Welcome to a new year and a new decade, brothers. After a month off and all of us caught up with last year’s excellent music, let’s start off with a look back – with the reissue of one of rock’s great lost albums.
“Underrated” is a word we’ve discussed before; it is, of course, too easily used and often described things that have not been that highly rated for a good reason. As a bit of a vinyl junkie, and an aficionado of all things 60s and 70s, many are the ‘underrated’ albums I’ve bought, only to find they languished in obscurity for a damn good reason.
So let’s start with a bit of background for Mr Clark. Founding member of The Byrds, he quickly became the band’s main songwriter, and wrote an astonishing number of their well-known songs (Eight Miles High, I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better, Set You Free This Time). I hadn’t quite realised what a creative driving force he’d been in the band – especially when you consider this is a band with Roger McGuinn and David Crosby in it. The band used to call him the ‘Hillbilly Shakespeare’, because of his incredible talent for mystical lyrics despite his humble background.
However, he didn’t stay in the band beyond the third album, partly because of a chronic fear of flying, and partly because the rest of the band were pissed off that he earned more because of the songwriting royalties.
I really like the Byrds, always have, and as a Beatles nut, I’m hugely aware of their influence on the band – it was the Byrds jangling 12 string Rickenbacker that got Harrison to pick up one of his own and start adding it to the Beatles sound – which you can clearly here from Rubber Soul onwards. But I wouldn’t say I *listen* to the Byrds that much. Like The Beach Boys, I hugely admire what they did, but I don’t check in with them much.
Like a lot of the counter-cultural American rock artists of that era, Clark’s solo work after The Byrds showed him flirting quite heavily with country rock, particularly with his Dillard & Clark albums with bluegrass guitarist Doug Dillard. It’s pleasant enough stuff, but Gram Parsons, another Byrds alumni, was doing this stuff so much better.
All of this is a way of saying – Clark was obviously an insanely prodigious talent, but once he left The Byrds, there was no suggestion he was about to do anything that groundbreaking in his musical career.
It’s 1974. Clark has briefly rejoined a reformed Byrds, and the resulting album impresses mega-producer David Geffen enough to sign him to Asylum Records. This is the hippest, hottest label in the US at the time – home to Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and The Eagles. Geffen gives Clark a pretty whopping budget to go and make the album of his dreams….
What first hits you about the album is its ambition. Wikipedia helpfully describes this as “country rock, folk, gospel, soul and choral music with poetic, mystical lyrics”. It’s fucking extraordinary. Just listen to Strength of Strings alone. It’s a masterpiece:
(Eagle eared listeners of a certain age might recognised this as covered by This Mortal Coil on one of their albums. Perhaps it’s no coincidenc that it’s their label, 4AD, that put out this reissue.)
The other thing about No Other is that it also kind of sounds like everything – and then you remember that the ‘everything’ you’re thinking of came AFTER this record. Fleetwood Mac and Rumours in particular owe an enormous debt to the freewheeling genre-hopping of this album, as does some Dylan mid to late 70s output. As for the millennial era, this albums has clearly been a huge influence to a million bands, from Grizzly Bear (who’ve covered No Other songs live) to Arcade Fire to The National to every other flipping American indie band who’ve ever flirted with Americana.
So why is it so underrated? Why wasn’t it sitting next to Rumours in your parents’ record collection? Well, when Geffen heard what Clark delivered him, he lacked the vision to understand it. He thought it was a piece of shit, and berated Clark both privately and publicly, then spent nothing promoting it. That, along with frankly bizarre 1920s looking cover that gives no hint of what was inside, meant that Gene Clark’s incredible album bombed.
He never recovered from the devastating disappointment, and fell into the depressingly familiar cycle of drugs and addiction, and though he staggered on through the 80s, he never made an album of this stature again. Addiction eventually took his life aged only 46, in 1991.
What he has left is an album that can genuinely stand shoulder to shoulder to much of the greatest rock music of the era. And you can hear in that plaintive voice that he is delivering the album of his life. It is a tragedy too often told in the music industry that an artist has die before their work is appreciated. It’s never truer than with Gene Clark and No Other. Let’s at least be grateful that the ‘Hillbilly Shakespeare’ got to make his masterpiece.