In 1964, Jim (later Roger) McGuinn, David Crosby and Gene Clark began playing folk music in coffee houses around Los Angeles, calling themselves The Jet Set.
They eventually got a rhythm section – drummer Michael Clarke and bassist Chris Hillman – and changed their name to The Byrds (after a brief spell as The Beefeaters) – the spelling an homage to The Beatles.
The Byrds’ place in rock history was assured from the release of their first single, the majestic Mr Tambourine Man, which in its two minutes and 16 seconds offered the first authoritative American riposte to the British Invasion.
The only Byrd to play on the band’s first hit was Roger McGuinn, whose chiming 12-string Rickenbacker guitar became folk rock’s defining sound. Everything else came from LA session players, including drummer Hal Blaine and bassist Larry Knechtel of Phil Spector’s Wrecking Crew.
But the rest of the Byrds soon caught up, and as the song was breaking, a curious Bob Dylan checked out the band at Ciro’s, a Los Angeles club. Reportedly, he didn’t recognise some of his own songs in their electrified versions.
No matter that The Byrds were falling over themselves to ape British fashions – with Chris Hillman flattening his curls in pursuit of a Beatles/Brian Jones hairdo – their first hits effortlessly achieved the difficult trick of satisfying the teen audience and suggesting that here was a band with its own artistic agenda.
The early Byrds set out to provide the missing link between Bob Dylan and The Beatles and succeeded with a sound that was all their own. They also got some canny management who secured them a recording deal with CBS and, as their first single, suggested a cover of Bob Dylan‘s Mr Tambourine Man.
The marriage of Dylan’s lyrics to The Byrds’ hypnotic, chiming swirl of 12-string guitar and voices was a breakthrough in rock. It opened the door for a new wave of American bands such as Buffalo Springfield, Jefferson Airplane, The Doors, Love and Jimi Hendrix, and had an immediate impact on the work of The Beatles (Rubber Soul, Revolver) and Dylan himself.
The Byrds’ debut album, also titled Mr Tambourine Man (1965), was every bit as good as the single. Featuring a few more Dylan covers (Spanish Harlem Incident, All I Really Want To Do, Chimes Of Freedom) and some stunning Gene Clark originals (Feel A Whole Lot Better, I Knew I’d Want You), the set was unlike any other group’s but was accessible and instantly appealing.
The critics called their sound ‘folk rock‘ and the label stuck. The fact that none of the original members came from a rock background was crucial to creating that sound. The roots of The Byrds lie in folk, country, bluegrass, blues – even jazz.
The single and album were huge hits and, in Los Angeles, the group began a residency at Ciro’s nightclub on Sunset Strip, a glamorous Hollywood hangout in the 1940s which had recently been reopened. On stage, they affected a studied West Coast cool. With their backs to the audience, they would start by tuning up, an almost endless process.
McGuinn wore funny little granny sunglasses and a strange, crooked smile. Crosby had an enormous green suede cloak. Clark, standing in the middle with a tambourine, looked dark, brooding but nervous.
Meanwhile, in the audience, there were all sorts of strange-looking young people. Lots of new drugs and words like ‘psychedelic’ were floating about, and The Byrds’ music was the perfect soundtrack. The California hippie era had begun.
The title track of their second album, Turn Turn Turn (1966) – an inspired reworking of Pete Seeger‘s biblical folk tune – was their second #1 single. There were two more Dylan songs (Lay Down Your Weary Tune and The Times They Are A Changin’), two excellent McGuinn efforts (He Was A Friend Of Mine, It Won’t Be Wrong) and three new Gene Clark songs (Set You Free This Time, World Turns All Around Her and Wait And See).
Only a year after their debut The Byrds were being hyped as America’s answer to The Beatles. They had both teen appeal and musical credibility. In the next few years, they would record four of the best and most influential records of the decade, but losing most of their audience along the way and undergoing a bewildering series of line-up changes.
Gene Clark’s last major contribution were the lyrics for the band’s finest single, Eight Miles High. Even today this song sounds fresh and exciting, with its famous opening bass line, a guitar break inspired by John Coltrane, and Clark’s queasy lyric about the band’s first trip abroad to London. Radio stations banned it, claiming it was a drug song, but the single was #1 in a matter of weeks.
Clark left shortly after recording their third LP, Fifth Dimension (1966), an ambitious progression of The Byrds’ sound, chiefly because of McGuinn’s fascination with new studio technology.
While Hillman and Crosby were writing most of the songs for the next LP, Younger Than Yesterday (1967), McGuinn was tightening his grip on The Byrds’ sound.
The new album had room for everything from Hugh Masekela’s trumpet to droning sitar-like riffs, a brew that may have been too rich for The Byrds’ rapidly shrinking teen audience but was perfectly in tune with a new underground following who regarded hit singles with disdain but were coming to regard albums as major artistic statements.
Crosby and Clarke left the band midway through sessions for the next LP, The Notorious Byrd Brothers (1968). Crosby had been spending most of his time hanging out with new groups like Buffalo Springfield and Jefferson Airplane and was beginning to adopt some of the revolutionary rhetoric of the time.
None of this went down well with the reserved McGuinn, and the two quickly fell out. On the cover of The Notorious Byrd Brothers, Crosby’s place in the group photo was taken by a horse. Six months later he was one-third of Crosby, Stills and Nash.
Despite these upheavals, the album still held together remarkably well. The blend of pedal steel guitar, brass horn sections and Moog synthesizer was worked seamlessly into a diverse collection of songs including Carole King‘s Goin’ Back and Wasn’t Born To Follow. It wasn’t a big seller but the studio-enhanced sound effects were irresistible to the hemp and headphones crowd.
His band now reduced to just two members, McGuinn perversely hit on the ambitious plan of recording a double album encompassing the entire history of American popular music. It was also around this time that McGuinn changed his name from Jim to Roger in keeping with the teachings of an Eastern religion he was taken with.
The album concept was abandoned after the band drafted in the brilliant singer and songwriter Gram Parsons for their next LP, Sweetheart Of The Rodeo (1968) an album of straight country music. The mixture of Dylan covers, original songs and traditional ballads was a marvellous corrective to the excesses of the psychedelic era, but the record was a shock to their fans.
Although they had used elements of country music previously, they had never approached it in such a purist way.
Parsons lasted only five months as a Byrd, quitting on the eve of an ill-advised tour of South Africa. The band were assured they would be playing before an integrated audience but wound up with whites-only gigs.
Their anti-apartheid comments met a hostile reaction in the country’s press and The Byrds found themselves getting booed at the concerts. Hillman, disgusted with the tour and finding the band’s financial situation in chaos, angrily quit. He and Parsons went on to form The Flying Burrito Brothers.
McGuinn, now the only original member left, recruited, amongst others, the dazzling guitarist Clarence White, and carried on leading The Byrds for the next four years. Although they managed to establish themselves as a credible live act, the albums from here on were patchy.
There were a few more hit singles – notably the near gospel Jesus Is Just Alright (1969) and the lovely Chestnut Mare from Untitled (1970) – but after their last album for CBS, Farther Along (1972), disappeared soon after release, McGuinn brought The Byrds down for landing.
However, there would be one more album. Unable to resist a lucrative offer from Asylum Records, the five original members reunited in 1973 to record The Byrds. It was a bizarre effort and the reviews were scathing. A planned tour was abandoned, and all went their separate ways again.
Gene Clark followed an erratic solo career path but the undisputed high point was 1974’s classic No Other, with a mix of lyrical songs, choral beauty, country rock and rich instrumentation featuring the cream of LA’s session musicians.
Clarence White died in July 1973 after being struck by a car following a nightclub performance in Palmdale, California. He never regained consciousness. The driver of the car was arrested on suspicion of drunk driving and manslaughter.
Gene Clark passed away on 24 May 1991 following a heart attack – He was 46. Michael Clarke died in December 1993.
David Crosby died on 19 January 2023, aged 81, after a long illness.