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Byrds

The Byrds were an American rock band, formed in Los Angeles, California in 1964. The band underwent multiple line-up changes throughout its existence, with frontman Roger McGuinn (aka Jim McGuinn) remaining the sole consistent member until the group disbanded in 1973. Although they only managed to attain the huge commercial success of contemporaries like The Beatles, The Beach Boys, and The Rolling Stones for a short period of time (1965–66), The Byrds are today considered by critics to be one of the most influential bands of the 1960s. Initially, they pioneered the musical genre of folk rock, melding the influence of The Beatles and other British Invasion bands with contemporary and traditional folk music. As the 1960s progressed, the band were also influential in originating psychedelic rock, raga rock, and country rock. In addition, the band’s signature blend of clear harmony singing and McGuinn’s jangly twelve-string Rickenbacker guitar has continued to be influential on popular music up to the present day. Among the band’s most enduring songs are their cover versions of Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” and Pete Seeger’s “Turn! Turn! Turn!”, along with the self-penned originals, “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better”, “Eight Miles High”, “So You Want to Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star”, and “Chestnut Mare”.

The original five-piece line-up of The Byrds consisted of Jim McGuinn (lead guitar, vocals), Gene Clark (tambourine, vocals), David Crosby (rhythm guitar, vocals), Chris Hillman (bass guitar, vocals), and Michael Clarke (drums). 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. The Byrds continued as a quartet until late 1967, when Crosby and Clarke also departed the band. 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. McGuinn, who by this time had changed his name to Roger after a flirtation with the Subud religion, 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. McGuinn disbanded the then current line-up in early 1973, to make way for a reunion of the original quintet. The Byrds’ final album was released in March 1973, with the reunited group disbanding soon afterwards.

Several ex-members of the band went on to have successful careers of their own, either as solo artists or as part of groups, such as Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young or The Desert Rose Band. In the late 1980s, Gene Clark and Michael Clarke both began touring as The Byrds, prompting a legal challenge from McGuinn, Crosby, and Hillman over the rights to the band’s name. As a result of this, McGuinn, Crosby, and Hillman performed a series of reunion concerts as The Byrds between 1988 and 1990, and also recorded four new Byrds’ songs. On January 16, 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. McGuinn, Crosby, and Hillman still remain active but Gene Clark died of a heart attack in 1991, and Michael Clarke died of liver failure in 1993.

History

Formation 1964

The nucleus of The Byrds formed in early 1964, when Jim McGuinn, Gene Clark, and David Crosby came together as a trio. All three musicians had a background rooted in folk music, with each one having worked as a folk singer on the acoustic coffeehouse circuit during the early 1960s. In addition, they had all served time, independently of each other, as sidemen in various “collegiate folk” groups: McGuinn with The Limeliters and the Chad Mitchell Trio, Clark with The New Christy Minstrels, and Crosby with Les Baxter’s Balladeers. McGuinn had also spent time as a professional songwriter at the Brill Building in New York City, under the tutelage of Bobby Darin. By early 1964, McGuinn had become enamored with the music of The Beatles, and had begun to intersperse his solo folk repertoire with acoustic versions of Beatles’ songs. While performing at The Troubadour folk club in Los Angeles, McGuinn was approached by fellow Beatles fan Gene Clark, and the pair soon formed a Peter and Gordon-style duo, playing Beatles’ covers, Beatlesque renditions of traditional folk songs, and some self-penned material. Soon after, David Crosby introduced himself to the duo at The Troubadour and began harmonizing with them on some of their songs. Impressed by the blend of their voices, the three musicians formed a trio and named themselves The Jet Set, a moniker inspired by McGuinn’s love of aeronautics.

Crosby introduced McGuinn and Clark to his associate Jim Dickson, who had access to World Pacific Studios, where he had been recording demos of Crosby. Sensing the trio’s potential, Dickson quickly took on management duties for the group, while his business partner, Eddie Tickner, became the group’s accountant and financial manager. Dickson began utilizing World Pacific Studios to record the trio as they honed their craft and perfected their blend of Beatles pop and Bob Dylan-style folk. It was during the rehearsals at World Pacific that the band’s folk rock sound—a blend of their own Beatles-influenced material and their Beatlesque covers of contemporary folk songs—began to coalesce. Initially, this blend arose organically from the band’s own folk music roots and their desire to emulate The Beatles, but as rehearsals continued, the band began to actively attempt to bridge the gap between folk music and rock.

Drummer Michael Clarke was added to The Jet Set in mid-1964. Clarke was recruited largely due to his good looks and Brian Jones-esque hairstyle, rather than for his musical experience, which was limited to having played congas in a semi-professional capacity in and around San Francisco and L.A. Clarke did not even own his own drum kit and initially had to play on a makeshift setup consisting of cardboard boxes and a tambourine. As the band continued to rehearse, Dickson arranged a one-off single deal for the group with Elektra Records’ founder Jac Holzman. The single, which coupled the band originals “Please Let Me Love You” and “Don’t Be Long”, featured McGuinn, Clark, and Crosby, augmented by session musicians Ray Pohlman on bass and Earl Palmer on drums. In an attempt to cash in on the British Invasion craze that was dominating the American charts at the time, the band’s name was changed for the single release to the suitably British-sounding The Beefeaters. “Please Let Me Love You” was issued by Elektra Records on October 7, 1964, but it failed to chart.

In August 1964, Dickson managed to acquire an acetate disc of the then-unreleased Bob Dylan song “Mr. Tambourine Man”, which he felt would make an effective cover for The Jet Set. Although the band were initially unimpressed with the song, they began rehearsing it with a rock band arrangement, changing the time signature from 2/4 to a rockier 4/4 configuration in the process. In an attempt to bolster the group’s confidence in the song, Dickson invited Dylan himself to World Pacific to hear the band perform “Mr. Tambourine Man”. Impressed by the group’s rendition, Dylan enthusiastically commented “Wow, man! You can dance to that!”, and his ringing endorsement erased any lingering doubts that the band had over the song’s suitability.

Soon after, inspired by The Beatles’ film A Hard Day’s Night, the band decided to equip themselves with similar instruments to the Fab Four: a Rickenbacker twelve-string guitar for McGuinn, a Ludwig drum kit for Clarke, and a Gretsch Tennessean guitar for Clark (although Crosby commandeered it soon after, resulting in Clark switching to tambourine). In October 1964, Dickson recruited mandolin player Chris Hillman as The Jet Set’s bassist. Hillman’s background was more oriented towards country music than folk or rock, having been a member of the bluegrass groups the Scottsville Squirrel Barkers, The Hillmen (aka the Golden State Boys), and concurrently with his recruitment into The Jet Set, The Green Grass Group. Through connections that Dickson had with impresario Benny Shapiro, and with a helpful recommendation from jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, the group signed a recording contract with Columbia Records on November 10, 1964. Two weeks later, during a Thanksgiving dinner at Eddie Tickner’s house, The Jet Set decided to rename themselves The Byrds, a moniker that retained the theme of flight and also echoed the deliberate misspelling of “The Beatles”.

 

Folk rock (1965–1966)

On January 20, 1965, The Byrds entered Columbia Studios in Hollywood to record “Mr. Tambourine Man” for release as their debut single on Columbia. Since the band had not yet completely gelled musically, McGuinn was the only Byrd to play on “Mr. Tambourine Man” and its Gene Clark penned B-side, “I Knew I’d Want You”. Rather than using band members, producer Terry Melcher instead hired The Wrecking Crew, a collection of top session musicians including Hal Blaine, Larry Knechtel, Jerry Cole, and Leon Russell, who (along with McGuinn on guitar) provided the instrumental backing track over which McGuinn, Crosby and Clark sang. By the time the sessions for their debut album began in March 1965, however, Melcher was satisfied that the band was competent enough to record its own musical backing. However, the use of outside musicians on The Byrds’ debut single has given rise to the persistent myth that all of the playing on their debut album was done by session musicians.

While the band waited for “Mr. Tambourine Man” to be released, they began a residency at Ciro’s Le Disc nightclub on the Sunset Strip in Hollywood. The band’s regular appearances at Ciro’s during March and April 1965 allowed them to hone their ensemble playing, perfect their aloof stage persona, and expand their repertoire. In addition, it was during their residency at the nightclub that the band first began to accrue a dedicated following among L.A.’s youth culture and hip Hollywood fraternity, with scenesters like Kim Fowley, Peter Fonda, Jack Nicholson, Arthur Lee, and Sonny & Cher regularly attending the band’s performances. On March 26, 1965, the author of the band’s forthcoming debut single, Bob Dylan, made an impromptu visit to the club and joined The Byrds on stage for a rendition of Jimmy Reed’s “Baby What You Want Me to Do”. The excitement generated by The Byrds at Ciro’s quickly made them a must-see fixture on L.A.’s nightclub scene and resulted in hordes of teenagers filling the sidewalks outside the club, desperate to see the band perform. A number of noted music historians and authors, including Richie Unterberger, Ric Menck, and Peter Buckley, have suggested that the crowds of young Bohemians and hipsters that gathered at Ciro’s to see The Byrds perform represented the first stirrings of the West Coast hippie counterculture.

Columbia Records eventually released the “Mr. Tambourine Man” single on April 12, 1965. The full, electric rock band treatment that The Byrds and producer Terry Melcher had given the song effectively created the template for the musical subgenre of folk rock. McGuinn’s melodic, jangling twelve-string Rickenbacker guitar playing—which was heavily compressed to produce an extremely bright and sustained tone—was immediately influential and has remained so to the present day. The single also featured another major characteristic of the band’s sound: their clear harmony singing, which usually featured McGuinn and Clark in unison, with Crosby providing the high harmony. Additionally, Richie Unterberger has noted that the song’s abstract lyrics took rock and pop songwriting to new heights; never before had such intellectual and literary wordplay been combined with rock instrumentation by a popular music group.

Within three months “Mr. Tambourine Man” had become the first folk rock smash hit, reaching number 1 on both the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 chart and the UK Singles Chart. The single’s success initiated the folk rock boom of 1965 and 1966, during which a number of Byrds-influenced acts had hits on the American and British charts. The term “folk rock” was itself coined by the American music press to describe the band’s sound in June 1965, at roughly the same time as “Mr. Tambourine Man” peaked at #1 in the U.S. The Mr. Tambourine Man album followed on June 21, 1965, peaking at number 6 on the Billboard Top LPs chart and number 7 on the UK Albums Chart. The album mixed reworkings of folk songs, including Pete Seeger’s musical adaptation of the Idris Davies’ poem “The Bells of Rhymney”, with a number of other Dylan covers and the band’s own compositions, the majority of which were written by Gene Clark. In particular, Clark’s “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better” has gone on to become a rock music standard, with many critics considering it one of the band’s and Clark’s best songs. Writing for the Allmusic website, critic Mark Deming has noted that the use of the word “probably” in the song’s refrain of “I’ll probably feel a whole lot better when you’re gone” lends the track a depth of subtext that was unusual for a pop song in the mid-1960s. Upon release, the Mr. Tambourine Man album, like the single of the same name, was influential in popularizing folk rock and served to establish the band as an internationally successful rock act, representing the first effective American challenge to the dominance of The Beatles and the British Invasion.

The Byrds’ next single was “All I Really Want to Do”, another interpretation of a Dylan song. Despite the success of “Mr. Tambourine Man”, The Byrds were reluctant to release another Dylan-penned single, feeling that it was too formulaic, but Columbia Records were insistent, believing that another Dylan cover would result in an instant hit for the group. The Byrds’ rendition of “All I Really Want to Do” is noticeably different in structure to Dylan’s original: it features an ascending melody progression in the chorus and utilizes a completely new melody for one of the song’s verses, in order to turn it into a Beatlesque, minor-key bridge. Issued on June 14, 1965, while “Mr. Tambourine Man” was still climbing the U.S. charts, the single was rush-released by Columbia in an attempt to bury a rival cover version that Cher had released simultaneously on Imperial Records. A chart battle ensued, but The Byrds’ rendition stalled at number 40 on the Billboard Hot 100, while Cher’s version reached number 15. The reverse was true in the UK, however, where The Byrds’ version reached number 4, while Cher’s peaked at number 9.

Byrds

Author John Einarson has noted that during this period of their career, The Byrds enjoyed tremendous popularity among teenage pop fans, with their music receiving widespread airplay on Top 40 radio and their faces adorning countless teen magazines. Much was made at the time of The Byrds’ unconventional dress sense, with their casual attire strikingly at odds with the prevailing trend for uniformity among contemporary beat groups. With all five members sporting Beatlesque moptop haircuts, Crosby dressed in a striking green suede cape, and McGuinn wearing a pair of distinctive rectangular “granny glasses”, the band exuded Californian cool, while also looking suitably non-conformist. In particular, McGuinn’s distinctive rectangular spectacles would go on to become popular among members of the burgeoning hippie counterculture in the United States.

Although McGuinn was widely regarded as The Byrds’ leader by this point, the band actually had multiple frontmen, with McGuinn, Clark, Crosby and later Hillman all taking turns to sing lead vocals in roughly equal measures across the group’s repertoire. Despite the dizzying array of personnel changes that the group underwent in later years, this lack of a dedicated lead singer would remain a stylistic trait of The Byrds’ music throughout the majority of the band’s existence. A further distinctive aspect of The Byrds’ image was their unsmiling air of detachment, both on stage and in front of the camera. This natural aloofness was compounded by the large amounts of marijuana that the band consumed and often resulted in moody and erratic live performances. Indeed, the contemporary music press was extremely critical of The Byrds’ abilities as a live act during the mid-1960s, with the reaction from the British media during the band’s August 1965 tour of England being particularly scathing.

This 1965 English tour was largely orchestrated by the group’s publicist Derek Taylor, in an attempt to capitalize on the number 1 chart success of the “Mr. Tambourine Man” single. Unfortunately, the tour was overhyped from the start, with the band being touted as “America’s answer to the Beatles”, a label that proved impossible for The Byrds to live up to. During concert performances, a combination of poor sound, group illness, ragged musicianship, and the band’s notoriously lackluster stage presence, all combined to alienate audiences and served to provoke a merciless castigating of the band in the British press. However, the tour did enable the band to meet and socialize with a number of top English groups, including The Rolling Stones and The Beatles. In particular, the band’s relationship with The Beatles would prove important for both acts, with the two groups again meeting up in Los Angeles some weeks later, upon The Byrds’ return to America. During this period of fraternization, The Beatles were vocal in their support of The Byrds, publicly acknowledging them as creative competitors and naming them as their favorite American group. A number of authors, including Ian MacDonald, Richie Unterberger, and Bud Scoppa, have noted The Byrds influence on The Beatles’ late 1965 album Rubber Soul, most notably on the songs “Nowhere Man” and “If I Needed Someone”, the latter of which utilizes a guitar riff similar to that in The Byrds’ cover of “The Bells of Rhymney”.

For their third Columbia single, The Byrds initially intended to release a cover of Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” (it was even premiered on the Californian radio station KRLA), but instead they decided to record “Turn! Turn! Turn! (to Everything There is a Season)”, a Pete Seeger composition with lyrics adapted almost entirely from the biblical Book of Ecclesiastes. The song was brought to the group by McGuinn, who had previously arranged it in a chamber-folk style while working on folksinger Judy Collins’ 1963 album, Judy Collins 3. The Byrds’ cover of “Turn! Turn! Turn! (to Everything There is a Season)” was issued on October 1, 1965 and became the band’s second U.S. number 1 single, as well as the title track for their second album. The single represented the high-water mark of folk rock as a chart trend and has been described by music historian Richie Unterberger as “folk rock’s highest possible grace note.” In addition, music critic William Ruhlmann has noted that the song’s lyrical message of peace and tolerance struck a nerve with the American record buying public as the Vietnam War continued to escalate.

The Byrds’ second album, Turn! Turn! Turn!, was released in December 1965 and while it received a mostly positive reception, critical consensus deemed it to be inferior to the band’s debut. Nonetheless, it was a commercial success, peaking at number 17 on the U.S. charts and number 11 in the UK. Author Scott Schinder has noted that, along with Mr. Tambourine Man, the Turn! Turn! Turn! album served to establish The Byrds as one of rock music’s most important creative forces, on a par with The Beatles, The Beach Boys and The Rolling Stones. Like their debut, the album comprised a mixture of group originals, folk songs, and Bob Dylan covers, all characterized by the group’s clear harmonies and McGuinn’s distinctive guitar sound. However, the album featured more of the band’s own compositions than its predecessor, with Gene Clark in particular coming to the fore as a songwriter. His songs from this period, including “She Don’t Care About Time”, “The World Turns All Around Her”, and “Set You Free This Time”, are widely regarded by critics as among the best of the folk rock genre. The latter song was even chosen for release as a single in January 1966, but its densely worded lyrics, melancholy melody, and ballad-like tempo contributed to it stalling at number 63 on the Billboard chart and failing to reach the UK chart altogether.

While The Byrds outwardly seemed to be riding the crest of a wave during the latter-half of 1965, the recording sessions for their second album had not been without tension. One source of conflict was the power struggle that had begun to develop between producer Terry Melcher and the band’s manager Jim Dickson, with the latter harboring aspirations to produce the band himself, causing him to be overly critical of Melcher’s work. Within a month of Turn! Turn! Turn! being released, Dickson and The Byrds approached Columbia Records and requested that Melcher be replaced, despite the fact that he had successfully steered the band through the recording of two number 1 singles and two hit albums. Any hopes that Dickson had of being allowed to produce the band himself, however, were dashed when Columbia assigned their West Coast head of A&R, Allen Stanton, to the band.

Psychedelia (1965–1967)

On December 22, 1965, The Byrds recorded a new, self-penned composition titled “Eight Miles High” at RCA Studios in Hollywood. The song represented a creative leap forward for the band and is often considered the first full-blown psychedelic rock recording by critics, although other contemporaneous acts, such as Donovan and The Yardbirds, were also exploring similar musical territory. The song was also pivotal in transmuting folk rock into the new musical forms of psychedelia and raga rock. However, Columbia Records refused to release the band’s first version of the song because it had been recorded at another record company’s studios. As a result, the band were forced to re-record “Eight Miles High” at Columbia Studios in Los Angeles on January 24 and 25, 1966, and it was this re-recorded version that would be released as a single and included on the group’s third album.

The song is marked by McGuinn’s groundbreaking lead guitar playing, which saw the guitarist attempting to emulate the free form jazz saxophone playing of John Coltrane, and in particular, Coltrane’s playing on the song “India” from his Impressions album. “Eight Miles High” also exhibits the influence of the Indian classical music of Ravi Shankar in the droning quality of the song’s vocal melody and in McGuinn’s guitar playing. The song’s subtle use of Indian influences resulted in it being labeled as “raga rock” by the music press, but in fact, it was the single’s B-side “Why” that drew more directly on Indian ragas.

Upon release, “Eight Miles High” was banned by many U.S. radio stations, following allegations made by the broadcasting trade journal the Gavin Report, that its lyrics advocated recreational drug use. The band and their management strenuously denied these allegations, stating that the song’s lyrics actually described an airplane flight to London and the band’s subsequent concert tour of England. The relatively modest chart success of “Eight Miles High” (number 14 in the U.S. and number 24 in the UK) has been largely attributed to the broadcasting ban, although the challenging and slightly uncommercial nature of the track is another possible reason for its failure to reach the Top 10.

Discography

Studio Albums

1965 Mr Tambourine Man – http://bopping-elf.co.uk/byrds/byrds-mr-tambourine-man/

1965 Turn Turn Turn – http://bopping-elf.co.uk/byrds/byrds-turn-turn-turn/

1966 Fifth Dimension – http://www.bopping-elf.co.uk/byrds-fifth-dimension/

1967 Younger Than Yesterday – http://www.bopping-elf.co.uk/byrds-younger-than-yesterday/

1968 The Notorious Byrd Brothers – http://bopping-elf.co.uk/byrds/byrds-the-notorious-byrd-brothers/

1968 Sweetheart of the Rodeo – http://bopping-elf.co.uk/byrds/byrds-sweetheart-of-the-rodeo/

1969 Dr Byrds & Mr Hyde – Coming soon 14/11/2017

Compilations

Greatest Hits – http://bopping-elf.co.uk/byrds/byrds-greatest-hits/

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