The new Uncut’s only been on sale since the end of last week, but there’s already been a fair amount of correspondence about our cover story on The Byrds. Most of it’s been about our Top 20 countdown of The Byrds’s greatest tracks. You were broadly in agreement with what was included, but many of you wondered aloud at certain omissions – “Chestnut Mare” was particularly missed by many, including me it must be said.
To make it clear, the tracks on the Top 20 were voted for by the artists we approached who we knew were big Byrds fans, and much to my surprise none of them went for that particular late classic from (Untitled). The Clarence White-era Byrds were in fact, in your general opinion, quite woefully unrepresented.
And in answer to several reader emails, yes, I do know how good that line-up of The Byrds was. I saw them at Bristol’s Colston Hall in 1971, when the highlight of a brilliant set was the extended version of “Eight Miles High”. They truly blew my mind that night.
Anyway, there’ll be more from Uncut readers about The Byrds and what was and what wasn’t included in our Top 20 in the next issue. In the meantime, among the artists we spoke to about their favourite Byrds songs was Brett Rademaker of Beachwood Sparks, a band who owe a conspicuous debt to The Byrds. It turned out that Brett’s favourite album is The Notorious Byrd Brothers. So as well as waxing lyrical about “Lady Friend”, the 1967 single penned and mostly performed by David Crosby, he was so keen to tell us about how he discovered the album and the impact it had on him that he wrote the following piece for us, which I thought I’d share with you.
Have a good week.
The Notorious Byrd Brothers
Most records that “change your life” don’t literally change your life, for me this one really did. Here’s how.
I first bought The Notorious Byrd Brothers on cassette in 1985 in Tampa, Florida at a thrift shop. I had been a fan of everything I had ever heard by The Byrds on the radio and one of my favorite groups named checked Roger McGuinn in a song (“Consolation Prize” by Orange Juice), but I never owned any of their albums despite them being referenced in many articles and record reviews I had read on my favorite groups. REM was constantly being compared to them and I held both Murmer and Reckoning real dear. Why did it take me almost three more years before I listened to this tape and what finally made me do it? Lysergic Acid Diethylamide – LSD – “that crazy acid” that was the spark, pun intended.
I dropped my first (and only) full hit of acid on a hot summer night in 1989 after playing a show with my group at the time, Shadowland. Shadowland was a band my brother Darren and I started in 1987 in Los Angeles that within a three year period took on the jaded LA club scene, signed to Geffen records, recorded an EP and LP at Rockfield studios in Wales, toured with The Meat Puppets/Del Amitri and morphed into our beloved Further band after being fucked with and dropped by Geffen right as they were about to release Sonic Youth’s Goo and Teenage Fanclub’s Bandwagonesque, which left us to do it ourselves.
The funny thing is that Geffen and our A&R man Tom Zutaut had heard us play our Dylan ala Byrds covers at our shows and pushed us to record them. Of course they came out flat and slick. It was at the end of this period that I discovered Notorious. My best friend Pete Kinne, “Sleigher” as he came to be known later as the tambourine player of Beachwood Sparks, and I were a bit drunk after the show and when we returned home to our house in Silverlake we wanted to stay up for a while. The only issue was the living room was being used as our drummer Kevin Fitzgerald’s bedroom. When the Geffen money was running low we all lived like The Monkees in one house. Some folks at the label and our booking agent used to call us The Monkees as we always rode around in my big green four door 1971 Dodge Coronet named “Hollywood Undercover”. We ended up at the kitchen table with a gallon of OJ, two hits of acid and a boom box.
I ducked into my bedroom (a converted breakfast nook covered with a big pirate flag that was once used as a heavy metal band’s back drop) and grabbed a few cassettes. The Notorious Byrd Brothers tape was a bit old and although I couldn’t remember ever playing it, someone sure had played the heck out of it. I’d imagined a Vietnam vet buying it through the Columbia Tape Club and blasting it in his 4-wheel drive truck in the swamps of Florida. We were just two guys tripping away, staring at a screen in the window not knowing what we were in for.
WOW! as I pressed play and the horns of “Artificial Energy” came blasting out, I swear I saw silver and gold bells of trumpets coming out of the tiny speakers. I had played the trumpet all my life but never associated horns with The Byrds. I liked the use of horns from Chicago to The Teardrop Explodes to The Waterboys, but horns and The Byrds? Even cooler. I remember being stopped in our tracks at the line about being “in jail for killing a queen” – what the fuck? Scary. Lucky for us the next song, “Goin’ Back”, mellowed us into a perfect moment of friendship and sense of self. Musically you hear so many things, where “Artificial Energy” was a link to our love of Julian Cope and Teardrop Explodes, “Goin’ Back” was very much like the Bunnymen circa Ocean Rain. All grace and perfection, with a stop and start bass line – it’s not always about referencing The Beatles, but Liverpool nonetheless I guess. Although I later found out it wasn’t written by The Byrds, but in part by Carol King, a woman I came to know from my job on Melrose at Fred Segal lunch counter where she was a frequent after hours visitor of mine. She loved my cafe au lait. Little did either of us know that later on two of her songs would make up the basis for Beachwood Sparks – the “rivers of our vision” would eventually flow into one another I guess. It’s kind of the way my brother and I loved punk, but liked the more melodic side more than the political motives. “A little bit of courage is all we lack”.
Moving on through side one and “Natural Harmony” and that phased-out sound and jazzy freak-out sliding into “Draft Morning”, the bass baby, that’s the place. The bass is my love and listening to Chris Hillman’s playing on this album is the thing. It’s still something I haven’t attempted. I stay in the ballpark of “Wasn’t Born to Follow” in his honor. That night, Pete and I perked up and remembered hearing it in the Easy Rider film, talk about a double whammy! It crept into our psyche and all I could think of was the scene in the catacombs of New Orleans. This one song served as the template for many Beachwood Sparks tunes, although we never stole any melodies or lyrics from The Byrds. “Get To You”, the closing song on side one, is not one I remember from that night, but it has served as a theme song on every trip to London for many years after.
Time to flip the tape and take a bathroom break. “Stay away from the mirror,” is what I remember Pete telling me and from there we spent an hour cracking each other up by making the most insane faces we could manage. There’s even a picture we snapped that night where Pete looks like something from Middle Earth as I recall. Maybe you can see the cassette sitting on the table, I will have to try to find it and take a look. Side two – “Changes Now” and more pulsing bass and a country and western feel. This is acid rock as it very finest, backwards guitar lyrics about what’s real?
“Old John Robertson” was actually my first favorite song from this LP. It had everything to do with that night and that string quartet breakdown, although is only last for 20 seconds, I remember the two of us just delighting in the fact that it appeared out of nowhere. I think David Crosby has two tunes on side two – “Tribal Gathering”, which has that Take Five feel and that explosion of sound that Beachwood likes to go to from time to time. This one and “Dolphin Smile” don’t sound as finished as other songs on the record. I especially love them as we were two guys who surfed everyday and grew up dreaming of being Oceanographers or Marine Biologists. “Space Odyssey” brought us in for a safe landing. “PRESS EJECT AND GIVE ME THE TAPE”! We ended up “coming to” on Zuma Beach the next morning with only a hand towel to sit on despite miles of hot sand. I remember saying it was like sitting on a postage stamp not a magic carpet.
How did this experience impact on me? I really don’t know but in 1996 as our band Further was melting and ‘97 was coming into its own, Chris Gunst, Farmer Dave, Ben Knight and Jimi Hey were at my house on Sparks Street listening to this album and retreating to the “cold room” and trying our hand at playing country jazz freak-outs of our own. And as Chris suggested as he passed Beachwood Ave we called it Beachwood Sparks. Suddenly all the things I ever wanted in a group were there and at the same time folks were actually coming to hear us in fairly big numbers by when we merged what was left of Further (Josh Schwartz, Tom Sanford , Pete Kinne) with our new Beachwood Sparks and it was really taking off. Our shows were effortless affairs with amazing results. Some nights if we had 30 minutes of set time, we would jam for 20 and then play one or two of our songs. We had real camaraderie as well, but ironically we lost our brilliant drummer Tom after two shows where he had dropped so much acid we couldn’t follow or relate to what he was playing or saying. Looking back, I wished we had talked it out a bit more.
If you get the CD Columbia re-issue of Notorious Byrd Brothers and listen past the last track to the “hidden” song, you’ll hear The Byrds taking a stab at recording Crosby’s tune “Dolphin Smile”. It gives you a glimpse of what you don’t see but does go on. It’s sad.
I always feel uncomfortable with Beachwood Sparks write-ups that mention Gram Parsons and Cosmic American Music. Sure we love Gram (although I don’t even own a copy of Sweetheart Of The Rodeo) and the Burrito Bros, but if they don’t mention The Notorious Byrd Brothers, I know they probably don’t know what they are talking about or are just being lazy. It’s true that the first and only goal that Beachwood Sparks had was to play a Gram Parsons festival in Joshua Tree. Funny enough, we were rejected. Once we got access to a real recording studio, we really strived to capture, not only our own sound and feelings, but the sound of Notorious as well. While mixing the Cowboy Robots Cry, I attempted to dial in the same drum sound as “Get To You”, got pretty darn close too. The phased out section of “You Take The Gold” from our second LP, Once We Were Trees, was the second stab at creating that “Wasn’t Born To Follow” middle eight, we also tried it on “Something I Don’t Recognize” from the debut LP.
Maybe we should have dosed the engineer’s coffee with LSD, because we fell a bit short both times. The point is, we try because we simply love it and when I said earlier that all the things I ever wanted in a group came to Beachwood Sparks — it had what the groups I had with my brother (A New Personality, Further, Shadowland) had and more. A sense of purpose and inspiration that never wears out plus we found success within the music scene of our hometown and a great record label in Sub Pop, who have stuck behind us through thick and thin. This record has had so much to do with it. If someone really likes our group and hasn’t heard this record, I always urge them to go and listen to it first so as not to be found out later.
Can a record really change your life? Yes! The places I have gone, the moves I have made, the friendships and relationships that have shaped my life for the last 20 years can be directly traced back to that summer night in our kitchen in Silverlake listening to the Notorious Byrd Brothers.
One day I will connect all the dots and prove it.