The Byrds

These days, The Byrds are primarily known as staples of oldies radio with their mid-‘60s hits “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Turn, Turn, Turn!” As great as those songs are, it’s a little sad that their other accomplishments are largely forgotten. Few bands have such wide-ranging influence as the Byrds, and even fewer are responsible for essentially creating two distinct genres of rock music.

In 1964, Jim (later Roger) McGuinn, Gene Clark and David Crosby were all veterans of the US folk music circuit. Unlike folk purists who considered electric instruments the tool of the devil, the future Byrds were enamored of the Beatles, and wanted to start an electric rock band. They eventually convinced bluegrass musician Chris Hillman to serve as their bass player, and enlisted Michael Clarke as drummer (Clarke’s drumming experience was limited to playing congas in coffeehouses- he was hired primarily for having a Beatle haircut, a rarity in 1964 America).

After the group released a failed single as the Beefeaters (a name chosen as a blatant attempt to cash in on the British Invasion), they renamed themselves the Byrds and hit paydirt with a cover of Bob Dylan’s then-unreleased “Mr Tambourine Man” in 1965. The song represented a unique melding of their folk background (Dylan was still king of the folkies and had yet to “go electric”) and Beatlesque rock, giving birth to what would soon be known as “folk rock”. McGuinn’s iconic 12-string Rickenbacker electric guitar exemplified the blending of genres- the 12 string was a staple of folk music, but amplifying it put it firmly in the rock camp. It would be the anchor of the Byrds’ sound for the remainder of their career. Dylan himself paid the song an unironic compliment when he remarked, “hey, you can dance to that!” Within months of the Byrds’ release, Dylan would put together his own electric band.

The Byrds further cemented folk rock with “Turn, Turn, Turn,” a Pete Seeger song with lyrics quoted almost entirely from the book of Ecclesiastes. The song’s message of peace and tolerance resonated in a country increasingly at odds with itself in the shadow of social turmoil, racial inequality and a rapidly escalating war in southeast Asia. The band released two albums in 1965, each titled after one of the hit singles and containing a mix of group compositions and covers.

The beginning of 1966 saw things starting to change for the Byrds. “Eight Miles High” was a dark, ominous song written by Clark, Crosby and McGuinn (the first group composition released as a single) containing off-kilter guitar work influenced by the ragas of Ravi Shankar and the sax playing of John Coltrane. Although it didn’t chart as highly as its predecessors, “Eight Miles High” is now recognized as one of the earliest examples of psychedelic rock. Authorities at the time were convinced that the song was about drug use, but McGuinn maintains the lyrics are about the band’s disasterous tour of the UK the previous year (a position upheld by a reading of the lyrics).

There were other changes at hand as well. Singer Gene Clark quit the band just before the release of “Eight Miles High,” which left them without a principal songwriter and vocalist (Clark had written a large chunk of the group’s original material and had sung lead vocals on all their singles). McGuinn and Crosby filled the gap, and  the resulting album Fifth Dimension showcased the band’s evolution into psychedelic rock. Although critics have panned it for containing an overabundance of covers (nearly half the album), the quality of the band’s original material had taken a quantum leap forward. Clark had been a gifted songwriter, but McGuinn and Crosby were staking out new territory.

By 1968 though, the wheels had fallen off the cart. Drummer Michael Clarke had quit and singer/guitarist David Crosby had been fired, leaving McGuinn and Hillman as the only remaining members of the group. Also, the band’s popularity had been steadily declining since their 1965 heyday (they hadn’t had a top 10 hit since Turn, Turn, Turn! three years before) . Rather than pack it in, they hired drummer Kevin Kelley and singer/guitarist Gram Parsons to take the Byrds in a new direction. The previous two albums Younger Than Yesterday and The Notorious Byrd Brothers showed elements of country music entering the band’s sound, but 1968’s Sweetheart Of The Rodeo dove in head first.

Very few albums can be said to have singlehandedly created entire genres of music, but Sweetheart Of The Rodeo is one. With its pioneering blend of  rock and country, Sweetheart not only set the template for the country rock movement of the ’70s (and its ’90s revival), but for country music as well. Sadly, 1968 was a horrible year to mix country and rock- the country and rock audiences were on opposite sides of the ’60s cultural divide which was nearly at its peak, and in one fell swoop the Byrds managed to alienate most of their remaining fans without attracting any new ones. The band attempted to reach out to the country audience by appearing on the venerable country radio program Grand Ole Opry, but they were met with heckling and general derision. The album sold dismally at the time, but is now widely regarded as a masterpiece.

It was also the only record that lineup would make. By the time Sweetheart was released, Gram Parsons had already quit the band. He went on to form the Flying Burrito Brothers and have his own solo career, both of which were hugely influential in the fledgling country rock scene. Within a few months of Parsons’ departure, Hillman left the Byrds to join him in the Burritos. Parsons’ replacement Clarence White convinced McGuinn to fire drummer Kevin Kelley in favor of White’s old bandmate Gene Parsons (no relation to Gram), and with a new a new bassist in tow the band recorded Dr Byrds And Mr Hyde. For the second time in a row, a Byrds record featured an entirely different lineup (excepting McGuinn) from the one before. Hyde was an attempt to reconcile the old folk rock Byrds with their new country rock sound, but from here to the end of the band they leaned further into the realm of country rock.

After the release of Hyde in 1969, bassist Skip Batten joined the Byrds. He proved to be the final piece in the band’s lineup puzzle that had started with Gene Clark’s departure three years earlier. McGuinn had finally assembled a Byrds lineup that would stay together longer than any other, until the final months of the band three years later.

The Byrds had by now become a live band par excellence- Clarence White was a supremely talented guitarist who specialized in playing blazing bluegrass licks in a rock context. A former studio musician who had contributed to every Byrds album since 1967, White brought the band’s playing to a new level. McGuinn once said playing with White was “like having Jimi Hendrix in your band,” and he wasn’t exaggerating.  Clarence White set the standard for mixing country and rock guitar styles, and his legacy from this period continues to be the gold standard over 40 years later.

Earlier incarnations of the Byrds had a deservedly poor reputation for ragged live shows, leading detractors to label them a “studio band.” The final Byrds lineup was a completely different animal- Parsons and Batten were a solid, yet flexible rhythm section that held the songs together while allowing plenty of room for improvisation. In its live form, the three minute single “Eight Miles High” became a 20+ minute free-for all jam session, with all four Byrds playing off each other and tossing ideas back and forth. While bands like the Grateful Dead were content to noodle off into space with aimless, free-form jams, the Byrds were like an amplified bluegrass picking session, with each member propelling the song and challenging the others to keep up. Audiences soon took note, and the Byrds became a top concert draw in the early ’70s.

To capitalize on this, one half of 1970’s double album Untitled was a live recording showing the band in full flight (including one whole side of “Eight Miles High”). The highlight of the studio recordings was “Chestnut Mare,” a song which epitomized the best elements of the country rock Byrds. White’s efforless switching between subtle beauty and fast-fingered virtuosity weaves a tapestry with McGuinn’s ringing 12-string, while Parsons’ drumming alternates from foundational timekeeping on the verses to driving the song on the choruses. To Batten’s credit, although he had shown himself to be a nimble, melodic bassist in the band’s live setting, he had the sense to keep the bassline simple and supportive on “Chestnut Mare,” which is precisely what the song required. Such restraint was a rarity in the rock world of 1970.

Unfortunately, just as their ability as a live band had finally come together, the quality of the Byrds’ studio albums began to suffer. Due to increasing demand on the touring circuit, the Byrds found themselves with inadequate time to prepare and record their next album Byrdmaniax. After hurried recording sessions, they left the mixing of the album to record producer Terry Melcher. Melcher felt the material recorded by the band was weak, so in attempt to fix things he added strings, horns, and a gospel choir without consulting them. The band was horrified at the result and demanded a remix, but their record label wouldn’t pay for it. The record came out to scathing reviews and poor sales, and mortally wounded the Byrds’ popularity just as it was beginning to rise again.

Immediately following the release of Byrdmaniax, the band began work on their next record without help from an outside producer, hoping to release it quickly in order to repair the damage to their reputation. The plan backfired, as Farther Along  proved to be another weak album that suffered from the same problems that caused Melcher to tamper with Byrdmaniax in the first place.

The Byrds remained a strong live band that drew large audiences, but their morale was sagging. By 1972 they’d been touring and recording relentlessly for three years and had little to show for it. Tensions between McGuinn and Parsons finally boiled over and the latter was fired. The band hired a session drummer to fulfill outstanding concert dates through the end of the year, and no permanent replacement was made. By February 1973, McGuinn was forced to ask former Byrd Chris Hillman for help in fulfilling the band’s remaining concert dates after firing bassist Skip Battin. After one shambolic performance from the ad-hoc band (Hillman and White hadn’t played together since 1968 and didn’t know the same songs, the drummer had never played with the Byrds before, and the first time they rehearsed was at soundcheck on the day of the show), McGuinn cancelled the remaining dates of the tour, effectively pulling the plug on the Byrds.

Or, not. The previous year, aspiring record mogul David Geffen offered the original 1965  lineup of the Byrds a sizable amount of money to reunite and record an album for him, and the group had accepted. While McGuinn’s version of the band was in its death throes, he had simultaneously been recording a reunion album with the original band. The reunion album was released to negative reviews just after McGuinn disbanded the final version of the band. A tour to support it had been planned, but the poor reviews and lackluster sales caused it to be abandoned.

Tragically, a few months after the end of the Byrds, Clarence White was killed by a drunk driver as he loaded equipment into his car after a nightclub show with his two brothers. He was 29.

Various incarnations of the band would briefly reunite in the ’80s, generally in regard to legal wranglings over the name and other financial squabbles. Even after the significant tarnishing of their legacy though, their many accomplishments still stand.

5 thoughts on “The Byrds

  1. That’s a really great piece! Thanks very much for posting it. Wasn’t there also a constellation called McGuinn, Clark, and Hillman later in the 70’s? Somewhere I think I may have the original sheet music for Don’t You Write Her Off Like That.

  2. Yes, great post – thank you!

    Personally I’d be inclines to award the title of creator (or possibly spiritual forebear) of country-rock to Michael Nesmith, who was clearly struggling to give birth to the genre while he was still incarcerated in the Monkees’ money-making machine, and whose ‘The Wichita Train Whistle Sings’ was recorded before ‘Sweetheart Of The Rodeo’. In fact, even though it wasn’t written by Nesmith, the earliest song that comes to mind which I would unequivocally identify as country-rock is the Monkees’ song ‘What Am I Doing Hanging Round?’ in 1967.

    Other possible contenders are Gram Parsons’ own International Submarine Band and (depending on your definition of the genre) The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.

    No matter, ‘Sweetheart’ is certainly a masterpiece, although my all-time favourite Byrds album is the preceding ‘Notorious Byrd Brothers’.

  3. Wow, I’m kind of amazed anyone read this novel- it turned out much longer than I wanted, but I couldn’t cut any more!

    Ken- you’re right- McGuinn, Clark & Hillman did put out a few records together, but I didn’t mention them since they didn’t bill themselves as the Byrds.

    John- There had been other stabs at country/rock fusion before “Sweetheart,” (including tracks by the Byrds themselves), but it was the first high-profile album to do so. The International Submarine Band were probably the first, but they were an unknown band on a small label whose record wasn’t promoted since Parsons had already left to join the Byrds.

    My favorite Byrds record is “Fifth Dimension”- the CD reissue anyway, with the original RCA recording of “Eight Miles High” and the single version of “Why.” I really like the live half of “Untitled,” too.

  4. I almost forgot- my all time favorite Byrds recording is a soundboard bootleg from the Boston Tea Party in 1969(featuring John York on bass). It’s widely available online.

    Also, one of the session drummers briefly employed by the Byrds following Gene Parsons’ firing was Daryl Dragon- later the “Captain” of Captain and Tennille!

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