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Original members included Gene Clark (born November 17, 1941, in Tipton, MO; died May 24, 1991, in Los Angeles, CA; left group, 1966), vocals; Michael Clarke (born June 3, 1944, in New York, NY; left group, 1968), drums; David Crosby (born August 14, 1941, in Los Angeles; left group, 1967), guitar; Chris Hillman (born December 4, 1942, in Los Angeles; left group, 1968), bass; and Roger McGuinn (born Jim McGuinn, July 13, 1942, in Chicago, IL, [changed name, 1968]), guitar.

Originators of folk-rock and pioneers of acid- and country-rock, the Byrds were one of the most influential bands in rock history. They left their mark on the sounds of the Eagles, Tom Petty, R.E.M., and hundreds of less well-known artists. The Byrds reclaimed rock and roll as an American music form in the wake of the Beatles-led British Invasion of English bands and brought a previously unimagined level of lyricism and artistic experimentation to pop music.

The Byrds were formed in 1964--when the British Invasion was at its height and the early 1960s folk scene that had built an intellectual wing onto American popular music was fading. Byrds founder Roger McGuinn was a moderately successful folksinger who had backed up his then-more-famous colleague Judy Collins, playing 12-string guitar and banjo on her recordings of the classic Pete Seeger compositions "Turn! Turn! Turn!" and "The Bells of Rhymney," among others. He had also played with Bobby Darin, the Chad Mitchell Trio, and the Limeliters. In 1964 McGuinn was playing coffeehouses in Los Angeles. He recalled of those days in Mike Jahn's book Rock, "I knew folk music was on its last legs. I loved folk music.... But [by 1964] it was obvious it was dying."

Actually, McGuinn had never been a folk purist. "I started with rock," he told Guitar Player. "I started with Elvis, and I was heavily into Carl Perkins, Gene Vincent, the Everly Brothers, and Johnny Cash--that whole rockabilly, Memphis sound." The Beatles showed McGuinn the way back to rock and roll. He began playing Beatles songs during his sets at the Los Angeles folk club the Troubador, but--though still using an acoustic 12-string guitar--he added a rock-like beat to the folk material. As he told Rolling Stone in 1990, "I came out and started blending Beatles stuff with the folk stuff, and the audience hated it. I used to get mad at 'em because I thought it was good.... Later on I ran into [original Byrds vocalist] Gene Clark at the Troubador. He was one of the few people who understood it. He asked if I wanted to write some songs with him. Then [original Byrds guitarist] David Crosby came in and started singing harmony."

Clark, like McGuinn, was a midwestern folkie who had relocated to Los Angeles. He had spent two years with the very commercial folk group the New Christy Minstrels and in 1964 was frequenting folk clubs, writing Beatleseque songs, and looking for a partner. "He was looking for somebody else to go with him in [the folk-rock] direction, and I just happened to be going that way," McGuinn recounted in Rolling Stone.

Crosby, a Los Angeles native, had met McGuinn in 1960. In the intervening years Crosby had played the coffeehouse circuit, sung with Les Baxter's Balladeers, and become part of a group of musicians who would create the California folk- and acid-rock scenes in the following few years. Crosby had also become friends with a recording engineer named Jim Dickson, a jazz buff who had become interested in folk music and made private tapes of folksingers in his spare time.

Dickson took McGuinn, Clark, and Crosby into the studio to make an audition tape. He recalled the sound of that tape in Crosby's autobiography, Long Time Gone: "Because of the British Invasion thing that was happening, they're singing with these English accents. It's marvelous, really, and funny. But they had a sound. There's no question about it. The Byrds." The fledgling group hadn't yet hit on that name, however. McGuinn named them the Jet Set, and when Elektra Records signed them, it released their first single under the name the Beefeaters, trying to appeal to the craze for all things English. The single flopped, and Elektra dropped them.

The Jet Set were still playing acoustic guitars--and as such, were not really considered a rock band--but when they saw the Beatles film A Hard Day's Night, they decided true rock and roll was the way to go. Crosby tried to play bass, but found it impossible to sing when he did. Dickson knew a bluegrass mandolin player named Chris Hillman who was looking for something new; he agreed to join on bass, though he had never played the instrument before. Drums were a bigger problem, but Crosby remembered Michael Clarke, whom he had met while living on the beach in California's Big Sur in 1962. Clarke had never played rock and roll trap drums, only congas and bongos, and couldn't afford a drum kit--he showed up at the first rehearsal with an assortment of cardboard boxes.

Dickson rehearsed McGuinn, Clark, Crosby, Hillman, and Clarke intensely for several months, taping every session and forcing the musicians to listen to the playback. Crosby remembered it in his autobiography as a painful experience. "It was truly terrible. Michael Clarke, when he started out, was the only drummer who could, without any awareness of it at all, turn the beat around, back to front, three times in one song. And none of the rest of us were that much better. Roger was the only one who could really play." But the constant rehearsal paid off, and it was only a few months before the group--by then the Byrds--were ready for their first gig, a $50 lunch-hour set at Los Angeles City College.

The Byrds caught on quickly, with Dickson, as the group's manager, hustling furiously to get them into the new clubs that were opening on Hollywood's Sunset Strip. There they would play four or five sets a night for dancing teenagers, filling out their repertoire with cover versions of current hits. At Ciro's--one of the Strip's biggest clubs--the Byrds finally made their breakthrough in the spring of 1965.

By then they already had a recording contract with Columbia and had released a single, "Mr. Tambourine Man." Dickson had insisted they record the now-classic Bob Dylan song, but producer Terry Melcher decided that the Byrds' musicianship was not up to professional studio standards and used session musicians on the instrumental tracks, though McGuinn did contribute his twelve-string. "Mr. Tambourine Man" was released in March of 1965 and initially moved slowly, not entering the charts until May. Once there, however, it jumped quickly to Number One and stayed in the Top Ten for 13 weeks. Film- and music-business celebrities began showing up at Ciro's to catch the Byrds, and the Los Angeles Times, Variety, and Time wrote about them. Beatle John Lennon sang their praises, and Dylan himself joined them onstage. Somewhere along the way, someone coined the term "folk-rock" to describe the Byrds' unique approach to rock and roll.

What the Byrds had done was truly revolutionary: "Bringing Bob Dylan and the hit parade together," wrote The Map author Paul Williams more than 20 years later, "with a gorgeous twelve-string guitar sound that had nothing to do with either Dylan or 1965 pop, yet somehow served perfectly to unite the two." In a Los Angeles Free Press article quoted in John Stuessy's Rock and Roll, Mike Jahn's Rock, and the liner notes to Mr. Tambourine Man, among other sources, Paul Jay Robbins wrote: "Their singular method is to unite, in a dynamic and irresistible adventure, the techniques and honesty of folk music, the joy and immediacy of r & r, and the virtuosity of jazz.... What the Byrds signify ... is a concept deeply applied to unification and empathy and a rich joy of life.... Dancing with the Byrds becomes a mystic loss of ego and tangibility; you become pure energy someplace between sound and motion and the involvement is total." Bud Scoppa, in The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll, elaborated, writing, "The Byrds pioneered a new approach to rock. It all had to do with the sound.... [The Byrds' sound], with its 12-string symphony and massive chorale was new in rock, ... as diamond-sharp cascading guitar notes intertwined with the Byrds' gothic vocal harmonies."

"Mr. Tambourine Man" was followed that summer by an album of the same name, on which the Byrds played their own instruments. That release in turn was copied by a host of imitators, emulators, and like-minded creators. It was reported that Dylan made up his mind to move toward rock only after hearing the Byrds; the Lovin' Spoonful came out with their own folk-rock sound; and Sonny and Cher, Barry McGuire, Donovan, and Simon and Garfunkel, among others, all rode the folk-rock wave, many of them to greater commercial success than the Byrds had enjoyed.

Though Crosby told Newsweek in September of 1965, "We put reality in music. It's better than June-Foon-Boon-Spoon," the Byrds--who rarely sang Dylan-style protest songs--were not content to remain pigeonholed as "Dylanized Beatles." Their second album, Turn! Turn! Turn!, was much like their first, but the band's third outing, Fifth Dimension, moved well beyond folk-rock--and beyond the conventions of commercial radio in 1966. Crosby had discovered Indian sitarist Ravi Shankar and jazz saxophonist John Coltrane and played tapes of them incessantly while the Byrds were on tour. By the time the band next went into the studio, they had new songs, McGuinn had a new approach to the 12-string, and the Byrds were ready to revolutionize rock once more.

"Eight Miles High," the first single from Fifth Dimension, was unlike anything pop radio had ever seen. With no chorus or lyrical hook, surrealistic lyrics, Hillman's ominous, throbbing bass, and the unconventional counterpoint of McGuinn's jazzy Indian-inspired solo, it was the first psychedelic rock song; despite common misperceptions, however, the song was not about drugs, but the Byrds' first, disastrous tour of England. The title referred to the transatlantic flight: "I said 'Six Miles High,' being more technologically oriented than Gene Clark," Rock author Jahn quoted McGuinn as saying. "Gene said, 'It doesn't sound right poetically, eight miles high sounds better.'" Enduring suspicions about the song's meaning, however, led some radio stations to ban it. Though "Eight Miles High" reached Number 14 on the charts, it was the last Byrds single to make the Top Twenty.

Soon after the release of Fifth Dimension, personality conflicts began to take their toll on the group. The liner notes to the previous album had referred to "fistfights and great mouthfuls of awful abuse" in the recording studio; artistic and personal differences seemed to intensify with each record. Gene Clark was the first to go, driven out by clashes with McGuinn and Crosby and his own fear of flying, which made touring difficult. He teamed up with bluegrass musician Doug Dillard for two albums of country-rock, then went on to make several highly regarded solo records but never equalled the success he had had as a Byrd.

Younger Than Yesterday took the Byrds further from the pop mainstream and deeper into the eclecticism that once led Crosby to describe their music as "rock, folk, bossa nova, jazz, Afro." Of this style Sandy Pearlman wrote in Crawdaddy!, "The Byrds give us magic, science, religion, psychedelic sounds, lots of electronic stuff and technological tongues, love songs, Dylan ... rock and roll, science fiction, some Southern California local lore, an African trumpet guy, a country and western guitar guy, a little bit of raga.... Yet after a while.... they make themselves very familiar." Though Hillman and Crosby became more prominent as singers and songwriters with songs like "Everybody's Been Burned" and "Thoughts and Words," McGuinn's guitar work continued to dominate the Byrds sound.

The first single off Younger Than Yesterday , "So You Want to Be a Rock 'n' Roll Star," satirized the music business; the second, "My Back Pages," was a Dylan song and, in Crosby's opinion, a step backwards. "It was 'Oh, let's make "Tambourine Man" again,'" he told Rolling Stone' s Ben Fong-Torres in 1970. "It was a formula record.... Had all the life and commitment of a four-day old mackerel." It was also the last Byrds single to make it into the Top Forty, peaking at Number 30 as the Byrds became too hip for AM radio and more of a force in the growing "underground" rock scene. As Pearlman observed, "Only the Byrds, amongst modern rock stars, have managed to change their status from stardom to cultural heroism."

Crosby was kicked out of the band during the recording of The Notorious Byrd Brothers. Mike Clarke finished the record, but left before it was released. McGuinn unveiled the "new Byrds" in the spring of 1968; the major addition was Gram Parsons who, McGuinn told Jerry Hopkins of Rolling Stone, "added a whole hunk of country" to the Byrds sound. This new direction was confirmed with the release of Sweetheart of the Rodeo, the album that many credit with starting the country-rock movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Sweetheart was the first Byrds album that did not feature McGuinn's guitar. As he told Guitar Player in 1991, "I guess I was kind of tired by then. Gram was a strong musical force. I just let him go and went along with it." Response to the record was mixed; Richard Goldstein of the Village Voice called it "a gentle, moving work, and the most authentic piece of nostalgia in a year when every folkie worth his Little Sandy Review is going Nashville." Barry Gifford, in Rolling Stone, was more ambivalent, describing Sweetheart of the Rodeo as "interesting" but "uninvolved" and suggesting that it was a weak imitation of genuine country music. But Geoffrey Stokes, writing 18 years later in Rock of Ages, called the release "the Byrds' last perfect album, ... free from condescension ... with a skewed passion as genuine as that of the originals."

Though country music had been an element of the Byrds' style since 1965 and Hillman and Parsons wanted to further pursue country-rock, McGuinn considered Sweetheart of the Rodeo a one-time excursion. Parsons made continued discussion of the point moot when he quit the group rather than tour racially segregated South Africa (a tour McGuinn undertook on the advice of South African singer-activist Miriam Makeba). A few months later, Hillman left to join Parsons in the Flying Burrito Brothers; he later joined guitarist-vocalist Stephen Stills in Manassas, J. D. Souther and Richie Furay in the Souther-Furay-Hillman Band, and eventually made a series of solo albums before ultimately finding a niche in mainstream country music as leader of the Desert Rose Band.

McGuinn, the only remaining original Byrd, hired sidemen to fill out the band. At first the results were good: Dr. Byrds and Mrs. Hyde was praised by Rolling Stone, and with Clarence White on guitar and Gene Parsons on drums, McGuinn was able to declare, "For the first time, the Byrds are better live than on record." But the records became less consistent. Legendary rock scribe Lester Bangs, reviewing (Untitled) in Rolling Stone, remarked, "Some of it is fantastic and some is very poor ... and between the stuff that will rank with their best and the born outtakes lies a lot of rather watery music.... Roger McGuinn and all Cos. have been plowing pastures in the same admittedly verdant American valley for just a season too long now. Their old riffs have run dry." Mixed reviews also greeted Byrdmaniax and Farther Along, and in 1973 McGuinn decided to call it quits.

That decision coincided with the reunion of the five original Byrds in the recording studio. It took several months of negotiation to settle both business and personal issues, but the album was made, and all the Byrds were enthusiastic about it. A tour was considered. Critical response, however, was mostly negative: "Unfocused," Rolling Stone' s judgment, was one of the kinder assessments. McGuinn decided it was time to abandon the Byrds name and launch a solo career.

The solo path turned out to be harder than he had expected. "When you've been in a group," he told Guitar Player' s Alan di Perna in 1991, "there's something that happens psychologically to the public, and I guess to the individual. If you step out of the group, it's almost like you're a traitor.... It's tough to do." Even when the music was good--Robert Christgau, in his Record Guide, called McGuinn's solo debut "more coherent than any Byrds album since Sweetheart of the Rodeo "--sales were not. Even a stint touring with Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue failed to ignite much interest in Roger McGuinn without the Byrds. After five solo albums and three collaborations with other ex-Byrds, he found himself entering the 1980s with neither a band nor a recording contract.

By then, the sound that McGuinn and the Byrds had created had become a major influence on musicians as diverse as Tom Petty, R.E.M., the Bangles, and dozens of British post-punk bands. Ironically, while they copied the jangling guitar sound of the early Byrds records, the man who developed it played solo acoustic sets in small clubs.

Nonetheless, McGuinn did not complain: "Doing solo gigs without a contract was really rewarding," he told Dave DiMartino in Spin. "I almost got to the point of saying who needs to record.... [I] just loved going out and touring. And audiences were so responsive--we just had such a good time all the time." The tide began to turn in the late 1980s with the release of Never Before, a collection of Byrds outtakes and alternate takes that was greeted by Steve Simels of Stereo Review as a reminder that "the Byrds were not only the premier American band of the day, but one of the most innovative and influential bands ever."

As 1990 approached, and thus the Byrds' eligibility for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Columbia Records prepared a four-CD boxed set covering the Byrds' career; McGuinn, Hillman, and Crosby went into the studio to record four new tracks for that collection. And McGuinn found himself in demand elsewhere--he appeared on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's Will The Circle Be Unbroken, Vol. 2, and played guitar on Elvis Costello's album Spike.

The culmination of this activity was a contract for McGuinn with Arista Records and a new album, Back From Rio. The album hit Number 45 on the Billboard chart, and the video of the single "King of the Hill" got considerable play on MTV. John Milward of Rolling Stone wrote, " Back From Rio evokes the commercial pop rock of [the Byrds'] 1967 album Younger Than Yesterday. McGuinn's twelve-string shimmers ... like sunlight on the ocean.... And on terrific tunes by Costello and Jules Shear ... the sound meets the songs to create interpretive magic.... McGuinn is hardly the future of rock & roll, but he's an important part of the past on which that future rests, a past that will not fade away."

In January of 1991, the Byrds were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. McGuinn remarked to Musician' s Jon Young, "Everybody says it's the most prestigious honor in rock 'n' roll, but that's kind of a contradiction in terms, isn't it?" Of the momentous occasion, Rolling Stone concluded: "The Byrds were among the most liberating forces in American rock & roll history, ... rooted partly in age-old folk tradition but with an eye toward unprecedented experimentalism.... This adventurous spirit--this playful mix of old forms, new concerns and spacey improvisation--would help to transform the entire style and context of West Coast rock & roll. And combined with the breakthroughs made by British rock, it would ... transmogrify pop music's cultural purpose.... The Byrds helped turn rock & roll into something dreamy, daring and openhearted, and because of those ambitions, modern pop music is all the richer."

by Tim Connor

Byrds, The's Career

Later members included Skip Battin (born February 2, 1934, in Gallipolis, OH; joined group, 1969), bass; John Guerin (joined group, 1972), drums; Kevin Kelly (born in 1945 in California; joined group, 1968), drums; Gene Parsons (born in 1944 in Los Angeles), drums; Gram Parsons (born Cecil Connor, November 5, 1946, in Winter Haven, FL [changed name, c. 1960]; died September 19, 1973, in Joshua Tree, CA; joined and left group, 1968), guitar; Clarence White (born June 6, 1944, in Lewiston, ME; died July 14, 1973), guitar; and John York (left group, 1969) bass. Group formed in 1964 in Los Angeles; originally named the Jet Set; signed with Elektra Records, released first single as the Beefeaters; signed with Columbia Records, released "Mr. Tambourine Man," 1965; released three LPs; released several LPs with various lineups, 1967-73; group disbanded, 1973; original members reunited to make one album, The Byrds, Asylum, 1973.

Byrds, The's Awards

Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 1991.

Famous Works

Recent Updates

July 6, 2003: Skip Battin, bass guitar player for the group, died on July 6, 2003, in Silverton, Oregon, of complications from Alzheimer's disease. He was 69. Source: Los Angeles Times, July 10, 2003, p. B13.

January 5, 2004: John Guerin, at one time the drummer for the group, died on January 5, 2004, in West Hills, California, of heart failure. He was 64. Source: Los Angeles Times, January 11, 2004, p. B18.

Further Reading



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