Sunday, August 10, 2014

Mocking Byrds: Ballad of Easy Rider

Since last November, I’ve been planning a second week special on remakes of songs by The Byrds. At that time I picked out four tunes and immediately forgot about it until last week when I selected three additional tunes for inclusion. You won’t be hearing covers of some of their bigger hits, as many were written by others like Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger.

I call this week’s feature “Mocking Byrds,” and we’ll be looking at a number of Byrds’ tunes that were composed by members of the band and covered by other artists. Some of The Byrds’ originals are better known than others, but I’ve endeavored to find some of the best covers of some classic Byrds’ cuts.

I have a bit of closeness to The Byrds, as the first 45 that I purchased was their “Mr. Spaceman” single. In addition, the first commercially recorded cassette tape I bought was “The Notorious Byrd Brothers.” With my history with loving their recordings, it was easy to come up with this week’s feature.

Our first song is the 1969 recording of the “Ballad of Easy Rider” by Fairport Convention. While the song was recorded during the band’s “Liege and Lief” sessions and it includes the band’s lineup at the time except for Dave Swarbrick. Although the song was the band’s encore number at the time, the recording was out of character with the rest of “Liege and Lief’s” traditional folk character, and so it was shelved.

Although it features Sandy Denny on vocals, it first showed up on guitarist Richard Thompson’s 1976 compilation album, “(guitar, vocal).” It has also appeared on a number of other compilations, as well as a being a bonus track on the band’s “Unhalfbricking” CD and on their “Liege and Lief” boxed set.

Of all of covers of material by The Byrds that I’m featuring, I like this one better than the Byrds’ 1969 release. It’s different than either the solo version by Roger McGuinn on the “Easy Rider” soundtrack and the single release and title cut from The Byrds’ “Ballad of Easy Rider” album.

Not only is Fairport’s version slower and more soulful, it is in a different time signature. I believe McGuinn wrote the tune in either 2/2 or 2/4 time, but I can’t find any documentation on its specific time signature.

The Byrds’ version is much faster than McGuinn’s solo version on the movie soundtrack. That version also features former Byrd Gene Clark on harmonica. Fairport’s version is a waltz in ¾ time. It’s turnabout for The Byrds, as they were known to change the time signatures of Dylan’s tunes that they recorded.

The writing of the “Ballad of Easy Rider” by McGuinn has an interesting twist. Peter Fonda asked Bob Dylan to write the theme for the movie, but Dylan wouldn’t have any part of it. What he did though is write down the lyrics, “The river flows; it flows to the sea. Wherever that river goes, that's where I want to be. Flow, river, flow" on a napkin. He then handed it to Fonda and said, in essence, “Take this to McGuinn, he’ll know what to do with it.”

McGuinn took the lyrical fragment and constructed the “Ballad of Easy Rider.” Although Dylan’s name appeared alongside McGuinn’s as the author in the movie’s credits, he asked that it be removed and in essence disavowed any connection to the song. McGuinn theorized that Dylan didn’t like the movie and didn’t want his name associated with it.

I hope you like Fairport’s recording of this number. Although I typically prefer The Byrds’ recordings of their tunes, I like this rendition better.

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