Wednesday, October 26, 2011
FORGOTTEN MUSIC THURSDAY-THE BYRDS
Nothing stokes the fires of sentimentality quite as powerfully as the prospect of reuniting a rock group who had once hit dizzying creative heights. More often than not, the actual event is anticlimactic with fantasy crumbling in the face of unrealized expectation. Such was the case with a very high profile quintet of folk-rock pioneers.
The Byrds coupled great vocal harmonies with the jangling 12 string and note perfect arrangements of Roger McGuinn. They provided an exciting response to the sounds of the British Invasion in 1965. Following a short string of brilliant LPs, the original line up began to fracture. One by one, four out of the five charter members quit (or were fired) and by late 1968, McGuinn was left to carry on with the name. From this point through 1971 the band all but dropped off the commercial radar.
Flash forward to late 1972
By dint of the ever-shifting career sands that the four ex-Byrds found themselves treading at this point, the planets oddly aligned. David Geffen, who was then chief evil officer of Asylum Records, helped broker a deal to bring the old gang back together once more. Out of everyone, David Crosby had found the greatest post-Byrds success with CSN (and sometimes Y) and would wear the producer's hat for these sessions. The group blueprint used for Crosby, Stills Nash & Young was also, albeit awkwardly, applied in titling the reunion effort. Everyone was given equal billing, their names emblazoned on the front cover, with the proviso that they were free to indulge in their own musical endeavors and regroup whenever they wished for future projects.
As it stands, this would be the last time that all five entered the studio together to make an album.
Was it worth their time?
While this is not necessarily a poor collection of songs, Byrds definitely lacks the spark of their earlier work. If you come in expecting to hear McGuinn's Rickenbacker 360 12 in full cry, revisiting the sounds of '65, you will quickly be disappointed. On the other hand, if you dig acoustic guitars and laid back arrangements then this will hit the spot.
The old adage about how “you can’t go home again” is more than appropriate in this instance as it is damn near impossible to recover the past. Especially when you are up against a ticking clock. The individual “Byrds” in 1972 had been brought back together with business interests taking precedence over the joy of actually making music with each other again. Time may have softened their attitudes to a degree but it didn’t erase the intense bullshit that had drove them apart. It is to their credit that they managed to get through a month of tracking without imploding all over again. Perhaps because no one wanted to spoil the moment with critical arguments over quality control, the material that each songwriter brought to the table was taken at face value. Topping the "if only" list would be the fact that they really didn't get a chance to get together and simply play. Given the opportunity to jam and trade ideas, they may have at least rediscovered a professional rapport and written some new songs together. Very little time was allotted to this endeavor (roughly one month), so the end result feels slightly underdeveloped.
“See the Sky About to Rain” is the only truly majestic moment, due mostly to Gene Clark's immaculate delivery, which managed to outdo Neil Young's version when he finally etched it in stone for On the Beach. The Byrds had always been far more successful at interpreting the work of others and this is a shining example. McGuinn's guiding hand had to have played a large part in shaping the arrangement, as this has always been his forte.
Clark's contributions are far superior to those of his colleagues. "Full Circle" and "Changing Heart" are melodic, well constructed gems. No surprise, as he had been the driving force behind their writing in the early days. Crosby turns in great vocal performances on his tunes, particularly his reworking of "Laughing" which had already appeared on his first solo set.
While professional, the remaining selections do not really punch through the homogeneous production nor is anything terribly memorable. Tightly edited, polite country-rock it is, with decent harmonies and no real clunkers. Let's face it, with their combined vocal talent, these guys could have sung the alphabet and made it sound righteous. McGuinn gets a bit too close to the melody of "I Shall Be Released" in the verses of "Born to Rock and Roll" but then again he is one of the masters when it comes to interpreting Dylan, so this is forgivable.
Which is why this platter ends up with the “forgotten music” tag.
Compared to the revolutionary sounds that the Byrds had produced in the mid-sixties, the reunion disc was quite tame. For an aggregation that had once been christened as one of the most stirring bands in the universe, this collection of mostly bland fare bordered on anonymous. All four composers were holding back their best songs, offering little that inspired much excitement. What may have been the event of the season, sadly, turned out to be a missed opportunity. If you find a vinyl copy, it's definitely worth a spin. Listening again after a long time helped to soften my opinion a bit, as well.
Here's how some of the players summed it up.
When we got together for the Byrds reunion, I was definitely throwing my weight around too much, and I'm sure that it pissed everybody off. We made a much better record than we were credited with, but I didn't help. You know, I was sort of, [Goes into blowhard voice] "Well, I'm the guy in the big group and I'll just... we'll do it my way." It was stupid.
(The reunion attempt was like) having a fresh wound. You're still too sensitive. It's like having a divorce and then trying to get back together in six months. The underlying hurt and emotional things are still there and still very fresh...We never really got together, the five of us, and seriously did a Byrds reunion. Never happened. Everyone telephoning in their parts. So it didn't have the essence it really needed. It may never happen again.
'See The Sky About To Rain' and 'Full Circle' were probably the best tracks on the record. Gene's stuff was the best. The rest of us? I'll be honest, I contributed my worst material because I was getting ready to do a solo record, 'Slipping Away', and I was saving all my good stuff and contributed this throwaway stuff that was awful... But we didn't have any direction, nobody at the helm.
David had this incredibly strong pot. Half a joint and you couldn't do anything. We were stoned out of our minds the whole time. I don't remember much about recording.
The outtakes from the reunion album ended up on my first solo album. I don't think there are any other tracks.
Turns out that there are a few alternate takes in existence and one tune that didn't make the final cut.
In November 2009, collector Whin Oppice acquired two 10" Asylum Byrds master multi-track tape reels, from Wally Heider Recording, Hollywood CA, featuring various takes that date from November 1972. Three versions of "Fair and Tender Ladies", which does not appear on the Byrds Asylum album release, are included in the 16 track master tape. To Whin's ears, the earlier version (#4) has David Crosby on vocal. The vocal on the other two versions is Gene Clark. Gene wails on harmonica as well. Studio tracking sheets are included which provide valuable details. As with the film "Byrds, W.P. Outs," all has been carefully preserved and digitally transferred.
Writes Whin: "Listening to isolated tracks left me spellbound, as if the instrument or vocal was being performed live right in front of me. You can hear every breath on the vocal tracks".
Reel ORIG WP 1 (16 track)
1. Fair & Tender Ladies (later version)
2. The King Is Dead (earlier version)
3. The King Is Dead (later version)
4. Fair & Tender Ladies (earlier version)
5. About To Rain
7. The King Is Dead (3rd version)
8. The King Is Dead (3rd version instrumental)
9. Fair & Tender Ladies ( 11-25-72 3rd version)
Reel Safety MR 3 (24 Track)
11. The King Is Dead
12. The Circle Song
13. Laughing (undocumented - 1st part)
14. Laughing (undocumented - 2nd part)