Tony Poole (Starry Eyed and Laughing) on the Byrds and More
The Byrds created timeless music. They were folk-rock, psychedelic rock, and country rock pioneers and are — okay, I’ll come clean — my favorite band of all time.
I could go on and on about the brilliance of original Byrds Roger McGuinn, Gene Clark, David Crosby, Chris Hillman and Michael Clarke — and two later Byrds, Gram Parsons and Clarence White.
When the Byrds called it quits way back in 1973, few of the band’s followers or American music fans were aware that another talented group with the Byrds’ distinctive sound was forming that year in England. They were Starry Eyed and Laughing, and they released a fabulous self-titled debut album in 1974 that would put a smile on the face of any Byrds fan but remains virtually unknown today.
Starry Eyed and Laughing co-founder/guitarist/vocalist Tony Poole tells me today about the genesis of the group, its albums, and its love for the Byrds.
“Ross McGeeney and I had known each other since we were 6 and started playing music together in our early teens. We first gigged as a duo as Starry Eyed And Laughing on May 28, 1973. By October, we were a four-piece group, and three months later we were signed by CBS Records [Columbia Records UK]. We’d done about 100 gigs and were a popular live band. The initial deal was for just one single, but, after the session for that, it became an album deal.
“Probably the most crucial decision made — for better or worse — was to release only original songs. Dan Loggins, who signed us and so elegantly produced our albums, originally suggested we include some covers by contemporary, hip US artists. With hindsight, I think he was trying make it easier to position us — an English band — as a rock band, rather than some kind of new pop group. But there was a strong feeling we didn’t want to be just a copy or a pastiche of a West Coast band, and we had lots of original songs that were popular in our live sets.
“At the time,” Poole continues, “we worried a little that the album didn’t have the energy of those live shows, but I can hear now that Dan and engineer Mike Ross-Trevor really captured a purity of sound — our harmonies, the three singer/songwriters, and, particularly, the Rickenbacker 12-string guitar. I remember Mike pulling out a master tape of ‘Mr.Tambourine Man’ to get the sound. That was a thrill! He’d engineered The Byrds’ ‘Farther Along’ at a London studio, and the tape was sent over for us.”
The “predominant influence” on Starry Eyed and Laughing’s debut album was “early Byrds,” Poole says, But Loggins’ “suggested additions of pedal steel, mandolin, rock and roll piano and harpsichord — together with some of our original song choices — broadened the sound to include other influences such as Badfinger, Moby Grape, CSN, and, of course, the Beatles.”
Poole says the album, which was recorded piecemeal between London gigs, was “universally well-received,” but no hit singles emerged.
“These days that would likely have been the end of the deal,” he says, “but the album probably sold just enough — together with Dan Loggins’ faith in us — for the label to let us record a second album.”
Starry Eyed and Laughing enlisted BBC engineer Bill Aitken to record the followup album and spent two weeks in a Welsh studio. Aitken was chosen because he was credited with producing top-notch sound during the band’s first John Peel BBC Radio session.
At the residential studio in Wales, “it was a much more free environment that I think helped the sound of the band evolve away from the Byrds and develop as an entity of its own,” Poole recalls. “Several songs we recorded didn’t make it to the final sequence, and maybe some were better than a couple that are on the record.”
With two solid albums under its belt, why did the band soon derail? “Even now,” Poole says, “I’d love to know the full reason. At the time, the two main factors were financial and a kind of implosion/explosion with frustration after a badly organized US tour that was not quite Spinal Tap.
“They shouldn’t have been the reasons if we’d taken a little time to figure it out and realized how lucky we were. I can also see now that going so quickly from being a popular live rock band at roots level to signing to a major pop label changed expectations on all sides and warped the group’s dynamic.”
Though the second album veered away from the Byrds sound, Poole says there’s no denying the Byrds were his biggest influence.
“Personally, the Byrds have been as important as anything in my life — not only musically but, if possible, totemically. I still vividly recall hearing their [cover of Bob Dylan’s] ‘Chimes of Freedom’ for the first time with a feeling it was a marker for my future. Ross was also a huge fan who taught me ‘Mr. Tambourine Man.’’’
I asked Poole what each Byrd means to him.
“Roger McGuinn’s 12-string Rickenbacker sound and playing had the most influence initially on me. And his song ‘5D (Fifth Dimension)’ — a pop song about relativity and the nature of existence — is probably my favorite song. McGuinn and Crosby were, respectively, like the ice and fire of the Byrds.
“None of us can ever know what it’s like to have had the life of those iconic figures — the Beatles, the Byrds, the Stones, Dylan — but McGuinn seems to be more comfortable with technology than with humans. I’m a tech freak too, and the first time I met him in 1986 I was carrying one of the first hand-held computers — a Psion Organiser II. It was not available in the US, and Roger lit on it immediately. That was our point of contact. He took about 10 seconds to figure it out and program his address into it.
“The last time we met, after a wonderful solo concert in Cheltenham in November 2014, he was once again most at ease showing me You Tube videos on his iPhone. The videos showed the extraordinary in-harmony-with-the universe musical tuning of A=432Hz rather than the standard A=440Hz and the magic of the number 12.
“Maybe he is an extraterrestrial or from the future. Either, or any, way, he’s the most humble and shy human, and I’m honored to have had him as a hero and to have met him.”
David Crosby, Poole says, “seems to be someone who absolutely polarizes people and relishes that, but he can do no wrong for me.
“As school kids in February 1967, Ross, fellow Byrds fan [and later producer] Bob Parsons, and I attended the Byrds legendary Tea Party event at the Roundhouse in London. It was Bob’s ingenuity that got us afterward into The White House hotel where Crosby graciously gave up about an hour to chat with us as equals about the Byrds, the Beatles, and songwriting. He’d just been at the Sgt. Pepper sessions at Abbey Road.”
Crosby’s “sense of chords and timing is unique and immaculate,” Poole says. “He’s a fantastic rhythm guitarist, and he’s probably the best harmony singer in the world who isn’t an Everly brother. Even now, he’s making music as great as he ever did — after all he’s put his body and psyche through. He’s been a kind of test pilot for the rest of us for what is physically and mentally possible at the boundaries of being human!”
Poole says his song “Jet Plane Rider” on Starry Eyed and Laughing’s 2014 archival album Forever Young is “obliquely” about Crosby or “an amalgam of McGuinn and Crosby.”
“It makes complete sense that Crosby is an avid science fiction reader, which I’ve also been since I was a teenager. Lastly, to paraphrase his response when arrested and found carrying a gun, ‘John Lennon.’ If I have only two words to say in his defense, I’ll just say, ‘Joni Mitchell.’
The true genius and the songwriting and vocal beauty of the Byrds’ Gene Clark seems to only have emerged many years after his death at age 46 in 1991. A few years ago at a Massachusetts folk festival, I asked Chris Hillman about his Byrds bandmate, and Hillman gushed about Clark’s brilliance as a songwriter. They also played together in the post-Byrds trio McGuinn, Clark and Hillman.
Poole has also heard the brilliance.
“Gene Clark was a songwriting genius — possibly unconsciously, but still a genius. At a time when popular music was mostly explicit or simply coded girl-boy stuff on a getting-laid or romantic-ideal kind of level, his lyrics and unique chord changes took us somewhere almost beyond the metaphysical aspect of it.
“Dylan opened the door into that for everybody, including Gene. But Gene Clark’s songs lit a deeper level. I’m not saying the songs were better, but they lit into a deeper heart of some other matter that’s going on in those relationships. Though his words seem to be describing a phantom-like reality behind what’s real, they actually make me feel as if we’re the ghosts gliding over what’s really real.”
Hillman has long been a most underrated Byrd, but his resume may be stronger than anyone in the rock music world. At age 17, he played mandolin for a San Diego-based bluegrass band called the Scottsville Squirrel Barkers, who included Bernie Leadon — a future founder of the Eagles. Hillman next joined another bluegrass band called the Golden State Boys (later the Hillmen).
He was recruited to play bass for the Byrds, an instrument he hadn’t previously played. His Byrds mates wrote most of the group’s songs until 1967’s Younger Than Yesterday album, which contained four songs Hillman wrote or co-wrote: “So You Want to Be a Rock and Roll Star,” “Time Between,” “The Girl With No Name,” and “Have You Seen Her Face.”
In 1968, Hillman left the Byrds to create the Flying Burrito Brothers with ex-Byrd Gram Parsons. After the Burritos, Hillman’s next venture was with Stephen Stills in the short-lived but innovative band Manassas. Other subsequent pursuits were Souther-Hillman-Furay; the Chris Hillman Band; McGuinn, Clark and Hillman; the Desert Rose Band; Rice, Rice, Hillman and Pedersen, and, today, Hillman and Pedersen.
“I believe it’s Chris Hillman rather than Gram Parsons we should be exalting — or at least equally exalting — for Cosmic American Music,” Poole says. “His first Byrds songs, ‘Time Between’ and ‘The Girl With No Name,’ brought country into rock, and there’s no doubt he was an equal partner in bringing those type of fantastic songs to the Flying Burrito Brothers’ Gilded Palace Of Sin.
“But he also gave us ‘So You Want to Be A Rock and Roll Star,’ ‘Thoughts And Words,’ ‘Natural Harmony,’ and some of the most inventive bass playing ever recorded on Crosby’s ‘Everybody’s Been Burned’ and ‘Renaissance Fair’’ —cosmic music, for sure.”
Byrds drummer Michael Clarke “is often put down,” Poole says, “for his technical ability as a drummer.”
“What a narrow view of anyone’s role in a band! Ringo gets the same stick — no pun intended. Clarke turns the beat around in ‘5D (Fifth Dimension).’ Intentionally or not, it is absolutely right for the song and what it’s about!
“I think even his idol Elvin Jones would be proud of his drumming on ‘Eight Miles High.’ I’ve never heard anyone do what he does on that. Michael was a creative artist musically — and visually, he painted later on — and that was the important element for him. It even shows through on that studio talk argument on one of the remastered Byrds CDs.
“Legend has it that he was a fantastic and powerful live drummer for the dancers in those inadequate sound system days. By the time he later joined Firefall, he was pretty good technically, too.”
Poole cannot leave out Clarence White, the great bluegrass player who became the Byrds’ full-time lead guitarist when he replaced Gram Parsons in 1968 and stayed in the band until it dissolved in 1973.
“Of all the non-original Byrds — and all are great in their own way — Clarence seems utterly integral to the legend,” Poole says. First heard to stunning effect on Younger Than Yesterday, he now also defines what’s become known as ‘the Clarence White Byrds’ among fans. This incarnation was just about the greatest live band at that time, thanks to his extraordinary and unique playing. No one on the planet then or since has his sense of timing and phrasing. It’s him and Hendrix who tower and shine over the guitar universe.”
With Poole’s deep love for the Byrds music, it’s not surprising that Byrds influences seep into the songs he names as the best ones composed by Starry Eyed and Laughing
“‘One Foot in the Boat’ is very Byrds-y and seems to be the one most fans choose,” he says. “It’s probably the one I’m most happy with. All the elements combine as I imagined — the possibly tongue-in-cheek words, the Rickenbacker, Ross’s country-ish lead, and the incredible energy of the rhythm section, particularly Mike’s drums, which remind me of Keith Moon and even his hero, Ginger Baker.”
Ross McGeeney’s song, “Closer To You Now,” is also at the top of Poole’s list.
The song “seems to get deeper and more mysterious as time goes on. It now seems like a Gene Clark song to me, full of yearning and imagery. It could be our best song.”
A third favorite is “Fool’s Gold.”
“Iain Whitmore wrote and sings this so perfectly,” Poole says. “We took such care arranging it — almost orchestrally — with Bill Aitken’s help and encouragement. If it had been done by someone like Leo Sayer, whom Iain was in a band with before Starry Eyed and Laughing, I’m sure it would have been a hit.”
Starry Eyed and Laughing’s first two albums have been combined into a double CD, That Was Now and This Is Then, and it’s available at the band’s website. The 2014 release, Forever Young, is also available there.
Poole explains the story behind the 2014 release.
“For a number of years, fans had been asking about unreleased Starry Eyed tracks. Although it bugged me a little that we only had the 28 songs on That Was Now and This Is Then as a record of the band, all I additionally had were very lo-fi cassette copies of some tracks that I never felt fair to release.
“In 2010, the stereo tapes of a legendary concert in 1974 for the magazine Zigzag — featuring Michael Nesmith, John Stewart, Help Yourself, Chilli Willi and the Red Hot Peppers, and Starry Eyed and Laughing — were unearthed after years of searching by my great friend Nigel Cross, who founded and runs the great Shagrat Records.
“With Andy Childs, who had the tapes in his loft, and Pete Frame and John Tobler, who founded Zigzag, we formed a production team to release the concert. Nigel had the tapes digitized, I mastered them, and some edits were needed where parts were missing. Pete and I did the artwork and packaging, and the five-CD box set, The Amazing Zigzag Concert, was released on John Tobler’s Road Goes On Forever label.
‘So now there were another 10 Starry Eyed and Laughing tracks out there — albeit live,” poole explains. “The mastering of the tapes, using new software, also made it seem possible to do the same for the other tracks I had. I started doing this until falling ill in 2013.
“Then, out of the blue in 2014, various multi-tracks and high-quality stereo recordings turned up from a couple of sources — one was the sad event of our first manager David Griffiths’ death and the other source was our very much alive first drummer Nick Brown, who’d played at the Zigzag concert.
“As I remixed and remastered the recordings, I saw a really interesting — and good quality — alternate-reality Starry Eyed album that could include some of the cover songs suggested by Dan Loggins and several unreleased original songs. This seems to have proven correct. The album has been very popular, making several Best of 2014 lists, and some even say it’s the best Starry Eyed and Laughing album.”
What transpired during the gap between the band’s two mid-1970s albums and the 2014 release? “The best thing immediately after the first two albums was getting Flo & Eddie to produce some singles,” Poole says. “We’d supported them at The Bottom Line in New York and got on really well. Thanks to Dan Loggins, CBS paid for them to come to London to produce three tracks, and it was a wonderful time. Only two were released, and they had little promotion and busted. We didn’t really exist as a band, we weren’t gigging and had no management. So it was all like a dream.
“Since then, despite a continual struggle to get by — my song ‘Money Is No Friend of Mine’ turned out to be more of a prophesy than a manifesto — it’s been fulfilling. I’ve been able to do so many things I love that haven’t seemed like work.
“I gigged and toured solo for a number of years in the 1980s and 1990s and freelanced as a recording engineer. I managed a band — The Men They Couldn’t Hang and produced their 1985 No.1 indie album. I recorded two albums with Iain Whitmore — Fallen by the Falcons and Start the Countdown by the Sun. The latter was partly recorded at Abbey Road — another dream come true. I also started a label and got to know the now virtually extinct music business inside out. The current one is a learning curve for everyone.
“Most of all,” Poole continues, “I’m loving what I’m mostly doing now — producing and mastering records. That has recently included Steeleye Span, Maddy Prior, Katie Humble, and the best live band in the U.K. at the moment, Danny & the Champions of the World. I must mention a wonderful album in the Starry Eyed vein that I mastered in 2015 — Co-Pilgrim’s Slows to Go. My favorite at the moment has to be the Dreaming Spires. I played, sang, produced two tracks, and mastered their current album Searching for the Supertruth which is up for an award as best album of 2015.”
Poole says he also started playing live shows in 2010 — “it was thrilling to meet fans who’d seen Starry Eyed and Laughing back in the day” — but was stricken with polymyalgia rheumatica (PMR) in 2013. PMR is an inflammatory disorder that causes muscle pain and stiffness, especially in the shoulders, and can make it difficult to raise arms above the shoulders.
“I kind of lost a couple of years getting it managed,” Poole says. “Though my days are shorter than they used to be, things are looking up, and I hope to be doing as much as ever, including gigging a lot more. The adrenalin from that is actually great medicine.”
Poole also recalls some other adrenalin-filled concerts that he witnessed as a spectator. He says the best concert he ever attended was Bob Dylan with the Rolling Thunder Revue at the Civic Center in Hartford, Connecticut, on Nov. 24, 1975.
“Courtesy of Columbia Records’ s David Demers, Pete Frame, Mike Wackford, and I were at this epochal event. Mike and I saw Dylan for the first time — in his white face makeup. Ramblin’ Jack [Elliott], Rick Danko, Allen Ginsberg, and so many legends were there. Roger McGuinn brought the rock ’n’ roll with the help of the wonderful Mick Ronson, and Joan Baez whirled alongside through ‘Eight Miles High.’ Joni Mitchell — ‘Joni be thy name,’ to paraphrase Garth Husdon — sang ‘Edith and the Kingpin’ and others from The Hissing of Summer Lawns, which had just been released, and it brought the biggest response of the night. My
only regret is turning down the chance to go backstage afterward. Our past brains were strange things, indeed, sometimes!”
Poole says the second-best concert he attended was a Bruce Springsteen show in London’s Wembley Arena in 1981. He sat three rows from the stage, and Springsteen — “he’s the best” — delivered “sheer force-of-nature energy and complete involvement.”
The live shows that influenced Poole most as a musician were held in England June 27-29, 1970, at the Bath Festival of Blues and Progressive Music.
“It was the first — and only — music festival I’ve been to without playing. The line-up almost defines the golden era for me, the mid-to-late ‘60s. Just take this in: Frank Zappa, Led Zeppelin, Jefferson Airplane, Pink Floyd, Santana, Donovan, Canned Heat, Dr. John, Steppenwolf, Hot Tuna, Johnny Winter, It’s A Beautiful Day, Fairport Convention, Moody Blues, Country Joe, the Byrds, and there were more. I think I saw all of those acts, or heard them, from the beat-up old Merc that six of us — plus Zeppo, my cat — went in and briefly slept in.
“Most memorable was the Clarence White Byrds playing acoustically at dawn. They couldn’t plug in because of the English rain. The festival was most influential because we were hearing the music that had filled our rooms from crackly grooves being played live right in that moment by real people. It brought the whole life of being a musician into three dimensions.”
With so many memories of concerts in the 1970s and the heyday of his own group, will we ever see another chapter of Starry Eyed and Laughing?
“In 2013, Iain Whitmore and I got together to write a new Starry Eyed album,” Poole responds. “Over three days, we wrote or revived about a dozen songs with plans to record them with many musical friends old and new — even a couple of the original session players from our albums. One week later, I was immobilized with PMR, so the plans went on hold.
“This year, we will restart the project and, hopefully, release a new album a mere four decades after the last one.”