The Byrds were one of the most significant American bands of the 1960s. They emerged out of the L.A. folk scene, featuring three singer-guitarists; James Roger McGuinn, Gene Clark, and David Crosby. Their first single as The Byrds was their chart-topping cover of Dylan’s ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’, which established the genre of folk-rock. Their clear vocal harmonies and McGuinn’s electric twelve string guitar playing were distinctive. As rock music transformed in the 1960s, so did The Byrds – they released ‘Eight Miles High’ in early 1966, a candidate for the first psychedelic rock song, then recorded a country-rock album, Sweetheart of the Rodeo, in 1968.
For all the talent that passed through the band – country visionary Gram Parsons appeared on Sweetheart of the Rodeo, while bassist Chris Hillman emerged as a songwriter on 1967’s Younger Than Yesterday – The Byrds never quite fulfilled their potential in album in the same way as contemporaries like The Beatles or The Beach Boys. There’s plenty of great material on their early records though, as this list attests.
I’ve focused on the band’s first six albums on this list – Chris Hillman left the band after 1968’s Sweetheart of the Rodeo, leaving McGuinn as the only original member. Later Byrds albums feel more like McGuinn’s solo career, although there’s still enjoyable material like ‘Lover of the Bayou’ and ‘Chestnut Mare’.
10 Best Byrds Songs
#10 – I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better
from Mr. Tambourine Man, 1965
The Byrds’ best songwriter was original member Gene Clark. The band’s debut Mr. Tambourine Man was dominated by covers, but Clark’s original compositions shone. Most notable was ‘I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better’, placed second in the tracklist. Clark based the guitar riff on The Searchers’ ‘Needles and Pins’, and later stated that “This girl was a funny girl, she was kind of a strange little girl and she started bothering me a lot.” ‘I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better’ was covered by Byrds fan Tom Petty on his 1989 album Full Moon Fever.
#9 – My Back Pages
from Younger Than Yesterday, 1967
The Byrds recorded so many Bob Dylan covers that they released the compilation The Byrds Play Dylan in 1979. Of their Dylan covers, ‘My Back Pages’ comes closest to recapturing the magic of ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’, with McGuinn’s chiming Rickenbacker and the lovely group harmonies. The line “I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now” supplied the album’s title, Younger Than Yesterday.
#8 – Thoughts and Words
from Younger Than Yesterday, 1967
Scared of flying and worn down by band squabbles, Gene Clark quit The Byrds in February 1966. The group relied on covers to fill out 1966’s Fifth Dimension but bassist Chris Hillman emerged as a songwriter in time for 1967’s Younger Than Yesterday. Of his four songs, the highlight is the psychedelic ‘Thoughts and Words’. It’s an overlooked classic of the summer of love, with Hillman’s musings accompanied by McGuinn’s backwards guitar.
#7 – Lady Friend
non-album single, 1967
David Crosby was fighting for more creative input in The Byrds by 1967. His cause wasn’t helped by unsuitable material like the self-indulgent ‘Mind Gardens’ and the menage a trois tribute ‘Triad’. The failure of the non-album single ‘Lady Friend’ also didn’t help his cause. It peaked at #82, but it’s vibrant with its fast tempo and horn section. Crosby also stoked band tensions by replacing Hillman and McGuinn’s harmonies with his own and referring to producer Gary Usher’s mix as “mush”.
#6 – Hickory Wind
from Sweetheart of the Rodeo, 1968
Americana pioneer Gram Parsons was only in The Byrds for one album, but made an immediate impact with classic songs like ‘One Hundred Years From Now’ and ‘Hickory Wind’. Like Carole King’s ‘Goin’ Back’, which The Byrds covered on their previous record, ‘Hickory Wind’ is a nostalgic yearning for a simpler time. Parsons would revisit the song on his posthumous solo album, 1974’s Grievous Angel and it’s effectively his signature tune.
#5 – Draft Morning
from The Notorious Byrd Brothers, 1968
When David Crosby was fired from The Byrds during sessions for The Notorious Byrd Brothers, the band had already started work on the instrumental backing for ‘Draft Morning’. McGuinn and Hillman carried through with it, writing their own words to replace the Crosby lyrics they couldn’t remember and earning a co-writing credit. Crosby was justifiably upset, but the results are magnificent, a tale of Vietnam through the eyes of a young soldier, backed by gentle psychedelia.
#4 – She Don’t Care About Time
non-album b-side, 1965
The other Byrds resented Gene Clark’s prolific songwriting and ensuing royalties in their early days, and as a result the superlative ‘She Don’t Care About Time’ was pushed out to a b-side. It’s a Byrds classic nonetheless. Clark’s lyrics are accomplished with lines like “Her eyes are dark and deep with love, her hair hangs long and fine”, while McGuinn’s solo, a straight lift from Bach’s ‘Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring’ gives the song an extra dimension.
#3 – Turn! Turn! Turn!
from Turn! Turn! Turn!, 1965
The Byrds’ second number one single holds the record for the US chart topper with the oldest lyrics. Folkie Pete Seeger adapted the words from the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes, traditionally attributed to King Solomon in the 10th century BC. Seeger’s adaptation added “I hope it’s not too late”, after “A time for peace”, making it an effective anti-war song. Seeger approved of The Byrds’ version – the way that Crosby and McGuinn’s guitars both emphasise the quick Bm and A chord changes at the end of the guitar riff is a great hook.
#2 – Mr. Tambourine Man
from Mr. Tambourine Man, 1965
McGuinn, Clark, and Crosby met as folk artists playing solo in coffeehouses. Realising their voices blended well, they formed the Jet Set. Producer Jim Dickson obtained an acetate of an unreleased Dylan song, ‘Mr Tambourine Man’. The band weren’t enamoured with the song, but converted it to 4/4 and gave it a rock arrangement. The Byrds had only recently formed when ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ was recorded, so McGuinn was the only Byrd to play an instrument on the single. The band coalesced in time to record the rest of the album, but the single had already initiated a folk-rock boom.
#1 – Eight Miles High
from Fifth Dimension, 1966
Gene Clark left The Byrds in March 1966, the same month that ‘Eight Miles High’ was released as a single. Clark recalled writing down some initial song ideas about talking with The Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones. Crosby claimed credit for the line “Rain grey town, known for its sound”, while the John Coltrane and Ravi Shankar tapes he played on the tour bus inspired McGuinn’s psychedelic leads. ‘Eight Miles High’ credited as the first psychedelic single, and debate has raged whether it’s about flying, drugs, or both. It’s been covered by many artists, including Hüsker Dü and Roxy Music.
Are you a fan of The Byrds? What are your favourite songs?