The Byrds played to a full house at Middle Earth - McGuinn, Hillman, Kelley and Parsons. IMG_1055
The Byrds were scheduled to play European dates in May 1968.
Sweetheart Of The Rodeo had not been released and Pete Frame, who has prepared Rock Family Trees of the Byrds and Gram Parsons, recalls, “The Byrds played to a full house at London’s underground club, Middle Earth, which was housed in a cellar in King Street, Covent Garden, and the line-up was McGuinn, Hillman, Kelley and Parsons.
Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithfull came in to witness the gig and were assisted to the front by a minder.
Gram was wearing a translucent silky, black shirt and he sat at an electric piano for most of the gig.
He played acoustic guitar now and then.
He sang lead on several songs, but sang harmony on most, and he left all the talking to McGuinn and Hillman.
Also in the line-up - though only on the numbers which suited the banjo - was Doug Dillard.
They played past favourites plus a whole tranche of country numbers, which neither I nor most of the audience were expecting.
In 1968, country & western was a backwater style as far as most British rock fans were concerned.
The Notorious Byrd Brothers, which I consider to be one of the greatest albums ever released, had only just come out and they appeared to have changed their style completely since then.”
When Sweetheart Of The Rodeo was released, it only made No 77 on the US album charts and did even less business here.
However, You Ain’t Going Nowhere did make the UK Top 50, the only record with Gram Parsons to do so. A few months later, country-rock would be in full swing with Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline which had a guest appearance from Johnny Cash.
Roger McGuinn reflects, “We were just experimenting: we were doing what we felt like doing. We weren’t thinking in terms of trends, but maybe we were receiving what was in the air at the time, a subconscious thing.
Lots of people were doing the same sort of thing including Bob Dylan, but I wasn’t in touch with him at the time and we never discussed anything.
Some people thought he was going mad when he did those country things, but I think it was a good direction and he was doing good stuff.”
In July, the Byrds were back in London for a show at the Royal Albert Hall, and it was to be followed by dates in South Africa.
Miriam Makeba had been encouraged the tour as she thought that American musicians should see how bad the racism was.
On the day after the Albert Hall concert, Parsons refused to leave his hotel room. Roger McGuinn reflects, “I thought Gram would leave the Byrds, but I didn’t expect him to go so suddenly and the reason why he went was not exactly honest.
He said that he was upset over apartheid and going to South Africa, which was not the truth.
He was fully aware of where we were going and that our contract called for us to play for mixed audiences in South Africa.
We weren’t taking sides on the racial issue and, in fact, we were trying to help out. The reason for him staying in London was because he wanted to be with Mick and Keith, and anybody who knew him will tell you that.”
Both McGuinn and Hillman were furious at Gram leaving the Byrds, particularly because he simply wanted to stay with the Rolling Stones.
The Byrds went to South Africa without him and their roadie, Carlos Bernal learnt Gram’s parts for the tour.
The press coverage had such headlines as “The Byrds Say South Africa Is Sick, Backwards And Rude”.
The audiences gave them catcalls and they left following drugs charges.
The authorities impounded their money and said that they would have to face the magistrate first.
To make matters worse, in October 1968, the Byrds discovered that their manager had not been keeping the books correctly.
Totally disillusioned, Chris Hillman left the band, but he, once again, became friends with Gram Parsons and they planned their next move together.