Now in our eighth calendar year!
PCR #387 (Vol. 8, No. 34) This edition is for the week of August 20--26, 2007.
American Band: The Byrds, from folk rock to country rock.
Usually when one is discussing the most influential bands of the 1960s it always comes down to the big three. Bob Dylan, The Beatles, and the Beach Boys. The Byrds are sadly pushed to the side. While they never reached the artistic heights that Sgt.Peppers did, the near perfect production of Pet Sounds, or the gift of words like Dylan they nevertheless influenced countless American garage and pop bands in the 60s, to the 70s, all the way till now. Not to mention that one little fact that when "Mr. Tambourine Man" hit the radio, folk-rock was born. It not only put a spark in Dylan's mind that maybe his songs could be danceable but also gave America something to be proud of...our own Beatles. They eventually lost members, gained new ones, and made the first country rock album spawning countless alt-country bands in the 90s . Here is their story album by album, the amazing rise and the whimpering fall of America's band: The Byrds.
The Byrds stage 1: 1965-1967
Mr. Tambourine Man (1965): Consisting of Roger McGuinn on lead vocals and his 12-string Rickenbacker, David Crosby on rythym guitar, Gene Clark on vocals and tambourine, Chris Hillman on bass, and Michael Clarke on drums, the band's original lineup was like a well-oiled pop machine that appeared out of nowhere. Oddly enough the hit title track only had Roger McGuinn on it as the rest of the band were replaced by session musicians. Listening to the other gems on this album it's hard to figure out why this was decided. Basically this sounded unlike anything that was out at the time. Somehow this little unheard of band had found the perfect way to incorporate the poetry of Dylan to the pop sheen of the Beatles and add vocal harmonies that gave the Beach Boys a serious run for their money. McGuinn's shimmering electric 12-string still sounds as amazing today as it did way back in '65. Folk rock was born here.
Turn Turn Turn! (1965): The Byrds' sophomore album like all sophomore albums was more subdued in approach. The title track was another hit like Mr. Tambourine Man but the rest of the album sounds like leftovers. There are exceptions, however. "If You're Gone" is one of the most emotional sounding songs of the period. By using a harmony that sounds like a bagpipe drone it adds to the songs weight of love lost. The Beatles were only just now doing this sort of thing on Rubber Soul. The Byrds were already showing that they were progressing pop music much faster than some of their contemporaries. The next album would go one step further and beat all of them to the game. Namely, psychedelic rock.
Fifth Dimension (1966): Now it's easy to look on this album simply as a pop version of psychedelic music but that's if you dont know your history. Without a Dylan song in sight the band roars out of the gates with the first track "Fifth Dimension" a trippy gem that uses harmonies to sound otherwordly, or as McGuinn called it, "space rock". "Mr Spaceman" is one of their first forays into country rock, a talent that would save them later in their career and make them legends with a host of young kids in the 90s alt-country scene. "Hey Joe" is interesting because supposedly Crosby "discovered" this tune but the band didn't let him record it on the first two albums. By '66 the song had become a hit for both The Leaves and Love. The centerpiece of the album though is "Eight Miles High". Opening with McGuinn playing his 12-string like you would a saxaphone it comes off sounding like a sitar. Thing is, this was a whole year earlier than that would come into vogue. Easily the band's best album it also marked the beginning of the end for the original lineup. Gene Clark had only "Eight Miles High" as a contribution and, in fact, doesn't play on the album at all. Crosby would be next to go but not before one more masterpiece and a near perfect other album.
Younger Than Yesterday (1967): In retrospect, it was a wise move. Folk rock was dead and McGuinn and the Byrds were moving on. The band's goodbye to folk-rock, their cover of Dylan's "My Back Pages" is equal to "Mr. Tambourine Man" and "Turn Turn Turn!" combined. But their scathing hit single "So You Want To Be A Rock N' Roll Star" should have been a clue that the band was feeling the stress of being hitmakers. Crosby was fired by McGuinn and Hillman after constant in-studio fighting over ego clashes and songwriting credits. Nevertheless, the album is a masterpiece of experimental pop, at least on a mainstream level.
The Notorious Byrd Brothers (1967): While Crosby certainly started out recording for these sessions by the end he was simply sulking on the studio couch and was subsequently fired. Or so the story goes. Left as a threesome to finish the album, McGuinn, Hillman, and Clarke did more than a admirable job. Adding horns, harpsichord, and steel twang, the album sits up there with the many neglected albums of '67. Crosby's "Draft Morning" foreshadowed the stuff he'd be doing with CSN only two years later while Hillman's "Old John Robertson" was a direct lead into their shift into country rock. But it would still take one wild country-loving rich kid from Florida for The Byrds to change the way modern music looks at genres. That kid was the one and only Gram Parsons.....
The Byrds stage 2: 1968
Sweetheart of the Rodeo (1968): One of the main driving forces behind the band, David Crosby, had been fired. His replacement of sorts came in the form of Gram Parsons. Parsons earlier band The International Submarine Band had released one album of poppy country music before splitting up. The sound they were going for, the mesh between Parsons' two loves, country and rock, found its way into the lives of The Byrds. Hillman instantly took a liking to Parsons and his vast understanding of country music. Before long he was a Byrd. The album itself originally had several songs with lead vocals by Parsons but he was still under contract with Lee Hazelwood so his vocals were dropped and McGuinn did his best impersonation. Oddly enough two songs on the album do feature lead by Gram. Sweetheart of the Rodeo and its classics "Hickory Wind", "You Ain't Going Nowhere", and the gorgeous "The Christian Life" all may sound like country music to the rock inclined but they had just that hint of hipness, were played just a little faster, and had introspection unheard of in country that made it finally the missing link that The Byrds had been striving for for several years. Parsons took the band all the way to the Grand Ole Opry but they were never accepted in the country circles and the rock fans completely were turned off by what they saw as their parents' music. In two more years, Dylan would release Nashville Skyline; the Grateful Dead and The Stones released their inner cowpoke, and by the 70s, The Eagles and southern rock would tear up the airwaves. But in '68 Sweetheart of the Rodeo was the most punkrock album you could make. Parsons always, the opportunist, didn't give up and not wanting to be hampered by association with a known band, took his musical creation, stole Hillman and went on to form the most influential country rock group of all time, The Flying Burritto Brothers. It wasn't all Parsons either, though. McGuinn was that extra link in the chain that made a new genre and it's the Byrds name as a collective that is on the final work. Sweetheart of the Rodeo is perhaps the most worshipped American cult album of all time and gave birth to alt-country in the 90s without which we wouldn't have Wilco, The Jayhawks, The Old 97s, and Son Volt among others. Meanwhile, back in 1968, Roger McGuinn was without a band....
The Byrds stage 3: 1969
Dr.Byrds & Mr. Hyde (1969): You gotta hand it to McGuinn, in the face of firing Crosby, and his two remaining band members leaving, he still soldiered on. He had three great albums left in him and three more that would tarnish the Byrds name for decades. This lineup for the most part is the one that sat through with him to the bitter end. But guitarist Clarence White and drummer Gene Parsons (no relation to Gram) weren't just a back up band for McGuinn they were the driving force of the revitalization and the new sound of The Byrds. Bassist John York on the other hand would only stay for one more album. While Sweetheart of the Rodeo was the beginning of country rock this album and band brought it home in full force. Electrifying one minute and easy listening the next it was almost like the old days of the Byrds. McGuinn had found his band again. The best track is without a doubt "Bad Night At The Whiskey" an electric acid rock hit all packed in 3 explosive minutes. But the most poignant is "Drug Store Truck Driving Man" a leftover written with Gram before he bailed. It's a scathing attack on a country disc jockey who refused to play the Byrds and a scene who shunned them. McGuinn had managed to carry on the good name of the Byrds and for now they were flying high once again.
Ballad Of Easy Rider (1969): If there are two albums that the way-overrated band The Eagles have ripped off of it's The Burritto Brothers Gilded Palace of Sin and The Byrds Ballad Of Easy Rider. The laidback country porch pop of "Tulsa County" and the heartland rock of the title track could easily have sat on The Eagles first two albums no problem. McGuinn and company toned down a little of the electricity with this one and came out with a hit record and single. It had been awhile and McGuinn deserved it. John York bowed out after this one, though. The next album would prove to be their last great LP but that didn't stop them...
The Byrds Final stage: 1970-73
Untitled (1970): With John York gone, Skip Battin joined and in one year they had become a hardworking and hard-hitting live act. The first half of this record is proof if there ever was any. The new reworking of "Eight Miles High" was the band trying to attain Allman Brothers heights and holding their own on the live circuit. "Lover of the Bayou" would have made a great single had they released the studio version. The studio half of the album includes McGuinn's last grasp of songwriting greatness, "Chestnut Mare", which mixes the new country rock sound with a dash of jangle in the shadows, and the great climax "Welcome Back Home". This album should have been the beginning of a great future instead it was the last gasps till the end.......
Byrdmaniax (1971): This is where it all started to go wrong. Remixed by producer Terry Melcher to include horns and strings the very life was sucked out of this already tepid affair. "Citizen Kane" is a fun enough song but it displayed the vaudeville whimsy that would ruin the band. McGuinn's "I Wanna Grow Up To Be A Politician" didn't help things either.
Farther Along (1971): Farther along? Hardly. This was the final die cast. This would be the last real Byrds album ever. "Tiffany Queen" the album opener is strong enough with some good riffing by White, and the Parsons tune "Get Down Your Line" is as dusky cool country rock as you're ever gonna get. And while their new flirtation with banjo and bluegrass sounded promising, this was to be the last hurrah. The album single (another vaudeville tune that sounds like a bad outtake from the Disney cartoon Casey At Bat) "America's Greatest National Pasttime" helped stall the album at 152 on the charts and along with Clarence White's death in 1973 meant the end.
McGuinn would rejoin with the original lineup of Crosby, Clark, Hillman, and Clarke for a supposed reunion album in '73 that turned out to be nothing more than leftovers from all the members' songbooks making it an obvious sellout for cash. While they ended on a bittersweet note the Byrds more than enough earned their place in the annals of Rock N Roll, and to this day influence pop bands and alternative country acts. It could even be said that without them, folk would have never reached the masses nor would country if they hadn't done their shift into country rock. While they may not have ever produced a Sgt. Peppers or Blonde on Blonde they have the distinction of creating the idea of blending genres together in modern music. Without them, quite possibly, we would never have had the 70's country and southern rock boom or the melding of rap with rock, country with pop, punk with reggae. At least not if they had introduced the concept of folk-rock to the public and never succeeded. But they did and for awhile they shined brightly. In the competitive music world of the '60s where a garage band popped up every 5 seconds with ideas bold and wild as anyone else's, that's more than any band can ask.
"The Audio Philes" is ©2007 by Terence Nuzum. All graphics (except where otherwise noted) are creations of Nolan B. Canova. All contents of Nolan's Pop Culture Review are ©2007 by Nolan B. Canova.