Tag Archives: The Byrds

ROCK ‘N READ: THE WRECKING CREW

Kent Hartman’s book The Wrecking Crew is one of those books I’d heard a lot about and had been meaning to read for a long time.  Well, I finally got off my duff and read it, and I’m glad I did.  The book is about the dirty little secret of 1960’s music industry wherein a group of ultra-talent studio musicians secretly played on a great majority of rock ‘n roll records.  This group, known as The Wrecking Crew, was not credited on the liner notes of the records they played. Thus, the public was none the wiser that it wasn’t their favorite band playing on their records.

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The Monkees are a well-known example of a band that used The Wrecking Crew.  People perhaps unfairly give The Monkees a hard time because they weren’t playing their own instruments.  Well it turns out, there was a lot of that going around in the 1960’s.   Bands you might not expect, like The Byrds, used The Wrecking Crew.  Record labels had two motivations for using The Wrecking Crew over the actual bands, although really both reasons just come down to money.

The first reason a separate band was used due to simple logistics.  Bands out on tour would have to stop touring in order to venture back into the studio and record.  The Wrecking Crew acted as the recording band, while the band the band’s public face remained on the road.  Secondly, The Wrecking Crew, and musicians like them, were used because a majority of rockers couldn’t play their instruments very well.  At the time, record companies looked down on rock music, and didn’t understand it.  They treated rock recordings like they did jazz or classical music and thought the recordings should be perfect.  Hence, The Wrecking Crew was brought in.

Hartman’s book focuses on a handful of Wrecking Crew musicians, chiefly the more famous members like drummer Hal Blaine, Carol Kaye, Leon Russell, and Glen Campbell.  I was really surprised to find out that Glen “Rhinestone Cowboy” Campbell was a highly respected guitarist prior to hitting it big with his solo career.  I knew he’d essentially joined The Beach Boys touring band, but I had no idea he played on most of the top hits for the 1960’s.  The Wrecking Crew were all over the radio, playing on hits by diverse acts such as The Mamas & The Papas, Frank Sinatra, The Beach Boys, Dean Martin, Sonny & Cher, Simon & Garfunkel, and The Byrds.

It’s unnerving how the Wrecking Crew, while highly paid, weren’t credited for playing on the records they worked on.  Had I been writing about music at the time (as a fan), I would have foolishly thought The Monkees were playing their own instruments.  As I read the book, I kept waiting for the public to find out and become outraged, but that never happened.  Instead, what ended up happening was that as rock evolved a more authentic, rough sound was prized making the technically superior Wrecking Crew unneeded.   The Beatles also had something to do with the demise of the practice of studio musicians subbing for the actual band.  After the Fab Four hit it big, most bands wanted to write and play your own instruments.

The Wrecking Crew is an interesting read but I found the structure of the book somewhat clumsy. Rather use a straight chronological framework Hartman jumps back and forth through time.  The chapters themselves follow a chronology, but within each one Hartman tends of pick a player and give us his back story, which often gives us information we either already know or will be told again in another chapter.  It’s a little nit-pick, but I guess I would have preferred one chapter where we just got everyone’s backstory out-of-the-way, then moved on with the various recordings.  Also, the Wrecking Crew was a pretty large group of people, but the book really only focuses on a few, which was a little disappointing.  I realize not everyone is going to be as interested in the Wrecking Crew’s trumpet players than say, their drummers, but I would have liked a little more diversity in the band members as the book is mainly about guitarists and drummers.

I found it interesting how collaborative the recording process was as time and again members of the Wrecking Crew wound up actually contributing to the writing of songs as well as playing.  I was really surprised when this happened in the chapter devoted to the recording of Simon & Garfunkel’s BRIDGE OVER TROUBLED WATER album.  I still can’t believe that such talented, famous artists would allow regular working-musicians to tinker with their albums.  But time and again Hartman shows us that The Wrecking Crew were more than just musicians, they were the best hired guns in the business.

The book recounts some really interesting nuggets of rock trivia, and is chock-full of juicy insider tidbits.  Most of the really interesting chapters revolve around producer Phil Spector and Brian Wilson, two titans of the studio who really used The Wrecking Crew to their full potential.  The Wrecking Crew is brimming with really interesting anecdotes.  Some of my favorite from the book are:

  • Leon Russell getting pulled over in his new Cadillac by the LAPD and being told to get a “real” job (he was making way more than the cop).
  • Phil Spector’s bodyguards using hand signals to let an angry musician know that Phil had a gun in the studio.                                                                    
  • Unsure how to end “Layla” Eric Clapton overheard drummer Jim Gordon noodling on the piano and decided to use the drummer’s mini-composition to close out the song.  Gordon later when nuts and murdered his mom—that’s write, the guy playing piano at the end of “Layla” stabbed his mother to death.

I highly recommend The Wrecking Crew to anyone with even a passing interest in early rock music and the music business of the 1960’s. The book’s a nice, quick read and would make a great gift for any music fan.

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Classic Albums Revisited: MR. TAMBOURINE MAN

I feel bad, but I’m afraid there is no way to discuss The Byrds–especially early Byrds–without talking about Bob Dylan. I just don’t think it can be done. So, before I get into the Dylan-ness of this record, let me talk about The Byrds themselves as a band. The Byrds formed in 1964 in sunny California. At that time the British Invasion was in full swing. What made The Byrds so interesting is that they combined the British rock sound with American folk music. In doing so, they pretty much paved the way for what we consider modern folk music–Joni Mitchell, Gordon Lightfoot, and Neil Young (along with pretty much all the singer-songwriter types from the 1970s “folk boom”) owe The Byrds a huge debt. At the same time, the band was pretty influential on the rock scene as well, without The Byrds there would be no Tom Petty.

Byrds with a fisheye.

What’s so interesting about The Byrd (among other things) were all the various changes they made throughout their short existence (going from the folk-rock, electric Dylan covers to “Eight Miles High” THE first psychedelic rock song)  and the impact those changes had on a borad spectrum of artists.

The secret to their success was  their harmonies (of course) and Bob Dylan. The band’s first commercial hit was a cover of Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Dylan is a super-gifted songwriter, but unfortunately sounds exactly like a Muppet. This “Muppet-sound” tends to turn off a lot of people and doesn’t always best serve the song.  I’m a huge Dylan fan, don’t get me wrong, I love his croak but I know that I am in the minority.  Anyway,  beyond  having a better, more commercially palatable vocal arrangement, The Byrds also had a knack for interpreting Dylan’s songs, NOT just covering them. I believe there is a difference. A “cover” is just that, one artist playing another’s song–usually note-for-note.  The Byrds didn’t do this; instead they took a great fucking song, “Mr. Tambourine Man” and made it electric (with shiny, bouncy electric tones). They added layers of harmony. Listen to Dylan’s version and The Byrds, one right after the other…and it’s seems like barely the same song. Both are good (some will always prefer the author’s version because it’s the most “pure” or whatever, me I’ve out-grown such pretension) and both have the same level of merit–a sure sign that you’ve got a good, artistically executed interpretation on your hands.

With the success of “Mr. Tambourine Man” came an album–MR. TAMBOURINE MAN, this seems to me to be more of a  “if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it” mentality cooked up by some record label suits but I could be wrong.   Besides the title track, the band also covers Dylan’s “Spanish Harlem Incident,” “All I Really Want To Do,” and “Chimes of Freedom.” There are other notable, non-Dylan covers on MR. TAMBOURINE MAN include “We’ll Meet Again” (remember that song? It was used ironically at the end of the Peter Seller’s comedy/farce DR. STRANGELOVE) and “The Bells of Rhymney.”

But it’s the Dylan covers that really wow me,  they’re all brilliant. I especially love “All I Really Want To Do,” a track the band injects with a much needed dose of levity. Dylan’s version is so damn bare-bones, and Dylan’s yodel-wail is a little bit…much (almost to the point of self-parody). The Byrds give a more energetic version. Dylan’s midnight-dark satire of a failing marriage goes down much smoother with The Byrds (hell, it almost sounds like a love song).

What surprised me most about MR. TAMBOURINE MAN was how strong the band’s original compositions are. Gene Clark’s “I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better” is my personal favorite track–of the whole record (Dylan covers included). The band’s songwriting, while still in it’s early stages, was strong enough to compete with such a legendary song-smith. “You Won’t Have To Cry” and “It’s No Use” are likewise able to hold their own with Dylan’s songs.  Though MR. TAMBOURINE MAN has only hints of the work the band’s later (some might argue greater) work, I find this record to be thoroughly enjoyable and uncluttered with the excess of the later, “trippier” recordings. Unlike a lot of bands from this period, work The Byrds did on this album stands the test of time.

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Roger McGuinn on NPR

So what did I hear today when I turned on NPR during my lunchbreak? Roger McGuinn of The Byrds talking about (among other things) Gram Parsons! McGuinn was on Talk of the Nation promoting his website and his efforts to preserve classic folk music.

National Prettyawesome Radio

You can listen to the segment here.

I recommend giving it a listen.  He tells an anecdote about having Parsons try-out for The Byrds by playing some jazz piano (!) and also has a pretty badass story about the difficulties of covering Dylan accurately.  It’s pretty amazing the stories these old warhorses have…check it out.

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NUGGETS and The Dukes of Stratosphear

Psychedelic. What does that word kick up in your mind? Drugs. Drugs that make you see bright, shiny, other-worldly colors. Back in 1960’s, when LSD was “discovered” popular music was altered (for the better in my opinion) when artists began experimenting in the studio to create songs that recreated and enhanced the “trippy” effect LSD gave it’s users. I have no interest in going on a real-life, honest-to-God psychedelic journey…but I’m always ready to dip my mind in the vibrant colors of psychedelic music. Back in 1972, near the end of the “Psychedelic Era,” a dude named Jac Holzman at Elektra Records assembled one of the greatest collections of American and British Psych-rock/pop. The 2-LP was called NUGGETS: ORIGINAL ARTYFACTS FROM THE FIRST PSYCHEDELIC ERA 1965-1968. Anyone wishing to earn a million-bajillion brownie points with me can do so by tracking this thing down and buying it for me…

Nuggets. Get your rainbow-shimmering dipping sauce ready...

Anyway, NUGGETS didn’t feature any bands that today are very well known…in fact, one of the reasons Holzman put NUGGETS out was to preserve these rare gems (or “nuggets”) of great 60’s music before they were lost to the ages. Despite being a bit random and obscure, this box-set influenced a shit-load of musicians (and critics).

One-hit-wonders have always fascinated me. I could, in fact, write a whole blog post about that strange musical phenomenon, but instead my focus is The Dukes of Stratosphear.

Flash forward from the 1960s, past 1972 and NUGGETS…all the way to 1980’s. The eighties music scene did not look kindly on the 1960s. The era of excess, for the most part, rejected the idealism of 60s–and psychedelic music. Which is why British rockers XTC probably adopted the guise of “The Dukes of Stratosphear.” Already heavily influenced by classic 60’s English pop, XTC admitted to being fans of The Beatles in a time when The Clash were pissing on the Fab Four (and selling lots of records). Going against the grain, XTC released two EP’s that hearkened back to an earlier, “trippier” time–1985’s 25 O’CLOCK and 1987’s PSONIC PSUNSPOT.

CHIPS FROM THE CHOCOLATE FIREBALL is a 1987 CD-only compilation that combines both shorter records into one larger package. Consisting of sixteen short, strange tracks, CHIPS is a great band both aping and embracing the music they grew up loving. Under the moniker of The Dukes, XTC imitate the styles of The Byrds, The Hollies, The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Jefferson Airplane, and yes…Iron Butterfly.

Lots and lots of Iron Butterfly. You know Iron Butterfly from their one (and only) great song “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.” That song featured a shit-ton of hypnotic organ playing. That’s the sort of thing found of CHIPS FROM THE CHOCOLATE FIREBALL. Except it’s not annoying. The record has a a lot of ALICE AND WONDERLAND-like spoken word bits in between tracks. It’s all really freaky man. Really freaky.

25 O'Clock, time to put up your DUKES.

25 O’CLOCK was released on April Fool’s Day, so this stuff is not meant to be taken seriously–however it’s hard to listen to the the Pink Floyd-eque “Bike Ride to the Moon” and not be impressed. Sure, it sounds like a Pink Floyd rip-off…but have you ever tried writing a Pink Floyd song? It’s not easy. Hell, Pink Floyd can’t even write Pink Floyd song anymore. I guess what I’m saying is, it would be wrong to dismiss this record on the basis that the songs are so derivative.

Consider, for example, The Hollies-influenced “Vanishing Girl.” This song has all the trademarks of The Hollies…the distinctive vocal harmonies, the jangly 60’s guitar flourishes, the intricate story-like lyrics. This song sounds like it was recorded in the 1960s. You could go back in time and play it on the radio, and not only would it sound of the era–it would have been a hit. Sure, it’s unlikely that the song could exist without The Hollies…

This is the case for many of the albums more memorable songs. “Brainiac’s Daughter” is a whimsical ode to the daughter of Superman’s nemesis that’s very similar to Paul McCartney’s 1975 B-Side “Magneto and Titanium Man” (both songs are wacky with lyrics that reflect the songwriters rather shallow understanding of their comic book subject matter–Brainiac has no daughter). Though it’s a bit too cute for it’s own good, the song works for me only because it’s so far “out there” with it’s psuedo-vaudevillian sensibility. Like “When I’m 64” it’s a throw-back to a throw-back.

While “Brainiac’s Daughter” may very simple, repetitious lyrics, a particularly clever set of lyrics on “You’re My Drug” (Byrds-style song) really showcase how versatile the Andy Partridge and company were at adapting differing styles of psychedelic music. Bouncing between American and British psych-rock can’t be easy. Compare the frenetic, bouncy roller coaster that is “You’re My Drug” to the Beach Boys-inspired “Pale and Precious” and it’s hard to believe they were composed by the same band (let alone performed by the same men in the same time frame).

The material from 25 O’CLOCK sounds nothing like XTC or 80’s music. This cannot be said of all the songs from PSONIC PSUNSPOT. “Have You Seen Jackie?” and “Little Lighthouse” sound a bit too polished, a bit too modern…here The Dukes drop their false beards and XTC shine though–not that it’s a bad thing but some of the magic is lost towards the end of the record. I would say about 85% of this record is perfect, and totally captures the spirit of the 60’s track they’re mean to emulate/pay homage to.

Many critics regard CHIPS FROM THE CHOCOLATE FIREBALL to be the best work from the musicians in XTC. The argument made is that by using another name (The Dukes…) the band felt free to experiment more and were generally more relaxed. I disagree with this partially. XTC is a great band, whose last two records were an amazing capstone to a storied career. That said, The Dukes of Stratosphear recordings were an astonishing feat of musicianship. The attention to detail and history that went into these songs are top notch.

I’m not the only one that feels this way. In August of 2005 Rhino Records released a four disc box-set titled CHILDREN OF NUGGETS: ORIGINAL ARTYFACTS FROM THE SECOND PSYCHEDELIC ERA 1976-1995. Among the many artists in the psychedelic/garage rock world included on this new compilation, were The Dukes of Stratosphear. In fact, “Vanishing Girl” is the first song on the first disc.

This inclusion on the “second generation” of NUGGETS is a fitting tribute to such an interesting band/project.

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NUGGETS and The Dukes of Stratosphear

Psychedelic. What does that word kick up in your mind? Drugs. Drugs that make you see bright, shiny, other-worldly colors. Back in 1960’s, when LSD was “discovered” popular music was altered (for the better in my opinion) when artists began experimenting in the studio to create songs that recreated and enhanced the “trippy” effect LSD gave it’s users. I have no interest in going on a real-life, honest-to-God psychedelic journey…but I’m always ready to dip my mind in the vibrant colors of psychedelic music. Back in 1972, near the end of the “Psychedelic Era,” a dude named Jac Holzman at Elektra Records assembled one of the greatest collections of American and British Psych-rock/pop. The 2-LP was called NUGGETS: ORIGINAL ARTYFACTS FROM THE FIRST PSYCHEDELIC ERA 1965-1968. Anyone wishing to earn a million-bajillion brownie points with me can do so by tracking this thing down and buying it for me…

Nuggets. Get your rainbow-shimmering dipping sauce ready...

Anyway, NUGGETS didn’t feature any bands that today are very well known…in fact, one of the reasons Holzman put NUGGETS out was to preserve these rare gems (or “nuggets”) of great 60’s music before they were lost to the ages. Despite being a bit random and obscure, this box-set influenced a shit-load of musicians (and critics).

One-hit-wonders have always fascinated me. I could, in fact, write a whole blog post about that strange musical phenomenon, but instead my focus is The Dukes of Stratosphear.

Flash forward from the 1960s, past 1972 and NUGGETS…all the way to 1980’s. The eighties music scene did not look kindly on the 1960s. The era of excess, for the most part, rejected the idealism of 60s–and psychedelic music. Which is why British rockers XTC probably adopted the guise of “The Dukes of Stratosphear.” Already heavily influenced by classic 60’s English pop, XTC admitted to being fans of The Beatles in a time when The Clash were pissing on the Fab Four (and selling lots of records). Going against the grain, XTC released two EP’s that hearkened back to an earlier, “trippier” time–1985’s 25 O’CLOCK and 1987’s PSONIC PSUNSPOT.

CHIPS FROM THE CHOCOLATE FIREBALL is a 1987 CD-only compilation that combines both shorter records into one larger package. Consisting of sixteen short, strange tracks, CHIPS is a great band both aping and embracing the music they grew up loving. Under the moniker of The Dukes, XTC imitate the styles of The Byrds, The Hollies, The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Jefferson Airplane, and yes…Iron Butterfly.

Lots and lots of Iron Butterfly. You know Iron Butterfly from their one (and only) great song “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.” That song featured a shit-ton of hypnotic organ playing. That’s the sort of thing found of CHIPS FROM THE CHOCOLATE FIREBALL. Except it’s not annoying. The record has a a lot of ALICE AND WONDERLAND-like spoken word bits in between tracks. It’s all really freaky man. Really freaky.

25 O'Clock, time to put up your DUKES.

25 O’CLOCK was released on April Fool’s Day, so this stuff is not meant to be taken seriously–however it’s hard to listen to the the Pink Floyd-eque “Bike Ride to the Moon” and not be impressed. Sure, it sounds like a Pink Floyd rip-off…but have you ever tried writing a Pink Floyd song? It’s not easy. Hell, Pink Floyd can’t even write Pink Floyd song anymore. I guess what I’m saying is, it would be wrong to dismiss this record on the basis that the songs are so derivative.

Consider, for example, The Hollies-influenced “Vanishing Girl.” This song has all the trademarks of The Hollies…the distinctive vocal harmonies, the jangly 60’s guitar flourishes, the intricate story-like lyrics. This song sounds like it was recorded in the 1960s. You could go back in time and play it on the radio, and not only would it sound of the era–it would have been a hit. Sure, it’s unlikely that the song could exist without The Hollies…

This is the case for many of the albums more memorable songs. “Brainiac’s Daughter” is a whimsical ode to the daughter of Superman’s nemesis that’s very similar to Paul McCartney’s 1975 B-Side “Magneto and Titanium Man” (both songs are wacky with lyrics that reflect the songwriters rather shallow understanding of their comic book subject matter–Brainiac has no daughter). Though it’s a bit too cute for it’s own good, the song works for me only because it’s so far “out there” with it’s psuedo-vaudevillian sensibility. Like “When I’m 64” it’s a throw-back to a throw-back.

While “Brainiac’s Daughter” may very simple, repetitious lyrics, a particularly clever set of lyrics on “You’re My Drug” (Byrds-style song) really showcase how versatile the Andy Partridge and company were at adapting differing styles of psychedelic music. Bouncing between American and British psych-rock can’t be easy. Compare the frenetic, bouncy roller coaster that is “You’re My Drug” to the Beach Boys-inspired “Pale and Precious” and it’s hard to believe they were composed by the same band (let alone performed by the same men in the same time frame).

The material from 25 O’CLOCK sounds nothing like XTC or 80’s music. This cannot be said of all the songs from PSONIC PSUNSPOT. “Have You Seen Jackie?” and “Little Lighthouse” sound a bit too polished, a bit too modern…here The Dukes drop their false beards and XTC shine though–not that it’s a bad thing but some of the magic is lost towards the end of the record. I would say about 85% of this record is perfect, and totally captures the spirit of the 60’s track they’re mean to emulate/pay homage to.

Many critics regard CHIPS FROM THE CHOCOLATE FIREBALL to be the best work from the musicians in XTC. The argument made is that by using another name (The Dukes…) the band felt free to experiment more and were generally more relaxed. I disagree with this partially. XTC is a great band, whose last two records were an amazing capstone to a storied career. That said, The Dukes of Stratosphear recordings were an astonishing feat of musicianship. The attention to detail and history that went into these songs are top notch.

I’m not the only one that feels this way. In August of 2005 Rhino Records released a four disc box-set titled CHILDREN OF NUGGETS: ORIGINAL ARTYFACTS FROM THE SECOND PSYCHEDELIC ERA 1976-1995. Among the many artists in the psychedelic/garage rock world included on this new compilation, were The Dukes of Stratosphear. In fact, “Vanishing Girl” is the first song on the first disc.

This inclusion on the “second generation” of NUGGETS is a fitting tribute to such an interesting band/project.

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