When I think of cities that have lost professional sports teams, I think of the Colts packing up and leaving Baltimore in the middle of the night, of Washington losing the Senators, of the Dodgers and the Giants departing the Big Apple to go west, and of Seattle’s beloved SuperSonics reanimating in Oklahoma City as the Zombie Sonics. I don’t, however, think of the St. Louis Browns. It’s fitting then that Skip Battin recorded “The St. Louis Browns” for 1972’s Skip. The song is a tribute to an oft-forgotten baseball club by an oft-forgotten musician on an oft-forgotten record. While the merit of remembering the Browns is certainly debatable—I believe they made it to one World Series in their 50 year history in St. Louis—I wish more folks knew about the wholly original Battin and his excellent record Skip.
Let me back up. I’m writing about a solo album by a member of the late-period Byrds not named Roger McGuinn that has never been available digitally or on CD. For good measure, I’m going to affix an incredibly inane title to this piece: “Don’t Skip It.” These choices should really drive up traffic to the blog.
Battin—who was a whole 8 years older than any other member of The Byrds—cut his teeth on late-‘50s pop, scoring a #11 hit in 1959 with the pop duo Skip & Flip. He joined The Byrds, replacing John York on bass, in late 1969. While with The Byrds, he co-wrote and sang two of their most noteworthy late-period songs: the kitschy “Citizen Kane” and the Vaudevillian “America’s Great National Past Time.”
I know why Skip isn’t well-known: it fuses late-’60s, West Coast Rock & Roll, late-‘50s novelty pop, Vaudevillian piano stylings, European-influenced balladry and pub songs, street tough vocals reminiscent of Lou Reed on one of his better days, and deeply, deeply weird lyrics. But for all those same reasons, I’m also shocked the record hasn’t become a cult hit akin to Battin’s fellow-Skip Skip Spence’s Oar or his fellow-former-Byrd Gene Clark’s White Light. I can picture some hapless customer at a local record store admitting he’s never heard of Skip, only to have the clerk behind the counter condescendingly feign shock from behind the strands of hair hanging in front of his face: “YOU’VE NEVER HEARD OF SKIP BATTIN?!?”
In spite of its obscurity, this record is flippin’ great. There’s not a bad song amongst the ten on the album. The writing and the playing are both inspired. And though Battin deserves the bulk of the credit, he receives assists from some heavy hitters. First, I must mention he co-wrote all of the songs on the album, and all of the songs he sang as a Byrd, with Kim Fowley. Fowley, of course, is best known as being depicted by Michael Shannon in that Runaways biopic from a few years ago. If I were a betting man, I would put good money on Fowley—the erstwhile so-called mayor of the Sunset Strip—as the party responsible for the record’s distinctly and uniquely bizarre lyrical tone. Then again, Battin does eerily resemble Charles Manson, so maybe that one’s a push. Elsewhere, Battin’s fellow-Byrd Clarence White, who was tragically killed the following year by a drunk driver, beautifully colors the album’s sonic canvass with guitar and mandolin playing that clearly demonstrate how his innovative flatpicking influenced generations of both acoustic and electric axe-slingers. Finally, I would be remiss not to note chief-Byrd Roger McGuinn makes an appearance to lend the famous chimes of his 12-string guitar to “Captain Video,” a song that’s probably about McGuinn.
The album begins with a rollicking piano and the sound of White’s famous B-Bender Telecaster (which he invented with fellow-Byrd Gene Parsons, by the way). A paranoid Battin then pleads, “Now I got a kid, a wife, and a home/ And there’s a tap on my phone/ Hey, undercover man, won’t you leave me alone?” This is “Undercover Man,” and if it seems like an inauspicious way to begin an album, it befits a man who, again, closely resembles Charles Manson. I’m sure if I looked like that when Nixon was in the White House and Hoover helmed the FBI, I too would be singing couplets like “I understand my name’s in your file/ Cuz I have long hair and always smile” and “All freaky people and Rock & Roll stars/ Let’s keep it together or we’re behind bars.”
From there, “The Ballad of Dick Clark,” a pastiche of ‘50s Rock & Roll, finds Battin tipping his cap to the most famous Rock & Roll performers and disc jockeys of the ‘50s. Later, White’s mandolin and guitar playing are highlighted on the European-influenced “Four legs are better than two,” a song about two carnival sideshow performers on which Battin sings, “Two hearts are better than one/ Four legs are better than two/ Some folks think that we’re grotesque/ But I’ll still dance with you.” I find these lyrics to be a sweet, poignant glimpse into the bruised psyche of a man beaten down by counterculture prejudice. If he’s sweating the presence of an undercover man at the start of side 1, at least he can be found, despite coming to view himself as grotesque, dancing with his sweetheart at side 1’s close.
If the record has two highlights, however, they are a pair of songs that sound like the bizarre lovechild of The Velvet Underground and The Flying Burrito Brothers: side 2’s “Cobras” (which sadly can’t be found anywhere online) and the aforementioned “Captain Video.” On “Cobras,” Battin croons, “I am hot and primitive/ I’m frightening, come get warm/ In the oven of my private world/ I’m a nightmare, but I’m tender/ You wanna see something real pretty?/ Then come unzip my sleeping bag.” You’re not wrong to be a little creeped out. Later, he alludes to one of Kerouac’s most famous lines: “I’m a roman candle exploding like a spider across the stars.” The chorus is “Let’s fall asleep so I can be a cobra.” If there’s one thing I hate, it’s figurative language that heavy-handedly references fucking. It’s like, okay, I get it. I see what’s going on here. But Battin’s delivery here recalls Lou Reed’s somber delivery on “Pale Blue Eyes.” As on that classic cut by the Velvets, the sex here is not celebrated, but simply acknowledged as taking place, as something humans do. Again, a portrait of a wounded, paranoid man emerges. He sees himself as grotesque, as a nightmare. It’s a picture that belies the highly infectious melodies found throughout these ten songs.
“Captain Video,” the record’s best song, also features a Lou Reed-like delivery. What’s more, Roger McGuinn’s chiming 12-string guitar recalls Sterling Morrison’s lovely 12-string playing on the third, and in my mind best, Velvet Underground record. But when Battin sings, “I was there at the beginning, playing California Rock & Roll,” we’re reminded we’re still on the West Coast. I believe “Captain Video” is a truly beautiful example of a Rock & Roll song. It’s one of my all-time favorite songs. I’m so glad I loved The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers so much that I thought to take Skip home with me when I came across it amongst the stacks of used LPs at a dusty record store in Lexington, Kentucky. Otherwise, I might never have heard this wonderful song.
I suppose part of this record’s appeal may very well be its obscurity. Maybe I love it so much because I can claim it as my own more fully than other records out there. But I’m sure other folks will see what I see in this record. I don’t think I’m alone. If you happen to come across it, I think it’s worth a few of your dollars. For what it’s worth, I rank it as a true classic.