July 13, 2022 marks the 80th birthday of Jim “Roger” McGuinn, founder of The Byrds.
Right away a storytelling complication: McGuinn changed his name to Roger in 1967 as an outgrowth of his involvement in the Subud religion (Lorenzo Music later did the same). Thus those of us born later have always known him as Roger McGuinn. But when The Byrds entered the public’s consciousness and enjoyed their first chart success, he was billed as Jim McGuinn, his given name. His bandmates in the influential quintet’s original line-up were David Crosby, Gene Clark, Michael Clarke (no relation to Gene), and Chris Hillman.
A very strong case may be made, I believe, though not without strong pushback, that the cultural construct we think of as “The Sixties” (if the Sixties means “hippies”, and I know it doesn’t) begins with The Byrds. They were preceded chronologically by the folk music revival, whose biggest star was Bob Dylan, and by the British invasion, led by The Beatles, but you could argue that prior to the advent of The Byrds, those two camps were self-contained subcultures, the former made up mostly of college kids, the latter, of teeny-boppers. McGuinn, a folk musician who’d backed artists like Bobby Darin and Judy Collins and had been in several of his own folk combos, hit on the idea of creating a group that smashed the music of Dylan and the Beatles together. Their revolutionary new sound, dubbed “folk rock”, and the band’s wild look (more like that of The Rolling Stones than The Beatles) seem to have been what really opened the floodgates for changes to mass culture that followed. For not only were The Byrds directly influential, but they inspired Dylan to go electric and the Beatles to (for lack of a better term) “go acoustic” (i.e., the sounds they explored on the Help and Rubber Soul LPs and you might include The White Album, as well). McGuinn’s jangly electric twelve-string guitar is instantly recognizable and widely emulated, not only during the original and brief folk-rock fad, but in many later revivals.
McGuinn was from Chicago, but The Byrds were formed in L.A. Early in their formation they were the house band at Ciro’s on the Sunset Strip, helping them to build a following. Their once and future producer was Doris Day’s son Terry Melcher, best remembered today as the owner of the house where Sharon Tate and her guests were killed by the Manson family. (The choice of the house wasn’t random. Manson and Melcher had had some interactions, the connection being The Beach Boys’ Dennis Wilson, whom the Family had lived with for many weeks. Melcher had started out in surf music, was a friend of The Beach Boys, and had even played tambourine on Pet Sounds).
The Byrds’ debut single, a rock cover of Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man”, was released in April, 1965 and went all the way to #1. Their eponymous debut LP, released a few weeks later, was dominated by Dylan covers, including also “Chimes of Freedom”, “All I Really Want to Do”, and “Spanish Harlem Incident”. “The Bells of Rhymney” was associated with Pete Seeger. Of the remaining tracks, most were written by band member Gene Clark, the best known of which is surely “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better”, which Tom Petty later had a hit with in 1989. The album closes very cleverly on the old English music hall song “We’ll Meet Again”, which at the time would have been primarily associated with Stanley Kubrick’s movie Dr. Strangelove (1964).
In October of the same year, The Byrds released their version of Pete Seeger’s “Turn! Turn! Turn!” (with words from Ecclesiastes) and this, too, went all the way to #1. In December of that year, came their second LP, featuring covers of Dylan’s “The Times They Are a-Changing”, “Lay Down Your Wear Tune”, and a traditional song he covered “He Was a Friend of Mine”. It also features a cover of Stephen Foster’s “O! Susannah!” This album also hit the top 20. At the end of the year, they made their first and only appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show.
1965 was by any measure an incredible year for the brand new group, but it was never to be replicated. Though they would always remain favorites with critics, and very influential among other musicians, chart success would slowly drift away as they became more experimental. Gene Clark, at the time the best songwriter within the group, quit in early 1966, due to anxiety he was experiencing due to touring. (Other solutions were possible, of course. Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys had similar issues. He simply dropped out of the tours but continued to drive the music on the band’s albums. And George Harrison led the decision of the Beatles to stop touring. In their case, the whole band decided to cease live performance rather than break the band up. But Clark quit The Byrds, never again enjoying the same amount of success with his subsequent ventures).
Meanwhile, McGuinn became much more experimental, emulating Indian sitar sounds a la Harrison and Ravi Shankar and the be bop saxophone playing of John Coltrane in his ever evolving guitar style. The drug-themed single “Eight Miles High” was the first public hint in this new direction, followed in July ’66 by the LP Fifth Dimension. This record was the first to feature lots of original songs by McGuinn and Crosby, not to mention a cover of The Leaves’ garage classic “Hey Joe (Where You Gonna Go)”, which Jimi Hendrix would finally nail a couple of months later. The band’s fourth album “Younger Than Yesterday”, released February 1967 featured a great cover of Dylan’s “My Back Pages” and the satirical classic (penned by the band) “So You Want to Be a Rock and Roll Star”, which obliquely pokes fun at The Monkees. Like “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better”, it was covered by Tom Petty in the ’80s.
The preceding may be said to constitute The Byrds’ classic mainstream period. Its reverberations echoed long however. Though I had been an infant in 1965 and 1966, one and two decades later I grew up playing these scratchy old singles and LPs from the collections of my brothers and the parents of friends. That’s how long their reach was. No fooling — this is me in 1985:
Proof only that The Byrds had a long reach and that they affected me. And also that I am, and will apparently always be, out of step with my own times.
The wild thing is, The Byrds’ fifth LP, The Notorious Byrd Brothers (early 1968) is flipping AMAZING, and I never quite discovered it until recently, about a decade ago, and it became my go-to album for a few months. It is much more listenable and coherent as an album than their previous records, which were more like collections of songs. The Notorious Byrd Brothers reflects the growing trend of creating records that function as long-playing experiences, and it’s full of cosmic, spiritual ideas, both lyrical and musical. The lead single, the haunting, beautiful “Goin’ Back”, was penned by Carole King and Gerry Goffin, as was the song “Wasn’t Born to Follow”. Most of the rest was composed by McGuinn, Crosby, and Hillman in various combinations. Crosby in particular was coming into his own at this stage, and this would be his last hurrah with the group. The Crosby penned single “Lady Friend” only went to #82 on the Hot 100. His song “Triad”, about a menage a trois, was cut from the LP, though subsequently recorded by Jefferson Airplane, and later included on re-releases of this record. He of course, went on to form Crosby, Stills and Nash with members of Buffalo Springfield and The Hollies. At any rate, though critics have always loved The Notorious Byrd Brothers, it marks the point where the band’s releases start to slide down the charts.
Yet highlights remained. Gram Parsons, later of The Flying Burrito Brothers joined the band for their next record Sweetheart of the Rodeo (August, 1968), which pioneered the country-rock sound that would be so prevalent throughout the whole of the 1970s. Their next LP Dr. Byrds and Mr. Hyde (March, 1969) was once again critically acclaimed but only went to #153 on the charts. Then, a brief comeback, when The Byrds contributed songs to the soundtrack of the hit countercultural movie Easy Rider (1969), later releasing the LP The Ballad of Easy Rider. This elevated the band’s fortunes briefly. They remained together, with McGuinn the only original member, until 1973.
Immediately after this McGuinn collaborated with Dylan on songs for the 1973 movie and album Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, and then toured with the Rolling Thunder Revue through 1976. In 1978, much like Dylan around the same time, he became an Evangelical Christian and a Conservative Republican (though you will be relieved to know he’s a Never Trumper). In 1991 he released his comeback LP Back from Rio, which produced the hit singles “King of the Hill” and “Someone to Love”, and the MTV friendly earworm “Car Phone”, which I very much loved at the time.
What’s he up to now? Check out his Folk Den, a website he has created since the 1990s and seems to be very much in the tradition of those folk ‘zines and newsletters of the ’60s, full of tips and lyrics and chord sheets for folkies, He continues to post there constantly!