John Mallon discusses the Byrds and their progeny in NRO:
- I am in the land of giants!” Chris Hillman exclaimed as he stepped onstage at the Double Stop Music Hall in Guthrie, Okla. Hillman should know something about giants – despite his unassuming presence, he is a giant in the history of American music. An inductee of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Hillman was one of the original members of the legendary group the Byrds, one of the first and most credible American responses to the British invasion of the mid Sixties. The Byrds were a uniquely American phenomenon, and are credited with launching two genres of music – folk rock and country rock – that have profoundly influenced the history of American music and the generations of musicians that followed.
The Byrds had a way of spawning legends. The original members were already veterans, though barely out of their teens. Leader Roger McGuinn, then known as Jim, had been a backup musician for the Limeliters, the Chad Mitchell Trio, and Bobby Darin. Hillman had already recorded as a mandolin player in bluegrass bands. Gene Clark had toured and recorded with the New Christy Minstrels. David Crosby was an aspiring folkie in the L.A. club scene, and the otherworldly, childlike drummer Michael Clarke was, according to legend, discovered playing bongos on the beach and was invited to join the band on account of both his great hair and his resemblance to Rolling Stones guitarist Brian Jones.
McGuinn was the innovator who created the Byrds’s so-called “jingle jangle” sound on his twelve-string Rickenbacker guitar. Crosby became known for his exquisite harmony vocals, while Gene Clark wrote and sang songs of such emotional depth and power that they broke hearts. Hillman took up bass guitar, bringing to the band the melodic sense of someone who already had a reputation for playing Coltrane solos on a mandolin. Michael Clarke, a self-taught drummer – and who, like contemporaries Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys, Ringo Starr of the Beatles, and Keith Moon of the Who, was not of the Buddy Rich school – played with a unique grace and soaring beauty which complemented the band’s sound perfectly.
The original members evidently had temperaments to match their talent, and the Byrds were to gain and lose many members, among them several legends-to-be. Clarence White, for instance, was a country-influenced guitar legend who invented a gadget that fit inside his Fender Telecaster guitar and on which one could bend notes by moving the bridge by applying pressure on the guitar’s neck. Tragically, while crossing a street after a performance White was killed by a drunk driver.
While McGuinn was the mainstay through these changes, Gene Clark was the first to leave, and by the Byrds’s fourth album, Younger Than Yesterday, Chris Hillman had suddenly emerged as a songwriter and singer. The story goes that Crosby was expelled by McGuinn and Hillman after making a political speech about the Warren Commission during a performance at the Monterey Pop Festival.
Another young veteran-cum-legend was to join the Byrds in the person of Gram Parsons, who, along with the emergent Hillman, was to point the Byrds in the direction of country music. The Byrds were eventually to develop the genre of country rock as they had invented folk rock years before, all under the leadership of McGuinn.
Hillman and Parsons left to form the Flying Burrito Brothers, but Parsons was to die of a drug overdose in late 1973. Some have said that Parsons was at heart a sensitive country boy for whom the pressures of fame simply proved too much.
Like Parsons and White, the other two deceased Byrds have since passed into the realm of legend. Both Michael Clarke and Gene Clark died tragically and young in the early 90s, after intense battles with substance abuse. It is hard not to speculate that the pain and melancholy one hears in the voice and songs of Gene Clark finally caught up with him. Some believe he was not well handled by producers, who failed to promote his various post-Byrds projects. Clark died a tremendously under-recognized talent, though he is now gaining a fiercely devoted cult following on the Internet. It’s said that his own songwriting in turn had an influence on those – like Bob Dylan and the Beatles – who had originally influenced him.
Happily, today McGuinn and Hillman are enjoying life and digging into their respective roots. Ever the innovator, McGuinn has a website where he presents and markets traditional folk music in an effort to keep it alive for future generations. He also tours both as a solo act and with other celebrated folk artists, such as Judy Collins. He was recently nominated for a Grammy for a self-produced CD, Treasures from the Folk Den, which is available through his website.
David Crosby, thankfully, has survived his own trials with substance abuse and is now a member of the super group Crosby, Stills, and Nash (and sometimes Young).
Chris Hillman records and performs bluegrass, and has been known to turn up in venues such as Guthrie, Okla., to perform with old friends like Byron Berline and his band. His latest CD on Virgin Records is Way Out West by Chris Hillman and Herb Pedersen.
I would not argue with Mallon’s assessment of the Byrds, though he undervalues McGuinn’s role as the heart and soul of the group, as well as its leading musician, singer and songwriter: no Byrds without McGuinn.
I had a fascinating conversation with Terry Melcher, the Byrds’ original producer, a few years ago:
- Singer, songwriter, music publisher Terry Melcher was also among the most important West Coast rock ‘n’ roll producers of the 60’s. Melcher first hit big with the Rip Chords (“Hey Little Cobra”) in ’64, and then as staff producer at Columbia worked with the Byrds as they helped create folk- and country-rock on some of the 60’s most important albums: Mr. Tambourine Man, Turn! Turn! Turn!, Ballad of Easy Rider, and (Untitled) in ’70.
In the fall of ’64, a group called the Jet Set, featuring electric 12-string guitarist/singer Jim (later Roger) McGuinn, bassist Chris Hillman, guitarist/singer Gene Clark, drummer Michael Clarke, and singer/guitarist David Crosby, entered World Pacific studio to record a demo of an unreleased Bob Dylan song called “Mr. Tambourine Man.”
The demo got them a deal with Columbia in late-’64 and Melcher was assigned to produce them. Melcher smoothed the arrangement away from the band’s march beat, informed the band that while McGuinn, Crosby and Clark would be singing, only McGuinn was going to play on (the now) Byrds’ first single.
Says Melcher, “I thought the only guy in the band who could play well enough to record was McGuinn, so I used all the normal guys I used for the sessions: Blaine, Leon Russell [keyboards], Larry Knechtel [bass], Jerry Cole [rhythm guitar]. Basically, I took the bass/drum groove from ‘Don’t Worry Baby’ and put ‘Tambourine Man’ over it, and just had McGuinn weave his Rickenbacker 12-string through the whole thing. I put him on [overdubbed] about four times so it just jangled forever.”
That endless jangling and the group’s thrilling harmonies essentially created folk-rock. The Byrds’ harmonies and Melcher’s 12-string-over-surf production set a standard that the Beatles – and Brian Wilson himself – would soon be emulating. Although the Byrds had two No. 1’s in “Tambourine” and “Turn! Turn! Turn!,” and three other standards in “All I Really Wanna Do,” “The Bells of Rhymney” and “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better,” they turned away from Melcher after their first two albums.
In his excellent The Nearest Faraway Place: Brian Wilson, The Beach Boys, And the Southern California Experience, the late author and Billboard publisher Timothy White quotes McGuinn as conceding Melcher’s production contributions: Melcher brought “that creamy California sound that he superimposed on the rough-edged folk-rock sound that we were doing, and I think…it gave a luster to it that it wouldn’t have had.”
After four years, Melcher and the Byrds reconciled in ’69 for Ballad of Easy Rider, by which time the Byrds had pioneered country-rock. By Ballad, McGuinn was the only original Byrd remaining and the three-and-four part harmony of the early sound had largely been replaced by solo vocal leads from McGuinn, bassist John York, and tasty country-rocking lead guitarist Clarence White. The title track is a bluegrassy McGuinn great. “Jesus Is Just Alright” is the original gospel-rock recording of an arrangement the Doobie Brothers had a hit with three years later.
(Untitled) is better still. A double-album set, record one is a live recording of spiky, rock arrangements of Byrds standards including “Lover Of the Bayou,” “Mr. Tambourine Man,” and 16 freaky minutes of “Eight Miles High.” The studio disc contains some great country-rock moments: McGuinn’s “All the Things,” “Take a Whiff (On Me),” and especially his poignant sagebrush ode to a wild horse, “Chestnut Mare.”
Richier Unterberger’s Turn! Turn! Turn!: The ’60s Folk-Rock Revolution also has a very fine chapter on the Byrds.