Roger McQuinn

Make Mine a Double #25: The Byrds’ “Untitled” (1970)

The Byrds’ place in the pop music pantheon is secure. Their folk-rock innovations of the mid to late Sixties have reverberated all the way to the present, informing genres like college rock and Americana. Their popularization of Bob Dylan’s music, and psychedelic excursions like “Eight Miles High,” were to play a big part in broadening the scope of musical and lyrical content in that decade.

Recent music documentaries have solidified the Byrds’ status: the poster for 2019’s “Echo in the Canyon,” hosted by Bob’s son Jakob Dylan, features the iconic 12-string Rickenbacker of head Byrd Roger McGuinn that conjured their famous (and much imitated) jangly guitar sound. 

By the end of the Sixties, the Byrds were coming out of a long transitional period. Vital founding members Gene Clark, David Crosby and Chris Hillman had flown the coop (if you will), migrating to solo projects or forming other groups in the expanding L.A. music scene. By 1970 they had settled on a quartet with McQuinn, ace guitarist Clarence White, drummer Gene Parsons and bassist Skip Battin. One big difference of this group was its more muscular sound. For the first time perhaps, the Byrds were a true concert attraction and so was fitting that for the band’s first double album, sides one and two were live recordings.

The album kicks off impressively with “Lover of the Bayou,” a new song by McQuinn and NY-based songwriter and stage director Jacques Levy that was part of a proposed musical they were working on at the time (more on that shortly). This ain’t your kid sister’s Byrds. The atmosphere is edgy, the guitars use distortion and the rhythm section is more muscular. McQuinn sings in a gruff voice that is unfamiliar but fitting for this somewhat menacing 1st person tale of a backwater baddie who “cooked the bat in a gumbo pan/and drank the blood from a rusty can.” He may also be a gun-runner but since the play was never produced we may never find out. What is certain is that this high-powered lineup, esp. considering Clarence White’s standout lead guitar, is tailor made for the louder and more ritualized concert experience taking shape at that time.

The Byrds circa 1970. L to R: Roger McQuinn, Skip Battin, Clarence White and Gene Parsons.

The rest of side one covers more familiar ground. There are two Dylan covers (“Positively 4th Street” and their famous “Mr. Tambourine Man”), an electrified hoedown (“Nashville West”), and savvy re-readings of “So You Want to be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star” and “Mr. Spaceman.” All are spiritedly performed and appreciated by the audience at the two New York City gigs where they were taped. But for many the real high point came when they flipped the record over and were presented with a 16-minute jam based on “Eight Miles High.” Nobody would mistake the Byrds for the Allman Brothers Band when it came to improvisational excursions, but this jam cooks.

The listener is pulled in with a fade-up and McQuinn plays that 4-note intro motif, one of the most memorable signifying sounds of the acid-rock era, and launches into a double-down version of his famous splintered Rickenbacker solo, the band already in high gear. White follows with a torrid solo of his own and gives way to a combined bass/drum solo which, contrary to popular expectations, is a highlight of the piece. Famed rock scribe Lester Bangs, in his Rolling Stone review, was all over this track, describing a “fine series of taut dervish interplays” and suggested that more music like this would return the Byrds to the “rock vanguard.” The intensity of this jam in fact feels like a classic bebop improv (McQuinn says his “Eight Miles” solo was inspired by John Coltrane). The whole band comes back together to build it to a climax before suddenly singing the song’s first verse (much to the crowd’s delight) and steer it straight to the big rock ending it deserves.

The studio half kicks off with “Chestnut Mare,” another song co-written with Levy. Their planned musical, a resetting of Henrik Ibsen’s play “Peer Gynt” in the American West which, via an anagram, was to be called “Gene Tryp.” This likely would have been a highlight, it’s a radiant country-rock rondo about a cowboy’s pursuit of a wild horse. With its talking verses, soaring chorus and shimmering guitar fills, its more cinematic than stage bound esp. in the song’s mesmeric middle section, highlighted by the two of them magically floating above a “bottomless canyon.” The sparkling sound (“as clear as a Viewmaster slide of the Big Sur pine cliffs,” Bangs noted) harkened back to the Byrds’ 1965-68 heyday. “Chestnut Mare” became an American FM favorite and a Top 20 hit in the U.K.

The other two McQuinn-Levy numbers seem to look back ruefully on that period. “All the Things” (“I want today are all the things I wasted on the way”) and “Just a Season” have a distinct end-of-Sixties vibe while going for the classic sound of past hits like “Turn, Turn, Turn.” The last verse is a real kicker:

“Shouting crowds and mummer’s shrouds and people going crazy
Always said what was in their heads it surely was amazing
I had my fun in the bull ring and never got a scar
It really wasn’t hard to be a star.”

Most of rest of the studio tracks are fair to pretty good and all band members get a chance to sing and write. The material is fine but I think they suffer somewhat from being too casually performed and/or too inconsistently produced (behind the boards were longtime band associates Terry Melcher and Jim Dickson). Gene Parson’s “Yesterday’s Train” could have been a cool bonus track from the Band, Clarence White’s dolorous vocal on the cover of Little Feat’s 18-wheel tragedy “Truck Stop Girl” is truly poignant, and the lyrics of the gritty ecological blues “Hungry Planet” should have been required reading from Day One.

(Untitled) concludes with Skip Battin’s cryptic “Well Come Back Home.” Clocking in at 7:40, it’s the longest studio track the Byrds’ ever recorded, and one of the strangest as well. Battin wrote it about a high-school friend who was killed in Vietnam, but the lyric never mentions the war. The tone is both elegiac and assuring, playing off the subtle difference between “well come back home” and “welcome back home.” About half-way thru, the song shifts into an Oriental timbre and, on a bed of chiming guitars and Parson’s tireless drum fills, the “Nam-myoho-renge-kyo” chant of Nichiren Buddhism starts up. In continues in various bizarre iterations as the music’s momentum builds and rides the song right off the end of the record.

Music fans who appreciate a band willing to stretch out and try new things would appreciate the idiosyncrasies of an album like this. While Lester Bangs (who was an astute critic as well as a celebrated loose cannon) acknowledged the Byrds’ taste for experimentation, also opined that it was to try and “rejuvenate a beloved but declining institution.” He wasn’t wrong; this line-up stayed together for two more albums and, after a so-so reunion record with the original line-up, the Byrds were no more. The sound they pioneered would be streamlined (stripped down for parts, some may say) by bands like the Eagles and Pure Prairie League. But as I said up top, the positive impact of their legacy can be seen all around, starting with the appropriately titled Time Between, the 1989 tribute album featuring such talented admirers as Robyn Hitchcock, Richard Thompson, Dinosaur Jr., Thin White Rope, the Chills and Miracle Legion.