Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Byrds 8: Ballad Of Easy Rider

Somehow or another—although it’s fairly well documented on Wikipedia—the Byrds had another top 40 hit, this time in their latest evolution as country rockers. It happened to be the theme from a hit movie about a couple of bikers, so their label made sure to use it as the band’s next album’s title as well. (We still think the guy on the cover looks more like Teddy Roosevelt than either Dennis Hopper or Peter Fonda, but that’s just us.)
Ballad Of Easy Rider opens with that song, a two-minute snatch of melody stemming from a single line originally scribbled on a napkin by Bob Dylan. (Roger McGuinn tried to give him writing credit, but Bob refused.) It makes for a good start, but the promise doesn’t last.
Having carried the same lineup for two albums in a row, the song selection is more democratic in who sings what. As with the last album, the second song is about a dog, this time named “Fido”, and the music is a direct copy of the Manfred Mann version of “Quinn The Eskimo”. The bass player sings that, but at least Clarence White gets to sing and blaze on “Oil In My Lamp”. McGuinn’s quivering voice all over “Jack Tarr The Sailor” seems more like a spoof, and “Jesus Is Just Alright” isn’t more than a sketch that the Doobie Brothers would eventually fill out.
The very slow, mournful take on “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”—after all, it wouldn’t be a Byrds album without several Dylan covers, would it?—is pointless for the most part, but there is something in the way “it’s all over now” is repeated every chorus that makes the song so sad. The mood is continued on the even mournful “There Must Be Someone”, and Gene Parsons emerges as a strong singer. “Gunga Din” is pretty and simple, but one needs the liner notes to know what the hell it’s about (touring and prejudice, in case you were really interested). You can just hear Clarence revving up his picking on the fade. McGuinn revives a Woody Guthrie song for “Deportee (Plane Wreck At Los Gatos)” and wastes valuable plastic on “Armstrong, Aldrin And Collins”, which consists of a countdown and a brief folk-style stanza celebrating the men on the moon.
Since they were the Byrds in name only, maybe it’s not fair to be so rough on them. As it is, Ballad Of Easy Rider is harmless country-rock, but not very notable. The album still has its defenders today, and the expanded CD added a few extras, in addition to some repeats from the box set. The most interesting ones show off the prowess of the players, but there’s yet another Moog experiment that was right to stay in the vaults.

The Byrds Ballad Of Easy Rider (1969)—2
1997 CD reissue: same as 1969, plus 7 extra tracks

1 comment:

  1. I always seem to have a soft spot for this one. Maybe because I saw this lineup live. Anyway I am always able to overlook the many soft spots and just enjoy the amiable, professional songs that make up its core. That and the advent of the create your own play list on most modern players. I am more than happy to give it a three.