To tell the truth, I would rather write about some of the fine new albums released since the first of this year — including Dr. John’s In the Right Place (his best). Todd Rundgren’s near best A Wizard/A True Pop Star, Dusty Springfield’s Cameo (an absolutely stunning return to recording), Judee Sill’s Heart Food (possibly as good as her first), The Harder They Fall (a great soundtrack and introduction to Jimmy Cliff) and Bob Seger’s Back In ’72 (a superb regional star from Detroit finally makes good). But at the moment, I am obliged to comment on the most disappointing and one of the dullest albums of the year, Byrds. At their best, they were once my favorite white American rock & roll band, but not only isn’t this their best — it is barely them.
The Byrds were the most stylistically unified of American rock bands but paradoxically, this is an album without a style. It has little to do with the original band except that it is performed by its nominal members. I say nominal because everyone knows that only Roger McGuinn performed instrumentally on most of Mr. Tambourine Man, the most auspicious debut American album in pop Sixties rock, outdone internationally only by the Stones’ England’s Newest Hitmakers. The rest of the music was supplied by Joe Osborne, Hal Blaine, and, if memory serves, Leon Russell. It was music that combined contemporary material with high-pitched, almost whiney harmony, and the full-bodied ring of McGuinn’s Rickenbacker 12-string guitar.
When the group decided to play its own music on Turn! Turn! Turn! they were forced to equal, if not copy, the style that had been handed them by the L.A. studio musicians. Despite such great cuts as Gene Clark’s “Set You Free This Time” (which almost equaled his “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better,” from the earlier album) they simply weren’t up to it. But on Fifth Dimension they flew off into the cosmos and hard rock, leaving behind the Dylan songs and doing it all without Gene Clark. The loss of his middle-ranged voice threw the vocal equilibrium off and forced the group into a more adventurous instrumental style, a challenge that McGuinn met head on with such masterpieces as “Eight Miles High” and “5D.”
Younger Than Yesterday and Notorious Byrd Brothers stand with Mr. Tambourine Man as their greatest albums and I used to have a hell of a time choosing between them. The former contained the flowering of Hillman’s ornate bass style and the perfection of the progressively harder rock approach. “Everybody’s Been Burned” was easily the best piece of music Crosby ever created and “Thoughts And Words” was one of their purest ventures into rock & roll.
Crosby departed during the production of Notorious but the album contains McGuinn’s magnum opus, “Get To You.” It also makes more and better use of the studio than any American rock band album of its time, faltering only during the second side. As a result, I would rate Younger Than Yesterday their best album, Mr. Tambourine Man second, and Notorious Byrd Brothers third. And I also maintain that with the possible exception of the Band’s albums (which came a little later) it is the core of the greatest white American rock band music of its time.
David Crosby has said there was only one band called the Byrds, the original five people listed on the top of the new album cover. I disagree. The Byrds remained the Byrds until Crosby left, three albums after Gene Clark split. By then it was clearly a new group, one which continued to make fine music on Sweetheart of the Rodeo and the much underrated Ballad of Easy Rider. In reality, McGuinn usually kept his Byrds above the quality of the groups that his original colleagues found themselves in, even if the redeeming moments came only in bits and pieces such as “Chestnut Mare,” a performance superior to anything any of the others has created since they left. Despite the fact that he was one of the lesser songwriters in the band, McGuinn always made the greatest contribution to its stylistic supremacy. And he is the only one who could have made the name stick on his own.
On the new album he participates as a mere equal, with David Crosby taking sole production credit. Perhaps that is why it is a record without focus, the product of a continually changing group that never finds a center around which to construct an album. It is a different band for each of the four lead singers and while they make complementary music, it is never a continuous piece, which is what the Bryds were once all about.
Of course the group is under no obligation to pick up where it left off and probably couldn’t even if it wanted to. Too many changes and all of that. But the meaning of the Byrds’ music was in its style, as specific and well-defined as has ever been created in American rock & roll. The depressing thing about this album is not the absence of the old form, but the absence of any form at all. Byrds is 11 songs, some good, some bad, sung in rotation by different, dislocated members of a non-existing band. It was undoubtedly made in a friendlier environment than the old records (with their rumored walkouts and punchouts) but the new environment seems to have made for a slack, undirected piece of jelly instead of a firm, rooted, moving album.
I used to wish they would let Gene Clark sing lead more until I realized that he had one of those voices that sounds best in small doses. He has two of the best things on the new album, “Full Circle” and “Changing Heart” (as well as Neil Young’s “See The Sky”). His songwriting is still excellent, although not up to the best of his early Byrds days, and he transcends the mediocrity of the arrangements with relative ease. The background voices sing more parts than harmony, eliminating another hallmark of the old approach. The drumming sounds distant and lackluster, with none of the bite of the Younger Than Yesterday pounding that came as such a welcome surprise at the time.
McGuinn is showcased on “Sweet Mary” and “Born to Rock ‘n’ Roll,” both distressingly ordinary, the latter confirming the fact that he can’t handle straight rock & roll. Neither can the band as it huffs and puffs its way through a genuinely trite arrangement.
Where the old Byrds used to cover Dylan, the new ones cover Joni Mitchell and Neil Young. “For Free” is one of Joni’s more obvious and popular tunes but David Crosby and Co. do nothing to it at all, permitting it to sit there on the grooves as if it was intended to be heard without ever being performed, “Cowgirl in the Sand” is done more or less as a group effort and is at least given a more convincing interpretation.
Chris Hillman has two lightly enjoyable pieces of fluff. “Things Will Be Better” actually sounds like a Byrds song during the verse although its effectiveness is vitiated by a mundane chorus. “Borrowing Time” is vaguely derivative of “Uncle John’s Band” and thoroughly enjoyable for the brief time it takes up.
Crosby’s ponderousness on “Long Live the King” and “Laughing” bear some vague relationship to the superb “What’s Happening?!?!” of Fifth Dimension but wind up as empty shells of songs, closer to the absurd paranoia of “Almost Cut My Hair” than his great Byrds’ number.
Clark’s interpretation of Young’s “See The Sky” ends the album nicely. It is the most successful of the lyrically ambitious numbers and a fair interpretation of the officially unrecorded song (it once showed up on a bootleg). Like everything else, it lacks the nervous energy and sheer tension that would have pushed the entire album onto a higher level of quality.
There are some artists for whom a relaxed pace and presentation is most natural: there are others whose art depends on active tension and conflict. The Byrds combined both elements. Their music was as homogenous as any in rock & roll but they could hurt when they wanted to. At their best, they sounded like some exotic mixture of velvet and nails. They protected us when things got too harsh and woke us up when they got too mellow. Take away the nails and the smoothness becomes slickness, entertaining as background stuff but rarely compelling as rock art. And if the original Byrds didn’t create a form of rock art — then there is no such thing.