Starry Eyed & Laughing. To Try For The Sun. Aurora Records

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Back in January¬† 2015 Blabber’n’Smoke indulged in a bout of reminiscence courtesy of Starry Eyed & Laughing when Forever Young, a fantastic scrapbook of previously unreleased songs and radio sessions compiled by the band’s guitarist and singer Tony Poole was released. Rather than repeat their story you can read the review here. Poole had previously gathered together the band’s two albums and single releases on That Was Then, This Is Now (also on Aurora Records) and that was that, the two releases a comprehensive history of a great band who flamed and burned for a few short years in the seventies. But Poole has continued to delve into the archives and amazingly enough has come up with another album’s worth of songs, 20 to be precise, 14 alternate recordings of songs we know and six previously unreleased. More to the point there’s no sense here of barrels being scraped as the album more than holds its own in comparison to the previous releases. It’s apparent from the glorious Byrds’ like opening song, a cover of Donovan’s To Try For The Sun which does for the Maryhill pixie what McGuinn did for Dylan.

Bearing in mind that the band were in thrall to the American West Coast sound (The Byrds and Dylan, Buffalo Springfield, Moby Grape, CSN&Y) the album is replete with reflections of their forebears and the transition from cover versions to their own songs mirrors that of Forever Young. Thus we get the aforementioned jangle fest of the title song, a lively take on Jackie DeShannon’s When You Walk In The Room as done by The Searchers and a moody For What It’s Worth, performed in a live session with some scorching guitar recalling Clarence White’s work on the live sides of The Byrds’ Untitled album. There’s a nice surprise as they cast their sights on Al Stewart, back then a UK bedsit folkie (way before Year Of The Cat), and subject his Old Compton Street Blues with its Jacques Brel like romanticism to a full on Byrds jingle jangle treatment, Brel replaced by the romanticism of Gene Clark. Clark himself is covered as the band abandon the 1967 string arrangements of Echoes transforming it with an Eastern styled psychedelic fuzz as if Clark was still on board for Younger Than Yesterday and Crosby was in charge of the droning guitars. It’s a fabulous version and proof that Starry Eyed & Laughing were deep into their influences as back then Clark was barely on the horizon and copies of his sixties albums were as rare as hen’s teeth.

The first sessions for the first album offer up a sparkling Going Down, still a rush after all these years, a brisk 50/50 Better Stop Now and a very fine version of Money Is No Friend Of Mine. To my mind this tops the version that ended up on the album, it’s less jaunty and more akin to the spirit of Woody Guthrie’s Do Re Mi with some fine twang guitar thrown in. Alternate takes or radio sessions of songs such as Closer To You Now, Nobody Home,¬† Down The Street and Oh What are welcome additions to the canon and the album closes with the previously unheard Sea Comes At Its Edges, an elegiac sweep of spangled guitars, folk song and modern technology which captures the visions of McGuinn and Crosby perfectly.

On a sad note, as Tony Poole was readying this album for release it was announced that Starry Eyed & Laughing drummer Michael Wackford had died and the album is dedicated to his memory.

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Starry Eyed And Laughing. Forever Young. Aurora.

It seems to be general wisdom that in 1974 rock was heading for the doldrums, caught in a downward spiral that was only ended when punk exploded in 1976. Some folk will have that all that was available was pompous prog rock or the ragged tail end of glam and that music listeners were a sorry lot of loon panted hippies wishing the sixties had never ended. Mick Farren’s infamous diatribe in the NME in ’76, The Titanic Sails At Dawn catches the mood of the time. I remember those years before punk as exciting times, albums I bought in ’74 included Grievous Angel, It’s Too Late To Stop Now, On The Beach, Pretzel Logic, Natty Dread, No Other and Veedon Fleece. All have stood the test of time. I’d read about most of the music I bought back then via Zigzag magazine and it was thanks to them that I heard about an English band who sounded like The Byrds and who were named after a line in a Dylan song. For someone grabbed by then by country rock (another album I bought that year was the superb Burritos compilation, Close Up The Honky Tonks) Starry Eyed And Laughing seemed like a no brainer and there was even an opportunity to see them live one night at the Queen Margaret Union in Glasgow. Their debut album was a stormer, seesawing between Byrds jangle and CSN&Y harmonies and seeing them live and up close (as opposed to Mr Young at the Apollo) was sheer heaven, one of the best shows I’ve ever seen. Unfortunately after a second album, Thought Talk in 1975, the band disappeared, consigned to the dustbin of history although I’ve continually listened to them particularly their debut which still thrills.

Forever Young, a collection of studio and radio sessions (14 of the 18 previously unreleased) is something of a treasure trove for anyone who has happy memories of Starry Eyed And Laughing. It also serves as a fascinating nugget for anyone interested in the evolution of country rock in the UK, a form that did go into hiding for a while but eventually re emerged with folk such as Elvis Costello, Robyn Hitchcock and Nick Lowe admitting to a fondness for some twang and jangling guitars. It captures early attempts by producer Dan Loggins to have the band perform covers of songs by Roger McGuinn, Steve Stills and Mike Nesmith and others, a plan that was nixed when the band demanded their album would be all their own work. In addition there are previously unheard originals along with radio sessions (sadly some of these only came to light following the death of their first manager).

The cover versions are an intriguing lot. There’s a Byrds’ type cover of Dylan’s Forever Young, a new song back then but delivered as if it were a 1965 follow up to Mr. Tambourine Man. The chiming guitars and McGuinn like vocals are spot on and a delight to listen to. McGuinn’s own I’m So Restless (from his solo debut) is more cosmic country than the original which had a folk base, here it sounds like The Byrds circa the Dr. Byrds and Mr Hyde album with a wee bit of cosmic rocking going on, similarly Steve Stills’ 4+20 has a psychedelic sheen to it. Listening to their version of Mike Nesmith’s Propinquity has the ability to transport the listener into an alternative reality where McGuinn and gang take over the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s mantle of champions of Papa Nez as the twelve string corkscrews thorough this magnificent song.

If the cover versions were all that’s here then it might be safe to relegate the album into the curio cabinet. However the band’s own songs, while undoubtedly indebted to The Byrds sound and in particular the 12 string eclectic guitar jangle, stand proud after all these years and one can see the time line from them to the likes of The Long Ryders, carrying a banner for sure but no mere copyists. With three writers on board (Tony Poole, Ross McGeeney and Iain Whitmore) they offered up some treasures of their own. Miles Away is a yearning dreamlike swoon, more Gene Clark than McGuinn here. Giving You The Blues visits another Byrd’s territory, this time David Crosby with its hypnotic scales and time changes, superbly sung it’s spine tingling. Jet Plane Rider has obvious links to Eight Miles High but it’s an exhilarating listen in its own right; it’s almost spooky mind you at how well the band were able to channel their influences. Their blossoming into their own right is portrayed on the barnstorming (Just Like) A Weepy Movie, the keening ballad So Tired, adorned by marvellous harmonies and well able to pass muster with contemporary songs by the likes of Poco and even the Eagles. Finally, the alternative version of In The Madness, a song on their first album, shows that by then they had transcended their influences and were able to mark their territory with a song that soared high on vinyl way back then.

On a personal level it’s been a joy to listen to this album. If you’re not familiar with the band but enjoy The Byrds, McGuinn, Crosby, Poco or early seventies country rock in general then you really should check it out.

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Gene Clark. The Byrd Who Flew Alone. DVD

It’s been gratifying over the past few years to see the rise of the “rockumentary” detailing the life’s and music of numerous musicians with more and more vintage footage unearthed. BBC4 may have staked its claim to be the natural home of these although honourable mentions must be given to the likes of Alan Yentob’s Imagine series. Once the province of occasional late night cultural backwaters such as Omnibus these days you can spend just about every Friday night reliving rock history. Unfortunately for every gem there’s a shed load of cheap and nasty shock docs peopled by a pool of talking heads who turn up spouting their opinions on just about anything even if their closest acquaintance with the subject was when their agent called to ask if they were interested in appearing. That said there have been some superb examples over the years. Aside from the fly on the wall type (Don’t Look Back, Cracked Actor, Dig!) there’s the historical document (No Direction Home, MC5: A True Testimonial, Oil City Confidential).

The Byrd Who Flew Alone is in the second camp, a two hour trip through time looking at the career of Gene Clark. Clark was the primary songwriter in the first incarnation of The Byrds and by all accounts was expected to be a massive solo star following his departure from them. The film documents his failure to achieve that fame as his ex bandmate David Crosby was the one who soared while his pioneering efforts in country rock were overshadowed by Gram Parsons who made the ultimate “career move” in dying young at the top of his powers.
Produced and co-directed by Paul Kendall, ex ZigZag writer, the film takes us from Clark’s humble rural beginnings in Tipton, Missouri to his untimely death at the age of 46. While there’s live footage of his brief stint with the New Christy Minstrels and The Byrds (of course) there’s a gap until the early eighties when there was a brief reunion with McGuinn and Hillman. Footage of Clark with Carla Olson however confirms that he remained a compelling performer and despite the lack of live action it’s great to have what little footage remains gathered together. While Clark is heard being interviewed there is no visual footage of him talking.

McGuinn, Crosby and Hillman are all interviewed with Hillman especially providing insights into their tumultuous relationship over the years. Taj Mahal, Carla Olson, Jerry Moss (the M in A&M) offer their recollections while Byrds biographer Johnny Rogan and standard bearer for the Clark legend, Sid Griffin, offer their explanations for the bad luck that dogged Clark as each time he was poised to leap ahead of the game he faltered. Clark is recalled almost as a Jekyll and Hyde character, a country boy with a sunny disposition when away from the bright lights of L.A. but prone to alcohol and drug abuse with a temper to match when in Sin City, a temper that proved disastrous when he tried to punch out David Geffen following Geffen’s displeasure with the No Other album. A more intimate picture of Clark is painted by interviews with family (Mendocino buddies, his brother, sister, sons and widow, Carlie) which offer us a glimpse of the man behind the rock star and a sense of the personal hurt they suffered as Clark indulged in his demons.

Above all there’s the music and the generous running time allows space for fuller discussions of his groundbreaking efforts. The first post Byrds album with the Gosdin Brothers, the pioneering country rock of the Dillard and Clark albums, The Byrds reunion, the pieced together and excellent Roadmaster, the template for the singer/songwriter era that was the “White Light” album and the pinnacle, the exotic and almost triumphant No Other are all detailed along with his last major label release, Two Sides to Every Story, released on Robert Stigwood’s label RSO (with Clark of course eventually insulting Stigwood) which featured a bearded avuncular hippie Clark on the cover just as punk was taking off. Olson, John York and Pat Robinson take us into Clark’s latter years although there’s little or no mention of their recorded output which Clarkophiles will argue was as good as the earlier work. The DVD also includes over an hour of special features with extended interviews, two complete performances and a directors’ commentary. We can’t comment on these at present as the review copy was of the film alone, one reason why Santa will be bringing a fully fledged Byrd related package come the day.
Gene Clark fans have been salivating ever since this film was mentioned however even if you have never heard Clark before it’s an important document in the development of Americana type music and best of all you will be amazed by the quality of his music. His voice, his writing haunts and will continue to do so.

Buy it here