When I was given the letter “G” in the Americana UK A to Z, I initially thought I’d write about Gram Parsons, but then I changed my mind and decided on Gene Clark. To borrow the title of a Byrds song – Clark was one of the band’s founding members – why? Well, I was reminded of an interview I did with filmmaker Paul Kendall in 2013, to tie-in with the release of his great documentary, ‘Gene Clark – The Byrd Who Flew Alone.’
He told me: “I felt that Gene Clark has been dealt a bad hand by history – Gram Parsons should be remembered and acknowledged, but he’s way up there and Gene Clark is lurking in the shadows somewhere. That’s always struck me as being a grave injustice.”
I couldn’t agree more – I often find myself annoyed and frustrated when I’m reading articles on The Byrds that play down Clark’s role in the group, or fail to realise how influential he was. Sadly, even some of his former band mates haven’t always been his biggest supporters, so I guess I am writing this piece as a form of, er, Gene therapy.
I’ve been a fan of The Byrds for a long time – I can remember my dad playing their first album at home when I was a young lad in the late ‘70s/early ‘80s – but it’s only in recent years that I’ve got into Clark solo’s material. Clark was a member of The Byrds from 1964 to 1966 – unable to cope with the pressures of fame, he left and embarked on a solo career. A fear of flying also had a large part to play in his decision to quit the band.
He wrote, or co-wrote, several of the songs from The Byrds’ first three albums, including the Searchers-like jangle-pop of ‘I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better’, the country-influenced ‘Set You Free This Time’, the sublime, 12-string guitar-led ‘She Don’t Care About Time’ – which is said to have inspired The Beatles’ ‘If I Needed Someone’ from ‘Rubber Soul’ – and the psychedelic anthem ‘Eight Miles High.’
It’s fair to say that in 2013/2014 I became quite obsessed with Clark. I found myself listening to The Byrds a hell of a lot and then started exploring his solo work. I already knew a few of his songs from versions by other acts – one of my best friends, Andy Cornish – a musical mentor of mine – played bass in a ’90s garage-rock band called The Green Hornets, who did a cool, organ-heavy cover of Clark’s groovy 1967 song ‘Elevator Operator’, and US power-poppers Velvet Crush included their gorgeous rendition of Clark’s ‘Why Not Your Baby’ – a single he recorded with Doug Dillard in 1969 – on their wonderful 1994 album, ‘Teenage Symphonies To God’.
I’d had a CD copy of Clark’s 1974 cosmic country-rock-soul-baroque-folk album ‘No Other’ for a while – largely ignored on its release, it’s now considered a masterpiece and a cult classic – but, I’m ashamed to admit, I hadn’t really given it the time of day.
When I was a hip, young indie kid, I think the R & B/ funk feel of the title track put me off, but I can now appreciate its brilliance and, in fact, I love the whole album – so much so that I bought a vinyl reissue of it in a record shop in Bergen, Norway, while I was on holiday there a couple of years ago. (By the way, if you’re ever in Bergen, go to Rocade Musikk – the owner, Roald, is a huge Americana fan and has a fantastic selection of new and old vinyl).
After reading John Einarson’s excellent Clark biography – Mr Tambourine Man – The Life and Legacy of The Byrds’ Gene Clark – and watching Kendall’s film, I got into Clark in a big way and bought his back catalogue. My favourite album of his is 1971’s stripped-down ‘White Light’ – aka ‘Gene Clark’ – which deserves to be heralded as one of the great singer-songwriters albums of all time.
Recorded with members of the Flying Burrito Brothers and the Steve Miller Band, it’s his second long-player as a solo artist. It wasn’t commercially successful when it came out, but it’s easily up there with any of Dylan’s greatest releases of the ’70s – in fact, Dylan said of Clark’s beautiful song ‘For A Spanish Guitar’, which is on ‘White Light’: “[It’s] something I or anybody else would have been proud to have written.”
Clark was a huge Dylan fan – on ‘White Light’ he covers ‘Tears Of Rage’, a song written by Dylan and Richard Manuel of The Band. It’s a superb version – easily as good as the original, if not better.
One part hell-raiser, one part mystical poet, Clark died in 1991, aged 46, his latter years blighted by illness and drink and drug abuse. He left behind an impressive legacy – from Beatles-inspired pop, to country rock, folk ballads, soul and psychedelic sounds – was a songwriting genius and should be recognised as one of the forefathers of Americana.
In November last year, to celebrate what would’ve been Clark’s 75th birthday, record label 4AD reissued ‘No Other’ in a remastered version. It’s available across four formats: CD, double CD, LP and limited edition deluxe boxset – the latter, which retails for £140, includes an LP, a 7in single, three SACDs, a Blu-ray disc and an 80-page hardbound book. I think I might have to buy at least one more version of it– I’ll probably feel a whole lot better when I do…
Gene Clark with the Gosdin Brothers (1967)
White Light – aka Gene Clark (1971)
Collector’s Series – Early L.A. Sessions (1972)
No Other (1974)
Two Sides to Every Story (1977)
Gypsy Angel – The Gene Clark Demos 1983-1990 (2001)
Under The Silvery Moon (2003)
Silverado Live & Unreleased (2008)
Here Tonight – The White Light Demos (2013)
Back Street Mirror (2018)
The Lost Studio Sessions 1964-1982 (2018)
No Other (reissued and remastered) (2019)
White Light – aka Gene Clark (1971)