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Back in the 60s, something very interesting was happening not only with the music world but the world as a whole. At the center of this changing world was a rock revolution that would see the somewhat safe acts of the 50s be thrown to the wayside for what would be called the British Invasion.
During this time, we’d be introduced to The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and The Kinks. There was one rock band that managed to blossom from the USA that actually stood toe to toe with those titans of the industry for a small period of time. That band was the Byrds.
The Byrds have always been a mystery to me because every song I hear from them feels like a “what could have been” moment.
A band this talented shouldn’t have been just a flash in the pan but a sensation on the level of those aforementioned megastars. So what happened? Why was their reign so short, and what put the breaks on the whole thing?
We’re going to explore the beginnings of one of the most popular bands of the 60s who saw their popularity hit a massive level before tumbling back to earth. This is the story of the Byrds.
In the 60s, bands began popping up left and right, and suddenly, the American dream was to have a rock band and play shows for a living. This was partly due to TV shows idolizing bands and singers more than ever before, and it seemed like this was the time to strike when the iron was hot.
The Byrds began in 1964, right as the British Invasion was in full swing, and acts like Bob Dylan and The Beach Boys dominated the airwaves. The band was formulated as a trio of Jim McGuinn, Gene Clark, and David Crosby, but throughout the years, they would add multiple pieces and have tons of lineup changes.
This wasn’t some assembly of rookie musicians either, as each had been playing in other bands with varying amounts of popularity.
McGuinn had an especially unique background as he was a professional songwriter who was taught by Bobby Darin of Beyond the Sea fame. Needless to say, there was some serious talent at work here, and it didn’t take all that long for things to fall into place.
The Jet Set
The Byrds weren’t always The Byrds; in fact, they started as the band Jet Set, who would mostly do Beatles covers and play at local bars. Once David Crosby was introduced into the band, their harmonizing started to take on a life of its own, and that is the sound they are most known for to this day.
The band would add a drummer named Michael Clarke into the band, and suddenly, they had a full quartet ready to record. The first single they recorded was “Please Let Me Love You,” and it wasn’t exactly a huge success.
It tried to copy what the band’s idols, The Beatles, were doing, but it was clear the first single was just a lesser version of what it was imitating and had very little originality to it.
Many bands have failed to chart early on, and to me, this definitely seemed like a wake-up call to The Byrds that they couldn’t just be a copycat; they had to find their own sound if they were going to go anywhere.
The Byrds had been covering songs for quite some time in 1964, so when they managed to get a hold of an un-released Bob Dylan song called “Mr. Tambourine Man,” their manager figured they could do something interesting with the song. They were still Jet Set at the time and pretty much looking for anything to kickstart their careers.
Bob Dylan is one of the greatest songwriters of all time, and he’s made quite the reputation over the years from other bands copying his work.
Mr. Tambourine Man was the first of these cover songs, and as a show of good faith, the band actually played it for Bob Dylan, who was very much into the rendition and supported them doing the song. (Bob Dylan is just infinitely cool, and this is one of those situations that proves it.)
The band was still without a bassist, and that void would be filled by Chris Hillman. The addition added to the band’s sound and made it a more full-feeling band rather than just three guys harmonizing.
Shortly thereafter, they came to be known as The Byrds in a tribute to The Beatles, who also famously misspelled their name on purpose. It was the change they needed, as Mr. Tambourine Man would be their ticket to the big leagues.
Fame Comes Fast
It took a full year of honing their craft and figuring out what their persona as a band would be, but finally, in 1965, they would release Mr. Tambourine Man. It was a massive hit right off the bat and became one of the first folk rock hits in music history.
It reached number 1 on the Billboard charts and even hit number 1 on the UK Singles Chart due to the overwhelming similarity the song had to The Beatles at the time.
Although they didn’t write the song, what The Byrds did with Mr. Tambourine Man was truly transformative from a musical perspective. While Bob Dylan is a lyrical genius, his version would not have had the amazing harmonizing that The Byrds had, nor would he have had the full-on electric sound of the band at the time.
It might’ve been Dylan’s words and melody, but The Byrds transformed that song into something special, much like Joe Cocker did with The Beatles’ “A Little Help From My Friends.”
The Invention of Folk Rock
It’s always something to take note of when a band can create an entire genre, but that’s exactly what happened with The Byrds. The press couldn’t really figure out how to classify their music as it sounded different than something like The Beatles or The Kinks.
The album itself was called Mr. Tambourine Man, and it got as high as 6 on the charts. They had a bunch of other Bob Dylan covers on the album but also had a bunch of originals that would do quite well too.
The big criticism of The Byrds has always been that they were nothing more than a cover band and incapable of making hit songs themselves. That’s sort of what happened with the band, but not really the whole story. They had some great music in their bones besides cover songs, and “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better is a testament to that.
Unfortunately, The Byrds would again spin a Dylan song with “All I Really Want to Do.” They were not at all thrilled to keep on their path of covering songs — most musicians want to release their own material and get by on their own merit.
It was the management that kept pushing, and Columbia records insisted that they give another go at a Dylan song. They relented and recorded their version of it, but unfortunately, Cher also released a version of it at the exact same time.
The result was a battle on the charts, which Cher won handily, reaching number 15, while The Byrds only got to 40 in the US. The UK was kinder to The Byrds because they were sort of honorary members of The British Invasion, and the song made it to 4 there. The single wasn’t exactly a failure, just not the sensation that Mr. Tambourine was.
Living Up to The Beatles
That title alone should tell you the type of pressure that The Byrds was under. Believe it or not, they were touted as just that, and on the tour that supported their first album, they failed to live up to those expectations, with some sloppy performances and an overall lack of charisma.
The Byrds were never able to stir up a crowd like The Beatles or The Rolling Stones, and back in those days, your live presence was everything. The Byrds just really never had it.
The Beatles were actually big fans of The Byrds, voicing their support for the band on multiple occasions and even naming them their favorite American group. Some have even mentioned Beatles’ songs like “Nowhere Man” being heavily influenced by The Byrds.
When it came to a seal of approval, having The Beatles on your side was pretty much second to none. To be named The Beatles’ favorite American band?
I mean, that alone should’ve catapulted them to superstardom, but something just wasn’t there creatively with The Byrds. I think that they were too influenced by other bands to ever really have their own thing.
Turn Turn Turn
When it came time to release another single, they again tried to dip into the Bob Dylan well, but changed course at the last minute and covered Pete Seeger instead with “Turn! Turn! Turn!”
The result was another massive hit reaching number 1 on the US charts. It again cemented the group as one of the most popular acts in the world in 1965. Sure the song wasn’t an original one again, but the composition here was mesmerizing and to me, Turn, Turn, Turn is the most memorable of the songs that The Byrds came out with.
It was also released at the right time as the Vietnam War was reaching its boiling point and the song’s message spoke to peace and understanding, which was a popular sentiment in the country at the time, with anti-war protests forming across the country.
It particularly struck a chord with the college crowd, who made up much of the protests, so the timing was absolutely perfect for The Byrds.
The album would share the same name as the song, and while it would do well, it wasn’t exactly the mega-hit that the first album was. Still, though, on the strength of Turn, Turn, Turn, and other original songs on the album, The Byrds’ harmonizing became one of the most well-known sounds in all of rock.
Could the Success Continue?
The Byrds were doing well in the charts, but behind the scenes, there was tons of conflict. The manager Jim Dickson and the producer Terry Melcher had endless power struggles over what direction the band should take. It became pretty plain that the band itself wasn’t actually steering the ship.
Dickson thought his vision for The Byrds was the right one, and the band agreed and tried to get Melcher fired, but it didn’t work out how they wanted to. They removed Melcher, but Dickson failed to take the reigns, and Allen Stanton became the band’s new producer.
The Byrds just exemplify how difficult it is to really get your vision across as a band. From the get-go, they were pretty much just told what songs they had to sing and what their image should be. The lack of freedom in the band shined through on many occasions.
When thinking of The Byrds’ management situation, one song comes to mind — ABBA’s “I’m a Marionette.” The song details how little control you sometimes have over your creativity and output in the music industry, and it encapsulates just what The Byrds appeared to be going through.
The Haze Craze
Like many of the bands at the time, the mid to late 60s had a whole lot of psychedelic drugs involved, and The Byrds were not immune to this either. They started experimenting with the song “Eight Miles High,” which was their first foray into psychedelic rock. To me, this was their best music yet, and you know why?
It was original! In fact, did you know that this recording was officially the first psychedelic rock song ever? That’s right, so actually, plenty of bands stole from The Byrds as well.
Even though the band was approaching new horizons, all wasn’t well with the members themselves. Unfortunately, due to Gene Clark’s fear of flying, he could no longer be part of the band’s rigorous touring schedule.
This was a massive loss for the band because Clarke had been the band’s primary songwriter. He was not the driving force behind the psychedelic rock direction, though, and after his departure, the band continued on that path by releasing the album titled Fifth Dimension.
However, Clarke was a huge part of the band’s multi-voice harmonies, so he needed to be replaced. Hillman stepped up to fill that void. The album wasn’t a huge hit, only getting to 24 on the Billboard charts.
If you ask me, they were just a little bit early on the psychedelic rock front. It was only 1966, and that wave of music was still a few years away.
Creatively Adventurous, Commercial Failure
The Byrds would try to go in yet another direction with their fourth album, this time pursuing a country and western vibe along with their new psychedelic sound. The result is a truly bizarre album with some great songs, but overall it was a weaker effort and completely different than the style that brought them here.
Part of the reason it didn’t do outstandingly on the charts is that The Byrds built their audience on the backs of a teenage music craze. The teens weren’t into their pro-drug message for the most part, but plenty of college kids started listening and respecting the direction that the band was going in.
Greatest Hits Come Early
The band would release a greatest hits album in 1967, which temporarily reignited the interest in the band that had been disappearing for some time. The result was impressive, with the album going all the way to number 6 on the Billboard charts.
The new interest in the band would be followed by the band firing Jim Dickson, who had been their manager since the get-go.
Following this movie, they pretty much managed and produced themselves, finally taking over the control that the band had been longing for quite some time now. With full control of the direction of the band, The Byrds released The Notorious Byrd Brothers in 1967.
The album would again try and soar to new and experimental musical heights than ever before. Now, along with folk, psychedelic, and country music, The Byrds occasionally jumped into jazz music as well, really pushing the envelope as far as the rock and roll genre was concerned.
The music they produced with this album is almost unrecognizable from their earlier efforts. However, the harmonies here are still present, they go off in some very different directions, and it wasn’t exactly something that the fans were into.
Around this time, one of the band leaders, David Crosby, would start to get a bit ticked off that the band was constantly covering other artists. I mean, can you blame him?
This band was dubbed America’s answer to The Beatles, so don’t you think they should be able to open a few tunes of their own? Well, McGuinn and Hillman sure didn’t agree because they fired Crosby shortly after.
The Breaks Start to Show
Crosby was gone, but he didn’t take it too hard, and soon, he had Crosby, Stills & Nash in full swing — another iconic rock band. So where did that leave The Byrds? They were without one of their driving forces, and despite a short reunion with Gene Clarke, soon, it was just McGuinn and Hillman.
They basically had to rebuild The Byrds from the ground up, and the new members of the band would be Kevin Kelley, who was Hillman’s cousin, and the most important addition, Gram Parsons.
I’m going to pinpoint this as the death of The Byrds. Gram Parsons was a country music lover, and soon he used that agenda to shift the entire direction of the band’s music. Gone were the radio-friendly pop songs and psychedelic rock that had given the band such highs, and instead, a country vibe is what became of the once legendary rock band.
The Byrds were now a country rock band, and guess what? They weren’t even a good one. Country rock fans didn’t like their country songs, and previous Byrds fans sure as hell didn’t like their country songs.
To make things even worse, Gram Parsons was a power-hungry monster and tried to get the band name changed to Gram Parsons and The Byrds.
McGuinn and Hillman were losing control fast. The album, Sweetheart of the Rodeo just didn’t click and wasn’t much of a success at all. None of the hits were there, and the album only made it to 77 on the US charts. Despite that, the album has been looked back at fondly as a turning point for country music and country rock specifically.
Parsons is Out
Although his tenure was short, Gram Parsons certainly left a mark on The Byrds. With him gone and Hillman now gone as well, McGuinn was the last original member remaining and pretty much on his own. Believe it or not, Hillman quit the band to join Parsons in a new band, so it seemed The Byrds were all but dead in the water.
McGuinn had to scramble to resurrect the once beloved band and got John York to play bass along with Gene Parsons and Clarence White to finish the recordings of their new album. The album was called Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde, and yes, it is the dumbest named album that I think I’ve ever heard.
It would be one thing if the album was genius, but instead, it was an absolute mess. You had the echoes of Gram Parsons’ country rock influence on there with more psychedelic rock songs from the last real iteration of The Byrds, and honestly?
It’s atrocious. The public agreed, and it only got to 153 on the Billboard charts, marking it as the worst album they had put out to date. The UK still supported them, though, and the album hit 15 there, so it wasn’t a total flop.
Rebuilding a Dead Band
After the album was released, the band got to work on their next effort, called the Ballad of Easy Rider. The idea with this album was to get back to the band’s roots and figure out what made it so special in the first place.
Unfortunately, another departure would happen when the band fired John York and was replaced by Skip Battin in the process.
The album was released and kind of got The Byrds back in the public eye, hitting 36 on the charts in the US. Part of the reason was the skill of the musicians this time around.
While nobody will knock the musical talents of the original iteration of the band, their in-concert performance left a lot to be desired, as I detailed earlier. This iteration, though? They were sharp as hell, putting on great shows and touring relentlessly in support of their albums.
With that talent in place, and their live shows creating quite a stir in the music world at the time, they decided to release a live album. Not only was the album a success, it restored confidence in the band as a whole. The charts were decently kind to it as well; it hit 11 in the UK and 40 in the US.
Byrdmaniax Marks the Last Dance
The Byrds were again flying high following their live album, and you would think that they’d get right back in the studio and release an album that was full of the old style they made their name in the first place, but instead, they went the complete opposite direction.
Byrdmaniax was released in 1971 and was easily the worst album the band had ever made. The controversy here was in part due to Terry Melcher using an orchestra over the instruments in most of the songs.
Terry claimed the band wasn’t playing well at all in the studios and had to cover up their mishaps themselves, but whatever the reason was, the music was awful. It resembled a shell of what the band used to be, and despite doing decently in the US, the UK didn’t bother to even chart it.
The album was so bad that the band themselves actually redid the whole thing without Melcher’s involvement, but by then, the damage had been done.
The band would release the greatest hits, volume II album, but The Byrds just weren’t cool anymore. They released one more album, called Farther along, in 1971, just 5 months after the disaster of Byrdmaniax, and despite it being a much stronger return to form for the band, it was pretty much the last gasp for the group.
The Resurrected Byrds
That iteration of The Byrds was done following tensions and fighting in the band, as well as the tragic death of Clarence White, who was killed by a drunk driver. McGuinn, being the only member of the band left from the old days, started planning a reunion and actually succeeded.
The band would gain back its original 5 members and record an album simply titled Byrds. The album got as high as 20 on the charts in the USA, and it made it clear that this was the iteration of the band the public wanted.
Despite the success, the band was not happy, with David Crosby still harboring ill will towards McGuinn for replacing everyone in the band. He personally asked David Geffen, who produced the record, to disband The Byrds after the album, and that’s just what happened.
The Byrds reunion has to be one of the shortest-lived reunions I’ve ever seen. It wasn’t even a bad one, but it was reported that none of the members wanted to use songs they had because they wanted to keep them for solo projects or other bands they’d been working on.
The End of It
Following the album Byrds, the band broke up, and the group went their separate ways. Each member would try to carve out a solo career, and David Crosby would return to Crosby, Stills & Nash. Throughout the 70s, there would be different triads of the band forming, including the most notable one of McGuinn, Clark, and Hillman.
Still, the reality was that The Byrds were done, and the band was once given the responsibility of being America’s answer to The Beatles was a distant memory.
The Call of The Hall Reunites the Flock
As it has been on many occasions, The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame got the original five members back together for their induction in 1991. Despite their differences over the years, it seemed that most of the bad blood was behind them at this point. They came together to perform some of their biggest hits, including Turn, Turn, Turn.
The temporary reunion was a success but short-lived. They disbanded again after the ceremony, and following it, Clarke died from liver disease.
The Final Show
There would be one act for the group in 2000 when Crosby, Hillman, and Mcguinn would have a surprise reunion on stage during a charity concert.
The three went on to perform their hits to a crowd that was absolutely clamoring for more, reportedly giving them multiple standing ovations at how good they all sounded after almost 40 years.
This wouldn’t be enough to get anything substantial going. Jim Mcguinn has maintained that he’s done with the band despite the rest of the surviving members all showing heavy interest at times throughout the past 20 years. McGuinn and Hillman paired up to do a tour in 2018, but it was billed as a duo and not an actual reunion of The Byrds.
This would be the last the band was heard from, as all surviving members have been busy with solo projects or retired from music completely at this point.
The Byrds are one of the most important bands of the 1960s. They specifically influenced much of American pop music and have even been cited as influencing The Beatles, which is pretty much the biggest accomplishment any band can claim. The Byrds are also responsible for creating folk rock as well as country rock.
Today, you can still hear songs like Mr. Tambourine Man and Turn, Turn, Turn, in TV shows, movies, and radio. While they aren’t mentioned in the same breath as The Beatles or The Rolling Stones, at one point in time, they stood right alongside them as one of the biggest bands in the world.
It’s probably easier to say what musical styles The Byrds didn’t have as they are one of the most varied sounding groups you’ll ever find. Their early albums were folk rock, with a touch of The Beatles in there, but as they grew as a band, they shifted to psychedelic rock, jazz, and eventually country rock in their final iteration.
They are known for influencing generations of musicians of all kinds, and their harmonizing vocals, in particular, have influenced alternative music and pop as well.
Answer: Unfortunately, no, the last official performance of The Byrds was in 1991, and since then, there have only been glimpses of the original lineup together.
Answer: While they sounded a lot like bands from England at the time, The Byrds was made up of American musicians.
Answer: Although they existed around the same time, they are completely different bands. The Yardbirds was made up of Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, and Jimmy Page as the leaders of the group.
They might never get the credit they truly deserve, but The Byrds are easily one of the most important rock bands to ever exist and deserve to be known as such. I hope you learned a little bit about their musical journey.