The Byrds were one of the most talented groups ever; whole movements and multiple bands emerged from them. Roger McGuinn, David Crosby, Chris Hillman, Gram Parsons and Clarence White were all members; but maybe the most talented of them all, and certainly the best composer, was Gene Clark, the guy who had the least luck of them all, but who had an excellent, albeit short, solo career. From Guitars Exchange we want to take advantage of what would have been his 77th birthday, November 17, 2021, to remember our 10 favourite songs from his discography:
Eight Miles High (1966)
Although it was McGuinn who defined the sound of the Byrds with his Rickenbacker, it was Gene Clark who was the main songwriter and the man they never looked away from on stage. However his fear of flying and his disagreements with the other members - as he was the member who earned the most thanks to royalties - led him to leave the band at the beginning of 1966. Before doing so, he gave them their best song and one of the greatest psychedelic anthems: Eight Miles High. Again it is McGuinn's guitar, a 370 12-string, that is the star on this track, with a solo influenced by John Coltrane and Ravi Shankar - but the melody is 100% Gene Clark. The band took a hit when he left, but having time spent with him, McGuinn, Crosby and Hillman also blossomed as songwriters; all of them hugely influenced by the spell of the great Gene Clark.
I'll Feel A Whole Lot Better (1965)
Released as the B-side to Mr Tambourine Man's second single, All I Really Want to Do, I'll Feel A Whole Lot Better, written and sung by Clark, was a hit in its own right. It was a glorious two-and-a-half minute song that already previewed what would later be known as Power Pop: glorious choruses sung with guitars, in this case McGuinn's Rick and Crosby's Gretsch, at full volume, with a riff that has been copied countless times (and which came from the Searchers' Needles & Pins). Lyrically Clark was already distinguishing himself with such subtle touches as adding the "probably" to the chorus phrase.
Here Without You (1965)
This was one of the first songs written by Clark, in 1964, when the Byrds were the Jet Set and only had Clark, Crosby and McGuinn. The Beatles' imprint on this ballad is evident but there is something more melancholic and dark, with a wonderful melody that combines major and minor chords, and an excellent Clark on lead vocals.
Life's Greatest Fool (1974)
After the original five Byrds returned in 1973 to record the eponymous album, everyone was convinced that Clark's contributions had been the best, so David Geffen signed him to Asylum and gave him carte (and checkbook) blanche to do whatever he wanted. Clark, along with producer Thomas Jefferson Kaye, then delivered his masterpiece - the colossal No Other, one of the best albums of the 70s. On this work with great production, surrounded by some of the best session musicians in Los Angeles, Clark mixed country rock, gospel, soul and folk with poetic and intricate lyrics. That album opened with Life's Greatest Fool, a country rock marvel with an incredible chorus that featured an outstanding country solo by Jerry McGee on a Les Paul Standard and fantastic slide guitar work by the great Jesse Ed Davis - backed by the heavenly backing vocals that can be enjoyed on this essential album.
Tried So Hard (1967)
When Gene Clark left the Byrds in early '66 he went to his native Kansas City and spent six months out of the spotlight. When he returned to Los Angeles, the industry and the public seemed to have forgotten him, but his talent was still flowing with enormous force. After signing with Columbia, the Byrds' label, he set to work on his solo debut, an excellent album, on a par with his work with his previous band, which went totally unnoticed, despite being an absolute marvel - Gene Clark with the Gosdin Brothers. That album contained this country rock marvel, released a year before the Byrds' own Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, on which he was accompanied by Chris Hillman on bass, Vern and Rex Gosdin on harmonies - and the great Clarence White giving all the twang flavour to the song with his Telecaster.
Some Misunderstanding (1974)
Some Misunderstanding was the centrepiece of No Other, an eight-minute beauty in which the singer reflects on the perils and pleasures of a life lived too extravagantly. It is clear that Clark lived all the excesses possible during his life, but if these ultimately led him to create a song of such beauty, well done. The pity is that the commercial failure of the album was a huge blow to Clark’s confidence - who never again reached such heights in his career.
Set You Free This Time (1965)
The best song on Turn! Turn! Turn!, the Byrds' second album, which also bore Gene Clark's signature, was this wonder with a sinuous melody and 'Dylanesque' lyrics. On this track the singer rounds off what may be the best vocal of his career, as well as accompanying it with a great harmonica solo and one of the few occasions on which he played guitar on a Byrds record; possibly the Martin D-28 from his period as a folk singer.
The emotional heart of his first solo album was this gem, which is somewhere between baroque pop and psychedelia. The song opens with a careful string arrangement that gives way to one of those haunting, melancholic melodies so typical of Clark; answered by the strings of an exquisite production. It is absolutely shameful that an album that includes wonders like this one, Tried So Hard and So You Say You Lost Your Baby is so little known. It is a true jewel that should be heard again and again.
Strength Of Strings (1974)
The third song I include in this list from the essential No Other is, possibly, the most ambitious and audacious of his entire career, with an epic production, with 'Spectorian' overtones and a musical introduction of more than two minutes - before Clark sings a single word. When the singer finally enters he does so as if standing on a mountaintop in the middle of a storm, delivering an unforgettable sermon on the transformative power of music.
Out On The Side (1968)
After the commercial failure of his first album, Gene Clark briefly rejoined the Byrds, but his chronic fear of flying again forced him to leave the band. He then teamed up with country musician Doug Dillard, who had just left the Dillards, and together they formed the duo Dillard & Clark and released one of the first country rock wonders - the same year as the Byrds' Sweetheart Of The Rodeo and one before the Flying Burrito Brothers' Gilded Palace Of Sin. That album, called The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard & Clark, opened with this marvel written by Clark, who is one of the best (and most forgotten) songwriters in the history of rock.