The Byrds: The Essential Byrds

[29 June 2003]

By Rob Horning

After having done a shoddy job reissuing the Byrds catalog on CD in the late ‘80s, Columbia tried to rectify things with a lavish series of re-reissues, giving these seminal albums the deluxe treatment they deserve, complete with studio outtakes and comprehensive liner notes. This penalized the biggest fans, as they not only would have immediately bought the initial reissues but also would find the supplemental materials mandatory. The record company’s original blundering sloppiness and irresponsibility turned out to be a financial boon; and now this rote reissuing of “classic” albums three or four times, each offering a little something extra, seems to be a common strategy for maximizing profits by exploiting those most devoted to their product. And they wonder where Internet piracy comes from.

Similar to the serial-reissue strategy is the hits-repackaging ruse, except the target here is not the fanatic, but the more casual listener, who buys one hits collection only to discover that important songs are included on some other compilation. Elektra pioneered this approach with their creative reconfigurations of the Doors’ hits over the years. While not altogether egregious, The Essential Byrds, a two-CD, 33-track collection, falls uncomfortably between The Byrds Greatest Hits (all of whose songs are reprised here) and the box set, which complements the hits with a wealth of previously unreleased material gathered in one convenient spot. It’s hard to imagine the audience for whom this intermediate package was designed: the casual listener will likely find the career retrospective too diffuse, whereas one not content with just the hits won’t be appeased by this release, as she will be on her way to realizing that every Byrds album should be considered “essential.”

No American band has had a more significant impact on the development of rock: one can trace the genre’s transformations by following the course of the Byrds’ career, from folk rock through psychedelia and country rock to their final lazy proto-soft rock style. Their first two albums (Mr. Tambourine Man and Turn, Turn, Turn) not only feature a wealth of Dylan songs definitively covered and some traditional folk songs successfully electrified, but also many examples of co-founder Gene Clark’s excellent songwriting, which extends far beyond the Essential Byrds’ three cuts, “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better”, “She Don’t Care about Time”, and “Set You Free This Time”. (Though it has become rote to point out how under-appreciated Clark has been, it’s worth mentioning again that his solo albums are among the best country/folk rock records ever released, outclassing much of the Byrds’ own later work. Flying High, a two-CD collection of his work, performs the actually useful—rather than exploitative—function of gathering his material from a variety of obscure and out of print sources.)

The Byrds’ middle-period psychedelic albums are indulgent, but those patient enough to slog through are well rewarded with gems not anthologized here, such as “John Riley”, “Everybody’s Been Burned”, and “Draft Morning”. And there is even something to be said for these albums’ excesses. While no one will want to hear David Crosby’s abrasive acid trip irritation-opus “Mind Gardens” (from Younger Than Yesterday), the shrill faux-alien babble on Roger McGuinn’s “CTA-102” (from Fifth Dimension) or the insufferable Moog mayhem of “Space Odyssey” (from The Notorious Byrd Brothers—(The Essential Byrds’ “Natural Harmony” hints at this approach) twice, everyone should hear them once—they constitute touchstones in experimental abandon, demonstrating just how much further they were willing to go than the Beatles or the Stones. This collection does deliver two intriguing Notorious-era singles: Crosby’s well-orchestrated “Lady Friend”, which deserves to be as well-known as their bigger hits, and an alternate version of “Old John Robertson”, featuring an elaborate string arrangement middle-eight to enliven a track which otherwise felt like filler.

The Byrds followed their psychedelic phase with Sweetheart of the Rodeo, one of the earliest and most successful fusions of traditional country with rock. Every track serves as a blueprint for the comfortable integration of musical elements that had hitherto seemed antithetical; the Byrds make what might otherwise have been a pretentious and highly suspect stylistic shift seem natural and inevitable. While The Essential Byrds’ effective sequencing helps demonstrate this, showing how steel guitar licks can be considered an evolution from the free-form guitar freakouts (typified by the solo in “Wasn’t Born to Follow”), the compilation ultimately gives Sweetheart short shrift, including a measly two tracks: the fiddled-up cover of Dylan’s “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”, and Gram Parsons’ signature song, “Hickory Wind”, one of the few tracks on the original album that retain Parsons’s inimitable vocals. The latest reissue of Sweetheart restores them—just another reason to own the whole album.

After Sweetheart Parsons and Hillman left to form the Flying Burrito Brothers, and the Byrds basically became McGuinn’s project. The generally hit-free late period that followed was originally distilled into the misleadingly titled and less widely distributed Greatest Hits, Vol. 2. The Essential Byrds’ lone distinctive feature and sole theoretical advantage over other hits collections is its integration of this period’s material with the more familiar early hits, offering a representative look at the Byrds’ entire career. However, some would consider this a distinct disadvantage, as McGuinn’s Byrds remain an acquired taste, one which the tracks included here aren’t likely to make one adopt.

The close proximity of their earlier work makes it hard to judge this later material on its own terms. The Dylan cover, “This Wheel’s on Fire”, seems diffuse and labored compared to the others that precede it. “Jesus is Just Alright” conjures unpleasant associations with the Doobie Brothers, who by and large develop the nauseating potential implicit in this Byrds lineup. “Drug Store Truck Drivin’ Man” and “I Wanna Grow up to Be a Politician” are topical songs whose jokey tone doesn’t hold up to repeated listenings, and “Tiffany Queen” is a dull exercise in rock and roll nostalgia, unredeemed by the very peculiar sound of McGuinn playing Chuck Berry licks on a 12-string. These songs are much more comfortable in their album settings, where they partake of the relaxed mood the late records share. One exception, though, is the wonderful and strange “Chestnut Mare”, a six-minute epic of a man’s obsessive love for an elusive horse that may or may not be a meditation on the highs and lows of drug addiction. This song could turn up anywhere and be absorbing and immensely entertaining.

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