Saturday, June 30, 2012

But then she jumps off the edge, me holding on

My trip through the sonic wonderland of the Byrds comes to an end today with a single from very late in their career.  By the time of 1970's "Untitled" Roger McGuinn was trucking along as the only original member, still putting out new LPs every ten months or so.  The Byrds sound of old was long gone with the exception of this one amazing epic song.  Chestnut Mare was a left over from the aborted county rock musical Gene Tryp.  A modern day retelling of Peer Gynt, the few nuggets that survive are easily the best music the late period Byrds would produce.  Strangely enough this was a big hit single in the UK, but totally ignored in the US.   What with its odd lyrics referring to the wild mare as the object of an all consuming quest, it might have been just too odd for domestic consumption.  But McGuinn recaptured that classic Byrds sound, augmented by white lightning guitar runs by lead guitarist Clarence White and a middle section so lovely and antique that it could have come from a 16th century madrigal.   For me the goosebumps appear early and often, with the his voice climbing at the end of the chorus

and we'll be friends for life
she'll be just like a wife

Friday, June 29, 2012

Scientific Delerium Madness

It is only fair that a Roger McGuinn tune should be added to the quartet of Byrdsongs that have appeared here over the last week.   Fifth Dimension nails the Dylan sound with its loping rhythm and penetrating lyrics.  McGuinn would turn out to be laziest of the Byrds great songwriters, but when he was on - as he is here - he was as good as it gets.  Waynenet  has a great a blog post about this song so go there and read his words of wisdom.   I learned from his post that none other than Van Dyke Parks plays the organ on this recording!  I certainly never knew that.

Oh how is it
That I could come out to you
And be still floatin'
And never hit bottom
But keep falling through
Just relaxing and paying attention

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Joy of Man's Desiring

Although the first two Byrd's LPs are known for their famous cover versions - Dylan's Mr. Tambourine Man and Pete Seeger's Turn! Turn! Turn! - the band had a first class songwriter/singer with Gene Clark.   His love of the Beatles sound turns up in many of his songs, but never in a derivative way.  He infused their sonic soundscaps with the cadences of Lennon/McCartney yet always allowing the Byrds own unique vision to come through with three part harmonies and jangly 12-string guitar.  Chris Hillman has been quoted as saying "He was the songwriter. He had the "gift" that none of the rest of us had developed yet."  He would be sorely missed after Eight Miles High except for the fact that Roger McGuinn, David Crosby, and Chris Hillman were just beginning to catch up as top notch songwriters on their own.  Regardless, he left a shining legacy with his fine work with them before departing. 

Lost on the B-side of the Turn! Turn! Turn! single is one of his most classic tunes, She Don't Care About Time.  My spine is tingling right now while listening to it.

She'll always be there, my love don't care about time.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Shut the door

I have nothing against arrogant pricks per se, although there is ample evidence that David Crosby fits that description to a tee.   But during his tenure in the Byrds he wrote some of the most gorgeous jangle pop ballads ever.  And not only could he construct a pretty melody but he often was a fine lyricist.   In fact - when he was "on" - his perceptions were insightful.   Perhaps the best example is his ode to broken hearts, Everybody's Been Burned from 1967's "Younger Than Yesterday".  His words of wisdom, coming at the very end of the song, shows him to be quite the optimist.   And I like that in a person.   Even if he is an arrogant prick.

I know all too well
How to turn, how to run
How to hide behind
A bitter wall of blue
But you die inside
If you choose to hide
So I guess instead, I'll love you...

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

It Took Me Twenty Years

What better way to make up for my inexcusable omission of the Byrds in this blog than to have two posts in a row?  From their 1968 masterpiece "Notorious Byrd Brothers" here is a lovely tune by bassist Chris Hillman and guitarist Roger McGuinn, written in the odd meter (for pop music) of 5/4.  "Get To You" is chock full of odd Lesley Speaker phased-vocals and a melody that just gets lovelier as it goes.  By this point Mr. Hillman was supplying about a third of the songs on the LP, matching that provided by the recently departed David Crosby.   One of pop music's great "if only" moments would have been to see Crosby stay in the band long enough to produce another LP.   The sheer variety of musical styles on this album is amazing.  But it was not meant to be, as the Byrds went country on the next release and soon thereafter Chris left, along with drummer Michael Clarke and suddenly the original Byrds were no more.

Monday, June 25, 2012

I Should Have Learned to Duck

This is one of those posts where I am not sure what to say, other than that I feel the need to share a song that I consider the high point of the career of a band that I have unbelievably ignored in previous posts.   I was very late discovering the wonders of The Byrds, other than a few of their early  12-string hits such as "Mr. Tambourine Man" and "Turn Turn Turn".   My brother sent me a CD containing all of their LPs (excluding their short-lived reunion), and within a few days I was completely transfixed by the quality and diversity of their 60s output.  The magic exudes from those first five LPs and assorted singles that were produced by the original nucleus of the group. They were blessed with four fine singers, each with a real talent for songwriting, and some amazing instrumental chops to boot.   

By mid 1967 they had not had a top 40 hit since "My Back Pages" in March of the previous year.  Gene Clark was long gone, and David Crosby was months away from departing the group.  And yet the quality of their output was still on an upward path.   Prior to the release of "The Notorious Byrds Brothers" in early 1968, their fifth LP and last of their great masterworks,  they produced a single that to my ears was a pinnacle of 60s pop/rock.   It was clearly radio friendly, with amazing chiming guitar lines, gorgeous harmonies, an instrumental break capped by trumpet volleys, and one of Mr. Crosby's finest melodies.    "Lady Friend" was a culmination of the Byrds sound and deserved a lofty status in their canon.  But like a lot of other great music, it was lost in the sea of other great tunes in mid-67 and sank like a stone on the charts.    Because of internal struggles in the band it was omitted from the following LP, and for years was not available other than on an import "best of" LP.

Here it comes, it looks just like the last wave I drowned in.
Here it comes, and I'm so far from shore.
She's going to go, and take her trinkets.
And I will have to live without her and survive

Friday, June 22, 2012

Could'a Should'a Would'a

I have this theory - totally unprovable - that the key moment when things went wrong with the internal chemistry with the Beatles was not mid-68 during the White Album sessions, nor early the next year for the Get Back sessions.   My theory is that everything went awry during the "Magical Mystery Tour" sessions up through the scattered recordings done just before they left for India in early 1968.  Bare with me as I list some events during that period.

  • Paul commandeered the group into making the MMT movie and EP.   Yes the music was top notch, and John provided perhaps one of his finest moments with "I Am The Walrus".   But it was clearly Paul's brainchild and the other three were just along for the ride.  It is possible that John's resentment of Paul's attempts to lead the group had been building since "Sgt Pepper's". 
  • John's heyday for getting singles A-sides were on the wain.  "Strawberry Fields" in early 1967 had to share double-A side status with "Penny Lane".   Totally understandable as both songs are revolutionary, but still John did not get full A-side credit.   So that leaves "All You Need Is Love" in the summer as John's last A-side until mid-1969.
  • John hated "Hello Goodbye" and has been quoted trashing Paul's lyrics.  He also was pushing to make "I Am The Walrus" as the A-side.   I should note that I love "Hello Goodbye" for its sunshine pop and the clever production, but regardless it was another put down for John to see Paul get another A-side.
  • During the short recording windows before they left for India in early 1968, the band worked on "Lady Madonna" and "Across the Universe".   John contended that Paul purposely undercut him by bringing in a couple of young ladies off the street to sing backup vocals on "Across the Universe".    Although I greatly prefer this original version, which only saw the light of day on a charity album until it reappeared on the "Rarities" LP in the 80s, I can see John's point that the vocals add nothing to the song and the singers are less than stellar.   Later after the Beatles break-up Paul was quoted complaining about Phil Spector's work on "Let It Be", in part because he added female chorus voices to a Beatles song!  Now that was a twist.
  • The day the band was set to record a video for the new "Lady Madonna" single, John arrived in the studio with a new song  "Hey Bulldog" - and the band decided to film themselves recording it instead, although the official video superimposed LM on the audio track.   HB is a cracker-jack piece of rock and roll and should never have been relegated as a toss-off for inclusion on the "Yellow Submarine" soundtrack.
So how could things have gone differently? Perhaps one of George's shelved 1967 tunes such as "Only a Northern Song" could have been the B-side for "Hello Goodbye", and "I Am The Walrus" could have been its own A-side.   Yes, it is the most pyschedelic song they ever recorded, but the world would have eaten it up at that time during the height of their popularity.

While the Beatles were off in India two more singles should have been issued.  "Hey Bulldog" b/w "It's All Too Much" as a follow up to "Lady Madonna".   I say follow up one rocker with another! Then early summer, before "Hey Jude" conquers the universe, "Across The Universe" b/w "All Together Now" would have given light to perhaps the most beautiful, touching, and spiritual song that John ever wrote. It would have required wiping the female harmony vocals but Geoff E. and George M. would have been up to the task, and possibly could have added a minimal string arrangement in its place.

Would all of this had made a difference?   Would John have been pacified enough to prevent him from instilling Yoko at every recording session going forward, thus removing one of the major hindrances to the working relationship between the four Beatles?   Totally unknowable but I do believe that it might have bought more time before the eventual split.   That said, I love "Abbey Road" so much that I am afraid a different path might have resulted in it never being made. 

Anyway, here is the unofficial video for "Hey Bulldog" - which as you can see is what they were actually singing/recording, not "Lady Madonna".  This song just kills me.   And Paul's bass line is just amazing.

Friday, June 15, 2012

She Smiles

And while I am on a post-Zombies kick, how about the opening track from Colin Blunstone's first solo LP "One Year".   Yep, that unmistakable Zombies sound is here, and no wonder as the song was written by Rod Argent and Chris White, the Z's principal songwriters and the men responsible for "Odessey and Oracle".   For my money Colin's soft wispy voice was a key ingredient to the miraculous sound of his former band.   His first solo album is a extremely fine work, full of fine piano pop as well as some gorgeous acoustic ballads.  In fact he had a #15 hit in the UK with "Say You Don't Mind" from this LP, a bouncy piece of early 70's pop written by ex-Moody Blues/future-Wings guitarist Denny Laine.

So here is "She Loves The Way They Love Her", which is also available in a post-Zombies version sung by Rod Argent.  Though Colin's take is the better of the two, with his tenor voice rising high and clear, and a killer production by Rod and Chris with an excellent electric guitar counter melody throughout.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Second Time Around

Even though I have been a Zombies fan since the 60s, I never really investigated the recorded legacy of their sequel, "Argent".   Sure, I heard their hit single "Hold Your Head Up", and I even bought one of their later LPs, but was put off by their prog-ishness as well as the operatic warbling of singer Russ Ballard.  Over the years several Zombies CD compilations have included songs that were written by the Rod Argent/Chris White team and recorded by a rag tag group including some of the ex-Zombies just after the breakup, about the time that "Time Of The Season" nearly topped the charts in the USA.  The quality of those songs - "Imagine The Swan", "Smokey Day" - along with the body of work left behind from the Zombies should have been a hint that there was still some good music lurking from Mr. Argent.

Well ladies and gentlemen, I missed the boat.  Recent posts by George Starostin on his wonderful Only Solitaire blog  indicate that the early Argent records are not so far removed from the Zombies brand of keyboard-driven pop. So I went to my local record store (I want to help keep them in business) and ordered a recently out-of-print CD containing their first two albums, "Argent" and "Ring of Hands".  The first is somewhat of a natural musical progression from "Time Of the Season", with more instrumental bite.  Keep in mind there is no vocalist who could replace Colin Blunstone, but I actually think the Rod Argent has a little bit of Colin's angel in his voice at times.   Rod, Russ, and bassist Jim Rodford were all able to carry a tune, and their combined harmonies are somewhat of a trademark of the Argent sound.  The second album begins to stray a bit further from familiar territory but still has a half dozen Argent/White tunes that contain breathtaking harmonies and melodies.

Here is a great example in "Like Honey", the opening track from the first Argent LP.  I love the way the chorus is just Rod's voice the first time through, then each succeeding iteration piles on more voices, and the harmonies get crunchier.  And in the lovely bridge section, Rod does his best Colin imitation, and it is quite good.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012


The new release of Paul McCartney's "Ram" is a jaw-dropper.   The enhanced sound is a revelation.   I took the easy way out and bought the 2-CD edition, but am now having seconds thoughts about purchasing the 4-CD/1-DVD special version.  Listen to the bass on "Smile Away" - it simply couldn't be deeper or stronger than if it emanated from the center of the Earth.

This was an LP that took time to grow on me.  Like everyone else back in '71 I was tuned in to hear "Beatles".  But over time the songs began to hook me more and more, and now I consider this - along with "Band On the Run" - as the pinnacle of Paul's solo output.  I will go out on a limb here to mention that one of the joys of "Ram" for me is Paul's inclusion of Linda, both as a backup singer as well as subject matter for many of the songs.  It makes it personal in such a way that it clearly shows how much affection he felt for her.  As for her singing - here at least - I actually dig it.  She doesn't have a lot of emotional range but she can be really snotty/scolding, as when she counters "is this the only thing you want me for?"in "Long Haired Lady".  Her harmonies in "Too Many People" are actually part of the charm of what may be one of Paul's finest post-Beatles songs. I will not get into a John/Yoko vs. Paul/Linda comparison because it is like comparing apples to oranges.   Let's just say that I feel no need to pull out any of my Yoko/Plastic Ono Band LPs to revisit her musical legacy.

Understandably none of the new enhanced recordings are available on YouTube, so here is a rare mono version of one of my favorite rockers on the album - "Smile Away". Have always loved this tune because Paul just lets loose and kicks up a dust storm.  Sure the lyrics are silly but the joy is so present that I just laugh along with him.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Don't Cover it Up

Generally I am not a big fan of covers albums, but in 1994 "If I Were a Carpenter" paid tribute to the sugar sweet body of work left behind by Karen and Richard Carpenter in a way that made me realize that with the right touch, many of their songs were actually great tunes needing a little harder edge.  Nothing against Karen's voice, for in fact I think she had one of the great pop voices of my lifetime.  And when placed in the right context, such as their almost power-pop hit "Goodbye To Love", the fuzz guitar explosions propel the song into a universe that the Carpenters rarely chose to enter.

Case in point for the covers album, check out the version of "Hurting Each Other" by Johnette Napolitano and Marc Moreland.   With an almost metal Spector wall-of-sound arrangement and a thundering bass propelling it along, it becomes a mantra to end the pain.   Other than an ill-advised cover of "Close to You" by the Cranberries the CD is really worth checking out.