Lost Classic Or Self-Indulgent Folly? Gene Clark's 'No Other' Redefines Country Rock
A flop in 1974, but now looked on as one of popular music's finest albums, does this expansive 4AD reworking of Gene Clark's No Other confirm its greatness, or reveal a case of the emperor's new clothes?
8 November 2019
Gene Clark's No Other has earned its place in the "Great Lost Albums" section of any learned rock textbook. It snuggles up cozily next to Big Star's Third/Sister Lovers, Dennis Wilson's Pacific Ocean Blue, and Skip Spence's Oar and shares those albums' doomed trajectories. Every so often, it gets dusted down, discussed intently, and then returned quietly to its highly revered but commercially unsuccessfully place in the pantheon of popular music. This year, 4AD have given it the most comprehensive makeover it's ever had. Will it turn critical plaudits into a platinum album? Probably not. But that's probably not the point.
The 2019, expanded version of No Other includes a new remastering of the 1974 album with a couple of "parallel universe" versions, where the listener can eavesdrop into early takes and previously unreleased versions of the material, shorn of all studio adornments. It's these stripped-down performances that hint at what this album could have been, without the expansive and expensive production. One of the reasons why No Other didn't set the charts alight could have been its eclecticism. Were casual listeners put off by the gospel choirs, cellos, and all the other curlicues that shifted the focus from Nashville into outer space? Would the album have succeeded if Clark and producer Tom Kaye had stuck closer to the program? That's a dinner table discussion for a different time.
As with almost all of these enormous legacy edition releases, it's only the original album you really need. Sid Griffin and John Wood have done a good job of buffing up the sweepings from the studio floor, but it's the album's original eight tracks that tell the real story. Broadly speaking, we're talking country rock here – this isn't a Tusk-styled, high-speed diversion into the left field. Tracks like "The True One" and "Life's Greatest Fool" would sit nicely on the Byrds' Sweetheart of the Rodeo or an early Eagles album, and the alternate versions of those songs reinforce that.
Clark, however, wanted to take that music in a more cosmic direction. Maybe it was a sincere, spiritual quest or just a result of the prodigious amount of chemicals, allegedly consumed at the sessions that inspired him to add an almost progressive rock feel to some of these tunes. And if that wasn't enough, he added a gospel choir into the mix and replaced the Floyd Cramer piano stylings, typical of country music, with a funky, Fender Rhodes sound. He even got the generally demure bassist, Leland Sklar, to add a filthy fuzztone to his instrument for the album's title track.
The album cover also added to the experimental feel of the project– rather than going for a soulful, sepia-toned portrait or an image of some obvious Americana, Clark chose an Art Deco collage which is more Bugsy Malone than The Great Gatsby. It's the back-cover photograph of Clark dressed as a member of Angel, which might have been the final nail in the coffin. It's details like this that may have widened the gap between No Other and mainstream acceptance. In spite of the much-celebrated hipness of the audience, maybe psychedelic gospel country, performed by a man in a chiffon blouse, was a step too far for the intended demographic.
In 2019, things are different. In addition to hundreds of critics, bloggers, and know-it-alls, time has been kind to No Other and the eccentricities which may have put contemporary buyers off, are now looked upon kindly - accentuated by the Abbey Road remastering. Tracks like "Strength of Strings" and (especially) "Lady of the North" are beautifully detailed productions and have the serene but purposeful feel that the Fleet Foxes would kill for. The album's second track "Silver Raven" has become a latter-day Clark classic. It's a combination of an irresistible mid-tempo groove and a vaguely spiritual, allegorical lyric. It seems to have all the hallmarks of a hugely popular mid-1970s radio staple, and yet, as the critics say, it languishes in obscurity.
When No Other came out in Autumn 1974, it should have been embraced with open arms and shot Clark up to the top table of country rock. So, what went wrong? Possibly, Gene tried too hard. If you've listened to Steve Earle, the Jayhawks, and Wilco recently, you'll be ready for it. The world might finally catch up with Gene Clark – it only took 45 years.
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