Friday, November 13, 2015

Take Some Time and Learn How to Play

Here we are, second Friday of November, Band of the Month Friday - another Friday the 13th (what's that - three this year?), but I don't know if that means anything, except this is one of the more unlucky and self-destructive bands in this series.... I give you - The Byrds. What shall I say about the Byrds? Staples on the radio when I was growing up, though never in the first rank of classic artists; a band easy to hear as a kind of glorified cover band, easy listening act - with a couple songs that stood out. Songs that did, it has to be said, cut through the dross.... That impression (formed from 70s radio) started to come apart in the 80s, when suddenly they were one of the most influential bands in the world - REM and all those southern/psychedelic/jangle/country-folk bands that came in REM's wake changed that - though it wasn't really until the late 80s, when I got my hands on the box set they put out about that time that I finally got them, for real. I had my hands on the box set - I didn't own it - but I taped most of it - and proceeded to listen to the cassette obsessively for the next few years. All that happened just about the time I started listening to jazz instead of rock - they were one of the survivors.... When I went back to buying rock records, I eventually got around to buying most of their records - though somehow, that was never quite as satisfying as the box set.

There are fairly clear reasons for that: I said they were unlucky and self-destructive - whichever one it is. They were loaded with talent - Roger McGuinn, Chris Hillman, Gene Clark, David Crosby - all very good, all, I suspect, a bit on the difficult side - or maybe, bloody impossible. Clark quit, and Crosby got thrown out (for being an asshole, with an ego the size of the Washington monument? - see the video below), they started bringing in other people, who were, frankly, just as good - Gram Parsons notably, though they threw him out before they finished any records. It's that, directly, that made the box better than their records - the presence of songs like Triad, and Parsons' versions of songs like The Christian Life, 100 Years From Today and so on.

But Parsons wasn't their only recruit - there was also, about the same time, Clarence White: and come to think of it, I have to change what I said. It wasn't that their actual, released records were less satisfying than the unreleased stuff on the box - it's that their earlier (and middle) releases were less interesting than the live records they put out with White on board. Untitled, Live at the Fillmore (which I think was released somewhere in the 90s) - those records were something else again. Because of White (and Gene Parsons, who gives them a different sound, rhythmically) mainly - McGuinn, who might not have been the best technical guitarist, but always one of the most distinctive and inventive - had someone alongside him even better. What they do, 12 string and modified telecaster, twisting around their songs - the details and decorations and flourishes, all of it in perfect time - my goodness.

Which brings us back around - there are a lot of guitar bands in this world, but I'm not sure there has ever been a band as single minded in their devotion to the sounds of guitars. When you start listening to it you hear it all through their career - their early records put the drums so far down in the mix you can barely hear them, but you can always hear the guitars - especially McGuinn, that insistent Rickenbacker sound, but the other guys get their due. The early version of the band gives the vocals almost equal billing with the guitars - kind of. But really - listen to the way the guitar come in over the vocals on songs like I See You, or - most notably - Eight Miles High: pretty as the harmonies are, the guitars just lay waste to them.

And, right from the beginning, they weren't just a guitar band - they were a band that was up to something with those guitars. Lots of bands were playing around with 12 strings, Rickenbackers, jangle in all its forms in 65-66 - but no one else was pushing those instruments like McGuinn and company. (And listen to the rhythms behind McGuinn, on those old songs: harsh, chunky chords - buried a bit - but Eight Miles High, particularly, is a tour de force, all the way down. They were paying attention to the rhythms all along, they just bury it so far down in the mix you almost can't hear it; when you can, it's prime.) The solos, the sound, the extremity of it - pulling in those jazz riffs, the dense clusters of notes, pulled of Coltrane records, in 1966... The other early guitar wankers were all playing blues - Clapton? Green? Beck? Page? Hendrix? - McGuinn though is in there working through bluegrass sounds, stealing jazz bits - all of it clean and pretty. It is brilliant stuff. And then Clarence White joins, and they push it further, and White has chops, the ability to play things that are hard to even imagine. The sounds - 1:35-36 of Rock and Roll Star on Live at the Fillmore - that bend - just put that on a loop... though I can find something, maybe not that good, but something similar on every song he played on. They work in country, they master it, they work out how to blend all these influences, all these sounds so that every song is surprising and fascinating.... I - I love the early Byrds, and they are hugely influential, especially over groups I like.... But the Clarence White version of the band is mind-blowing. (Though, I confess, prone to pointless noodling - long jams that are half given over to bass solos? que? you have Clarence White and Roger McGuinn, and you're letting someone play a bass solo? Thankfully, they left most of that off the records - but you can find it on YouTube - it's not as bad as I make it sound, but - I'm not looking up Byrds' videos to see drum and bass solos.)

All right then. So let's get this top 10 down. There is no point in distinguishing between originals and covers - one of their features is a way of making every song completely their own. Those Dylan songs - lots of people were covering Dylan, but they were a vehicle for the 12 strings, really. They sounded like something completely original when the Byrds played them. And of course, in case you haven't already figured it out - the lyrics aren't all that important (though not irrelevant - I got cats and teeth and hair for sale.... see your soul to the company who are waiting there to sell plasticware... and their indisputably good taste in outside lyricists, all those Dylan songs, Parsons, songs, Lowell George songs...) - the guitars, baby:

1. Eight Miles High (from the opening bass riff on, with McGuinn coming in - damn fine stuff.)
2. So You Want to Be a Rock and Roll Star (though the version on Live at the Fillmore is the recording of theirs I would take to a desert island; that one thing Clarence White does, in the middle...)
3. Lover of the Bayou
4. Truck Stop Girl
5. Mr. Tambourine Man
6. 5D (Fifth Dimension)
7. Bad Night at the Whiskey
8. The Christian Life (the Parsons version)
9. Triad
10. Buckaroo (Clarence White workout covering Buck Owens)

And some video, though video is maddening hard to find - especially video that does justice to what they could sound like. Still - we can try. Here, then, is Turn! Turn! Turn! - live, early:

McGuinn and Gene Clark, in 1978, just the two of them, acoustic guitar and that Ricky. McGuinn starts slow, but works his way into it, those intricate, strange riffs, cutting against the pretty harmonies - nice:

The late edition of the band, live on German TV, doing So You Want to be a Rock and Roll Star:

Live on Playboy after Dark - You Ain't Going Nowhere and This Wheel's On Fire - some neat guitar bits in there, though it's hard to see much through the dancing girls at the Hef's. There are some nice shots, though, where you can see Clarence manipulating his B-bender - pushing down the neck to operate it....

A bit of Clarence White, just noodling - apparently backstage in Boston:

And here's David Crosby - telling stories and singing Triad:

Can't help myself - another noted guitar band playing 8 Miles High - feedback takes the place of that gorgeous 12-string, but they make the guitar bits work:

1 comment:

Sam Juliano said...

Wow Stephen! Another absolutely brilliant commentary!! Just awesome, and one I can can agree with across the board!!