Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Byrds

I have a hobby that drives my wife Carol absolutely nuts. I like to make mix CDs. I’m a sucker for Greatest Hits albums, but they almost invariably leave out a favorite song or two. So with the power of technology, I can make my own “greatest hit” CDs for my car or at work, especially work since I can’t take my iPod there.

One such mix CD is of The Byrds. Their first hit was in 1965 with a Bob Dylan song called Mr. Tambourine Man. The group had great three-part harmonies with Roger McGuinn, David Crosby and Gene Clark. The only Byrd to play an instrument on it was Roger McGuinn with his 12-string Rickenbacker. The rest of the players were Hollywood studio musicians known by industry pros as “The Wrecking Crew.” They played on a lot of Beach Boys songs too. One would be tempted to put Mr. Tambourine Man on a mixed CD. It’s a good song – better than the Dylan original but there are other Byrds songs I like better. So without further adieu, here are my Byrds songs in the order they appear on my mix.

1. Eight Miles High – from 1966’s Fifth Dimension LP. The Byrds recorded this song, about The Byrds’ trip to England in 1965, twice. The first song was done in late 1965 in RCA’s studios in Hollywood. Since The Byrds recorded on Columbia Records, the record execs made them cut it again in a Columbia studio. That’s the version that gets all the radio airplay. My CD has the first version from RCA. It’s a better take. It sounds more “alive.”

2. Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There Is a Season) – from 1965’s Turn! Turn! Turn! LP. This is an old Pete Seeger folk tune adapted from the Book of Ecclesiastes.

3. 5D [Fifth Dimension] - from 1966’s Fifth Dimension LP. Roger McGuinn, who wrote the song, was a science fiction geek. He thought the universe was “height, width, depth, time, and something else.” His point is that the universe is infinite, that the Fifth Dimension is the threshold of scientific knowledge. Whatever. Too much to think about in a 2 ½ minute song. I just think it’s a good tune.

4. Mr. Spaceman - from 1966’s Fifth Dimension LP. Roger McGuinn’s expression of hope to communicate with friendly aliens. Sometimes NASA uses this song to wake up the Shuttle astronauts.

5. So You Want To Be a Rock 'N' Roll Star – from 1967’s Younger Than Yesterday LP. Co-written with Roger McGuinn, this is one of five songs from the pen of bassist Chris Hillman. Some rock critics think this is a song about the Byrds’ cynicism about manufactured pop groups like The Monkees. What these same critics failed to realize was The Byrds were the same kind of group when they came together in 1964. Trumpeter Hugh Masekela males a guest appearance. Later covered by Patti Smith and by Tom Petty on his Pack Up the Plantation live LP.

6. Have You Seen Her Face - from 1967’s Younger Than Yesterday LP. Another Chris Hillman song.

7. Time Between - from 1967’s Younger Than Yesterday LP. From Chris Hillman, this country-sounding song features the guitar playing of Clarence White, who would become a full member of The Byrds in later years.

8. Everybody's Been Burned - from 1967’s Younger Than Yesterday LP. This song was written by David Crosby. It sounds a lot like his song Guinnevere from the Crosby, Stills & Nash debut album from 1969. Crosby likes to use strange guitar tunings for some of his songs rather than the standard EADGBE. This is one of them. This song is also proof that David Crosby, who fancies himself more as a harmony singer, has an excellent voice to sing lead.

9. My Back Pages - from 1967’s Younger Than Yesterday LP. Another song from the Bob Dylan catalog. This song has been seen by many as Bob Dylan’s kiss-off the the folk “protest song” community with which he was becoming disillusioned. This was the last Byrds song to reach Billboard’s Top 40. A great tune.

10. Lady Friend - from 1967’s Younger Than Yesterday LP. Originally a single, but later included as a bonus track on the remastered Younger Than Yesterday. Another song from David Crosby. Chiming guitars, complex vocal harmonies, and brass. It didn’t chart very well as a single, but I like it anyway.

11. Goin’ Back – from 1968’s The Notorious Byrd Brothers LP. This song is from Carole King and Gerry Goffin. Crosby hated this song. In fact he refused to participate in its recording. This song was the source of one of the many arguments the band members were having at the time. Crosby wanted his own song Triad on the album. McGuinn and Hillman liked this one better.

12. Natural Harmony - from 1968’s The Notorious Byrd Brothers LP. Chris Hillman once said he wrote this while taking an LSD trip. I believe it. It’s sufficiently trippy.

13. Draft Morning - from 1968’s The Notorious Byrd Brothers LP. A song started by Crosby and finished by Hillman and McGuinn. This one’s a song about the horrors of Vietnam and was a protest against the draft. Complete with bugles and machine-gun sound effects.

14. Wasn’t Born to Follow - from 1968’s The Notorious Byrd Brothers LP. Another King/Goffin tune. This one has more of a country influence, given there is a pedal steel guitar trading lead with Clarence White’s Telecaster.

15. Change Is Now - from 1968’s The Notorious Byrd Brothers LP. A McGuinn-Hillman song that Roger McGuinn describes as “another one of those guru-spiritual-mystic songs that nobody understood.” Significant for being the only Byrds song to feature both David Crosby and Clarence White.

16. Old John Robertson - from 1968’s The Notorious Byrd Brothers LP. Written by McGuinn and Hillman, this was the flip side to the Lady Friend single. Another country-type song, it’s about a retired movie director who lived in Chris Hillman’s native San Diego. He wore a white Stetson hat and had a white handlebar moustache. He was kind of a Wild West kind of character.

17. Tribal Gathering – from 1968’s The Notorious Byrd Brothers LP. This is a jazzy song played in 5/4 time by David Crosby. The song was inspired by a hippie gathering in Los Angeles in 1966.

18. Triad – the proverbial straw that broke the camels back. Among other things, this is the song that got David Crosby fired from The Byrds. This is a song about a ménage à trois. Another very fine lead vocal from Crosby, it’s a good song, but one definitely of it’s time. Crosby wanted this song on The Notorious Byrd Brothers, but McGuinn and Hillman didn’t think the song worked as well as Goin’ Back. I think The Notorious Byrd Brothers would have been a stronger LP if it included Triad.

19. You Ain’t Going Nowhere – from 1968’s Sweetheart of the Rodeo LP. Enter Gram Parsons. With Crosby out of the band, McGuinn and Hillman wanted another musician to take his place. Hillman met Gram Parsons in, of all places, a bank teller line. They got together and discovered they had a shared love of country music. The Byrds hired Gram Parsons. Roger McGuinn once remarked about Gram “we thought we hired a piano player, but instead we got George Jones in a Nudie suit.” When it came time to record Sweetheart of the Rodeo, Roger McGuinn had originally envisioned it as a tribute to all kinds of American music. But Gram Parsons, along with his willing accomplice Chris Hillman, convinced McGuinn to go “all in” and make a straight country record. It wasn’t well-received at the time, but Sweetheart of the Rodeo has since been recognized as a certified country-rock classic way ahead of its time. This song from Bob Dylan kicks off Sweetheart of the Rodeo and sets the mood for the rest of the record very effectively.

20. This Wheel’s On Fire – from 1969’s Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde LP. Exit Gram Parsons and Chris Hillman, enter Clarence White. As the title suggests, the record has a split personality between country rock material and hard-edged psychedelia. This Bob Dylan/Rick Danko song falls in the latter category. This song sounds like the apocalypse is coming, and the ending is complete with an atomic bomb explosion and searing feedback. Cool stuff this one.

21. Nashville West - from 1969’s Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde LP. This is a Clarence White instrumental from his previous band, which was also named Nashville West. The song demonstrates great interplay between Roger McGuinn’s 12-string Rickenbacker and Clarence White’s Fender Telecaster. Short and to the point. Great stuff.

22. Drug Store Truck Drivin' Man - from 1969’s Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde LP. Before Gram Parsons left The Byrds, he wrote this song with Roger McGuinn. Played in country 3/4 time, the subject of their ire is Ralph Emery, who didn’t treat The Byrds very well on his radio show when The Byrds were trying to plug their Sweetheart of the Rodeo album in Nashville. The song has a litany of Redneck stereotypes, and starts off with the line “He’s a drug store truck drivin’ man/He’s the head of the Ku Klux Klan”, with a pointed “this one’s for you, Ralph” at the end of the song. Ralph Emery wasn’t a KKK member, but you can tell that McGuinn and Parsons were pretty bent about their short experience with Mr. Emery.

23. Lover of the Bayou [Live] – from 1970’s [Untitled] LP. Roger McGuinn and Broadway impresario Jacques Levy had an idea to take Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt story and transpose it from Norway to the 19th century American Southwest. The concept was called Gene Tryp. The production of Gene Tryp never got off the ground, but McGuinn and Levy wrote many songs for the production. This song is one of them. This song, recorded live in New York, is set during the American Civil War and portrays the hero of Gene Tryp as a smuggler, bootlegger, and gun runner. With the addition of Clarence White on guitar, Gene Parsons on drums, and Skip Battin on bass, The Byrds were a much better live band than in previous incarnations, and it shows on the live cuts from [Untitled].

24. Positively 4th Street [Live] - from 1970’s [Untitled] LP. One of two Bob Dylan songs to appear on [Untitled].

25. It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding) – the other Dylan song from 1970’s [Untitled] LP. The Dylan songs and Lover of the Bayou ably demonstrate The Byrds’ newfound prowess as a live band.

26. Hickory Wind – a Gram Parson classic from 1968’s Sweetheart of the Rodeo LP. This song describes Gram Parsons’ bittersweet nostalgia for his native South. During The Byrds’ one and only appearance on the Grand Ole Opry, Gram Parsons pissed of the country music establishment by playing this song instead of Merle Haggard’s Life in Prison. He wanted to play this song instead and dedicated it to his grandmother. It was Gram Parsons’ signature song.

27. Farther Along – from 1971’s Farther Along LP. One of the few Byrds songs sung by Clarence White. Two years after the release of Farther Along, Clarence White was killed by a drunk driver in Palmdale, California while he was loading his equipment into his vehicle after a show he just finished playing. During his funeral service, Gram Parsons and Bearnie Leadon spontaneously broke out in an a capella version of this country standard in tribute to their departed friend. I thought this would be the perfect song to end a mix CD of The Byrds.

These are all the songs I could cram into a single 80 minute CD. If I could put one more song on it, it would be Gene Clark’s I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better from The Byrds’ 1965 Mr. Tambourine Man LP.


Anonymous said...

well - nice try, i'd say.
But Tambourine Man should not be left out. Same with "I feel a whole lot better" and of course The Byrds´greatest song "She don't care about time" to my senses is a must!


Anonymous said...

Nice summary. However, I believe you meant to say Gene Clarke and not Gene Parsons in the begining. Gene Parsons didn't join until Sweetheart of the Rodeo. I also didn't realize and am not convinced that Mr. Tambourine Man was with studio musicians along with McGuinn, who was Jim at the time.
Thanks for the memories.
Bob Roth

Anonymous said...

My list would have included The Bells of Rhynmey and the Chimes of Freedom

hans said...

I think Gram Parsons is the name

Matt Groneman said...

No "Chestnut Mare"?

There is a fantastic cover of "Lover of the Bayou" by Mudcrutch, the bluegrassy outfit fronted by Tom Petty, who also did a serviceable cover of "Feel A Whole Lot Better" on 1990's Full Moon Fever.

Anonymous said...

The first line up of the Byrds were (Jim)Roger Mcguinn,David Crosby,Gene Clark,Chris Hillman and Michael Clarke.

El Viejo Loco said...

My mistake. I meant to write Gene Clark but wrote Gene Parsons instead. Thanks for pointing out my crass mistake.

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