The Byrds

  • Folk/Psychedelic/Country rock band from Los Angeles California, formed in 1964. The original members were Roger McGuinn (frontman, lead guitar, banjo, synthesizer, vocals, songwriting), Gene Clark (rhythm guitar, harmonica, tambourine, vocals, songwriting), David Crosby (rhythm guitar, vocals, songwriting), Michael Clarke (drums, songwriting) and Chris Hillman (bass guitar, rhythm guitar, mandolin, vocals, songwriting).
  • McGuinn, Clark and Crosby all were folk singers who worked in coffee houses in the early 60s. McGuinn was approached by Clark at a performance in Los Angeles, and they decided to form a duo, playing Beatles covers, traditional folk songs, and some original works. Crosby saw them perform, and he began harmonizing with them. They liked the sound of their harmonies, and they formed a trio, calling themselves the Jet Set. They made some demo tapes, and continued to evolve their Beatles’ influenced folk sound, and then moving to more of a rock & roll sound. By mid-1964, Clarke was added for drums. They cut a single in October 1964 – Please Let Me Love You – which was released by a record label, but did not chart.
  • In August 1964, they were given a tape of Bob Dylan’s Mr. Tambourine Man, which at that time had not yet been released by Dylan. They began to rehearse it with more of a rock & roll tempo, which Dylan encouraged after he heard them play it. By October, they recruited Hillman to join the group, and in November, they signed a new recording contract, changing the name of the band to The Byrds. In January 1965, they recorded the song, but only McGuinn played an instrument on the record, as the rest of the band members were still trying to gel as a group. Session musicians were used for the other instruments, with McGuinn, Clark and Crosby handling the vocals. It was released as a single in April – its use of a jangling 12 string guitar along with harmony singing quickly became the template for the folk rock genre. It reached #1 on the Hot 100 and in the UK within 3 months of its release. Rolling Stone ranks it at #79 on its Greatest Songs of All Time list.
  • Their debut album, also titled Mr. Tambourine Man, was released in June 1964. It included originals, traditional folk songs, and several other Dylan songs, including All I Really Want To Do, which only hit #40 in the U.S., but reached #4 in the UK. The album is #233 on Rolling Stones Greatest Albums of All Time list. Late that same year, they released their second album, Turn! Turn! Turn! The title track was another smash hit, reaching #1 on the Hot 100 chart.
  • In 1966, their next album, Fifth Dimension, was released. It included the single Eight Miles High, considered by many to be the first psychedelic rock song ever recorded. It was banned by many radio stations – they thought that it was about the use of recreational drugs, but the band claimed that it was about an airplane flight. Despite the ban, it peaked at #24 in the U.S., and is #151 on the Rolling Stone GOAT list.
  • At this time, Clark left the band because of his fear of flying. Clark had written some of their best work. His departure contributed to the band losing its popularity with mainstream audiences, but they soon became the forefathers of the underground rock movement, influencing groups like Jefferson Airplane and Buffalo Springfield.
  • They continued to record, releasing 5 albums between 1967 and 1969. Younger Than Yesterday, The Notorious Byrd Brothers and Sweetheart of the Rodeo all make the Rolling Stone GOAT album list. Singles from these albums were not particularly popular – only So You Want to Be a Rock and Roll Star and My Back Pages managed to crack the top 40, and the albums themselves had modest sales. On these records, they experimented with psychedelic sound to an extreme, mixing folk, jazz, rock and country music, sometimes all in the same song. There were numerous changes to the personnel of the band during this time – most notably, Crosby was fired in 1967, and he famously moved on to Crosby, Stills, and Nash. Also of note, Gram Parsons was added to the lineup in 1968 – Parsons had a love of country music, and their music evolved to reflect this. Their 1968 album Sweetheart of the Rodeo is acknowledged to be the first country rock album ever by an established act – and it was the only album that Parsons participated as a member of The Byrds.
  • Three albums released in the early 70s were panned by critics. Their final album, 1973’s Byrds, was a reunion of the 5 original members. It sold a bit better than the previous records, but still it was not very good, and the members soon realized that it was the end. Reunion concerts occurred in 1989 – 1991 (including a performance during their induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1991), and again in a single concert in 2000.
  • Rolling Stone puts The Byrds at #45 on their list of the Greatest Artists of All Time. They were the only American band that The Beatles were friendly with. They were innovators, creators of several music genres, and they influenced numerous acts, including The Beatles and Dylan (Dylan didn’t use electrical instruments before he heard The Byrds play his songs). Watch the band perform Mr. Tambourine Man on the Ed Sullivan Show.

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