The Byrds - Untitled (1970) - Album Review

By Sergio Ariza

The best summary of their career 

The 1970 Byrds were a totally different group from the one that had pioneered folk rock, but they didn't have much to do with the psychedelic band either; not even with the one that had practically invented country rock in 1968 with Sweetheart Of The Rodeo. The only common link was
Roger McGuinn and his Rickenbacker, the man who was in charge of all the different formations that the band had and who had seen the departure of people of the caliber of Gene Clark, David Crosby, Gram Parsons and the faithful Chris Hillman. Of course, the members that accompanied him at that time, the incredible Clarence White on guitar, Gene Parsons on drums and Skip Battin on bass, were possibly the best musicians that had ever played in the band, which made them sound like never before live.


So it was decided to release a live album that would capture their best moment on stage, but, as they also had enough songs for a new album, it was decided to combine both and release a double album, with a first part dedicated to the live performance and a second to new studio recordings. Among the new songs were those that McGuinn had prepared with psychologist and Broadway impresario Jacques Levy for a musical entitled Gene Tryp, which was based on Henrik Ibsen's Peer Gynt. Those songs had a strong country-rock and Americana flavor, another of the genres that they had helped to pioneer - but since the project had been scrapped, several ended up on this album.

One of them, the powerful Lover Of The Bayou was used to unite the two albums, and was destined to open the live album. This also helped to unite the different phases and formations of the band. The live part was recorded in two concerts in New York on February 28 and March 1, 1970, and opened with the aforementioned Lover Of The Bayou; this was followed by one of the band's specialties, a cover from Bob Dylan's catalogue, in this case the cynical Positively 4th Street. Next came the country instrumental Nashville West, which served as a showcase for White's Telecaster; perfectly accompanied by McGuinn's Rickanbacker. Then it was time to review some of the band's greatest hits, an incendiary version of So You Want to Be a Rock 'n' Roll Star, their unforgettable take of Tambourine Man, Mr. Spaceman, one of the band's first country rock songs, and, finally, a 16+ minute version of their psychedelic gem, Eight Miles High. It is in this latter cut where the enormous level of these musicians can best be verified, who almost get into progressive territories with MgGuinn evoking John Coltrane and White demonstrating why he is the best guitarist by far that has passed through the legendary band.


The studio album got off to one of the best possible starts with Chestnut Mare, one of the great songs of McGuinn's career with a brilliant chorus, accompanied by his jangling Rickenbacker and a spectacular White on acoustic, plus a wonderful Bach-based bridge that McGuinn had composed from his days as a folk singer. It was followed by a brilliant cover of a song that had not yet been released, Truck Stop Girl by Little Feat; a band with whom these Byrds had quite a few similarities. Lead vocals are provided by White, arguably the band's most underrated member, despite the fact that his guitar appears on eight of the band's twelve albums.

But the hidden gem of the album is the stupendous All The Things, another of McGuinn’s compositions with Levy, in which the former recovers past psychedelic effluvia and in which, in addition, former band member Gram Parsons can be heard on backing vocals and the legendary producer of his records, Terry Melcher, on piano. Yesterday's Train and Hungry Planet demonstrated that with the incorporation of Skip Battin they had signed up not just a bass player, but someone who could lend a hand to McGuinn in the composition of the songs. However it is evident that his country footprint is much greater, especially in the former song, which is helped by the pedal steel of the great Sneaky Pete Kleinow.


Just A Season
was the fourth song of Gene Tryp's abandoned project, which is another forgotten gem reminiscent of the band's early folk rock days; here the harmonies of Crosby and Gene Clark would have been very welcome. The playing is really good, though, and White and McGuinn once again prove that their guitars sounded wonderful together.

Following a cover of Ledbetter, came two more Battin songs. The first is You All Look Alike, with McGuinn on lead vocals, which was a great country rock tune, featuring Byron Berline's fiddle and White's mandolin. The second is the album closer Well Come Back Home, with Battin on lead vocals singing about the troubled homecoming of Vietnam veterans which closed, in pure Byrds tradition, with a bizarre moment with Battin chanting a Buddhist mantra.

The album was very well received and considered as a return to the band's best form. Untitled is the band's best post- Sweetheart Of The Rodeo album, a work that proves that the Byrds with McGuinn as the only original member also left an indispensable album, one that worked as an unbeatable summary of their brilliant career.