The Perfect Collection was crammed full of records by The Byrds. Hardly surprising – if ever there was a total Byrds nut it was the book’s author, Tom Hibbert. Their first five studio albums all featured in its pages and Hibbert singled out Fifth Dimension as possibly his favourite album of all time. He even found room in the ‘U.S. Seventies’ section of the book for Gene Clark’s ’74 solo masterpiece No Other, which at the time (1982) had been virtually forgotten by everyone else.

Discovering Clark’s post-Byrds solo output proved almost as thrilling as listening to those Byrds records themselves for the first time, and, of the original band members, his own solo work is by far the most accomplished. For those who had been paying attention, Clark had already proven that he wasn’t simply the ‘guy with the tambourine’ (see ‘I Knew I’d Want You’, ‘I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better’, ‘If You’re Gone’, ‘Set You Free This Time’ for starters) and for many, myself included, he remains the greatest Byrd of all.

After his initial departure from The Byrds in 1966, he hadn’t wasted any time in recording his debut album, Gene Clark with The Godsin Brothers, later repackaged as Echoes. It was a strong album, the songwriting mature and confident, although one clearly indebted to the sound of The Byrds, a comparison particularly difficult to ignore given that it hit the record stores in the same week as Younger Than Yesterday in February ‘67. As if resigned to the idea that the umbilical cord could not be entirely severed, Clark even rejoined the band, albeit very briefly, in late ’67. But the marriage wasn’t to last.
He found a truly authentic voice of his own on his brilliant forays into roots music with Doug Dillard, releasing two groundbreaking albums, The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard & Clark and Through The Morning, Through The Night. Perhaps as much as any other album of the time, the former of those encapsulated the shift in American popular music away from psychedelic excess towards a ‘back to the country’ retreat (from Vietnam; from political assassinations; from inner city breakdown; from LSD overkill), in the process laying the foundations for the more laid back country rock of the early ‘70s.
At the dawn of the new decade Clark kept himself busy, contributing to albums by The Flying Burrito Bros, and also recording a few songs of his own, including the fabulous ‘She’s The Kind Of Girl’, originally intended as a single for A&M, but which, owing to record company problems, remained unreleased until Roadmaster surfaced in ’73.
Relocating to Albion California, Clark was sustaining himself on Byrds’ royalties (the Dillard & Clark albums didn’t sell), then after getting married (to Charlie Lynn McCummings), and fathering two children, he began work on White Light. It too would disappear almost without trace, but its reputation has steadily grown in stature since Clark’s tragically premature passing in 1991.
‘The Virgin’, upon first listen a solid if unspectacular beginning, reveals not only the great warmth of Clark’s homespun rootsy sound, but also the new depth to his lyricism. Dylan had long been the template for Clark’s wordsmithery, but by ‘71 the apprentice had arguably overtaken his master, although the influence was still too transparent for some: “From her dancing love and young soul/And the gypsies in her dream/To the pulse of stark acceptance/When the winds began to freeze/With no curfews left to hold her/And no walls to shield her pain/Finding out that facts were older/And that life forms are insane.”
The playing throughout the album is unfussy and economical, but everywhere the melodies niggle and ache, the spaces between those miraculous little chord changes growing ever more taut, nowhere more so than on ‘With Tomorrow’. Immediately afterwards the title track provides the album’s only noticeable change in tempo. Encompassed all around by delicate songs of rugged beauty, its buoyant country quickstep garners visions of cotton pickers holding on to their hats on the roof of a steam train hurtling to freedom across the prairie.
‘Because Of You’ boasts a denser arrangement, but retains that poignant mournful timbre, while the brooding ‘One In A Hundred’ re-recorded from the earlier A&M session in 1970, has since become one of his most celebrated songs. It’s barely whispered, the tone fragile, and he sounds like he needs those backing vocals to get him over the line.
‘For A Spanish Guitar’ on the other hand, may possess the most beautiful guitar line of his career, augmented by the most heartbreaking harmonica solo this side of ‘You’re A Big Girl Now’ and some fairly impenetrable philosophical discourse which reads once more like Dylan’s great poetry of yesteryear: “And the laughter of children employed/By the fantasies not yet destroyed/By the dogmas of those they avoid/Knowing not what they are/And the right and the wrong and insane/And the answers they cannot explain/Pulsate from my soul through my brain/In a spanish guitar.” Dylan by then however, was churning out the worst music of his career, so Clark had to dig a little deeper for the obligatory cover version (‘Tears Of Rage’) which he carries off in fine style.
‘Where My Love Lies Asleep’ nicks the bottleneck guitar line from The Stones’ ‘No Expectations’ (played beautifully by Jesse Ed Davis, who also produced the album), but is nonetheless entirely gorgeous for all that, and the finale (‘1975’) pre-empts the spiralling chord sequence of Neil Young’s ‘Lookout Joe’, recorded two years later in ’73, and a key track on his classic Tonight’s The Night Set from ’75.
With White Light, Clark was halfway up the mountain. At the summit was the gilded karmic conquest of No Other, but in these sparse and humble love songs he created one other album you certainly ought to have in your collection. (JJ)

 114. NEIL YOUNG (1969)

The hideous painting on the sleeve was a little off putting to say the least. The song titles too were unfamiliar, but in the top right hand corner the price label read £1.99, so it had to be worth a shot. Yet another bargain from Rebel Records. As soon as I put it on the turntable, it began to crackle away. A good sign. It must have seen some proper service with its previous owner. It’s the unplayed records you want to worry about. But the surface noise could not disguise the fact that something had gone badly wrong with the production – the electric guitar seemed suffocated, its strangulated stabs and squeals occasionally puncturing what sounded like a thick protective quilt. And those trebly tonsils, buried so low in the mix. But here was a record I couldn’t help but fall in love with, and it has been a favourite ever since.

Even I’m not convinced it’s his best album, but it’s almost universal dismissal I find irksome: “a godawful debut”; a “stuttering false start” to his solo career, or at best a mere “prelude to Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere“. It’s as if he was saving everything in reserve, gearing up for the real thing, but that rarely happens with debut albums. Popular music is all about the present moment, and by autumn ’68, Neil Young had a point to prove. The wax on the last Buffalo Springfield album had barely had time to dry before Neil Young hit the stores. The cover of Last Time Around told the story of Buffalo Springfield’s sad and premature demise. The photo montage pictured Young positioned with his back to the others, steadfastly facing in the opposite direction as if he could no longer even bear to pretend anymore. Bruce Palmer’s departure in early ’67 had effectively sounded the death knell for the band. Palmer had been, according to Young, the “soul of the band”, if you will,  Buffalo Springfield’s very own Brian Jones. The clash of egos would play out a familiar battle and everything soon fell apart. Last Time Around was a hastily assembled contractual obligation album, but it had in effect delivered Young’s first solo recording to the world, ‘I Am A Child’, which foreshadowed the bedsit folk troubadour of After The Gold Rush.

By August 1968, Young was back in the studio with David Briggs and Jack Nitzsche. It was in many ways a painful time. In Jimmy McDonough’s bio Shakey, Young recalled: “It was either a lonely experience or a labour of love. I was really glad when it was over, because it was so technical, took so much thinking.”

The instrumental overtures which kick off each side provide scant indication of any ‘labour of love”, at least on Young’s part. The laidback country twang of the first, ‘The Emperor of Wyoming’ is matched to a relatively unfussy string arrangement, while the second, the brief Nitzsche-penned ‘String Quartet From Whiskey Boot Hill’ only hints at some of the complexity characteristic of the rest of the album.

A more explicit benchmark of the album’s ‘everything bar the kitchen sink’ production, is ‘The Loner’ where strings soar beneath meaty chunks of stomping guitar, at times fizzing like a squadron of mosquitos fighting for air in a glass bottle, which has the subtle acoustic interludes running for cover. There’s s parallel performance on the conquering metallic riff of ‘I’ve Been Waiting For You’, which renders as mere subtext the intricate underlay of piano and organ.

Young has stated that he wished his voice on the record to sound “a million miles away, but right there” and in the floating reverie of ‘I Could Have Her Tonight’ his wish is granted. Barely whispered, it’s unassuming country jangle has a strange little twist in the tail which Television may have lifted for the coda of ‘Torn Curtain’.

Perhaps the most polarising track on the album is ‘The Old Laughing Lady’. Jack Nitzche’s overwrought orchestration often comes in for some criticism, but when Ry Cooder’s languid guitar and Nitzsche’s fluid electric piano ooze into the big soul chorus – take a bow Merry Clayton, Brenda Holloway, Gloria Jones et al – the results are utterly euphoric. It’s simply magnificent.

If Nitzsche’s aspirations were ambitious here, then David Briggs’ contributions were equally so. ‘Here We Are In The Years’ – on the surface a stately ballad – weaves little melodic miracles throughout its patchwork structure and features one of Young’s most earnest vocal performances: “Here we are in the years/Where the showman shifts the gears/Lives become careers/Children cry in fear/Let us out of here!” “We got tones nobody’s ever got, even Hendrix” said Briggs at the time, and here – bizarre moog solo aside – the balance was just about right. Similarly on ‘I’ve Loved Her So Long’ the arrangements (vibes, electric piano, soul chorus, even woodwind) are well-balanced, pretty and entirely satisfying.

The best tracks more than offset the album’s one blatant misstep, the bumblingly neurotic and supremely self-indulgent nine minute acoustic dirge ‘Last Trip To Tulsa’, of which the less said the better.

I am sure I speak not only for myself when I adjudge the best Buffalo Springfield moments to be ‘Expecting To Fly’ and ‘Broken Arrow’, both transcendent sound collages, as opposed to ‘For What Its Worth’ or Neil’s very own ‘Burned’. That he aimed to crystallise some of that airborne-ness, and twine a few fragments of baroque into the album’s tapestry is most certainly a plus, and not a minus. Neil Young is the last time he would venture quite as boldly in that direction. The great sin from that moment onwards was to ‘overthink’ composing and arranging. That perhaps accounts in part for such a prolific output. Perhaps he was right too, but undoubtedly something  was lost in the process. For the man himself, Neil Young represented a steep learning curve, and if for him it was a failure, for us it was a glorious one. (JJ)