The Byrds

A pretty cool Alfred Hitchcock movie. And British slang for girls.

The Byrds are one of the most influential bands in rock history. The way I see it, there are about three or four basic styles of rock guitar that most rock bands base their sound around: Chuck Berry's signature chords, obviously; the crunching powerchords of the early Kinks and Who; the drone of the Velvets; and the Byrdsian jangle. In his own way, leader Roger McGuinn was a more important guitarist than Hendrix - now don't get me wrong, I'm not saying he's anywhere near as technically brilliant; my point is that, oh, roughly half the bands in rock'n'roll have adopted the Byrds' signature guitar tone in some fashion. And not just in rock, either - tune into any country station and you'll hear that jingle-jangle on nearly every other current single, which underscores the debt modern country owes to the Byrds, who invented the genre of country-rock back in the '60s. They also pioneered psychedelia, too, but their most enduring contribution was their fusion of Bob Dylan and the Beatles, which resulted in something entirely new: folk-rock. The charge that the Byrds merely imitated Dylan and the Fabs is partly valid - after all, everyone has to have influences - but it ignores a basic fact: the Byrds, in turn, influenced Dylan and the Beatles to an equal extent. Upon hearing that you could merge folk with rock, Dylan went electric and the Beatles released Rubber Soul - so there.

That all said, the Byrds' original albums don't really live up to their reputation as one of the giants of popular music. The original Byrds never released a fully satisfying masterpiece, a touchstone of rock, though a few albums came a bit close. The Byrds had a deeper talent pool than nearly any band in rock - Roger McGuinn, Chris Hillman, Gene Clark, David Crosby, and later Gram Parsons were all (to a degree) sizable talents, all good songwriters - but no real knockout genius. Though they had the potential to be the American Beatles, the Byrds never lived up to that potential. The Byrds, in typical mid-60s fashion, recorded too quickly, before they had enough first-rate material, which resulted in the early Byrds albums containing too many cover versions (not all of their Dylan covers are as revelatory as "Mr. Tambourine Man" - in fact, some aren't very good at all). The Byrds had a deep talent pool, but it was treated like a talent pool - their history is one of constant revolving-door changes, with only Roger McGuinn the constant member. And given the number of large talents in the band, the Byrds were never particularly cohesive - they kept changing directions too often, and sometimes on the same album (see The Notorious Byrd Brothers).

The main Byrds site is webmastered by my fellow Fayetteville resident Kenton Adler, and includes not only valuable info but contributions from Roger McGuinn himself. Of particular interest is the Folkden, where McGuinn has recorded MID files of traditional folk songs so that the songs are not lost to time.

Reader Comments

Eric Einhorn,

You said, "Upon hearing that you could merge folk with rock, Dylan went electric..." Dylan only released Mr. Tambourine Man, the song that really started the Byrds, on Bringing it all Back Home, which had several electric songs, including the infamous Subterranean Homesick Blues. Therefore, Dylan had already gone electric by the time the Byrds came around. But apart from him, the Byrds did influence everything from Simon and Garfunkel to the Jefferson Airplane to the Beatles, so you're pretty much on the mark.

I am a big fan of the original BYRDS, I have to admit though that the SEARCHERS had already discovered (1964) the jingle jangle sound before the BYRDS, listen to Needles and Pins for proof, I like the reunion album from 1973, not brilliant, but better than anything Roger McGuinn Byrds came up with Sweetheart of the Rodeo, I love the 1965 version of It's All Over Now Baby Blue....

Mr. Tambourine Man (1965) ****

Fewer debut singles have had the impact of the Byrds' version of "Mr. Tambourine Man"; it takes a boring Dylan number (he does write them, like any other mortal) and flies it to the stratosphere on a bed of heavenly harmonies and that perfect "jingle-jangle". However, the Byrds didn't play on that single; the work was done by session musicians, because the Byrds weren't considered professional enough. Though the members of the Byrds Mark I all had years of professional experience behind them, it was as folk (and in Hillman's case, bluegrass) musicians, and none of them were that confident or accomplished yet on electric instruments. Most of the rest of the record, thankfully, consists of the Byrds playing as a band. And it's remarkably solid product for the time, early 1965, when the art of cutting beginning to end enjoyable albums was an almost unheard of rarity. There are a handful of weak and/or boring cuts (particularly the dreary Pete Seeger cover, "Bells of Rhymney"), and the other two Dylan covers don't even come close to "Mr. Tambourine Man"'s quality (in fact I don't care for either one). But Bob Dylan isn't the main songwriter on this album, it's Gene Clark. Though he's overlooked today, Clark was one of the '60s best pop songwriters, if ocassionally too derivative of Lennon/McCartney; he fused a melancholy, wide-open spaces folky feel with a melodic pop catchiness - in sum, the sensitive singer-songwriter model that many lesser talents capitalized on in the early '70s. His five originals are, excepting the debut single, easily the highlights of this collection, ranging from the stomping "I'll Feel A Whole Lot Better," to the tormented, walking the streets alone "Here Without You." The closer, a tongue-in-cheek cover of "We'll Meet Again," that ties in with the then concurrent Dr. Strangelove, is a cute and flip way to end the album.

Turn! Turn! Turn! (1965) ****

Ever-so-slightly weaker than the first album, but not enough to affect my grade. In fact, it's essentially a carbon copy of the debut, with a brilliant cover of a previously boring Pete Seeger song, "Turn Turn Turn", instead of Dylan this time. Since the debut album was really good, why should I complain about slightly sloppy seconds? There are only three Clark originals, one of which is an upbeat pop classic, "The World Turns Around Her." The other two are slow, airily melancholy ballads, "Set You Free This Time," and "If You're Gone," that are entrancing and moving when you're feeling somewhat blue (especially on grey rain days). Of course, if you're not feeling blue then those two songs are kind of boring. The Crosby/McGuinn team chips in with a couple of fine little pop songs - "It Won't Be Wrong," possesses a terrific ringing guitar hook, and though "Wait and See," is kind of silly, it's catchy enough. Shapes of things to come: Hillman convinces the rest of the band to record a version of the country standard, "Satisfied Mind." And did I say that this is a carbon copy of the debut?: they close with a tongue-in-cheek, Byrdsified version of "Oh! Susannah".

5th Dimension (1966) ***

Clark had left before this album was released, leaving behind only one song. But what a song it was: "Eight Miles High," arguably the first psychedelic single, reportedly influenced by Clark's fear of flying and McGuinn's love of John Coltrane (dig that solo! McGuinn certainly did - he'd repeat the same chords periodically to spice up Byrds numbers from this point on). As you'd fear, losing their best songwriter left the Byrds with a shortage of material, and this stretches from unbelievable high points - okay, precisely one high point - to the really bad. Nothing terrible or unlistenable, just a few numbers they should have thought about before releasing. The worst offenders are the horrible cover of "Hey Joe" done much better by the Leaves' original and Hendrix's later hit cover, and the pointless instrumental "2-4-2 Fox Trot (The Lear Jet Song)" that ends the album. All in all, most of this album is good, but not great; merely ordinary songs are quite disappointing compared to the excellence of the first two albums' best songs. Nevertheless, Byrds fans will find plenty to enjoy; just go to first two albums first and get this one after you've worn those out.

Younger Than Yesterday (1967) ****1/2

Though it doesn't contain a single as magical as "Eight Miles High," or "Mr. Tambourine Man," this is the Byrds' most consistent album, and the most representative. Crosby and McGuinn have both greatly improved their songwriting skills, and even Hillman contributes a few nice, country-inspired tunes, the best being "The Girl With No Name." The two hit singles were the presciently "tribulations of a rock star" "So You Want To Be A Rock'n'Roll Star," and their second best Dylan cover, "My Back Pages." Crosby contributes perhaps his best-ever tune, the confessional "Everybody's Been Burned," and is responsible for the album's one bad song, the unbearable "Mind Gardens". For once McGuinn's technophilia is engaging ("C.T.A. 102") and the hippie sensibilities that would prove a disaster on the next album aren't here ("Renaissance Fair"). And the closer, "Why," is one of their catchiest little pop numbers.

The Notorious Byrds Brothers (1968) **1/2

Crosby left during the middle of the sessions for this album, and with their songwriting talent pool even further depleted, the Byrds didn't even come up with a great single this time round. What makes this album a disaster, though, is the time and place it was recorded: late '60s Southern California. The Byrds' fifth album is as good an argument against hippiedom as I've ever encountered, nearly ruining a great band. The high points are a pair of flaccid Goffin/King covers, "Goin' Back" and "Wasn't Born To Follow," but by that point in history even Goffin/King were slaves to the worst excesses of hippiedom, which is to say neither song is "Natural Woman" or even anything off Tapestry. "Draft Morning," is an okay protest number, but it suffers from a problem that inflicts the rest of the material: it's too mellow, man. In fact it's pretty boring all the way through, and if I weren't so infuriated by hippie nonsense like "Dolphin Smile" and "Tribal Gathering" I doubt I'd make it through without falling asleep.

P.S. By the way, this album contains the first use of synthesizers on a rock record. Not that the Byrds do anything with it, but as far as I'm aware they were the first to employ synths.

Sweetheart of the Rodeo (1968) **1/2

Did I say the Byrds kept constantly changing direction? After the hippie excesses of the last album, the Byrds did an about face and turned out the first genuine country-rock album. Hillman had met this talented youngster by the name of Gram Parsons and introduced him to the band, which handily saved the Byrds by installing another creative force. However, for some legal reasons, Parsons' vocals were wiped off the album and replaced with McGuinn singing lead. Parsons didn't last long in the Byrds Mark II either, probably either due to a power clash with McGuinn or McGuinn figuring that he didn't want the Byrds to keep going in a pure country direction. And did I say up there that this was the first country-rock album? Well, it's usually described as such, but this isn't a country-rock album. What this consists of is a country album performed by rock musicians - there's no rock anywhere. It's a pretty good country album, but it's nearly all covers - Dylan, the Louvin Brothers, Haggard, etc. Of the two originals, McGuinn/Hillman's "I Am A Pilgrim," is pretty boring Puritan-country, and though Parsons' "Hickory Wind" is good, I'd rather hear Parsons sing it. You're better off purchasing a classic '70s Willie Nelson or Merle Haggard album, or better yet, Parsons' later work both solo and with the Flying Burrito Brothers.

Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde (1969) ***

You know, this album convinces me that most paid rock critics don't even bother listening to the albums they review. They say it's a step down from Sweetheart of the Rodeo, despite the fact that it's got stronger, more varied material than the previous year's soporific "masterpiece." Yes, it's a patchwork, with the new Byrds Mark III (an entirely new outfit, with McGuinn the only remaining member of the Sweetheart lineup) just breaking themselves in and obviously just getting their sea legs in certain places. But the inconsistency is actually what makes it better than the monotonous Sweetheart - it's the most varied Byrds album, not quite their White Album but covering most of the territory McGuinn's career is known for. There's a hard-rocking Dylan cover ("This Wheel's On Fire"); a stupid country ode to a dead dog, "Old Blue,"; a sweet country ballad, "Your Gentle Way of Loving Me,"; the neo-psychedelic hippie anthem "Child of the Universe," with its annoying booming drum sound; a bluegrass instrumental interlude; a smirking redneck mockery, "Drug Store Truck Drivin' Man,"; catchy power-pop protest, "King Apathy III,"; utterly charming sweet country balladry, "Candy,"; angry dark rock protest in a "Positively 4th Street," vein, "Bad Night at the Whiskey,"; and to close it all, a medley that begins as a loose-limbed "My Back Pages," with McGuinn playfully slipping in "but I'm younger than that cow," before the band lurches into a harmonica-soaked blues jam and Jimmy Reed's immortal stone classic, "Baby What You Want Me To Do," (man, what a great Reed song that is) - ending the album with quite unusual musical territory for the Byrds. Among the reissue's 5 bonus tracks are another straight-up country song and a commercially-minded cover of Dylan's "Lay Lady Lay," in addition to the usual alternate takes.

The Ballad of Easy Rider (1969) ***1/2

With Parsons, Hillman, and Michael Clarke skipped off to form the Flying Burrito Brothers, McGuinn assembled an entirely new band for the Byrds Mark III, a lineup that would ironically remain the most stable (with only one shuffle) until their 1972 breakup: Clarence White on guitar, John Yorke on drums (replaced by Skip Battin a few LPs later), and Gene Parsons on bass. They were a fine and accomplished band, but nothing the Byrds recorded after they morphed into the Roger McGuinn Experience measures up to their pre-'68 successes, despite a handful of good songs spread out over a string of inconsistent albums. Their second album with the new lineup proves an unexpected, if ultimately minor, gem -- the Byrds manage to deliver a more convincing country-rock hybrid than on the overrated Sweetheart of the Rodeo. Sure, the ode to the dog "Fido" is a throwaway and the dated sci-fi of "Armstrong, Allin, and Collins" ends a peaceful, rustic album on a jarring note, but the rest of the tracks are fine -- not revolutionary or stirringly powerful, just a collection of relaxed, simple songs finely played in the Byrds' now firmly stylized country-rock mode. The Zen calm and beauty of the title track begins the album perfectly, setting a tone and philosophy: "Wherever that river flows, that's where I want to be," -- the Byrds' final autumnal stretch, and fortunately, as with the Beach Boys' concurrent Friends, peaceful does not equal boring. Thought the album maintains a consistent tone and attitude, the musical material itself is rather varied: an achingly sincere country ballad, "Tulsa County," (that incidentally is better than anything on Sweetheart) is followed by a traditional Celtic ballad "Jack Tarr the Sailor" is followed by the irrestibly rousing gospel of "Jesus Is Just Allright" (brilliant arrangement) is followed by a Dylan cover "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" (with a dirgelike, draggy arrangement that I find particularly poignant, much better than the Byrds' '65 uptempo version). And then we come to "There Must Be Someone I Can Turn To," another country ballad that isn't much to speak of melodically, but remains an album highlight due to its stark and bluntly sincere emotionality. "Gunga Din," comes the closest to the early Byrds sound with its soaring jangle, making it one of the album's strongest cuts, and "Deportee" proves that McGuinn does know how to handle Woody Guthrie (his butchery of "Pretty Boy Floyd" on Sweetheart left that open to question). The bonus tracks on the reissue offer more of the same, all pleasant and nothing exceptional -- some alternate takes, an instrumental, a Jackson Browne cover, another country cover. This is generally acknowledged as the high point of the Roger McGuinn Experience, and I can't say I disagree, judging from what I've heard of their next few LPs.

Untitled (1970)

A double album: one live, the other new studio material.

Byrdmaniax (1971) **1/2

If you properly downsize your expectations, it's not really that bad -- McGuinn's too much of a professional to ever release anything that outright reeks. It's simply a bland and mediocre album dotted with the random moments of beauty and inspiration poking out -- in other words, a typical late-period Byrds release. I should probably give this one a slightly lower grade, since relative Farther Along it's noticably weaker -- the songwriting may be a tad bit stronger overall, but the soupy overproduction of strings, overdubs, and choirly backup vocals mute the results into a mushy, soporific fog. One of the bonus tracks on the reissue underscores the problem: contrast McGuinn's unadorned demo of "Pale Blue" with the released track, and you'll discover what a lovely, heartfelt song it is without Terry Melcher's hamfisted sub-Spector production getting in the way. Thus I can only imagine how pleasant "I Trust," and "Kathleen's Song," both fine specimens of McGuinn's understated songcraft, would sound in rawer form. "I Wanna Grow Up To Be a Politician," the other McGuinn song here, doesn't suffer from overproduction -- but it does suffer from having a crappy carnival melody bounce wedded to none-too-profound psuedo-political lyrics (politicos are untrustworthy cynics just after power, you say? Wow, I didn't realize that, Rog!). Still, three decent McGuinn-penned songs all on one album is a very high batting average for late-period Byrds. But positive is counterbalanced by the greatest evil the Byrds Mark III unleashed upon the hapless music consumer: the Skip Battin/Kim Fowley songwriting team make their appearance for the first time on this record, with a cringe-inducing three total songs. Actually, I don't entirely mind ("like" is too strong an adjective) "Citizen Kane," which at least has some fairly interesting lyrics concerning the Hollywood of yore, but "Tunnel of Love" has to be one of the lamest Fats Domino ripoffs I've ever heard, and if the Zen Buddhist ode "Absolute Happiness" has a discernible melody I can't find it between the yin or yang. As for the songs from outside songwriters, "Glory, Glory," isn't entirely convincing straightup gospel, while "My Destiny," which isn't supposed to be straightup gospel but rather straightup country, lifts its melody from the same generic American Protestant hymnal melody that has been written 3,000 times and sung 3,000,000,000 times in Alabama church pews. That leaves Jackson Browne's "Jamaica Say Will," as an unexpected highlight as the album closes -- nothing exceptional, just a pleasant little country-ish ditty -- and when a Jackson Browne cover is one of your album's highlights, you're in trouble. The two other bonus tracks on the reissue, covers of Dylan's "Just Like a Woman," and former bandmate Gene Clark's "I Think I'm Gonna Feel Better," are unessential, since they're not improvements on the originals (and the latter is horribly sung).

Farther Along (1972) **1/2

The Roger McGuinn Experience's final album is a back to basics country-rock LP that has a few decent songs and is overweighted with filler. The reason for inconsistency being democracy, naturally, since all 4 members contribute almost equally to the songwriting; while McGuinn's songs are fine, particularly the album opener "Tiffany Queen," a sparkling Chuck Berry-ish rocker that sounds uncannily like the template for Tom Petty's entire career, drummer Skip Battin is an active annoyance with his carnival novelty/psuedo-social commentary "America's Great National Pastime" a collaboration with force of evil no-talent Kim Fowley. Aside from "Tiffany Queen," the other keeper for the Byrds canon is "Bugler," an implausibly moving ode to a dead hound sung by Clarence White with a poignant bluegrass melody. The bluegrass instrumental "Bristol Steam Convention Blues" ends the album on a pleasant note, but the fact that it counts as a highlight points out how lackluster this LP is -- the novelty songs like "BB Class Road" with its clownish barroom brawl sound effects are obnoxious, while odes to wimmin'-folk are simply forgettable ("Antique Sandy," "Precious Kate"). The Flying Burrito Bros. did a much better job at the gospel standard "Farther Along," (which incidentally shares the exact same melody as several hundred other Baptist hymnal standards, but at least it's a good melody). Plainly, the band sounds tired and completely bereft of ideas, so their breakup the same year was no surprise. The album gains an extra half star because of the three bonus tracks, opening salvos for McGuinn's solo career; while hardly classic, all are good, and better than anything that the Byrds proper were releasing at that point (excepting "Tiffany Queen" and "Bugler", of course).

The Byrds (1973)

A brief reunion of the original lineup: McGuinn, Hillman, Crosby, Clark, and Clarke. Critics panned it and it bombed commercially, but I hope it'll turn out worthwhile.


Related Albums

Gene Clark: Echoes (1967; reissued 1991) ****

Ironically, Gene Clark's first solo album is more consistently solid than any album the Byrds ever recorded (excepting Younger Than Yesterday. Though his contributions to the Byrds were fine and ocassionally brilliant, this album establishes Clark as a songwriter to be reckoned with: nearly all of the songs are excellent, and he even makes some tentative steps towards the country-rock fusion the Byrds would tackle a year later. The over-orchestrated title track hasn't aged well, and "Elevator Operator" sounds a bit too much like '66 Beatles - but that also makes "Elevator Operator" one of the most exciting tracks. Over the course of a 20-track CD, Clark's shaky voice can cause a bit of melodic monotony (he was never the Byrds' strongest singer), but that's more than made up for by "The French Girl," which Sid Griffins' (of the Long Ryders, a fine '80s alternative country rock band heavily influenced by the Byrds) liner notes describe as "Dylan meets the Left Banke", which is exactly right. The CD reissue adds 6 of Clark's better numbers from his Byrds albums, but no "Eight Miles High," for some reason.

The Flying Burrito Brothers: Farther Along (1988) ****1/2

Basically, this 21 track collection collects all but two of the songs off Brothers' debut classic, The Gilded Palace of Sin, and scattered highlights from their weaker followups. In 1969, Hillman and Parsons had decided to split from the Byrds and pursue their fusion of country and rock more seriously in a new band. What they wound up doing was bettering the Byrds' Sweetheart of the Rodeo by genuinely discovering a unique hybrid of country-rock, making their debut one of the most influential albums of the '60s. It was more than just throwing in loud guitar and thumping drums set to country tunes; Parsons and Hillman found where the attitudes of country and rock coincided, and when it works, it's revelatory: "Sin City," is equally sincere and satirical about its fire and brimstone Christian fundamentalism - when he sings, "On the 31st floor/A gold-plated door/Won't keep out the Lord's burning rain," Parsons is at one level mocking fundamentalists, but that doesn't mean it isn't one of the scariest deliveries of a line in popular music. The Brothers perform a couple of classic soul covers, "Do Right Woman," and "Dark End of the Street," which underscores the links between soul and country I'm convinced are more than most people realize. The highlights are "Hot Burrito #1," and "Hot Burrito #2," both goofily mistitled; the former is a wrenchingly soulful ballad, and the latter a fervorous anthem that's the closest to boogie rock as this album gets.

Of the remaining songs on the compilation, they do prove that the band did its best on the debut, but there are still plenty of highlights. Jagger/Richards supposedly wrote "Wild Horses," for the Brothers, and their version actually betters the Stones'. The country covers serve as a nice primer for rock folks not versed in the genre, highlighted by Merle Haggard's timeless "Sing Me Back Home", but heck, how could anybody perform a song that great badly? Essential listening for country fans, and for rock fans with country leanings.

Gram Parsons: GP/Grievous Angel (1973) ***1/2

This is a single-disc compilation of Parsons' only two solo albums, both recorded in 1973 before his death from heroin later that year. Since they're basically the same album and you won't find either one issued separately except on vinyl, I'll just slot them both under one review. Gram Parsons had taken a few step backs from the country-rock formula he'd invented a few years earlier with the Flying Burrito Brothers, which is to say that these are pretty much straight country albums with a little rock spice here and there, such as a cover of the J. Geils Band's "Cry One More Time," with inappropriately Northeasternly beery vocals from Parsons. The 20 tracks are pretty evenly divided between Parsons originals and covers; the covers are gratifyingly obscure rather than the standard classics the Burritos took on. However, obscure means that for every lost gem (the hillbillies moving to the city, "Streets of Baltimore") there's one that's not quite a gem (the maudlin "Kiss the Children"). Parsons' originals are generally strong, even if he is an inconsistent songwriter: "The New Soft Shoe," and the moving "Brass Buttons," are classics, as is the collection's highlight, the tragic "$1000 Wedding," (which turns out to be a funeral). Emmylou Harris duets and sings back up harmony, which helped make these two albums legendary in country circles. And their fragile, lovely take on "Love Hurts," is the best version I've ever heard.

Roger McGuinn: Back From Rio (1991) ***1/2

Wow, who would have thought it: the best '90s album by a '60s survivor happened to be Roger McGuinn's. Basically what we have here is a good Tom Petty album, more or less - which isn't a bad thing, though it is ironic how much this album reminds me of Petty's work, considering who's the innovator and who's the disciple. As a matter of fact, Petty duets McGuinn on the hit single, "King of the Hill," one of the better songs here. Elvis Costello's "You Bowed Down," and Jules Shear's "If We Never Meet Again," are also highlights, and most of the rest is enjoyable, give or take a few exceptions: the annoying ecology protest, "The Trees Are All Gone," which makes me think that McGuinn is the basis for the Jimmy Thudpucker character in Doonesbury, and the goofy, trying to be '90s culturally relevant, "Car Phone," (oh well, McGuinn has always been obsessed with modern technology). Definitely worth investigating for anyone who's a fan of McGuinn and his old band.

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