Classic Rock Review

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Gram Parsons: The Flying Burrito Brothers The Gilded Palace Of Sin (1969)

3513016914_c8b0b4d15b_oThere is often seen a trend to praise the Byrds’ Sweetheart Of The Rodeo and this album as the glorious beginnings of country-rock. There is also a somewhat weaker, but also persistent trend to dismiss the Byrds’ Sweetheart Of The Rodeo as a pile of generic shit and praise this album as the glorious beginnings of country-rock. I join the second school, even if I wouldn’t go as far as to call the Byrds album “shit”; generic, yes, but listenable.

This record, though, is definitely more than just “listenable”. It’s not very memorable, well, given the genre’s limitations and all. But it’s really a landmark with its own unique (well, unique at the time) flavour. And the most important thing – without it, there would be no Eagles, and their Greatest Hits 1971-75 wouldn’t serve as an important source of revenue for tax collectors throughout the world!

Nah, I’m kinda pulling your leg here, although it certainly deserves to sell more copies than that Eagles collection. But if there is a definite “country rock” record, this is it. Country – because, well, all the songs are country at heart, with country melodies, country lyrical motives, country instrumentation (mostly courtesy of the great Sneeky Pete Kleinow on pedal steel and suchlike), and country arrangements. Rock – because it’s done by a bunch of guys who come from a “rockier” background than your standard Nashville session players. Hell, Merle Haggard never got along with Gram Parsons after all, just because the guy was a hippie at heart. Dope? Got it. Flashy costumes? Got it. ‘Cosmic American music’? Not exactly the most “country” approach. And then there’s stuff like the occasional electric guitar part on here, and definite traces of hippie mentality in the lyrics – particularly in the Hillman-spoken ‘Hippie Boy’ at the end of the album, a track which is straightforwardly aimed at trying to bring together the flower power ideology and the hillbilly one; a fruitless occupation, but a generous one anyway.

Most of the tracks are penned by the Burritos themselves, with Parsons and Hillman sharing most of the credits and the two ‘Hot Burritos’ co-credited to Parsons and Chris Ethridge. They do make good choices in covers, though (unlike on the Byrds’ album – ‘The Christian Life’, remember? God!). ‘Do Right Woman’ has no interesting melody to speak of, but Parsons’ singing is heartfelt and convincing, while Mr Sneeky Pete always seems to know how to pick the least generic chord progressions; and ‘Dark End Of The Street’ is positively gorgeous, again showing what a great singer Parsons is when he’s in the mood. And they have a great way of producing harmony vocals, too: next time you’re listening, note that on every line he’s singing in harmony with Hillman, the Hillman/Parsons duo is only heard in one channel, whereas the other is pure Parsons. That gives you cool harmonies AND a distinct individuality at the same time – something I’ve always wanted to get from the Byrds but never could get.

The originals also follow the country formula pretty neatly, but there’s still much more variety within the formula than on Sweetheart Of The Rodeo. ‘Christine’s Tune’ is upbeat and slightly poppy, with an actually memorable chorus – and trippy, loud, psychedelic electric guitar parts which, of course, would immediately make the album taboo for yer average “salt-o’-the-earth” guy. ‘Sin City’ is Parsons’ curse-and-blessing ode to Los Angeles, not particularly inspiring musically, but I kinda like the lyrics – ‘on the thirty-first floor, a gold-plated door won’t keep out the Lord’s burning rain’, and again, Pete’s guitar parts are not to be missed. ‘My Uncle’ is boppy and fun, so fun, in fact, that it’s not easy at first to realize the song’s actually carrying a vivid anti-war message.

The two major highlights on the second side are ‘Hot Burrito No. 1’ and ‘Hot Burrito No. 2’. The first one, actually, sounds more like a sentimental Bee Gees ballad than any country song I’ve heard (an analogy further aided by the fact that Parsons keeps hitting these very high notes that make his voice sound all trebly and shaky like Robin Gibb’s), but that’s not a denigration – it’s really a great ballad, with a simple, but fine solo to boot, and a sincere broken-hearted performance from Gram the likes of which can hardly be found anywhere else. As for ‘No. 2’, it’s more of a laid-back roots-rocker which is confusing because it’s Gram again, confessing his love further, but each refrain ends with a desperate wail of ‘Jesus Christ!’. Blasphemy!

Not every track has a lot to offer – there’s a couple relative duds on the second side, and apart from the lyrical message of ‘Hippie Boy’, there’s not much to say about that (perversely the longest) number, but that’s all right by me. Believe me, a record like this is blessed if it has only like a couple of duds… if you don’t think so, look at all the heaps of banal forgettable hogwash this stuff has inspired. The important thing is, this is a country-rock album that manages to avoid most of the usual country-rock cliches, and apart from the Burritos and maybe the Band, there doesn’t seem to have been a lot of people in the good ol’ US of A who ever could (or would) avoid these cliches. Poco! The Eagles! Ah, the pleasure of having to think about a mediocre band without actually having to listen to it.

March 1, 2013 Posted by | The Flying Burrito Brothers The Gilded Palace Of Sin | | Leave a comment

The Flying Burrito Brothers – The Gilded Palace Of Sin


Upon Sweetheart Of the Rodeo’s completion, the events which saw the birth of one of the early and more influential country rock groups took place. To cut a long story short, a Byrds album which had been born out of the creative friction between Roger McGuinn’s desire to keep strolling down Notorious Byrd Brothers Avenue and bassist Chris Hillman and new boy Gram Parsons’ idea to record a country rock record, did indeed cause the classic lineup of the Byrds to split up for good. Parsons left the band on the eve of their South African tour and, soon after, he was joined by Hillman, who’d agree to play guitar and sing the occasional vocal track in a new, forward-thinking country band – the Flying Burrito Brothers. While McGuinn and the Byrds went into a sharp and rapid decline, Hillman and Parsons formed quite the songwriting partnership, swelling the ranks with pedal steel guitarist ‘Sneaky’ Pete Kleinow and the multi-talented Chris Ethridge filling out bass and piano duties. With the nucleus of the band now in place, the Flying Burrito Brothers took to the studio armed with a deal with A&M, several session drummers and some very promising material.

Promise that is, indeed, delivered with the kind of gusto which made Sweetheart Of the Rodeo the timeless classic that it is which results in, basically, another timeless country classic. The difference between the Gilded Palace Of Sin and the aforementioned Byrds album though is, most obviously, that nine of these eleven songs are original compositions, like the superb, upbeat opener Christine’s Tune – one which not only revels in the beat group-type harmonies that make Sweetheart Of the Rodeo as forward-thinking as it was, but also with a psychedelic twist. Throughout this album, pedal steel guitarist Pete Kleinow either uses a fuzzbox with his weapon of choice or plays it through a rotating Hammond Leslie amp, giving this song a kind of psychedelic country feel about it. It takes the experiment that was Sweetheart Of the Rodeo a step further. The following Sin City lacks such an affect but still serves as a very good slow-burner to take the album onwards.

From there, as per Parsons’ idea of ‘cosmic American music’, we get two covers of old R’n’B standards, with both Do Right Woman and Dark End Of the Street being two top-notch examples of that idea not only coming to fruition but actually sounding damn good as well. The latter in particular, with Parsons’ lead vocal and Hillman’s harmony, really presents a fascinating show of R’n’B being wired up to a country motor and doing a world of good for itself.

Next up is another trio of Hillman/Parsons co-writes, starting with the bouncy, bluegrass-flavoured My Uncle as it rounds off side A, before moving on to the unrelentingly top-drawer level of quality which is side B. Wheels gives Kleinow’s concept of a psychedelic pedal steel guitar another chance to shine here, piercing through a truly beautiful, harmony-heavy and achingly emotional slow-burner, which sees Parsons’ strength for the despairing country ballad as a vocalist really coming into its own. Juanita, propelled as it is by Kleinow’s this time unadorned pedal steel, Hillman’s acoustic strumming and some more absolutely gorgeous vocal harmonies between him and his co-writer, is another wonderful ballad that it’s so easy to just lose yourself in.

It’s hard to imagine the album getting any better but, oddly enough, it does. Hot Burrito #1 and Hot Burrito #2 were both hastily-written by Parsons and Ethridge, which is quite something given that they’re two of my favourite songs of all time, let alone country songs. A couple of Parsons’ finest vocal performances without a doubt – you can almost hear him crying as he sings ‘I’m your toy, I’m your old boy, but I don’t want no-one but you to love me’, augmented by Kleinow’s psychedelic-leaning contributions make for a couple of heart-wrenchingly beautiful classics.

Do You Know How It Feels, another Parsons/Goldberg composition, leans much more towards the traditional and as such isn’t too far removed from something the International Submarine Band would’ve recorded, but doesn’t bring the level of quality down one little bit. The curtain call, Hippie Boy, is simply brilliant. With Parsons’ wonderful lyric being spoken over a backing track dominated by his own work on the organ, it’s a bit of a sore thumb on the tracklisting but nevertheless is a wonderful way to put the lid on the record.

A record which, since getting hold of it myself, has become my joint-favourite that Parsons have ever been involved with alongside Sweetheart Of the Rodeo. In some ways, it’s probably stands as more of an example of how much everyone who claims to hate country is missing out on than the Byrds album. For all the colours added by the psychedelic touches of the organ and fuzzy pedal steel, the way it takes the experiment that Parsons and Hillman kicked off while they were in the Byrds, the mutual understanding of a rich musical tradition that they then take full advantage of to become a truly great songwriting partnership and, of course, the Hot Burrito songs, make for an absolute classic and another album I’d recommend to absolutely anyone.

May 15, 2010 Posted by | The Flying Burrito Brothers The Gilded Palace Of Sin | | Leave a comment