Tag Archives: Roger McGuinn

Sweetheart of the Rodeo – The Byrds

My Byrds kick continued last week…

At first, the idea was a concept album – a double album, no less – charting the history of American music, beginning with bluegrass and jazz, taking in folk, country, rock ‘n’ roll and rock, and going forward into the world of electronic, Moog-based music. The problem was that after the dismissals of David Crosby and Michael Clarke, the Byrds were down to a two-piece: guitarist/vocalist Roger McGuinn and bassist/vocalist Chris Hillman. They needed reinforcements, and since they were going to attempt to play jazz, they needed a quality drummer and preferably a pianist, as McGuinn’s 12-string arpeggios didn’t exactly speak the language of Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk.

The man who got the nod was Gram Parsons, a songwriter, guitarist and pianist of Chris Hillman’s acquaintance. I’m not quite sure what Parsons played that convinced McGuinn he was a proficient jazz piano player (what solo piano work I’ve heard by him suggests a decent country player with some gospel licks, but not McCoy Tyner), but that turned out to be irrelevant. Once in the Byrds fold, Parsons immediately began selling Hillman and latterly McGuinn on the idea of an entire album of country rock, along the lines of the work he’d done with the International Submarine Band.

McGuinn took some persuading (producer Gary Usher interceded on Parsons’ and Hillman’s behalf), but eventually consented to follow Parsons’ vision for the album.

Sweetheart of the Rodeo‘s influence, in a hard-headed analysis, does outstrip its quality; it’s credited as being the first country-rock album, but that isn’t quite right, as mostly the band plays country as country, and drummer Kevin Kelley plays rock beats only on One Hundred Years from Now and the choruses of Nothing Was Delivered. But nonetheless, this was a famous rock band diving headfirst into country music (making a whole record of it, and appearing at the Grand Ole Opry to promote it), whereas for the Beatles, Buffalo Springfield and Lovin’ Spoonful, country was just one flavour of what they did.

It’s not hard to pick the weak points of the original album – they’re the songs where Parsons’ recorded vocals were covered over by Roger McGuinn doing a southern accent rather badly (The Christian Life and You Don’t Miss Your Water). But thanks to the inclusion of perfectly good Parsons-sung outtakes on the expanded addition of the album and sundry box sets, that defect is remedied quite easily. The version of One Hundred Years from Now sung by Hillman and McGuinn in harmony is different in feel from the Parsons-fronted outtake, but it’s still pretty good and I don’t think Parsons’ vocal improves it hugely.

There are plenty of strong moments, too. Hickory Wind, obviously, even if Gram Parsons possibly plagiarised it*. Chris Hillman sings I Am a Pilgrim with a winning sincerity, his vocal abetted by John Hartford’s excellent fiddle playing. Parsons romps his way through Luke McDaniel’s You’re Still on My Mind, supported by Earl P Ball on piano and JayDee Maness on steel, and McGuinn’s two Dylan covers – You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere and Nothing Was Delivered are typically excellent.

Contemporary country music at the poppier end of things does not come from the same branch of the family tree as Sweetheart of the Rodeo. No matter how much pop and rock it contains, it’s a product of the Nashville industry, not of interlopers, like the Byrds were in 1968. As I said when writing about Younger than Yesterday, I hear no Byrds influence in much indie music right now, and no one seems to talk about the band, but young fans of country fans might find a lot to please them in this record. Along with Workingman’s Dead, it’s the pre-eminent early country rock album.

*I should say, if he did indeed steal it from Sylvia Sammons, it was a despicable act, but with both dead and Parsons also the writer of enough good songs to make it totally feasible he did write it, I guess we have to give him the benefit of the doubt.

 

 

 

My Back Pages & Younger Than Yesterday – The Byrds

Younger than Yesterday saw the Byrds pulling in every direction they knew how to: Beatle-ised Dylan covers, embryonic country rock with psychedelic touches, lysergic folk-rock, a jazzy torch song, driving rock ‘n’ roll with jazz trumpet, another one of Roger McGuinn’s rather goofy sci-fi songs, a ’65 Beatles pastiche and, in the shape of David Crosby’s much-maligned (rightly maligned) Mind Gardens, Indian raga.

The predominance of Chris Hillman songs (he has four solo writing credits and a co-write on So You Want to Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star) does make Younger than Yesterday a bit of an outlier in the Byrds’ canon, but those songs are actually pretty strong, Have You Seen Her Face and Time Between especially, and Younger than Yesterday is by a nose my favourite Byrds album. I do love Notorious Byrd Brothers and Sweetheart of the Rodeo too (at least if you programme it so that you use the outtake recordings with Gram Parsons’ vocals, rather than the ones with McGuinn’s impression of him), and I’d perhaps agree that nothing on YtY is quite as breathtaking as Goin’ Back or Hickory Wind, but what Younger than Yesterday has in its favour is My Back Pages.

Among the very many things they were, the Byrds were the finest interpreters of Bob Dylan’s music, covering more than 20 different Dylan songs, with few clunkers among them. The band’s opening statement, its recording of Mr Tambourine Man, stands not just for their own career, but the entire genre of folk-rock. They – even before Hendrix transformed All Along the Watchtower – raised the Dylan cover to an artform.

The band’s best Dylan interpretation isn’t Tambourine Man, though, nor Chimes of Freedom or You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere, nor even the two separate versions of It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue (though I’m very fond of the 1969 recording – the slow one that’s on The Very Best of the Byrds). It’s their recording of My Back Pages from 1967’s Younger than Yesterday.

The decision to cut My Back Pages was contentious within the band. The group’s manager, Jim Dickson, suggested the song, and Roger McGuinn approved of the choice. David Crosby, though, argued against it; the Byrds had already covered Dylan six times on their first two albums, and their previous record, Fifth Dimension, hadn’t featured any Dylan at all. Returning to Bob’s songs when he, McGuinn and Chris Hillman had all written a clutch of strong songs for their next album was a step backwards, he argued.

It was a rare occasion when both men were right. It was, viewed hard-headedly, a backward step to return to the Bob Dylan songbook; adding electric guitars and a 4/4 beat to Dylan’s songs had been done already (not least by Dylan himself), and could never be revolutionary or transformative again. But McGuinn was also correct; the song fitted the band like a glove, playing to the strengths of Michael Clarke, their rather limited drummer), and he had a knack for editing Dylan’s songs for the pop audience, knowing just how much he could leave out and still get away with it.

Crosby, outvoted, sulked, and the song contributed to the deteriorating relationship between him and the rest of the band, but My Back Pages was a masterpiece, on a record that already had in its favour So You Want to be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star (featuring Hugh Makekela’s trumpet), Everybody’s Been Burned and Time Between (to which Vern Gosdin and the great guitarist Clarence White contributed).

I bought Younger than Yesterday, The Notorious Byrd Brothers and Sweetheart of the Rodeo as a three-fer at the start of my last year at university and played all of them to death. They’re all fine albums, and rather underrated at the moment I think. Does any young band rep for the Byrds? Why not? If you’re not familiar or have them pegged as one-trick ponies, go have a listen. Start with My Back Pages.

This old world may never change: The Dolphins – Fred Neil

Bit of a flight of fancy, this one. About an artist I’ve written about before. Forgive me the indulgence: I didn’t have it in me tonight to write anything serious or weighty or that required research or fact checking. Back at the weekend.

It all comes back to The Dolphins, really. It’s not typical of Fred Neil’s other work, it sounds like nothing else he ever recorded, yet whenever listened to, it feels like the puzzle box that would allow us to somehow solve Fred Neil, this most unknowable, enigmatic of musicians, this towering figure who made few records and then one day gave music up to work in the field he cared for most, the protection and preservation of dolphins.

Fred Neil – aged 30 at the time he made The Dolphins, in 1966 – had moved sideways into folk-rock from the more traditional Greenwich folk-blues scene of which he’d been a part since 1961 or thereabouts, when he met and began singing with Vince Martin. Before that he’d been a very minor Brill Building writer, responsible for a couple of small hits for Buddy Holly (Come Back Baby) and Roy Orbison (Candy Man), and a few rockabilly-inflected pop sides he cut himself. Whether he’d genuinely been into first-wave rock’n’roll is not something I’ve ever been able to determine, but I tend to think he must have been. There’s a rhythmic emphasis in his guitar playing that sounds like it has roots in rock’n’roll, although he also hung out with jazz players and his knowledge of syncopation may have been derived in part from those associations. But rock’n’roll in the Chuck Berry sense had been replaced by Pat Boone, Frankie Avalon and Fabian in the early sixties, and no one with discernment wanted much to do with it.

Folk-rock’s principle authors were fans of Bob Dylan and the Beatles, kids who mostly had been fans of rock’n’roll and had moved over to folk in search of meaning that Bobby Rydell couldn’t give them. Neil, older by almost a decade and something of a big brother figure to David Crosby, John Sebastian, and even Dylan up to a point, wasn’t touched musically by either. The Byrds’ version of folk-rock was derived from Dylan and The Beatles; as practised by the Mamas & the Papas and the Lovin’ Spoonful, folk-rock also took in vaudeville, Broadway tunes, light pop, jug band and country. Nothing that any of these bands produced has anything like the strange unknowability of The Dolphins.

It begins with a heavily tremoloed electric guitar, haloed with echo. Instruments are hard panned, the stereo image is massive, the sense of space is vast. Neil’s voice reaches down to the ocean floor. Pete Childs’s guitar goes to the same raga-like outer space that Roger McGuinn tried to get to on Eight Miles High, the slashing rhythm guitar sounds oddly like Television, 10 years too early. It’s the most singular concoction, it’s sound as metaphor, it’s the best record Neil ever made, one of the best records ever made by anyone.

If you’ve heard some other singer’s recording of The Dolphins, but not Neil’s oiginal, you’re in for such a treat.

Fred Neil

Give some to the bass player, part 5 – Everybody’s Been Burned by The Byrds

When the Desert Rose Band’s Love Reunited reached number 6 on the US Country singles chart in 1987, to be followed shortly thereafter by number-two hit One Step Forward, it seems likely that few among his new audience recognised the group’s lead singer, Chris Hillman. Then 43 years old, he was an overnight success who’d already been a success for 20-odd years, having been a founding member of the Hillmen, the Byrds, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Manassas and the Souther-Hillman-Furay Band. Desert Rose Band apart, Hillman has had a happy knack all through his career of putting himself where interesting things were happening.

Although the Byrds’ music was dominated by vocal harmonies and Roger McGuinn’s 12-string guitar, Chris Hillman’s fluid, jazzy bass guitar was a hugely important element of the band’s sound.

Hillman was not originally a bassist. His first instrument was the mandolin, on which he learned to play bluegrass as a teenager. None of the Byrds were rock ‘n’ roll players, really: perhaps that’s why the band’s take on rock ‘n’ roll was so singular. Hillman took up the bass guitar when asked by Jim Dickson whether he’d be interested in joining the fledgling rock group Dickson had started managing. The group already had guitar players in McGuinn and David Crosby (as well as Gene Clark, who played tambourine on stage but was a perfectly competent guitarist, too), but Dickson must have been impressed by Hillman’s musicality and figured that he’d be able to make the switch. Possibly this explains an approach that was far more concerned with melody than it was with locking in with the kick drum (although, pity the bassist trying to lock in with poor, tragic Michael Clarke, whose kick was never quite in the same place twice).

The Byrds are still, even today, a common reference point for other bands. Yet when music is described as resembling that of the Byrds, usually it’s the group’s early work that is being talked about: the 12-string-driven folk-rock of the band’s first two records. This constitutes a pretty small fraction of the Byrds’ output, and a tiny chronological span of around 12 months, from the recording of Mr Tambourine Man in January 1965 to when Turn! Turn! Turn! was released in December 1965. By the time their fourth album, Younger than Yesterday, came out in early 1967, the Byrds were all over the map.

McGuinn-sung Dylan covers (a reading of My Back Pages that is completely definitive – far better, if far less famous, than their Tambourine Man) were still part of the mix, but so was the satirical So You Want to be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star, with its Hugh Masekela trumpet solo, Crosby’s raga-like Mind Gardens and no fewer than four Chris Hillman songs, pointing forward to the group’s pioneering country-rock work, and back to the Beatles obsession that had drawn Clark, McGuinn and Crosby together in the first place.

It may be true, as my old college friend and all-round musical confrère James McKean once put it imperiously, that it’s no one’s ambition to one day be as good a songwriter as Chris Hillman, yet those songs of his on Younger than Yesterday are all strong efforts, and I imagine McGuinn was somewhat stunned to find his bass player writing or co-writing five songs on an album with only 10 originals on it. So Hillman was the album’s MVP even before one takes into account his sterling work on Crosby’s Everybody’s Been Burned.

Everybody’s Been Burned had, apparently, been written as far back as 1962 in Crosby’s folk-club days (the year of the first Bond film, Dr No, so the song’s 007 chord sequence may have been a mere coincidence) and had been demoed several times already for previous Byrds records. The one I link to, which you can find on Preflyte Plus, is stunning in its own right, but the take that made its way on to Younger than Yesterday is among the very best things the band ever did, with one of Crosby’s finest vocals, and instrumental performances by McGuinn and Hillman of intuitive genius.

It’s not exactly jazz, but the sensibility is close – Hillman seems less concerned with what Crosby’s chords are than he is with burrowing down deep into the song’s emotional core. His basslines are similarly wide ranging on So You Want to Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star, Renaissance Fair and Draft Morning from The Notorious Byrd Brothers, but in terms of empathy and understanding with a singer and songwriter, this is Hillman’s most shining moment as a bass player, and he remains a curiously unsung figure.

Hillman
Chris Hillman, in his ironing-my-hair-straight days