The classic line-up of The Byrds, From left to right: Chris Hillman, David Crosby, Michael Clarke, Roger McGuinn and Gene Clark.
The Byrds were a band active in The Sixties
who were the Trope Makers
for the genre of Folk Rock
(alongside Simon & Garfunkel
), although they experimented with different genres throughout their career such as Psychedelic Rock
and Country Music
. The band was formed initially as a duo comprised of Roger McGuinn and Gene Clark as guitarists and singers. Third guitarist David Crosby soon joined up, and the Byrds was born. Drummer Michael Clarke (recruited partly because of his resemblance to Brian Jones
) and bassist Chris Hillman joined shortly after the formation. Thus, the "classic" Byrds line-up was born. Thanks to their manager Jim Dickson's connections, they got signed to Columbia Records
The Byrds' first recording was a cover of the Bob Dylan
song "Mr. Tambourine Man", and established their style. McGuinn's use of Rickenbacker 12-string guitars with heavy compression resulted in a distinctive, bright sound, which was put in the service of melodic, jangly guitar riffs. Their heavy use of harmony in vocals owed an obvious debt to The Beatles
- all members except Clarke would sing, Crosby inevitably providing high vocals while McGuinn and Clark would alternatively sing in unison or harmony. "Mr. Tambourine Man" was released as a single and became successful.
The single was followed by two albums, Mr. Tambourine Man
and Turn! Turn! Turn
, which relied heavily on covers
of other songs, generally by Bob Dylan
or traditional folk songs, with original songs mostly contributed by Gene Clark. The latter album also had an Early-Bird Cameo
for their future musical direction, as Hillman, whose musical background was more bluegrass/country than the others' folk, convinced the band to cover "Satisfied Mind". However, the band got bored with folk-rock and began to experiment with Psychedelic Rock
on Fifth Dimension
, which provided another hit with the creepy "Eight Miles High".
Clark left the band in 1966 due to his fear of flying (though internal tensions caused by the other band members' resentment of the royalties he made from being the band's primary songwriter aided his decision), reducing the line-up to McGuinn, Crosby, Hillman and Clarke. The new line-up recorded the famous, bitter satire of the music industry "So You Want to Be a Rock 'n Roll Star", allegedly after being irritated by the success of The Monkees
, and a new album, Younger Than Yesterday
showcased continued experimentation with psychedelia, straight folk-rock, Indian influences and country (largely contributed by Hillman), though the loss of their primary songwriter was somewhat reflected in the uneven and disjointed, genre-hopping quality of the material.
However, intra-band relations deteriorated, in particular between McGuinn, Hillman and Crosby. The former two regarded the latter as an overbearing egotist and Jerk Ass
, a perception not reduced at all by his rambling, lengthy and incoherent speeches
during the band's appearance at the Monterey Pop Festival and his guest appearance playing with Buffalo Springfield (filling in for an absent Neil Young
), which made McGuinn and Hillman regard him as disloyal. The internal turmoil somehow didn't find its way into The Notorious Byrd Brothers
, which contained ethereal songs created through a fusion of psychedelic rock, folk-rock, country and jazz
, with electronic influences also appearing through the adoption of the Moog synthesizer and some of the sci-fi lyrics. The album also showed the band's worsening tendency towards line-up changes
, as Crosby was ejected by McGuinn and Hillman in October 1967 (the two having actually driven to his house on the occasion to fire him), replaced for three weeks by a returning Clark, who was sacked again afterwards, and Clarke also left during recording in August 1967, upset with his low pay, the material he was working on and periodic arguments with his band-mates, though he also returned briefly towards the end of the album sessions before once again being let go by McGuinn and Hillman. After being fired, Crosby went on to form the Supergroup
Crosby, Stills and Nash, which Neil Young later joined.
McGuinn and Hillman recruited drummer Kevin Kelley and set out on a college tour in support of the album as a trio, which highlighted the difficulty of reproducing their studio material as a three-piece and led them to seek out a new member. McGuinn had been planning their next album as a historical overview of 20th century American popular music, so Gram Parsons was brought into the band initially as a keyboardist, but soon moved to guitar. Parsons, a devotee of country music, found common ground with Hillman and managed to persuade McGuinn that their next album should be an country album instead of his original Concept Album
idea, arguing that the stylistic change would broaden the group's audience after the internal turmoil had caused it to decline. This predictably attracted They Changed It, Now It Sucks
from Byrds fans and hatred from the Nashville establishment once Sweetheart of the Rodeo
was released. The album, however, has since been Vindicated by History
as the Trope Codifier
, if not the Trope Maker
, of Country Rock. Parsons himself didn't last long, quitting the Byrds in the summer of 1968 in protest against a plan to tour South Africa
(then in the midst of The Apartheid Era
) before the album was released, and going on to continue the country-rock direction of Sweetheart of the Rodeo
through a commercially unsuccessful but influential solo career and as part of The Flying Burrito Brothers, dying of an heroin overdose in 1973. The subsequent South African tour turned out to be disastrous, as the band hired one of their roadies, Carlos Bernal, as a rhythm guitar player on extremely short notice, found themselves being forced to play to segregated audiences despite having demanded that promoters not allow audience segregation, and turning in badly rehearsed, ramshackle performances marked by antagonism both between themselves and towards the apartheid regime, leaving in a cloud of bad publicity and death threats and being lambasted by the press in the UK and USA for playing in South Africa.
Regrouping in California after the album's release, McGuinn hired Clarence White as Parsons' replacement at Hillman's urging, as White was a session guitarist who had contributed countrified guitar work to all their albums since Younger Than Yesterday
and Hillman felt he could handle both their older rock material and their new country-oriented direction. At White's urging, the two also replaced Kelley with drummer Gene Parsons (unrelated to Gram Parsons), who White had previously played with in the country band Nashville West. This line-up also disintegrated quickly, as Hillman had this point grown disenchanted with The Byrds thanks to the disastrous South African tour and their manager Larry Spector's mismanagement of band finances, and on 15 September 1968 an argument between Hillman and Spector backstage after a concert escalated into violence, ending with Hillman throwing his bass away and walking out to join Parsons in The Flying Burrito Brothers.
Even with only one original member remaining, The Byrds trudged on as McGuinn brought in bassist John York to replace Hillman, and chose to sing lead vocals on all the songs on the next album Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde
, believing that fans would be too confused hearing the unfamiliar voices of the new members, who were restricted to backing vocals. Dr. Byrds and Mr. Hyde
, whose title reflected the material's split between the country-rock direction the band continued to pursue and newer songs which harked back to the Psychedelic Rock
of 1966-1967, garnered some good reviews but became their lowest selling album in the USA, limping to #153 on the Billboard
charts (being actually out-charted by Preflyte
, a compilation of 1964 demo recordings compiled by the band's former producer Gary Usher) while paradoxically attracting rave reviews and becoming a great seller in the UK. The next album, Ballad of Easy Rider
followed quickly the same year, began to repair the band's position as they consolidated their country-rock style and attracted attention due to the title track being used as the theme song for Easy Rider
. Another line-up change occurred prior to the album's release, with York being sacked as the other members doubted his commitment to the band and Skip Battin hired as his replacement.
The McGuinn-White-Battin-Parsons line-up counter-intuitively became The Byrds' longest-lasting and most stable line-up, and toured relentlessly for three years to rave reviews. The band thus decided to release a live album, but had also accumulated enough songs to record a new studio album, leading producer Terry Melcher to suggest a double album. Named (Untitled)
thanks to a mistake by one of the employees at Columbia Records, the album was released in 1970 and considered the band's return to form, with the live renditions of their previous hits (among them a 16-minute version of "Eight Miles High") helping reconnect the band to their past audience while the entirely self-penned studio material was noticeably improved in quality compared to the more uneven records the band's internal turmoil had resulted in. Accordingly, (Untitled)
garnered great reviews and resurrected the band's popularity and commercial success, peaking at #40 in the USA and #11 in the UK, and their live performances in the period also earned positive notices. However, the band's gruelling tour schedule left them exhausted and under-equipped for material as they sporadically recorded their follow-up, Byrdmaniax
in-between touring. Once the sessions were completed, the band went back on tour, and Executive Meddling
ensued as the material was overdubbed with strings, horns and a gospel choir without the band's knowledge or consent. Upon release, Byrdmaniax
was received as well as a turd in a punchbowl and irreversibly undermined the second wind of popularity the group had been riding. In response, The Byrds quickly recorded a self-produced album, Farther Along
, to counteract the criticisms directed at Byrdmaniax
, but the pace of the recording further affected the available material and meant that the album failed to either restore the band's reputation or their flagging audience.
The unravelling of the band's career took a toll on its members, as Parsons was fired in July 1972 due to arguments with McGuinn over pay and his drumming and replaced with session musician John Guerin (who was never officially a member of The Byrds) for live dates, Battin was also kicked out after a concert (replaced by a returning Hillman), and White died in a car crash. Dissatisfied with the shambolic live performances, McGuinn officially disbanded the band's line-up to make way for a reunion of the McGuinn-Clark-Crosby-Hillman-Clarke line-up, resulting in the album Byrds
in 1972. The album was criticised for the absence of the band's jangly guitar sound and weak material, with McGuinn and Hillman having since speculated that all the members except Clark were reluctant to bring their best material to the sessions, saving it for their solo careers instead. Discouraged by the bad reception of the reunion, The Byrds finally called it a day in 1973.
Since then, there had been 3 separate reunions. The first was from 1989 to 1990 with McGuinn, Crosby and Hillman. However, Michael Clarke had gained full legal ownership of "The Byrds" name, and sued the 3 when they toured as The Byrds. In 1991, the original 5 Byrds were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (with the rest of the former members such as Gram Parsons and Clarence White snubbed). The event was timely, as this would mark the last time the original 5 would re-unite. Gene Clark, who was visibly ill at the reunion, died a few months later of "natural causes". Then at the end of 1993, Michael Clarke succumbed to liver failure, a result of decades of alcoholism. There would be one final one-off reunion in 2000, this time with McGuinn, Crosby and Hillman. Since then, they have gone their separate ways, with Crosby gaining the rights of "The Byrds" name in 2002, and Kevin Kelley died of "natural causes" in 2002, and Skip Battin dying from Alzheimer's disease in 2003.
Principal Members (Founding members in bold):
- Skip Battin bass, vocals (19691973, died 2003)
- Gene Clark lead vocals, guitar, harmonica, tambourine (19641966, 1967, 19721973, 1991, died 1991)
- Michael Clarke drums, congas, percussion (19641967, 19721973, 1991, died 1993)
- David Crosby lead vocals, guitar, bass (19641967, 19721973, 1989-1991, 2000)
- Chris Hillman lead vocals, bass, guitar, mandolin (19641968, 19721973, 1989-1991, 2000)
- Kevin Kelley - drums (1968, died 2002)
- Roger "Jim" McGuinn lead vocals, guitar, synthesizer, banjo (19641973, 1989-1991, 2000)
- Gene Parsons drums, harmonica, banjo, vocals (19681972)
- Gram Parsons lead vocals, guitar, piano, organ (1968, died 1973)
- Clarence White - guitar, mandolin, lead vocals (19681973, died 1973)
- John York bass, lead vocals (19681969)
- 1965 - Mr. Tambourine Man
- 1965 - Turn! Turn! Turn!
- 1966 - Fifth Dimension
- 1967 - Younger Than Yesterday
- 1968 - The Notorious Byrd Brothers
- 1968 - Sweetheart Of The Rodeo
- 1969 - Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde
- 1969 - Ballad Of Easy Rider
- 1970 - (Untitled) note
- 1971 - Byrdmaniax
- 1971 - Farther Along
- 1973 - Byrds
- 1970 - (Untitled) note
- 2000 - Live At The Fillmore February 1969
- 2008 - Live at Royal Albert Hall 1971
Contains examples of the following tropes:
- Advertised Extra: Inverted In 1989, Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman sang guest vocals on a re-recording of "You Ain't Going Nowhere" that appeared on The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's Will the Circle Be Unbroken: Volume Two album. Even though the NGDB featured prominently on it, the single was credited solely to McGuinn and Hillman.
- Breakup Breakout: David Crosby went on to form Crosby, Stills and Nash/Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.
- Concept Album: McGuinn's initial plan for what would become Sweetheart of the Rodeo was to record a double album that would showcase a history of American popular music, starting with early bluegrass and Appalachian music, then moving through country, jazz, R&B, rock, and finally culminating in electronic music played on the Moog synthesizer. The concept led McGuinn to look for a pianist with a jazz background, which was how Gram Parsons was recruited into the band.
- The Constant: Roger McGuinn was in every line-up of the band from start to finish.
- Country Rock: On their later albums. Sweetheart of the Rodeo is considered the Trope Codifier.
- Folk Rock: Their early albums.
- Hidden Track: The remastered CD reissue of The Notorious Byrd Brothers features as a hidden track a recording of an in-studio argument between Crosby and Clarke, with Record Producer Gary Usher trying to get them to stop fighting.
- Long Song, Short Scene: It's the belief of many fans that the 1965 version of "It's All Over Now Baby Blue" was wasted, due to being intended for a single that didn't get released at the time. It is amongst the best examples of their chiming guitar sound.
- Myspeld Rφkband
- Miniscule Rocking: Most of the Byrds' material is in the 2-3 minute range, and sometimes even shorter, with their albums largely staying in the half-hour range. The shortest, The Notorious Byrd Brothers, lasted 28 minutes and 28 seconds, and the longest album is (Untitled) by virtue of it being a double album. Said album features their longest songs, the live remake of "Eight Miles High" lasting 16 minutes, and the studio recording of "Well Come Back Home" which lasts 7 minutes.
- New Sound Album: Their switch to Psychedelic Rock and Country for The Notorious Byrd Brothers and country for Sweetheart Of The Rodeo onwards.
- Once an Episode: The Byrds' early albums all featured a humorous, quirky ending song: Mr. Tambourine Man concluded with an ironic cover of Vera Lynn's "We'll Meet Again" (inspired by its usage in Dr. Strangelove), Turn! Turn! Turn! ended with a tongue-in-cheek send-up of the folk song "Oh! Susannah", and Fifth Dimension finished with "2-4-2 Fox Trot (The Lear Jet Song)", which features a catchy groove with minimal lyrics panned hard right while the left channel includes sound effects depicting a plane taking off. The tradition ended with Younger Than Yesterday, but was temporarily resurrected for Ballad of Easy Rider through "Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins", a light-hearted meditation on the Apollo 11 moon landing.
- Actually, on the re-release of Younger Than Yesterday, the song "Don't Make Waves" is added near the end and serves this purpose.
- Revolving Door Band: It was particularly nasty after Gene Clark left. When Dr. Byrds and Mr. Hyde was released in 1969, Roger McGuinn was all that remained of the original quintet.
- Take That: The Notorious Byrd Brothers replaced the departed David Crosby with a horse on the cover, or at least that's how Crosby interpreted it. McGuinn has repeatedly insisted it's not meant to be a reference to Crosby but was merely a coincidence that happened when they were shooting the cover, pointing out that if they did intend a Take That, they'd have turned the horse backwards.
- "Drug Store Truck Drivin' Man" is an insult towards Nashville DJ Ralph Emery, who during the promotion of Sweetheart of the Rodeo conducted a hostile review insulting the band and initially refused to play "You Ain't Going Nowhere", and once he played it he dismissed it on air and in front of the band.
- Titled After the Album: A 1980s country duo called Sweethearts of the Rodeo named themselves after the famous Byrds album, and even paid homage to said album with the cover of their Buffalo Zone album.