Turn Turn Turn 45 by The Byrds

January 30, 2011

Only The Byrds could take an old folk song with lyrics taken from the bible and turn it into a hit song. Folksinger Pete Seeger had originally adapted the words from the book of Ecclesiastes.

“Turn Turn Turn” was released October 23, 1965 and topped The United States singles charts for three weeks. It was their biggest hit as Mr. Tambourine Man was number one for only 1 week.

As with many of their songs it was the 12 string guitar of Roger McGuinn in combination with the perfect harmonies that gave the song and the band its unique sound.

A great number one song from the Beatles era when not many American groups reached trhe top.


The Byrds (Boxed Set) by The Byrds

May 27, 2009

I am a vinyl collector and thus my Byrds collection is comprised of records and not CD’s. I do not have the inclination nor the money to replace the vinyl even though the CD’s contain extra tracks and have a better sound (although, at times, that is debatable). I do, however, tend to purchase box sets as they fill in the blanks and provide a modern listening experience. The box set in my collection that is relevant for this retrospective is the four disc set, The Byrds, issued in 1990. There is now a second box set by The Byrds, There is a Season, issued in 2006, which in many ways has supplanted the one in my collection.

The Byrds can now be found fairly cheaply and well is worth seeking out. The ninety tracks span the career of the group. It includes all of their well-known material and hit songs, a number of unappreciated gems, some unreleased tracks, a re-working of some classic songs, and four new recordings by Roger McGuinn, Chris Hillman, and David Crosby. The enclosed booklet is informative and contains a nice biography of the group. The sound has also been cleaned up and, in most cases, is superior to that of the original releases.

Box sets present the music but many times the intent of the original albums are lost by the shuffling of songs and additional tracks. Therefore, this box set should be considered to be complimentary to their fine catalog of studio albums.

The first disc sets the tone by presenting some of the finest music of not only The Byrds but in the history of Sixties rock ‘n’ roll. “Mr Tambourine Man,” “I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better,” “Chimes Of Freedom,” “She Has A Way,” and “All I Really Want To Do” just blast out of the speakers and serve as a reminder of the quality material that The Byrds produced during their career.

There are a number of gems to be found in this collection. First, a number of tracks from Sweetheart Of The Rodeo have the vocals by Gram Parsons reinstated. Legal problems had forced the group to replace his lead vocals when the album was first released and it is nice to hear these songs as they were originally intended.

Secondly, there has always been criticism that Byrdmaniax was over-produced. Here some of the tracks are stripped back to basics, giving them a whole new flavor. This is especially true with Roger McGuinn’s “Kathleen’s Song,” which benefits greatly from the elimination of the overdubbing on the original.

Thirdly, there are a number of live performances that show The Byrds at various points during their career. Live presentations of “Mr. Tambourine Man” with Bob Dylan and “Turn! Turn! Turn!” were recorded at a Roy Orbison tribute. “Roll Over Beethoven” is taken from a live 1967 Swedish radio show. Also presented here is an excellent live version of Dylan’s “Positively 4th Street.”

Finally, listening to “This Wheel’s On Fire” is a reminder of the guitar virtuosity of Clarence White. Also the Chris Hillman vocal on the pop song “From A Distance” is one of the best of his career.

If you have not been exposed to the music of The Byrds, I would recommend any of their first six studio albums. If, however, you are familiar with their music, The Byrds [Boxed Set] is an excellent way to complete the experience as it is a collection to be savored and explored. It provides a nice curtain closer for one of the better American groups of rock ‘n’ roll history.

Byrds by The Byrds

May 27, 2009

The Byrds released Farther Along on November 17, 1971. Shortly thereafter Roger McGuinn fired the other three members of the group. However, the Byrds were not quite finished, as the original members were all available to different degrees and decided to re-unite for an album with the simple title of Byrds. McGuinn was working on his own solo album and Chris Hillman was touring with his group Manassas between recording sessions so David Crosby stepped forward to produce the album. It would ultimately be Gene Clarke who would provide the best music and probably put the most effort into the release. They also decided to leave their long time label, Columbia, and sign with David Geffen’s Asylum label.

The idea of Roger McGuinn, David Crosby, Gene Clark, Chris Hillman, and Michael Clarke back in the studio seemed like a good idea at the time. Interestingly this combination which had practically invented the fusion of rock and folk, who had produced some of the best music of the psychedelic era, and had played what can best be described as space rock, would put together an album similar to what the Byrds had been producing during the last several years. The album would be panned by the critics of the day but would be commercially successful.

Listening to this album 37 years later, it is not as bad as the early reviews would make it out to be. While it does not approach their best sixties material in terms of quality, it is still OK, which I must admit is faint praise.

Gene Clark is consistently excellent throughout. He pens two of the best songs with “Full Circle” and “Changing Heart.” His lead vocal on the Neil Young composition, “(See The Sky) About To Rain,” is a reminder of just how talented he was when healthy and committed.

Roger McGuinn did create one superior song. “Sweet Mary,” which includes some brilliant mandolin playing by Chris Hillman, is a gentle song of loss with an almost a folk flavor. McGuinn’s signature 12 string guitar playing would make too few appearances on this album and I can’t help but think that Clarence White is missed.

David Crosby recycles his song “Laughing” and really adds nothing new. He does provide one of his better vocals on the Joni Mitchell song “For Free.” He did take the time to produce the album well. I own the original vinyl release and the sound is crystal clear and the mix is right on.

Chris Hillman would contribute two very short songs and would admit years later that he was saving his best material for his own group.

The other song of interest was another Neil Young composition, “Cowgirl In The Sand.” The Byrds would take it in a country-rock direction with an emotional performance.

Byrds would be the final album by the group as the members would all go their separate ways again. It remains an interesting historical artifact and is the swan song by one of the more innovative groups in American rock ‘n’ roll history. It contains some pleasant, if not creative, music and is worth a listen every now and then.

Farther Along by The Byrds

May 27, 2009

The Byrds returned in late 1971 with their latest album. It would also be the last album for the McGuinn, White, Battin, and Parsons Incarnation of the group. Roger McGuinn would disband the group or fire everyone depending on who you believe.

Farther Along may not be of the quality of their early releases but does contain some good music. The problem that I have with the album is that 35 plus years later it is forgettable as it gets lost in the Byrds catalogue.

Given the problems over the production of their last release Byrdmaniax, by producer Terry Melcher, the Byrds decided to self produce for the first time. They managed to create an intimate, if not energetic, disc that turned them back toward their classic sound. The record buying public was not impressed as it sold poorly and hardly made a dent on the American charts.

Listening to the album for the first time in years, or I should say decades, I was impressed by three tracks. “Tiffany Queen” written by Roger McGuinn, is a nice rocker. Except for the short group effort, “Antique Sandy,” it would be his only writing contribution and may have shown that the well was somewhat dry at the time. Clarence White’s arrangement of the title song featured hymn like textures and would be played at his funeral. He provided a good and sadly last lead vocal on the song “Bugler.” This track about death on the highway is chilling in retrospect.

The worst tracks would be “B.B. Class Road” which was co-written by one of the roadies about life on the road and not even a Clarence White solo can save it and Skip Battin’s, “America’s Great National Pastime” which is just poorly constructed. You can also include a terrible cover of the old rock ‘n’ roll song. “So Fine,” which the group should have had the sense to avoid.

“Bristol Steam Convention Blues” is a Parsons-White instrumental that features some classic banjo playing. “Antique Sandy” is listenable but “Get Down Your Line” and “Lazy Waters” struggle to be average.

“Farther Along” would be the final musical statement by Clarence White who would be killed by a drunk driver eight months later at age 29. For his virtuosity alone, the album is worth a listen. However, as part of the Byrds legacy it settles into the bottom part of their excellent catalogue as an average and ultimately inconsequential album.

Byrdmaniax by The Byrds

May 27, 2009

The Byrds released so many excellent albums that when one did not measure up it was judged harshly as the standard had been set so high. Byrdmaniax struggles to be average and is one of the weaker albums in the their catalogue. While there are a couple of high points, ultimately the mundane songs bring the overall quality of the release down.

One of the major problems with the album was the production or I should say the over-production. Terry Melcher added strings, brass, keyboards, and backup singers to the tracks. The issue has always been whether it was with the group member’s knowledge or not? The result was that many of the songs veered from the traditional and accepted Byrds sound and the record buying public was not happy about it.

My other thought was that the voice of Gene Parsons was underused as no tracks contain his lead. His vocal skills were unique and he may have had the best voice in the group at the time.

Three songs rise above the production. Roger McGuinn’s, “I Trust,” is gospel influenced and sends a positive message. “Kathleen’s Song” is a beautiful and sensitive ballad that makes use of a nice chorus. “Jamaica Say You Will” was penned by Jackson Browne and features a gritty vocal by Clarence White.

Skip Battin and his writing partner of the time, Kim Fowley, would write three songs. Only the odd “Citizen Kane” would be mildly interesting. This campy tribute to Hollywood would even sound like the 1930’s. Battin would compose a surprising number of songs during his time with the group, and while they would not be terrible, he would have a difficult time composing tunes that would match the group’s sound.

The best of the rest are McGuinn’s ballad “Pale Blue” and possibly the cover of “Glory Glory” but they are lost in the excess of it all.

Byrdmaniax was a disappointing release in 1971 and remains a deservedly forgotten album today. When exploring the Byrds legacy, your time and energy is better spent elsewhere.

(Untitled) by The Byrds

May 26, 2009

The Byrds received a publicity form from the Columbia Label asking for the title of their new album. Since the group had not decided upon one producer Terry Melcher simple wrote untitled and there you have it.

(Untitled) was issued September 16, 1970 and was the only double album released during the group’s lifetime. It consisted of one live and one studio disc and proved to be a commercial success.

The live disc consisted of seven tracks with four being reworked from some of their classic hits. The Byrds of the early 1970s may not have been as creative in the studio as the Hillman, Crosby, and Gram Parsons incarnations but live in concert they were probably superior.

Gene Parsons was a very good drummer but it was the guitar brilliance of Clarence White that drove the sound. His ability to compliment the playing of Roger McGuinn on his 12 string gave the Byrds a unique and dynamic sound. Rolling Stone Magazine placed White as number 41 on their list of “The 100 Greatest Guitarists Of All Time.” Skip Battin was a competent bassist but I preferred John York whom he had replaced. Just listen to the Byrds CD release, Live At The Fillmore: February 1969 to hear him at his best.

Roger McGuinn had been working on a play with Jacques Levy based on Ibsen’s Peer Gynt. Levy would go on to co-write a number of songs with Bob Dylan. While their play would never materialize, a number of their songs would appear. “Lover Of The Bayou” made its debut as a live track and gave a hint of what great music the two could produce together. Another Dylan cover, “Positively 4th Street” and a rocking country version of “Nashville West” would follow.

“So You Want To Be A Rock ‘n’ Roll Star,” “Mr. Tambourine,” and “Mr. Spaceman” are all played with a harder edge while the classic harmonies remain intact. This all leads to a sixteen minute version of “Eight Miles High” which contains solos, jams, and guitar wizardry that all add up to one of the better long tracks ever to grace a live album.

The studio disc has some highlights but ultimately pales next to the live set. “Chestnut Mare,” another Levy co-written tune was a classic Byrds song and White’s vocal and guitar playing on the Little Feat tune, “Truck Stop Girl” are high quality. Skip Battin writes or co-writes four of the nine tracks but only the seven minute plus anti-war song, “Welcome Back Home” rises above the mundane. Two more Levy/McGuinn compositions appear but “Just A Season” and “All The Things” do not raise much above average.

Untitled remains listenable today due to the fine concert tracks. They present McGuinn, White, and company proving that their live material could be favorably compared to the best of what was being produced

Ballad Of Easy Rider by The Byrds

May 26, 2009

An amazing thing happened while recording Ballad Of Easy Rider and that was Roger McGuinn did not have to replace any members of the Byrds. His band mates, Clarence White, Gene Parsons, and John York, would all remain in place. His luck would run out as soon as the recording sessions were concluded as bassist York would be replaced by Skip Battin in September of 1969 just prior to the album’s release in October.

Roger McGuinn would change producers as Terry Melcher was asked to return. He had produced the Byrds first two albums and would go on to produce two more after this one. His style would enable The Byrds to create a mature and commercially successful album.

Ballad Of Easy Rider would be a laid back affair and feature the combined talents of the group’s members. All four Byrds would write a song and their voices would combine to keep the group’s signature harmonies in place. Clarence White would continue to provide Roger McGuinn with a perfect guitar partner.

The title song was a composition that Bob Dylan started but turned over to McGuinn before completion. It would turn out to be one of the best songs of his career. It was a rare positive and soothing look at the youth culture of the day and remains one of my favorite songs by the Byrds.

The other members would also author some songs. Parsons and White would pen “Oil In My Lamp” which would feature a rare and gritty White lead vocal. “Gunga Din” by Gene Parsons, who would also provide the lead vocal, is a tired and haunting song about touring and it would become a concert staple. John York’s “Fido” was not of the caliber of the aforementioned two but can be considered harmless fun. It is notable for a rare and possibly only Byrds drum solo.

Roger McGuinn continued to pick strong cover songs. “Deportee (Plane Wreck At Los Gatos)” by Woody Guthrie is a conscious raising song about Mexican immigrants and is a highlight. “Tulsa Country” is emblematic of everything that was good about the Byrds as White’s guitar picking and the harmonies shine. The traditional English tune, “Jack Tarr The Sailor,” looks ahead to his solo career.

“Jesus Is Just Alright” rocks but the Doobie Brothers would make it one of their signature songs three years later. The Byrds provide an interesting and haunting version of Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” but again I prefer Dylan’s 1965 version. I am less enthused by the old Louvin’ Brothers country tune, “There Must Be Someone (I Can Turn Too),” as it really never takes off and finally there is the throwaway “Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins” which closes the album.

Ballad Of Easy Rider remains a smooth listen and there is beauty to be found in many of the songs. It may not be as consistent as some of their past releases but it did prove that this 1969 incarnation of the Byrds was not only alive and well but extremely talented.