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Thursday, March 3, 2016

The Byrds: Byrds


1) Full Circle; 2) Sweet Mary; 3) Changing Heart; 4) For Free; 5) Born To Rock & Roll; 6) Things Will Be Better; 7) Cowgirl In The Sand; 8) Long Live The King; 9) Borrowing Time; 10) Laughing; 11) (See The Sky) About To Rain.

If I am not too mistaken, this was the first ever «reunion / comeback experience» in the history of rock music, at least as far as major league players are concerned. The event happened largely by accident — by late 1972, it so chanced that all five original Byrds found themselves at the cross­roads, with their solo careers (including McGuinn's disaster with Farther Along) either commer­cially flopping or reaching a certain turning point (for instance, Crosby, Stills & Nash were on a lengthy hiatus). Had they been the Beatles, their egos would probably stay too huge and mutually repellent to succumb to attraction. But they weren't the Beatles, and five years after mutual dis­agreements tore them apart, the wounds healed well enough to initiate reunion talks. Throw in a nice financial proposition from Asylum's David Geffen, and the cat was in the bag.

One thing that was not in the bag, though, was nostalgia. The reunited band did have the exact same lineup as the Great Original Byrds of Mr. Tambourine Man — McGuinn, Crosby, Hill­man, Clark, and Clarke — but they immediately came to an agreement that they would do any­thing but consciously try to recreate the «harmonies-and-jangle» atmosphere of their early albums, partly because trying to cohesively work as a single unit was the thing that ended up driving them apart in the first place, and partly because they were, after all, still too young and too full of ideas to bow down to pure nostalgia. Consequently, the reunion album, as everybody seems to agree, is not really a true «Byrds» album — it is a bunch of solo tracks, collected from four out of five members: more precisely, McGuinn contributes 2 songs, Crosby contributes 3 (one of them a Joni Mitchell cover), Hillman and Clark also 2 each, and then there are two Neil Young covers, sug­gested by Clark and defended by Crosby (saying that the band was now covering Neil Young in­stead of Dylan because Neil was for the Seventies what Bob was for the Sixties).

It is actually quite curious how the original Byrds were pigeonholed — reviews at the time were scathing, with people complaining about the disunity and the lack of jingle-jangle much the same way that in 1969, somebody could easily complain about the lack of "yeah yeah yeah"s on Abbey Road. True, the record on the whole sounds more like a James Taylor album with group harmo­nies, but even James Taylor in his prime had some good songs, and if there is no unity, at least there is diversity. Let's face it, when you have three songs on your record that totally sound like solo David Crosby, it's still better than when your record consists entirely of songs by solo David Crosby. On the other hand, the downside is also that in a situation like this, band members may be tempted to offer their weakest material for the collective pot, consciously or subconsciously saving up the best stuff for true solo albums.

The bottomline is that Byrds sounds quite nice. Only Crosby's ʻLaughingʼ, one of those lengthy stoned rants of his set to a completely unmemorable melody, sticks out unpleasantly with its 5:40 running length (and, adding insult to injury, it was already released earlier on his first solo album, so there's hardly any other reason than pure laziness behind its inclusion). Everything else ranges from cute to sympathetic — even the Neil Young covers, with ʻCowgirl In The Sandʼ remade as a bouncy, almost cheerful country-pop number and ʻSee The Sky About To Rainʼ featuring a soul­ful Clark lead vocal and even, in the form of a small bonus for the fans, some genuine 12-string jangle in the coda section.

Clark's two originals, ʻFull Circleʼ (also brought from his solo career) and ʻChanging Heartʼ, arguably have the best vocal melodies on the album — nothing too breathtaking, but the «alar­med» intonations on the chorus of the latter agree very well with the song's message (warning about the fickleness of fame and all that), and although the semantics of the line "funny how the circle is a wheel" is a bit tautological, its delivery is inspiring, and so well punctuated by the added mandolin lead line. As for Hillman, he contributes the album's poppiest tune, ʻThings Will Be Betterʼ, with colorful power pop riffs and lively choruses that would not be out of place on a contemporary Big Star or Badfinger album.

This leaves McGuinn, and, surprisingly, he is probably the second weakest link on the album after Crosby — throwing in his filler bit ʻBorn To Rock & Rollʼ (which has very little to do with actual rock'n'roll, not to mention stealing the verse melody from Dylan's ʻI Shall Be Releasedʼ) and the Jacques Levy collaboration ʻSweet Maryʼ, where I guess Levy wrote the lyrics and Roger borrowed the melody from some traditional sea shanty. Not that it doesn't sound nice — it's al­ways nice to hear McGuinn sing traditional ballads, and the mandolin touch is again a gallant addition — but it does seem like, out of all the contributors, McGuinn contributed the smallest efforts to this reunion. It's basically like, "okay, guys, I've held up the Byrds name for four god­damn years on my own, now I'm just going to sit back and relax while you do your job". But I guess he may have thought he earned it, after all. Besides, less work — fewer reasons for arguing over artistic decisions with his former pals.

In retrospect, I think that the record does deserve a mild thumbs up, because of all the little pretty things and the essential lack of ugly bad things. Formally, it is sort of a belated Abbey Road for these guys — a «let's-come-together-and-be-friendly-for-the-last-time» type of album, except, of course, that there is not even a small attempt at the grandness of vision that charac­terizes Abbey Road; in the end, The Byrds never truly had a «grand vision», and they weren't about to try and develop one at the end of the road. It is not likely that anybody would want to revisit Byrds on a regular basis — however, it is still very comforting and satisfying to have it, witnessing the band coming «full circle» indeed. From Mr. Tambourine Man all the way to Byrds — such a long, strange, bizarre trip, beginning in one place and ending up in several com­pletely different ones. Very instructive, at the very least.


  1. Bleah, I've never liked it. From the circumstances of its creation (blatant nostalgic cash grab, what with the individual names of the performers listed prominently at the top) to its slipshod construction, this just does nothing for me. I'd prefer to stick with "Farther Along" as the swan song of the "real" Byrds, at least in the sense of being a working group still attempting to evolve and develop.

  2. This album has at least several very good songs that would have been highlights on any post YTY Byrds album. The Gene Clark songs are wonderful and I had like a day where I would keep listening to Cowgirl in the Sand on repeat. I still prefer the original, but this one is excellent in a different way.

  3. When I listen to it, I enjoy it well enough. But when I remember that it's !!!The Byrds!!!, I'm disappointed. It's the problem of expectations, like you wrote at your old site, and for me it's inescapable.

    The songs are pleasant and there's no true clunker, but when I lower my expectations enough to appreciate it, I stop caring about listening to it. I guess from the perspective of the entire career of The Byrds' name it's worthwhile to have the original five put together an acceptable last hurrah, but I don't see how it represents them 'coming full circle'. They barely seem to be working *together* in any way besides playing on each other's tracks. It feels like listening to a compilation of solo songs [actually, wikipedia suggests this was intentional: to avoid the sorts of conflicts that split the original band, they didn't write any songs together - too bad! tension could have led to something more interesting].

    I can only truly admire the coda to the last song. Suddenly, that old chiming electric guitar appears, now mixed with layers of acoustic guitar and mandolin. But soon it's over. It's tantalizing... now that's a way to honor their past, their present, and point to something new. I wish it were the first song, not the last. Then the album would open with a cover (a satisfying nod to Tambourine Man and Turn! x3) in the country-rock, rootsy style you would expect of these guys at this time, but after that pause in the song that glorious updated jangle would kick in. Conceptually it would have been a great statement: "Here's our cover of our 'songwriter of the decade'; yes, we have become masters of country-rock; yes, we can still effing harmonize; sounds nice, right? oh, did you think we forgot the jangle? Did you!? [pause] WRONG!" ***JANGLE-BOMB***

    I wonder if the rest of the album would seem more remarkable if I just rearranged the song order a bit... could be a fun exercise to think through a re-ordering of the album... but in the end the songs probably needed a bit more work and input from the other songwriters.

    Fine album, likeable. But disappointing, given the legacy of the name and the musicians. Probably doomed from the start...

  4. There's a book called The Worst Albums of All Time or something and of course this made the list. My favorite comment was: "Putting Crosby in the producer's chair is the equivalent of assembling the New York Yankees and batting Phil Rizzuto cleanup." Not sure how many baseball fans are out there, but I thought it was funny.

  5. I enjoy the fact that at least now I can sing "Cowgirl in the sand" along with the tune - something that Neil Young's Sesame Street voice always disallowed me to do.

  6. Here I will defend David Crosby. I don't deny that he was (still is?) a cocaine drenched decadent asshole and a lazy songwriter.

    But his solo album "If I Could Only Remember My Name", is one of the rare singer-songwriter albums that I dig from the beginning to the end. The culmination of his creativity. It consists entirely of songs by solo David Crosby, and is a superbly fine album, way better than this half-assed reunion. There is a huge difference in the execution of the Laughing number between those two.

  7. In 1973 I was buffing floors nights at a medical center. All I could listen to was Muzak. It was everywhere. Believe it or not after midnight they would play the David Crosby record. Some of it anyway. I really didn't care for it much until recently when I have trouble sleeping. I have it on my player now along with Another Self Portrait. I remember when this Byrds record was released but I never got it. I think I bought the Doobie Bros instead