Sometimes, it is a band’s associations that prevent them from slipping into total obscurity. Whether it be from a notable artist producing them, a band member finding critical acclaim either before or after being in the group, or simply by happenstance, bands and musicians that would otherwise be forgotten live on in the annals of history. Two recent releases from Omnivore highlight this phenomena, resulting in two interesting releases that might not have stood out on their own were it not for a generous rockstar benefactor.
In mid-1960s Los Angeles, few bands proved as influential as The Byrds. It’s easy to understand why their distinctive harmonies and 12 string guitar melodies blended the British sound of the Beatles to the folk rock sound of Bob Dylan. Their sound was unique and original, even as it proved to be merely a hybrid of the two dominant sounds of the era. Because of this, young bands had a new source of inspiration––and new idols to imitate––and birds inspired folk rock became the next big thing. One such group, The Blokes, proved to be quite adept at interpreting the style, so much so that one night they caught the eye and ear of Byrds songwriter and guitarist Gene Clark.
At the time, Clark himself was in a state of transition. Having just left the band for creative differences (and, ironically, a fear of flying that prevented him from touring), he was still trying to plot his next move. Though he put together a solo album with the Gosdin Brothers, it had not proved to be the satisfactory experience he had hoped. Undeterred,, he spent much of his time in a state of constant writing and creation. The first eight songs on Gene Clark Sings For You originate from this ongoing fertile era, taken from a privately circulated demo acetate entitled Sings For You that made the rounds in 1967. One might be tempted to make these songs out as greater than they are, but the truth is they are sketches––very roughsketches at that––and nowhere near finished. Yet if considered for what they are, they do offer a fascinating look into the creative process. “Past Tense” and “One Way Road” highlight an interplay between the melody and the lyrics that leads one to think he is mentally working out the lyrics as he plays. Conversely, “7:30 Mode” and “That’s All Right By Me” offer more developed lyrics but with meandering melodies that drag on for a minute or two longer than they should, which seems to hint that he had the lyrics somewhat worked out, but not the melodies. Regardless, you’re given a rare invitation into the creative process.
During this time, he reconnected with his friends in The Blokes, who had recently hired a female vocalist, Diana Di Rose, prompting them to change their name to The Rose Garden. Sporting a psychedelic rock sound that was also soft and melodic, their first single, “Next Plane To London,” proved to be a regional hit. Clark took an interest in the band, and he presented them with a five–song acetate of songs for them to consider. (Long thought lost, it was found recently and is presented in its entirety on Sings For You) They would take two of them, “Long Time” and “Till Today,” and record them for their sole album, The Rose Garden.
Unfortunately, their self-titled album isn’t particularly distinctive, and while one can hear a bit of promise, it becomes obvious rather quickly that they lack a distinctive style. Sure, they have lovely harmonies and it’s easy to understand why Clark would be attracted to them as they are equally indebted to the same 12 string Rickenbacker Byrds sound, but the material feels like generic psychedelic soft rock with a touch of country twang. They fare a little better on their two original songs, “Flower Town” and “Rider,” and the two Clark compositions are superb, but the rest is forgettable. A handful of live recordings show that they had the chops to play live, as they perform a passionate take on their single, alongside covers of Bob Dylan, Sonny Bono, Bo Diddley, and, yes, The Byrds. Between lackluster sales, band tensions, and a bizarre set of circumstances involving the draft, The Rose Garden came and went quite quickly.
Yet these two releases are not without merit; if anything, it offers a glimpse into the creative workings of one of the era’s most underrated singer-songwriters, and shows how Clark was willing to take a chance on a young band in much the same way Dylan had done for him and his band, even if ultimately the chance never really panned out.