Category Archives: Byrds

The Byrds: Fifth Dimension (1966)

“We decided to stay with four. We talked to the Beatles and they had said that they had had five guys and they liked being four better. We said if it was good enough for them, it was good enough for us.” – Roger McGuinn, in a 2004 interview with Musicangle.

Kronomyth 3.0: FOUR, THE BYRDS. Fifth Dimension is a transitional record, and not everyone likes change. Many critics, it seemed, wanted The Byrds to continue making lush, harmonic folk/rock music and serve as Bob Dylan’s personal confectioners. But the band was still growing individually and collectively. They were dropping acid, listening to John Coltrane and Ravi Shankar and, in the case of Jim McGuinn, seeking personal enlightenment. On top of that, you had the usual musical intrigues, resulting in the departure of their producer, Terry Melcher, and their primary songwriter, Gene Clark. Despite the turbulence, The Byrds reached new heights on the single, “Eight Miles High.” Written and performed with Clark, that song helped usher in the progressive rock movement with its ambitious arrangements, particularly McGuinn’s lead guitar, which literally (if appropriately) defied space and time. Clark’s departure also created an opportunity for David Crosby to discover his cool, contributing the jazzy “I See You” (later covered by Yes on their debut album) and the sweetly succinct “What’s Happening?!?!” The Byrds hadn’t ceased being a folk-rock band. Covers of “Wild Mountain Thyme” and “John Riley” (both featuring questionably tasteful orchestration from new producer Allen Stanton) and a powerful anti-war poem set to music, “I Come And Stand At Every Door,” feature slightly thinner harmonies than the past, but still impress. While hitting some very high highs, Fifth Dimension is an uneven record. “Mr. Spaceman,” the record’s third single, is better suited to The Monkees than The Beatles, their cover of “Hey Joe” feels like the blues on amphetamines and the instrumental “Captain Soul” is an unnecessary trip. While the cool reception from critics didn’t help the record, the real undoing of Fifth Dimension may have been its association with the burgeoning drug culture. Both the title track and “Eight Miles High” were conjectured to be veiled drug references, resulting in the album’s first two singles being banned by some radio stations. (The magic carpet ride album cover probably didn’t help matters.) The closing “2-4-2 Fox Trot,” featuring plane sounds and cockpit recordings, could be a parting shot at Clark, whose fear of flying occasioned his departure, or simply the natural ending to a strange trip.

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The Byrds: Younger Than Yesterday (1967)

younger than yesterday album cover“…That was my album in that sense that I started to come out of my shyness and contribute more.” – Chris Hillman, recalling Younger Than Yesterday in an interview with Richie Unterberger.

Kronomyth 4.0: THIRD DIMENSION. Country rock and Chris Hillman both “arrive” on Younger Than Yesterday. Produced by Gary Usher (fresh from Gene Clark’s first album), the band’s fourth album features an array of psychedelic effects including reversed tapes and electronic sounds that place it at the cutting edge of the post-Revolver landscape. Hillman makes a strong and immediate impression on Younger Than Yesterday with “So You Want To Be A Rock ‘N’ Roll Star (cowritten with Jim McGuinn) and the minor key harmonies of “Have You Seen Her Face” (influenced by Paul McCartney’s “I’ve Just Seen A Face” perhaps). The influence of The Beatles reappears on Hillman’s “Thoughts And Words.” The erstwhile silent partner in The Byrds also contributes two country rock songs that would foreshadow the band’s future direction, “The Girl With No Name” and “Time Between.” (Appearances by Vern Gosdin and Clarence White suggest that The Byrds were still connected to Gene Clark in spirit.) Younger Than Yesterday also marked a return to Bob Dylan’s rich body of work (“My Back Pages”) and the inclusion of some very good—and, in the case of “Mind Gardens,” very strange—songs from David Crosby. “Everybody’s Been Burned” is one of the best things Crosby has ever done, and “Why” (one of two tracks cowritten with McGuinn) is arguably the catchiest song on the album. Critics seem to have a higher opinion of this album that their last, Fifth Dimension, although I don’t see one as inferior to the other, just different. Fifth Dimension still showed the traces of folk music, while Yesterday looks forward to country rock. Both have strong psychedelic undertones and while Fifth Dimension reached higher highs, Yesterday is more consistently excellent.

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The Byrds’ Greatest Hits (1967)

the byrds greatest hits album coverKronomyth 5.0: FOR EVERY FASHION, CHURN, CHURN, CHURN. In 1967, The Byrds were flying high. Two years later, they were struggling to stay aloft, but that’s a subject for another day. The Byrds’ Greatest Hits is a cash-in compilation from Columbia that features the most popular songs from their first four albums. You’ll find Pete Seeger’s “Turn! Turn! Turn!” here, as well as Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man,” Seeger’s “The Bells of Rhymney,” and Dylan’s “Chimes of Freedom,” “All I Really Want To Do” and “My Back Pages.” Maybe they should have called this Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger’s Greatest Hits. I would tell you that the whole psychedelic folk thing backfired on The Byrds, but what do I know? Not nearly as much as the critics who championed the band’s work as timeless, only to turn their backs on them two years later. (In fairness, many critics continued to warmly receive their new works even amid cooling commercial interest.) What I always liked best about The Byrds was their individuality. There were those catchy Gene Clark songs, something strange and beautifully elusive from David Crosby and a weird, tuneful trip or two from Jim McGuinn, with Chris Hillman’s country contributions coming a little later. The psychedelic folk covers of Dylan and Seeger were initially electrifying, but quickly acquired a novelty factor while selling the band’s own songwriting skills short. History will, of course, remember “Turn! Turn! Turn!” and “Mr. Tambourine Man.” It will not, however, remember “All I Really Want To Do” or “The Bells of Rhymney,” and it shouldn’t, especially when there are so many album tracks that better bespeak the band: “I See You,” “I Come And Stand At Every Door” and I can think of a dozen more.

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The Byrds: The Notorious Byrd Brothers (1968)

notorious byrd brothers album cover“If we had intended to (symbolize Crosby with a horse), we would have turned the horse around.” – Roger McGuinn.

Kronomyth 6.0: THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER. The Notorious Byrd Brothers is completely spaced out. David Crosby and Michael Clarke were simply out. The Byrds’ sixth album marks the end of the classic lineup, even as it marks a fascinating continuation of their classic music into exciting psychedelic areas. The marvel of this record is that the band could move forward creatively even as they were falling apart personally. Gary Usher deserves much credit for holding the sessions together and stitching them up with state-of-the-art studio production, serving as a sort of fifth Byrd (a role that Gene Clark also applied for briefly during the recording sessions). While Crosby probably had to go for the health of the band, his contributions to The Notorious Byrd Brothers are essential—with the caveat that Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman seem to have taken the essence of his songs and altered them, since it’s unlikely at this stage the three collaborated on songwriting. “Draft Morning,” “Tribal Gathering” and “Dolphins Smile” are quintessential Crosby at their core: free and mysterious and powerful. They’re balanced by psychedelic pop songs co-credited to McGuinn and Hillman that rank alongside their best work. “Artificial Energy” is a tripped-out tune with horns that reveals the influence of Sgt. Peppers/Satanic Majesties, and would have almost certainly been banned by the BBC for its references to amphetamines and killing the Queen. You have to wonder if the band didn’t write the song in reaction to the BBC. “Get To You” is perhaps the sweetest song they’ve ever written, kind of a cross between an Irish folk song and a minor-key pop masterpiece. “Old John Robertson” shows that the band doesn’t need to pilfer from the past to play great folk music (in an odd twist, I would have liked to hear Bob Dylan do a version of this). Where Younger Than Yesterday made a conscious shift toward country-folk (notably in the contributions from Chris Hillman), The Notorious Byrd Brothers shifts again into the psychedelic. Hillman’s “Natural Harmony” sounds nothing like “Time Between,” and the band’s earlier Beatles comparisons, which landed closer to the acoustic side of Rubber Soul, now sound like the electric experiments of George Harrison (“Change Is Now”). (The comparison is even clearer on “Moog Raga,” an instrumental that was appended to the 1997 expanded reissue.) The album once again ends on a strange note, the space/sea chanty “Space Odyssey.” It’s become a Byrds formula to grab the listener with a powerful opening track and leave them scratching their heads at the end. While I don’t believe in a “best” Byrds album (they’re all different, they’re all good), The Notorious Byrd Brothers is an amazing last ride into the technicolor sunset.

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Roger McGuinn (1973)

Kronomyth 1.0: FREE AS A BYRD. Roger McGuinn’s first album is all over the map: blues, jazz, country, folk, rock, and one song performed on the banjo and Moog synthesizer (“Time Cube,” in case you’re curious). The guest list is an impressive one that includes all of the original Byrds, Bob Dylan and Bruce Johnston. And yet, somehow, Roger McGuinn was roundly ignored by fans and FM radio stations alike. It’s too bad, since the album deserves an audience (at least Brian Eno seems to have picked up a copy, to judge by the cover of Taking Tiger Mountain By Strategy). The Byrds’ albums were often eclectic affairs, and McGuinn returns to the same haunts on his own: Dylan-inspired folk rock (“I’m So Restless”), airy/jazzy David Crosby songs (“My New Woman”), songs about planes (“Draggin’) and authentic folk songs (“Heave Away”). McGuinn also steals a page from the Byrds-inspired Eagles (“Lost My Drivin’ Wheel”) and prefigures the island feel of “Don’t You Write Her Off” on “M’Linda.” Where the main Byrdman fails on his first album is in creating a clear persona. He takes pains not to try the same trick twice, and the album’s scattershot approach is its undoing. It’s an interesting record, often engaging, but I couldn’t tell you where the man’s loyalties lie after hearing this album: folk, jazz, pop, rock. This can be filed under “too smart for its own good” if you care, with a caveat that it’s too smart to ignore.

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McGuinn, Clark & Hillman (1979)

This was actually my first adventure in byrding, having netted it for “Don’t You Write Her Off,” then releasing it, then capturing it anew in a used record store. (The great cycle of something, I suppose.) It caused a small stir at the time and contained three wonderful tracks: “Long Long Time,” “Don’t You Write Her Off” and “Surrender To Me.” These songs are representative of what was right about the ‘70s soft rock movement. The rest of the album flirts with disco, adopting the city-slicker-in-cowboy-boots stance of Eagles and others. Honestly, the album begins to fall apart after “Surrender To Me,” though the closing “Bye Bye, Baby” is an awfully pretty ballad. Like the CS&N alliances, the three songwriters came to this project as individuals, choosing to write with outside collaborators rather than each other. Where they meet is in the harmonies, though even here other artists cloud the picture. That the trio couldn’t came up with better material is a bit disappointing, but that they left any kind of keepsake behind is a plus. However, this isn’t The Byrds in their natural setting. The pointless plug from Stephen Peeples on the cover and the staged cover photography scream “Cheese factor nine and scaling.” In fact, I’d rate this as some of the worst album packaging of all time. What’s inside is occasionally very good, especially the opening four cuts, which compare favorably to Bob Welch, Eagles et cetera. Still, the world needed The Byrds, not more songs about groupies, maneating women and soured relationships. At some point in your life, you should hear “Long Long Time,” “Don’t You Write Her Off” and “Surrender To Me.” The rest of this record you can live without.

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Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman Featuring Gene Clark: City (1980)

The second album from the Byrds trio, diminished to a duo because of Gene Clark’s instability (sound like any other trios you know?). Clark wrote and sang on only two tracks, then split to sort things out or solve mysteries with Daphne and the gang or something, leaving McGuinn and Hillman on the hook with the Alberts to make another album. While it lacks the standout pop singles of their last album, City does sound more like the work of the Byrds, just not their best work. “Let Me Down Easy,” “One More Chance” and the silly “Skate Date” aren’t bad at all. “Painted Fire” and “Who Taught The Night” are, in fact, pretty bad. The pair probably should have spread these records out a little farther, like CS&N regrouping every three to five years after they’d had a chance to stockpile better songs. While a lot of City is filler, it’s no worse than Graham Nash’s albums from the 80s. And the new decade found a lot of folk rockers floundering: Neil Young, Bob Dylan, etc. Most bands from the 60s and 70s have the 80s to thank for an album or two in the discount cut-out bin with their name on it. If you’re intent on owning everything by The Byrds and can defend these solo byrdflights the way most of us defend solo albums by the Fab Four, then you’ll find something of interest in City. McGuinn and Hillman have earned that kind of loyalty, and the clustering with Clark, however brief, will be too tantalizing to some, like the magic glyph of CS&N that has been invoked throughout the ages. There’s little magic on here, mostly mediocre and midtempo rock songs that shine in relation to pleasant memories you have of The Byrds, and not the reunion you bin looking for (every sentence, there is an imperfect ending).

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[Review] The Byrds: Sweetheart of the Rodeo (1968)

sweetheart of the rodeo album coverKronomyth 7.0: HOLY COWBOY. Gram Parsons didn’t join The Byrds, he hijacked them. Calling this album a “complete reinvention” or “radical departure from the past” doesn’t capture the shock of hearing Sweetheart of the Rodeo for the first time. By turning their back on their psychedelic past, The Byrds helped to create a new genre of music: country-rock. Of course, there was always the undercurrent of folk/country in the music of The Byrds, but we never knew how deep those waters ran until Rodeo arrived. Chris Hillman’s roots were in folk music and, as a Christian, songs such as “I Am A Pilgrim,” “The Christian Life” and Woody Guthrie’s “Pretty Boy Floyd” were likely already familiar to him. Byrds fans, however, were unprepared for an entire album of country classics complete with pedal steel guitar, fiddle, banjo and mandolin. As for Roger McGuinn, who seems to have abdicated the leadership role (I never saw the band as having a leader to begin with), his versions of Bob Dylan’s “You Ain’t Going Nowhere” and “Nothing Was Delivered” may be the album’s most obvious links to the past. The Dylan parallels are interesting here, as I keep coming back to the shock that listeners felt when Dylan and his band plugged in electric instruments; Sweetheart of the Rodeo is the inverse of that. The Byrds unplug their instruments, disconnect from the drug scene (musically, not personally) and play country music without a trace of irony. It’s the most “normal” album they’ve ever recorded and yet, at the same time, the most daring thing they’ve ever done. In a very real sense, Sweetheart of the Rodeo opened the floodgates for country music to mix with rock and roll (Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead and other psychedelic acts would soon follow suit). It’s not hyperbole to say that the New Riders of the Purple Sage, the Eagles and the entire country-rock genre owe a deep debt of gratiitude to the groundbreaking work of Gram Parsons and The Byrds. Hearing Parsons, McGuinn and Hillman play country music with rock sensibilities is a revelation. What awaits are songs of outlaws (“Pretty Boy Floyd,” “Life In Prison”) and natural beauty (“Hickory Wind,” “Blue Canadian Rockies”) sweetened by the pleasure of the pedal steel guitar. But be warned: after hearing Rodeo, you may never go back to rock and roll again.

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