Mr. Tambourine Man By The Byrds

February 27, 2016

Time has clouded the impact of “Tambourine Man” by The Byrds but at the time of its release, it was the first song to fuse rock and folk music.

Oddly the only group member to actually play on the original recording was Roger McGuinn, whose electric 12 string guitar was essential to the sound. Studio musicians Hal Blaine, Larry Knechtel, Leon Russell, and Glen Campbell provided the rest. M.cGuinn, David Crosby, and Gene Clark provided the vocals

On June 26, 1965, “Mr. Tambourine Man” reached the top of the singles charts in the United States. The song may have only spent one week at number one but a new musical sound was born.

 


Sweetheart Of The Rodeo by The Byrds

June 2, 2009

I am constantly amazed at how The Byrds could change their musical direction and survive the loss of members time and time again, yet continue to produce one excellent album after another.

Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman found themselves the only two remaining Byrds after the release of The Notorious Byrd Brothers. Hillman’s cousin, Kevin Kelley, was hired to play the drums and Gram Parsons was added as a guitarist and banjo player. The duo of Hillman and Parsons shared a musical vision of country music and that vision would dominate the group’s sixth release, Sweetheart Of The Radio. They would combine their country leanings with the rock sensibilities of Roger McGuinn and that combination would result in one of the earliest and most influential examples of the country-rock sound.

Gary Usher returned to produce his third album for the group and led them to the country capital of the world, Nashville Tennessee, for the recording sessions.

The group members would only write three original songs. Two Dylan tunes would be chosen for interpretation and they would combine with a number of classic country songs by such artists as the Louvin Brothers, Merle Haggard, and Cindy Walker to form the foundation of the album.

Gram Parsons would author two of the best songs of his career. The major problem was that he was still under contract to A&M records and producer Lee Hazlewood called him on it. Roger McGuinn would replace his vocals on some of the tracks to avoid possible legal problems. “Hickory Wind” is a lyrical song of beauty with mesmerizing harmonies in support. If you would like to hear the song in all its glory, without McGuinn’s post production interference, check out the live version on Parsons’ Grievous Angel album with Emmylou Harris providing the harmonies. “One Hundred Years From Now” features the combined voices of Hillman and McGuinn just cascading over the instrumental track.

The two Dylan tracks book ended the original release. “You Ain’t Going Nowhere” set up the tone of the album as a steel pedal guitar replaced Roger McGuinn’s usual 12 string. “Nothing Was Delivered” features a layered sound and ultimately brings the album to a gentle end.

Sweetheart Of The Rodeo would contain a number of other highlights. The Merle Haggard tune, “Life In Prison,” is a song about murder and suffering and is about as country as you can get, yet the Byrds have the ability to shift it just a little from its roots toward a rock sound. “The Christian Life” finds McGuinn getting into the spirit of the album as his vocal even has a slight southern twang. Woody Guthrie’s, “Pretty Boy Floyd” features some wonderful banjo playing as the song is moved from its stark folk roots toward a country rock sound.

Sweetheart Of The Rodeo did not have the commercial success of their prior albums but may have been their most influential. The country-rock sound they established would be carried on by such artists as Poco, The Eagles, Emmylou Harris, Mary Chapin Carpenter and many others. Released in 1968, during the Vietnam War era, it provided a counterpoint to much of what was appearing at the time. Rolling Stone Magazine would rank it at number 117 on their list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.

I don’t think it is their best album and it is not my favorite, but I do considerate it their most essential. It was a revolutionary release at the time and remains a worthwhile listen today


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.


Dr. Byrds and Mr. Hyde by The Byrds

May 26, 2009

Roger McGuinn found himself looking for new members again. Gram Parsons and Chris Hillman had left the Byrds and formed the Flying Burrito Brothers and drummer Kevin Kelley had also departed. Gene Parsons was selected to play the drums and session musician John York was hired as the bassist. The best decision was adding Clarence White as a guitarist. He had played on a number of Byrds albums and he and McGuinn would form one of the best, if underrated, guitar duos in rock history.

Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde was the perfect title for the album as the Byrds would produce music that spanned their career. Their country roots would lead to a number of tracks but Roger McGuinn would also reach back into the group’s past for some good old psychedelic rock ‘n’ roll. It may not have been cohesive but it sure was interesting.

As the last remaining original member there was little doubt that by this time Roger McGuinn was in charge. He wrote or co-wrote six of the ten songs and arranged a seventh. He also sang lead on all the tracks contained on the original release.

The first four tracks show perfectly the schizophrenic nature of the album. “This Wheel’s On Fire,” written by Bob Dylan and Rick Danko, is given an almost perfect cover. It quickly establishes that White’s guitar picking style would combine well with McGuinn’s 12 string. The song is transferred into an epic cosmic rock rendition. Two country songs quickly follow. “Old Blue” is an old traditional love song arranged by McGuinn and Gary Paxton’s tune, “Your Gentle Way Of Loving Me,” is treated to a country-rock sound with some brilliant playing by White. “Child Of The Universe,” which was written for the movie Candy, is dark rock ‘n’ roll.

“Drug Store Truck Drivin’ Man” was a brilliant song written by Roger McGuinn and the departed Gram Parsons. It was a pithy and sarcastic response to the group’s reception at the Grand Ol’ Opry.

Other songs of note were “King Apathy III” which criticized the hypocrisy of some members of the hippie movement and the rocking “Bad Night At The Whiskey.”

Dr.Byrds and Mr. Hyde may not be the best Byrds album but it was better than 95% of what was being released at the time. I would not recommend it as a starting place if one would like to explore The Byrds catalogue, but as an album it provides a lot of surprises and certainly will keep your attention.


The Notorious Byrd Brothers by The Byrds

May 25, 2009

The Byrds returned to the studio during the second half of 1967 and the relationships between the members were not pretty. Michael Clarke left, Gene Clark returned, David Crosby was fired, Gene Clark left again, Jim officially became Roger McGuinn, and the resultant album, The Notorious Byrd Brothers, was brilliant and became a classic 1960’s release. Rolling Stone Magazine would rank it number 171 on their list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.

The original album cover featured three human Byrds and a horse. The horse was supposed to represent the departed David Crosby and at the time I thought he was lucky that they faced the horse forward.

Despite all the turmoil, McGuinn and Hillman soldiered on. They would change several of the tracks that Crosby had left behind and ultimately would write or co-write nine of the eleven songs. They also hired musicians to fill in the blanks. Session musician deluxe Jim Gordon would provide some of the best drum work of the group’s career. The most important addition would be guitarist Clarence White, who had also played briefly on their last album. He would later join The Byrds as an official member and provide the perfect foil for guitarist Roger McGuinn.

The album would be a compromise between McGuinn’s psychedelic tendencies and Chris Hillman’s country leanings. They would unite to present a fairly mellow affair which featured hauntingly beautiful music.

Producer Gary User, a former associate of The Beach Boys, was back for a second album. He is one of the forgotten studio wizards of the 1960s. He created a number of studio bands such as The Hondells and The Superstocks, who featured layered harmonies and catchy music. His production of The Notorious Byrd Brothers was impeccable and his ability to give the vocals and the music an almost sonic quality was outstanding. His greatest achievement, however, may have been his ability to keep the recording sessions focused in the middle of all the chaos.

The two non original tracks were written by the legendary team of Carole King and Gerry Goffin and continued the group’s tradition of superior cover work. “Goin’ Back” featured Roger McGuinns legendary 12 string guitar plus the vocal phrasing gave the lyrics new life and meaning which enabled the song to escape its pop foundation and become a memorable folk-rock tune. “Wasn’t Born To Follow” would feature one of the best vocals of McGuinn’s career.

The album contains a number of other delights. “Draft Morning” is a gentle but effective anti-war song that remains a social commentary about the late sixties. “Change Is Now” is highlighted by Chris Hillman’s bass beat and gorgeous harmonies on the chorus. “Old John Robertson” is the best of the country songs and looks ahead to the coming of Gram Parsons.

The final two tracks are a last hurrah for the pure psychedelic Byrds. “Dolphin’s Smile” is David Crosby’s final brilliant gasp as a member of the group. “Space Odyssey” was written with the Stanley Kubrick movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey, in mind. While it was not used in the film it remains a unique psychedelic relic of the era.

The Notorious Byrd Brothers has a timeless quality about it and is one of the better, if not the best release, in their outstanding catalogue of work. It is a stunning album that was meant to be listened too with head phones firmly in place.