Top Fifty 8: The Byrds – Ballad of Easy Rider, 1969

[Originally posted June 2011]


Like many, I first knew of The Byrds in the mid 60s through the singles Mr. Tambourine Man and Turn! Turn! Turn!. I don’t believe I followed their music until hearing the beautiful Dolphins Smile on the CBS The Rock Machine Turns You On album, and then Gunga Din from the later CBS Fill Your Head With Rock album, influential compilations I have written about before.

Equally unsurprising is how it was the film Easy Rider that introduced me to the song and album of the same name Ballad of Easy Rider, not ‘unsurprising’ because of the obvious echoing, but because that film too was so influential on my teenage years and that revolutionary sense of yearning for some idealistic freedom and believing this was repressed by a brutal establishment. The film exploited that youthful obsession with a stunning soundtrack, a road-movie narrative that took in the explosive contrast between the communal joys and perils of such a search, iconoclastic acting from a spaced-out Hopper and satirical Nicholson, and the redneck ending of the fireballed chopper flying through the air to ignite a generation’s angst and anger against the hillbilly hicks who represented that repressive establishment in its dumbest, most ruthless form.

The story goes that Dylan wrote the following napkin lines ‘The river flows, it flows to the sea/Wherever that river goes, that’s where I want to be/Flow, river, flow’ and this was given to Roger McGuinn to turn into a song. Whilst received, its a repeated enough tale to be taken as true and I don’t know any more than what I have read so won’t pursue. That McGuinn turned this into a beautiful if simple hippie anthem is enough for me, and it is a singalongsong I love to sing as I did today in the car when reminding myself that this album has to be in my top fifty, partly because it’s The Byrds and a prime example of their ‘west coast’ sound, but also because three songs from the album have always featured on any favourites’ tapes of harmonious music I compiled before moving on to cds, where they still appear.

The three songs are Ballad of Easy Rider, Jesus Is Just Alright and Gunga Din, the latter a Gene Parsons’ composition with his lead vocal. And what is surprising is how these three songs are probably the only ones I really know and yet they represent the whole album for me and it’s special place in my notional top fifty. Listening today I was reminded how superb the whole album is, with the Dylan cover It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue, for example, and the Guthrie cover Deporte [Plane Wreck at Los Gatos] as well.

And now I’m going to have to go and watch the film. It still gets to me, after all these years, whatever its simplicities and manipulations. But the title track endures and it’s amazing how that naivety in the lyrics doesn’t date like the film nor other nostalgic dreams. Strength of a good song, and music in general.


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