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The Byrds


Encouraged by the advent of the British Invasion bands headed by The BEATLES and the folk revival movement led by BOB DYLAN, The BYRDS were the first group to be labelled folk-rock. Subsequent years saw them flit through psychedelia, country-rock and soft-rock, held together by some top-drawer singers/strummers including Roger McGuinn, Gene Clark, David Crosby, Chris Hillman, (drummer) Michael Clarke and later, Gram Parsons.
Formed in Los Angeles, California, USA in 1964 – initially as The Jetset – by Jim McGuinn (soon to be Roger), Gene Clark and David Crosby, all three had flown in from folky backgrounds, McGuinn having toured with The CHAD MITCHELL TRIO, and Clark already having proved an accomplished songwriter with The NEW CHRISTY MINSTRELS; Crosby, meanwhile, was an ambitious singer/songwriter who’d performed with Les Baxter’s Balladeers. The Jetset recorded a one-off flop single for Elektra Records, `Please Let Me Love You’ (under the pseudonym of The Beefeaters), a record featuring fresh recruits by way of expert bluegrass player Chris Hillman (previously of the Hillmen), who’d incorporated his instrumental dexterity on the mandolin into his bass playing; drummer Michael Clarke, with his chiselled, Brian Jones-esque looks, completed the line-up, initially playing on cardboard boxes when the band were too hard-up to afford a real drum-kit!
Profoundly influenced by The BEATLES, the quintet soon changed their name to The BYRDS (the misspelling a tribute to their heroes), and set about realising their vision of marrying the Fab Four’s electric energy to the folk music which was their stock-in-trade. With the help of long-time manager Jim Dickson and the unlikely recommendation of jazz giant, MILES DAVIS, the band signed to Columbia Records. At the insistence of Dickson and producer Terry Melcher, the reluctant BYRDS eventually agreed to rework their earlier demo of `Mr. Tambourine Man’ (this and other demos later surfaced on the LP, `Preflyte’). It was a canny decision which did nothing less than change the course of pop/rock history. The resulting song’s unforgettable euphoric rush charged DYLAN’s lyrics with a youthful romanticism, encapsulating in under three minutes what it was to be young and have the world at your feet. It soon hit No.1 on both sides of the Atlantic and it still sounds as fresh today as it did then, a timeless slice of hypnotic, bittersweet pop with McGuinn’s delivery forging an affecting DYLAN/LENNON hybrid. Much has since been made of the fact that only one BYRD, McGuinn, actually played (12-string Rickenbacker) on the record, with Melcher hiring session musicians like LEON RUSSELL, Larry Knechtel and Hal Blaine.
However, any doubts about The BYRDS’ ability as a band were dispelled with the debut album, MR. TAMBOURINE MAN (1965) {*9}, a folk-rock classic. It was a case of more of the same really, with the band turning in a dazzling string of DYLAN covers, making the songs distinctly their own (e.g. `Spanish Harlem Incident’ and follow-up hit `All I Really Want To Do’). Another DYLAN cut, `Chimes Of Freedom’, was a ringing hippie call-to-arms, fuelled by a starry-eyed optimism, and they even managed to transform the Welsh mining disaster ballad `The Bells Of Rhymney’ (penned by PETE SEEGER), into an effervescent swirl. Gene Clark was the band’s chief songwriter at this stage, contributing the classic, BEATLES-esque originals `I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better’, `I Knew I’d Want You’ and `Here Without You’.
Throughout the summer of ‘65, they played a residency at Ciro’s nightclub on Sunset Strip, often cited as the origin of the L.A. hippie movement (described by the L.A. Times as being frequented by people who looked like they’d been dragged from Sherwood Forest!). The BYRDS were back at No.1 by the end of that year, when they managed to transform PETE SEEGER’s Book Of Ecclesiastes adaptation `Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There Is A Season)’ into a classic pop record – a miracle of biblical proportions, one could say.
Released towards the end of the year, sophomore set TURN! TURN! TURN! (1965) {*8}, boasted two further DYLAN covers, an uninspiring update of `The Times They Are A-Changin’’ and `Lay Down Your Weary Tune’, apparently the song that finally persuaded DYLAN that the group were doing something above and beyond mere imitation. McGuinn contributed two new arrangements, one of which was his tribute to the assassinated John F. Kennedy, `He Was A Friend Of Mine’, while Clark offered three originals, including the classic `Set You Free This Time’, plus `The World Turns around Her’ and `If You’re Gone’.
Recorded the previous January, `Eight Miles High’ pioneered psychedelic rock, predating the efforts of The BEATLES, The BEACH BOYS and San Franciscan bands such as JEFFERSON AIRPLANE. The JOHN COLTRANE-inspired track was promptly vetoed by radio stations on its spring ‘66 release, amid allegations that the song was an explicit account of an LSD trip.
After the completion of their third album, FIFTH DIMENSION (1966) {*8}, Clark departed, citing his paranoia-fuelled fear of flying and Crosby’s sarcastic digs regarding his tambourine playing. The new album heralded a move away from sparkling pop to a more complex, ambitious and intelligent sound. Influenced heavily by Indian sitar player RAVI SHANKAR and modal jazz, the record didn’t fulfil the promise of the accompanying single but still contained some memorable moments. McGuinn’s `Mr. Spaceman’ hinted at the country sound the band would later embrace, while other decent efforts came from the hippie-sounding `What’s Happening?!?!’ and re-vamps from `Hey Joe’ to `Wild Mountain Thyme’.
Just prior to releasing the fourth album, YOUNGER THAN YESTERDAY (1967) {*8}, the band unleashed `So You Want To Be A Rock’n’Roll Star’, a sarcastic reaction to manufactured bands by a group that had fallen out of favour with the Hollywood set. The record was an assorted bag of styles, with Hillman emerging as a talented songwriter on the likes of `Time Between’ and `Thoughts And Words’, while Crosby had his finest moment with the haunting `Everybody’s Been Burned’; DYLAN was behind minor hit `My Back Pages’. Despite the melange of styles, the album prefigured “Sgt Pepper”, once again proving that The BYRDS were ahead of their time.
By the time of THE NOTORIOUS BYRD BROTHERS (1968) {*9}, Crosby’s dictatorial manner had led to his ejection from the band, along with Michael Clarke. A contender for The BYRDS’ best album, the record was again stylistically diverse but included possibly the band’s finest moment in the Gerry Goffin & CAROLE KING number `Goin’ Back’ (later a hit for former folk-singer, DUSTY SPRINGFIELD). Its wistful musings on the passage from childhood to maturity were set against a backdrop of heavenly harmonies and celestial pedal steel, while `Wasn’t Born To Follow’ (another Goffin-King gem) was a triumphant clarion call of phased, psychedelic country.
With the addition of Gram Parsons and Hillman’s cousin, Kevin Kelley, the band steered radically away from the studio-enhanced sound of “Notorious”, straight into the heart of country, once again staying one step ahead of their peers and foreshadowing the country-rock boom of the early 70s. SWEETHEART OF THE RODEO (1968) {*9}, with its purist sound, confounded the hippies, and despite playing a show at the Grand Ole Opry and even, God forbid, cutting their hair for the occasion, the country crowd remained suspicious of their druggy image, thereby ensuring little commercial success. Parsons was the driving force behind the album, contributing beautiful songs like `Hickory Wind’ and `One Hundred Years From Now’, which sat majestically alongside covers of the Louvin Brothers, Merle Haggard, DYLAN and WOODY GUTHRIE material.
The gypsy-like Parsons soon left, taking Hillman with him to form The FLYING BURRITO BROTHERS. McGuinn (who’d now changed his name to Roger, following his immersion in the Indonesian religion, Subud) recruited country guitar maestro Clarence White along with a cast of other musicians. The albums that followed were inconsistent, although they contained a few BYRDS classics and highlighted White’s virtuoso guitar playing; drummer Gene Parsons (no relation to Gram) and bassist John York were now established members.
The awkwardly-titled DR. BYRDS & MR. HYDE (1969) {*5}, featured the ironic stab at the country establishment, `Drug Store Truck Drivin’ Man’, while there was more DYLAN fare by way of his “Basement Tapes” recording, `This Wheel’s On Fire’; `Your Gentle Way Of Loving Me’ was a TOM PAXTON cover.
On the back of a pivotal Various Artists soundtrack to the cult movie Easy Rider, BALLAD OF EASY RIDER (1969) {*7}, featuring the gentle meandering title track (not the McGuinn version used in the film), marked a move upwards in class. Shifting between folk and country (and a smidgen of R&B), the set was charming through versions of `Deportee (Plane Wreck At Los Gatos)’, DYLAN’s `It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’ and `Jesus Is Just Alright’.
The half live/half studio set (UNTITLED) (1970) {*7} included an impassioned performance from White on `Lover On The Bayou’ and a lovely version of LOWELL GEORGE’s `Truck Stop Girl’ and LEADBELLY’s `Take A Whiff On Me’. Probably the strongest set of the latter-day BYRDS (songwriter Skip Battin superseded York), it also included the single `Chestnut Mare’ and the evocative McGuinn and Jacques Levy song, `All The Things’. Many of McGuinn’s songs during this period came from the abandoned “Gene Tryp” project, which he had begun with New York psychologist Levy in an attempt to chart the history of American music.
The last few albums weren’t quite as ambitious in their scope, but BYRDMANIAX (1971) {*3} and FARTHER ALONG (also 1971) {*5}, were enjoyable despite having the weight of such an illustrious career on their shoulders. Of the former, things went awry with the heady overdubs of knob-twiddlers Melcher and Chris Hinshaw, while Battin had found a new writing accomplice, KIM FOWLEY; one should bypass awful takes of `Glory, Glory’ (hardly gospel!) and `My Destiny’. The latter set was also less than inspiring, although one could give the thumbs-up for `Tiffany Queen’ and`Bugler’, but not for JOHNNY OTIS’ `So Fine’.
McGuinn did the right thing and finally called it a day in mid-’72, while the original BYRDS (McGuinn, Clark, Crosby, Hillman & Clarke) reunited for an uninspiring “comeback” LP, the eponymous BYRDS (1973) {*5}. Featuring two patchy NEIL YOUNG covers, `Cowgirl In The Sand’ and `(See The Sky) About To Rain’ (and a JONI MITCHELL number, `For Free’), the album took them back into the Top 30, although the set sounded dated and full of cast-off tracks from previous splinters, McGuinn’s `Born To Rock & Roll’ being the exception.
Tragedy almost immediately followed The BYRDS’ past members when they died in separate incidents in 1973: Clarence White was killed by a drunken driver on July 14, GRAM PARSONS from a drug overdose on September 19. DAVID CROSBY (of CSN&Y), meanwhile, survived a descent into free-base cocaine addiction and a liver transplant to record songs in Nashville with McGuinn and Hillman in 1990. McGUINN’s solo career proved to be fairly prolific, kicking off with an eponymous solo debut in early 1973, revisiting the eclecticism of mid-period BYRDS.
© MC Strong 1994-2010/BG-GRD // rev-up MCS Dec2012

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