The Byrds’ “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better,” first released as a B-side in 1965, was several things. It was, along with its A-side (“All I Really Want to Do”) the much-anticipated follow-up to the group’s “Mr. Tambourine Man,” the Columbia Records debut 45 that enjoyed massive commercial response a few months earlier. Penned by the group’s lead singer, Gene Clark, it was also a relatively rare – at least amongst the Byrds’ early chart-topping hits – original group composition to be promoted as a single.
“All I Really Want to Do,” however, was not a huge hit. And, despite a label push, neither was “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better.” But through some peculiarity in its composition – its robust, propulsive melody, its straightforward emotion and “put down” message, its energy, its relative technical simplicity – “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better” tended, of all the Byrds’ songs, to get adapted by dozens of period garage bands. It didn’t hurt that it also rocked like little else in the Byrds’ oeuvre.
I have yet to hear a bad ’60s version of “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better.” This week we take a look at three of the best.
1. The Unknowns, I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better (Marlo 1550)
The Unknowns were an accomplished rock ‘n’ roll band from Belleville, Illinois (across the river from St. Louis). The group made some excellent folk-rock 45s in the mid-‘60s, later, having renamed themselves Spur, releasing the album that remains their best-known recording amongst collectors, 1968’s Spur of the Moment.
The Unknowns first came together in 1964, with Jimmy Fey (guitar) Larry Wilson (drums) and Rick Willard (vocals and bass). Their debut 45, which appeared on the St. Louis-based Marlo Records in 1965, was “You Want Me Too,” backed with a cover of the Beatles’ “Baby’s in Black.”
With the addition of Ed Kalotek on guitars and keyboard, and Jimmy Fey’s replacement by guitarist Stan Bratzke, the Unknowns would record their second 45 – this selection. (Incidentally, Fey would return to the group in 1967 and this line-up, a sequence of drummers notwithstanding, would remain largely consistent throughout the rest of the band’s career.)
Released in 1966, their “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better” bursts with the ringing guitar lines and raw exuberance that was so characteristic of period versions of the song. (Flipside “The Modern Era,” though sombre, was also good.)
A year later the Unknowns released their third 45 (“All Over the World” b/w “You Could Help Me Ease the Pain”) on the local Cinema label. Its folk-rock sound restated the group’s folk-rock leanings, its world-weariness presaging an aesthetic that eventually culminated in Spur of the Moment, their album of fully-realized “mature” folk-rock, country-rock and psychedelia.
The band’s story is better documented elsewhere (see excellent commentary at Record Fiend). The Unknowns’ trajectory is, in retrospect, similar to other ambitious regional rock ‘n’ roll acts in the ‘60s. They began during the British Invasion with several youthful, of-their-time 45s. And they would arc out of the ‘60s (and into the early ‘70s) with a full-length album and turned-on sound.
But, aside from their obvious musical talent, what interests me about the Unknowns, this selection included, was their attraction, from the outset, to the minor-key sound of many of the early wave of folk-rock bands (the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, the Grateful Dead and the Youngbloods come to mind). This proclivity is heard persisting in their handiwork as Spur, with all of their recordings mirroring these better-known groups’ development from folk-rock into psychedelia and country-rock.
The cream of recordings – studio, live and unreleased-in-their-time – by Spur (as well as the Unknowns) has been recently compiled and released by Drag City. Well worth seeking out.
Sources: Record Fiend, Rick Willard
2. The 4 of Us, I Feel a Whole Lot Better (Hideout H-1012)
The Four of Us, from Detroit suburb Birmingham, began playing together in 1965. Their core included Jeff Alborell and Gary Burrows on guitars and vocals, though accounts conflict on the rest of the group’s personnel, which seems to have been fairly flexible either way. (I am obliged to note that future Eagle Glenn Frey briefly sang with the band, though he’s not heard on this selection.)
A popular draw locally, the Four of Us, despite lineup changes, managed to make the most of their brief existence. First and foremost, the band were regulars at the Hideout Club, an all-ages spot that played an important part in the very active teen rock ‘n’ roll scene outside of inner city Detroit. Operated by local entrepreneurs Dave Leone and Ed “Punch” Andres, the Hideout would flourish for a few years in the mid-‘60s, and featured many of the hipper area teen rock ‘n’ roll bands from suburban Detroit in its time; Bob Seger and Suzi Quatro, among many others, would play the Hideout early on.
The Four of Us released two 45s, both on Hideout Records, the label that served as a direct outlet for many of the club’s resident bands. Three Four of Us songs – “I Can’t Live Without Your Love,” “Feel a Whole Lot Better” and an unreleased-on-45 version of “Baby Blue” – also appeared on the rare Best of the Hideouts album, a full-length compilation released by Hideout Records in 1966.
This side, released in 1966, would be the second of their two mid-‘60s 45s. Their first, “You’re Gonna Be Mine” is perhaps better known to garage band collectors, but the band’s reading of “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better,” with its harmonies, jangling guitars and surging energy, stands out as the group’s finest moment.
The Four of Us dissolved by late 1966.
3. The Hitch Hikers, Feel a Whole Lot Better (Cuca J-6741)
This version of “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better” was released in a comparatively late 1967.
This is perhaps the least known of this week’s selections. The most immediately recognizable aspect of this 45, in fact, is that it’s on Cuca Records. Democratic if nothing else, Cuca Records was a crazily prolific label and recording studio founded by James Kirchstein, who ran his operations between the late ‘50s and early ‘70s out of Sauk City, Wisconsin. An exemplary post-War indie label, Cuca and its several subsidiaries would serve as a sort of clearinghouse for many area artists. In addition to the garage band and R&B and soul releases for which it’s best remembered, stretches a catalog of hundreds of 45s, with polka, pre-British-Invastion rock ‘n’ roll and surf, country, gospel, teen pop, easy-listening and blues and jazz all amply represented.
The Hitch Hikers themselves hailed from the small Wisconsin town of Platteville, part of the University of Wisconsin system. (Nearest city was Dubuque, Iowa – Sauk City was seventy miles away.) The group included Jim Hake (lead guitar), Rick Tryne (rhythm guitar), Bart Bell (keyboards), Mike Hendrickson (bass) and Larry Popp (drums). They played local college parties along with area shows in southern Wisconsin as well as eastern Iowa and northern Illinois.
This 45’s flipside is a solid, uptempo treatment of the rarely-covered Bob Dylan song “One Too Many Mornings.” This 45, released in April of 1967, would be the band’s only recorded output.
Sources: Gary Myers’s On That Wisconsin Beat, Dominic Welhouse