Understated, and underrated jewel by ’60s folk-rock pioneers
Apart from The Beatles, The Byrds were perhaps the only other major band of the 1960’s to attract and garner so much love and affection, whose influence on popular music has been immense, from Big Star to REM. As guitarist/singer Roger McGuinn remarked in the early days: “I don’t think I’d like The Byrds to be called a folk group, strictly. Folk is where we came from. I wouldn’t put us down as rock and roll, either. We’re somewhere in between. We don’t care for labels.”
However, when gifted songwriter Gene Clark flew from the nest in 1966, followed by David Crosby in ’67, what remained of The Byrds saw them fly off (no more puns I promise) into an entirely different direction altogether, to the extent that the group which gave us the most definitive interpretation yet of Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man”, the pop brilliance of “I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better”, the experimental “Eight Miles High”, and the majestic “Turn! Turn! Turn!” would soon no longer exist.
But then something unexpected happened. David Geffen, founder of Asylum Records, offered all five original members an extremely generous one album deal on his label, and surprisingly they all accepted.
One would have loved to have been a fly on the wall when Roger McGuinn, Gene Clark, David Crosby, Chris Hillman, and Michael Clarke convened at McGuinn’s house for rehearsals in October 1972. Expectations were naturally high, and when the resulting album, simply titled Byrds, was issued in 1973, it was dismissed by most as little more than a lazy self-indulgent cash-in.
Part of the problem was that each member was reluctant to contribute their best songs to the project, all except, that is, for the generous Gene Clark, whose own two compositions, the appropriately named “Full Circle” and “Changing Heart”, are among the LP’s finest. The former opens the record, and is a mainly acoustic country-rocker with lovely three-part harmonies reminiscent of CSN, while the latter flows along in a similarly pleasant manner. McGuinn donated two compositions of his own, the plaintive “Sweet Mary”, and the expressive “Born To Rock ‘N’ Roll”, a song which bears an uncanny resemble to Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released”.
Now it wouldn’t be a Byrds album without a few covers, the finest of which is a regal rendition of Joni Mitchell’s “For Free”, on which Crosby’s glorious voice brings out the empathy contained in the lyrics. Chris Hillman had been a member of Stephen Still’s Manassas not long before sessions for Byrds began, though Hillman himself has since admitted that his own two contributions to the album were mere “throwaways,” which is perhaps putting it too harshly, since “Borrowing Time” and “Things Will Get Better” are no-where near as bad as Hillman seemed to suggest, as the latter makes for a decent attempt at revisiting The Byrds’ sound of yore, replete with that recognisable Rickenbacker guitar.
First heard on 1971’s If I Could Only Remember My Name, Crosby’s “Laughing” gets another radiant airing, but can’t hold a candle to its ethereally haunting predecessor. Apparently the song dates back to 1967, yet was rejected by the other Byrds for inclusion on The Notorious Byrd Brothers, hence its appearance here. Crosby’s other composition, “Long Live the King”, is a commentary on the trappings of stardom and the expectations that often come with it.
“Cowgirl in the Sand,” one of two Neil Young covers, is given a full CSNY-esque harmony makeover, with Gene Clark on lead vocals, the other being a mellow version of “See the Sky About to Rain,” also sung by Clark, whose melancholic timbre quivers and wavers like a ghost drifting high above the Californian canyons.
With all that talent in the one studio, Byrds could have been so much more, hence the many scathing reviews by critics upon its release (“a dismal and pointless exercise” was how one writer described it). Nevertheless, that the LP was even made at all was in itself cause for minor celebration, because sadly never again would the original line-up of The Byrds make another album.
Despite its apparent shortcomings, one may only hope that its many soft and unassuming charms will eventually find their way into the memories of others, as they have into mine.