The Byrds started as a folk band, but their single ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ crystallised their distinctive sound, with Roger McGuinn’s ringing twelve string guitar and the group’s gorgeous harmonies. The combination of an ornate yet organic sound, coupled with Dylan’s intricate lyrics, proved highly influential and launched the genre of folk rock.
The Byrds had a huge talent pool at their disposal. Frontman Roger McGuinn (he changed his name from Jim while exploring Subud mysticism) had a distinctive 12-string guitar sound and a pretty voice. Gene Clark was the most prolific songwriter in The Byrds’ early career – although he left during the recording of their third album, he went on to have an artistically satisfying solo career. David Crosby had a great ear for harmony, and went on to achieve fame with Crosby, Stills, and Nash. Chris Hillman was an accomplished musician, converting to bass after growing up as a bluegrass player; he was a dark horse as a writer and vocalist on the group’s strongest albums, and he went on to play a supporting role on significant albums like The Flying Burrito Brothers’ Gilded Palace of Sin and Stephen Stills’ Manassas.
All four vocalists in the original band wrote songs, and the group having so many talented voices made group dynamics tense – right from the start, Clark and Crosby were vying for who got the rhythm guitar and who got the tambourine. Along with the record company’s demand for quick material – the group released their first six albums in little over three years – their career arguably wasn’t as sparkling as it could have been. But there are plenty of terrific songs on their albums – ‘Eight Miles High’, ‘Mr Tambourine Man’, and ‘Turn! Turn! Turn!’ are classic 1960s singles, and there are many gems to be found.
My favourite Byrds’ albums are 1967’s Younger Than Yesterday and 1968’s The Notorious Byrd Brothers, where they explore different sonic textures, and Crosby, Hillman, and McGuinn are all contributing great songs. Crosby was fired during the recording of The Notorious Byrd Brothers, and his replacement Gram Parsons led the group into country music. After 1968’s Sweetheart of the Rodeo, Hillman and Parsons both left the band, and this page’s coverage stops – after this McGuinn was the only original Byrd remaining. McGuinn carried The Byrds name on until 1973, when the original five reunited for a one-off self-titled album, before the band broke up. I’ve heard it, and like it, but it reflects the members’ solo careers more than it does the band’s original sound.
The Byrds Album Reviews
Favourite Album: The Notorious Byrd Brothers
Mr. Tambourine Man
The Byrds’ debut showcases the harmony vocals of Roger McGuinn, David Crosby, and Gene Clark, and McGuinn’s chiming 12 string Rickenbacker. The title track is a landmark for rock music – its innovation of combining Dylan’s poetic lyrics with lush harmonies and sparkling guitars was a landmark for rock music. Only McGuinn was permitted to play his instrument on the title track and its b-side ‘I Knew I’d Want You’, as the group had only recently acquired their rhythm section, but the group’s harmonies are still featured, and the rest of the band join him for the remaining tracks.
Although the title track is the standout, the band tackle three other Dylan songs, and their take on ‘All I Really Want to Do’ is a marked improvement on Dylan’s rough version. They also had a strong in-house writer in Gene Clark, who contributes four strong songs, notably the excellent ‘I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better’.
Mr. Tambourine Man has plenty of excellent songs, but it’s an album that’s less than the sum of its parts; the group use the same mid-tempo folk rock sound for the entire album, and it’s too uniform for the record to shine.
Turn! Turn! Turn!
Turn! Turn! Turn! is essentially a repeat of the formula of Mr. Tambourine Man, harmonised electric folk music. It’s obviously not as fresh the second time around, but there are still plenty of strong songs. The most notable is the title track, where The Byrds give Pete Seeger’s ‘Turn! Turn! Turn!’, based on the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes, the full Byrds treatment, with luscious harmonies and chiming guitar.
Again, there are more strong songs from Gene Clark – ‘The World Turns All Around Her’ particularly – while one of his best Byrds songs is relegated to a bonus track – ‘She Don’t Care About Time’, with McGuinn playing a solo that’s a straight lift from Bach. But there are more weak points that their debut; the cover of Dylan’s ‘The Times They Are A-Changin” feels redundant, and their version of American folk song ‘Oh! Susannah’ is gimmicky.
There’s plenty to like on Turn! Turn! Turn! if you enjoyed The Byrds’ debut album, but it feels like a slightly paler copy.
Due to a fear of flying and group in-fighting, Gene Clark left The Byrds before Fifth Dimension was released. Without Clark, and a decision to avoid Dylan covers, the group are looking elsewhere for material – along with four covers from other sources, most of the songs are written by McGuinn and Crosby. Song for song, Fifth Dimension is weaker than The Byrds’ first two albums, but it’s much more diverse, and the bad songs help the strong ones stand out.
The centre piece is the psychedelic ‘Eight Miles High’, where McGuinn plays John Coltrane inspired leads on his twelve string guitar. ‘I See You’ mines similar material with its psychedelic guitars, while Crosby’s ‘What’s Happening’ sets off a blues beat against McGuinn’s guitar. Three of the covers are among the best material – The Byrds sound beautiful on British folk songs ‘Wild Mountain Thyme’ and ‘John Riley’, and the strings only sweeten their sound, while ‘I Come and Stand at Every Door’ is haunting.
There are a couple of obvious filler tracks on Fifth Dimension, particularly an awkward cover of ‘Hey Joe’, but the increased diversity makes Fifth Dimension their more enjoyable album yet.
Younger Than Yesterday
The Byrds’ bassist Chris Hillman steps into the limelight on Younger Than Yesterday, writing and singing lead on his four compositions. The group continue with the psychedelic sounds of Fifth Dimension, but it’s a more mature and consistent effort.
David Crosby considered the Dylan covers of ‘My Back Pages’ an artistic regression, but it’s terrific, and it’s one of their strongest cuts. The satirical ‘So You Want To Be A Rock ‘N’ Roll Star’ is the lead single, featuring Hugh Masekela’s trumpet. Of Hillman’s songs, the psychedelic ‘Thoughts and Words’ is the standout, while Crosby contributes the torch song ‘Everybody’s Been Burned’ and the impressionist ‘Renaissance Fair’. More problematically, Crosby also insisted on including his composition ‘Mind Gardens’, featuring theatrically pretentious lyrics delivered pompously over a droning backdrop; it’s a jarring low point on an otherwise terrific album.
The remastered version of Younger Than Yesterday also contains some important bonus tracks; Crosby’s non-album single ‘Lady Friend’ and pretty ‘It Happens Each Day’ are both worthwhile.
The Notorious Byrd Brothers
The Notorious Byrd Brothers follows a similar template to Younger Than Yesterday, with the band’s writers, Hillman, McGuinn, and Crosby, contributing most of the material. The album, however, was recorded at a time of turmoil for The Byrds; drummer Michael Clarke left during the recording sessions, while the outspoken David Crosby was fired after trying to lead The Byrds in a more radicalised direction, particularly debates over his controversial ‘Triad’. The Notorious Byrd Brothers is particularly impressive in terms of texture – it was the first rock album to use a Moog synthesizer, while there are also elements of country, horn sections, and other disparate elements mixed into The Byrds’ template, resulting in a shimmering album of baroque pop.
Two of the strongest songs on the album come from Carole King and Gerry Goffin, with the gentle ‘Goin’ Back’ and ‘Wasn’t Born To Follow’, showing the group’s skill as song interpreters. Crosby contributed the excellent ‘Draft Morning’, while his ‘Tribal Gathering’ is a unique amalgam of fifties vocal group harmonies and a gently psychedelic arrangement. McGuinn’s pretty ‘Get To You’ is one of his best songs for the group, and Hillman’s ‘Natural Harmony’ is also noteworthy.
The Notorious Byrd Brothers relies on its wonderful production and inventive arrangements, but it rates as The Byrds’ best album for me.
The 1997 reissue appends an amazingly fun studio fight between Clarke, Crosby, and McGuinn that’s almost worth the price of admission alone.
Sweetheart of the Rodeo
Sweetheart of the Rodeo was originally intended as a grand overview of 20th Century American music. But new recruit Gram Parsons, bought in to replace David Crosby, steered the group into country music. While country had been present in their sound, particularly Hillman’s songs, Sweetheart of the Rodeo is disarmingly straightforward country music; ‘Christian Life’ is delivered entirely sincerely. It also bypasses the signature Byrds sound – the chiming Rickenbacker and the vocal harmonies are largely absent, although the record company’s insistence to wipe some of Parsons’ lead vocals and replace them with McGuinn’s gives it more of a Byrds’ feel.
It’s a very consistent record; there are only two originals, both from Parsons – the soulful ‘Hickory Wind’ and the quicker ‘One Hundred Years from Now’. Elsewhere, there are a couple of Dylan songs, from his as-then unreleased Basement Tapes, and a bunch of country chestnuts from the likes of Woody Guthrie, The Louvin Brothers, and Merle Haggard.
Once you’re accustomed to a Byrds record that bears only a passing resemblance to their previous work, Sweetheart of the Rodeo is very enjoyable. Hillman and Parsons left The Byrds after this album, and started the Flying Burrito Brothers, whose 1969 album Gilded Palace of Sin is even better.
Cincinnati Babyhead Says:
A favorite album of CB’s . I followed Hillman/Parsons careers. Both made great music. I went back to this album after the discovering GP then the Burrito’s. Hillman is still making great music. I have two solos, ‘Desert Rose’, ‘Morning Sky’. Various Desert Rose Band albums. Any of his bluegrass albums with Rice, Rice, Hillman and Pedersen. He just makes music that hits a nerve with CB. Great playing with no BS involved. Totally out of the mainstream for years.
Ten Favourite Byrds Songs
Eight Miles High
Mr Tambourine Man
Turn! Turn! Turn!
She Don’t Care About Time
Thoughts and Words
My Back Pages
I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better