The Gilded Palace of Sin
What led to and came from The Flying Burrito Brother's debut album "The Gilded Palace of Sin" (1969)
The Gilded Palace of Sin is a less than 40 minute glimpse into heaven as it is seen by both the burnouts and the barnhands. When the Burritos blurred the lines of country and rock aesthetics into this album, the dusty shack in Joshua Tree that lands itself on the cover transforms into a twisted glimpse of the pearly gates. This is the first album by the Flying Burrito Brothers and it’s undisputedly their best. Released in 1969, this album planted the seed for what would become the leading formula that so many more greats would follow.
The Gilded Palace of Sin is a masterpiece because while folk rock was making its way to the mainstream in 69’, country rock was not yet a niche that many artists fell into. Parsons goal in blending these genres was to bring the same fervor to country that audiences had for rock. Initially, country fans were reluctant to accept the long haired Burritos sporting rhinestone suits at the Opry ,but when Parsons laid it down on the keys and gave a taste of his bleedy croons, they couldn’t help but fall in love. While their appearance may have been hard to digest for the Southerners, over in their LA stomping grounds this look bode them well and was the familiarity the west coast audiences related to.
The Burritos formed to fully ride the wave of an idea that was started by The Byrds’ 1968 mixed-bag-of-an-album Sweetheart of The Rodeo. Sweetheart was the sixth studio album by the Byrds and was the first and only album that featured Gram Parsons. After The Notorious Byrd Brothers album was released earlier that year, Roger McGuinn was in need of a pianist and he found that and more in Parsons. Parsons immediately took a hold of the reigns and shifted an album that McGuinn wanted to take in a jazz direction into an album that would be his debut of what he called “Cosmic American Music.” In a classic Byrds fashion, we still get our fair share of Dylan covers on the album, but this time with an immersion into a sea of country influence. Some called this album half assed, claiming it was an insincere attempt at country (probably because of Laurel Canyon legend McGuinn’s hot take on Southern twang) and that its rock influence was such a diversion from their usual. Sweetheart was the lowest charted Byrds record, but it has to be the most important as far as the Burrito prophecy is concerned.
The reason for the disconnect in Sweetheart was that the music was sweating to masquerade as country when underneath the disguise, it was still the classic jingle jangle of Byrds. The Byrds had been scheduled to play a big gig in South Africa in 1968 with this new album, but because they were still a segregated country which would lead to a segregated show, Parsons quit the band the day before the tour and refused to go. Because of Parson’s last minute departure from the tour, (that Hillman later recalls may have not been for the noble reasons of racial solidarity, but in favor of a bender with Keith Richards) the Byrds hoisted their roadie Carlos Bernal on stage to take Parsons place playing rhythm guitar. After this disaster of a show, the Byrds (McGuinn specifically) were awaiting more big change while Parsons and Hillman kept the wheels turning on their next musical venture. With a semi-new line up, a fresh musical mission, and a whole lot of uppers, The Flying Burrito Brothers were born.
The lineup consisted of Sweetheart’s ex Byrd and driving force Gram Parsons on lead vocals, acoustic guitar and piano, ex Byrd Chris Hillman on lead guitar, Sneaky Pete Kleinow on pedal steel guitar, and Chris Ethridge on bass. This was truly one badass quartet and every member was essential in the making of GPOS. Most songs on this album were fueled by the hazy times at Hillman and Parsons' home in the Valley that they deemed “Burrito Manor”. This four piece delivered an expertly made blend of tracks that carried a clear and steady theme throughout in their masterpiece of a debut album.
The album cover fed into the concept of the metaphorical palace down to the smallest rhinestone. Parsons drew inspiration for the expertly embroidered suits made by iconic rodeo tailor Nudie Cohn from country greats before him to hammer down the Cosmic sound of the album. While each Burrito sported stitchings that included things ranging from a giant golden eagle to a pair of peacocks, Parsons' suit quite literally outshined them all. With a bright Nudie original that included a pair of naked ladies, California Poppies, weed leaves, pills, and a giant red cross on the back to finish it off, this has to top the list of iconic cover wear. Aside from the band themselves , the location feels eerie and prophetic and acts as a perfect final note on the album. The location of this shoot took place only about 20 miles from where Parsons would eventually overdose only a few years later in 1973 at 26 years old in Joshua Tree, California.
As far as the album itself goes, in my opinion, there isn’t one throwaway on the whole thing. For starters, opening track “Christine's Tune” was written about one of the GTO’s, who was also Frank Zappa’s Hot Rats covergirl, Miss Christine. Next on “Sin City” Sneaky Pete’s steel guitar matches the picture Parsons tries to paint for us about the “Lord's burning rain” so perfectly it's ridiculous. By tuning his guitar to a jazzy B6 while using a fuzzbox to keep it meeting the waves of a psychedelic sound, Kleinow’s work really stepped outside the box on this album. Then a few tracks over is one of my favorite covers of all time; a Parson’s spun rendition of James Carr’s “Dark End of The Street” will make you feel physical pain because it's so real. The guys don't leave us hurting too long though and pick us right back up with Country-Joe-esque tune, “My Uncle”, that tells the true story of when draft notices showed up at Burrito Manor. Every song has its place in the work, but my favorite song of all has to be “Hot Burrito #1”. I mean the lyrics break my heart because of the sincerity in them and they could not have had more beautiful music to back them. Leaving us with something to chew on in the closer “Hippie Boy”, we get a taste of some killer Hillman narration telling a story that is said to be alluding to the 1968 Democratic National Convention. All in all, The Gilded Palace of Sin is one of my favorite albums ever and I seriously recommend it to everyone.