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The Byrds

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The Byrds

The Byrds, 1965
Background information
OriginLos Angeles, California, United States
GenresFolk rock, Psychedelic rock, Country rock, Pop
Years active1964–1973; 1989-1990
LabelsColumbia
Websitewww.byrds.com
Former members
Roger McGuinn
Gene Clark
David Crosby
Chris Hillman
Michael Clarke
Kevin Kelley
Gram Parsons
Clarence White
Gene Parsons
John York
Skip Battin
John Guerin

The Byrds were an American rock band. Formed in Los Angeles, California in 1964, The Byrds underwent several personnel changes, with frontman Roger McGuinn remaining the sole consistent member until the group disbanded in 1973.

Their trademark songs include covers of Bob Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man" and "My Back Pages", Pete Seeger’s "Turn! Turn! Turn!" and Carole King's "Goin' Back", as well as the originals "I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better", "Eight Miles High", "So You Want to Be a Rock 'n' Roll Star".

The Byrds were popular and influential during the mid-1960s and into the early 1970s. Initially, the band played folk rock, melding influences such as the British Invasion sound, contemporary folk and pop music. Later they expanded their sound into such sub-genres as space rock, psychedelic rock and, on their 1968 album Sweetheart of the Rodeo, country rock.

During 1991 they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In 2004 Rolling Stone Magazine ranked them #45 on their list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.[1]

Contents

History

Folk rock

Inspired by the success of The Beatles, Roger McGuinn (initially named Jim McGuinn) had been playing Beatles songs acoustically in Los Angeles folk clubs when Gene Clark approached him to form a duo.[2] Soon after, David Crosby joined them to form a group named The Jet Set, a name chosen by McGuinn and inspired by his love of aeronautics.[3] The Jet Set soon expanded their ranks to include drummer Michael Clarke and mandolin-player-turned-bassist Chris Hillman. The band released a single on Elektra Records in October, 1964 ("Please Let Me Love You" b/w "Don't Be Long") under the name The Beefeaters.[3] In November 1964, through connections that Jim Dickson (the band's manager) had, the group auditioned for and signed to Columbia Records, renaming themselves The Byrds a few days later.

On January 20, 1965, The Byrds recorded "Mr. Tambourine Man", a then-unreleased Bob Dylan song that the band gave a full, electric rock band treatment, effectively creating the musical subgenre of folk rock. McGuinn's jangling, melodic guitar playing (played on a 12-string Rickenbacker guitar, heavily compressed to produce an extremely bright and sustained tone)[3] was immediately influential and has remained so to the present day. The group's complex harmony work became the other major characteristic of their sound (McGuinn and Clark alternating between unison singing and harmony, with Crosby providing the high harmony).

Since the band had not completely gelled musically by January 1965, McGuinn was the only Byrd to play on "Mr. Tambourine Man" and its B-side, "I Knew I'd Want You".[3] Rather than using band members, producer Terry Melcher hired The Wrecking Crew, a collection of top session men including Hal Blaine, Larry Knechtel and Leon Russell, who (with McGuinn on guitar) provided the backing track over which McGuinn, Crosby and Clark sang vocals. By the time the sessions for their debut album started in March 1965, Melcher was satisfied that the rest of the band was competent enough to record their own musical backing.[2]

Mr. Tambourine Man was released in June 1965, after a long delay, and this debut single reached #1 on the U.S. charts and repeated the feat in the U.K. shortly thereafter. At the same time, The Byrds' debut album Mr. Tambourine Man was released, reaching #6 in the U.S. and #7 in the U.K. The album mixed reworkings of folk songs (most notably Pete Seeger's musical version of the Idris Davies' ballad, "The Bells Of Rhymney") with several more Dylan covers as well as the band's own compositions, mainly written by Gene Clark.

The group's next single was another interpretation of a Dylan song, "All I Really Want To Do". Unfortunately for The Byrds, Cher simultaneously released her own version of the song to greater commercial success. Even though they had recorded Dylan's "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" as their prospective third single (it was played on the California radio station KFWB), The Byrds instead quickly recorded "Turn! Turn! Turn! (to Everything There is a Season)", a Pete Seeger adaptation of a traditional melody, with some lyrics taken directly from the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes. The song became the group's second U.S. #1 single,[2] headlining their second album (titled Turn! Turn! Turn!).

As with their debut, this album was characterized by harmony vocals and McGuinn's distinctive guitar sound, both highlighted by Terry Melcher's bright-sounding production. This time they featured more of their own compositions and now had a major songwriter in Gene Clark; his songs from this period, including "I'll Feel a Whole Lot Better", "The World Turns All Around Her", "She Don't Care About Time", and "Set You Free This Time", are widely regarded as amongst the best of the folk-rock genre.

Psychedelia

By the end of 1965 the band had tired of the pure folk-rock sound and began to experiment. On December 22, 1965 they recorded "Eight Miles High", generally considered the first full-blown psychedelic recording (although other contemporaneous groups and artists, notably The Yardbirds and Donovan, were adopting similar styles). It was widely regarded as a "drug" song (despite its lyrics actually describing an airplane flight and a concert tour of England), and its relatively modest success (US #14, UK #24) has been attributed to the resulting broadcasting bans by some radio stations (though the unfamiliar and slightly uncommercial sound of the track is another possible factor). While the groundbreaking lead guitar work was actually an attempt by McGuinn to replicate the free jazz saxophone style of John Coltrane, the record was often referred to as "raga rock". (In fact, it was the single's B-side "Why" which drew more directly on Indian raga influences.)

Gene Clark left the band in March 1966, partly due to a fear of flying which made it impossible for him to keep up with the band's itinerary. Clark had witnessed a fatal airplane crash as a youth, had a panic attack on a plane in Los Angeles bound for New York and refused to board. McGuinn told him, "You can't be a Byrd, Gene, if you can't fly."[4] Clark was subsequently signed by Columbia as a solo artist and went on to produce a critically acclaimed but commercially unsuccessful body of work.

The Byrds' third album, Fifth Dimension, released in July 1966, built on the new sound the band had created, with McGuinn extending his exploration of jazz and raga styles on tracks such as "I See You" and Crosby's "What's Happening?!?!". The campaign in U.S. radio to clamp down on "drug songs" affected several of the tracks, including "Eight Miles High" and "5D (Fifth Dimension)", and limited the album's commercial success (#24 US).

Allegedly irritated by the overnight success of manufactured groups such as The Monkees, the group next recorded the satirical and slightly bitter dig at the music business, "So You Want to Be a Rock 'n' Roll Star", which again broke new ground musically and featured a trumpet part played by the South African musician Hugh Masekela. The song, now regarded as a rock classic, was written by McGuinn and Hillman and achieved modest success as a single, as well as being the opening track on their fourth album, Younger Than Yesterday. The LP was more varied than its predecessor and has been widely praised for tracks such as Crosby's haunting ballad "Everybody's Been Burned", a cover of Dylan's "My Back Pages" (later released as a single), and a quartet of Chris Hillman numbers which showed the bassist emerging fully formed as an accomplished country-oriented songwriter ("Have You Seen Her Face", "Time Between", "Thoughts And Words", "The Girl With No Name").

Lineup changes

By 1967 there was increasing tension between the band members, with McGuinn and Hillman becoming irritated by what they saw as Crosby's overbearing egotism and his attempts to control the band.[3] On June 17 of that year, when The Byrds performed at the Monterey Pop Festival, Crosby sang the majority of lead vocals, and to the intense annoyance of the other members gave lengthy speeches between songs on subjects including the JFK assassination and the benefits of giving LSD to "all the statesmen and politicians in the world."[5] He further irritated the band by performing with rival band Buffalo Springfield, filling in for ex-member Neil Young. His reputation within the band deteriorated even more following the commercial failure of his first A-side song, "Lady Friend", released in July (US #82).

The tensions within the band finally erupted and in August 1967, during sessions for The Byrds' fifth album The Notorious Byrd Brothers. An in-studio argument between Crosby and Clarke resulted in Clarke angrily quitting the band. Session drummers Jim Gordon and Hal Blaine were brought in to replace him temporarily. Then, in September, Crosby refused to participate in taping the Goffin-King number "Goin' Back", considering the song to be inferior to his own "Triad", a controversial song about a ménage à trois. The songs were in direct competition for a place on the album. Crosby strongly felt the band should rely on original material for their albums, rather than covering other artists and writers.

When tensions reached the breaking point, during October 1967, McGuinn and Hillman drove to Crosby's home and dismissed him from the band, stating that they would be better off without him.[3][6] Crosby subsequently received a cash settlement, with which he bought a sailboat and soon after began working with Stephen Stills and Graham Nash, forming the extremely successful supergroup Crosby, Stills & Nash.

Gene Clark briefly rejoined The Byrds as Crosby's substitute, but left three weeks later after again refusing to board an aircraft while on tour. There is some disagreement among experts as to whether or not Clark actually participated in the recording sessions for the upcoming album. Michael Clarke also returned to the band briefly towards the end of the album sessions, before once again being told that he was an ex-Byrd by McGuinn and Hillman.[3]

On the final album, Crosby and Clarke both played on several tracks each. The bluegrass guitarist and future Byrd Clarence White, who had also played on Younger Than Yesterday, contributed significantly on the tracks "Wasn't Born to Follow" (later included on the Easy Rider soundtrack) and "Change is Now."

The resulting album, The Notorious Byrd Brothers, was released in January 1968, and despite its troubled genesis, contains some of the band's gentlest, most ethereal music. The record mixed folk rock, country, psychedelia and jazz influences (often within a single song), and attempted to deal with many contemporary themes including peace, ecology, freedom, drug use, alienation and mankind's place in the universe. Over the years The Notorious Byrd Brothers has grown in reputation, while the contentious incidents surrounding its making have largely been forgotten.

Now reduced to a duo, McGuinn and Hillman hired new band members, quickly recruiting Hillman's cousin Kevin Kelley as drummer and the band went out on tour in support of The Notorious Byrd Brothers as a trio. After realizing that the trio arrangement wasn't going to work, McGuinn and Hillman, in a fateful decision for their future career direction, hired Gram Parsons, originally to play keyboards (he later moved to guitar). Hillman was an excellent mandolin player, who before joining The Byrds, had played in several notable bluegrass bands. Soon he and Parsons persuaded McGuinn to change direction again and explore country and country-rock music, genres in which The Byrds had previously only dabbled, mainly on Chris Hillman's tunes.

Country rock

Having already begun recording sessions for their next album at Columbia's Nashville studios, The Byrds played at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, on March 15, 1968.[7] The band was the first group of hippie "longhairs" ever to play at the venerable country music institution, a fact that caused controversy among the Nashville establishment at the time. The Byrds had all had their hair cut shorter than they normally wore it specifically for their appearance at the Grand Ole Opry but this did not appease their detractors.[7] Following this troubled concert appearance, the band continued to record their next album, their first in an entirely country style, with Parsons choosing and singing many of the songs. On July 8, however, just prior to a series of concerts in South Africa, Parsons quit the Byrds on the grounds that he did not want to perform in the racially segregated country.[7]

Although unsuccessful commercially (US #77), Sweetheart of the Rodeo is widely considered the first country-rock album by a major rock band, pre-dating Dylan's Nashville Skyline by over six months. As for the first country-rock album overall, that distinction is often reserved for Parsons's own Safe at Home, recorded with his group the International Submarine Band. Safe At Home was released in early 1968 by Lee Hazlewood's LHI Records, whose contract with Parsons created legal complications for Columbia Records and for Parsons himself.[3] Parsons would relinquish the International Submarine Band name and future royalties. Meanwhile The Byrds would replace or bury three of Parsons lead vocals on Sweetheart of the Rodeo: "You Don't Miss Your Water," "The Christian Life," and "One Hundred Years from Now." Of these vocals, Hillman would tell Richard Williams of Melody Maker that the group "discovered that [Parsons] was under contract to another label, from his old group the International Submarine Band, so we had to recut them...." Album producer Gary Usher, however, would insist that the alterations arose out of creative concerns, not legal ones. To his biographer Stephen J. McParland, Usher stated "I don't remember anybody from Columbia's legal department sending me a memo to the effect, 'Hey, take Gram's vocals off'. Yes, there were legal problems that had to be worked out, and they were worked out. Whoever sang lead on the album was there because that's how we wanted the sound."[8]

After Parsons' departure, McGuinn and Hillman hired guitarist Clarence White, who had played on a few tracks of every Byrds album since 1967's Younger Than Yesterday. The new lineup had only been together for a very short time when White persuaded McGuinn and Hillman to replace Kevin Kelley with Gene Parsons (no relation to Gram Parsons), who had played with White in Nashville West, another pioneering country-rock band. This new lineup played two shows together[9] in October before Hillman quit to join Gram Parsons in creating the Flying Burrito Brothers. McGuinn, now the only original Byrd left, hired bassist John York (who had been working in the Sir Douglas Quintet) to replace Hillman, and the resulting quartet recorded the Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde album and released it in February 1969 to poor U.S. sales and moderate U.K. success.

In July 1969 The Byrds were the headliner of the Schaefer Music Festival in New York City's Central Park, along with Miles Davis, Chuck Berry, Fleetwood Mac, Led Zeppelin, B.B. King, The Beach Boys, Frank Zappa and Patti LaBelle. They appeared at the festival again in 1970 and 1971.

During October 1969 the band released the Ballad Of Easy Rider album. The single taken from the album was "Jesus Is Just Alright", which in a similar arrangement became a hit record for The Doobie Brothers four years later. During those recording sessions the group also recorded a version of Jackson Browne's "Mae Jean Goes to Hollywood", but it remained unreleased for some twenty years. The album's title track was composed by McGuinn (expanding on a verse couplet written by Bob Dylan) as the musical theme for the 1969 hippie movie Easy Rider, and both album and single sold well due to the movie's success. By the time the album was released, John York had left the band because his girlfriend objected to his going out on the road.[9] He was replaced by bassist Skip Battin, who had enjoyed some chart success during 1959 as half of the duo Skip & Flip.

In 1970 The Byrds released the double album (Untitled), which charted well in the U.K. and acceptably in the U.S. (Untitled) featured one disc of live recordings from early 1970 gigs at Queens College and the Felt Forum in New York,[10] and one of studio performances, including "Chestnut Mare", "All The Things" and "Just a Season". Notably, the live disc included a 16-minute version of "Eight Miles High", which comprised the whole of one side of the original LP release.

On June 23, 1971 the band released Byrdmaniax, which was a commercial and critical disappointment, largely due to inappropriate orchestration which was added by producer Terry Melcher to many tracks on the album without the band's approval. On May 13, 1971 the Byrds appeared at London's Royal Albert Hall, to critical acclaim. The full concert, including a number of encores, was issued in 2008 for the first time.

In November 1971 came the release of The Byrds' eleventh studio album, Farther Along. The title track of that album, sung by Clarence White with the rest of the group harmonizing, would became a prophetic epitaph for both White and Gram Parsons. In July 1973, White was killed by a motor vehicle while he was loading equipment after a gig in Palmdale, California. Soon afterwards, Gram Parsons died as a result of an overdose of morphine and alcohol, in the Joshua Tree Motel, also in California.

McGuinn toured with the Byrds through 1972, with L.A. session drummer John Guerin replacing Gene Parsons. Two official Byrds recordings exist with this lineup: live versions of "Mr. Tambourine Man" and "Roll Over Beethoven", recorded for the soundtrack to the movie Banjoman. The final recording sessions involving all four of the latter-day Columbia Byrds were for Skip Battin's 1972 album, Skip; Guerin was on drums. McGuinn appeared on only one track, "Captain Video" - evidently Battin's tribute to his erstwhile employer.

Skip Battin and John Guerin either quit or were dismissed after the February 10, 1973 show in Ithaca, New York, and were replaced by Chris Hillman and Joe Lala, respectively, for The Byrds' final two shows on February 23 (Burlington, Vermont) and 24 (Passaic, New Jersey).

Reunions (1972–1990)

The five original Byrds all reunited briefly during late 1972 (while McGuinn was still on tour with the CBS version of the Byrds) to record a reunion album entitled Byrds. The album was released in March 1973, less than a month after the Columbia version of the Byrds played their final show. The album garnered mixed reviews, and a planned tour with the original five Byrds to support it never materialized.

During the late 1970s McGuinn, Clark and Hillman worked on and off as a trio (modelled on CSNY and, to a lesser extent, The Eagles), touring and recording two albums, and scoring a top 40 hit ("Don't You Write Her Off") in 1978. Some of the earlier and later live shows were advertised by unscrupulous promoters as Byrds reunions. By 1979 Clark had departed, leaving the two others to record an album as McGuinn-Hillman.

During the late 1980s there were disputes over which members owned the rights to the "Byrds" name. Clarke and Clark toured separately under The Byrds name at that time, and from 1989 through most of 1993 Michael Clarke toured occasionally as "The Byrds Featuring Michael Clarke" with former Byrd Skip Battin and newcomers Terry Jones Rogers and Jerry Sorn. To solidify their claim to the name and prevent any non-original members from using it, 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 resulted in 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, a judge ruling that Clarke's group had toured under the Byrds' name legally. Eventually, a settlement was reached, preventing any entity not including McGuinn, Hillman and Crosby from using the name "Byrds".

The Byrds were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991. The original lineup of Gene Clark, Michael Clarke, David Crosby, Chris Hillman and Roger McGuinn was honored at this induction. Gene Clark died later that year, and two years later Michael Clarke succumbed to liver disease caused by alcoholism.

Though both Hillman and Crosby have expressed an interest in working with McGuinn again on future Byrds projects, no such reunion has occurred and all three have successful individual careers.

Members

Original members

  • Roger McGuinn – guitar, banjo, vocals (1964–1973, 1989–1990)
  • Gene Clark – guitar, harmonica, tambourine, vocals (1964–1966, 1967, 1972–1973)
  • David Crosby – guitar, bass, vocals (1964–1967, 1972–1973, 1989–1990)
  • Chris Hillman – bass, guitar, mandolin, vocals (1964–1968, 1972–1973, 1989–1990)
  • Michael Clarke – drums (1964–1967, 1972–1973)

Subsequent members

  • Kevin Kelley - drums (1968)
  • Gram Parsons – guitar, piano, organ, vocals (1968)
  • Clarence White - guitar, mandolin, vocals (1968–1973)
  • John York – bass, vocals (1968–1969)
  • Gene Parsons – drums, vocals (1968–1972)
  • Skip Battin – bass, vocals (1969–1973)
  • John Guerin – drums (1972–1973)

Discography

References

  1. ^ "The Immortals: The First Fifty". Rolling Stone Issue 946. Rolling Stone. http://www.rollingstone.com/news/story/5939214/the_immortals_the_first_fifty. 
  2. ^ a b c www.allmusic.com Biography of The Byrds
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h Rogan, Johnny (1998). The Byrds: Timeless Flight Revisited. Rogan House. ISBN 0-95295-401-X
  4. ^ Einarson, John (2005). Mr. Tambourine Man: The Life and Legacy of The Byrds' Gene Clark. Backbeat Books. ISBN 0-87930-793-5
  5. ^ Selvin, Joel. (1992). Monterey Pop. Chronicle Books. p. 54. ISBN 0-8118-0153-5. 
  6. ^ http://www.snopes.com/music/hidden/horse.asp
  7. ^ a b c Fricke, David. (2003). Sweatheart of the Rodeo: Legacy Edition (2003 CD liner notes). 
  8. ^ Hjort, Christopher. (2008). So You Want To Be A Rock 'n' Roll Star: The Byrds Day-By-Day (1965-1973). 
  9. ^ a b PRX » Pieces » The Byrds (part 2): Farther Along
  10. ^ Fricke, David (2000). (Untitled)/(Unissued) (2000 CD liner notes)
  • Fong-Torres, Ben (1998). "The Byrds". In The Encyclopedia of Country Music. Paul Kinsgbury, Editor. New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 71–2.

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