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Liner Notables #5: The Byrds’ Greatest Hits

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Why, it seems like only yesterday [cue harp and wavy, out-of-focus visuals] when you could pore over an album's liner notes and not have to squint to garner an embarrassment of riches and a treasure trove of tidbits…  

Liner notes are almost obligatory for greatest hits albums. Aimed largely at the frugal or fence-sitting non-purist who most likely doesn’t have the full set of original albums (these were the days before “bonus tracks”), they serve to offer a square-one introduction to the band and a broad, refresher-course chronicling of up-to-date recording history and musical highlights.

And, try as he or she might, the liner note writer tries not to sound stupid in the process – although I suppose it is difficult to know what will pass for timeless universality decades hence. Which slang terms or hip ‘n’ happenin’ jargon attained far-out grooviness for the kids those days with the long hair and the beads? What pop-music patois can safely be retained that will both satisfy contemporary faddists and fulfill the standards for the more discerning edification of future generations?

It’s an important consideration for the Byrds, who displayed, even early on, a staying power — in influence if not in sustaining stability as a group — that would surely sustain a legacy beyond their 1965-68 heyday of hits and musical vision.

Dave Swaney, presumably a Columbia Records copywriter, performs a pretty good generational balancing act on The Byrds' Greatest Hits from 1967, teetering between mundane corporate responsibility in prodding the record buyer to purchase the four albums from which this best-of borrowed, but dangerously tottering here and there into freak flag-osity. It might have been half-mast in '60s spirit but it wasn‘t half-hearted as Swaney seeks salutes from the early Byrds fans in “all of West Coast hippiedom” from "Big Sur camps” to Mexican communes to “Mojave anonymities.”

In one bombastic and forced non-sequitur, Swaney duly notes how the Byrds’ harmony-rich jingle-jangle folk-rock “helped turn the whole pop music scene around.” Then: “Were they conservative then? Or now?” Or what? Something’s happenin’ here, what it is ain’t exactly clear.

“Whatever,” Swaney continues without missing a beat, “their thing was beautiful and heavy and will be as it is. Lasting.” Lasting. Nice touch – heavy, even.

In addition to the compulsory reference to “Mr. Tambourine Man” “for those who laughed up their sleeves and for those who dug it straight,” Swaney subtly establishes his druggy eight miles high-style counter-culture credentials further when he describes the scene as thousands show up for the Byrds appearances at Los Angeles’ Palladium “where an enormous caricature of Lawrence Welk slowly waving a giant baton greeted everyone and the rent-a-cops wondered how everyone could be so happy and have such fun on Coca-Cola and lemonade.”

Swaney leaves behind the hazy allusions and connects the dots a little better when it comes to name-dropping, especially when it comes to… oh say, perhaps… the fab four and a certain spokesman for his generation! “The Beatles were quoted as saying” — you can almost imagine the breathless onrush of emotion — “their favorite American group was The Byrds; Dylan got onstage with them at Ciro’s to blow his harp straight into the dancing melee below.” All this as David “If I Could Only Remember My Name” Crosby “smiled benignly at the whole scene.”

In a more maligning and hipper-than-thou swipe, however, the whole scene was spurred by someone — some establishment type, no doubt — “in the label department of ‘Billboard’” who came up with the term folk-rock “so that everyone would know what was going down in case they didn’t want to think about it too much.”

Because apparently the great thinkers of the world were street-fightin’ men, as Swaney inanely notes: “Off the hot streets of Los Angeles, even as other revolutions were finally gaining notice a few miles south in Watts,” McGuinn and the boys were in a darkened studio busy in the task “of reaching into millions of homes, cars, dormitories, coffee shops, bars, bordellos, prisons, camps, insane asylums – minds.

Minds. Nice touch – heavy, even.

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About Gordon Hauptfleisch

  • Vern Halen

    Revisionist history time – the Byrds were in many ways the US equivalent of the Beatles. But the Beatles went all the way with the Original Fab Four (add Ringo; lose Pete), whilst the Byrds had a lineup variation every second album or so. What if the original Fantastic Five Byrds had hung together through to 1970 or so? From the evidence on the first few albums (up to Notorious Byrd Brothers) they seemed to be running practically on the Beatles’ heels in the songwriting & innovation departments. After they decided to be a country rock outfit, they weren’t really much part of the big picture anymore, regardless of how one feels about the quality of their output.

    I guess Greatest Hits packages like this just highlight the promise they had – in my opinion, the Byrds were much more the great American band of the mid 60’s than that other California act, the Beach Boys (although all votes for the Velvet Underground will be accepted at this particular polling station).

  • http://www.gohah.blogspot.com Gordon Hauptfleisch

    Thanks Vern, good points. But do points get taken off in the “songwriting” department because a good chunk of the Byrds hits/songs were by Dylan (and Pete Seeger’s “Turn, Turn, Turn”)? McGuinn’s amazing “Eight Miles High,” though, makes up for a lot.

    Incidentally, I think it’s somewhat criminal that Gene Clark’s “Set You Free This Time” didn’t make it on the Greatest Hits. Sure, it didn’t climb to the Top 10, but others on this best-of didn’t either. Clark seems to be an under-appreciated member–he wrote a lot of their early stuff before he left the band.

  • Vern Halen

    Naw – they GET points for introducing Dylan tunes to the mainstream AM radio audience.
    Crosby, McGuinn, Gene Clark & Chrisi Hillman were all decent writers and each had their moments on each album. Don’t forget – the Beatles covered Larry Williams & other Stateside rockers in their early days too.

  • http://www.gohah.blogspot.com Gordon Hauptfleisch

    Okay, Vern, but when it comes to introducing Dylan songs, don’t forget about Dino, Desi & Billy’s scathing covers of “Like A Rolling Stone,” “It Ain’t Me Babe,” “Mr. Tambourine Man,” and “Chimes of Freedom”–all on their first 1965 album “I’m A Fool.”

  • http://pessimistplace.blugginout.com/ Realist

    Remember also – they were the only band that successfully made a twelve-string guitar a staple lead rock instrument. Eight Miles High without that Rickenbacker 370/12 just wouldn’t be the same!

  • http://www.gohah.blogspot.com Gordon Hauptfleisch

    Thanks, Realist: And McGuinn, playing that 12-string, looked pretty cool with those granny glasses.