The Flying Burrito Brothers: Hot Burrito #1 at 50

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Gram Parsons, 1972 publicity shot (Wikipedia Commons)

As The Flying Burrito Brothers’ classic Hot Burrito #1 turns fifty, Getintothis’ Cath Holland reflects on the intriguing modernity of a song half a century old.

The Flying Burrito Brothers brought out debut album Gilded Palace of Sin in February 1969.

Hot Burrito #1 from it is one of the greatest declarations of love in country, if not all, music.

A song named after a budget savoury snack shouldn’t resonate after five decades. And yet, it packs an incredible emotional punch on each listen.

Its title – no wonder when covered by others they take the lyric line I’m Your Toy and use that instead – belies the fact that the song and performance, the vocal by singer and co-author Gram Parsons, devastates.

Country music in 1960s carried a reputation of nostalgia and tradition, homespun tales, the preservation of the status quo. But the emergence of country rock – or Cosmic American Music as Parsons called it – pulled in folk, soul, rock, rhythm and blues, and a deep enduring love of Elvis.

Conservative elements remain, for sure, and Parsons himself was in part a country star cliché with the drugs, the drink and women. And country rock lite was successfully exploited by The Eagles and those who went on to sell millions.

But it also shook off much of the the corny sentimentality, the self indulgence, blew off the dust, and cleaned away the mildew.

Parsons’ previous tenure in The Byrds led to them pursuing the country route more strongly.

‘I wanted to hire him as a piano player,’ Roger McGuinn told Rolling Stone last summer. ‘But it turned out he was like George Jones in a sequin suit.’

The resulting album with The Byrds, 1968’s Sweetheart of the Rodeo, bombed, but the outfit leading on from that, The Flying Burrito Brothers, comprised of Parsons and former band mate Chris Hillman along with ‘Sneaky’ Pete Kleinow, bass player Chris Ethridge  – with whom he wrote Hot Burrito #1 – and drummer Michael Clarke, further benefited creatively if not necessarily commercially, from his passion.

Parsons’ records  sold modestly he was when alive and for a time afterwards, including even the much lauded GP (1973) and posthumously released Grevious Angel (1974) albums he made with Emmylou Harris.

When some artists die appallingly young, the cash cow nostalgia machine kicks in before the unfortunate is even cold. With Gram it was a slow growth, a more organic recouping.

In 1960s the Pill resulted in lots of things – including sexual freedoms – although notably to the primary benefit of men’s pleasures rather than women. Equality was not won in 60s, it still isn’t; the struggle is ongoing and glacially slow, but what emerges is the baby steps start of the shifting of gender roles and codes.

What we have in Hot Burrito #1 is the sign of that movement and change.

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The song is the story of a broken heart and jealousy but, interestingly, without misogyny. It’s a hopeless plea and declaration to an ex lover. An enlightening display of adult human male vulnerability, both in lyric and performance but notably with little in the way of self pity.

Songs of love gone wrong are ten a penny, a seam mined thoroughly and well, but the opening chords of Hot Burrito #1 still everyone in earshot.

Survive those and you’re in the clear, so you think.

Wrong. Because they are nothing – nothing – compared with what is to come.

Kleinow‘s very simple pedal steel guitar intro yanks painfully at any heart, no matter how cold.

Parsons’ vocal is boyish, and quite high. He starts off heart on your sleeve bitchy ‘I’m the one who showed you how…to do the things you’re doing now’.

She’s moved on and he hates it, there’s nothing he can do. And he knows it. We know it, and hurt for him.

How can we not.

Then, ‘Once upon a time…you let me feel you deep inside’. Enjoy this as a physical or emotional feels, take your pick as to what he’s going for here.

It’s a delicate innuendo, delivered with a lightness of touch and his voice breaks, ever so.

During ‘I don’t want no one but you to love me’  his voice goes, again.

The aural experience of the song is one thing; watching the infamous video of the band performing it is something else. The garish suits designed by Nudie Cohn which the band also wear on the Gilded Palace of Sin album cover, clash violently with what we hear.

The idea for these was Gram’s, of course, and very much any country musician worth their salt’s wardrobe of choice.

Parsons aside, the suits are wearing the band members, for the most part, though his outfit is the most vulgar and decorated of all, famously embroidered with images of nude women tattoo-style, pills, poppies, marijuana leaves and a mighty red cross on the back.

Ironically, the motifs he displays like a peacock in breeding season are the very sins the songs on the album warn us about. And the contrast between song and clothes only heightens Hot Burrito #1‘s power.

In the video, we see intentionally bad miming, members playing the wrong instruments for larks. Gram is stood loose limbed behind a piano.  He’s messing about with a pair of shades and grinning behind him with unconvincing laddish nods.

Swathed in soft fabrics, a chiffon scarf circles his throat. Another curls around his hat. He wears a bold red shirt. Nothing matches and yet, with long clean and soft bangs/fringe, he’s slim and cute, looking every inch a naughty but nice pop star pin up.

And when he’s not playing the stoned fool, it’s actually quite wonderful.

Hot Burrito #1 gives us time to stop, take pause, reflect on what one has lost, maybe, or treasure what remains.

It’s a miraculous three and a half minutes. Parsons shows his most vulnerable emotional flesh.

It’s a rare song which combines such qualities and balances them so utterly perfectly, even now. The longer it’s in your life, the less it needs to be about romantic love, but something much bigger instead.

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