The Byrds - Biography



 

 

          The Byrds wanted to be America’s answer to The Beatles. And, for a minute in 1965, the Los Angeles band came close, with hit singles that institutionalized their newly minted “folk-rock” as part of the musical landscape. They failed to match their British counterparts’ commercial supremacy, but they attained a cultural ubiquity of their own, blazing trails in psychedelia and then in country-rock that would be followed by thousands of succeeding groups. Few bands of the era have exerted as powerful an influence on rock history.

 

          As Rolling Stone’s David Fricke said in his Grammy-nominated notes to the 2006 boxed set There is a Season, “No band – with the exception of The Byrds’ biggest fans and transatlantic rivals, the Beatles – achieved so much in so short a time, even in the runaway Sixties. And no band risked so much, and came so close to losing it all, for the sake of going forward.”

           

            Most of The Byrds’ five founding members came from backgrounds in the commercial folk music of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. Chicago-born guitarist Jim McGuinn – who, as a disciple of the spiritual organization Subud, changed his first name to Roger in 1966 – had worked with The Chad Mitchell Trio and The Limelighters. Vocalist Gene Clark, who grew up in Missouri, toured with The New Christy Minstrels. Los Angeles native David Crosby had met McGuinn in 1960, when Crosby was on the road with Les Baxter’s Balladeers.

           

            In 1964, McGuinn, Clark, and Crosby were all habitués of the Troubadour, the club on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood whose Folk Den would become the nexus of L.A.’s creative musical activity into the next decade. There the trio met Chris Hillman, an L.A. native and mandolin prodigy who had played in The Hillmen with country vocalists Vern and Rex Gosdin. Also hanging on the scene was Michael Clarke, a Washington-bred conga player more adept at looking good than making music.

           

            Both Crosby and Hillman knew Jim Dickson, an L.A. producer and manager who had access to free studio time at World Pacific, a local facility operated by independent label entrepreneur Richard Bock. Dickson began recording McGuinn, Clark, and Crosby there, and started managing their career. Like most musicians at the time, the three singer-songwriters were heavily under the sway of The Beatles, and their first sessions with Dickson sound like acoustic-based attempts to emulate the Fab Four, down to their soaring three-part “yeah-yeahs.” The singers recorded half-formed material in a group format – first (with session rhythm players, in a stillborn association with World Pacific) as The Jet Set, then (on a flop single for Elektra Records) as The Beefeaters.

           

            After attending a screening of The Beatles’ first film A Hard Day’s Night in the fall of ’64, the musicians definitively decided to throw in their lot with rock ‘n’ roll and bought electric equipment; a crucial purchase was McGuinn’s 12-string Rickenbacker guitar. Dickson’s connections secured the fledgling band – now a quintet, with Hillman taking up the bass and Clarke behind a full drum kit -- a contract with Columbia Records in November 1964. Taking an avian alternative to the entomological Beatles, they dubbed themselves The Byrds.

           

            Dickson’s vision of a sonic direction for his charges led to the group’s first hit single. The manager was a friend of Bob Dylan, then in the midst of his transition from folk icon to pop star, and had in his possession an acetate copy of “Mr. Tambourine Man,” a sprawling unreleased Dylan composition (which would finally appear as an acoustic track on the singer-songwriter’s 1965 album Bringing It All Back Home). Leaving nothing to chance on The Byrds’ debut single, Columbia staff producer Terry Melcher – son of ‘40s and ‘50s pop idol and film star Doris Day – opted to record the song with session musicians. So, on Jan. 20, 1965, McGuinn took the lead vocals and played electric 12-string at a Hollywood record date, backed not by his band mates, but by studio players Larry Knechtel, Leon Russell, and Hal Blaine. Their version of “Mr. Tambourine Man” owed much of its sound and rhythm to another track the session men had worked on: The Beach Boys’ drag racing ballad “Don’t Worry Baby.”

           

            If the use of sidemen was standard operating procedure, “Mr. Tambourine Man” was nothing like the standard pop fare of the day. The combination of Dylan’s hyper-impressionistic lyrics (even in heavily edited form) and McGuinn’s dramatic, exotic guitar work leaped out of AM radios. It had no precedent in rock -- and Dylan’s own first electric recordings were still months away from release. “Mr. Tambourine Man” was an immediate hit, climbing to No. 1 on the national charts in the spring of 1965. By that time, The Byrds were holding down a regular gig at Ciro’s on West Hollywood’s Sunset Strip; as the single climbed the charts that March, Dylan himself stopped by to sit in with the band.

           

            A second Dylan cover, “All I Really Want to Do,” followed “Mr. Tambourine Man” into the top 40, and the group’s debut LP, also titled Mr. Tambourine Man, climbed to No. 6 during the summer of 1965. But, while they were making their name as the folk-rock poet’s foremost interpreters, The Byrds were also developing a formidable songbook of their own – largely thanks to the writing talents of Gene Clark. His songs “I Knew I’d Want You,” “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better,” and “She Don’t Care About Time” served as B-sides of the band’s first three hit singles.

           

            Moving on to another folk icon, The Byrds recorded a cover of Pete Seeger’s “Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There is a Season),” which McGuinn had previously arranged for a Judy Collins album. The song – a hymn to change and peace, drawn from verses in the Bible’s Book of Ecclesiastes – became the group’s second, and last, No. 1 single in late 1965; the album reached No. 17.

           

            A single mating two band originals, McGuinn’s “It Won’t Be Wrong” and Clark’s “Set You Free This Time,” failed to crack the top 40, but in early 1966 The Byrds recorded the song that would set the path for their sound over the next two years – and would also prove to be the swan song for the original five-piece lineup. With lyrics inspired by the group’s trans-Atlantic flight to London in 1965 and music fired by the modal explorations of Indian sitar player Ravi Shankar and jazz saxophonist John Coltrane, “Eight Miles High” was something new under the sun. Co-authored by McGuinn, Crosby, and Clark, the track featured dense, raga-like 12-string guitar work unlike anything in pop music to that point. The single peaked at No. 14, and likely would have flown even higher if some radio programmers -- wary of lyrics that could be interpreted as pro-drug -- hadn’t declined to play it.

           

            Weeks after recording “Eight Miles High,” The Byrds had boarded a plane for New York when Gene Clark abruptly got up from his seat and exited the jet – and the band. While Clark did suffer from a fear of flying, he later admitted that he had suffered something like a nervous breakdown. The pressure of working in a top rock band and slugging it out with McGuinn and Crosby for creative supremacy was too much for the sensitive musician. The Byrds were now reduced to a quartet.

           

            For the band’s next two albums, Fifth Dimension (1966) and Younger Than Yesterday (1967) -- both of which peaked at No. 24 -- McGuinn and Crosby split the songwriting lead; except for their 45 version of Dylan’s “My Back Pages,” The Byrds were now generating their own material, and it was being produced with increasing opulence. The band’s top 40 singles of this period included “Mr. Spaceman,” a reflection of McGuinn’s love of science fiction, and “So You Want to Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star,” a sardonic McGuinn-Hillman collaboration puncturing the rock fantasy, which featured South African jazz trumpeter Hugh Masekela. The group also began toying with country influences: Younger Than Yesterday included “Time Between,” a Hillman composition that featured guitar work by Clarence White, the former flat-picking whiz of the bluegrass group The Kentucky Colonels who had become an in-demand L.A. country session player.

           

            By the summer of 1967, tensions within the band were palpable. At the Monterey International Pop Festival in June, Crosby performed with both The Byrds and the group’s L.A. rivals Buffalo Springfield, which included his new musical compatriot Stephen Stills. Relations with Crosby had gotten increasingly contentious, as McGuinn and Hillman had rejected his new songs “Lady Friend” and “Triad” for inclusion on the group’s new album. Finally, in October 1967, the guitarist and bassist drove their Porsches to Crosby’s house and fired him from the band.

           

            By the time The Notorious Byrd Brothers (1968) appeared, Michael Clarke had quit the group. Though the album contained nothing resembling a pop hit, it is a baroque-pop masterwork that luxuriated in elaborate production by former surf music maestro Gary Usher. Crosby left behind such tenor-of-the-times opuses as “Draft Morning” and his record of San Francisco’s 1967 Human Be-in, “Tribal Gathering.” The album also included gorgeous renderings of two Gerry Goffin-Carole King songs, “Goin’ Back” and “Wasn’t Born to Follow.”

           

            Now reduced to a duo, McGuinn and Hillman were groping for a new direction when the bassist had a fateful chance encounter in with Gram Parsons. Florida-born, Georgia-bred Parsons – scion of a wealthy, dissolute citrus-growing family – had dropped out of Harvard, gigged around New York, and moved to Los Angeles, where he had cut an unsuccessful album, melding rock ‘n’ roll and the country styles of his favorites George Jones and Buck Owens, with his group The International Submarine Band. Hillman, who had already enlisted his cousin Kevin Kelley as The Byrds’ new drummer, told McGuinn that Parsons would make a good piano player for the group. Instead, the band acquired an ambitious musician who would set The Byrds on the course they would follow for the remainder of their recording career.

           

            Parsons convinced McGuinn to shelve his idea for a two-LP history of American music in favor of a full-blown country-rock album. Sweetheart of the Rodeo (1968) was recorded in Nashville and Los Angeles in the spring of 1968; the band's line-up was augmented by such Music City session players as pedal steel guitarist Lloyd Green and banjoist John Hartford, while steel player Jaydee Maness and guitarist Clarence White contributed to the L.A. dates. Dressed in country duds, Sweetheart displayed a mix of styles – Dylan covers (of the previously unreleased “You Ain’t Going Nowhere” and “Nothing Was Delivered,” from the “Basement Tapes” sessions), versions of songs by the Louvin Brothers, Woody Guthrie, Merle Haggard, and Memphis soul man William Bell, and the Parsons originals “Hickory Wind” and “One Hundred Years From Now.”

           

            Sweetheart of the Rodeo bemused the rock audience, faring no better than No. 77 on the national album chart. The collection did not endear The Byrds to the Nashville music establishment, either. The group was booed during a one-off appearance on radio station WSM’s famed weekly live country music show the Grand Ole Opry, and Nashville radio and TV figurehead Ralph Emery attacked the band on the air. (McGuinn and Parsons repaid the favor by taking a swat at Emery in an acerbic new song, “Drug Store Truck Driving Man.”) However, after Dylan himself went the country route in 1969 with Nashville Skyline, The Byrds’ collection looked prescient, and the album belatedly attained the status of a classic. It may not have been the first country-rock record, but it was probably the first one that many people heard.

           

            Parsons did not stay the course in his new band for long. He was displeased when, after a legal dispute with Lee Hazlewood, who ran The International Submarine Band’s label, many of his lead vocals were wiped off Sweetheart and re-recorded by McGuinn. As with Crosby before, strong-willed co-founder McGuinn engaged in some creative pushing and shoving with his band’s newest member. Finally, on the eve of tour dates in South Africa, Parsons abruptly quit the group. He publicly maintained that his departure was due to his opposition of the government’s apartheid policies, but it was more likely prompted by his desire to remain in London and hang out with his new friends in The Rolling Stones.

           

            After playing their catastrophic dates in South Africa, The Byrds nearly folded for good. Drummer Kelley promptly resigned, swiftly followed by Hillman, who joined Parsons in a new outfit, The Flying Burrito Brothers. However, on his way out the door, the bassist suggested to McGuinn that he hire guitarist Clarence White as part of a new line-up.

           

            Virtuoso White became the linchpin of the last Byrds line-up, which included bassist John York (soon replaced by Skip Battin) and drummer Gene Parsons; Battin and Parsons had played with the guitarist in various studio configurations for producer-musician Gary Paxton. White’s fiery playing -- which made agile use of the “B-bender,” an invention of the guitarist that allowed him to make extravagant steel-like string bends on his Fender Telecaster – highlighted five albums by the revamped unit. He was featured on Dr. Byrds and Mr. Hyde (1969), Ballad of Easy Rider (1969), (Untitled) (1970), Byrdmaniax (1971), and Farther Along (1971).

           

            All these albums featured noteworthy new songs, mainly by McGuinn – “Drug Store Truck Driving Man,” “The Ballad of Easy Rider” (a collaboration with Dylan for Dennis Hopper’s film Easy Rider), “Chestnut Mare,” “Lover of the Bayou,” “I Wanna Grow Up to Be a Politician,” “Tiffany Queen” – plus the occasional blazing Dylan cover like “This Wheel’s On Fire” and “Positively Fourth Street.” However, none of the records was consistently well-written, and some were misguidedly produced; as time went on, there was an escalating reliance on cover material, and recording sessions were hastily organized and executed. By early 1973, Battin and Parsons had been fired, and creative exhaustion had set in; after a last half-hearted gig in New Jersey with Chris Hillman rejoining on bass, McGuinn rang down the curtain on The Byrds  – momentarily.

           

            By the time Clarence White was killed in July 1973 by a drunk driver while loading his gear at a Palmdale, Calif. show, another line-up of The Byrds was recording: the original one. David Geffen had convinced McGuinn, Crosby, Clark, Hillman, and Clarke to reunite for one album on his Asylum label. Though Byrds made it to No. 20 on the strength of its star power, critics largely viewed the project as a soulless venture, spawned by Crosby’s hubris (following his success in Crosby, Stills & Nash) and distinguished mainly by Clark’s new compositions.

           

            McGuinn, Clark and Hillman would unite again for two misbegotten albums in 1979-80, and McGuinn, Hillman, and Crosby recorded four songs for the first Byrds boxed set in 1990. The five original members of The Byrds would appear together just once more: at the Jan. 16, 1991 ceremony at New York’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel, at which they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

 

          Just four months later, Gene Clark – who had made some brilliant solo albums during an erratic solo career -- died at 46, following years of alcohol and drug abuse; Michael Clarke – who had played with The Flying Burrito Brothers and Firefall after his Byrds days -- died of liver failure at 47 in 1993, also a victim of acute alcoholism. (Another famous ex-Byrd, Gram Parsons, died in Joshua Tree, Calif., in September 1973 at 26 of an accidental drug overdose, after completing two Flying Burrito Brothers albums and two solo LPs.)

 

          The impact of The Byrds is so wide-ranging that no list of artists influenced by them could ever hope to be comprehensive. It is safe to say that any group that has ever flexed a jingle-jangling folk-rock guitar, uncorked a raga-like solo, or worked country twang into their rock ‘n’ roll owes a tip of the hat to these L.A. originators.

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