British songwriter Robyn Hitchcock remembers the first time he heard the Byrds' 1966 single "Eight Miles High." "I knew at once it was a great record," he recalls, "but at the same time I knew it would open the door for a lot of very bad records. You could see it coming." It was a perceptive prediction, for such is the history of psychedelic-rock: a few strokes of genius used to justify a mountain of rubbish.
"Eight Miles High," a product of the Byrds' fascination with John Coltrane and Ravi Shankar, is that rarest of rarities: a genuinely avant-garde rock-and-roll recording. It was a brilliant single, but it was willfully misunderstood by a thousand middle-class guitarists with more ambition than discipline. Underneath the raga-jazz guitar harmonies and churchlike vocals, "Eight Miles High" was such a good song that Leo Kottke could record it successfully with just an acoustic guitar several years later.
That's what so many paisley revivalists have forgotten: The gargoyles and angels of psychedelic-rock will stay in the air only if the song they decorate provides a firm foundation. Recent psychedelic-rockers such as Jellyfish, King's X, Lenny Kravitz, Redd Kross, Trip Shakespeare, Emotional Fish and Mazzy Star have all created wonderful sounds, but they haven't come up with many real songs to hang their sounds on. Even Roger McGuinn, the man who sang the original "Eight Miles High," has forgotten this crucial lesson.
Roger McGuinn: 'Back From Rio'
McGuinn is the only person ever to launch three different revolutions in rock-and-roll. As the leader of the Byrds, he established folk-rock in 1965 with "Mr. Tambourine Man," psychedelic-rock in 1966 with "Eight Miles High" and country-rock in 1968 with "Sweetheart of the Rodeo." These breakthroughs are lovingly re-created on the recent box-set retrospective "The Byrds" (Columbia), which features 90 songs on four CDs or cassettes accompanied by a 56-page booklet (though the value of the set is undercut by the fact that every real rock-and-roll fan should own the Byrds' first six albums in their entirety).
McGuinn has capitalized on the publicity surrounding the box set to release his first solo album in 14 years, "Back From Rio" (Arista). He didn't really disappear with the loot to Brazil, but he might as well have, for he began the '80s with a dispirited reunion with former Byrd Chris Hillman and ended the decade with pro-forma club shows. McGuinn has retained the affection of his rock heirs, though, and several of them helped him make his comeback album respectable.
Tom Petty, who owes the biggest debt, not only co-wrote the first single, "King of the Hill," and sang the duet vocal, but also lent three of his Heartbreakers to the project. As a result, "Back From Rio" persuasively re-creates the sound of the Byrds' folk-rock phase, with McGuinn's 12-string Rickenbacker guitar and twangy voice seemingly unchanged from 1965. It's a delight to hear that sound again, even if the songs and the passion can't begin to compare with the Byrds' classic albums.
The best song is a minor Elvis Costello composition, "You Bowed Down," which has a neat melody (Costello sings harmony) but a stilted lyric. "King of the Hill" sounds like Petty's best Byrds imitations, but it has lyrics dumb enough for Don Henley. Socially conscious songs about car phones and rain forests try much too hard, although ex-Byrds Hillman and David Crosby make two of the lightweight love songs sound pretty with their vocal harmonies. Why aren't there any songs by Bob Dylan and Gene Clark or any McGuinn songs about cowboys or spacemen?
King's X: 'Faith Hope Love'
McGuinn's psychedelic-rock was transformed by Sly Stone into psychedelic-funk and by Cream into hard/art-rock. King's X, a Missouri power trio, has combined Stone's funk bottom, Cream's power chords and the Byrds' soaring three-part vocal harmonies into one of the most exciting new sounds around. If you can get past the fact that the songs have absolutely no substance -- either musically or lyrically -- you can revel in the sonic pleasures of the third King's X album, "Faith Hope Love" (Megaforce/Atlantic). If you liked Jellyfish's pop approach to psychedelia (despite the fluffy songs), you should like the harder approach of King's X.
The most appealing thing about King's X is the way the lush, churchlike vocal harmonies float above the pounding, insistent rhythm section. The first single, "It's Love," recalls the psychedelic Beatles with its catchy melody, seductive harmonies and naive homilies, but Doug Pinnick's slap bass gives the song a tough funk rhythm; the single suggests what "Magical Mystery Tour" might have sounded like with Bootsy Collins on bass.
Nearly as enchanting are the simplistic but hook-laden "I'll Never Get Tired of You" and "Mr. Wilson." The least appealing things about King's X are the way Ty Tabor overplays his squealing, single-note guitar leads (especially on the two six-minute-plus jams) and the way Pinnick and Tabor belabor hippie aphorisms such as "Darkness is just a speck in the light."
Redd Kross: 'Third Eye'
The three members of Redd Kross dress up like psychedelic veterans (long straight hair, paisley and tie-dye shirts), but they are actually veterans of the Southern California punk scene. Founded by brothers Jeffrey and Steven McDonald in 1978 when Steven was an 11-year-old bassist, the band parlayed its novelty value into a steady recording career. Steven is now 23, and "Third Eye" (Atlantic) is his fourth album with Redd Kross, which is now pursuing the psychedelic hard-rock practiced by King's X.
Redd Kross can't match the catchy melodies, vocal harmonies or funk bass of King's X, but it doesn't take itself very seriously (Susan Cowsill of the Cowsills sings on several songs) and its irreverent humor is a relief after King's X's hippie evangelism. Typical is "Bubblegum Factory," a silly but infectious tribute to late-'60s bubblegum music and the guilty pleasures of Ohio Express and the 1910 Fruitgum Co. Like much of "Third Eye," the song sounds like "Yummy Yummy Yummy" as done by the Electric Prunes -- that is, buoyant pop fluff embellished with guitar freak-outs, unrestrained drum bashing and chorale harmonies.
The McDonald brothers will costar with their hero David Cassidy in the forthcoming film "Spirit of '76," and the new Redd Kross album contains the film's theme song, "1976," a nostalgic tribute to platform shoes, Afros, Camaros and gasoline lines. "Third Eye" lives up to its title with psychedelic touches such as droning guitar harmonies and raga drums, but the album works best when Red Kross celebrates frivolous pop, playing catchy guitar riffs and singing about a girl who won't comb her hair.