Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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The Byrds Have Flown--But Not Far

It is unfortunate, though not surprising, that no one has thought to add to the spate of books on rock-and-the-youth-revolution the once that might really get it down, at least for the States--a biography of the Byrds, who made the mistake of peaking before the Monterey Pop Festival in June, 1967, when the writers and publishers caught on.

Too much too soon. For most of 1965, the Byrds were the only supergroup in America, but as 1966 progressed and other groups moved into the spotlight, the Byrds' reputation dwindled. They were still revered, and they still made hits, but the bad-mouthing had begun--they were squabbling, they weren't rehearsing, and then, as we moved into the year of San Francisco, the ultimate insult: they were plastic. Now, although their music has remained remarkably consistent, has even improved, they haven't had a hit single in two years, each new album sells less than its predecessor, and the Byrds have flown. Only leader Roger McGuinn--who owns the name--remains.

McGuinn is a Chicago-born folk musician who had worked with the Limeliters, the Chad Mitchell Trio and Bobby Darin before his historic 1964 gig at Los Angeles' Troubadour, where he soloed folk songs in a Beatle-influenced style. There he was approached by Gene Clark, a country boy from Missouri who was also a successful folk sideman, about starting a group.

Soon they were joined by two native Californians, David Crosby and Chris Hillman, and drummer Mike Clarke from New York. The familiar saga of children of affluence who rise within a year from artistic penury to infamous wealth had begun in America for the first time. All very Los Angeles: their first producer was Terry Melcher, Doris Day's son.

A recent poster depicts McGuinn and the three new Byrds, all recruited from Los Angeles studios, standing in a horse pasture wearing cowboy hats. On the dry grass in front of them is a pile of what appears to be astronauts' equipment. The image sums up the Byrds'--really McGuinn's--unique articulation of "folk-rock," combining fondness for the rural past and fascination with the technological future. The two frontiers.

The original Byrds made many things possible. Their hit version of Bob Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man" early in 1965 opened the way to AM radio not only for Dylan but for all the young song-poets. The careful electronic counterpoint of their guitar ensemble was expanded (with inspiration from avant-garde jazz) into what McGuinn calls "space music," the basic rock feedback-volume experiment. And their roots in bluegrass and commercial folk made their trend-signalling turn to country and western last year a natural one.

The group's eighth and latest album, Dr. Byrds and Mr. Hyde (Columbia CS 9755), which is already off the charts although it appeared just a few months ago, combines all these elements, so much so that it appears a hodgepodge when compared to the conceptual sureness of 1968's Notorious Byrd Brothers (a smooth-flowing post-Pepper studio album) and Sweetheart of the Rodeo (a bittersweet tribute to country music).

Dr. Byrds and Mr. Hyde includes two compositions from the motion picture Candy, a reworking of the folk tune "Old Blue," country songs written with Gram Parsons, Dylan's "This Wheel's on Fire," and a medley of "My Back Pages," "Baby, What You Want Me to Do," and the break song with which the group closes its club sets. Although the material is a little thinner than usual, it is not really confused: the record functions as a token of McGuinn's unfaltering love for his entire musical past--folk, rock, space, country and live performance.

Dr. Byrds and Mr. Hyde is first-rate Byrds, a high recommendation. The excitement generated is no longer exquisite, I suppose, but it lasts. Its major fault has plagued the group ever since the personnel changes began two-and-a-half years ago, when Gene Clark left because he was afraid of airplanes: a lack of strong voices to harmonize behind McGuinn's studiously unpolished lead. Its virtue is typical of the Byrds, who are in turn typical of Los Angeles commercial rock: a kind of ironic pressure produced by the tension between the no-nonsense constrictions of AM radio and the breakaway energy essential to rock's popularity. No matter how tightly a Byrd song is produced, its beat, its phrased guitars, and its uncitified harmonies all imply an insurrectionary human energy that transcends technics.

Another member of the original Byrds, David Crosby, has joined with Steve Stills formerly of the Buffalo Springfield and Graham Nash, formerly of the Hollies.

Merely because it includes three known singer-writers, an abundance in this fragmented era, this is a supergroup by definition, and its album, Crosby, Stills & Nash (Atlantic SD 8229) is as perfect as has been expected. But it also demonstrates the dangers of perfection: the wildness that should liberate great rock is so well-controlled that when it appears (as on Nash's excellent "Pre-Road Downs") it seems to have been inserted just to prove the music is rock: the only exception is Crosby's wailing vocal on "Long Time Gone."

The ghost of the Springfield haunts this album. Stills has become such a sophisticated guitarist that many of his lines lack any straight-on rhythmic compulsion. But his "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes," over seven minutes long, is a structural triumph which could never have been brought off by a more Dionysiac spirit. And all three men are so good at what they do that their occasional lapses into preciosity and triviality are easy to forgive.

The Crosby-Stills-Nash album is an assertion of a tight studio song esthetic, favoring vertical harmonies over horizontal improvisations which are the staple of more recent groups. The current fad for country and western is an alternative solution to this problem, which also deals with the charge that unimprovised rock lacks "feeling." Country-rock is consciously democratic (in the manner of early 60's folk) and deeply committed to the simple virtues.

Still another ex-Byrd, Gene Clark, has formed, together with Doug Dillard, a country-rock group currently billed as Dillard-Clark and the Expedition. Ex-Byrd Mike Clarke assists on drums. The group's approach is folky: their solid, honest and unexciting first album, The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard and Clark (A&M SP 4158) used only acoustic instruments. Now they have electrified, added a girl singer and released a single, a remake of Elvis Presley's "Don't Be Cruel" (A&M 1033). Not only does Presley sound better on the original, but so does his old backup group, the Jordanaires.

The real master of country-rock (longhair-country is more to the point) is still another ex-Byrd, though not an original one: Gram Parsons. He has moved on (accompanied by ex-Byrd Chris Hillman) to form the Flying Burrito Brothers. The Burritos' first album, The Gilded Palace of Sin (A&M SP 4175) contains the best country-rock music so far.

If this were a time for conceptual geniuses, Parsons would rank with Peter Townshend and McGuinn. He has absorbed and transmuted all the Calvinist morality, chin-up self-pity and interpersonal warmth that grace the best country music, and found a steel guitarist (called Sneeky Pete) who adds just the right musical flavor. Among the album's masterful touches are the lyrics on "Sin City," which sounds like four different honky-tonk songs remembered from a dream, the country renderings of two minor Dan Penn-Spooner Oldham soul classics, and "My Uncle," a totally apropos ditty about draft dodging. A brilliant LP.

And yet, for all Parsons's brilliance, you wonder whether he would have gotten it all together without working for a few months with ol' Roger McGuinn of the Byrds. If every broken group can produce as much good music as the Byrds, rock will be alive for a long time to come.

New York Times, June 8, 1969