“Sea Change” is a series that discusses album or albums in a band’s discography that signify a brief or career-long change in the group’s sound or style.
Gene Clark was one of the best members of the original Byrds. He was the group’s most successful songwriter, having written many of the band’s original hits, and was described by his other bandmates as being a driving force for the group.
After becoming fed up with traveling and Roger McGuinn’s decision to sing lead vocals on their Bob Dylan cover songs, which would go on to become their most famous, Clark left the band in 1966 to take control of his music and pursue a solo career.
In 1967, Clark paired with the Gosdin Brothers to record his debut solo album, titled Gene Clark with the Gosdin Brothers. Despite great songwriting and a stylistic blend of folk, country, and rock, Clark’s album didn’t garner him much success.
In 1968, Clark paired with Doug Dillard in Los Angeles to record The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard and Clark. For this particular album, Clark moved away from the jangling twelve string guitars of LA folk rock and turned to west coast bluegrass and country
music, stripping down the instrumentation and creating a sound that was less produced and more rural.
Though Clark’s journey into country rock was paralleled by both the Byrds and Bob Dylan, Clark was still a step ahead of most everyone else; he put more focus on roots music rather than rock, which would become increasingly popular later on through groups such as the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.
Fantastic Expedition showed that Clark was not only one of the great songwriters of his day but was also a combiner of a multitude of genres and styles; he could seamlessly bring together roots, rock, folk, and much more into one song.
In 1971, he turned to almost completely acoustic music for his album White Light. On this album, Clark’s songwriting is placed directly in the foreground. When only accompanied by an acoustic guitar or a few acoustic instruments, his lyrics become more emotionally vulnerable and bare. Also, particularly on White Light, Clark moved towards a more sophisticated, original country sound.
Though it’s clear that the music is contemporary country-rock, Clark is much more authentic than The Byrds’ albums produced at the same time. For example, here are two country rock songs by the Byrds and Gene Clark. As you’ll here, Clark sounds much more true to the form and actually country.
In 1972, Clark was ready to move further out of the spotlight and follow his own path; however, he still owed A&M records one last album. While some artists would’ve used this opportunity to make a terrible album, such as Emerson, Lake, and Palmer’s Love Beach, Clark took the opportunity seriously and recorded one of the best albums of his career.
For these sessions, Clark put together the best darn country rock band he could get, containing members of the Flying Burrito Brothers and the Byrds.
The album, however, would never be released. Clark walked out on the recording sessions and the tapes were stored away.
The following year, however, Clark’s manager, Jim Dickson, took these eight songs and added three previously recorded songs to create the record Roadmaster, which saw a limited European release and has only recently been reissued.
The first two added tracks are the result of an attempt at a Byrd’s reunion in 1970; Clark rejoins Roger McGuinn, Chris Hillman, and David Crosby for “She’s The Kind of Girl” and “One In A Hundred,” which are the opening two tracks of the album.
By opening the album with these two songs, we are shown where Clark came from and the sound and band that he used to be a part of.
The songs sound like a typical Byrds’ number; McGuinn’s twelve string guitar stands out among the other instruments, beautiful, multi-layered harmonies echo throughout the chorus and verses, and the song’s lyrics are filled with beautiful poetic imagery and rhyme.
In a way, Clark is reviving the folk-rock style that he helped invent and popularize while also putting his own twist on it. The songs are much more somber and feel more emotional than the albums he put out with the Byrds. It’s clear that these songs are merely an homage to Clark’s past and that he is ready to move on to something different.
The third song on the album is a pairing between Gene Clark and the Flying Burrito
Brothers, a group started by Gram Parsons who spearheaded the country rock movement.
Musically, the song take cues from earlier folk rock with a more upbeat and lighthearted feel and sound. Even the harmonies sound like they were taken from the first two songs with the Byrds. The only addition, it seems, is a steel guitar played by Sneaky Pete Kleinow.
Lyrically, however, one begins to notice a difference between the first two Byrds reunion songs and this 1971 recording. Rather than incorporating Bob Dylan-esque imagery and language that sounds pretty, Clark writes in a vernacular style and utilizes more realistic situations, effectively depicting a woman leaving in the middle of the night. The song is more emotive than any of his previous songs with the Byrds, showing Clark’s maturity and growing ability as a songwriter and song-maker.
The following track, “Full Circle Song,” which is from the eight 1972 recordings, helps complete the transition between the jangly folk rock of the 60s and the country rock sound of the 70s. In terms of composition, the song appears to be a jam rather than a structured studio recording. The lyrics, as well, are written to sound like rural country wisdom rather than finely crafted poetry.
For the last seven tracks on the album, Clark does away with all background vocalists and turns to his most intimate and personal material. In terms of musical arrangement, which includes a fiddle and steel guitar, the sound is most definitely country rock; however, like his previous efforts, Clark’s recordings are based on much older styles of music, making his songs sound more like traditional folk tunes rather than heavily-produced LA country imitations.
Tracks such as “In A Misty Morning,” “Shooting Star,” “I Remember the Railroad,” and “She Don’t Care About Time” are many steps ahead of the first four cuts on the album.
While the 1970 songs with the Byrds are certainly more emotive than his records from the 1960s, Clark digs much deeper for this portion of the album. These songs show the more emotional, vulnerable side of the artist, which typically isn’t shown when trying to write a hit single.
“In A Misty Morning” might be the best example of this. Clark writes of a mysterious narrator who drives into town on a misty Monday morning. He’s wary of the police and seems to be escaping something or someone, potentially a crime or a broken relationship. This particular track is dreamy and hazy like the early morning mist that the narrator is traveling through. He’s dreaming of some place where he can find a new beginning and leave his old life behind.
“I Remember the Railroad” is a reflection of Clark’s childhood. He remembers seeing people travel by trains and rarely seeing new faces in his life. Now, however, everyone is coming and going rapidly and the world is constantly changing, leaving him confused and feeling alone.
With these three songs, it’s clear that they are not just simple country or folk tunes; they’re personal and inward looking, showing the listener Clark’s true thoughts, soul, and mind.
He feels that the world is constantly changing around him and that he can no longer keep up with society and popular music. Similar to the themes of White Light and Fantastic Expedition…, Clark continually writes of his memories of an older, happier life and his longing for something stable and joyful.
Even the songs that Clark covers, “Rough and Rocky” and “I Really Don’t Want to Know,” fit into these themes and motifs.
“I Really Don’t Want to Know,” my personal favorite, shows a confused narrator asking his lover how many people they have been with. At the same time, he tells them that it’d be better if they didn’t say. He’s confused, torn, and broken yet still in love.
The opening title track of side two, “Roadmaster,” which happens to be another cover, is the most upbeat song from the 1972 sessions. The song follows the typical country-rock narrative of a traveling hippie musician with long hair and a free spirit. Musically, it’s the most funky of the songs and shows a happier, brighter side to Clark.
Despite this joyful tone, it is clear both in this song and in others that Clark recognizes that the path he takes is one that he must take alone.
Though he had a fairly successful beginning with the Byrds, Gene Clark was meant to fly other skies. His emotional, vulnerable songwriting style was not meant for the pop-oriented group and he decided to move on.
On Roadmaster, Clark looks back at what he could’ve been and then moves on, soaring much higher alone than with a group.
Thank you for reading this edition of “Sea Change.” If you have any album recommendations, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Written by: George LaBour ’17