In the decade that spanned The Byrds’ existence, the band found themselves protagonists of folk-rock, psychedelic-rock, jazz-rock and - after discovering and drafting in Gram Parsons - country rock.
The original five piece - Roger McGuinn (singer/guitarist), David Crosby (singer/guitarist), Gene Clark (singer), Chris Hillman (bass) and Michael Clarke (drums) - found fame as jingly-jangly interpreters of Dylan cast-offs, mixing his lyrics with the guitar pop of The Beatles.
Through the Swinging Sixties they dominated the American charts, offering classic singles ‘Mr Tambourine Man’, ‘Turn, Turn, Turn’ and ‘Eight Miles High’ into the public’s consciousness forever.
But as Gene Clark flew the nest, followed by David Crosby (to join up with Stills and Nash) and various line-up changes, their star gradually lost its shine and by 1973, with only McGuinn as the sole original member, The Byrds called it a day.
It’s now 15 years since The Byrds were inducted into the US Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, and in that time the deaths of Clark and Clarke prevent any proper reunion, but their enduring appeal has continued unabated, with a 5-disc (four CDs and one DVD) set, ‘There Is A Season’, now released in recognition of their achievements.
Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman were both on hand to empty the Byrd box of memories…
Is it true that the core of The Byrds - Gene, Roger, David - came together in the course of one night?
Roger: Well, no it was over a week or so I think. Gene Clark approached me at the Troubadour to write some songs with him, and we were writing songs, then it was within a day or so that David Crosby came in. Gene and I were singing one of the songs we’d written and David started this uninvited harmony; he started singing harmony and it sounded great! Then he mentioned that he knew somebody who had a recording studio that we could use free. So that was the kicker. That was what got him in the band!
Chris, how did you come to join The Byrds?
Chris: I was asked to join the band to play the bass, having worked with Jim Dickson who was our manager and our producer along with Terry Melcher. He had worked with me in a bluegrass band - I was a mandolin player - and thought of me when they needed a bass player, because David Crosby was originally the bass player and didn’t want to be the bass player, so they asked me, and that’s how it happened.
The early Byrds material was heavily indebted to The Beatles. How would you describe their impact on your life?
Roger: It was the big turning point for me. I was working for Bobby Darin in the Brill Building as a songwriter in New York when The Beatles came out. My job was to listen to the radio and emulate the songs that were on the radio. I started messing around with those sounds and I started mixing up the folk songs with The Beatles at that point; that was probably late ’63.
So how did it feel later when The Beatles called The Byrds their favourite American group?
Roger: It was such an amazing feeling. It made me feel great, especially when your favourite band in the world tells the world that you’re their favourite band, that’s just an incredible thing.
Gene Clark, the band’s dominant songwriter, opted to leave the band in 1966. How did you think the band would cope with his absence?
Chris: I thought that we would survive okay, but Gene was such a strong presence on stage and as a songwriter, but unfortunately if someone is having emotional problems - or whatever problems he was having at the time - it certainly isn’t gonna help the band move forward. At the time, I tried to talk him out of leaving but he was pretty insistent upon it; he wasn’t comfortable. We did manage, I think, to go on and make some pretty darn good records after he left.
Do you think that Gene is now finally getting the recognition he deserves for being the prime force in the early Byrds?
Chris: Well it is starting to happen now. They put so much emphasis on Gram Parsons, but really Gram’s lyrical and songwriting output wasn’t anywhere near Gene’s. And the length of Gene’s career, even amidst all the chaos in his life and hardships that he’s endured by choice, Gene was still actively creating some wonderful songs right up until he died.
Your breakthrough hit was a cover of ‘Mr Tambourine Man’. How did your relationship with Bob Dylan begin and how did it continue?
Roger: Well, he was like an older brother to us. He is a year older than I am. He was already established as an artist when The Byrds were getting together, so he always took an older-brotherly approach to us. That’s the relationship it’s been all these years. He’s still like my big brother! (Laughs)
What were his reactions to your versions?
Roger: He liked it. He came with [Dylan’s notorious friend] Bobby Neuwirth to our rehearsal studio when we were playing a couple of his songs and one of them, after it was over, he said, “What was that?” And I said, “That was one of your songs.” He didn’t recognise it because we’d rearranged it so much. It was ‘All I Really Want To Do’ and we’d taken it out of a 3/4 time and put it into a Beatle beat, so it was totally different. He liked it. Bobby Neuwirth said you could dance to it. I think they recognised that it was crossing Bob over from folk music to rock ‘n’ roll.
The signature sound of course came from the “jingly jangly” Rickenbacker 12-string guitars. When did you happen upon this instrument?
Roger: I got it from A Hard Day’s Night, the movie. George was playing one. We went to see A Hard Day’s Night to take notes on the instruments The Beatles were playing because they were such an influence. We noticed that Ringo had Ludwig drums, John had a little Rickenbacker, Paul was playing a Hofner violin style bass, and then George had a Gretsch for the most part. But then he came out with a Rickenbacker that looked like a six-string guitar, but then he turned the guitar sideways and you could see six other tuning pegs sticking out the back. I went, ‘Ah, that’s a twelve-string!’ I was already a twelve-string player from my folk music days, so I recognised the twelve-string and I thought, ‘I’ve got to get one of these’. So I went down to a guitar store in Hollywood and traded in my acoustic twelve-string for a Rickenbacker.
David Crosby was fired from the group…
Forty years later we have kids that still like to listen to The Byrds. That is pretty amazing.
Roger: Very unfortunately. It wasn’t because of anything in particular, it was his attitude. He just didn’t like us anymore. He didn’t want to work with us. He actually wanted to work with Stephen Stills, so we did him a favour. It wasn’t really about songs.
Some say he was fired for his increasing demands for control. Was there a power struggle in The Byrds?
Roger: Yeah. I was always the leader of The Byrds and he wanted to get more songs done and he was mad at me that he wasn’t getting more songs done. That’s all there was to it. I was trying to be democratic about it and get the best songs on but, you know, there were four guys writing songs. It was hard to get everyone’s songs.
The Byrds’ most serious foray into country began with the arrival of Gram Parsons. How did he first come into your life?
Roger: Chris found him in a bank. He was there getting his money from his inheritance. He had a trust fund and he got a lot of money. It was the equivalent of probably $250,000 of today’s dollars a year. He was pretty rich. He’d have a new car, like a new Mercedes, every couple of months. I’d say, “Where’d you get that?” He’d say, “Oh, I just bought it!” (Laughs) So anyway, Chris brought him over to rehearsals, because we were looking for someone to fill in for Crosby who had just left. I asked Gram if he knew how to play any jazz piano like McCoy Tyner, and he couldn’t do that but he played a little Floyd Kramer style piano. I thought he was talented, so we could work with him. I didn’t know he was gonna be a country guy, but that’s what he turned into, so we went with it.
The resulting album, ‘Sweetheart Of The Rodeo’, sold quite poorly at the time. Were you disappointed?
Roger: Yes, it was disappointing because we loved the music. We had hoped that the audience would accept us, but they didn’t… at that time. Now, of course, it’s the most revered Byrds record of all time. It’s funny, it’s like the ugly duckling - totally rejected when it came out but now it’s a beautiful swan.
Do you feel that a continued partnership could have had great results, as The Byrds did continue in a country vein?
Chris: I don’t know. That’s an interesting question and I’ve never been asked that, but I don’t think so. Gram was given an opportunity that people would have died for. There were so many young singer songwriters around Los Angeles at the time that we hired Gram. He fell into this and it worked for a while. He had an opportunity that most people did not have. He immediately had a job in a well-known band. But he would not have stayed. Gram probably would have left after six months and tried to pursue his own solo thing because that’s what he wanted. If he had had the discipline and the work ethic and focus he probably would have done something pretty amazing
Later, after Chris left, do you regret not changing the name of the group after you were the sole original member left?
Roger: Yeah, I have over the years. You know how Eric Clapton would change band every couple of years and I thought that might have been a good business model. But actually, it’s okay. We kept The Byrds going for a nice long time and now we have this big body of work. Don’t forget we had Clarence White [guitarist from ’68-’73], who was very talented, and was as good as anything we did earlier, it’s just different. So I’m proud of the whole thing and I’m glad it’s all together in this box-set.
The Byrds were inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 1991. What do you think the band is remembered for and what is its continuing legacy?
Roger: Its legacy is experimentation and influence. We were the first to put together folk and rock and then country and rock, raga and rock, jazz-rock, the psychedelic thing… we would just experiment like crazy and it was a big influence on people like The Eagles, Tom Petty, REM and now The Thrills.
Chris: I believe we were the only band to ever be inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall Of Fame that sat together and played together on the night. That was a fitting closure to the band, because we were being celebrated and honoured for that particular moment, the successful years. We ended that by sitting with each other, talking, getting up and playing, all five of us - it was a wonderful moment.
The new box set is proof that there is still a great demand and love for the music of The Byrds. Has the endurance of the music surprised you, especially considering it was only a small part of your life a long time ago?
Roger: It does surprise me in that I remember when I was growing up, the music of my parents didn’t mean anything to me. In fact I totally rejected them, I didn’t want to hear it. And so now forty years later we have kids that still like to listen to The Byrds. That is pretty amazing. I think the essence of it is that it’s based in folk music and folk music has been around for centuries.
Chris: The things people remember, that endures the test of time, is the lyrical and musical performance, and Gene and David and Roger sang very well together. And one of the things Jim Dickson told us to do was: “You want to do something that you can listen to 30, 40 years down the road and never be ashamed of.” What a great bit of wisdom.
Clash’s recommended Best Byrd Bits
‘Mr Tambourine Man’ (1965)
Classic debut album introduces signature folk-rock sound.
Key track: ‘The Bells Of Rhymney’
‘Younger Than Yesterday’ (1967)
Psychedelic and introspective with country leanings.
Key track: ‘Everybody’s Been Burned’
‘Sweetheart Of The Rodeo’ (1968)
One of country-rock’s most influential albums.
Key track: ‘Hickory Wind’