The Byrds - a mix of one part Bob Dylan, one part Beatles, and the rest uniquely all Byrds - took the beats and catchy rhythms of the Beatles and melded them with message-filled political folk music to launch a new, innovative sound that was labeled "folk-rock". Although not solely responsible for creating the folk-rock genre, the Byrds were certainly more influential than any other single act for successfully blending the modern sound of the British Invasion with America's contemporary folk and pop music.
The Byrds had an insatiable curiosity about what form and direction pop music could take and led the pack with their originality. As innovaters, they became peers and equals with their mentors, and in turn, they influenced the music of Dylan and the Beatles as well. The peak years of 1965-1967 spawned a creative frenzy during which the Byrds broke the Top Forty seven times. They consistently pushed the rock envelope into new subgenres -- folk rock, psychedelic rock, and country rock. The Byrds sound was so unique that it was virtually impossible to mimic.
The original members of the Byrds consisted of Jim (later Roger) McGuinn, Gene Clark, David Crosby, Chris Hillman and Michael Clarke. Although the quintet ultimately changed the sound of rock and roll during their all too brief collaboration, amazingly, not a single original member of the band had a background in rock - rather, they emerged from the folk music circuit, bluegrass roots, and the L.A. coffeehouse scene.
James Joseph McGuinn III was born in Chicago, Illinois. Later in his career, McGuinn changed his name at the urging of an Indonesian guru who believed that a name starting with the letter "R" would better "resonate with the universe." Thanks to McGuinn's fascination with aviation he sent the guru names like "Rocket," "Retro," "Ramjet," and "Roger." Since Roger was the only "real" name submitted, that was the one selected. Although McGuinn used the name Roger professionally from that time on, he officially changed only his middle name from Joseph to Roger. Despite the name change, George Harrison always called him "Jim."
McGuinn mastered the five-string banjo and learned guitar while attending Chicago's Old Town School of Folk Music. He initially performed with folk groups like the Limeliters, the Chad Mitchell Trio, Judy Collins and also played guitar and sang backup harmonies for Bobby Darin. McGuinn became enamored with the Beatles and moved to L.A.
Gene Clark was born in Missouri and learned the guitar beginning at age nine. While performing with several folk groups in Kansas City, Clark was discovered and hired by the New Christy Minstrels. After hearing the Beatles, Clark quit the Christys, and also moved to L.A.
McGuinn was playing Beatles songs acoustically in L.A. folk clubs when Clark, approached him to form an act. Soon after, they were joined by Crosby, an L.A. native, whose unique high harmonies added a magical element to the trio's sound. Since McGuinn and Crosby were aviation buffs, they decided to call the new trio The Jet Set. With McGuinn and Crosby on guitar and Clark accompanying on tambourine, all three shared vocal duties. They recorded a demo song, "The Only Girl I Adore", which although primitive, showed great promise.
The trio next recorded a single for Elektra, (Please Let Me Love You / Don't Be Long) with the help of session musicians Earl Palmer on drums and Ray Pohlman on bass, released under the name "The Beefeaters" (chosen by Elektra president Jac Holzman because it sounded British).
By the time the single was released they had enlisted bluegrass mandolinist Hillman (who had previously performed with the Scottsville Squirrel Barkers) to play electric bass. Despite the fact that he had never picked up the instrument before, Hillman's bluegrass background enabled him to quickly develop his own unique, melodic performance style. Drummer Michael Clarke, the final member to be chosen, wasn't an accomplished musician yet and didn't even know how to play the drums. However, he looked like a combination of two of the members of the Rolling Stones and in this case it was "the look" that mattered more than his percussion skills. Without a drum kit, Clarke reportedly learned to play on a set of cardboard boxes with a tambourine taped to the top. (As a side note, "the look" really did matter - when the Byrds met the Beatles while on tour in England, John Lennon immediately took notice of McGuinn's signature rectangular "granny glasses." Soon thereafter, Lennon began sporting his own round version of the specs.)
During Thanksgiving dinner 1964, the band finally settled on the name "Byrds". At this point, according to McGuinn, the Byrds' first major challenge was to get together and really learn how to play rock 'n' roll as a group; the second was to get a stroke of luck, which came in the form of jazz legend Miles Davis. Upon hearing the Byrds, Davis got them a contract with Columbia Records, based on the contingency that they record a successful single. The Byrds' second break came in a roundabout way from Bob Dylan. There was a song that Dylan had planned to use on his next record, but later dropped it due to someone singing out of tune on the track. The song was too folksy, played in 2/4 time, had four verses, and was about five minutes long. The song was "Mr. Tambourine Man."
It certainly didn't sound like a Beatles song and Crosby didn't like it at all. He said, "Radio will never play a song like that!" The group agreed; however, McGuinn had an idea for a new arrangement. He added a Bach-like intro on his Rickenbacker 12-string guitar and changed the time signature to 4/4 time like a Beatles' song. McGuinn also suggested that they cut down the length of the song to one verse. They picked the verse with "Boot heels wandering" because it reminded them of "Beat poet," Jack Kerouac. The plan worked: the debut single release of "Mr. Tambourine Man" quickly flew to # 1 on the U.S. charts.
Since the band had not yet completely gelled by January '65, McGuinn was the only Byrd selected to play along with the seasoned studio musicians on "Mr. Tambourine Man" and its B-side, "I Knew I'd Want You." However, by the start of the album sessions, the Byrds were up to the challenge and the group played on all the remaining tracks.
While tracking the Byrds' first single, "Mr. Tambourine Man," McGuinn developed his Rickenbacker guitar's signature "jingle-jangle" sound. "The 'Rick' by itself is kind of thuddy," said McGuinn. "It doesn't ring. But if you add a compressor, you get that long sustain." McGuinn also translated some of his banjo picking techniques learned at the Old Town School to his 12-string style. He noted that "by combining a flat pick with metal finger picks on my middle and ring fingers, I discovered I could instantly switch from fast single-note runs to banjo rolls and get the best of both worlds."
"I'll never forget hearing "Mr. Tambourine Man" for the first time on the radio," said fellow musician Tom Petty to Rolling Stone in 2004, "McGuinn told me he took that guitar sound from A Hard Day's Night, but McGuinn was a banjo player, and he played the Rickenbacker in this rolling, fingerpicking style - no one had really tried it before." The Byrds were one of the few American groups that the Beatles were friendly with and had a dialogue with. George Harrison admitted that "If I Needed Someone" was his take on the Byrds' "The Bells of Rhymney."
The group's follow-up single was another interpretation of a Dylan song, "All I Really Want To Do". However, when Cher simultaneously released her own version of the song and achieved greater commercial success than the Byrds, the group made a change in the plans for their next release and quickly recorded a Pete Seeger adaptation of a traditional melody. The song became the group's second U.S. #1 single, and headlined their second album (also titled Turn! Turn! Turn!).
This album included all the harmonious vocals and McGuinn's distinctive guitar sound from the Byrds' debut album. In addition, Gene Clark was becoming a gifted, accomplished songwriter -- his highly regarded songs from this period include "The World Turns All Around Her", "She Don't Care About Time", "I'll Feel A Whole Lot Better" and "Set You Free This Time".
The Byrds' next hit single, "Eight Miles High," explored a psychedelic sound and when released, flew to #14 on the U.S. charts despite (or because of) being banned from most radio stations due to alleged drug references. Actually, "eight miles high" is the flying altitude reserved for military aircraft. Rather than a drug reference, the lyrics were referring to the flight to England for a concert tour. It was during this recording session for "Eight Miles High" that McGuinn experimented with and developed his second innovative style of electric guitar playing -- an interpretation of John Coltrane's free jazz saxophone style with a hint of the droning sound of a sitar thrown in. "Eight Miles High" is considered by many to be the original quintet's peak as a band.
Before recording 1966's innovative album "Fifth Dimension", The Byrds suffered a major loss with the departure of Clark, their primary songwriter. Clark left the band, largely because his fear of flying made touring a routine terror, but also due to the stress and pressures developing between the band members. Unlike the Beatles, who had a history of friendship and sticking up for each other, the Byrds never had time to become friends - it was always "each Byrd for himself." When Clark had a panic attack on a plane in L.A. bound for New York, he had to get off. McGuinn told him, "You can't be a Byrd, Gene, if you can't fly."
This now placed all the group's songwriting responsibilities in the hands of Crosby and McGuinn. The two were both team members and competitors. However, the group managed to continue on by following the same Byrds formula. Hillman now had an opportunity to come into his own, and he composed his first song, "Time Between" on "Younger Than Yesterday." He even replaced Clark in the harmony department. Hillman said, "On '5D' I'm singing double lead with Roger. It almost sounds like Gene never left."
Unfortunately, friction had been brewing between Crosby and the other Byrds. Things finally came to a head in 1967 when disagreements caused Crosby to frequently skip sessions.
During "The Notorious Byrd Brothers" recording sessions, the group suddenly became a duo. Crosby was gravitating towards his friendship with Stephen Stills, and was dismissed from the Byrds in October 1967 by McGuinn, who felt that there was no room in the Byrds for divided loyalties. Clarke quit shortly thereafter, leaving almost nothing left of the Byrds. Hillman wryly referred to "The Notorious Bird Brothers" as "the best record ever made by a band in the middle of breaking up." But he and McGuinn again persevered. Hillman said, "When Gene left, we moved on. Even without David and Michael, at that point Roger and I had been doing it so long we didn't think continuing was a problem." But of course, it was.
At this point, the Byrds recruited Hillman's cousin, Kevin Kelley as drummer, but quickly realized that the trio arrangement wasn't going to work. In 1968, Gram Parsons signed on and helped create the groundbreaking Byrds album "Sweetheart of the Rodeo," to which many attribute the rise in popularity of country rock. Ultimately, Parsons left to hang out with the Rolling Stones, Kelly quit soon after. Following the release of "Sweetheart," Hillman also left and joined up with Parsons to form the country-rock band The Flying Burrito Brothers. (Unfortunately, after achieving success, Parsons fatally overdosed at age 26.) Before Hillman left, he recommended to McGuinn to bring guitarist Clarence White into the Byrds. White brought along drummer Gene Parsons.
In 1969, McGuinn's solo version of the "Ballad Of Easy Rider" appeared in the "Easy Rider" film of the same name, while a full band version was the title track for the album released later that year.
After several more personnel changes, including John York and Skip Battin, and disappointing studio album releases, the group disbanded in 1973, with Chris Hillman playing bass with the band for their final show in February of that year.
In January of 1991, the Byrds set aside their differences long enough to appear together at their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, where the original lineup of McGuinn, Clark, Crosby, Hillman and Clarke played a few songs together. Gene Clark died shortly thereafter on May 24, 1991, and Michael Clarke died on December 19, 1993.
With seven Top Forty singles released in two years and eleven classic studio albums produced for Columbia, no band - except, of course, the Beatles - achieved so much in so brief a time as did the Byrds. Despite the disappointments, arguments, desertions and the amazing ability to reinvent themselves, the Byrds remained one of America's most exciting and important bands long after they stopped being the biggest.
In recognition of the Byrds achieving #45 on Rolling Stone's list of "The Immortals - The Greatest Artists of All Time," Tom Petty had this to say: "They're part of what drew me to Los Angeles and made me want to be in a band. I got to see the Byrds once at the West Palm Beach pop festival on the same bill with the Rolling Stones. In the beginning, that was the original blueprint for the Heartbreakers -- we wanted to be a mix of the Byrds and the Stones. We figured, "What could be cooler than that?"