[Review] The Byrds: Byrdmaniax (1971)

Fans and critics aren’t crazy about this one for a reason: underinspired and overproduced, it’s the first Byrds record not worth pursuing.

Kronomyth 11.0: Masked men.

In our last episode, Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde, I mentioned that I would probably exit the Byrds bandwagon at some point. This is where I get off. Byrdmaniax is one too many eclectic albums with lousy covers, bad titles and nearly nothing to do with the original Byrds. Neither did Sweetheart of the Rodeo, I suppose, but I loved that title.

The trouble with Byrdmaniax is two-fold: the band didn’t bring great material to the studio to begin with, and the producer (Terry Melcher) brought in an orchestra and backing vocalists to embellish what he (probably rightly) felt was an underwhelming collection of songs. The Byrds were apparently mortified when they heard the final mix, and promptly disowned it. Unfortunately for their fans, disowning a record you’ve already paid for and played is a bit trickier (or at least was back in 1971, before Amazon magically waived buyers of all responsibility).

The album opens with “Glory, Glory,” a gospel song given a folk-rock treatment from McGuinn and the band, that is partially returned to its original gospel roots through the addition of a female choir. “This Wheel’s On Fire” it ain’t. “Pale Blue,” written by McGuinn and Gene Parsons, is one of the album’s highlights, a pretty acoustic number that gets buried by overproduction; an acoustic version included on the Expanded Edition is far superior. “I Trust,” based on McGuinn’s own personal, positive outlook (as borrowed from Norman Vincent Peale) is another winner, though again Melcher and arranger Paul Polena do the band no favors.

What follows are a pair of tracks written by Skip Battin and the sinister Kim Fowley that have absolutely nothing to do with The Byrds. “Tunnel of Love” is easily dismissed as a hackneyed melody married to cryptic lyrics, but “Citizen Kane” is harder to shake. It’s an image of Hollywood excess, a sort of hell on earth (a not unfamiliar theme for Fowley) set to an ingratiating music hall melody, as if a psychedelic American rock band were trying to be The Beatles or The Kinks circa 1968. “Absolute Happiness” falls into that strange category too, and you have to wonder if Battin hadn’t wandered into the wrong band.

The songwriting partnership between McGuinn and Jaques Levy leads to more predictable results. “I Wanna Grow Up To Be A Politician” isn’t as clever as it thinks it is, but “Kathleen’s Song” is perhaps the prettiest song on the whole album (it would come down to this or “Pale Blue”). At the other end of the creative spectrum, Clarence White co-authors the banjo/mando/fiddle fireworks display, “Green Apple Quick Step,” and cherrypicks two covers to sing, “My Destiny” (which is mugged in the final mix) and Jackson Browne’s “Jamaica Say You Will,” a song that Browne himself would release on his debut in the following year.

The Byrds have always benefited from the different creative personalities in the band. Skip Battin, however, is no David Crosby, and Clarence White is no Chris Hillman. Musically, you could make the case that Gene Parsons is a better drummer than Michael Clarke, or that Clarence White is a better guitarist than Gram Parsons, but the group’s creative spark is here dampened by too many different musical directions and not enough genuine inspiration.

Original LP Version

A1. Glory, Glory (Arthur Reynolds) (4:02)
A2. Pale Blue (Roger McGuinn/Gene Parsons) (2:20)*
A3. I Trust (Roger McGuinn) (3:29)
A4. Tunnel of Love (Skip Battin/Kim Fowley) (3:29)
A5. Citizen Kane (Skip Battin/Kim Fowley) (2:350
B1. I Wanna Grow Up To Be A Politician (Roger McGuinn/Jacques Levy) (2:02)
B2. Absolute Happiness (Skip Battin/Kim Fowley) (2:36)
B3. Green Apple Quick Step (Gene Parsons/Clarence White) (1:49)
B4. My Destiny (Helen Carter) (3:35)
B5. Kathleen’s Song (Roger McGuinn/Jacques Levy) (2:39)
B6. Jamaica Say You Will (Jackson Browne) (3:25)

* Credited to McGuinn alone on the original elpee.

CD reissue bonus tracks
12. Just Like A Woman (Bob Dylan) (3:56)
13. Pale Blue (alternate version) (Roger McGuinn/Gene Parsons) (2:33)
14. Think I’m Gonna Feel Better (Gene Clark) / Green Apple Quick Step (session recording) (Gene Parsons/Clarence White) (6:04)

Japanese CD reissue bonus tracks
12. Glory, Glory (single version)
13. I Trust (live)
14. You Ain’t Going Nowhere
15. Nothin’ To It
16. Think I’m Gonna Feel Better
17. Just Like A Woman
18. Pale Blue (alternate version)
19. Glory, Glory (stereo 45 mix)

The Players

Skip Battin (bass, vocals), Roger McGuinn (guitar, vocals), Gene Parsons (drums, harmonica, banjo, vocals), Clarence White (guitar, mandolin, vocals) with Byron Berline (fiddle on B3), Merry Clayton (backing vocals on A1), Sneaky Pete Kleinow (pedal steel guitar on A3/B4), Larry Knechtel (piano, organ), Terry Melcher (piano on A3), Paul F. Polena (string/horn/choir arrangements, piano overdubs), Jimmi Seiter (percussion on A4/A5/B2), Eric White, Sr. (harmonica on B3). Co-produced by Terry Melcher and Chris Hinshaw; engineered by Chris Hinshaw, Eric Prestidge & Glen Kolotkin.

The Plastic

Released on elpee, cassette and 8-track on June 23, 1971 in the US (Columbia, KC/CT/CA 30640), on August 6, 1971 in the UK (CBS, S 64389), and in 1971 in Japan (CBS/Sony, 20AP-2201) with gatefold cover; reached #46 on the US charts. 8-track features different track order.

  1. Re-issued on compact disc in the US (Columbia, CK 30640).
  2. Re-issued on compact disc in 1990 in Germany (Coline, CLCD 9.00930).
  3. Re-released as 20-bit remastered Expanded Edition in 2000 in Austria (Columbia Legacy, 495079 2) with 3 bonus tracks.
  4. Re-issued on compact disc on November 19, 2003 in Japan (Sony, MHCP 105).
  5. Re-packaged as Original Album Classics with Sweetheart of the Rodeo, Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde, Ballad of Easy Rider and Farther Along on expanded 5CD set in 2011 in Europe (Sony/Legacy, 88691901342) with 3 bonus tracks.

2 thoughts on “[Review] The Byrds: Byrdmaniax (1971)

  1. I bought this album back when it was released. The weird death mask cover photo for the album cover intrigued me to check out the music from this great band. What I heard when I gave it a listen confused me. I thought they were playing a joke on us as fans, because of the choir singers-strings-trumpets and saxophones etc. I was used to The Byrds sound from the Ballad Of Easy Rider and Untitled. Byrdmaniax seemed like a joke.
    Now when I listen to this album (granted, it’s been 40 years since I listened to it), I actually like it. It’s sort of similar to the album Dylan by Bob Dylan from 1973. Even though the Dylan album was a spiteful way for Columbia Records to cash in on their former artist, it still had it’s charm (I loved his version of Big Yellow Taxi written by Joni Mitchell).
    What The Byrds had happening at the time that Byrdmaniax was recorded and released was a period of extreme exhaustion due to their extended tour from the Untitled tour. Roger McGuinn and his band had some unfinished material they were working on, but they hadn’t completed the songs. The tapes were in the CBS studios, but they were not in a hurry to complete the songs. Terry Melcher stepped in and tried to add to The Byrds sound, what he should have done on many of the songs is just leave them acoustic. That sound would have made this album much better. What I also hear are production techniques I heard from Al Kooper on his album “Easy Does It” which was recorded in 1970. What worked like a charm on Al Kooper’s album thudded like a lead balloon on Byrdmaniax.
    Although I still rather enjoy this album in a guilty pleasure opinion.

  2. Thanks, Jim. That’s some great insight into an album I haven’t poured a whole lot of attention into. And if you could learn to appreciate Dylan (the album), I am in awe of your patience. I think I actually threw that album out.

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