In 1966, Gene Clark left the Byrds at the peak of their fame for a solo career that must, at the time, have seemed a sure thing. The most prolific and talented songwriter in the group, Clark was also their quietly charismatic focal point onstage, joining in the three-part harmonies and singing lead on his own poetic and hauntingly melodic love songs. He quit the band abruptly after helping to create their most strikingly original single, “Eight Miles High”. But solo success was always just beyond his grasp.
When Clark died in 1991 after many years of health problems, alcoholism and erratic live performances, he left behind a moving and unique body of work, much of which was long out-of-print. There were the innovative country-flavored albums he recorded with the Gosdin Brothers and Doug Dillard as ’60s psychedelia raged around him. There was the beautifully introspective self-titled album of 1971, which got rave reviews even from Bob Dylan but barely sold, as Clark, with his legendary fear of flying, refused to tour. And then there was No Other. Clark’s grandest and most ambitious statement, the album was released in 1974, and promptly sank without a trace until many years later, when a few European music writers would proclaim it a lost masterpiece.
No Other, now available in an impeccable-sounding CD reissue with seven bonus tracks and extensive liner notes, was a far cry from the chiming 12-string Rickenbacker guitars and easily accessible folk harmonies that had made the Byrds such an influential and successful group. With a big budget from David Geffen and a batch of brilliant songs, Clark and producer Thomas Jefferson Kaye went for broke. They hired an elite squad of L.A. studio sidemen to craft music that was dark and brooding but spiritual and transcendent, blending country, folk and rock sounds with tinges of jazz and Latin rhythms.
The production was nearly over the top (not to mention over budget), featuring thick layers of keyboards, soaring gospel choirs, echoing electric violins and primitive synthesizers. But the mix of sounds and styles only rarely overwhelmed Clark’s delicately picked Martin acoustic, the understated midwestern drawl of his vocals, or the searching, vivid imagery in his lyrics.
Bonus offerings on the new reissue include a particularly soulful performance of “Train Leaves At The Station” (co-written by Bernie Leadon and recorded earlier by the Eagles, and by Clark himself with Doug Dillard), as well as six alternative No Other takes, which sound lovely in their pared-down pre-production form.
But the full-blown original No Other tracks remain startling for their sheer inventiveness, and other than a few too many wah-wah pedals, they still sound timeless nearly 30 years on. Standout cuts such as “Silver Raven”, “Strength Of Strings” and “Lady Of The North” build quietly in intensity, sweeping to dramatic but beautifully contained crescendos.
The title song is a different beast altogether, its heavy synthesizer bass riff and syncopated percussion sounding vaguely as if they could have been lifted from a Sly Stone record. Like a few of the other production extravagances on the album, it doesn’t quite work, and the real beauty of the song comes out in the more austere alternate arrangement included in the reissue. Still, Clark’s failures are more compelling than many lesser artists’ successes.
Other cuts, including “The True One” and “Life’s Greatest Fool”, sound like they could have been hits for the Eagles or Linda Ronstadt. Almost. Clark, a Zen Buddhist, was in deep water lyrically, questioning the very nature of existence, as well as the double-edged sword of fame. “I know if you sell your soul to brighten your role,” he sings on “Some Misunderstanding”, “you might be disappointed in the lights.”
Clark saw the lights at a young age, feeling the rush of fame as well as its pressures. In the end, he also refused to tour to support No Other, and it was barely promoted. His career never fully recovered. “No Other I really consider is a great album, myself,” Clark said in 1977. “I’m very proud of it. But I was very disappointed and let down after its release.”
Clark was right. He created one of the most fascinating and powerful records of its time.