THE BYRDS: BALLAD OF EASY RIDER (1969)
1) Ballad Of Easy Rider; 2) Fido; 3) Oil In My Lamp; 4) Tulsa County; 5) Jack Tarr The Sailor; 6) Jesus Is Just Alright; 7) It's All Over Now, Baby Blue; 8) There Must Be Someone; 9) Gunga Din; 10) Deportee (Plane Wreck At Los Gatos); 11) Armstrong, Aldrin And Collins.
Almost everybody will tell you that Ballad Of Easy Rider was a huge advance over Dr. Byrds, even if, paradoxically, it is far less ambitious and creative. For starters, the heavy-rocking component has pretty much been chucked out the window — a few distorted guitar solos crop up every now and then, but nothing even remotely approaching the thunder of ʻWheel's On Fireʼ; here, the Byrds settle for a far calmer, softer roots-rock sound, somewhat of an amalgamation of the early folk-based sound and the Sweetheart country-soaked approach.
Second and more important, there is only one song here written by Roger McGuinn; everything else is either contributed by other members of the band or comes completely from outside. This is not meant to sound as an insult to his general songwriting skills, but the material written for Dr. Byrds, although experimental, was clearly weak, and getting rid of that whole «space cowboy» baggage was probably necessary to avoid further embarrassment. Actually, there is one track here that is more space-cowboyish than ever — ʻArmstrong, Aldrin And Collinsʼ merges NASA voiceovers with a little acoustic ditty about the latest American heroes, written by country guy Zeke Manners; but it is just a short amusing epilogue that does not aspire or amount to much.
At the heart of the record are tracks like the title one or ʻGunga Dinʼ — haste-less, regal, slightly transcendental in their unnerving acoustic bliss, well comparable to the Byrds' classic legacy and, for that matter, completely absent on Dr. Byrds. Dylan, who originally began work on the title track as the theme of Easy Rider, pretty much stopped after writing "the river flows, it flows to the sea" and telling the contractors to pass it on to McGuinn — and sure enough, McGuinn put it to a melody that would probably evoke visions of a river flowing to the sea without a single word. The idea to orchestrate the song belonged to producer Terry Melcher, who seeked to emulate the effect of Nilsson's ʻEverybody's Talkingʼ, and they do emulate that effect, except that ʻBallad Of Easy Riderʼ has no tragic overtones and is essentially a static, beautiful soundscape — perfect as the movie theme (it is, after all, about /the impossibility of/ finding paradise on Earth), perfect as a Byrds song, one of McGuinn's tenderest and sincerest vocal performances.
Interestingly, new drummer Gene Parsons almost has Roger beat, or at least, matched, by contributing ʻGunga Dinʼ, a song about personal tribulations and discriminations set to an equally becalming arpeggiated melody — no orchestration this time, and the multi-tracked vocals are not as moving as Roger's solo parts, but chorus harmonies are cute (it's quite endearing how in the final "I know that it's a sin... Gunga Din" the title is delivered almost with a «sigh» of some sorts, in the «life is tough, but we'll get over it» kind of sense). His is clearly the best contribution of all the new band members — John Yorke's ʻFidoʼ is amusing, but first, it is another song about a dog (as if ʻOld Blueʼ was not enough; and they would return yet again with ʻBuglerʼ), which is discriminating towards cat lovers, and second, its melody is pretty much a complete rip-off of Manfred Mann's cover of Dylan's ʻQuinn The Eskimoʼ, differing only by the inclusion of a rather gratuitous drum solo. Probably they should have just gone ahead and covered the song instead. With some certified Inuit drumming for an interlude.
The covers are largely selected from the traditional folk/blues/country pool, although Bob gets his share — finally, they come out with an official release of ʻIt's All Over Now Baby Blueʼ, recorded at an ultra-slow tempo with triple repetition of "it's all over now", which may not be such a good idea (does the message really need rubbing in?). There's an alternately funny and disturbing reinvention of ʻJesus Is Just Alrightʼ as a semi-progressive rocker with «alarmed» vocal harmonies, sounding as if the band were performing an exorcism or a general ward-off-evil ritual with the song; an empathetic cover of Woody Guthrie's ʻDeporteeʼ, which would have made a good inclusion on Sweetheart at the expense of, say, ʻChristian Lifeʼ; and some gorgeous vocal harmonies on the old anthem ʻOil In My Lampʼ. None of these songs are masterpieces of the human spirit, but they're nice, listenable, and reliable, and the new Byrds do them full justice.
In all, the goodness of Ballad lies precisely in its new-found humility — it's short, quiet, friendly, and almost completely free of ambitions and presumptions. It's as if the Byrds are no longer interested at all in the big race, but just want to share with us their love for the weather-worn American spirit, and not even in a «defying» way, as it was with Sweetheart, without locking themselves into one single narrow formula to which some of us furthermore might be alergic. If Dr. Byrds showed the world that the band could no longer be «relevant» even if it tried, Easy Rider shows that they no longer care about being relevant — and, in the process, are rewarded by the good fairy with a record that, almost haf a century later, sounds timeless, rather than time-bound. Naturally, this deserves a thumbs up.