Oeuvre Easy: The Byrds

THE BYRDS ASSIMILATED MORE GENRES of music and helped develop more musical hybrids than almost any major band that emerged in the ’60s. Their arrangement of Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” launched folk rock before Dylan famously went electric at Newport. The John Coltrane/Ravi Shankar-influenced “Eight Miles High” put the Byrds in the vanguard of “raga rock.” They recorded songs about aliens and interstellar travel before even Pink Floyd, which makes them space-rock pioneers. During Gram Parsons’ short tenure, the band cut Sweetheart of the Rodeo, generally considered the cornerstone of country rock.  
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It’s almost impossible to discuss the group without identifying its relentless innovation and turnstile personnel changes, yet, aside from the attempt to record a country album with Sweetheart, the band’s core sound remained intact until its demise in 1973—soaring harmonies and Roger McGuinn’s 12-string Rickenbacker.

To create his “jingle-jangle” sound, McGuinn originally plugged his Rickenbacker directly into the console and used compression to compensate for the guitar’s lack of sustain. The effect is heightened by his banjo-picking style throughout Mr. Tambourine Man and Turn! Turn! Turn! On the Byrds’ third album, Fifth Dimension, McGuinn added a sitar-like tone to his arsenal by using a phonograph amplifier and putting a walkie-talkie speaker in a cigar box.

Clarence White played his first Byrds solos on Younger Than Yesterday in 1967. Steel guitar—by country music institutions Lloyd Green and Jaydee Maness— was the most prominent instrument on Sweetheart. After that album, White became a full-fledged member, and his B-Bender took center stage. His level of playing prompted McGuinn to turn the spotlight over to the former session musician. Although the band’s studio work declined in the Clarence White era, the Byrds remained one of the top live acts of the day. Yet only seven live tracks appeared on a Byrds album—1970’s (Untitled)— until Columbia expanded the title to (Untitled)/(Unissued) 30 years later and added eight more. The magnificent Live at the Fillmore February 1969 was also released in 2000, and Live at Royal Albert Hall 1971 features some great playing— though it’s less tight than the others, and the mix is problematic.


Mr. Tambourine Man, 1965
This debut marks the birth of the “jingle-jangle” sound and introduced Bob Dylan (via the title song) to the mainstream. The sparkling sophistication of Dylan covers and Gene Clark originals earned the Byrds the title “America’s Answer to the Beatles.” Influential? McGuinn’s guitar lines on “The Bells of Rhymney” inspired George Harrison’s “If I Needed Someone.”

The Notorious Byrd Brothers, 1968
Gary Usher’s deft production and the radiant counterculture songs make this the Byrds’ studio high-water mark. The songs weave into an organic two-part suite. There’s great guitar all over by McGuinn, White, David Crosby, Chris Hillman, James Burton, and Red Rhodes (pedal-steel). McGuinn’s solos in “Change Is Now” and “Tribal Gathering” are searing. His intricate picking—with sweet accents by White and Rhodes—transform “Wasn’t Born to Follow” into an effervescent country-rock classic.

Live at the Fillmore West February 1969, 2000
The Byrds reinvent pop tracks from the Crosby era, and showcase their country chops on tunes from Sweetheart and Dr. Byrds, and a couple of Flying Burrito Brothers covers. The medley “Turn! Turn! Turn!/Mr. Tambourine Man/Eight Miles High” features inspired leads by both McGuinn and White, but the latter’s astonishing phrasing and B-Bender runs are the album’s centerpieces. If you hear what sounds like a great bluegrass picker who has just plugged in—or Hendrix playing steel guitar—it’s White. Amazing.


Fifth Dimension, 1966
Arguably the first psychedelic rock album, and surely the first released by a major band. The groundbreaking title cut and “Eight Miles High” still sound fresh and innovative. The backbeat, high harmonies, and McGuinn’s solo in “Mr. Spaceman” established the country-rock sound that blossomed on Younger Than Yesterday.

Sweetheart of the Rodeo, 1968
Myth: This is the Byrds’ finest recording and represents the birth of country rock. The view from here: There are some tremendous songs, but precious little that you could call “rock.” Gram Parsons commandeered a rock group to record a country album. McGuinn and White play second fiddle to Nashville ringers.

Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde, 1969
Probably the most overlooked Byrds recording, this country rock rocks. White’s impeccable fuzz tone and country licks sound great, the band’s playing is intense, and the members sing high, powerful harmonies that the Eagles could only dream of. The extended guitar duet in the bridge of “Candy” on the Columbia Legacy edition ranks as the biggest treat on an album packed with highlights.

(Untitled)/(Unissued), 1970
This two-CD set features 15 top-notch live cuts, including a 16-minute “Eight Miles High.” On the live material, White turns in blistering leads, plus exquisite fills behind McGuinn’s archetypal picking. To really get White’s brilliance in a nutshell, listen to the original “Mr. Tambourine Man” followed by the (Untitled) live version.

There Is a Season, 2006
Most Byrds anthologies zero in on the Top-40, mid-’60s period, but this 99-song box set gives a balanced helping from each era. All of the important tunes are here, plus some fascinating rarities. The 12 live tracks that open disc four cherry pick great performances from 1970. The DVD of the Byrds mouthing their hits on TV, however, is very strange.


Byrdmaniax, 1971
Rock group gives mediocre material to producer who “fixes” songs with orchestration.

Farther Along, 1971
“Bugler” and the homespun title track are pretty wonderful. The rest are novelty songs and nice ideas with impenetrable mixes.