’, this was a great idea that came too late into the band’s career to have done any good. Very soon after this album was released McGuinn was back working with his old pals who’d founded the band in 1965 and trying to forget that he’d ever helped the Byrds keep going. David Crosby and Chris Hillman, in particular, were full of scorn for what McGuinn had done with the band after they’d left, giving Battin and Parsons especially a rather good verbal kicking. Instead of defending his old friends, or playing the band ‘Tiffany Queen’, or showing his old colleagues some of the glowing reviews of the band’s live shows from 1970-72 McGuinn instead meekly agreed and said he wished he’d never bothered. Sure there are mistakes on this album and it’s clear that the 70s Byrds could never match the 60s Byrds for eclecticism, perfectionism and pioneerringness – but I tell you something, I like this album one hell of a lot more than the reunion album the supposedly superior original quintet put together for all its faults. Someday fans will finally ‘get’ this misunderstood album, which has been scoffed at and scorned for far too many years, even if I’m not too convinced by everything on it and can understand why fans at the time were so frustrated by it’s unevenness. Some day they’ll understand it all, though, by and by. Overall rating: 5/10
Five Landmark Concerts and Three Key Cover Versions https://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2018/02/the-byrds-five-landmark-concerts-and.html