The Byrds

Columbia's reissue of four album's from the Byrds' own "Blue Period" (1967-1970) harkens back to a time before lite rock, when the band's distinctly Southern California sound projected an optimism and sense of possibility that perfectly captured the mood of the times

Published May 10, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

i bought a copy of the Byrds' "The Ballad of Easy Rider" when I was in high school; a good deal of my purchases then were dictated by what rock records the owner of the local drug store brought in. Though I knew the Byrds from the radio, I was not a fan and I remember feeling that the party was over and I had missed it. There was plenty of confetti, but not much worth celebrating.

By the time the Byrds began recording their fifth album, "The Notorious Byrd Brothers," the band was already "in transition" -- that is to say, falling apart. It was July 1967, and then they were four: guitarists and vocalists Roger McGuinn and David Crosby, bassist Chris Hillman and drummer Michael Clarke. (Co-founder Gene Clark had left a year and a half before.) They were rehearsing what would become "Change Is Now" ("another one of those guru-spiritual-mystic songs no one understood," according to McGuinn), and Crosby -- who was having his own problems in Byrdland -- was ragging Clarke for his playing.

"It's supposed to feel like a boat," Crosby chided, "not horses clopping."

Somewhere around take 14, Clarke -- a drummer who had been recruited because of his resemblance to Brian Jones -- decided he'd had it. "If you don't like me, send me away," he said petulantly. "I don't even like the song."

"Why are you even in the band?" one of them demanded.

"For the money."

"You aren't helping us make any."

Such commercial concerns were not supposed to be uttered by anyone but an A&R man. It was the shank of the Summer of Love, and the previous year "Eight Miles High" had ushered in a period of top-40 psychedelia from which radio would not recover for years. The year before that -- 1965, the year of "Mr. Tambourine Man" and "Turn! Turn! Turn!" -- the Byrds had been heralded as "the American Beatles," and the Fab Four themselves said the Byrds were their favorite American band. Their influence was great at a time when rock's roster was relatively small. As Timothy White wrote in "The Nearest Faraway Place," his opus on Southern California rock in the '60s, "Brian Wilson was taking cues from the Beatles. The Beatles were taking cues from the Byrds, who were taking cues from the Beach Boys, the Beatles and Bob Dylan."

Columbia Records has just rereleased four CDs from the Byrds' middle period: "The Notorious Byrd Brothers," "Sweetheart of the Rodeo," "Dr. Byrds and Mr. Hyde" and "The Ballad of Easy Rider." They chronicle the years '67 to '70 and numerous personnel changes: By the end of "Notorious," Clarke and Crosby were gone; guitarist Clarence White and drummer Jim Gordon were added; the legendary Gram Parsons appeared (on "Sweetheart") and vanished just as quickly; and the signature sound of the band's early years -- the sound of tolling 12-string guitars and angelic harmonies -- was replaced with that of steel guitars, harmonic dissonance and the odd raga. The Byrds have been a positive influence in rock, one that can still be felt in the music of Tom Petty, REM, the Gin Blossoms and Wilco. But you can also make the case that without them, there would have been no Eagles, no America, no Poco and, hence, no Loggins and Messina. If not for the Byrds, lite radio might not exist.

Theirs was a very California sound, and a very Southern Californian sound at that. Less formulaic than the Beach Boys, less egotistical than Buffalo Springfield, less pretentious than the Doors, the Byrds projected an optimism and a sense of possibility that perfectly captured the mood of the state. It was what you wanted to hear when you were packing your car on a dewy morning for a car ride west, music that offered hope, as Dylan put it, to "every hung-up person in the whole wide universe." And as a harbinger of psychedelic music, it was as dead as a dodo by 1967. The band would have to change. The question was, into what?

With "Sweetheart of the Rodeo" (1968), the band found a hat -- a Stetson no less -- and stuck with it, at least for that album. They were certainly not the only band to experiment with country music -- groups as diverse as the Lovin' Spoonful and Moby Grape were doing the same -- but the Byrds were unapologetic about it. In Gram Parsons they found an anchor, a man with a vision. Parsons was a native of Waycross, Ga., (a town Atlantic Records' Jerry Wexler once described as "the asshole of the world") and a Merle Haggard fan at a time when Merle was singing about stomping hippies. He wrote songs of sin and redemption when the prevailing thinking on moral matters could best be summed up in a button of the day: "If It Feels Good, Do It." His voice stood out like the embroidered marijuana plants on his Nudie suit; he was the real deal, what Stones biographer (and fellow Waycross native) Stanley Booth called "a good old boy." Unfortunately, that voice is not heard too often on "Sweetheart." Because of legal complications, Parsons sang only a few songs on the original album (bonus tracks on the reissue include the lost Parsons numbers), though his influence is felt throughout. By the time the record hit the streets, Parsons and Hillman had left to form the Flying Burrito Brothers. He turned the Rolling Stones on to country, partied hard with Keith Richards, made a few solo albums (including one with Emmylou Harris) and OD'd in 1973.

Columbia, though still supportive, did not know how to market "Sweetheart of the Rodeo." At the end of the rerelease you'll hear a radio ad from the time. A man and a woman are listening to "Hickory Wind" and he says, "That's not the Byrds!"

"OK, listen to this one," she says perkily, and plays "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere." "They're doing Dylan!"

Doing Dylan had become an expected part of the band's schtick, and the addition of two of his songs was no doubt meant to soothe the anxious listener. And, lo, the album proved prophetic, too: Within a year, Dylan was doing country. A tough sell at first, "Sweetheart" became a standard and was soon on turntables everywhere. And a lot of it still stands up almost 30 years later.

But with the departure of Parsons and Hillman, McGuinn (the last surviving original Byrd) was at a loss. Rather than hew to the country trail the band had blazed, the Byrds went back to the scattershot approach on the '69 release "Dr. Byrds and Mr. Hyde." There was country ("Old Blue"), mock country ("Drug Store Truck Drivin' Man"), hippie nonsense ("Child of the Universe") and the obligatory Dylan cover ("Wheels on Fire"). What was lacking was passion and any sense of coherency. "Dr. Byrds" was the band's lowest charting album to date, and small wonder: Performing the medley "My Back Pages/B.J. Blues/Baby What You Want Me to Do," the Byrds sound like a bar band taking orders from the audience.

Years later, McGuinn would say of his band, "I really think I kept it going too long."

But back in 1967, while rehashing numbers like "Change Is Now" (working title: "Universal Mind Decoder") at Columbia's Hollywood studio, the Byrds were trying to do more than make money; they were experimenting, embarking on a musical odyssey. And the label felt it owed them for their early hits, and gave them license to follow their muses (each member had his own). Moog synthesizer? Pedal steel? Phase-shifter horns? Whatever, man. Song subjects included the Vietnam War ("Draft Morning"), speed ("Artificial Energy") and the Human Be-In that took place in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park in January of that year ("Tribal Gathering"). It is the record of a band in search of a sound -- one they never quite found.

The early Byrds had struck just the right note, one that the world had been waiting to hear. Indeed, by covering "Mr. Tambourine Man," the best song by the best songwriter of the time, in the milk-and-honey pop tones of the Beatles, the Byrds were fulfilling two prophecies: Dylan wanted to be popular, but his voice (which Mick Ronson once compared to Boo-Boo Bear's) was a tough sell; the Beatles wanted to be taken seriously, but they were literally being marketed as cartoons. McGuinn, Crosby and Clark -- veterans of the old folk scene -- became progenitors of folk rock, a hybrid heretofore unthinkable.

While always the ostensible band leader, most recognizable vocalist and the only original member to survive all the various incarnations right up to the end (the Byrds broke up in 1973), McGuinn never came off as a real visionary. In that sense the Byrds was the most democratic of bands: proto-hippie David Crosby left his mark all over "The Notorious Byrd Brothers" (and left the band when his minage ` trois number, "Triad," didn't make the final cut), and Gram Parsons found in them the perfect vehicle for his country revisionism. But "The Ballad of Easy Rider" seems rudderless (though more listenable than "Dr. Byrds"); the rock gospel of "Jesus Is Just Alright" remains surprisingly effective, and their cover of Woody Guthrie's "Deportee," which details the death of a planeload of Mexican migrant workers in Los Gatos Canyon, added a note of smoggy realism to the L.A. myth -- but what did any of these songs have to do with each other? They are like postcards mailed from different countries -- and the only one written in a familiar hand, the de rigueur Dylan cover ("It's All Over Now, Baby Blue"), is boring beyond belief.

A good band needs a reason to stay together -- a reason greater than money. For a few years the Byrds had that reason: They had The Sound. It is nearly impossible to remember how original they sounded once, but for an inkling of the band's primitive power, look to Roddy Doyle's book, "The Commitments." A working-class band who set out to bring soul music to Dublin, the Commitments are brought low by their own egos (and a few sexual misadventures). At the novel's end the band's founder, Jimmy Rabbitte, has a few of the fellows around to listen to something else altogether: the Byrds doing "Feel a Whole Lot Better" off the first album.

By Sean Elder

Sean Elder is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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