Gene Clark always hated to fly.
The Byrds’ first UK tour had been a disaster, from the moment they stepped off the plane, when they were served a writ by the British band The Birds, who felt that their name was too similar to avoid confusion. The band had been hated by British audiences for their apparent aloofness and the fact that they never spoke on stage, most of them had got sick, the sound engineers had been unable to get the balance right in their live shows, and the single they were there to promote, a version of Dylan’s All I Really Want To Do, had struggled on the charts thanks to Cher having released a rival version. The music press were also out for blood, seeing the band’s billing as “America’s answer to the Beatles” as an unwelcome insinuation that the “British Invasion” was over and America could produce her own bands again. Shows had to be cancelled due to illness, while others were cancelled due to lack of ticket sales.
The result was a tour that was described in the Melody Maker as “flopsville” and “very, very dull”, and which led to Chris Hillman, the band’s bass player, later doing a desperate PR interview for the British music press in which he effectively apologised for everything about their shows.
The only positives for the band had come during their time in London. The shows there had been as unpopular as anywhere, but they’d been able to hang out with the Beatles and introduce them to the music of Crosby’s new obsession, Ravi Shankar, and had spent more time with the Rolling Stones, who they’d met earlier that year when the Stones were in LA.
In particular, Gene Clark had tossed a few musical ideas around with Brian Jones, and had come up with a melody and a few lines about their awful trip, but he put the ideas aside when they returned to LA, as they had an album to record.
Their second album, Turn! Turn! Turn!, provided them with another hit single and showcased Clark as the dominant creative figure in the band, with all but one of the originals being written by him (and two more Clark songs were dropped for cover versions, due to the other band members’ resentment over Clark’s prominence on the album). It also marked the end of the band’s relationship with Terry Melcher, who fell out with the band over publishing rights, and over his continued attempts to replace the band members with session musicians (he cut a track of It’s All Over Now Baby Blue with session musicians playing a Jack Nitzsche arrangement, and tried to get McGuinn to overdub guitar on it to turn it into a “Byrds” track).
While they toured in support of the new album, as part of a Dick Clark package tour, the Byrds took another look at the song Gene Clark had started working on about how much he hated their trip to the UK. Clark already had the basic song worked out, but McGuinn and Crosby helped him polish it. The song was originally titled Six Miles High, as both a reference to the height of the plane that flew the band to the UK and a drug reference, but it was changed to Eight Miles High in order to sound a bit more like the Beatles’ Eight Days A Week. Crosby helped Clark finish off the song, and suggested they go for a sound somewhere between Ravi Shankar and John Coltrane, and McGuinn responded by coming up with a guitar part that was essentially the main musical motif from Coltrane’s India played on his twelve-string, with a few high, vaguely sitar-y, notes thrown in. McGuinn has since claimed that the idea of the lyrics came from him, but only since Clark’s death, and Crosby has always backed Clark’s claim to have originated the song.
The band’s original attempt at recording the song, which Crosby still argues is the superior version, was not released by Columbia, ostensibly because it was recorded at a studio they didn’t own. In truth, though, both the original version and the eventual single, both produced by Allen Stanton, are nearly identical, both featuring stellar performances from everyone involved. Over what is by far the best drum part Michael Clarke (never the most competent of drummers) ever played, Hillman provides a steady bass throb, Crosby slashes the rhythm guitar part, and McGuinn plays what is (if you haven’t heard the Coltrane piece from which he’s “borrowing”) some staggeringly inventive guitar, completely unlike anything else in the pop music world at the time. Freed from Terry Melcher’s thin AM sound, the recording has more bass end than anything they’d done before, and over the top McGuinn, Crosby and Clark sing the song’s lyrics about a “rain, grey town” where “nowhere is there love to be found” in gorgeous three-part harmony.
It should have been the Byrds’ biggest hit, but a combination of factors including the experimental nature of the guitar part, a lack of promotion from Columbia, and a radio ban (which started several weeks after the single had been released, but certainly didn’t help matters) ensured it didn’t quite make the US top ten.
And nor would any further Byrds singles. The same month that Eight Miles High was released, Gene Clark announced he was quitting the Byrds, and once he was gone the band never had another top ten hit.
The single biggest reason for Clark quitting the group was that he didn’t want to travel with them any more — ever since he was a child, he’d been terrified of flying.
Eight Miles High
Composer: Gene Clark, Roger McGuinn, and David Crosby
Line-up: Gene Clark (vocals, tambourine), Roger McGuinn (vocals, twelve-string guitar), David Crosby (vocals, rhythm guitar), Chris Hillman (bass, vocals), Michael Clarke (drums)
Original release: Eight Miles High/Why The Byrds, Columbie 4-43578
Currently available on: Fifth Dimension Columbia Legacy CD
Arthur Lee and Johnny Echols seemed to be fated to make music together. They’d lived only a couple of streets away from each other, and gone to school together, in Memphis, but had been separated when Arthur’s mother had divorced his father, a musician who had played with Jimmie Lunceford’s band, and moved to Los Angeles. But shortly after, Echols’ family also moved to LA, and they ended up once again at the same school.
While Arthur Lee had played musical instruments from an early age, having taken accordion lessons before switching to organ, Echols was the first to perform rock music, with a small group at school. Music was in the air at Dorsey High, the school Lee and Echols went to — Billy Preston and Mike Love were at the school at the same time — and in their social circles; Ella Fitzgerald and Ray Brown moved in to the apartment block in which Echols’ family lived for a while.
However, Lee soon joined Echols’ group, and his dominating personality ensured it was renamed renamed Arthur Lee and the LAGs in homage to Booker T and the MGs. They became low-level musical fixtures around LA, writing songs and producing sessions, and playing under the names of any black band that had had a hit — they performed as the Coasters one day, the Drifters the next — as their manager assumed that nobody knew what those bands looked like. They got away with it largely due to Lee’s ability at vocal mimicry, but were also helped by Echols’ showmanship. Echols would play the guitar with his teeth, or behind his head, and it’s possibly no coincidence that around this time Lee hired an unknown guitarist called Jimi Hendrix to play his very first session, on an obscure single called My Diary by Rosa Lee Brooks.
However, the LAGs were doomed as soon as Echols got taken by his friend Billy Preston (who had complimentary tickets after getting to know them in Hamburg) to see the Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl in early 1964. Within days, Lee and Echols had bought wigs to make themselves look like they had long hair, and formed a new band that performed under the names The American Four and The Weirdos.
The new band had a white rhythm section, and was one of the first (if not the first) integrated bands to play the LA scene, which was still very segregated. Lee also made a deliberate choice to start trying to sing like the white pop singers of the time, originally as a joke, but as he put it later “What started out as a put-on materialized as something real and positive.” They were playing, not the soul and R&B that Lee and Echols had previously played, but top forty covers — Wooly Bully and Gloria — and put out one single, a song called Luci Baines that didn’t even try to hide the fact that it was a rip-off of both Hang On Sloopy and Twist and Shout.
This new style lasted nearly a whole year, until Lee saw the Byrds playing at Ciro’s. Both Lee and Echols quickly became part of the scene around Sunset Strip, hanging out with the Byrds, artists Carl Franzoni and Sue Vito, Jim Morrison, and Bryan Maclean, among others.
Their band once again changed its name, this time to The Grass Roots, inspired both by Malcolm X and by the pun on the word “grass”, and for a time had an extra guitarist, Bobby Beausoleil, who would later go on to be infamous for his part in the Manson murders. However, in what seems in hindsight a very wise move, they soon replaced Beausoleil with Bryan Maclean.
Maclean had been around the music scene for a while himself, and had learned guitar from Frank Zappa, with whom he shared a love of Stravinsky, and at one point had been invited to join Zappa’s band. He had also worked for a time as a roadie for the Byrds, and David Crosby in particular had taken him under his wing. He’d also auditioned for a new TV show that had advertised looking for “Ben Franks types” to play as a fictional band called the Monkees, but even though he was in fact a regular at Ben Franks (an all-night restaurant where all the hippest people hung out), he didn’t make it onto the show.
With Maclean as a member, the band had finally found a perfect balance — Lee, the aggressive, charismatic, unpredictable frontman, Echols the guitar virtuoso and mediator, and Maclean the sensitive, folky, melodist. The only problem now was their name — P.F. Sloan and Steve Barri had started recording and releasing singles under the name The Grass Roots, in what Lee always considered an act of deliberate theft of the name by Lou Adler. Inspired by a bra shop called Luv Brassieres where Lee had worked, the band became Love.
Their first recordings, made at Art Laboe’s Original Sound studios, have never surfaced, but Love recorded an entire album there in late 1965. By this point, they’d changed their rhythm section — their original bass player had quit to find steady work, and Ken Forssi, formerly of the Surfaris, had replaced him, and soon brought in his roommate, Alban “Snoopy” Pfisterer, to replace Don Conka, the band’s drummer, who by this point had become unreliable due to drug addiction.
They were soon signed to Elektra (with a contract that stated “All checks shall be made to Arthur Lee on behalf of the group”, much to the band’s later annoyance), and went into the studios with Elektra label head Jac Holzman, co-producer Mark Abramson, and engineer Bruce Botnick.
Their earliest demo had consisted of two songs. The more commercial one, Hey Joe, a folk song that David Crosby had taught Maclean, was out of contention as a single because another LA band, the Leaves, had recorded it with the same garage-punk arrangement that both Love and the Byrds performed it with, so instead they went for another choice, a cover of a Bacharach and David song originally performed by Manfred Mann. They took the song, My Little Red Book, and brutally stripped out all the complex chords and the unusual timing, turning it into a thuggish, hard-hitting, amphetamine-paced rocker. The original’s swimmy Hammond organ and polite Paul Jones vocal had turned into snarling, yelling voices and stabbing guitar.
Burt Bacharach hated it, but Love had arrived.
My Little Red Book
Composer: Burt Bacharach & Hal David
Line-up: Arthur Lee (vocals, tambourine), Johnny Echols (vocals, guitar), Bryan Maclean (vocals, guitar), Ken Forssi (bass), Alban “Snoopy” Pfisterer (drums)
Original release: My Little Red Book/A Message To Pretty Love, Elektra EK-45603
Currently available on: Love Rhino CD
In which I react to The Multiversity 1 in the way I think Grant Morrison intended. In other words, this may be the wankiest, least comprehensible, thing I’ve ever written…
Last night, I found myself in tears, and thinking to myself “despite everything, I still believe in Liberalism, and I still believe that the Lib Dems are the best vehicle for it. I’m going to have to fight harder for the party”.
Which is probably not the response Steve Earle was intending to provoke.
I’ve been having a tiny bit of a crisis regarding the party recently. It’s partly been to do with stuff that’s been in the news — not just the Rennard stuff (about which I agree with Jennie), but also Clegg’s speech about immigrants, which had me spitting blood. (And it was specifically the bits about *immigrants*, not about immigration, that annoyed me. People of good will can disagree about what level of immigration should be allowed, but taking rights and services away from people who are already here is just vile.) I try to be loyal in my public statements, to accept the realities of politics, and not just to be someone sniping from the sidelines, but that really pushed me to my limit.
But mostly because I’ve been fairly unwell myself for quite a while, and had a *LOT* of personal stuff to deal with (enough that when I’ve just listed some of the “highlights” of the last couple of months people have tended to laugh because the sheer number of things going wrong has been hilarious) and I’ve had difficulty keeping to my party commitments. I’m on my local party exec, and I try to do a good job, but there are some very simple things that I haven’t been able to do recently. I hope to be able to pull my weight again very soon.
These things have combined to create a sort of “what the fuck is the point of even bothering?” attitude in me. I’ve been using up more and more energy, but having less and less actual ability to do the things required of me, and all for what seem to be rapidly diminishing returns in terms of result. I’ve been seriously questioning why I bother.
Basically, in short, I’ve been turning into a whiner.
But yesterday I went to see Steve Earle, at the conference centre attached to the Echo Arena in Liverpool. I hadn’t meant to go to the gig, actually, but my friend Emily had a workmate who couldn’t go, and so I got their ticket. I love Earle’s work, but hadn’t seen him live since about 1998 — he always seems to play Manchester when there’s another gig on the same night that I already have a ticket for, or when I’m out of town.
After a support act which reinforced my desperate desire to get out and perform music again — their guitarist played exactly like I do, by which I don’t mean “badly”, but that he had exactly the same phrasing, to a degree that was frankly spooky — Earle came on and launched into You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away, and I remember realising that I have never yet seen an American act play Liverpool and *not* play a Beatles song. Blondie even did it in Delamere Forest, because that’s close enough…
For those who don’t know who Earle is (which I discovered when talking about the gig in the days leading up to it is far more people than I would have thought), he’s usually described as a country singer, but like all genre labels that’s something that can describe totally different forms of music. In Earle’s case, it seems to mean “man who has both a guitar and a Texas accent”, and not much more than that — Earle’s music definitely has a resemblance to Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Michael Nesmith, or Townes Van Zandt, but no more so than its resemblance to Richard Thompson, Bob Dylan, Tom Waits (in ballad mode), Bruce Springsteen, Leonard Cohen, or Elvis Costello, none of whom normally get called country singers.
Earle did a two-hour set, which touched on most of the highlights of his career — I Ain’t Never Satisfied, My Old Friend The Blues, Devil’s Right Hand,Goodbye, Tom Ames’ Prayer, Copperhead Road, Guitar Town, and Galway Girl (which got a small number of people who had seemed rather disapproving of his swearing and songs about crime, and who had presumably only come because they knew that song from the cider advert, on his side), and the rest. He also talked a lot between songs — about the different types of song he writes (“I write those songs so that I get women in the audience, which stops my audience getting uglier and hairier, because when I look at the men it’s like looking in a mirror” — which made me laugh more than it should, because I’d been joking earlier that Earle’s current glasses/balding head/huge beard look is stealing my style, and because he said this right after Goodbye, my single favourite song of his, so it might not be having quite the effect he hopes), and about his own personal struggles (he’s currently going through his seventh divorce, though to his sixth wife — he married and divorced one of them twice).
The one area of his songwriting he didn’t go into much in the show was his political songwriting. While almost everything Earle does has an at least implicit political message, he left out most of the explicitly political stuff he did in the mid-2000s, songs like John Walker’s Blues or Amerika v6.0 (The Best We Can Do), at least until the encore.
But for the first song of the encore, he played Jerusalem, his song about the Middle East, and talked about the work he’s done there producing collaborations between Jewish and Palestinian musicians and working with anti-war Israeli activists. And he said “I don’t believe in lost causes, because I’m a recovering heroin addict, and for a long time everyone thought I was a lost cause, and I even thought so myself, and I turned my life around”, before talking about how Belfast had changed over the years, and how even the seemingly impossible can soon become normal in politics, and then singing:
I woke up this mornin’ and none of the news was good
And death machines were rumblin’ ‘cross the ground where Jesus stood
And the man on my TV told me that it had always been that way
And there was nothin’ anyone could do or say
And I almost listened to him
Yeah, I almost lost my mind
Then I regained my senses again
And looked into my heart to find
That I believe that one fine day all the children of Abraham
Will lay down their swords forever in Jerusalem
And suddenly I understood how Earle could carry on his own political campaigning, which is mostly against the death penalty in the US, a cause that seems far more hopeless than any of the causes I’ve been involved in. And I thought about my own pathetic moaning that I haven’t yet got everything I want in politics, and that changing the world is quite hard and sometimes you have to do it even when you have a headache or are a bit tired, and I compared that to the people in the Middle East for whom political activity is literally a matter of life and death, and who just get on and do it, and realised just how comparatively easy my own political “struggles” really are.
So I’m more resolved than ever that I’m going to keep campaigning for the Liberal Democrats, and that I’m going to keep pushing within the party for it to be more like it is at its best and less like it is at its worst. I can’t promise that I’ll be any more use than I have been, given my health, or that the efforts I do make will be any more successful. But I’ll do what I can, when I can, to make the world a little bit better…