Tuesday, 2 October 2018

The Byrds album by album

(Work jangling along in the sunshine....)

The Byrds were a popular and successful American pop band during the Sixties, picking up on the music which in America they called the British Invasion, involving the Kinks, the Beatles, etc, and also on the music of Bob Dylan. In the UK they are largely seen as a Sixties pop band who covered some Dylan songs and wrote some pleasant jangly pop songs of their own. In America they are seen as significant because they were the leading American counterpart to the British Invasion bands, and were at the forefront of American counter-culture pop music.

While they are seen as significant for their part in the development/spread of country-rock and American folk-rock, and for their influence on British folk-rock, there are also repeated claims that the band actually invented folk-rock, country-rock, and psychedelic-rock. I am curious as to how true that is, as those are significant claims individually - collectively they would make The Byrds one of the most important bands in 20th century music.

So, here is my attempt to study The Byrds more closely, album by album....


The Byrds were an American rock band, formed in Los Angeles, California in 1964.[1] The band underwent multiple lineup changes throughout its existence, with frontman Roger McGuinn (known as Jim McGuinn until mid-1967) remaining the sole consistent member, until the group disbanded in 1973.[2] Although they only managed to attain the huge commercial success of contemporaries like the Beatlesthe Beach Boys, and the Rolling Stones for a short period in the mid-60s, the Byrds are today considered by critics to be nearly as influential as those bands.[1] Their signature blend of clear harmony singing and McGuinn's jangly twelve-string Rickenbacker guitar was immediately absorbed into the vocabulary of popular music and has continued to be influential up to the present day.[1][3]
The band significantly established the musical genre of folk rock as a popular format on their debut album Mr. Tambourine Man (1965), by melding the influence of the Beatles and other British Invasion bands with contemporary and traditional folk music.[4][5] As the 1960s progressed, the band was influential in originating psychedelic rock and raga rock, with their song "Eight Miles High" and the albums Fifth Dimension (1966), Younger Than Yesterday (1967) and The Notorious Byrd Brothers (1968).[1][6][7] They also played a pioneering role in the development of country rock,[1] with the 1968 album Sweetheart of the Rodeo representing their fullest immersion into the genre.[8]
The original five-piece lineup of the Byrds consisted of Jim McGuinn (lead guitarvocals), Gene Clark (tambourine, vocals), David Crosby (rhythm guitar, vocals), Chris Hillman (bass guitar, vocals), and Michael Clarke (drums).[9] However, this version of the band was relatively short-lived and by early 1966, Clark had left due to problems associated with anxiety and his increasing isolation within the group.[10] The Byrds continued as a quartet until late 1967, when Crosby and Clarke also departed the band.[11] McGuinn and Hillman decided to recruit new members, including country rock pioneer Gram Parsons, but by late 1968, Hillman and Parsons had also exited the band.[1] McGuinn elected to rebuild the band's membership and, between 1968 and 1973, he helmed a new incarnation of the Byrds, featuring guitarist Clarence White among others.[1] McGuinn disbanded the then current lineup in early 1973, to make way for a reunion of the original quintet.[12] The Byrds' final album was released in March 1973, with the reunited group disbanding soon afterwards.[13]
Several former members of the band went on to successful careers of their own, either as solo artists or as members of such groups as Crosby, Stills, Nash & Youngthe Flying Burrito Brothers and the Desert Rose Band.[1] In the late 1980s, Gene and Michael both began touring as the Byrds, prompting a legal challenge from McGuinn, Crosby, and Hillman over the rights to the band's name.[14] As a result of this, McGuinn, Crosby, and Hillman performed a series of reunion concerts as the Byrds in 1989 and 1990, and also recorded four new Byrds' songs.[15][16] In 1991, the Byrds were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, an occasion that saw the five original members performing together for the last time.[17][18] Gene Clark died of a heart attack later that year, while Michael Clarke died of liver failure in 1993.[19][20] McGuinn, Crosby, and Hillman remain active.


Although they only attained the huge success of the BeatlesRolling Stones, and the Beach Boys for a short time in the mid-'60s, time has judged the Byrds to be nearly as influential as those groups in the long run. They were not solely responsible for devising folk-rock, but they were certainly more responsible than any other single act (Dylan included) for melding the innovations and energy of the British Invasion with the best lyrical and musical elements of contemporary folk music. The jangling, 12-string guitar sound of leader Roger McGuinn's Rickenbacker was permanently absorbed into the vocabulary of rock. They also played a vital role in pioneering psychedelic rock and country-rock, the unifying element being their angelic harmonies and restless eclecticism.
Often described in their early days as a hybrid of Dylan and the Beatlesthe Byrds in turn influenced Dylan and the Beatles almost as much as Bob and the Fab Four had influenced the Byrds. The Byrds' innovations have echoed nearly as strongly through subsequent generations, in the work of Tom PettyR.E.M., and innumerable alternative bands of the post-punk era that feature those jangling guitars and dense harmonies.
Although the Byrds had perfected their blend of folk and rock when their debut single, "Mr. Tambourine Man," topped the charts in mid-1965, it was something of a miracle that the group had managed to coalesce in the first place. Not a single member of the original quintet had extensive experience on electric instruments. Jim McGuinn (he'd change his first name to Roger a few years later), David Crosby, and Gene Clark were all young veterans of both commercial folk-pop troupes and the acoustic coffeehouse scene. They were inspired by the success of the Beatles to mix folk and rock; McGuinnhad already been playing Beatles songs acoustically in Los Angeles folk clubs when Clark approached him to form an act, according to subsequent recollections, in the Peter & Gordon style. David Crosbysoon joined to make them a trio, and they made a primitive demo as the Jet Set that was nonetheless bursting with promise. With the help of session musicians, they released a single on Elektra as the Beefeaters that, while a flop, showed them getting quite close to the folk-rock sound that would electrify the pop scene in a few months.
The Beefeaters, soon renamed the Byrds, were fleshed out to a quintet with the addition of drummer Michael Clarke and bluegrass mandolinist Chris Hillman, who was enlisted to play electric bass, although he had never played the instrument before. The band was so lacking in equipment in their early stages that Clarke played on cardboard boxes during their first rehearsals, but they determined to master their instruments and become a full-fledged rock band (many demos from this period would later surface for official release). They managed to procure a demo of a new Dylan song, "Mr. Tambourine Man"; by eliminating some verses and adding instantly memorable 12-string guitar leads and Beatlesque harmonies, they came up with the first big folk-rock smash (though the Beau Brummelsand others had begun exploring similar territory as well). For the "Mr. Tambourine Man" single, the band's vocals and McGuinn's inimitable Rickenbacker were backed by session musicians, although the band themselves (contrary to some widely circulated rumors) performed on their subsequent recordings.
The first long-haired American group to compete with the British Invasion bands visually as well as musically, the Byrdswere soon anointed as the American counterpart to the Beatles by the press, legions of fans, and George Harrisonhimself. Their 1965 debut LP, Mr. Tambourine Man, was a fabulous album that mixed stellar interpretations of Dylan and Pete Seeger tunes with strong, more romantic and pop-based originals, usually written by Gene Clark in the band's early days. A few months later, their version of Seeger's "Turn! Turn! Turn!" became another number-one hit and instant classic, featuring more great chiming guitar lines and ethereal, interweaving harmonies. While their second LP (Turn! Turn! Turn!) wasn't as strong as their debut full-length, the band continued to move forward at a dizzying pace. In early 1966, the "Eight Miles High" single heralded the birth of psychedelia, with its drug-like (intentionally or otherwise) lyrical imagery, rumbling bassline, and a frenzied McGuinn guitar solo that took its inspiration from John Coltrane and Indian music.

Pre- Byrds

The Jet Set - "The Only Girl I Adore"  (1964)

The Beefeaters "Please Let Me Love You"  (1964)  "Don't Be Long" (1964)

Mr Tambourine Man

The opening track, "Mr. Tambourine Man", is a great Dylan song, and the session musicians, known  as  The Wrecking Crew, do it attractively. It is widely acknowledged as one of the best songs under the band's name, even though it's not their song, and - other than Roger McQuin, they don't play on it. It is their arrangement though, and the key is the use of the 12 string Rickenbacker guitar (first used by the Beatles) which gives the song that jangly sound, so reminiscent of the Sixties, and so copied by other bands. The combination of a great Dylan song and that Beatleseque jangly guitar was very influential, similar to The Kingsmen doing "Louie Louie".  There is nothing else on the album quite like it (though "All I Really Want To Do" - another Dylan song - comes close) - the rest of the album is pleasant enough Beatleseque material, and more covers, some more successful than others. Due to the interest in beat music led by The Beatles and folk music led by Bob Dylan, there were a number of artists releasing folky Dylan/Beatlesque material in 1965:

Los Shakers - Los Shakers  (July)
We Five "You Were On My Mind" (August)
Pinkerton's Assorted Colours - "Mirror Mirror"
The Rockin' Berries - "He's In Town" (1964)
The Zombies - Begin Here   "She's Not There" is awesome. 
The Impressions - People Get Ready  The whole album is awesome and the title track, "People Get Ready", is simply mind-blowing.
Bert Jansch - Bert Jansch   Contains "Needle of Death" and "Angie". 
Them - Angry Young Them  Contains "Mystic Eyes" and "Gloria"
The Yardbirds - "For Your Love"

Turn! Turn! Turn! (1965)


Not getting into this.

Fifth Dimension (1966)


There's some proper folk-rock on this and hints of country.

Younger Than Yesterday (1967)


This album is impressing me - good British style folk-rock melded with psychedelic music and sharp song-writing. Best so far. I am kinda now "getting" the Byrds.

Greatest Hits (1967)

Useful. And their best selling album.

The Notorious Byrd Brothers (1968)


Somewhat quieter and more sedate version of  Younger Than Yesterday. 

Sweetheart of the Rodeo  (1968)


This is the band's famous country-rock album. The remains of the band were joined by Gram Parsons who effectively hijacked the band in order to develop his own obsession with the idea of making country music more popular. For many folks this is the most important Byrds album - but effectively it is not a Byrds album, but a Gram Parsons album. I'm not a huge fan of country. I can tolerate it at times, and sometimes, in the hands of someone sublime like Johhny Cash or Kris Kristoferson, I can enjoy it. Cash had been doing his version of country-rock pretty much since he started, but this sort of country-rock has a more poppy feel that either Cash or Kristoferson would ever do, and proved to be popular. This sound can be heard on The Basement Tapes which had been recorded a year earlier, and though not officially released until 1975, the tracks were widely available on bootlegs, so claims that popular country-rock was developed here by Gram Parsons are erroneous. The Byrds even bookend the album with"You Aint Going Nowhere" and "Nothing Was Delivered" two songs that Dylan recorded for the Tapes ("You Aint Going Nowhere" - "Nothing Was Delivered"). And Dylan had released John Wesley Harding in 1967, an album recorded in Nashville.  And The Band's Music From Big Pink

Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde (1969)


Oh dear..... Most commentators and listeners rate this album deservedly quite low. But there are, of course, those who like it. Each to their own.

Preflyte (1969)


Some pre-Byrds material. This is for fans and students of the band only.

Ballad of Easy Rider (1969)

This is a mature country-rock album. Quite pleasant with some decent enough songs. There's nothing special about it, but it's an OK listen.

(Untitled) (1970)

Packaging their latest album with a free live album helped sales, so more people bought this album from the Byrds later period than any other, as a consequence it is generally held in higher regard than other later Byrds records. But the live album is for fans only - turgid, unimaginative plodding through some of their best known songs, and an embarrassing attempt at extended jamming on "Eight Miles High". The studio album doesn't have the ease and confidence of Easy Rider. The big hit in the UK was "Chestnut Mare", which for us in the UK put the band into the same category as Bread ("Make It With You", "Everything I Own") and America ("Horse With No Name"). And in general there isn't much to separate the band from other country-rock bands of the era, such as Poco

Byrdmaniax (1971)


Widely regarded as the worse Byrds album (apparently due to over production). Move along....

Farther Along (1971)

This was the band's hasty attempt to undo the damage done by the release of Byrdmaniax. It only made things worse. The end is nigh....

Byrds (1973)

And this is the end. The band sort of breaks up to be reformed with all the original members who produce this lacklustre affair which is simply the nail in the coffin.  The Byrds have ended their erratic flight, and are now laid to rest.


Adrian Denning

902 April 2019

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