You’d be forgiven for thinking that Gene Clark’s career stalled sometime in the late seventies. However, in a life filled with “What ifs” 1984 provided one of the biggest with the release of ‘Firebyrd’.
To put it in context ‘Firebyrd’ appeared at the time artists like Tom Petty and REM had brought the jangly guitar back into fashion. The Paisley Underground bands were another source of renewed interest in bands like the Byrds and Love. The absence from the market of bands who worked at the junction of Country Rock, and soft AOR like Firefall or even The Eagles meant there was a gap in the market for sone good songs with a modern production that would attract all these audiences. ‘Firebyrd’ should have been the album to fill that gap.
The album opens with a radically remodelled take on ‘Mr Tambourine Man’. The piano introduction always reminds me of the theme to the sitcom ‘Taxi’ which was just ending its successful run as this album came out. It is a brave attempt to do something different with the song and it works, and gives the audience something familiar to draw them in. ‘Something About You Baby’ is state of the art (1984 style) soft rock and you can picture a soft-focus video on MTV turning this into a hit. With enough of Byrd’s harmonies to please his old fans this is a well-crafted song, and one of three co-writes with producer Andy Kandanes that make up the heart of the album. The other two are Country Rock anthem ‘Rodeo Rider’ and another AOR hit in the making ‘Rain Song’.
Next up is ‘Vanessa’ a song written by Alexander Taylor (brother of James) and veteran songwriter Thomas Jefferson Kaye, who was also listed as a co-producer. This is another mostly successful attempt to position Clark as a relevant modern artist. Gordon Lightfoot’s ‘If You Could Read My Mind’ is given a makeover and he reclaims his own ‘Feel A Whole Lot Better’ which he had been playing with McGuinn and Hillman a few years earlier. This is a fairly straight update but a fine one. The album closes with two solo writes from Clark. ‘Made for Love’ is the one place where the weakness in his voice that had been apparent live for some time made it to the record. Closing song ‘Blue Raven’ has a totally redundant flute part from Jazzman Bud Shank that intrudes into the song, which also at least a minute too long. There is nothing wrong with these songs they just aren’t up to the standard of the rest of the album, which is probably why they were hidden at the end.
So why wasn’t it a commercial success to match the artistic one? Probably the fact that it appeared on the Takoma label, which, despite being owned by Chrysalis, home of mega selling acts like Pat Benatar at the time, didn’t have the marketing muscle to put it in front of the REM and Long Ryders fans who would have adopted him as a returning hero. Clark himself quickly got distracted by the formation of a “Supergroup” Burds tribute and made some unwise business decisions that annoyed his former and current bandmates. So, the opportunity to make ‘Firebyrd’ the cash generator he sorely needed was lost.
With Clark’s reputation as a solo artist sitting firmly with ‘White Light’ and ‘No Other’, the rather more commercial sound of ‘Fiirebyrd’ may not be the most fashionably “roots” of his albums. I would suggest that it is a late flowering of his songwriting that needs to be reappraised and revisited to join the two mentioned above in his canon of great works.
I agree Tim, this album is worthy of reassessment. I suspect the reason it did nothing was down to the fact old Gene had burnt all his bridges with the music business and nobody who could afford it would invest in helping him rebuild a sustainable career. It is a sad fact, that no matter how good an album is artistically, it still needs a promo budget and campaign to ensure success.
Thanks Martin. Yes indeed, people have to know the music is out there, and as you say you can only set fire to your career so many times. I’m rereading John Einarson’s biography on the back of writing this and it’s just a catalogue of missed opportunities…
To me, Tim, John Einarson’s book is a must read for anybody with more than a cursory interest in Gene Clark’s music.
My moment of fame here. Via a Gene Clark mailing list I corresponded with Einarson and sent him scans of Gene articles from Dark Star magazine and got a mention in the book’s acknowledgements. I still had to buy a copy mind you.
Twas ever the lot of an Americana UK writer.
Does anyone else remember Gene Clark touring the UK supporting Lindisfarne? I saw him at Loughborough Uni in the early 80’s.
Tried to look after him..from Leic…tragic alcohol problems…doomed.
Always had an interest in Gene Clark’s music. More than any other of the Byrds. He was never able to work with a producer who was a good match. Gordon Lightfoot songs? Yeesh. His ‘67 album with the Gosdin Brothers is probably the best.