BYRDWATCHER: A Field Guide to the Byrds of Los Angeles



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BYRDS
(Asylum SD5058; 1973)

Track Listing

Credits:
Released January 1973. Produced by David Crosby. Engineered by Sandy Fisher. Recorded at Wally Heider Studios, October - December 1972. Cover photos: Henry Diltz. Cover design: Gary Burden for R. Twerk.

Personnel:
The Byrds v. 7.0
Roger McGuinn: vocals, 6- and 12-string electric & acoustic guitars, Moog, banjo
Chris Hillman: vocals, 6- and 12-string electric & acoustic guitars, mandolin, bass
Gene Clark: vocals, 6-string acoustic, harmonica, tambourine
Michael Clarke: drums, congas, percussion
David Crosby: vocals, 6- and 12-string electric & acoustic guitars

Singles from album sessions:
"Things Will Be Better" /
"For Free" (UK):
Asylum AYM 516
January 1973

"Full Circle" /
"Long Live the King"
Asylum 11016
Released February 1973

"Cowgirl in the Sand" /
"Long Live the King"
Asylum 11019
Released April 1973

"Full Circle" / "Things
Will Be Better" (UK):
Asylum AYM 545
1974



"For Free"
Joni Mitchell's version of "For Free" appears on Ladies of the Canyon (Reprise, 1970).


"Cowgirl in the Sand"
"Cowgirl in the Sand" appears on Neil Young's second solo album, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (Reprise, 1969).

"See the Sky About to Rain"
"See the Sky About to Rain" eventually appeared on Neil Young's album, On the Beach (Reprise, 1974).



By late 1972, all of the original Byrds were in a position to reconsider their past differences. McGuinn (like most people) was increasingly dissatisfied with the official Byrds; Gene Clark's work since leaving the Byrds, both solo and with Dillard & Clark, had been critically lauded, but commercially unsuccessful; Crosby Stills Nash & Young had devolved to the less bankable Crosby & Nash; Manassas, though still a going concern, was on hiatus, freeing up Hillman; and Michael Clarke had been at loose ends since leaving the Flying Burrito Brothers in 1971.
Under the auspices of Asylum Records honcho David Geffen, who had worked out the complicated deal to team Crosby Stills & Nash on Atlantic, all five original Byrds agreed to reunite in a loose framework modeled on the informal, occasional "group" status of CSN(&Y). Instead of billing themselves as "The Byrds," the group was billed "Gene Clark, Chris Hillman, David Crosby, Roger McGuinn, Michael Clarke" -- kinda like Crosby Stills Nash & Young, except with first names and no ampersand. The group recorded at Wally Heider's Recording Studio, like Crosby Stills Nash & Young. Each of the band members (except Clarke) brought a few songs, and the others backed up that member, like Crosby Stills Nash & Young. Crosby's distinctive harmonies gave many of the songs that Crosby Stills Nash & Young feel. One of Hillman's songs actually sounded a lot like the work of Stephen Stills, and Gene Clark sang lead on a couple compositions by Neil Young. (As on most efforts by Crosby Stills Nash & Young, the most interesting tracks are the Neil Young songs.) The strangest thing about the Byrds reunion album isn't that it was so disappointing -- it's that the five original Byrds recorded a Crosby Stills Nash & Young reunion album.
Perhaps it wasn't so strange, though. Most likely the ex-Byrds, and almost certainly Geffen, had dollar signs in their eyes. After all, Crosby Stills & Nash (Atlantic, 1969), Déjà Vu (Atlantic, 1970), and Four Way Street (Atlantic, 1971) all moved millions of units. Why not the Byrds?
There was something else at work as well. Of the five, Crosby now had the most clout, thanks to the success of CSN&Y. As a result, he got to be producer, or at least got the credit (and the blame); his mustachioed mug is front and center on the jacket; and, from the sound of the album, he worked out most of the harmonies. McGuinn later commented that Crosby "wanted to minimize my importance in the group, and maximize his, and other people's."* Crosby, of course, denied this, but the finished work supports McGuinn's contention. Unfortunately, McGuinn played into Crosby's supposed agenda. McGuinn: "I didn't put my good songs on the album as I was saving them for my solo album. I felt that everybody was doing the same."*
Clearly, McGuinn wasn't kidding about his own songs, both of which are lousy. "Sweet Mary" is likely a discard from his solo album, because it's co-written with Jacques Levy, like several songs on Roger McGuinn (Columbia, 1973). It's another pseudo-British folk song, less successful than past efforts like "Pretty Polly" and even the mediocre "Jack Tarr the Sailor." "Born to Rock 'N' Roll" had been the last song recorded by the Columbia Byrds. This clumsy attempt at straightforward rock 'n' roll would not be Exhibit A for anyone seeking to prove the McGuinn really was "Born to Rock 'N' Roll." (Yet the sheer awfulness of the song didn't prevent him from taking a third crack at it, on the ineffectual solo LP Roger McGuinn & Band (Columbia, 1975).) Neither of these songs had strong vocals or guitar work from McGuinn.
In fact, McGuinn's best contribution to the album is the raga guitar on Crosby's remake of "Laughing." Sure, it sounds a lot like his part on "What's Happening?!?!," but the guitar work on "Laughing" is one of the few moments on the album that recalls the work of the Byrds from 1965 to 1967. Sadly, McGuinn's trademark Rickenbacker sound is either absent or mixed low on the rest of the album.
Crosby's contributions also suggest that he was holding back material. "Laughing" is one of the better cuts on the LP, but it had appeared only two years before on his solo LP, If I Could Only Remember My Name (Atlantic, 1971). Joni Mitchell's "For Free" is a well-written track, but not Crosby's well-written track. His vocal is clear and strong, but the harmony parts are so raggedy they sound like demos. Had they been fleshed out more, this song could have been a little more Byrdsy as well. Crosby's only new composition, "Long Live the King," is a weak, bluesy track with lyrics that, ironically, tackle the very star-making machinery responsible for this album.
Chris Hillman brings two songs with him, each one co-written with a fellow member of Manassas. "Things Will Be Better" was written with ex-CSNY drummer Dallas Taylor, and it's a slight, commercial number with uncharacteristic power chords. Better is "Borrowing Time," co-written with Manassas percussionist Joe Lala. With Mike Clarke on congas, Hillman gets a sound very close to "Love the One You're With" and some of Stephen Stills's other Latin-flavored tunes.
The only band member who doesn't seem to be sandbagging is Gene Clark. "Changing Heart" is an engaging mid-tempo number with great harmony work from Crosby. "Full Circle," an apt metaphor for this project, is a strong country rocker highlighted by Hillman's mandolin. Both songs seem to be autobiographical reflections on the vicissitudes of Clark's music career. (Several other tracks arguably pursue this theme, including McGuinn's "Born to Rock 'N' Roll," Crosby's "For Free" and "Long Live the King," and both Hillman tracks.
The best tracks here are the Neil Young covers. "Cowgirl in the Sand" gets a countryish arrangement, with harmonies just like the ones on CSNY's Four Way Street. The not-yet-released Young song "See the Sky About to Rain" is the album's standout, with great harmonies and acoustic guitar. The arrangement isn't particularly similar to the original Byrds, and it's not ideal, but it is effective for this track, one of the many great Neil Young compositions.
Commercially, Geffen and his cohorts were vindicated -- Byrds might not have earned the kind of revenues they had hoped, but it did make the US Top Twenty, thereby outperforming every Byrds album since Turn! Turn! Turn! (not counting The Byrds' Greatest Hits). Musically, though, the album was a failure, as most critics recognized at the time. Aside from a misguided emulation of CSNY, song-hoarding by some of the participants, and a possible McGuinn-minimization strategy by Crosby, there may have been other problems. The album was recorded very quickly, after only a few weeks of jamming together, at a time when all but Clarke were working on other projects or touring with other people. There wasn't much time to rediscover the old sound or forge a new one. Finally, the band members were reluctant to violate the reigning spirit of détente by criticizing each other's work. With so many obstacles to artistic success, it shouldn't be too surprising that Byrds was a disappointment. Unfortunately, the overwhelming critical rejection of this album so discouraged the participants that they tabled their tentative plans to tour and reunite every so often, leaving this album as the last official word on the group until 1990.



Notes

"...Minimize my importance...." Rogan, Timeless Flight at 186.

"...I was saving them...." Rogan, Timeless Flight at 182.


To In the Beginning...


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Tracks from album sessions:
Original album tracks:
(All tracks recorded between
October 1972 and February 1973)
"Full Circle":
Gene Clark

"Sweet Mary":
Roger McGuinn & Jacques Levy

"Changing Heart":
Gene Clark

"For Free":
Joni Mitchell

"Born to Rock 'N Roll":
Roger McGuinn

"Things Will Be Better":
Chris Hillman & Dallas Taylor

"Cowgirl in the Sand":
Neil Young

"Long Live The King":
David Crosby

"Borrowing Time":
Chris Hillman & Joe Lala

"Laughing":
David Crosby

"See The Sky About to Rain":
Neil Young


Other tracks from album sessions:
None


Unreleased tracks from album sessions:
None

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Byrds Albums | Byrds (Asylum LP)

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Mr. Tambourine Man | Turn! Turn! Turn! | Fifth Dimension | Younger | Notorious | Sweetheart | Dr. Byrds | Ballad | (Untitled) | Byrdmaniax | Farther Along | Byrds | Beginning | Never Before | Box | NEXT CHAPTER







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