The Byrds Biography

Originally formed as a trio, the Jet Set, this seminal band featured Jim (Roger) McGuinn (James Joseph McGuinn, 13 July 1942, Chicago, Illinois, USA; vocals/lead guitar), Gene Clark (b. Harold Eugene Clark, 17 November 1944, Tipton, Missouri, USA, d. 24 May 1991, Sherman Oaks, California, USA; vocals, tambourine, rhythm guitar) and David Crosby (b. David Van Cortlandt, 14 August 1941, Los Angeles, California, USA; vocals/rhythm guitar). Essentially ex-folkies caught up in the Beatles craze of 1964, they were signed to a one-off singles contract with Elektra Records that resulted in the commercially unsuccessful ‘Please Let Me Love You’, released under the pseudonym Beefeaters. By late 1964, the trio had expanded to include former bluegrass player turned bass player Chris Hillman (b. 4 December 1942, Los Angeles, California, USA) and drummer Michael Clarke (b. Michael Dick, 3 June 1946, Spokane, Washington State, USA, d. 19 December 1993, Treasure Island, Florida, USA). Under the supervision of manager/producer Jim Dickson, they recorded at Hollywood’s World Pacific studios, slowly and painfully perfecting their unique brand of folk rock. In November 1964, they signed to CBS Records as the Byrds, and were placed in the hands of producer Terry Melcher (b. 8 February 1942, New York City, New York, USA, d. 19 November 2004, Beverly Hills, California, USA).

The Byrds’ debut single, ‘Mr Tambourine Man’, was a glorious creation, fusing the lyrical genius of Bob Dylan with the harmonic and melodic ingenuity of the Beatles (McGuinn later described his vocal on the disc as a cross between that of John Lennon and Bob Dylan). The opening guitar sound of a Rickenbacker 12-string is one that has been linked to the Byrds and McGuinn ever since. By the summer of 1965, the single had topped both the US and UK charts and the Byrds found themselves fêted as teen-idols. They fulfilled this image with their immaculately groomed fringed haircuts and pop trappings, including Crosby’s green suede cape and McGuinn’s rectangular, tinted granny-glasses. To coincide with their UK success, a tour was hastily arranged on which they were promoted as ‘America’s Answer To The Beatles’. This presumptuous and premature labelling backfired and during their exhausting visit they fell victim to over-expectant fans and tetchy critics. To make matters worse, their second single, ‘All I Really Want To Do’, suffered split sales due to an opportunistic cover version from folk rock rival Cher. The band’s management attempted to compensate for this setback by simultaneously promoting the b-side, Gene Clark’s ‘I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better’, a stunning slice of cynical romanticism that swiftly became a stage favourite.

The Byrds’ debut album, Mr Tambourine Man, was a surprisingly solid work that featured four Dylan cover versions, a striking rearrangement of Pete Seeger’s ‘Bells Of Rhymney’ and some exceptionally strong torch songs from Clark, including ‘I Knew I’d Want You’, ‘Here Without You’ and ‘You Won’t Have To Cry’. There was even a strange reworking of the wartime favourite ‘We’ll Meet Again’, which ended the album on a bizarre yet amusing note. After returning to the USA, the Byrds spent months in the studio before releasing their third single, the biblically inspired ‘Turn! Turn! Turn!’, which gave them another US number 1. The album of the same name again showed the prolific Gene Clark in the ascendant with the charming ‘The World Turns All Around Her’ and the densely worded ‘Set You Free This Time’, their most sophisticated lyric to date and arguably their definitive self-penned folk rock statement. McGuinn’s presence was also felt on the driving ‘It Won’t Be Wrong’ and elegiac ‘He Was A Friend Of Mine’, with lyrics pertaining to the Kennedy assassination. An odd tribute to Stephen Foster closed the album in the form of the sarcastic ‘Oh! Susannah’.

By early 1966, the band had parted from producer Melcher and branched out from their stylized folk rock repertoire to embrace raga and jazz. The awesome ‘Eight Miles High’, with its John Coltrane -inspired intro and lead break (both from Africa/Brass) and enigmatic lyrics, effectively elevated them to the artistic level of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, but their chart rewards were severely qualified by a radio ban based on spurious allegations that their latest hit was a ‘drugs song’. In fact, the lyric had been written following their visit to England and the unusual imagery was based on their sense of culture shock. The b-side of the disc, ‘Why’, included some raga-like guitar work from McGuinn, and during a press conference of the period, they were pictured studiously playing a sitar, although none of them had mastered the instrument. The setback over the banning of ‘Eight Miles High’ was worsened by the abrupt departure of leading songwriter Clark, whose fear of flying and distaste for life on the road had proved intolerable burdens. Continuing as a quartet, the Byrds recorded Fifth Dimension, a clever amalgam of hard, psychedelic-tinged pop (‘I See You’ and ‘What’s Happening?!?!’) and rich, folk rock orchestration (‘Wild Mountain Thyme’ and ‘John Riley’). Their chart fortunes were already waning by this time and neither the quizzically philosophical ‘5-D (Fifth Dimension)’ nor the catchy ‘Mr Spaceman’ made much impression on the charts. The Byrds, rather than promoting their latest album with endless tours, became more insular and were the subject of speculation that they were on the point of breaking up.

The pivotal year in their career proved to be 1967, commencing with the hit single ‘So You Want To Be A Rock ‘N’ Roll Star’, an acerbic observation on the manufacturing of pop stars, complete with taped screams from their ill-fated UK tour and a guest appearance from Hugh Masekela on trumpet. Its b-side, ‘Everybody’s Been Burned’, displayed Crosby’s songwriting and vocal sensitivity with an exceptionally strong guitar solo from McGuinn and some stupendous jazz-inspired bass work from Hillman. Their fourth album, Younger Than Yesterday, proved their best yet, ably capturing the diverse songwriting skills of Crosby, McGuinn and Hillman and ranging in material from the raga-tinged ‘Mind Gardens’ to the country-influenced ‘Time Between’, the quirky space rock of ‘CTA 102’ and even an ironically retrospective Dylan cover version, ‘My Back Pages’. Their creative ascendancy coincided with intense inter-group rivalry, culminating in the dismissal of the ever-controversial David Crosby, who would later re-emerge as part of the hugely successful Crosby, Stills And Nash. As Crosby told Johnny Rogan: ‘They came zooming up my driveway in their Porsches and said that I was impossible to work with and I wasn’t very good anyway and they’d do much better without me. It hurt like hell and I just said “it’s a shameful waste, goodbye”.’ The remaining Byrds, meanwhile, recruited former colleague Gene Clark, who lasted a mere three weeks before his aerophobia once more took its toll. Drummer Michael Clarke was dismissed from the line-up soon afterwards, leaving McGuinn and Hillman to assemble The Notorious Byrd Brothers, a classic example of artistic endeavour overcoming adversity. For this album, the Byrds used recording studio facilities to remarkable effect, employing phasing, close microphone technique and various sonic experiments to achieve the sound they desired. Producer Gary Usher, who worked on this and their previous album, contributed significantly towards their ascension as one of rock’s most adventurous and innovative bands. Once again, however, it was the songs rather than the studio gimmickry that most impressed. Successful readings of Gerry Goffin and Carole King’s ‘Goin’ Back’ and ‘Wasn’t Born To Follow’ were placed alongside Byrds originals such as ‘Change Is Now’, ‘Dolphin’s Smile’, ‘Tribal Gathering’ and ‘Draft Morning’.

In early 1968, Hillman’s cousin Kevin Kelley (b. 1943, USA, d. 20 April 2002) took over on drums and the talented Gram Parsons (b. Ingram Cecil Connor III, 5 November 1946, Winter Haven, Florida, USA, d. 19 September 1973, Joshua Tree, California, USA) added musical weight as singer, composer and guitarist. Under Parsons’ guidance, the band plunged headlong into country, recording the much-acclaimed Sweetheart Of The Rodeo. A perfectly timed reaction to the psychedelic excesses of 1967, the album predated Dylan’s Nashville Skyline by a year and is generally accepted as the harbinger of country rock. Although Parsons directed the work and included one of his best compositions, ‘Hickory Wind’, his lead vocals on such country standards as ‘You Don’t Miss Your Water’ and ‘You’re Still On My Mind’ were replaced by those of McGuinn due to contractual complications. It was not until 1990 that the public heard the rough original vocals, which were incorporated into a retrospective boxed set package. McGuinn re-established the Bob Dylan links on Sweetheart Of The Rodeo by featuring two songs from the then unreleased The Basement Tapes, ‘You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere’ and ‘Nothing Was Delivered’. The critical plaudits heaped upon the Byrds were not translated into sales, however, and further conflict ensued when Gram Parsons dramatically resigned on the eve of their ill-advised tour of South Africa in the summer of 1968.

From 1965-68, the Byrds had produced some of the greatest and most memorable work ever recorded in the history of popular music. Their remarkable ability to ride trends and incorporate stylistically diverse material ranging from folk and country to raga, jazz and space rock demonstrated a profound vision and a wondrous spirit of adventure and innovation that few of their contemporaries could dream of, let alone match. Their work from this period still sounds fresh and contemporary, which is a testament to their pioneering worth. Their achievements were all the more remarkable given the loss of several key personnel over the years. Rather than destroying the Byrds, their frequent and often inflammatory internal acrimony served as a creative catalyst, prompting a combative and proprietorial sense that resulted in some of the era’s most spectacular recordings. Among their contemporaries only the Beatles could boast a body of work of such consistency, and the Byrds were probably unmatched in terms of musical diversity and eclecticism.

Late 1968 saw them at their lowest ebb, with Hillman quitting after a dispute with their new manager Larry Spector. The embittered bass player soon reunited with the errant Parsons in the Flying Burrito Brothers. McGuinn, meanwhile, assumed total control of the Byrds and assembled an entirely new line-up featuring the remarkably talented guitarist and banjo player Clarence White (b. Clarence LeBlanc, 7 June 1944, Lewiston, Maine, USA, d. 14 July 1973, Palmdale, California, USA), John York (vocals/bass) and Gene Parsons (b. Eugene Victor Parsons, 4 September 1944, Los Angeles, California, USA; vocals/drums). This new phase began promisingly enough with the single ‘Bad Night At The Whiskey’, backed by the McGuinn/Gram Parsons song ‘Drug Store Truck Driving Man’. York lasted long enough to contribute to two albums, Dr Byrds & Mr Hyde and Ballad Of Easy Rider, before being replaced by journeyman Skip Battin (b. Clyde Battin, 2 February 1934, Galipolis, Ohio, USA, d. 6 July 2003, Palm Springs, California, USA). This unlikely but stable line-up lasted from 1969-72 and re-established the Byrds’ reputation with the hit single ‘Chestnut Mare’ and the bestselling album (Untitled). The latter, a two-disc set, demonstrated just what an excellent live attraction they had become. McGuinn was given freedom to expand three-minute songs into sets that began to resemble the Grateful Dead. Battin stretched out with bass solos, and White grew in stature as an exemplary lead guitarist. Regular concert appearances brought the Byrds a strong groundswell support, but the quality of their early 70s output lacked consistency. McGuinn often took a back seat and his familiar nasal whine was replaced with inferior vocals from the other members.

After three successive albums with their first producer Melcher, they again severed their connections with him owing to his decision to include orchestration on Byrdmaniax. The Byrds hurriedly attempted to record a compensatory work, Farther Along, but it only served to emphasize their disunity. On this final album some of their worst efforts appeared; even the dreadful ‘B.B. Class Road’ was beaten by a song that tops the poll as the worst Byrds song ever committed to record, the unbelievably bad ‘America’s Great National Pastime’. This nadir was briefly improved by two songs, ‘Tiffany Queen’ and White’s poignant vocal on ‘Buglar’. McGuinn eventually elected to dissolve the band after agreeing to participate in a recorded reunion of the original Byrds for Asylum Records. Released in 1973, Byrds received mixed reviews, prompting the band members to revert to their various solo/offshoot ventures. On this perplexing release they attempted Neil Young’s ‘Cowgirl In The Sand’ and Joni Mitchell’s ‘For Free’. That same year tragedy struck when ex-Byrd Clarence White was killed by a drunken driver while loading equipment into the truck. Less than three months later, Gram Parsons died from a drug overdose.

The Byrds’ legacy has continued in a host of new acts which either borrowed their Rickenbacker sound or traded off their folk/country roots (Tom Petty in particular). The individual members later featured in a host of offshoot groups such as Dillard And Clark, various permutations of the Flying Burrito Brothers, Manassas, Souther Hillman Furay and, of course, Crosby, Stills, Nash And Young. Ironically, the ex-Byrds (with the exception of Crosby) failed to exploit their superstar potential, even after reuniting as McGuinn, Clark And Hillman. By the 80s, the individual members were either recording for small labels or touring without a record contract. Crosby, meanwhile, had plummeted into a narcotic netherworld of free-base cocaine addiction, and, after several seizures and arrests, was confined to prison. He emerged reformed, corpulent and enthusiastic, and amid a flurry of activity set about resurrecting the Byrds moniker with McGuinn and Hillman. Crosby, for once humble, acknowledged in interviews that ‘McGuinn was, is and will always be the very heart of the Byrds’, and added that no reunion was possible without his participation. An acrimonious lawsuit with Michael Clarke ended with the drummer assuming the right to the group name.

Although a proposed five-way reunion of the Byrds for a live album and world tour was mooted, the old conflicts frustrated its immediate fruition. However, McGuinn, Crosby and Hillman completed four songs in Nashville during August 1990 which were subsequently included on a boxed set featuring 90 songs. The nearest that the Byrds came to a full reunion was when they were each inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in January 1991. The chance of playing together again finally elapsed with the death of Gene Clark later that year and Michael Clarke, of liver failure, in 1993.

By the mid-90s the Byrds were acknowledged as one of the most influential bands of the rock era, and, like the Beatles, little of their catalogue sounds dated. This was confirmed in 1996/7 when the first eight albums were expertly remastered and reissued with bonus tracks that had previously only been heard by the Byrds’ serious followers. Albums such as The Notorious Byrd Brothers and Younger Than Yesterday are certified classics, and much of their earlier catalogue is indispensable. McGuinn continues to tour small venues with his Rickenbacker and Martin 12-string acoustic, happy to reprise ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ and his devastating solo on ‘Eight Miles High’. Crosby has survived with a new kidney, a young child and the rounder he gets, the sweeter his voice becomes. Hillman is producing some excellent bluegrass with Larry Rice and Herb Pedersen. It is sad that the late Gene Clark, the Byrd’s prolific songwriter, is only now receiving universal acclaim. His song ‘Feel A Whole Lot Better’ is recognized as a classic of the 60s; ironic that it only appeared as a b-side in 1965. Johnny Rogan’s magnificent biography Timeless Flight Revisited expands their story over 700 pages. A substantial amount of Byrds’ albums deserves to be in any comprehensive record collection as they form the foundation of much of the music we listen to today. Their influence is inestimable.


Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.


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