Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

The Byrds - Byrds

The Byrds

Released 1973 on Asylum
Reviewed by Joe Kenney, 08/05/2007ce

Talk about unsung. Here’s an album that was not only panned upon its release, but has mostly been stricken from the history books.

I’d never even heard of this Byrds reunion album until the mid-1990s, when I came across a brief reference to it in a book on the Beatles. Something to the effect of, “The Byrds’s 1973 reunion album was justification enough that it’s a good thing the Beatles never got back together and recorded a new LP.” Pretty harsh. Then you read Jon Landau’s scathing review from the April 12, 1973 edition of Rolling Stone, you read the All Music Guide review which claims the album sounds like a “bored country rock bar band,” you read the split opinions of Byrds fans – those of whom who really hate the album not even willing to admit it’s actually the Byrds; no, this is a CSN&Y-type affair, “Clark, Hillman, Crosby, McGuinn & Clarke,” and the album, not the band, is titled Byrds. Why? Because so much time had passed since they last recorded together, the founding members of the Byrds could no longer be considered the actual band they founded! Ridiculous – like claiming if Hitler, Goering, Himmler and the rest were resuscitated and got back together, they could no longer be considered Nazis. (Not to compare the Byrds with the Third Reich, but ridiculous theories call for ridiculous comparisons.)

What’s even more crazy is that some out there will claim the godawful Byrdmaniax and the more-country-than-Conway-Twitty Farther Along are superior to this album…

By 1972, the Byrds had run their course. After two poorly-received and poor-selling LPs (the above-mentioned Byrdmaniax and Farther Along), the former of which was grossly overproduced and the latter of which was a country affair of lackluster tunes, last-standing original member Roger McGuinn absolved the group. Taking advantage of the current popularity of CSN&Y, Asylum records bought out the Byrds’s contract from Columbia and talked the founding members into getting back together for one last go-round. Industry coverage was huge, and McGuinn himself talked it up, claiming the album would pick up where The Notorious Byrd Brothers left off. And make no mistake – the album was marketed as an actual Byrds product, not something by “CHCM&C!” The album sold well, but critics were harsh – they hated this album, and they still hate it today. The backlash was so thick the Byrds even dropped plans to tour in support of the album, and that was pretty much it for the founding members until they reunited again in 1990.

The album dispenses with many things familiar of the Byrds, but other things are still in effect. For one, the super-short songs. The longest track on here, “Laughing,” clocks in at nearly six minutes. Most of other songs barely reach the three-minute mark. As for differences, the familiar Rickenbacker twelve-string is relegated to the background of the mix, with mandolins and country-tuned acoustic guitars brought up. Maybe one of the bones critics had to pick with this album was that it sounded like the Byrdmaniax/Farther Along Byrds; that it was more country rock than the psychedelic rock the founding lineup was known for. Of course the big difference is, these guys actually wrote some good songs, unlike the Byrdmaniax/Farther Along lineup.

“Full Circle” opens the album, a Gene Clark composition. Clark has yet to get his due, and truth to tell he wrote some of the best Byrds songs, “Eight Miles High” among them. The thing is, he was a bit too deep into the country scene for me, and this song reflects that. These days most everyone claims the Clark originals are the only songs of note on this album. I don’t agree with that, but of the two Clark originals, I like this one best. Masterfully composed, with a relaxed beat, harmony vocals, and well-picked mandolin, it’s a great song, true, but I can see how it would be more appealing to someone more into country than I am. However the track provides a preamble for the album. The downhome charm, the relaxed vibe, the country rock leanings; this is the sound of the LP, and “Full Circle” condenses it into two minutes and forty-three seconds. The opening note of the song – I mean the very first second – has always sounded to me like the beginning of “Turn, Turn, Turn.” The same twelve-string sound, everything. Wonder if this was an in-joke? More likely a coincidence.

“Sweet Mary” finds McGuinn contributing a lackluster song along the lines of his material on Farther Along. Perhaps the problem is pacing. This turgid, overly-country, mandolin-picking, hoarse-vocalled ditty fares poorly as the second track on the album – especially coming after the just-as-country “Full Circle.” But whereas the preceding track at least had a nice beat, “Sweet Mary” is sans drums and sounds like something Confederate soldiers would sing around the campfire after losing yet another battle with the Union. But see, here’s the damnable charm of this album. “Sweet Mary” is the type of song which would normally have me running for the hills. But I never skip this track. No; I find myself singing along with it. Though I don’t like it, I can’t turn away from it.

“Changing Heart” is the other Gene Clark composition, and this one’s nearly as country as “Full Circle.” Opening with a harmonica blast, it’s an upbeat number with the Rickenbacker hovering in the background and the acoustic guitars brought to the fore. The drums are relegated to a downbeat from the snare, poorly produced. “Changing Heart” is strange, it’s got that upbeat sound expected of the mid-sixties Byrds, yet it’s as country as Sweetheart of the Rodeo. The track shows the same composition mastery apparent on “Full Circle,” and get this – it’s exactly the same length.

“For Free,” a Joni Mitchell cover, continues the trend of subdued country rock. Four tracks like this back-to-back, you begin to wonder if all those hate-filled critics maybe had a point. There’s not much to recommend this song; why the Byrds chose it is anyone’s guess. I suspect Crosby’s influence. After all, he’d scored a massive hit with his cover of Mitchell’s “Woodstock” on the CSN&Y Déjà Vu album. Maybe he thought history would repeat itself. He takes the lead overtop a lethargic beat, bluesy guitar complimenting the chorus. Mandolins in the bridge? You bet. It’s not that this is a bad song, per se; it’s moreso that you’d expect the Byrds would at least have another original song. Again, you can see why those critics were so rough on the album. These are the guys who gave us “Eight Miles High,” “Draft Morning,” Mr. Spaceman.” And all they could come up with was a Joni Mitchell cover?

“Born To Rock ‘N’ Roll” is, in composer McGuinn’s own words, “a dog.” Yes – the type of dog you take out back and put out of its misery. After previously covering it with the Farther Along lineup of the Byrds for an aborted single, McGuinn brought the track along to the reunion sessions. The result is unspectacular. On the positive side, this is the first track on the album which is more rock than country. Only it’s a perfunctory rock track…yet, its perfunctory nature is part of its charm! The sound of a man who has grown bored of rock, delivering what else but a song about his undying love for rock! The guitars are electric here, yet they’re as muted and subdued as the acoustic guitars in the preceding tracks. This isn’t a balls-out rocker, that’s for sure, but it’s a rocker nonetheless; perhaps if it had been placed earlier in the album, it would’ve served to shake up the otherwise country-centered vibe.

“Things Will Be Better” is the first of Chris Hillman’s compositions, and it’s by far my favorite original song on the album (not counting Crosby’s “Laughing,” which is in reality a cover). This track is so much better than Gene Clark’s two songs, yet no one ever mentions it – Clark gets all the accolades. It’s got a driving beat, the electric twelve strings are front and center, and it features a spacey mid section straight out of Notorious Byrd Brothers. The song’s a strange mixture, too – it has one foot in the sixties and the other firmly in the seventies. In fact this song sounds as much like Big Star as the Byrds; you could put it on #1 Record and it wouldn’t sound out of place. Why this track didn’t become a radio hit is beyond me. Of all the songs on the album, this is the one that gets stuck in my head for days. That fat beat which stays the course throughout, those grooving guitars, the righteous attitude. The lyrics hold true to the doom and gloom outlook of the post-Altamont early seventies: “Things will be better now/Don’t ask me why, don’t ask me how.” Talk about the power of positive thinking!

“Cowgirl In The Sand” is one of my Top Ten favorite Byrds songs. This track is fantastic. If the Eagles had released it, it would be considered one of their greatest-ever songs. Yet the bad name associated with this LP has relegated it to the dustbin of rock history. A cover of Neil Young’s more ragged and extended original, the Byrds countryfy it, bringing out the harmony (Gene Clark on lead), particularly on the “Old enough now to change your name” part. If there are any Rickenbackers present, they’re mixed so low I can’t hear them; acoustic guitars and mandolin carry the song, and do a fine job of it. Why this song isn’t remembered is beyond me. One of the many accusations critics leveled at this album was that it featured two Neil Young covers and no Bob Dylan covers. But I’ll take a Young song over a Dylan song any day of the week, and “Cowgirl” is one of his best – only the Byrds did it better. Reason enough to buy this album.

Leave it to Crosby to actually take up McGuinn’s statement and deliver a track which sounds like a continuation of Notorious Byrd Brothers; “Long Live The King” is totally in the mode of mid-sixties Byrds. Electric twelve strings are front and center, and like Hillman’s song it features a psychedelic mid-section. To me the track feels like a continuation of “So You Want To Be A Rock ‘N’ Roll Star,” with Crosby singing bitter lyrics about the plight of fame (my take, at least). Again, another upbeat track which is more rock than country. Yet people always claim this is a weak song. Don’t ask me why.

Next Hillman delivers his second original, “Borrowed Time.” Another one most people complain about, but which I like – moreso than both of Clark’s tunes. This one’s a downhome jamboree, bouncing congas and strummed acoustic guitars. Mandolin? Of course. A happy go lucky tune which, like “Things Will Be Better,” works itself into your brain and stays there. Another track which so many have railed against; and again, why?

“Laughing” follows; just about every review you read for the album will claim this Byrds version is inferior to the original, released on Crosby’s 1971 LP If I Could Only Remember My Name and featuring Jerry Garcia on pedal steel guitar with Joni Mitchell on backing vocals. I’m not going to disagree with them. The original version of “Laughing” is one of my all-time favorite songs. So does that mean we should discount this Byrds remake? Not at all. Crosby wrote the song during his tenure with the group; had he not been fired, “Laughing” would’ve made its first appearance on a Byrds album. And here Crosby again delivers a Notorious Byrd Brothers sound; place this track on that album and it wouldn’t sound out of place. This version of the track is purely in the “light one up and nod along” category, all downbeat murk and Rickenbacker raga. Dopesmoker’s heaven. Crosby sings his vocals with a different emphasis than the original, but the climax lacks the majesty of Mitchell’s backing vocals. And maybe that’s the most damning thing about this version – while enjoyable in its own right, it lacks the passion and fire of the solo LP original.

“(See The Sky) About To Rain” is the other Neil Young cover. A bold move from the Byrds – the Young original hadn’t even been released yet (it would officially come out the following year, on Young’s On the Beach LP). This is another case where you could argue the Byrds cover surpasses the original. Gene Clark again on lead vocals, it dispenses with the electric piano of Young’s original and instead, again, brings out the acoustic guitars and the mandolin. Yet despite the country remake, the song has a definite appeal. The Byrds deliver what they did best – soaring harmony vocals over lush instrumentation. The highlight of the entire album occurs at the 2:38 mark – the drums drop off, the Rickenbackers come to the fore (and apparently the volume is turned up in the editing booth), and the group sings in harmony “I was down in Dixieland/Played a silver fiddle/Played it loud and then the man/Broke it down the middle” before the drums kick back in. Again, this track is easily in my Byrds Top Ten. Another would-be hit that’s been forgotten.

Unavailable for several years, the album is now back in print, released on remastered CD by Wounded Bird records. Of course, you could also easily pick up the vinyl at a discount bin near you, which is how I came across it years ago. I still play the album consistently. In fact I listen to it more than any other Byrds album. Like I said, despite its many faults, the LP has a definite charm. And who knows, maybe it’s because Crosby has always been my favorite Byrds member, and this album, produced and overseen by him, could basically be described as “The David Crosby Byrds.” Which is fine by me – better than “The Skip Battin Byrds,” that’s for damn sure.

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