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Thursday, December 24, 2015

Byrds: Younger Than Yesterday


1) So You Want To Be A Rock'n'Roll Star; 2) Have You Seen Her Face; 3) C.T.A.-102; 4) Renaissance Fair; 5) Time Between; 6) Everybody's Been Burned; 7) Thoughts And Words; 8) Mind Gardens; 9) My Back Pages; 10) The Girl With No Name; 11) Why.

Although this album (actually recorded at the end of 1966 — still in the «Revolver era» rather than the much-mutated «Sgt. Pepper era») is very frequently listed as the pinnacle of the Byrds' career, I have always belonged to the small minority that regards it as a tiny step down from the heights of Fifth Dimension — at least in terms of innovation and diversity, if not overall song quality. Where Fifth Dimension, with all its minor faults, broke The Byrds out of the eggshell of their early formula and opened them to the many ways of the world, on Younger Than Yester­day you can sort of see the beginnings (only the beginnings) of their retreading back to a slightly different, but still monolithic eggshell. At the very same time, you also see signs of serious ten­sion between band members that ultimately led to the band's enclosing itself in a rigid niche, and then simply disintegrating because nobody cared any more.

If these sound like undeservedly harsh words for an introduction to a great album, let me stress that the idea is not so much to defame Younger Than Yesterday as it is to restore justice for Fifth Dimension. My only concrete problem (as opposed to the abstract construction of an idea­listic «progress curve») with this record is one song and one song only, and yes, you guessed right: David Crosby strikes again! Last time around, it was the clumsy arrangement and the exag­gerated vocal antics on ʽHey Joeʼ — this time, it is ʽMind Gardensʼ, unquestionably the worst track ever that classic-era Byrds put on tape. In fact, it was one of those ʽRevolution #9ʼ-type moments, where everybody except the contributing artist hated the track, but did not have enough willpower to veto its inclusion.

Crosby himself later argued that the hatred was simply due to backwardness — that his band­mates were appalled about including something that did not have either rhyme or rhythm — but, of course, this is just a bunch of crapola; in fact, Crosby himself would later come up with plenty of far, far better compositions that had neither rhyme nor rhythm, but compensated for this with beautiful atmospherics. ʽMind Gardensʼ, however, sounds like something where the overriding itch was to compose, record, and release a track without rhyme or rhythm, period. (Actually, the underlying guitar melody does have plenty of rhythm, to be precise — it's just not a very interes­ting guitar melody, and David largely referred to the vocals, of course). The lyrics, which sound like they were largely influenced by Oscar Wilde's Selfish Giant (yet still find a clichéd oppor­tunity to throw in a reference to "the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune", just for kicks), are almost intentionally primitive in their psychedelic-moralistic imagery; the singing is annoyingly shamanistic and shows that Cros never properly finished his crash course in tribal incantations; and worst of all, very soon you find yourself surrounded by a swarm of discordant backward gui­tar solos that make the whole experience physically painful (there is an alternate version among the bonus tracks of the CD reissue that seriously tones down this hideous buzz, but still does not completely resolve the problem). Basically, the only kind words I have to say about this monstro­sity is that it makes the following ʽMy Back Pagesʼ sound twice as angelic by contrast.

All the more curious is the fact that, outside of ʽMind Gardensʼ, the remainder of Crosby's con­tributions for this record are fairly nice — ʽEverybody's Been Burnedʼ is a beautiful three-minute long introspection on the matter of broken relationships, with two somber minor key guitar parts weaving around each other and a perfectly melancholic vocal serenade from David himself. (The song is said to have been written as early as 1962, but I guess its «torch song» genre characteris­tics and the lack of a proper chorus could not help but delay its release); and ʽRenaissance Fairʼ, inspired by an actual trip to the original South Californian Renaissance Fair, is one of Crosby's catchiest compositions — based on a real riff, for once, if not a particularly inventive one; its starry-eyed refrain of "I think that maybe I'm dreaming..." should count as one of the most trend-defining, uh, starry-eyed magical moments of 1967, especially in its retro-futuristic perception of Elizabethan decor as suitable garb for the new psychedelic era.

At the same time with Crosby reaching his songwriting peak (even if it does result in a few exces­ses), we also have Chris Hillman emerging as a distinct songwriter in his own right — and pul­ling the band in a completely different direction: the country-rock style. ʽTime Betweenʼ and ʽThe Girl With No Nameʼ, with their steel guitars, banjo-imitating guitars, and perky tempos, are two prime examples of the Byrds' early venturing into hillbilly territory, and, honestly, sound like fairly generic country to me (I do actually prefer the Beatles doing ʽWhat Goes Onʼ — they have Ringo singing on it, and it's kinda funny). However, Hillman is able to do better than that: ʽHave You Seen Her Faceʼ is a fine slice of jangly pop (the intro alone sounds like a blueprint to a good half of Big Star's career), and the sleeping masterpiece here is ʽThoughts And Wordsʼ, which somehow manages to combine both the country-rock and the art-pop idioms, throwing in a moody psychedelic hum effect — it's like the Byrds' ʽThings We Said Todayʼ multiplied by the trippy production values of Revolver. On this song, the backward guitars actually work. See how they kick in as the second chorus starts up its "I knew what you wanted to do"... yep, you wanted to drive me nuts by jamming jagged shards of backward guitars in my ears. You don't spoil lovely melancholic music with brute ugliness unless you have a good reason, and Hillman at least pre­tends to have one — it's all about a lovely beginning and a rather brutal ending.

And we have not yet mentioned the McGuinn/Hillman lead-off ʽSo You Want To Be A Rock­'n'Roll Starʼ, one of the first and bitterest sarcastic takes on rock stardom by rock stars themselves; or the sci-fi noises on ʽC.T.A.-102ʼ, a more than respectable successor to ʽThe Lear Jet Songʼ; or the new re-recording of Crosby's ʽWhyʼ, released earlier as a single and now sounding very much like Martha & The Vandellas' ʽHeatwaveʼ because we can; or ʽMy Back Pagesʼ, which tends to get my vote as the band's second best Dylan cover (and this time, they actually have enough space to cover four out of six original verses) — McGuinn's vocals are not always capable of capturing, let alone expanding upon, the magic of the original, particularly when they cover hu­morous or battle-oriented songs, but «Dylan the transcendental visionary» always comes off fine, and rarely, if ever, finer than on these "crimson flames tied through my years"...

And it all happens within an almost embarrassing twenty-nine minutes — in 29 minutes here, these guys say more than most modern bands say in 10 years. Amazing how fast things were really moving back in 1967, isn't it? (The bonus tracks aren't particularly phenomenal this time, but they do include ʽLady Friendʼ, the last substantial Crosby-penned single they released, and a couple more early excursions into country-rock with Hillman). Although, supposedly, this still has something to do with the conservative peculiarities of the American LP market, which rarely thought its customers worth more than 30 minutes of music per vinyl chunk. (Unless your artist was Dylan, who just couldn't shut up — ironically, though also predictably, Bob would begin releasing his own under-30-minute albums exactly at a time when this restriction was finally and completely lifted).

So where, if you might ask, are those «retreading» signs that I mentioned earlier? Well, essential­ly you see two main trends sometimes peacefully co-existing, sometimes battling here — Cros­by's psychedelic vision and Hillman's «earthy» style, with McGuinn clearly more seduced about the latter than the former. Crosby would eventually lose, and for good reason — all these songs are really much more about solo Crosby than the Byrds as a band, far more so, in fact, than even John Lennon's latter-day Beatles material (more like as if Lennon were to offer songs like ʽMo­therʼ or ʽGodʼ for Beatles albums). Hillman would win — and complete the Byrds' transfor­mation into The Country Turf Preservation Society, which would still be a fairly pleasant society, to be sure, but quite far from the all-powerful eclectic deities of American rock that they were for a very brief period in 1966.

On a song-by-song basis, Younger Than Yesterday is as strong as anything else they did in their peak period — however, it does not have either a ʽMr. Tambourine Manʼ or an ʽEight Miles Highʼ to symbolize a particular major breakthrough (ʽSo You Want To Be...ʼ comes somewhat close, with its send-up of the pop star image and Hugh Masekela on the trumpet, but does not exactly have the majesty of those two other singles), because there are no major breakthroughs here. Which, on a personal level, should not prevent anybody from simply enjoying the excellent music. Alternately, it may just be an intense hatred for ʽMind Gardensʼ that spoils and distorts my perception: honestly, I'd rather have Crosby re-recording ʽHey Joeʼ in a duet with Iggy Pop rather than having to listen to this atrocity, which I count among the same «1967 excesses» as the Ani­mals' Winds Of Change, even one more time. Regardless, thumbs up are still guaranteed all the way — on the already overloaded shelf of classic records from that wonder year, Younger Than Yesterday will always have a secure place of honor.


  1. As I mentioned in the 5D review, while I do lean closer to the former, I consider the two LPs equals. Like most, I can't stand "Mind Gardens", at least not for much longer than the 30 seconds before its novelty wears off. But everything else is superb, even Chris' two more lightweight country-pop contributions. I agree that "Have You Seen Her Face" and "Thoughts and Words" top them, but "Time Between" really isn't too far behind. I prefer the original version of "Why", but this one's just fine. "Renaissance Fair" is brilliant, though, less than two minutes of bliss, and if not for Crosby's other success and "Thoughts and Words", it would have been my favourite song on the LP.

  2. For all intents and purposes these albums are about equal -- I do favor "5D" because of its freshness and "Eight Miles High", but that's a mild gripe. The re-recording of "Why" is weaker than the original single version, but it's a great tune all the same. The rest of Crosby's songs on here are also excellent, except for "Mind Gardens", and even that one doesn't piss me off too much (then again, I'm one of the few guysthat gets a minor kick out of "Revolution 9"). I actually like Hillman's country rock songs a lot -- I'll take "Time Between" over some of those borefests on the next album, and even over "What Goes On".

    Merry Christmas George!

    1. I actually think "Revolution 9" is way better than "Mind Gardens"; the former sets up a creepy mood of flashing noises and ideas that seem so nightmarish, the latter is just noisy psychedelic sound waves with Crosby's hippie pseudo-philosophical mutterings. I don't get the hate for "What Goes On". I would probably put that and "Time Between" on equal level, but other than that, I'd agree with George on his thoughts of the Ringo-sung tune.

    2. I like "What Goes On" plenty, I just prefer "Time Between". "Revolution 9" is definitely better, although arguably less musical -- I've always found it a cool, freaky listen. I tolerate "Mind Gardens" rather than like it.

    3. This comment has been removed by the author.

    4. Just realized I suggested there were borefests on "The Notorious Byrds Brothers" -- not at all. I was referring to "Sweetheart of the Rodeo".

    5. No, nothing is really boring on Notorious (even if some of the songs are a bit too short). Sweetheart could be boring, and often is, but when I'm in the right mood I actually really enjoy it. I like the Hillman-sung track a lot, anyhow

  3. George... you seriously prefer 'What Goes On' to 'Time Between' and 'The Girl with No Name'? Listening a lot to The Byrds recently, and while I've always enjoyed Hillman's contributions to this LP, I'm so impressed by the 4 songs he contributes here (I actually think 'Thoughts and Words' is the weakest of them, but it's still welcome).

    This is their most (successfully) diverse album, and probably their best LP overall. It's true there's no big hit single here, but 1967 marks the point when The Byrds become recording artists oriented to Album-listeners (singles still outsold albums until 1969 in the US). Besides, I think 'My Back Pages' is way better than 'Mr. Tambourine Man' was, and this one actually has real Byrds playing on it!

    Agree with you about 'Have You Seen Her Face?' and Big Star... heh, heh.

    In retrospect, a large part of what made The Beatles and The Byrds so great is that each group comprised very awkwardly matched individuals, who didn't see eye-to-eye on a lot of things. The Beatles lasted longer (except Pete Best) because they all came from south Liverpool and had come up together from mid-teens (except Ringo). The Byrds had less chance of group cohesion being from different parts of the US and not getting together until they were 18-22 years old, with four of them have already been in somewhat successful bands previously. The volatility is what makes them so exciting in their brief, but wonderful, early period.

    Having said all that, I really do think Crosby was an insufferable horse's ass... (not that the others did much to help him or improve the situation).

  4. "ʽEverybody's Been Burnedʼ is a beautiful three-minute long introspection on the matter of broken relationships." Proof that when Crosby actually sang about, you know, real stuff instead of whatever sex/drug fantasy was addling his mind at a given moment, the dude actually had some decent musical ideas.
    "ʽMind Gardensʼ, however, sounds like something where the overriding itch was to compose, record, and release a track without rhyme or rhythm, period." Proof again that the dude could be a total flake. However, upon listening to the hidden bonus track, that guitar bit is a decent piece of multi-layered finger-style and could have possibly worked as an if Dave would actually perform a non-vocal track (See Psychodrama City & Song Without Words).
    "the new re-recording of Crosby's ʽWhyʼ, released earlier as a single and now sounding very much like Martha & The Vandellas' ʽHeatwaveʼ" This never occurred to me until you mentioned it, but yeah, it does. The Flip to 8MH is much more droning and trippy, this one has nicer harmonies up top, and the ending of the unreleased "RCA" version is cleaner than the sloppy one on the official versions. Must be their version of "Revolution".

  5. Also, this album marked Clarence White's debut with the group, somewhat ironically on Chris' songs considering that he really didn't become "official" until Hillman split.

  6. "The lyrics [to Mind Gardens], which sound like they were largely influenced by Oscar Wilde's Selfish Giant.."

    I'm surprised you didn't make a comparison to "The Wall" by Pink Floyd, though I think Roger Waters did a slightly better job of explaining what might lead one to block off one's mind to the outside world than Crosby did (even if Waters' approach was just as pretentious).

  7. For some reason, I'm immune to David Crosby's charms, even on the "good" Crosby song on this record. It's not that the Byrds were better without him, but who can blame McGuinn for firing him before the next record? Crosby himself enjoys gloating that McGuinn told him he'd never amount to anything without the Byrds. Yet, am I the only one who thinks McGuinn was right—at least artistically? I'm aware that CSN (and sometimes Y) blew the Byrds out of the water, commercially.

  8. CSN never measured up to The Byrds at their peak -- then again, neither did post-Notorious Byrds. Whatever gripes I or McGuinn might have with Crosby's stylistics at times, they brought out the best in each other, be it through friendly encouragement or rivalry (much like John and Paul) -- after all, McGuinn wouldn't have discovered that raga jazz playing style if Crosby hadn't played his Ravi Shankar and John Coltrane tapes on constant repeat for the band.