Every era has its Norman Fucking Rockwell, and in the middle of the Seventies, that record was Gene Clark’s No Other. With its country-rockified version of Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound, the lush, self-consciously poetic album from the former singer and songwriter in the Byrds occupied its own patch of land in 1974. It was a cohesive body of work with a sustained, melancholic mood. Like Del Rey’s equally L.A.-centric record of four-plus decades later, No Other was an LP you could put on and lose yourself in – a collection wholly unconcerned with radio airplay, stadium sing-alongs or anything that would have pleased Clark’s label boss at the time, David Geffen.
That said, unlike Norman Fucking Rockwell, literally no-frigging-body knew about No Other at the time. Even if you were alive then, you probably never saw it in record stores or heard it on the most progressive FM stations. Combined with its cover art – an homage to Hollywood in the Roaring Twenties, complete with a jarring photo of Clark looking like silent movie hero Rudolph Valentino in drag – the album felt like a cult item even when it was released. If a record could have mystique, it was No Other.
Yet an album that barely made it into the top 100 has since become a cult classic, newly revered and appreciated and saluted in tribute concerts. Now comes the inevitable expanded treatment: No Other has been reissued as a single disc, a double CD with outtakes, and a deluxe box set that includes even more alternate takes, a documentary about the making of the album and an 80-page booklet with a detailed history not only of the sessions but the old-world Hollywood castle where Clark’s cover photo shot took place.
By the time No Other was released, Clark remained best known for his contributions to the Byrds, with whom he wrote uniquely pensive ballads and alternated lead vocals with Roger (then Jim) McGuinn. Clark’s square-jawed voice, and songs like “She Don’t Care About Time” and “Set You Free This Time,” lent the Byrds added gravitas, but he left the band relatively early (1966), due to various neuroses, and embarked on his own. Always a careful and deliberate songwriter but never the most careerist of musicians, Clark only released sporadic records (like 1971’s fairly bare-boned pre-Americana gem White Light) and was largely a cult figure by the early Seventies. But he was granted what appeared to be a new lease on artistic life when, after the Byrds’ middling 1973 reunion, he was signed by Geffen to his Asylum label, then the most motorized of Cali-rock record companies.
A fresh listen to No Other, Clark’s lone Asylum album, reminds you both of its beauty and its occasional more frustrating aspects. The songs, which stretch out to as long as eight minutes, aren’t played as much as unfurled. Few have the concision or pop hooks of Clark’s finest songs from the Byrds and the period right after he left; you won’t hear another “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better,” “Tried So Hard” or “Here Tonight” on No Other. Clark’s lyrics can similarly wander into Castaneda-visits-L.A. range (“Hear the strings are bending in harmony/Not so far from breaking on the cosmic range”).
But Clark was painting on a much vaster canvass than most of his peers at the time, and even when he isn’t being specific, the tone of the record is pure post-Sixties confusion and comedown – a more sumptuous version of what Neil Young did the same year with On the Beach. The haunted “Silver Raven” (named after Clark’s wife’s platform shoes) and the hulking “Some Misunderstanding” now sound like spiritual forefathers for modern indie folk. No wonder that, in 2014, members of Grizzly Bear, Beach House and Fleet Foxes partook in a tribute tour, playing earnest, note-for-languid-note versions of songs that they themselves could have written.
No Other suffered from accusations of overproduction and bloat, and the alternate takes that comprise of the bulk of this reissue allow us to hear the record without the additional singers and instruments that producer Thomas Jefferson Kaye tacked on. The basic arrangements aren’t radically different from the finished versions, even if they hint at other places the songs could have gone: Version two of “From a Silver Phial,” for instance, has more of a tribal-stomp feel than the final take.
The bonus material, however, is a primer on the L.A. studio pros who backed Clark during these sessions. Even the earliest takes sound close to what we eventually heard, no small feat given Clark’s unconventional song structures. The stripped-back tracks allows us to hear the interplay between those players more than before – especially dual keyboardists Mike Utley and Craig Doerge, bassist Leland Sklar and a long-uncredited Ben Keith, the Neil Young sidekick, on pedal steel and dobro. The one previously unheard track is “Train Leaves Here This Morning,” which Clark had previously cut with Doug Dillard years before (and which the Eagles covered on their first album). The No Other versions, though, don’t surpass the woodsy charm of the Dillard and Clark version.
Shorn of the choir that appears on many of its songs, the outtakes are vital for the way they allow us to zero in on Clark’s singing. It’s easy to forget how robust a vocalist Clark could be, and outtakes of “Strength of Strings” and “Some Misunderstanding” demonstrate how Clark could bend his voice and drop into lower registers to match his meandering melodies. He sounds muscular and vulnerable at the same time, making the fame-questioning lyrics in “Some Misunderstanding”—“But I know if you sell your soul/To brighten your role/You might be disappointed/In the lights”—all the more poignant. (Clark had just emerged from the commercial failure of the Byrds’ 1973 reunion album.) Conversely, we get to hear the title song without its phone-recorded additional vocal – although, in this case, we’re so accustomed to that studio effect that the outtake truly does feel unfinished.
Clark and Kaye’s ambitions doomed No Other to the cut-out bins – that ignominious section of record store where flop albums were sold for 99 cents or a bit more. Assuming they heard it at all, those drawn to L.A. rock most likely shrugged and opted for the Eagles’ more approachable and electrified On the Border. Between the release of No Other and his death from a heart attack in 1991, at 46, Clark went on a downward artistic spiral, as if the album’s lackluster response may have broken his spirit. “But what’s been flyin’ high/Must always touch the ground,” he lamented in the downcast honky tonk of “The True One,” possibly about his previous pop fame with the Byrds. But Clark unwittingly carved his own epitaph right into one of his most enduring works.