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Thursday, January 28, 2016

The Byrds: Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde

THE BYRDS: DR. BYRDS & MR. HYDE (1969)

1) This Wheel's On Fire; 2) Old Blue; 3) Your Gentle Way Of Loving Me; 4) Child Of The Universe; 5) Nashville West; 6) Drug Store Truck Drivin' Man; 7) King Apathy III; 8) Candy; 9) Bad Night At The Whiskey; 10) Medley: My Back Pages / B. J. Blues / Baby What You Want Me To Do.

Finally, we move on to the very last chapter of the transformational history of The Byrds. With Chris Hillman and Gram Parsons departing to form The Flying Burrito Brothers, the only sur­viving member is Roger McGuinn, and his new team includes Gene Parsons (no relation to Gram) on drums, John Yorke on bass, and Clarence White on guitar (Clarence had previously sat in with the band on some of the 1968 sessions, and had already joined the band as a replacement for Gram Parsons in the brief interim when Hillman still remained an active member). But even though the new musicians are all quite decent, it took some time before the whole thing clicked, and Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde shows a certain lack of direction.

Actually, my biggest problem with this record is that there are way too many McGuinn originals, and most of them — nay, all of them — are deeply problematic. ʽChild Of The Universeʼ? Lots of lyrical pretentiousness, a touch of grand pathos provided by the booming percussion fills and Spanish guitar lead fills, but the melodic drone is just too monotonous and the transitions between verse and chorus too un-dynamic to make you go wow — and let's face it, if a song called ʽChild Of The Universeʼ does not make you go wow, too bad for the song, not the universe.

ʽKing Apathy IIIʼ is an even stranger and clumsier experiment that sews together a fast blues-rock verse with a slow country-western bridge — the song has a very clear lyrical message, in which Mc­Guinn renounces the "middle class suburban children" who "blindly follow recent pipers" and states that "I'm leavin' for the country, to try and rest my head", and it's his choice and all, but illustrating it with a poorly joined-at-the-hip mix of generic bluesy psychedelia with generic country waltz is at best boring symbolism, and at worst an embarrassment in both genres (let alone all the condescending remarks about "liberal reactionaries" who are busy "slowing down their B. B. King" — not quite on the level of Lennon's "fuckin' peasants" yet, but slowly getting there, although at least Lennon could sound real passionate about the issue).

Hilariously, McGuinn manages to offend both the progressive liberals and the hillbilly conserva­tives on the album: ʽKing Apathy IIIʼ is the immediate follow-up to ʽDrug Store Truck Drivin' Manʼ, a remainder of the McGuinn/Parsons collaboration that rhymed the song title with "the head of the Ku Klux Klan", was inspired by a clash with the obnoxious Nashville DJ Ralph Emery, and must have probably been a sweet, sweet joy to perform during the band's tour of the Bible Belt (just joking — actually, they preferred California, but whether they dared perform ʽKing Apathy IIIʼ there, I have no idea; then again, most of the hippies would probably be way too stoned to notice the words). Not that it's a particularly good song, either, but at least it sort of evens the odds for representatives of both parties. See, Roger McGuinn doesn't really like anyone, so what's the big surprise about the album selling more poorly than ever before?

In the light of these and other, not much better, failures at decent songwriting, the best thing about Dr. Byrds are its covers — starting with the hard rock of ʽThis Wheel's On Fireʼ, for which Clarence recorded a heavily distorted, brutally angry guitar part that suits the song's lightly apo­calyptic mood very well (the CD reissue adds an alternate take with a much lighter guitar arran­gement if you insist that hard rock and Byrds should never mix, but I don't think we need be so strictly prejudiced). Contextually, that track is pretty deceptive — the sequencing contrast be­tween its angry roar and the following sentimental country tweeting of ʽOld Blueʼ may be the single sharpest contrast in Byrds history — but I suppose it made some sense, to try and demolish the perception that from now on, the Byrds are a «country band», period. However, most of the other covers are country, with songs like ʽYour Gentle Way Of Loving Meʼ and the speedy in­strumental ʽNashville Westʼ totally belonging on Sweetheart and, in fact, being better than most of the stuff on Sweetheart (ʽNashville Westʼ has some pretty pleasing guitar interplay).

Still, by the time they get to the odd closing medley that puts Bob Dylan and Jimmy Reed on the same stage (how do ʽMy Back Pagesʼ, a song that the real Byrds already had recorded, belong together with ʽBaby What Do You Want Me To Doʼ? Nohow is the answer), by the time they do this, the overall impression of Dr. Byrds is that of a total mess. There are enough talented people here to guarantee that it works in bits and pieces, but they don't know where to go. They know where they don't want to go, all right — they don't want to engage in drugged-out hippie psyche­delia, and they don't want to fit in with the Nashville crowds, but they are unable to work out a true new musical genre that would take the best from both worlds, filter out the excesses, and still manage to sound intelligent and emotionally exciting. And although they'd have some time to sort it out later on, this is a problem that would haunt the McGuinn/White era of The Byrds for their entire three-year period of trying to fit in in a thoroughly changed musical world post-Woodstock and post-Abbey Road.

6 comments:

  1. It had to have been a very trying time in McGuinn's life. The Byrds had completely fallen apart in the wake of the Sweetheart debacle. McGuinn rebuilt the group and released this album to deafening silence, just as new Columbia arrivals Blood, Sweat, & Tears became the label's flagship act, a position the Byrds had once laid claim to.

    Meanwhile, Crosby was gearing up to conquer the world with Stills, Nash, and Young. Rock was getting simultaneously harder and softer, with very little room for fence straddling. The back cover of this album shows the Byrds arriving on Earth in full space suits, then changing out of them into cowboy gear and riding off into the sunset. The album's title likewise nods to the general schizophrenia that McGuinn bravely chose to cop to rather than ignore.

    There's quite a lot to like about this album. The boys play great, most of the tunes are quite fine (the studio version of Nashville West is dorky as hell, especially with the "Yee Haw" and McGuinn's drunken redneck impersonation at the end), and there's at least one all time Byrds classic in Drug Store Truck Drivin' Man.

    It's a much better record than a lot of people remember, and far preferable to the disjointed mess of Byrdmaniax or the hollow misfire of the final reunion album.

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  2. Actually, this isn't a post-Abbey Road album, since it was released at least six months earlier.

    I actually prefer Sweetheart to this one; the songs that try for both styles simultaneously are just plain bad, and as formulaic as the previous album was, at least it was consistent, whereas this album's country-based songs vary from decent ("Your Gentle Way"), great ("Drug Store") or decently played but horrifically executed ("Nashville West", with that dorky conclusion that ruins a song that's only passable otherwise). This version of Bob Dylan's/the Band's "This Wheel's On Fire" is great, though, certainly a close-second to the Band's rendition in my book. While the album as a whole has some redeeming qualities, every misfire makes it worse and worse. Let's just say that the fusion of genres was far better pulled off on Notorious.

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  3. And honestly, was the art department at Columbia on vacation when this album cover was created? In fact, the title of the album is atrocious, too. It's not even a pun. Except it at least gets at the schizophrenic nature of the band's sound, so truth in advertising, I guess.

    Who would look at this album in the record store and want to buy it?

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    1. Space Cowboys would buy it. Have you seen the backcover? https://s.yimg.com/fz/api/res/1.2/z0EjOEgzsDWhWubQRkjvtQ--/YXBwaWQ9c3JjaGRkO2g9NzAxO3E9OTU7dz03MDA-/http://images.junostatic.com/full/CS470715-01B-BIG.jpg

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  4. I got this record sometime around 1970. It was a British version in mono. It was a cutout I paid 1.99 for it. I listened to it a lot. I never realized that psychedelic music was an art form. They play around with a lot of different styles of music. I always liked these sort of things

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  5. I do like Wheels on Fire, probably one of Clarence's best riffs. He was the real embodiment of the Jekyll Rock/Country Hyde duality McGuinn was going for. He could go from bluegrass pickin to bluesy wailing to proto-metal sludge in one song. Like so many, he was done too soon.

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