They recorded Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” and hit No. 1 with the single before Dylan himself had a chance to release the song. That early triumph represents the Byrds in microcosm: innovative, curious about new music, and equally interested in folk traditions and the rock industry. It’s appropriate that the music press coined the term “folk rock” to refer to the Byrds’ distinctive sound.
In the 1960s, two main forces were trending in the American popular music industry: folk revival artists like the Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul and Mary, and the Beatles-led British Invasion. The Byrds is where these two trends met. Three singer-songwriters – Jim (Roger) McGuinn, Gene Clark, and David Crosby – started a band called the Jet Set in Los Angeles in 1964. Soon bassist Chris Hillman and drummer Michael Clarke joined them.
The Beatles were evident in many aspects of the band’s development, even beyond the British Invasion style. Jet Set changed their name to the Byrds as a nod to the distinctive “misspelling” of the Beatles, and McGuinn started playing a Rickenbacker 12-string electric guitar, which helped define the Byrds’ sound, after seeing one in the Beatles film A Hard Day’s Night.
But it was the music of Bob Dylan that had the biggest impact on the Byrds’ first album, Mr. Tambourine Man, released on Columbia Records in 1965. Four of that record’s 12 tracks are by Dylan. There are also some original songs by Clark and some other covers, among them “Don’t Doubt Yourself, Babe” by one of the first female rock and roll stars, Jackie DeShannon. You can hear the close vocal harmonies and the twang of McGuinn’s Rickenbacker, both defining elements of the Byrds’ early sound.
The debut album enjoyed critical praise and strong sales, and by the end of 1965 the Byrds were ready with their second release. Turn! Turn! Turn! once again offers rock-tinged versions of folk-influenced covers and originals. The arrangement of the title song, which would become a huge single for the band, was originally constructed for a Judy Collins recording. Significantly, David Crosby had his Byrds songwriting debut as co-author of “Wait and See” with McGuinn. Of course, two songs were by Dylan.
There were big changes (including no Dylan presence) for Fifth Dimension in 1966. Gene Clark, who had been the primary songwriter, left the band. McGuinn and Crosby scrambled to fill the void. Three of McGuinn’s songs performed reasonably well on the charts (“Eight Miles High,” “5D – Fifth Dimension,” and “Mr. Spaceman”), but there were no smash hits.
While the album was critically dismissed at the time, it does contain some interesting song choices. Among those is “I Come and Stand at Every Door,” credited to Turkish poet Nâzım Hikmet. The haunting melody is far from Turkish, however; it’s borrowed from the traditional Scottish ballad called “The Silkie,” which had been recorded by Joan Baez in 1961.
As the remaining four Byrds adjusted to the loss of Clark, bassist Chris Hillman stepped up as a songwriter for the first time. This turned out to be a valuable contribution. Four of the best songs on Younger Than Yesterday (1967) are by him, including the single “Have You Seen Her Face.” He also co-wrote the single “So You Want to Be a Rock and Roll Star” with McGuinn.
Crosby continued to work on his songwriting, too. The heartbreak song “Everybody’s Been Burned” shows the sophistication of his imagery, turning a common trope into a genuinely individual statement. By this point, the Byrds’ sound often integrated elements of jazz and psychedelia, as can be heard in this arrangement.
But Crosby was infuriating his band mates with his onstage political rants, not to mention his moonlighting with Buffalo Springfield. The Byrds fired him in 1967. There was friction with drummer Michael Clarke, too, who left partway through recording The Notorious Byrd Brothers in 1968.
This was a band in desperate need of new personnel. Their choice was Gram Parsons, who had moved to Los Angeles from New York only two years before and was focused on the intersection between country music and rock. Parsons was an accomplished player on piano and organ, a new sound for the band (he also played guitar). His first and only Byrds album appearance was 1968’s Sweetheart of the Rodeo, on which Kevin Kelley appeared as drummer.
Parsons’ country influence was supported by the addition of two pedal steel session musicians on that album. Composed by Parsons and his former International Submarine Band colleague Bob Buchanan, “Hickory Wind” is unabashedly country.
The pull of country was too much for Parsons and Hillman. They both followed in the footsteps of Clarke; he had left the year before for the Flying Burrito Brothers, which devoted themselves to the then-new genre of country rock. In their place for the next recording sessions were Gene Parsons (no relation) on drums and other instruments, the soon to become legendary Clarence White on guitar, and John York on bass. McGuinn was the only remaining original member.
Thanks to the vision of producer Gary Usher, the distortion and sound-play of psychedelia and electronica had started playing a bigger and bigger role on Byrds albums. At the same time, the country sound was still there. Under producer Bob Johnston, the two conflicting elements coexist, reflected in the title of the 1969 album Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde. “Child of the Universe,” by McGuinn and jazz composer Dave Grusin, is firmly in the psychedelic category.
McGuinn found himself with an outstanding opportunity when he was invited to co-write a song with his hero Bob Dylan to be used as the theme of a culturally significant film, Easy Rider, which was being written, produced, and directed by the team of Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda, and Terry Southern. (Dylan and McGuinn collaborated again in 1972 on the soundtrack for Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.) The Byrds album Ballad of Easy Rider included that theme plus tracks not related to the film. The other single, soon to be made into a bigger hit by the Doobie Brothers, was a cover of Art Reynolds’ “Jesus Is Just Alright.”
Bassist John York left the band, and 1970’s (Untitled) album introduced bassist Skip Battin. McGuinn was trying to put together a rock musical with Broadway director Jacques Levy, based on the tale of Peer Gynt. Although that project never reached fruition, some of its songs are on this album, including “All the Things.”
The heyday of the 1960s was over for the Byrds. Byrdmaniax, recorded in 1971 in the middle of a massive tour when everyone was exhausted, is considered one of the weakest Byrds albums, and it offered no successful singles. Part of the problem, besides fatigue, was the decision by producer Terry Melcher to add orchestrations without the band’s consent. The musicians therefore retained stricter control and worked with more focus on Farther Along, also from 1971. But nobody was happy with this album either – not the band, the fans, or the critics.
Still, it has some moments, including the tuneful “Precious Kate,” written by Skip Battin and Kim Fowley with an obvious tip of the hat to Dylan’s melodic phrasing.
Byrds was the band’s final album, released in 1973. It’s historically important as a reunion album by McGuinn, Clark, Crosby, Hillman, and Clarke. It lacked the verve and energy of the old records by that lineup, and McGuinn’s guitar sound does not have that distinctive Rickenbacker jangle. Still, fans were happy for one more chance to buy a Byrds album, even if they largely ignored its singles. McGuinn, Clark, and Hillman would team up once more for an album, Byrds, in 1977.
Even if the Byrds’ career had a lackluster fade-out, their contributions to American music in the 1960s can’t be overstated. They perfectly wove together all the most important strands of their time and place and turned them into songs that struck exactly right in their moment yet will also last forever.
Header image: the Byrds in 1965. (L to R): Chris Hillman (bass), Gene Clark (vocals, tambourine, guitar), Roger McGuinn (12-string guitar, vocals), Michael Clarke (drums) and David Crosby (rhythm guitar, vocals). Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/KRLA Beat/Beat Publications, Inc./public domain.