And that’s essential. The Byrds lay at the foundation of not one, or two, but THREE essential rock ‘n’ roll subgenres: folk rock, psychedelic rock, and country rock, and they weren’t just a foundation, they were among the highest manifestations of all three.
Columbia/Legacy – with the world’s greatest catalogue to mine – has put out another must-have, a double CD collection that gets the Byrds right, with every single important song they ever recorded and no filler whatsoever. Unless you are a completist and want the box set, this is the Byrds set to own.
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 Terry 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 standards in “All I Really Wanna Do,” 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.”
On the band’s third album, Fifth Dimension, with producer Allen Stanton, the hallucinogens took full effect and the psychedelia took wing, with a tougher rhythmic sense and McGuinn’s astonishing 12-string electric lead running wild over the unsuspecting frets on”Eight Miles High.” “Mr Spaceman” melds a close alien encounter with a psychedelic country shuffle, and sweet country harmonies.
Younger Than Yesterday brought yet another producer in Gary Usher, a Latin beat, mariachi trumpet, and trenchant rock game cynicism to “So You Want to Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star,” an emerging Chris Hillman on “Have You Seen Her Face,” and more Dylan exemplification on “My Back Pages.”
The Notorious Byrd Brothers yielded a lush cushion of young man’s nostalgia in a glorious version of King and Goffin’s “Goin’ Back,” and a countrified take on their “Wasn’t Born to Follow.”
Sweetheart of the Rodeo saw a commitment to country rock with the addition of the brilliant but doomed Gram Parsons (who would go on to lead the Flying Burrito Brothers) and his jaunty pedal steel guitar on Dylan’s (here is a measure of the Byrd’s greatness – every single Dylan song they recorded was the definitive version) “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere.” Parson’s straight country poignance shines on “Hickory Wind.” On Dr. Byrds and Mr. Hyde tough psychedelia returned for (Dylan’s, again) “This Wheel’s On Fire” and the McGuinn-Parsons satiric waltz “Drug Store Truck Drivin’ Man.”
After four years, Melcher and the Byrds reconciled in ‘69 for Ballad of Easy Rider, by which time the country-rock was second nature. 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,” The studio disc contains some great country rock moments, especially McGuinn’s poignant sagebrush ode to a wild horse, “Chestnut Mare.”
The Byrds soldiered on for two more albums, Byrdmaniax and Farther Along, but the magic was gone. It’s back on this collection.
Richie Unterberger’s Eight Miles High: Folf-Rock’s Flight from Haight-Ashbury to Woodstock has more on the Byrds, and the Byrds-Dylan connection.
Ed Driscoll has a fascinating post here on the “B-Bender” invention, designed and built by Gene Parsons and the late Clarence White for White’s Fender Telecaster electric guitar.