Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Gene Clark - No Other

Gene Clark
No Other

Released 1974 on Asylum Records
Reviewed by Joe Kenney, 10/05/2007ce

After the release of the Byrds reunion album in 1973, Gene Clark scored a recording contract with Asylum Records. So he holed up in his girlfriend’s beach house, lodging in a room which provided a view of the ocean, took some peyote, and sketched out a clutch of songs with cosmic, yearning lyrics.

Enter Thomas Jefferson Kaye, Clark’s producer and co-conspirator on the resulting album, No Other. Kaye took these sketches and turned them into studies of early-seventies overproduction, miniature epics of distorted guitar, fuzzed-out bass, synths, piano, mandolin, organ, Hammond, keys, wah-wah violins, a gospel-rock choir of female backing singers, a member of the Allman Brothers, a member of the Eagles, and last but not least, Everests of cocaine.

The result was an eight-track album which cost $100,000 to produce. Barely promoted by Asylum and ignored by the rock press (I’ve yet to discover a review actually written when it was released), No Other was another commercial flop for Gene Clark. These days it’s slowly gaining some appreciation, noted by some as a milestone work along the lines of Skip Spence’s “Oar” or Dennis Wilson’s “Pacific Ocean Blue,” though I would not say it’s better than either of those albums. Those above-mentioned massive production touches are part of its current appeal – though if we’re going to talk up this album solely due to its production, we might as well begin to discuss the merits of Whitney Houston albums, as they’re just as overproduced. Only, Whitney Houston never wrote a bunch of cosmic-outlook tunes under the influence of peyote (or DID she?).

It took me a good ten listens to finally appreciate No Other. Upon the first few spins, one wouldn’t be faulted for wondering what all the current acclaim is about. The country touches are a bit too thick for those who can’t stand the stuff (like me), there isn’t a single uptempo rocker, and the album seems to be made up of midpaced psychedelic country rock. Yet there is an underlying appeal to the album – yes, mostly due to those massive production touches, but also due to Clark’s talent, charm, and appeal. So multiple listens are recommended; don’t give up on No Other too soon.

“Life’s Greatest Fool” opens the album; not the strongest opener, as far as I’m concerned, as it’s oh-so country. For a rock guy like me, it puts an instant bad taste in your mouth. Clark’s vocals are on the same line as those he delivered on the maligned Byrds 1973 reunion album, country-soaked and fragile on the high registers. Only here he is aided by a rock gospel choir, which of course is perfectly suited to this gospelish tune. I like the lyrics, though: “Do you believe deep in your soul/That too much loneliness makes you grow old?” Given the popularity of country rock when No Other was released, this probably would’ve made for a good single. Only to these modern ears it’s more country than rock, and I’ve never quite grown to appreciate it.

“Silver Raven” is a thing of beauty. Clark’s delicate vocals over acoustic guitars and a muted synth, the song reminds me of something off Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours” or “Tusk” albums. Again the song has a country feel, only here it's held in check. Another nice touch is the bottleneck guitar solo, which is distorted and echoes about itself. This is one of the album’s highlights, a song which should have a permanent home on classic rock radio yet has been forgotten.

“No Other” follows, the first pure blast of rock on the album – courtesy of the Gene Clark who gave us “Eight Miles High.” Fuzz guitars, fuzz bass, fuzz EVERYTHING…the bass carries this track and it’s the most fuzzed sound I’ve ever heard. The only thing I know of that comes close to it is the bass on the Beastie Boys song “Gratitude,” and fuzzed as that was, it isn’t even in the same league as this track. “No Other” is everything I wish the rest of the album was, a mid-tempo-paced funk rocker built atop a thick bed of murky, fuzzy instrumentation, with a rock choir backing up Clark’s subdued vocals. It is the sound of a Howard Hughes in exile, redrimmed eyes aflame, snorting a Tony Montana-sized mound of coke as the black-garbed commandos break into his Las Vegas fortress. The pinnacle of early-mid seventies LA cokerock, it doesn’t have a touch of country, and surges along on a head-nodding pulse of pure groove. It is and has always been my favorite song on the album, and it needs to be rediscovered by the rock masses. It starts off like some early seventies Stevie Wonder jam, keys tinkling at the start, but then that super-fuzz bass kicks in, and there’s no turning back. Clark’s vocals seem to come in through some intercosmic ham radio, echoing over the tripped-out production. At the 2:23 mark the bass lays into a throbbing groove as the guitar solos overtop; a DJ could loop this for an instant hit. It happens again at the 3:42 mark, this time with both keyboards and guitar soloing overtop. Clark’s vocals retain that psychedelic haze throughout, singing about how “So the Lord is love/And love is like no other.” He could be singing about magic mushrooms and it wouldn’t matter – this track is that great. If only the entire album sounded like this!

“Strength Of Strings” ends side 1, an epic of faux-“Asian” chords and prog rock. “I am always high/I am always low,” sings Clark, sometimes affecting a countryish fragility to his vocals, his words breaking at the edges, other times singing in the manner of the rest of the album. The production’s as over the top as anything else on the LP – distorted guitars, angelic choir of female gospel singers in the background, majestic piano, those Chinese-sounding keys which open and close the track. Again, not much country here, other than Clark’s already-mentioned vocal delivery. Instead, the song is pure seventies Album Rock, as progressive and cosmic as Zeppelin’s “Kashmir.”

“From A Silver Phial” returns to the countryish sound of “Life’s Greatest Fool.” Only this song also mixes in rock gospel, a hard backbeat, and wah-wah guitar solos. Again Clark attempts that breaking country voice, which others might like more than I do. Really this track would benefit from some stronger vocals. And it’s an ironic track, too – a scathing look at someone’s addiction to coke, despite the massive amount of cocaine no doubt ingested during these sessions.

“Some Misunderstanding” is the major epic of the album, an eight minute journey. Production touches are again through the roof, and again Clark works against them with his purely-country vocal delivery. Listen how he sings “misunderstanding” – it sounds like Conway Twitty or someone similar. The song starts off innocently enough, a strong drum beat, piano, acoustic guitar, undistorted bass. But it builds and builds, eventually featuring those ladies in the choir, a solo on distorted, echoing guitar, until it culminates in a swelling din of emotion and regret. The last minute features a guitar solo that sounds just like George Harrison circa “All Things Must Pass,” bringing the track to its melancholy close.

“The True One” is another country tune, and again not one of my favorites. The opening notes sound like Merle Haggard or Travis Tritt or whoever – the names run together for me. The production as well is totally seventies country – with those twangy guitars and barroom piano. No, I don’t care if this album is compared to Skip Spence’s “Oar” or Dennis’s Wilson’s “Pacific Ocean Blues” these days – some of it sounds entirely too much like country for me. Things improve at the 2:33 mark, when the guitars begin to sound like “Ballad of John & Yoko”-era Beatles. But it’s too little, too late – this track ties with “Life’s Greatest Fool” as my least favorite on the album.

“Lady of the North” closes the album, a six minute epic of over-produced proportions. This one really throws everything into the mix – call it prog country. Again it starts off innocently, just Clark’s country-soaked vocals over piano, drums, acoustic guitars. At the chorus things change. Wah-wah guitars, what sounds to be wah-wah violins. At five minutes Thomas Jefferson Kaye comes at you with everything he’s got. Dueling wah guitars precede a echoed tag section of piano, keyboards, and even a treated moog (I think). Curious note: there’s a guitar riff here which sounds nearly identical to one James Williamson plays on a post-“Raw Power” Stooges track, the name of which escapes me at the moment…maybe “Johanna?”

One of the many legends surrounding this album was that Clark intended it to be a double LP, but the label pulled out, leaving a lot of bonus tracks on the shelf. This seems to be a misunderstanding. Apparently Clark told a reporter upon the album’s release that he had recorded countless TAKES, not countless songs. In fact, it turns out there is only one wholly-new song from these sessions that wasn’t released on the album; everything else on the shelves is take after take of tracks which were released.

“Train Leaves Here This Morning” is that wholly-new song, finally released on the 2003 expanded remaster CD from WEA International. And to tell the truth, if No Other WAS supposed to be a double album, and the rest of the songs sounded like THIS…well, let’s just say Clark could’ve ditched that second disc. Because “Train” isn’t a song I enjoy, even particularly like. Another country number through and through, twangy guitars, banging piano, Clarke’s “Grand Ole Opry” vocals. It’s worth hearing for those who already know and enjoy the album, but it’s certainly no better than the material already on No Other, and it’s a song I normally skip when playing the CD.

The 2003 WEA International CD also features alternate versions of a few album tracks, bringing light to Clark’s statement of recording numerous takes of each song.

“Life’s Greatest Fool” is first, even more country than the released take. Without the hazed touches Kaye applied to the finished album, the song is left to stand on its own feet, and yes, it’s as country as you can get. Pedal steel guitar, tack piano, all of that stuff. Clark’s vocals are delivered with the same passion as the released take; he must’ve worn himself out on these manifold takes, as apparently he didn’t hold back on any of them.

“Silver Raven” is presented in an earlier mix, and really lacks for those synths. Again this take is more country than what was released on the album. But that’s not to say this take is dismissible. A more intimate and acoustic feel is delivered, which suits the song. Just Clark’s vocals and acoustic guitars, this take is more in-line with his previous “White Light” LP, and is notable for proving how Clark’s ideas were mutated by Kaye.

Next we have an alternate take of “No Other.” Pretty cool in its own right, but without that monster-fuzz bass it just can’t compete with the album version. The Hammond organ carries this take, with rolling congas and distorted guitar swirling around the edges of the mix. The bass on this take is barely discernible, untreated and anchoring the rhythm. Like I said, not bad per se, but totally inferior to the whacked-out blast of fuzz and paranoia that is the album version.

“From A Silver Phial” is next presented in an alternate take, and again is notable for its underproduction. Clark’s voice, acoustic guitar, drums, and piano, that’s it. And again, I much prefer the released version.

The alternate version of “Some Misunderstanding” is nearly three minutes shorter than the album version, and features just Clark and acoustic guitars, with drums and piano eventually coming in. Another study in the intimate charm Clark apparently intended for the album, not far from the two tracks he contributed to the Byrds reunion album the year before.

Finally we come to “Lady of the North,” another early take which is skeletal when compared to the album version. Even without the production gimmicks you can hear the majesty of this epic, but for me it lacks the impact. That James Williamson-style guitar line is here too, only the guitar has a different sound, not as distorted as the album version. Finally, the end of the song doesn’t match the power of the over-the-top (in a good way) climax of the album take.

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