Purchase: The Byrds, The Notorious Byrd Brothers
Listen: Going Back
It is one of those almost cliché—yet still astounding—facts that Carole King is one of the most prolific songwriters in modern history. There are countless songs you know that she wrote and gave to other artists who then took the tunes to the top of the charts. She was prolific as she was talented and her influence has touched on almost every chart in popular music. She is even the subject of a Broadway play—Beautiful: The Carole King Musical. The tag line says it all: “The inspiring true story of how Carole King became the soundtrack of a generation.”
It would take another, separate post, to list the artists who’ve recorded King’s music, but one of my favorites is the The Byrds. The Byrd’s unique take on rock—chiming, majestic—was as dependent on the psychedelic sitarspin as it was on folk and pop. Jangly guitars, phasing sound from one ear to another, and a straight up reliance on the country and western rhythm made the Byrds one of the most unique bands of their era. I feel like they are mostly remembered for “Turn, Turn, Turn” which suffers from the invocation of the sappy, flower power ethic of the ‘60s. But, as the Byrd’s ranged more towards country and western and left behind the banalities of the hippie movement, they became a rich, influential outfit that would pave the way for some of today’s most seminal bands (at least in my record collection: Son Volt and Wilco, to name just two.) An early sense of breaking molds and exploring sonic possibilities will forever set the Byrds at a tier above many of their contemporaries, even if they are often overlooked as innovators and were sometimes incredibly uneven.
The Carole King penned “Going Back” was the lead single from The Notorious Byrd Brothers, and while the album didn’t chart very high, it is cited often as their best album for its experimental feel. It is a solid album all the way through, working towards a sonic vision, and unlike other albums, it cleaves to an idea and presents it to the listener in a gorgeous, shimmery blend of melody and chiming guitar and vox. The cohesiveness is interesting in another way: in researching the album, one finds that it was tumultuous time for the band, and three members, including David Crosby, left for good during the recordings.
The album has made its way onto various Greatest Albums lists (171 In Rolling Stones Greatest 500; 32 on NME’s Top 100) lists and writer, Johnny Rogan, in his book The Byrds: Timeless Flight Revisited, said: “The Byrds' greatest accomplishment on the album was in creating a seamless mood piece from a variety of different sources, bound together by innovative studio experimentation.”
The song itself has an almost antiquated chorus, reminiscent of so much of the sound of the day, but the Byrd’s add those odd, dithering guitars and the song goes from easy listening to something much more adventurous and exploratory.
“Going Back” has a long history, and while the version I’ve chosen is the Byrd’s take, the song has been recorded by artists as disparate as Phil Collins, The Pretenders, Freddy Mercury and Bon Jovi. David Crosby hated it because it felt it was unserious “fluff”. Indeed, it is pure pop whimsy, and covers a timeless theme of coming of age and the loss of innocence that adulthood brings. But, under Roger McGuinn’s harmony and the guitars, it’s a pure pop masterpiece and demonstration of Carole King’s talent at literally spinning gold. I think one way to put a definition on the influence and reach of Carole King is that she’d already written a decades worth of hits before she released her own album, Tapestry, which is one of the greatest selling pop records of all time.