Bridging the gap between the socially and spiritually conscious folk music of Bob Dylan and the complex pop of The Beatles, The Byrds are considered one of the most important and influential bands of the 1960s. Throughout their career, they helped forge such subgenres as folk rock, space rock, raga rock, psychedelic rock, jangle pop, and – on their 1968 classic Sweetheart of the Rodeo – country rock. After several line-up changes (with lead singer/guitarist Roger McGuinn as the only consistent member), they broke up in 1973.
Some of their trademark songs include pop covers of Bob Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man" and Pete Seeger’s "Turn, Turn, Turn," and the originals "I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better," and "Eight Miles High."
They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and several band members have launched successful solo careers after leaving the group.
The Byrds were founded in Los Angeles, California in 1964 by singers and guitarists Jim McGuinn (born James McGuinn III, July 13, 1942 in Chicago, Illinois) (he later changed his name to Roger McGuinn), Gene Clark (born Harold Eugene Clark, Nov.17, 1944 in Tipton, Missouri; died May 24, 1991), and David Crosby (born David Van Cortland Crosby, Aug. 14, 1941, in Los Angeles). Bassist Chris Hillman (born Dec. 4, 1944 in Los Angeles) and drummer Michael Clarke (born Michael Dick, June 3, 1946, in NYC; died Dec. 19, 1993) joined soon thereafter.
McGuinn had been in a series of folk outfits including the Limeliters and the Chad Mitchell Trio before working in NYC in 1962-3 as a songwriter for Bobby Darin. He'd journeyed to L.A. in late 1963 and began gigging at clubs such as the Troubadour but, after hearing The Beatles for the first time, he determined to take "Lennon and Dylan and mix them together".
Gene Clark, who'd been in The New Christy Minstrels, briefly joined McGuinn in a duo playing at The Folk Den, before Crosby, who'd performed with Les Baxter's Balladeers, persuaded them to let him join. The newly-formed trio recorded a song, "The Only Girl I Adore", soon after naming themselves The Jet Set. As such they cut a couple of numbers, "You Movin' " and "The Only Girl", and then hired Michael Clarke, who had the right look for the part, to join on drums. Bluegrass mandolin virtuoso Hillman, who'd played with the Scotsville Squirrel Barkers, the Golden State Boys, and the Hillmen, completed the quintet.
Elektra Records recorded some demos with the band and released a single, "Please Let Me Love You", under the name The Beefeaters. Years later these demos were released as Preflyte and even made the lower reaches of the album charts.
In November, 1964, the band signed to Columbia Records and a few days later renamed themselves The Byrds. On January 20, 1965 they recorded "Mr Tambourine Man", a Bob Dylan song they gave the electric treatment to, and at a single stroke created Folk-Rock. McGuinn's guitar-sound (played on a 12-string Rickenbacker) with its jangling melodicism, was immediately influential and has remained so to the present day. In June, the song reached # 1 on the US charts and a month later repeated the feat in the UK. At the same time, their debut album, Mr Tambourine Man, was released and virtually provided the template for the entire folk-rock movement.
They achieved fame in 1965 as the first American rock group to challenge The Beatles, interpreting (and making hits out of) Bob Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man" and "Turn, Turn, Turn", with lyrics taken directly from the book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible and adapted by folk singer Pete Seeger. McGuinn's 12-string guitar work, heard to great advantage on these two singles, became the group's signature. Their first two albums benefited from a bright-sounding production by Terry Melcher, also known for his work on Paul Revere and the Raiders albums. They also performed their own compositions, and, in Gene Clark, possessed a major songwriter; his songs include "The World Turns All Around Her", "I'll Feel a Whole Lot Better" and "Set You Free This Time."
By the end of 1965, however, the band were moving away from the simple folk-rock they'd pioneered into more abstruse territory. On Dec.22, 1965 they recorded "Eight Miles High", possibly the first fully-blown psychedelic recording (although contemporaneous efforts by The Yardbirds were in a similar vein). The song was widely regarded as a "drug" song, although the band deny this, and its relatively modest success when a re-recording was released as a single (it hit US # 14) has been attributed to the resulting airplay bans on some radio-stations. Gene Clark, who had provided the melody and the majority of the song's lyrics, left the band in March 1966, partly due to a fear of flying, but also, because he wanted to go solo. Signed by Columbia, he formed The Gene Clark Group.
The band's third album, Fifth Dimension (5D), released in July 1966, wasn't as overtly psychedelic as might have been expected from its name, but it provided further evidence that The Byrds weren't content to churn out endless reruns of "Mr Tambourine Man". Although, slightly diminished by the inclusion of several substandard and atypical tracks, the majority of "5D" consisted of adventurous and memoreable music, thus making it a landmark work.
Irritated by the overnight success of The Monkees, they then recorded a satirical dig at the music business, "So You Want To Be A Rock 'n' Roll Star" and this had modest success as a single, also kicking off their fourth album, Younger Than Yesterday. Widely regarded as their best album, it contains some of their loveliest songs, including the Crosby piece "Everybody's Been Burned", Dylan's "My Back Pages" and a quartet of Chris Hillman classics ("Have You Seen Her Face", "Time Between", "Thoughts And Words, "The Girl With No Name"). Only Crosby's indulgent "Mind Gardens" provided a jarring element and McGuinn, especially, resented its inclusion.
In June 1967, Crosby accompanied rival band, The Buffalo Springfield, on stage at the Monterey Pop Festival and proceeded to utter pro-drug statements, to the annoyance of the other Byrds. In October, during the recording of their fifth album, Crosby refused to participate in taping a Goffin-King number, "Goin' Back", in preference to his more controversial "Triad". McGuinn and Hillman proceeded to fire Crosby who received a substantial cash settlement. Gene Clark briefly rejoined the band but left, after a mere three weeks, after refusing to board an aircraft, while on tour. Michael Clarke also quit, during these sessions, mainly due to disputes with Crosby during the recording of "Dolphin Smiles". Studio drummer Jim Gordon was drafted in to complete his parts. The superb blue grass guitarist, Clarence White, contributed on several tracks and, later, became a permanent band member.
The resulting album, The Notorious Byrd Brothers, was released in Jan. 1968 and contains some of the band's most ethereal music. Over the years, it has gained in reputation, whilst the contentious incidents surrounding its making have largely been forgotten.
The Byrds were now a duo but quickly recruited Hillman's cousin, Kevin Kelley, as drummer and then, in a fateful decision for their future career-direction, hired Gram Parsons to play keyboards. With the aid of Hillman, Parsons persuaded McGuinn to take the Byrds into a territory they'd only sporadically covered before - Country-Rock.
The Byrds had virtually invented Folk-Rock three years earlier. Now, remarkably, they were involved in the genesis of yet another genre. On Feb. 15, 1968 they played at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, the first group of longhairs ever to do so, and immediately started recording their next album in a wholly Country style with Parsons choosing and singing many of the songs. However, on July 29, Parsons quit the band just before they flew to South Africa because he refused to play to segregated audiences. At the same time, Sweetheart Of The Rodeo was released, in their new country vein, but most of Parson's vocals were replaced by either McGuinn or Hillman because of legal problems with Parson's previous record company. The album was commercially unsuccessful but contains the yearning Parsons classic, "Hickory Wind", a couple of Dylan tunes from "The Basement Tapes", as well as songs from such unlikely sources as The Louvin Brothers ("The Christian Life"). It's often cited (somewhat dubiously) as the first Country-Rock Album but is certainly the first by a "name" band.
Hillman left in October to join Parsons in The Flying Burrito Brothers. Kelley also quit at this time and McGuinn was left on his own. He hired virtuoso guitarist Clarence White and White himself recommended Gene Parsons to play drums and John York to join on bass. The resulting quartet recorded another Country-Rock album, Dr Byrds And Mr Hyde, and released it in Feb. 1969.
In October 1969 came Ballad of Easy Rider. "Jesus Is Just Alright" from that album was issued as a single, and, in a similar arrangement, became a hit for The Doobie Brothers four years later. The group also recorded an excellent version of Jackson Browne's "Mae Jean Goes to Hollywood" during the Easy Rider sessions, but it remained unreleased for some twenty years. The title track, written by McGuinn and Dylan for the movie Easy Rider, was one of their most affecting performances. In a sign of continuing turmoil within the group, York left in September 1969, replaced by Skip Battin. Clark, Clarke, Crosby, and Hillman all briefly rejoined in late 1972 to cut the anti-climactic reunion album Byrds before the group was officially dissolved by McGuinn in 1973.
Tragically, Clarence White was killed, by a motor vehicle, while he was loading equipment, after a gig in Palmsdale, California. Soon afterwards, Gram Parsons died, as a result of a heroin overdose in the Joshua Tree Motel, California.
Subsequently, there were disputes over which members owned the rights to the "Byrds" name in the late 1980s. Clarke and Clark toured under The Byrds' name at that time, and from 1989 through most of 1993 Clarke toured occasionally as "The Byrds Featuring Michael Clarke" with former Byrd Skip Battin along with newcomers Terry Jones Rogers and Jerry Sorn. To soldify their claim to the name and prevent any non-original members from using the name, McGuinn, Hillman, and Crosby staged a series of Byrds' reunion concerts in 1989 and 1990 including a famous performance at a Roy Orbison tribute concert where they were joined by Bob Dylan for "Mr. Tambourine Man." These shows led to McGuinn, Hillman, and Crosby recording four new studio tracks for the boxed set The Byrds in 1990. During that year a legal action against Clarke and his booking agent failed, the judge ruling that Clarke's group had toured successfully. Eventually a settlement was reached preventing any entity not including McGuinn, Hillman and Crosby from using the name "Byrds".
The band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991. Gene Clark died later that year, and, two years later, Michael Clarke succumbed to liver disease brought on by alchoholism.
Though both Hillman and Crosby have expressed an interest in working with McGuinn again on future Byrds projects, McGuinn is currently committed to his folk music. (Courtesy of Wikipedia)
There was a great article in the May 1997 issue of Guitar Player entitled "Chimes of Freedom" by Joe Deloro.
To learn more about this innovative guitar band that also helped popularize the 12-string Rickenbacker guitar, click on the resources below.