BYRDWATCHER: A Field Guide to the Byrds of Los Angeles



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(UNTITLED)
(Columbia G-30127; 1970)

Track Listing

Credits:
Released September 16, 1970. Produced by Terry Melcher and Jim Dickson. Engineered by Chris Hinshaw. Live tracks recorded January - February 1970. Studio tracks recorded May - June 1970. Cover photos: Nancy Chester. Cover art: The Café Society Dancing Band/Babitz.

Personnel:
The Byrds v. 6.1
Roger McGuinn: vocals, guitar, synthesizer
Clarence White: vocals, guitar
Skip Battin: vocals, bass
Gene Parsons: vocals, drums, guitar, 5-string banjo

Except:
On "All the Things"
Add Gram Parsons on harmony vocals

On "Yesterday's Train"
Add Sneaky Pete Kleinow on steel guitar

On "You All Look Alike"
Add Byron Berline on fiddle

On "Just Like A Woman"
Add Jackson Browne on piano

Singles from album sessions:
"Chestnut Mare" /
"Just a Season"
Columbia 45259
Released October 23, 1970


"Positively 4th Street"
"Positively 4th Street" did not appear on any regular Bob Dylan album, but it was a Top Ten single in the fall of 1965, at the time Highway 61 Revisited (Columbia, 1965) was on the album charts. The single can be found on Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits (Columbia, 1968) and more recently on Biograph (Columbia, 1985).

"Willin'"
Little Feat's version of "Willin'" appears on their debut album, Little Feat (Warner Bros., 1971). A second, tougher version appeared on the second Little Feat album, Sailin' Shoes (Warner Bros., 1972). "Willin'" has also been covered by Linda Ronstadt and Commander Cody.

"Truck Stop Girl"
Little Feat's version of "Truck Stop Girl" appeared on their debut album, Little Feat (Warner Bros., 1971).

"Just Like A Woman"
The original version of "Just Like A Woman" appears on Dylan's Blonde on Blonde (Columbia, 1966).



The Byrds' association with the film Easy Rider (1969) considerably boosted their hip credibility, and the band (with bassist Skip Battin brought in to replace the departed John York) moved to capitalize on their heightened profile. The addition of Gene Parsons and Clarence White after Sweetheart of the Rodeo had made the Byrds (for the first time, really) a consistently competent live band, and to highlight this, the group decided to release a two LP set with one album of live music. Unlike the previous outing, the set had several McGuinn originals, the fruit of his by-now abandoned collaboration with Jacques Levy on a country rock opera called Gene Tryp. Among these would be the last great Byrds song.
The live LP kicks off promisingly with one of the Gene Tryp numbers, "Lover of the Bayou." This foreboding tale of a voodoo houngan man is swamp-mojo braggadocio in the great tradition of Bo Diddley's "Who Do You Love." The music is threatening, and tense, like the rant of its witch-doctor narrator. Best of all, McGuinn's Rickenbacker is very much in evidence for the first time since Notorious Byrd Brothers.
Unfortunately, the rest of the live set isn't up to this standard. First the band dips back into the Bob Dylan songbook for "Positively 4th Street," on which White's guitar effectively substitutes for Al Kooper's keyboard. McGuinn pulls out his old Dylan voice, singing the song solo. Instrumental "Nashville West" provides a showcase for White and Parsons, although the muddy sound obscures their electric hoedown, much as it did on Dr. Byrds and Mr. Hyde.
Next the band tries its hand at some early Byrds: "So You Want to Be a Rock 'n' Roll Star," "Mr. Tambourine Man," and "Mr. Spaceman." The playing is solid, and the flourishes by Clarence White are a treat. Sometimes the band is a bit too competent, as on "Tambourine Man," where drummer Parsons isn't content to stick with the original 4/4 beat, opting instead for a distractingly busy cadence. On all three songs, the backing vocals are too quiet, leaving McGuinn's part on stage all alone when we're expecting the support of those Byrds harmonies.
The worst is saved for last, though. All of side two is taken up by a single song. (And really, in all the history of rock music, has there ever been a good side-long track?) It's a self-indulgent take on "Eight Miles High," featuring about thirteen and a half minutes of guitar noodling and one and a half minutes of the band's psychedelic masterpiece. In case you're counting, that leaves room only for the song's first verse. Everything that made the original great -- harmony, economy, energy, and ominous beauty -- is completely missing here. The amazing thing is that the track fades in ... there's no telling how long they were playing before the part that appears on the album!
The live sides were produced by Jim Dickson, and culled from many hours of taped performances. Like most live music from the period, it has muddy, sloppy sound. But even adjusting for the lower sonic standards of 1970, the live sides are not what might be hoped. It's hard to imagine what went wrong -- poor choice of songs and performances by Dickson, bad sound work at the shows, or a dearth of high quality performances by the band.
Judging from the live numbers on The Byrds Boxed Set, the problem may have been the song choice by Dickson. The box features three tracks recorded at Queen's College, New York in February of 1970: an alternate "Lover of the Bayou," an acoustic version of Lowell George's "Willin'," with vocals by Gene Parsons, and a Clarence White showcase, "Black Mountain Rag (Soldier's Joy)." As might be expected, the sound on all these newly remastered cuts is much better than on the album tracks. The performances are better, too, though. "Lover" is crisper and moodier. "Black Mountain Rag" is lean and impressive, showing White at the peak of his powers, unlike "Nashville West." "Willin'," which the band recorded for the studio sides, but didn't release, is a pretty ballad that would have been a better track than at least six of the studio songs and all but one of the live ones.
The studio side, produced by Terry Melcher, also begins with a promising cut from Gene Tryp. The lead character of the aborted musical was an anagramatic analog of Henrik Ibsen's Peer Gynt, who tracked a white-tailed deer. Gene Tryp instead pursued a "Chestnut Mare." Like "Lover of the Bayou," the song deals in mythic archetypes. The narrator tries to harness the wild mare, an embodiment of untamed nature. He momentarily succeeds, but his hubris nearly has disastrous consequences for himself and his elusive quarry.
These lyrics are supported by a buoyant melody. The chorus has a hook big enough to round up sheep with, and the bridge is so strong that it could have been the basis of another great song. (According to McGuinn, the bridge was a song fragment he had been saving since before forming the Byrds.)
For the first time since Sweetheart of the Rodeo, the Byrds achieved the transcendent beauty of their earliest records. The sound isn't exactly the same as those records: no classic Byrds song ever had the graceful, swirling, acoustic arpeggios that Clarence White plays here. But with McGuinn's earnest vocal, the harmonies on the chorus, and the 12-string sound right from "Turn! Turn! Turn!," "Chestnut Mare" is the sound of the new Byrds staking their claim to the mantle of the original unit.
Unfortunately, the rest of the studio tracks pale in comparison to this one instant of perfection. The two other Gene Tryp tracks, "Just a Season" and "All the Things," with its inaudible backing vocal from Gram Parsons, are the next strongest. (An alternate mix of "Season" appears on The Byrds Boxed Set, as does a respectable cover of "Just Like A Woman" with a McGuinn pseudo-Dylan vocal.) Clarence White sings lead on "Truck Stop Girl" -- weakly enough that it nearly undermines this fine Lowell George composition -- and on the traditional "Take A Whiff," a song about cocaine made famous by Leadbelly and arranged here so as to emphasize its tediousness. Gene Parsons sings lead on the boring "Yesterday's Train," co-written with Skip Battin.
Battin, along with once and future rock impresario Kim Fowley, co-wrote three of the album's six weak studio tracks. McGuinn sings lead on "Hungry Planet" (which he also co-wrote) and "You All Look Alike," but that's not enough to save either song. As for "Well Come Back Home," the basic song isn't bad, even with repetitious lyrics and Battin's weak vocals, but a four minute coda of the Buddhist chant "Nam Myoho Renge Kyo" could ruin a much better composition than this one.
Around the time of (Untitled), McGuinn was sometimes criticized in the music press for having "dictatorial tendencies." Those brickbats were misplaced, though: what the Byrds needed in 1970 was a little more tyranny on McGuinn's part and a lot less democracy. For example, the cover of "Just Like A Woman" would certainly have been an improvement over any of the non-Tryp cuts, and it's hard to imagine that such never-released cuts as "Amazing Grace," "It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)" or the studio version of "Willin'" could have made matters much worse. Perhaps we should be thankful to have been spared the outtake called "Fifteen Minute Jam," two-and-a-half-minutes-worth of which appears on The Byrds Boxed Set under the name "White's Lightning." Assuming this fragment is the best sixth of the song, it should be more than enough to satisfy the curious.
(Untitled) is a frustrating work, both on its live tracks and its studio cuts. "Chestnut Mare" is certainly the best cut ever recorded by a post-Sweetheart configuration. But by demonstrating what beauty and skill they were capable of, the McGuinn/White/Parsons/Battin Byrds raised the stakes considerably ... and on the rest of the LP, they crapped out, with weak material, poor vocals, and merely workmanlike accompaniment.
Despite its shortcomings, (Untitled) hit the Top Forty in the States and just missed the Top Ten in the UK, where "Chestnut Mare" was the band's first Top Twenty single since "All I Really Want To Do" in 1965. The success of the album and single make (Untitled) a sentimental favorite with many fans of the Byrds, especially in the U.K. In time a consensus emerged that (Untitled) was the best of the post-Sweetheart Byrds, but apart from "Chestnut Mare," the album hasn't aged well. Unfortunately, the studio sides of this album would establish the pattern for the next two Byrds releases, except that nothing on the later LPs would approach the quality of "Chestnut Mare."


To Byrdmaniax...


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Tracks from album sessions:
Original album tracks:
"Lover of the Bayou" (live):
Roger McGuinn & Jacques Levy
Rec. date: January 1970

"Positively 4th Street" (live):
Bob Dylan
Rec. date: January 1970

"Nashville West" (live):
Gene Parsons & Clarence White
Rec. date: January 1970

"So You Want To Be A
Rock 'n' Roll Star" (live):
Roger McGuinn & Chris Hillman
Rec. date: January 1970

"Mr. Tambourine Man" (live):
Bob Dylan
Rec. date: January 1970

"Mr. Spaceman" (live):
Roger McGuinn
Rec. date: January 1970

"Eight Miles High" (live):
Gene Clark, Roger McGuinn
& David Crosby
Rec. date: January 1970

"Chestnut Mare":
Roger McGuinn & Jacques Levy
Rec. date: June 4, 1970

"Truck Stop Girl":
Lowell George & Bill Payne
Rec. date: June 3, 1970

"All the Things":
Roger McGuinn & Jacques Levy
Rec. date: May 1970

"Yesterday's Train":
Gene Parsons & Skip Battin
Rec. date: May 1970

"Hungry Planet":
Skip Battin, Kim Fowley, & Roger McGuinn
Rec. date: May 1970

"Just a Season":
Roger McGuinn & Jacques Levy
Rec. date: June 4, 1970
"Take A Whiff":
Traditional, arranged by
Clarence White & Roger McGuinn
Rec. date: June 1970

"You All Look Alike":
Skip Battin & Kim Fowley
Rec. date: May 1970

"Well Come Back Home":
Skip Battin
Rec. date: May 1970


Other tracks from album sessions:
"Lover of the Bayou" (live):
Rec. date: February 28, 1970
Appears on Boxed Set

"Willin'" (live):
Lowell George
Rec. date: February 28, 1970
Appears on Boxed Set

"Black Mountain Rag
(Soldier's Joy)" (live):
Byron Berline, arranged by
Clarence White & Roger McGuinn
Rec. date: February 28, 1970
Appears on Boxed Set

"Just Like A Woman":
Bob Dylan
Rec. date: June 11, 1970
Appears on Boxed Set

"White's Lightning":
Clarence White and Roger McGuinn
Rec. date: June 4, 1970
Appears on Boxed Set


Unreleased tracks from album sessions:
"Willin'" (studio):
Rec. date: May - June 1970

"Amazing Grace"
Rec. date: June 1970

"It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)"
Rec. date: June 1970

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Byrds Albums | (Untitled)

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