Store Sounds: Gene Clark – "No Other"

Posted: Mar 03 2015

Roundly celebrated for his work in the Byrds, the Flying Burrito Brothers and his solo albums, most consider Gram Parsons to be the pioneer of country rock. His acolytes aren't wrong, and his short, colorful life made for true tales almost too outlandish to be real: rampant drug abuse with the Rolling Stones on the French Riviera, a myth-shrouded death at the Joshua Tree Inn, and the abduction of his remains by a drug-addled posse of friends that was made into a truly horrible Johnny Knoxville movie. And of course, there are Gram's tunes: he blended the rock 'n' roll of the '60s and early '70s with the lineage of American country-and-western music that stretched back to the 19th century, crafting an entirely new channel in American popular music. What Parsons called his "Cosmic American Music" eventually begat both the good (the 99.9% probability that "Honky Tonk Woman" or "Lookin' Out My Back Door" are playing on a classic rock radio station somewhere) and the not so good (the same likelihood that "Desperado" or "Hotel California" is playing instead).

However, here at Freeman, we'd like to show some love to another Southern-born ex-Byrd who fused country and rock 'n'roll before and, arguably, better than the more-celebrated Parsons, and whose tunes we have on near-constant rotation. He died obscure and alcohol-ridden, with an astounding body of work acknowledged far less than that of Parsons, yet his defining album is unlike anything that has been set to tape, ever. We're gonna talk about the incomparable Gene Clark, and the most astutely-titled album of all time this side of Damaged: his 1974 lost classic No Other.

Born in Tipton, Missouri, Gene Clark cut his teeth with the hard-touring 1960's folk revival act New Christy Minstrels, but didn't find fame until he heard the Beatles, quit the Minstrels, and headed west in 1964 to ultimately form the Byrds. One of the defining folk-rock and, later, psychedelic rock bands of the 1960s, the Byrds were initially powered by Clark's compositions, most notably "Eight Miles High." Iced out of the band by the out-of-control egos of fellow Byrds David Crosby and Roger McGuinn, Clark quit, ultimately forming the exceptional duo Dillard & Clark with banjo player Doug Dillard, where the two began to lay the roots of country rock, several years before Gram Parsons would rise to prominence.

Clark went solo in 1970, releasing several excellent but commercially underwhelming albums of country rock, but it wasn't until 1974 that he unleashed his masterpiece, No Other. Isolated at his Mendocino, California home, Clark spent his days staring at the Pacific Ocean, meditating, and writing songs born from conversations about Zen and philosophy with late '60s counterculture icons like Dennis Hopper and, um, David Carradine. Clark decamped to Los Angeles to record the album, featuring contributions from the best of the era's session musicians.

With its $100,000 budget yielding just eight tracks in 74 minutes, No Other was doomed from the start. It was critically dismissed and flopped commercially, peaking at #144 on the Billboard charts, which resulted in Clark being dropped from his label, setting in motion his long decline into addiction and obscurity. We have no idea what the record-buying public or mid-'70s music critics were thinking. No Other's astoundingly lush composition, featuring Clark's deep, poetic lyrics and epic songwriting, fused the nascent country rock style with gospel, choral music and baroque pop into a style that hasn't been replicated in the 40 years following its release. To say that No Other is a misunderstood classic is off the mark. We understand it just fine – it's a classic, and it's goddamn brilliant.

Just listen to the funked-out rhythm-and-blues vibe of the title track (reportedly due to Sly Stone's presence at several sessions), or the plaintive, orchestral eight-minute epic "Some Misunderstanding," or the pedal-steel whine of "The True One" (a lost country-rock FM staple if there ever was one) to behold Gene Clark's vision and genius. From the first notes of the heartbreaking "Life's Greatest Fool" to the stunning (and reportedly cocaine-addled in its composition) album closer "Lady of the North," No Other takes Gram Parson's notion of "Cosmic American Music" to its logical endpoint. The entire lineage of 20th century American popular music is represented in its 74-minute running time: from the earliest folk and blues, through the country rock that Gene Clark helped create, to the synthesizer-based music that would take hold as the '70s ended, this album's scope and power is astounding. Yet within all the lush orchestration and genre blending are simple, well-crafted pop hooks and honest-to-God great songs.

Gene Clark did it all with No Other, yet he died broke, addicted and obscure in 1991 at the age of 46, his contributions to pop music glossed over and forgotten. Thankfully, critics have reevaluated his work since his death, and his defining album has become more widely recognized as, pardon the pun, like no other. You're likely to catch us us spinning this vastly underrated American classic at Freeman next time you're in the shop. 

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