The Byrds Part 5 : A New Flock.

The revolving door on the Byrds tour bus was spinning for quite a while after the departure of Gram Parsons in 1968. The group recruited Clarence White, a guitarist who had contributed to the 3 previous LPs. Clarence introduced his best buddy Gene Parsons who quickly replaced drummer Kevin Kelley. It was only weeks later that bass player Chris Hillman decided to join Gram in the Flying Burrito Brothers. This must have been a whack upside the head for Roger McGuinn. Hillman shared the wild ride from the folk clubs of Los Angeles to the top of the world’s charts & stepped up as a songwriter when the major talents of Gene Clark & David Crosby flew the coop. They lost their producer too, Gary Usher was fired by CBS for overspending on a Chad & Jeremy LP (ANY money would have been too much !). There were concerts booked, a recording commitment to the label. A new bass player, John York, joined in September 1968 & just a month later was in the studio contributing to the follow up to “Sweetheart of the Rodeo”.

 

 

The title of the new record,”Dr Byrds & Mr Hyde” (1969), reflected the split-personality of the group, caught between psychedelic Rock & a Country place. It’s the only Byrds LP where McGuinn sings lead on all the tracks &, like “Sweetheart…” it opens with a Bob Dylan song. For all the personnel changes & the innovations of the last 3 near-perfect LPs the Byrds singing Dylan was where it all started, a touchstone of American popular music. “This Wheel’s on Fire”, written with the Band’s Rick Danko, gets an assertive Acid Rock treatment with outstanding guitar work. It’s not “Eight Miles High” but it’s about six.This clip, recorded before an audience of people who thought it acceptable to be in the same room as Hugh Hefner, shows that the new band could cut it as live performers too.

 

There are other good tracks on the record. “Drug Store Truck Drivin’ Man”, a leftover from Gram’s time with the Byrds, is a kiss off to the Nashville establishment’s snotty reaction to the group’s appearance at the Grand Ole Opry. The instrumental “Nashville West” & the country ballad “Your Gentle Way of Loving Me” were brought along by Gene Parsons & Clarence White. There are shades of “Notorious…” & of “Sweetheart”, it’s obviously a Byrds record  made by a new unit yet to establish their own personality on the sound. What is striking is the contribution of guitarist Clarence White. It would need a more technical person than myself to outline the advantages of his innovative Stringbender on his Telecaster but whether he was playing space-rock or a country hoedown Clarence was up to the job. “Dr Byrds…” was the lowest selling Byrds LP yet, just 7 months later there was another record in the stores.

 

 

The film “Easy Rider” was a big deal in the summer of 1969. Peter Fonda &  Dennis Hopper’s low budget ($360,000) hippie fable drew an untapped youth market to cinemas & grossed over $40 million in the US alone. The soundtrack LP, the music cost more to licence than the film, went gold within 6 months. A memorable scene in the film employed “I Wasn’t Born to Follow” from “Notorious Byrd Brothers”. Roger McGuinn was a friend of Fonda’s, he & David Crosby had dropped acid with Fonda & the Beatles in 1965. When Bob Dylan proved reluctant to allow his songs to be used McGuinn recorded “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” then completed “The Ballad of Easy Rider” after Dylan handed him the first verse. The Byrds, generally perceived to have peaked before the Summer of Love, were responsible for 3 of the 10 tracks on the coolest soundtrack album around.

 

 

Ok so CBS were a little over the top with their “The movie gave you the facts, the Ballad interprets them” tagline.There’s an element of the cash-in as the title track was the only one to have any connection with the film. “The Ballad of Easy Rider” was re-recorded for the LP, speeded up & given a classy, clear as a mountain stream, orchestral backing by producer Terry Melcher, Doris Day’s son, who had performed the same duties for the group’s first 2 LPs in 1965. During the period of recording the LP the psychotic Manson “family” showed up at Melcher’s old house with murder on their mind. The 5 occupants were brutally killed. However freaked Melcher was by these extreme events he completed a fine job. The songs are mostly short & always sweet with a coherence that was missing from “Dr Byrds…”.

 

Roger McGuinn only wrote the one song for the record. He was busy with “Gene Tryp”, a rock adaptation of Ibsen’s “Peer Gynt” (those crazy 1960s eh ?). John York, contributed a song about his dog & Gene Parsons wrote “Gunga Din” about an incident when York & his mother were refused service at the Gramercy Park hotel in New York. What a lovely song it is too. Gene, a multi-instrumentalist, was proving to be an asset. He & White had played with the Gosdin Brothers in 1968 & “There Must Be Someone”, a country lament, came from that. He had also been in the studio when gospel group the Art Reynolds Singers recorded “Jesus is Just Alright” in 1966. The Byrds’ version sounded rocking on the radio when it was released as a single from the LP. All the covers were well chosen. There’s a Dylan song, “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue, one from Woody Guthrie, “Deportee” & John York brought along “Tulsa County” from singer-songwriter Pamela Polland. Clarence White, playing whatever is put before him, is just perfect again. In the 1970s I briefly crossed paths with Gene Parsons & was able to thank him for the music, particularly “Gunga Din” which still sounds great. He took my fan-babble very well, a classy guy.

 

 

“The Ballad of Easy Rider” is a classy album too. I’ll not make the claim that it’s up there with the great trio of LPs, “Younger Than Yesterday”, “Notorious Byrd Brothers” & “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” but if you’ve spent enough time listening & love the Byrds then you might. Roger McGuinn was the only original member of the group, he was the keeper of the Byrds’ flame. If he wanted to continue as a unit rather than pursue a solo career then the 2 LPs of 1969 justifies his decision. As Peter Fonda wrote in the liner notes of “The Ballad…”, “whoever the Byrds are is just alright. OH YEAH!”. OH YEAH !

 

 

The Stock Market For Your Hi Fi (UK Pop 1968)

In the UK in the summer of 1967, the “Summer of Love”, Procol Harum was the new big thing. Their debut single “A Whiter Shade of Pale” was the #1 record for 6 weeks. It’s faux-classical theme, portentous lyric & “progressive” sound caused quite a stir. I can remember grown men discussing the meaning of “16 vestal virgins” & the like. Get out of here, music was for young people. “A Whiter…” was replaced at the top spot by “All You Need is Love”, the Beatles’ coming out as hippies anthem. “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)”, reduced a whole generation’s new explanation to gloopy balladry. British pop music was growing out of its adolescence, musicians & their audience expected barriers to be broken, experiments to be undertaken. In 1964, the “Summer of Beat”, “House of the Rising Sun”, “It’s All Over Now” & “A Hard Day’s Night” had been consecutive #1 hits. Progress ?…It’s a rhetorical question.

 

1967 was the year that the LP became the thing to record & the thing to have. “All You Need is Love” was fine, you needed “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” (June) more. Jimi Hendrix’ “Purple Haze” & Pink Floyd’s “See Emily Play” are classic 3 minute long pop 45s. “Are You Experienced” (May) & “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn” (August) gave you 40 minutes of this new good stuff. The generation who had been buying vinyl since the Mersey Mania were working now, had more disposable income, but what about their little sisters ? They were unconcerned about kissing the sky or gazing through trees in sorrow. They wanted to spend their pocket money on a 7″ single that they could dance to made by pretty young men who looked dreamy on a poster on their bedroom wall. It was a pop music tradition, it was their right & they gotta have it.

 

 

In January 1968 “Everlasting Love”, the 2nd single by Love Affair was the toppermost of the poppermost. The record was an all-guns blazing cover of a current Soul tune by Robert Knight. The band were teenagers, the drummer, who was the manager’s son, was only 15. I’m sure they all could play but CBS insisted that the single be re-recorded before release. Producer Mike Smith’s sweeping orchestral & brass arrangements only needed the participation of singer Steve Ellis, the Sunday papers made quite a front page fuss about this “deception”, as if Jimmy Page’s contributions to 70% of the records made in London had never happened. The little girls didn’t care about any credibility gap, the hit follow up used the same winning formula, “Rainbow Valley”, same composers, same steal from Robert Knight.

 

Of course I preferred the original version of “Everlasting Love”. The Top 10 of the day included the Beatles, the 4 Tops & Small Faces, much more my glass of Vimto. There was another manufactured group on the charts. The Monkees had been assembled for a TV show, they didn’t write songs or, at first, play on records which were well-crafted commercial pop music designed to sell by the truck load & successfully doing so.Love Affair’s young Mod singer, Steve Ellis, had a fine voice & Mike Smith produced 4 Top 10 hits for the group. He picked up on a new English songwriter, Phillip Goodhand Tait. “A Day Without Love” & “Bringing on Back the Good Times”, beefed up in Love Affair style are good songs. Smith had got it going on in January 1968, his novelty, sound effects laden “The Ballad of Bonnie & Clyde” for Georgie Fame succeeded “Everlasting Love” at #1. At the end of 1969 a change of style bombed & Ellis left the group. He formed his own band, Ellis, then Widowmaker but he would always be the kid that the little girls were screaming at while the rest of us sat cross-legged listening to our hair grow.

 

 

Amen Corner’s first single “Gin House Blues”, a song Bessie Smith recorded in 1928, was a favourite of John Peel, the champion of the new, serious music, now with a Sunday afternoon show on the new BBC Radio 1 station. A 7-piece from Wales they favoured Blues & Jazz, the twin horn section certainly helping out on the Soul covers. After 2 Top 20 hits Amen Corner’s big breakthrough was a bit of a surprise when they pulled an old British trick of grabbing an American hit before it crossed the Atlantic. “Bend Me Shape Me”, originally recorded by the solid garage-pop band the Outsiders (check them out), was a US chartbound sound for the American Breed. Producer Noel Walker, whose big hit of 1967 was “I Was Kaiser Bill’s Batman” by Whistling Jack Smith (blimey !), tightened up the song, added punchy horns & got a top 3 hit for the boys. In one bound Amen Corner went from touring with Hendrix & Pink Floyd (some package tour that) to new teen sensations.

 

Once again the attention was on a teenage singer with a strong, distinct style. Andy Fairweather-Low was the poster boy of Amen Corner.The group had 3 more Top 10 hits, first with Deram, Decca’s increasingly cool offshoot, then joining Immediate, the label set up by former Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham. Of course, the formula, the screaming attention soon paled. After a stomping version of Roy Wood’s “Hello Susie” a Fairweather-Low produced cover of them Beatles’ “Get Back” failed to trouble the chart compilers & that was that. Andy formed Fairweather & had a fine solo career. I once heard Oldham asked why his label Immediate failed in 1970. He replied that it was because Fairweather-Low decided he wanted to be Jerry Garcia…hmmm.

 

 

Marmalade, unlike the other 2 groups, had knocked about a bit before 1968. As Dean Ford & the Gaylords they established a reputation as the top band in Scotland  but 4 singles for CBS in 1964-65 failed to make a national impression. By 1967 they were working with Mike Smith, the hitmaker, recording their own songs. “I See the Rain”, a pop-psych classic, was one of 4 unsuccessful Marmalade singles & CBS decreed that something better change..or else. Smith brought them “Lovin’ Things”, an American song rejected by another of his hit groups, the Tremeloes. It was given an uptempo brassy arrangement, there’s a pattern emerging here, & the group were in the Top 10. Ever since the Beatles invented British pop music the maxim “you’re only as good as your last single” spurred artists on to new heights of invention & excitement. That generation were, in 1968, working on their albums, those still reliant on chart position stuck with the familiar made-to-order, radio-friendly but  unchallenging pop. After a disappointing follow up to “Loving Things” Marmalade went for a very easy option & had a #1 hit.

 

“Ob-La Di, Ob-La-Da” Paul McCartney’s cod-Reggae novelty from the Beatles’ “White Album” was not released as a single in the UK so Marmalade nicked in with a cover version. This was no overhaul like Joe Cocker’s “With a Little Help from my Friends” more an insipid facsimile recalling the cheap copies of hits sold on the Embassy label in Woolworths. A #1 record…go figure ! The group were unhappy about recording other people’s songs & at the end of 1969 were able to secure a deal with Decca where they could produce themselves. Marmalade re-established themselves as capable soft-rockers with the songs of guitarist Junior Campbell & singer Dean Ford. In the next 3 years there were  more Top 10 hits. Life goes on…brah !

 

In 1968 I was more concerned with the new groups from California, Country Joe & the Fish, Big Brother & the Holding Co, you know them. In the UK Steve Winwood with “Traffic” & “Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake” by Small Faces were examples of how the teen idols of 1966 had adjusted to the expanding horizons of the music scene. I was dismissive of the prefabricated teeny popsters & things did not improve. In 1970 session man Tony Burrows provided vocals for 4 hits, the groups assembled when the records sold ! Now I can appreciate melodic, well-produced late-1960s pop made for an audience with different taste & demands from myself. Ah…I was so much older then…

 

 

They Don’t Make Them Like This Any More

The first time I can remember being in a cinema was when I was taken to see “Tommy the Toreador”, a musical-comedy, poor music, worse comedy, starring a British rock & roller, Tommy Steele. A forgettable film but I was in a big dark hall with Mum, Dad & lots of other people, the screen was massive & there was ice cream…I’d be back. In the early 1960s I tagged along with the big boys to the Saturday morning children’s matinee, a manic, juvenile, sugar-rush flash-mob, where the management often had to stop the main feature & tell us to chill the fuck out…or else ! That was great too. In the school holidays we saw “A Hard Day’s Night”, “Zulu”, “It’s a Mad, Mad World”, a long list of good ones & a longer list of mediocrity. It was at home, in the living room, on a rainy Sunday afternoon that I first saw the timeless classics from a Hollywood golden age. Black & white movies on a small black & white TV that made me forget that I would rather be outside playing football & introduced me to the potency of well-made popular cinema. This week, for the first time in 50 years, I watched one of those films which left such an impression & I was not disappointed.

 

 

“It Happened Tomorrow”, a fantasy comedy, is not a title often mentioned when the great films of the 1940s are recalled. It was the storyline, a man receives tomorrow’s evening paper today, which intrigued & fired the imagination of my young self. The potential for advantage & for complication held an instant appeal. The film stars Dick Powell, a popular lightweight crooner who was, in 1944, looking to expand his range. In the same year he hit big in “Murder, My Sweet”, the first movie portrayal of Raymond Chandler’s hard-boiled private eye Philip Marlowe. I’m sure that I noticed Linda Darnell in the female lead, one of “Look” magazine’s 4 most beautiful women in Hollywood that year (my vote was for Gene Tierney). Jack Oakie, a veteran of 87 films, leads a cast of character actors who do that thing that they do. In modern cinema “ensemble” playing often involves little more than pulling in familiar faces to deliver a couple of lines (see the Coen Brothers’ “Hail Caesar”). These supporting players worked at it as a job. It was the assurance & charm in the tale-telling that lodged “It Happened Tomorrow” in my memory. Back then I knew very little about the great film directors of the century of cinema. I know more now.

 

Clair & Ms Darnell

In the 1930s Rene Clair established a reputation as a pre-eminent French film director. There was a trilogy of movies, including “Le Million” (1931), which gained international success. These early “talkies” were marked by an original & creative use of the new technology (singing flowers ?). His portrayal of working-class Paris was perhaps nostalgic & romantic, though no more than Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s. His lightness of tone was later criticized by the New Wave but that’s what some of those directors (Truffaut, Demy) & French cinema does better than anyone. In 1940 he found himself stranded in New York when France lost World War II. Stripped of his citizenship by the Vichy government, Rene went to Hollywood. There are 4 American films directed by Clair & 3 of them are worth a viewing. “I Married a Witch” (1942), a darker, fantasy forerunner of the 1960s TV series “Bewitched”, is deft & devilish, 19 year old Veronica Lake casts a spell as the bitch/witch. “It Happened Tomorrow” is not even the best film of 1944 but it is a charming, funny example of a fine director & of the popular entertainment that the Hollywood studio system did so well. The final madcap 30 minutes bring to mind Capra, the Marx Brothers & Preston Sturges, good company to keep.

 

 

“The Big Heat” (1953) is another film that knocked me over as a teenager & this ridiculous trailer does not do it justice. It’s a tougher than tough revenge flick, an upright, obsessed cop looking to avenge the death of his wife & to put the bad guys where they belong. This movie prepared me for the hard-boiled fiction of Jim Thompson, the neon-lit night of Edward Hopper’s paintings, cinematic experiences like “Point Blank”, “The Godfather””, “Goodfellas” & “Reservoir Dogs”. Glenn Ford, an actor of limited range, is Detective Sergeant Dave Bannion, more driven than Dirty Harry. Vince Stone, a gangster capable of extreme, stunning violence, is scarily played by Lee Marvin while Gloria Grahame as Debby Marsh, his moll, an unforgettable doxie with the moxie, put me on to beautiful women who are mad. bad & dangerous to know (yeah, thanks for that Gloria !). I knew that this movie had a heart of darkness before I knew what film noir was. I knew that this lean, mean classic was the work of a master, back then I just didn’t know who that was.

 

Lang with Dietrich

Fritz Lang left Germany for Paris in 1934 on the day that Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels informed him that one of his films would be banned & offered him the position as head of the studio UFA. Lang, an Austrian with a Jewish mother, knew the score. His Expressionist silent films “Dr Mabuse the Gambler” (1922) & the futuristic, dystopian “Metropolis” (1927) were ambitious & ground-breaking. “M” (1931), his first film with sound, is a Kafka-esque, microscopic study of a child murderer, played by Peter Lorre, another artist who got out of Germany in 1933. It established Lang as a master of cinema & 80 years on his reputation has not dimmed. He directed over 20 films in Hollywood. Often stymied by the strictures of genre & studio demands he struggled to equal his earlier work. When, as with “The Big Heat”, he had appropriate raw materials, he was an alchemist, turning celluloid into gold.

 

 

Fritz Lang directed 2 films in 1944. “Ministry of Fear” stars Ray Milland as a patient newly released from an asylum dragged into the paranoid world of espionage after guessing the weight of a cake correctly. They (Grahame Greene) don’t write ’em like that anymore. “The Woman in the Window” features Edward G Robinson, the Original Gangster star of the 1930s, as a university professor smitten by Joan Bennett, Lang’s choice of femme fatale in 4 of his films who finds only trouble back at her Fabulous Forties pad. In 1946 the film & others of the time with similar themes were released in postwar France & were dubbed “film noir”, a somewhat vague tag even then, anyway Lang had been making movies like these since “M”. “The Woman in the Window” is a psychological thriller, a melodrama, a now-maligned categorisation, it’s dark, tense & the supporting cast, particularly Raymond Massey & Dan Duryea, do their thing.

 

Audiences in those pre-TV days expected romance, fantasy, beautiful people & a good story from their movies. They were cinema-literate, they knew how films worked & there were directors like Clair, Lang & others with the imagination & ability to illuminate even subvert these conventions. When this is successful then you get a work that still affects some 70 years later. “The Woman in the Window” is on the Y-tube, the whole film. It would not be a waste of your time to get on over there.