THE BYRDS Fifth Dimension (Simply Vinyl)

THE BYRDS Sweetheart Of The Rodeo (Simply Vinyl)

Simply Vinyl are a new venture established with the laudable intention of reissuing long-unavailable classic albums as analogue-mastered heavyweight high-quality 180 gram virgin vinyl pressings. Their catalogue currently lists nearly 60 releases, and if some of their offerings veer towards the unnecessary (Does the world need yet more audiophile reissues of "Rumours" and "Hotel California"? What is the purpose of them repressing Beck's magnificent "Odelay" when Bong Load Custom's own (and very fine) 180 gram issue of same is still freely available?) but there are some delights to be had, including a couple of Mothers Of Invention titles (both of which I own already on vinyl, sadly, but full marks for trying, and can we have some more please?) and great stacks of Byrds albums, particularly welcome after the disappearance of another proposed Byrds reissue series about a year ago. Most of Simply Vinyl's reissues are priced around the £16 mark, which makes them little more expensive than a mint condition original issue (if, crucially, you could find one!) and are nicely presented, even down to the use of contemporary labels and catalogue numbers. The real shocker, though, is the fact that all this wonderment is distributed by Telstar, better known as purveyors of TV advertised compilation product rather than guardians of analogue loveliness. Could it be that there's actually some money to be made by selling high-quality vinyl pressings? With even lower-brow compilation shifters Castle now flogging at least two similar series of vinyl reissues, I'm tempted to think so, which can only be a good thing for those of us who want (nay, love and need!) to buy the stuff.

Enough of the politics, to the music. These releases give me another opportunity to ramble on about how criminally underrated The Byrds are, remarkably. Has any other American band been as influential as them? They brought Dylan to the masses and #1 on both sides of the Atlantic, they invented acid rock with the incredible Coltrane cadences of "Eight Miles High", they gave the genius of Gram Parsons its first (brief) commercially viable platform and their members went on to form the likes of The Flying Burrito Brothers and Crosby, Stills and Nash, thereby siring just about everything country-rock and folk-rock that followed, which could arguably include the mid-70s AOR boom centred around (here they come again) "Hotel California" and "Rumours". They are an important band, even more so I'd say than The Band, who travelled the same spaceways in attempting to fuse all kinds of Americana into their music and had an even more direct line to Dylan, but who didn't really take any territory The Byrds hadn't made their own years beforehand.

"Fifth Dimension", their third, and by my reckoning best, album captures a goodly percentage of what made The Byrds so great. In the space of half an hour they take on traditional folk songs (a definitive reading of "Wild Mountain Thyme"), songs that sound as if they should be traditional folk songs ("John Riley" and the anti-nuclear protest of "I Come And Stand At Every Door"), hear a whole new world of scientific space rock (the Van Dyke Parks-assisted title track and "Mr Spaceman") and invent acid rock (on the still-incredible "Eight Miles High", later covered by both Roxy Music and Hüsker Dü) whose slashing sheets of guitar noise remain chilling today, and its less feted but equally memorable sibling "I See You", later covered by, er, Yes). Black marks only for the throwaway instrumentals or near-instrumentals "Captain Soul" and "2-4-2 Fox Trot (The Lear Jet Song)" and a version of "Hey Joe" that sounds uncomfortably closer to that released by Love three months earlier (and of course nothing like the version to be released by Jimi Hendrix three months later). Simply Vinyl's issue of all this wonderment is not exactly of test record standard, but then again I've never heard any issue of these thirty year old tapes that could by any stretch of the imagination be mistaken for hi-fi.

"Sweetheart Of The Rodeo" captures the now be-Parsons-ed Byrds two years later, freshly invigorated with the burgeoning potential of country-rock. The selection of material here may appear to border on the bizarre - a brace of unreleased Dylan numbers from "The Basement Tapes", some soul, a smattering of Gospel, Guthrie's "Pretty Boy Floyd", a Merle Haggard cover and a couple of Gram Parsons' own compositions. Nevertheless it all seems to hang together, if not seamlessly then at least with some ramshackle charm, with the overriding impression being of a band in the midst of the creative process, unsure exactly where their brave new hybrid is headed. Not among my favourite Byrds albums, nevertheless their version of "You Ain't Going Nowhere" is very fine (and I'm not usually a great fan of their Dylan interpretations), and the historical importance of "Sweetheart Of The Rodeo" is undeniable. And of course it led to Parsons (whose vocals were all but removed from the album due to contractual wrangles) forming The Flying Burrito Brothers and recording "The Gilded Palace Of Sin", the best country-rock album in the world...ever! Sonically Simply Vinyl's reissue misses out on the high distortion "Fifth Dimension" seems plagued with (although with its predominately acoustic instrumentation we might as well all give up and go home now if that weren't the case) without being the sort of release you'll be reaching for to check that all's well with your hi-fi. Still, loads of points to Simply Vinyl for being bothered to fill the gaps The Man's relentless short-termism has left behind - here's hoping they'll continue to do so for many years to come.

THE BYRDS Younger Than Yesterday (Sundazed)

Typical: you wait ages for a Byrds reissue series and then two come along together. If nothing else, Sundazed's remarkable efforts with these classic albums - following the format of Sony's recent remastered CDs in incorporating extra tracks, cover notes and photographs, presented as (so says the sticker on the cover) "high-definition, premium vinyl pressing for superior fidelity - the nicest thing you could ever do for your stylus" - expose Simply Vinyl's more expensive Byrds reissues as the shabby shambles I've secretly suspected they are. (In fact one supplier of audiophile vinyl I deal with has taken to printing a disclaimer in their catalogue to the effect that Simply Vinyl titles will only be exchanged in the case of a genuinely faulty pressing, rather than for reasons of 'poor sound quality', which doesn't exactly inspire confidence. No such qualms here: although "Younger Than Yesterday" doesn't sound fantastic, even in its spruced-up Sundazed best, that's probably more a reflection of the condition and quality of the original master tapes than any shortcomings on the part of these American psych reissue specialists.)

"Younger Than Yesterday" is often trumpeted as the finest of The Byrds' quietly influential mid-60s recordings, but for me it fails to better either "Fifth Dimension" or "The Notorious Byrd Brothers". It seems almost as though the immense diversity of styles the band attempt (and master) within the space of half-an-hour counts against the album's coherence, making it sound a little like a compilation. They flit between biting social commentary, straight-ahead folk-rock, Dylan, psychedelia, space-rock and country-rock without pausing for breath, spitting out classic song after classic song in the process. Here you'll find "So You Want To Be A Rock 'N' Roll Star", which has the measure of any of Ray Davies' insider-looking-out observations (and which features the sounds of screaming female Byrdmaniacs taped at a gig in Bournemouth, of all places!), one of their best Dylan covers in "My Back Pages", the source of the album's title, and three of their finest love songs ("Why", "Time Between" and David Crosby's immaculate "Everybody's Been Burned").

It seems churlish to quibble in the face of such meticulously assembled riches, but "Younger Than Yesterday" has always seemed a little less than the sum of its impressive parts to me, a good album made from ingredients capable of blending harmoniously to form a great one. It's still well worth hearing, though, and for collectors of Byrds vinyl Sundazed's reissues really are the bees knees.

THE BYRDS (Untitled) (Columbia)

This is an American re-issue of The Byrds’ ninth album, from 1971, a double which featured two sides of live recordings and two sides of studio tracks, as was popular at the time (c.f. "Wheels Of Fire" and "Ummagumma", for example). By this point in their development The Byrds appeared to be all but washed up: having invented - or at least been in the vicinity of the birth of - folk rock, space rock, raga rock, country rock and practically every other hybrid that dared take the beat combo format into uncharted sonic territory, they now consisted of one original member (guitarist Roger McGuinn), alongside Skip Battin (bass), Gene Parsons (drums) and Clarence White (guitar). Former members had sired critically or commercially successful bands such as the Crosby/Stills/Nash/Young axis and The Flying Burrito Brothers, and the Eagles were months away from repackaging their country-rock invention in a form fit for commercial exploitation.

Against quite considerable odds there’s an underlying drama to "(Untitled)". Starting with the live album, rough and noisy, unornamented workouts of some of their more famous moments from the past, the band sound sporadically wired. There’s the widescreen cinematic beauty of "Lover Of The Bayou", co-written by McGuinn and Jacques Levy (who collaborated with Bob Dylan on his epic "Desire" album), battered into shape by the ragged playing and McGuinn’s gruff, howling vocals. A few Dylan songs follow - the splenetic "Positively 4th Street" and the inevitable "Mr. Tambourine Man", and there are a couple of Byrds classics in the form of "So You Want To Be A Rock ‘N’ Roll Star" and a "Mr. Spaceman" that possesses only a passing acquaintance with the art of timekeeping - it really does begin to lurch painfully towards the end. Side two features sixteen - count ‘em! - minutes of surely one of their greatest contributions to rock, "Eight Miles High", an occasionally remarkable rendition that succeeds in taking the song back to its roots, making it more John Coltrane than Jefferson Airplane. The jagged, tumbling riff that launched acid rock (allegedly ‘similar’ to that of John Coltrane’s "India") makes a brief appearance early on in proceedings, before being swamped by all manner of riffage and improvisation - even a bass solo - until, after about fourteen minutes, McGuinn sings the first verse of those paranoid, addled lyrics (apparently written about London when seen from the air). The Byrds do jazz rock? Could’ve happened - there are moments here that could sit comfortably on Miles Davis albums of the time. Whether it improves the original is a moot point - I’d say not - but it’s a credit to how strong a song "Eight Miles High" is that it can withstand such stretching without ending up as a flabby, self-indulgent heap

Then there’s the studio album, which starts with the wonderful "Chestnut Mare". The band’s final British hit (it reached number 19), and, unsurprisingly given its narrative form, another Jacques Levy collaboration, it still has the rosy glow of a simpler, freer life about it, although the line where McGuinn suggests that the horse of the title will be "just like a wife" is still a little suspect. There’s a cover of Little Feat’s "Truck Stop Girl" (from their first album, released the same month as "(Untitled)" - McGuinn clearly still hot at talent-spotting), although this disappoints slightly by being played too straight; when Lowell George sings it you get the sly nudge-wink sensation that he knows how corny the plotline is. "Just A Season", yet another McGuinn/Levy track, seems to be a nostalgia-fest in a similar style to "Goin’ Back", and there’s a version of the traditional "Take A Whiff (On Me)", as recorded by Leadbelly for the Library of Congress decades earlier.

"(Untitled)" is not a terrific album, unlike earlier works such as "5D (Fifth Dimension)", "Younger Than Yesterday" or "The Notorious Byrd Brothers", which are cruelly ignored even today yet contain music that compares with the best The Beatles, The Stones or The Beach Boys had to offer during the 60s. It is, however, beguilingly honest, cooking up a take-no-prisoners electric storm one minute and working out the many filigree possible permutations of country-rock the next, touching on folk, blues and jazz along the way. Rock commentators often cite The Band as the ultimate synthesis of American musical culture and heritage, but, superb though they were, they were only ever curators, whilst The Byrds were innovators, they created, rather than just catalogued. A river runs through The Byrds’ music, not just the "cosmic American music" concept that former member Gram Parsons was fond of espousing, but the real feeling that this band were taking from the past to give to the future.

THE BYRDS Set You Free 1964-73 (Raven)

Another ingeniously compiled offering from Australian reissue specialists Raven, “Set You Free 1964-1973” purports to collate the best of Gene Clark’s work as a Byrd. The nascent roots of the searching, yearning songwriting he perfected on solo records such as “Gene Clark” and “No Other” can be easily determined here.

Perhaps the early tracks aren’t as revelatory as might be hoped, but the avowed purpose of these sessions, later released as the “Preflyte”album, was, according to Sid Griffin’s booklet notes (which appear to be mandatory on Gene Clark-related releases these days) “to whip them into rock ‘n’ rollers by taping them and letting themselves hear how awkward they sounded”. This unorthodox methodology appears to have achieved its purpose. “Please Let Me Love You” is all stilted Merseybeat crooning, and “Boston” can’t escape from under the influence of the Everly Brothers’ “The Girl Sang The Blues”. There’s an endearing clumsiness to their fumbling which makes the meteoric ascent that follows even more remarkable, covering the kind of distance in a year that took The Beatles twice as long, although to be fair to the fab four they were blazing an entirely new kind of career path for themselves.

That first post-“Preflyte” track is “I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better”, with which Clark immediately establishes himself as one of the premier songwriters of the beat group era, up there with Wilson, Dylan, Lennon/McCartney, Jagger/Richards or Davies. Sid points to the “use of the qualifier “probably”” – in the line “I’ll probably feel a whole lot better when you’re gone” – that “sets the whole song apart from its sound-alikes in the catalogs of Hollies, Beau Brummels, Searchers and Del Shannons”. I’d also suggest that the boy-deliberately-loses-girl storyline marks a swelling in the scope and importance of pop music. Tom Petty helmed a note-perfect cover on his fine “Full Moon Fever” album, but it’ll forever be outjangled by the original.

“She Don’t Care About Time” trumps this achievement almost immediately, influenced not so much by Bob Dylan as by “Another Side Of Bob Dylan”. Notice, too, the cheeky Rickenbackerisation of J.S. Bach’s “Jesu, Joy Of Man’s Desiring” during the guitar solo. The gravity-defying meltdown of “The World Turns All Around Her” rivals “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)” in the sexual comeuppance stakes. Bringing a hitherto unheard melancholia to the band’s sound, it covers a deal of ground in 130 seconds.

Perhaps the justification for Raven’s excavation of the work of an underappreciated talent rests on the fact that this compilation contains only one song that qualifies as anything like a hit for British audiences, yet that track – “Eight Miles High” – might be The Byrds’ finest three minutes. From the scrambled, Coltrane-aping guitar work to Clark’s blank, dispassionate yet sparingly evocative lyrics, can you imagine a record so daring reaching today’s top 30? At this point, Clark’s fear of flying overcame him, and he split.

After this, the 1970s material included here, drawn from various clandestine and official Byrds reunions, is inevitably something of an anti-climax. “One In A Hundred” is a rather stilted dry run for the version that would later grace Clark’s fabulous eponymous solo album. A cover of “Cowgirl In The Sand” is a surprising selection, this Eagles-like rendition being a world away from the raging 10 minute electric torrent of Neil Young’s original. The mood is utterly transformed, sunny harmonies chasing out almost all of the anticipated acidic bitterness. Nevertheless, it shows how The Byrds’ pioneering sound had been appropriated by younger bands, leaving them as followers not leaders.

Perhaps part of the unused 25 minutes on the disc could have been filled with some of the dozen or so other Clark compositions recorded by The Byrds, but otherwise “Set You Free 1964-73” is a fitting memorial to a talent whose achievements cant be trumpeted enough.

THE BYRDS Mr. Tambourine Man (Sundazed)

Maybe it helped to be there at the time but, for my money, The Byrds got a whole lot better when they moved out of Mr Dylan’s slipstream. Of course, with his songs they kickstarted an entire genre (one that Bob himself was of course also pioneering elsewhere in Columbia’s labs) but listen to their (or their substitute session musicians’) laboured, lysergic take on the title track and compare it with the joyous jangle of the following “I’ll Feel  A Whole Lot Better” and, well, really, which one would you want to take home?

Perhaps that’s what’s special about this album: it’s remarkable more for what it represents, and what it became, rather than for what it actually is. Imagine, for example, David Crosby, Gene Clark, Chris Hillman and Roger McGuinn actually fetching up in the same band! From this end of time’s telescope we’d call them a supergroup. Then there’s Gene Clark’s nascent songwriting talent: on “Here Without You” he gets grown-up and introspective months ahead of John Lennon on the “Help!” album. “We’ll Meet Again” seems an odd cover choice until you note the dedication to Peter Sellers, Stanley Kubrick and Slim Pickens, and “The Bells Of Rhymney” digs (no pun intended, honestly) a little deeper into their folk-rock roots. Here it demonstrates a floaty otherness that, alongside the sleevenote revelation that Hillman had been known to play Coltrane solos on the mandolin, anticipates the cultural clusterbomb of “Eight Miles High”, still a year away at the time of the album’s release.

Sundazed’s mono vinyl edition of “Mr. Tambourine Man” cleaves as closely as possible to the original US edition, labels, mixes, mastering, artwork and all. Not being some kind of crazed single-eared stereo denier (although I’d love to hear the imminent remastered mono Beatles box set to determine whether it’ll enable me to finally enjoy the bulk of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”, which, according to Lennon, you haven’t heard until you’ve heard it in mono) my acquisition of the mono version over the stereo pressing was more down to random selection by my vinyl supplier. However, with some Byrdmaniacs deploring the laissez-faire attitude taken by certain reissues, there’s apparently a healthy market for those who prize such authenticity. I do like the sleeve’s affirmation that “you can purchase this record with no fear of it becoming obsolete in the future”. Now there’s a heartwarming, and to date entirely truthful, statement.

Gene Clark

Crosby, Stills & Nash

The Flying Burrito Bros

International Submarine Band

Gram Parsons