Gene Clark achieved fame and success as an early member of The Byrds. As a solo artist, however, he only achieved cult status. Hampered by anxiety, a fear of flying, and alcohol and drug abuse, he received critical acclaim but minimal sales.
Harold Eugene Clark was born in Missouri. Inspired by The Kingston Trio, he joined the New Christy Minstrels before linking up with Jim McGuinn and David Crosby to form The Byrds. McGuinn was the leader, but Clark was the band’s best in-house songwriter, penning tracks like ‘I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better’, ‘She Don’t Care About Time’, and most of ‘Eight Miles High’. Clark’s rich imagery betrayed an influence from Bob Dylan, but he was an accomplished songwriter who developed his own distinctive style. Clark’s songwriting royalties stoked tensions in a competitive group, and he was the first original Byrd to leave.
Clark’s solo career was erratic – he recorded a meagre number of records for such a prodigious writing talent, with only four solo albums during his lifetime. His post-Byrds work is wide-ranging, from the early foray into country-rock with Dillard & Clark, to the polished LA studio sound of 1974’s No Other. Clark passed away in 1991, a few months after he performed with the original Byrds lineup at their Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction. His death was precipitated by substance abuse, brought about by a sudden influx in royalties after Tom Petty covered ‘I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better’ on 1989’s Full Moon Fever.
Gene Clark Album Reviews
Gene Clark with the Gosdin Brothers | The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard & Clark | Through the Morning, Through the Night | White Light | Roadmaster | No Other | Two Sides to Every Story | Firebyrd | So Rebellious a Lover (with Carla Olson)
Gene Clark with the Gosdin Brothers
Clark’s first solo album was released almost concurrently with The Byrds’ Younger Than Yesterday. It was overshadowed by his former band’s record, with which it shares a similar stylistic range – both are eclectic records that dabble with psychedelia and country. Where The Byrds’ record is confident, Clark’s debut is tentative. He’s backed by country vocalists, the Gosdin Brothers, who are billed on the cover. There’s also an all-star cast of supporting musicians, including Glen Campbell, Leon Russell, Jim Gordon, and Van Dyke Parks.
It’s the psychedelic material that’s the most interesting – the opening track ‘Echoes’ swirls with its unsettling strings and Clark’s cryptic lyrics. ‘Elevator Operator’ features blatant drug double entendres and trippy harmonies. Despite the highlights, there are a surprisingly high number of mundane tracks for a Clark album, and it’s one of his weaker solo albums.
The version of Gene Clark with the Gosdin Brothers most readily available, both on Spotify and on CD, is known as Echoes. It adds a bunch of bonus tracks, including early Byrds songs like ‘Boston’ and ‘Set You Free This Time’, and scrambles the track order. It also remixes tracks and removes vocal double-tracking.
The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard & Clark – Dillard & Clark
After the failure of his debut, Clark briefly rejoined The Byrds, replacing David Crosby. He only lasted three shows before quitting and linking up with Doug Dillard in a new duo. Dillard was a virtuoso banjo player who’d previously led The Dillards and played live with The Byrds. The duo was supported by future Eagle Bernie Leadon, who plays the guitar and sings harmony – Dillard and Leadon are credited with co-writing many of these songs with Clark. The Fantastic Expedition was released a couple of months after The Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo, but it’s still a very early example of country-rock.
Clark sounds comfortable supported by Dillard’s banjo and Leadon’s harmony. His songwriting is less idiosyncratic than later records, but it’s still very strong. The most memorable songs are at the start – Clark’s introspection on ‘Out on the Side’ and ‘She Darked The Sun’ is sweetened by the pretty arrangements. There’s some lovely harmonising and old time religion on their cover of Lester Flatts’ ‘Git On Brother’.
The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard & Clark didn’t sell well on release, with Clark’s refusal to tour, but it’s an accomplished country-rock record that deserves more attention.
Through the Morning, Through the Night – Dillard & Clark
The first Dillard & Clark album presented a rock-friendly version of country, dialling down the hokey aspects. Unfortunately, Through the Morning, Through the Night dials them right back up – there’s lots of fiddle, while Bernie Leadon’s backing vocals are replaced by Doug Dillard’s girlfriend Donna Washburn. Frustratingly, there are only four Gene Clark originals here – the rest of the record is filled out by covers.
When Robert Plant and Alison Krauss recorded their 2007 Grammy-winning Americana album Raising Sand, they covered two songs from this relatively obscure record. They chose the best two – the brooding ‘Polly’ and the title track are both strong additions to the Clark catalogue. Along with the other Clark originals and a countrified cover of The Beatles’ ‘Don’t Let Me Down’ which improves upon the original, there’s half a worthy album here. Enjoyment of the other half will depend on your tolerance of less refined material, notably Washburn yeehawing her way through ‘Rocky Top’.
Through the Morning, Through the Night isn’t a great showcase for Clark’s work, crowding out his originals with covers.
In 1971, at the height of the singer-songwriter era, Clark released a stripped-back album of brilliant songs. White Light should have been a big hit but it only sold well in the Netherlands. Clark’s main collaborator is producer Jesse Ed Davis, whose tasteful lead guitar complements Clark’s melancholy songs. Clark’s verse melodies and lyrics are exquisite. Including a cover of a Dylan song (‘Tears of Rage’) invites unflattering comparisons, but Clark’s songs are worthy to stand proudly alongside it.
All of these songs are excellent, but my favourite is ‘Because Of You’ – Clark delivering a gentle love song over acoustic guitar and subtle organ backing. Dylan reportedly stated that ‘For A Spanish Guitar’ is “something I or anybody else would have been proud to have written.” Many of these songs feature a rhythm section, but it’s unobtrusive and often feels like it’s just Clark with some lead guitar. The bonus material on the CD edition is very strong too – ‘Opening Day’, ‘Winter In’ and ‘Ship of the Lord’ are all album quality tracks.
White Light is an overlooked classic, a singer-songwriter album that’s every bit as good as more successful contemporary efforts by James Taylor and Carole King.
White Light was only successful in the Netherlands, so follow-up Roadmaster was only issued in the Netherlands. It’s not a studio album per se, more of a collection of tracks from various sessions. The record opens with an unissued Byrds single – a pair of Clark songs recorded by the original lineup in 1970. ‘Here Tonight’ was recorded with the Flying Burrito Brothers, while the remaining tracks were captured in 1972 with a country-oriented band that included Spooner Oldham and Clarence White.
The first side is superlative – ‘One In A Hundred’ had already appeared on White Light but the Byrds version here sparkles like their very best early singles. ‘Here Tonight’ with the Burritos has a great vocal hook, while ‘Full Circle Song’ would reappear on the Byrds reunion album in 1973. ‘In a Misty Morning’ is an archetypal Clark marriage of melody and melancholy. The second side is less convincing, reliant on covers – in particular, the bluesy title track doesn’t fit Clark’s personality. The remake of the classic Byrds b-side ‘She Don’t Care About Time’ is a worthy idea, but it lacks the spark of the original.
Even though it’s effectively a compilation, Roadmaster is a slice of prime-era Clark – that’s enough to ensure it should be cherished.
In 1974, Clark participated in a reunion album with the other original Byrds. While the album wasn’t a success, Clark’s material like ‘Full Circle’ and vocals on Neil Young’s ‘Cowgirl in the Sand’ and ‘See The Sky About To Rain’ impressed David Geffen. Geffen signed Clark to Asylum Records and assigned him to producer Thomas Jefferson Kaye. Despite the fact that Clark hadn’t written a hit for nearly a decade, No Other was an expensive production loaded with ace musicians. It wasn’t a success, but its lavish L.A. sheen isn’t far removed from Fleetwood Mac’s mega-successful Rumours.
A lot of these tracks aren’t far removed from Clark’s usual introspective, country-tinged balladry. Songs like ‘Silver Raven’ and ‘The True One’ are unmistakably Clark, even if they’re decorated with more studio candy than usual. Clark’s lyrics are more philosophical than usual, drawing on his Christian upbringing and discussions on other belief systems. The songs are all excellent enough to thrive, even with the potentially saccharine arrangements, but the record’s strongest when it deviates furthest from Clark’s usual oeuvre. The title track is a riff-rocker, which escalates into exotic Latin percussion, while ‘Strength of Strings’ is psychedelic and mysterious. ‘From A Silver Phial’ is an amazing piano ballad with Clark piling alliteration into his cosmic musing; “Said she saw the sword of sorrow sunken/In the sand of searching souls.” The swooning ‘Lady of the North’ provides a suitably epic conclusion to a masterpiece.
No Other was a commercial disaster – reportedly Clark never recovered from its failure. Nonetheless, it’s a glorious record, a brilliant songwriter backed by grandiose arrangements.
Two Sides to Every Story
Clark’s follow-up to No Other is a country-rock album, with Emmylou Harris on backing vocals and Al Perkins on pedal steel. It’s noticeably scaled-down in ambition from No Other – Clark was reportedly crushed by the failure of his previous record. Some of the upbeat songs are lightweight, and three covers indicate Clark’s diminished artistic ambition. There are some typically well-written songs though, particularly among the slower songs.
Chief among them is ‘Hear The Wind’, a tender ballad with Clark’s higher register backed with pedal steel. He’s backed by electric piano on ‘Sister Moon’, while ‘Past Addresses’ is another side two highlight. Clark also remakes ‘Kansas City Southern’, a song he recorded with Dillard & Clark in the late 1960s – his vocals sound like John Fogerty, and the tougher arrangement helps the song. Clark’s version of ‘In The Pines’, aka ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night?’, is a little too upbeat for the subject matter.
Two Sides to Every Story is Clark’s least essential record of the 1970s, but dedicated fans should enjoy the balladry on side two.
McGuinn, Clark, and Hillman/City
Three of the original Byrds reunited for two studio records in 1979 and 1980. Hillman and McGuinn also released a third in 1980 without Clark. No Depression magazine describes their first record as “the result of three artists struggling to remain relevant in a changing marketplace”.
Clark’s final record as a solo artist is obscure – at the time of writing, it doesn’t even have its own Wikipedia article. There also seem to be five different album covers floating around the internet for it, mostly terrible. It’s an odd record, little over half an hour long with three covers. Clark revisits his Byrds days with versions of ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ and ‘I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better’, and also takes on Gordon Lightfoot’s ‘If You Could Read My Mind’. The material feels slight, and the arrangements are odd – Firebyrd features a polite, piano-heavy sound that you’d expect on a Christian contemporary record.
The best parts of the record are when Clark’s voice is left exposed – it’s easy to underrate his vocal prowess, a capable harmony singer in The Byrds, but also expressive and endearingly creaky. On the cover of ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’, Clark’s voice shines – unlike the famous Byrds version, Clark sings all of Dylan’s verses. His vocals give the song interest despite the treacly arrangement, as he also does on ‘If You Could Read My Mind’. Clark’s songwriting isn’t at its best – ‘Rodeo Rider’ sounds like a generic country-rock song – but material like ‘Rain Song’ and ‘Blue Raven’ is worth seeking out for hardcore fans.
Firebyrd is an odd release- a low-budget record with just enough to entice hardcore fans.
So Rebellious A Lover – Gene Clark & Carla Olson
Clark’s final studio album was a collaborative album with Carla Olson. Olson has played in the Textones with the Go-Gos’ Kathy Valentine, as well as with former Rolling Stone Mick Taylor. There’s little to betray this record was recorded in 1987 apart from some fretless bass – producer and drummer Michael Huey provides a stripped-down roots-rock sound. Clark’s voice has changed – it’s higher, and he sounds a little like Roger McGuinn.
In particular, the first side is very strong – Olson impresses with the opening ‘The Drifter’, while Clark’s ‘Gypsy Rider’ is a late-period highlight, with its tuneful resignation. Clark’s ‘Del Gato’ and the cover of Woody Guthrie’s ‘Deportee’ work very well in tandem. The second side is less impressive after the traditional ‘Fair and Tender Ladies’ – in particular, the cover of Gram Parson’s ‘Hot Burrito #1’ feels perfunctory.
Despite only three Clark originals, So Rebellious A Lover is worth hearing, stronger than some of Clark’s early records.
10 Best Gene Clark Songs
From A Silver Phial
Strength of Strings
Because of You
One in a Hundred (Byrds version on Roadmaster)
For A Spanish Guitar
Out on the Side
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Aphoristic Album Reviews is almost entirely written by one person.
Graham Fyfe is probably the only music blogger to appreciate both Neil Diamond and Ariana Grande. Based in Fleet Street (New Zealand), he's been writing this blog since around 2000. Aphoristic Album Reviews features reviews and blog posts across a growing spectrum of popular music.
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