Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Byrds Remembered as Folk Rock Greats

The Byrds are possibly one of the most forgotten about bands of the past in today's music scene. This band, that started playing shows on the Sunset Strip of Los Angeles at places like the Whiskey in 1965, don't get nearly enough credit for the way they evolutionized folk rock. They began mainly covering folk artists, such as Bob Dylan's song "Mr. Tambourine Man" on their first record, and Pete Seeger's "Turn! Turn! Turn!" on their second. While these songs may have propelled The Byrds to the pinnacle of their commercial popularity, the band would only continue to grow more creative as the 1960s continued. As The Byrds toured to support their first two albums, they would play a tape in the car, which had John Coltrane on one side and Ravi Shankar on the other. It was the only music they listened to on the whole tour and it definitely had a huge influence on their third album Fifth Dimension released in mid 1966. The big single off Fifth Dimension, "Eight Miles High," was released a few months before the album actually came out. It was really the first time all five members of The Byrds had contributed to writing a song together. Unfortunately, it also marked the end of The Byrds’ main songwriter, vocalist, and tambourine player Gene Clark's time in the band. Ironically, Gene Clark decided to quit because he had a fear of flying. The departure of Clark meant that the other band members, vocalist and twelve-string guitarist Roger McGuinn, vocalist and rhythm guitarist David Crosby, bassist Chris Hillman, and drummer Micheal Clarke, all had to step up and take charge of writing the rest of Fifth Dimension. Meanwhile "Eight Miles High" was having a tough time getting played on some radio stations because their djs believed it had references to drug use, specifically the use of marijuana and LSD. For this reason the song only rose to #14 on the charts, and somehow The Byrds never managed to have another top 20 hit.

"Eight Miles High" wasn't really about drugs as Roger McGuinn states in Ritchie Unterberger's book Eight Miles High, Folk Rock's Flight from Haight Ashbury to Woodstock. "It tells a story like a folk song. It's the story of The Byrds going to England in 1965, of experiencing culture shock. 'Rain gray town, known for it's sound' is London. 'Eight miles high and when you touch down you'll find that it's stranger than you've known' that's the airplane ride to England," says McGuinn in the book. The Byrds also faced the harsh British press who were critical of the band, although at the time they were being called America's answer to The Beatles. If you think about it, The Byrds had come a long way as musicians their first two years intact. Not only had they improved their playing, but now the press couldn't criticize them for just being a Bob Dylan or Pete Seegar cover band. As Unterberger writes, "Now The Byrds were in a league of their own. They would continue to take folk rock into the stratosphere throughout 1966 and 1967. Fifth Dimension marked the first album by early folk rockers to break away from folk rock into folk rock psychedelia. And where they flew many would follow."

The Byrds onstage in the early days playing "Mr. Tambourine Man."
(left to right) David Crosby on guitar and vocals, Chris Hillman on bass,
Gene Clark on vocals and tambourine, Micheal Clarke on drums, and
Roger McGuinn on guitar and vocals.

After Gene Clark's departure, Roger McGuinn became the band’s leader but shared much of the songwriting with David Crosby. You can immediately hear The Byrds expanding their sound on the brilliant Fifth Dimension album. The second song "Wild Mountain Thyme," has some of the best harmonizing the band ever did together with amazing orchestration backing it. There is no doubt The Byrds’ folk harmonizing songs can be compared to bands like Simon and Garfunkel, The Beach Boys, and the super-group Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. One thing to remember, though, is that none of the other bands mentioned ever came close to diving into the deep range of folk rock/psychedelia as The Byrds on Fifth Dimension. Their lyrics were also a huge factor in bringing forth their music. The song "What's Happening ?!?!," David Crosby’s first song with The Byrds, has a sense of emotional confusion. Inside the liner notes to Fifth Dimension Crosby talks about the song, "It's a very strange song. It asks questions of what's going on here and who does it all belong to and why it is all going on. I just ask the questions because I really don't know the answers."

The most haunting song on the album is "I Come and Stand at Every Door." The lyrics come from a poem by Nazim Hikmet, written in the voice of a seven year old who has been killed by the U.S. atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima during World War II. As Richie Unterberger points out, "I Come and Stand at Every Door," was taken even further from its origins by The Byrds' hypnotic electric chime-drone arrangement." The lyrics, along with McGuinn's stark voice, paint a dark picture, "I come and stand at every door but no one hears my silent prayer. I knock and yet remain unseen, for I am dead, for I am dead. I'm only seven although I died in Hiroshima long ago. I'm seven now as I was then when children die they do not grow." The song ends with the child pleading for peace, "All that I ask is that for peace, you fight today, you fight today, so that the children of this world may live and grow and laugh and play."

As Fifth Dimension continues it gets much more bluesy and electric with songs like the the band’s first instrumental recording "Captain Soul," which has some great harmonica playing. The strange "2-4-2 Fox Trot (The Lear Jet Song) " has all sorts of psychedelicized sounds to it, including airplane pilots talking on a radio with the Byrds chanting over it: "Go ride the lear jet baby.” One song that didn't make it onto the original album but deserved to be there was titled "Why." The song had been a B Side to the "Eight Miles High" single, and while The Byrds decided to include the latter song on the Fifth Dimension a few months later, "Why" somehow didn't make the cut. With McGuinn playing his classic twelve-string Rickenbacker in a brilliant solo, "Why" has a classic Indian raga feel to it. It’s clear just how much Ravi Shankar was beginning to influence the band members , especially McGuinn and Crosby.

Another David Crosby cut that failed to make the original release of the Fifth Dimension LP, but is now included on the Bonus Tracks of the CD version, is "Pychodrama City," which shows how Crosby was stepping up to fill Gene Clark's shoes as a songwriter for the band.

The cover to The Byrds Fifth Dimension LP

Despite the amazing the brilliance of Fifth Dimension, The Byrds’ career was actually beginning to unravel. It wasn't just that their songs weren't topping the charts as they had with their first two albums, but also their live performances were getting worse. Somehow the superior material they were recording in the studio couldn't translate into their live shows, and the press began to notice their decline. As bassist Chris Hillman says in Unterberger's Eight Miles High book, "It's funny, we went from being better live in the early days to better in the studio later on, and became too lackadaisical onstage."

The Byrds didn't even make the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival movie because their performance was so bad; David Crosby spent most of his time onstage endorsing LSD and talking about the conspiracy in President John F. Kennedy's assassination.

Also, personal turmoil within the band was starting to tear the group apart. David Crosby's ego was starting to take over, and he and McGuinn often disagreed about recording songs. "He was becoming insufferable," Roger McGuinn confessed to the magazine Goldmire thirty-five years later. “He really didn't like us anymore. He was angry with all the rest of The Byrds. He would say things like, ‘You guys aren't good enough musicians to be playing with me.’" In the same Goldmire article, Crosby admitted, "I don't think I was easy to get along with or work with then. I think I was young, and egotistical, and wanting more space for myself. I wanted to do more writing and have more music credits. It's very unfortunate. It was one of the best musical chemistries ever." Also the entire band started to gang up against drummer Michael Clarke as they regarded him the least talented in the group and often taunted him if he didn't get his takes right. This can be heard on the bonus tracks of their fifth album, The Notorious Byrd Brothers. Somehow, despite all the bickering within the band, they actually managed to put out two more classic albums with most of the original lineup intact.

Their follow up to Fifth Dimension was Younger Than Yesterday, released in 1967. It ranked 124 in Rolling Stone’s top 500 albums of all time. Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman wrote "So You Want To Be A Rock N' Roll Star," about their decline in mainstream music popularity. The Byrds also added another mind-blowing Bob Dylan cover, "My Back Pages," as well as recording "Have You Seen Her Face," which were both fantastic group efforts for The Byrds. Everything is there, the guitars, the percussion, the bass, the harmonies, everything. Unterberger makes a great point when he states, "’My Back Pages,’" ironically considering its lyric about turning a back on the past, was a retreat to the device that had brought them the stardom they mocked in ‘So You Want To Be A Rock N' Roll Star.’" The lyrics in the chorous of "My Back Pages": "I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now," also connected to the title of the album Younger Than Yesterday .

left to right: David Crosby, Chris Hillman and Roger McGuinn of The Byrds onstage in the 1960s.

The next Byrds album released in 1968, The Notorious Byrd Brothers, is regarded by many to be their best work, which is hard to believe considering what went on in the studio during these recordings. David Crosby ended up writing three of his best songs ever for the album. "Draft Morning" was about the Vietnam War, with classic lines about what it was like to be a soldier, "Take my time this morning, no hurry, to learn to kill and take the will from unknown faces." He also wrote "Tribal Gathering," about the Gathering of the Tribes Festival in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, and another song, "Dolphins Smile," which was the first showing of his fascination for the sea, which would come out in many more of his songs written with Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young like "Wooden Ships". Crosby also wrote a song The Byrds considered too controversial to put on the album called "Triad." It’s about a man trying to convince a woman to join him and another woman in a relationship of three people, with a chorus singing, "I really don't see, why can't we go on as three?" Because of The Byrds refusal to put "Triad" on The Notorious Byrd Brothers, Crosby refused to even take part in the recording of possibly the best cover The Byrds ever did, "Goin Back," which was originally written by Carole King and Gerry Goffin. "Goin Back" as Rolling Stone writer David Fricke points out, "conveys a sense of irresistible longing for a golden age of childhood purity. Thematically, the song recalled the title of their last album Younger Than Yesterday, which had touched on similar notions of wisdom in innocence." Because of Crosby's lack of participation, (supposedly he sat on the couch in the studio during the whole recording of "Goin Back"), coupled with his disagreeable manner, McGuinn and the rest of The Byrds decided to fire him in the middle of the recording sessions. Michael Clarke was the next Byrd to fly the nest, as he was tired of being told what to play and how to sound by the rest of the band. Drummer Jim Gordon who worked with Delaney and Bonnie as well as Derek and the Dominoes replaced Clarke as drummer for the remainder of the recordings. Yet Clarke's picture was shown on the cover of the album while Crosby's was blurted out with a horse, showing the other members anger towards him. Although it would be Crosby who would have the last laugh, as he would eventually form Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, which would surpass The Byrds in fame as the 1960s drew to a close; indeed the band became the biggest supergroup in folk rock history.

The Byrds also did another extraordinary King/Goffin cover titled "Wasn't Born To Follow," which ended up on the cult 1960s motorcycle/road movie Easy Rider soundtrack. As David Fricke points out, "It was used in one of the memorable sequences to express the rider's sense of liberation from straight society." "Wasn't Born To Follow" had a great psychedelic breakdown in the middle with some of the best harmonizing The Byrds ever did, and it shouldn't surprise people that they were the main band on the Easy Rider soundtrack, along with Steppenwolf, representing the counterculture movement of the 1960s. You would think that the firing of Crosby and the departure of Clarke would cause The Notorious Byrd Brothers to suffer now that The Byrds were down to just a two-piece band with Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman, but somehow they managed. For one, Hillman stepped up to become a great songwriter with songs like "Artificial Energy," which unlike "Eight Miles High" was actually a song about drugs, but this time nobody batted an eye. Hillman also wrote the majestically beautiful "Natural Harmony," which Ritchie Unterberger calls, "a blend of rustic past and electronic future." McGuinn was also a key factor in making The Notorious Byrd Brothers the best album in The Byrds’ catalog, as he was the most stable force within the group, and unlike Crosby was always was very professional to work with in the studio. McGuinn and Hillman would compose some of their best material together as a duo on the album with songs like "Get To You," "Change Is Now," and "Old John Robertson,” introducing a more country sound that complemented their folk rock, and signified the direction they would be headed in their sixth album Sweetheart At The Rodeo. Perhaps McGuinn's strongest contribution to The Notorious Byrd Brothers was the final song on the album "Space Odyssey," which was based on an Arthur Clarke short story that Stanley Kubrick would also base his movie 2001: A Space Odyssey on. Unterberger writes about "Space Odyssey: "It was The Byrds furthest reaching electronic voyage. No other Byrds track reached at once so far back to the past and so far into the future. McGuinn had notions of taking that concept even further with The Byrds next album. But "Space Odyssey" was as far as he got due in part to the fashion in which Hillman and newcomer, guitarist/vocalist Gram Parsons, would become co-captains of the group's ship in 1968." Parsons would lead The Byrds even further into a country rock direction on Sweetheart At The Rodeo, which also proved to be very influential in the evolution of folk rock into country, which Bob Dylan also explored in his Nashville Skyline album. Although Parsons was only a member of The Byrds for a short time there is no doubt he would deeply influence the future direction McGuinn would lead the band. Parsons would be fired from The Byrds tour by McGuiin and Hillman as he refused to perform at a concert in South Africa, which would end his brief stint in the band.

Overall, there was nothing in folk rock like The Byrds from the years 1965-1968. Despite their brief stint at a creative peak, The Byrds accomplished more in four years than most bands can accomplish in decades of work. They just had so many creative forces in the band. First they had Gene Clark writing tons of great material; they also had the ability to make any Bob Dylan or Pete Seeger song sound different and original. Once Roger McGuinn and David Crosby’s songwriting abilities fully blossomed the band had the power to compose music along the lines of Lennon and McCartney. Yes, they were America's answer to The Beatles! Later, even Hillman would prove to be a great writer and would go off to form The Flying Burrito Brothers with Gram Parsons and Micheal Clarke, leaving McGuinn as the lone original member left in The Byrds’ nest While McGuinn's work with The Byrds minus the original members isn't as great to listen to, there are still songs like "Chestnut Mare" off The Byrds 1971 Untitled album that still stand out. If you want to embrace a musical journey that leads you to the depths of these creative geniuses, nothing should be left unheard.

Note: The site for Richie Unterberger, the author I quote in this article, is really worth checking out. He has also written a prequel to the Eight Miles High book called Turn! Turn! Turn! which covers The Byrds earlier folk-rock material in great detail.

Roger McGuinn playing live in concert with The Byrds


  1. I didn't know so much of this about the Byrds. Now I want to go out and spend some time listening to their music. Is there a way to put a link in to Richie Utterberger's site (so I can click on his name and go somewhere for more info on him and his books?)

  2. hey, robert, didn't you just discover the byrds in January? how did you do all this research in such short time? enjoyed reading it! gds