My wife loves to cook, and she loves to have music on while she cooks. She usually doesn’t pick any specific album or artist, but uses a Pandora channel curated to her tastes (R.E.M., Indigo Girls, Melissa Etheridge, etc.) During her pot- and pan-rattling and music listening, I relax in the next room sipping my pre-dinner cocktail. (Don’t judge — my job is to do all the post-dinner washing and scrubbing.) Every so often, something incredibly random that Pandora, in its infinite AI wisdom, has decided fits on that channel will grab my ear from her countertop speaker. Maybe something featuring guitar with a touch of “jangle,” some vocal harmony, and a little light on the bass end. I hold up my SoundHound app and the song is invariably something from Matchbox Twenty or Mumford & Sons or some other generic Wonder Bread radio-rock band. I grimace and briefly wrestle with the notion that I may actually like these bands (or at least these songs), but then find relief in the knowledge that these guys are clearly channeling the Byrds. Maybe they think they’re channeling the Beatles, or Big Star, or R.E.M, but no…it’s the Byrds, whose legend seems to be fading even as their influence remains pervasive, if by now second- or third-hand.
I’m talking primarily about the first version of the Byrds here. Most people who know their music history know that the Byrds were really two bands — the 1965-67 folk-influenced rock band, and the 1968-73 country-rock band. The only thing the two had in common was lead guitarist Jim (Roger) McGuinn. The second iteration of the band we’ll leave for another entry next month.
The iconic five-piece original line-up lasted just over a year, but they made a hell of an impact…
Jim McGuinn, with his distinctive square-framed tinted glasses, mushroom of hair, and 12-string Rickenbacker guitar was the group’s visual anchor, usually parked stage left. In the center, working a tambourine for all he was worth, was vocalist and primary songwriter Gene Clark. Next to him was rhythm guitarist David Crosby, shoulders draped in a bottle-green velvet cape and flashing a lopsided, mischievous grin. The backline was bassist Chris Hillman and drummer Michael Clarke, both glowering stand-offishly under identical Brian Jones-style blonde bowl cuts fringing their eyebrows. Ethereal McGuinn and the deeper-voiced Clark traded off on lead vocals, or sung in unison. Crosby added the distinctive high harmony vocal. The driving engine was McGuinn’s electric 12-string, providing the adjective that’s always used to describe the Byrds’ sound — “jangly.”
All of them got their start on the coffeehouse folk scene. Three of them were already music business veterans. And none of them really got along with each other very well. The Byrds were all born into, if not privilege, then at least comfort. David Crosby’s parents were literal millionaires, who kept him out of juvenile hall as he spent his teen years crashing cars and vandalizing property. When Michael Clarke dropped out of school to “find himself” on an odyssey down the west coast, his doting grandmother sent him care packages and cash. This led to a certain self-centeredness in all the band members that contributed to the group’s eventual demise. And this is why I always preferred (and romanticized, I suppose) more working-class rock bands, who fought their way up from nothing together, and had a little more team spirit. The early-Sixties “folkies” always rubbed me the wrong way, anyway. White, well-scrubbed, middle-class college types warbling the “music of the people” with lilting, clearly-enuciated phrasing, and being so goddamned precious about it. They looked down their noses on “commercial” rock and pop, all the while judging and backstabbing each other mercilessly over their perceived “authenticity.” They were just as competitive as anyone else in the music business, while pretending to above such things
Jim McGuinn of Chicago always seemed somewhat otherworldly. A quiet, aloof presence, at first glance almost shy, but with an unstoppable ambitious streak and an iron will that kept him on top as the de facto leader of a very tempestuous band. He attended music school, and went professional at an early age, specializing in folk. As a teenager in the late 1950s and early 1960s, he was a touring member of the Limeliters and the Chad Mitchell Trio, playing the 5-string banjo. When Bobby Darin introduced a folk music segment as part of his live act, McGuinn was his accompanist on 12-string acoustic.
Gene Clark of Kansas City had played in various rock and folk groups since high school. He was discovered and hired by the famous folk collective the New Christy Minstrels in 1962, joining them for two albums before quitting. Sensitive and high-strung, Clark had a smooth tenor voice and a knack for songwriting.
David Crosby of Hollywood. Jesus, this guy. He impulsively became a folk musician out of rich-kid boredom, after dabbling in acting. He was spoiled, extremely temperamental, and thoroughly obnoxious. He admitted to being a “terrible folkie,” unable to properly finger-pick guitar in the traditional folk style (even his strumming was erratic). But he had a pretty voice.
McGuinn, Clark, and Crosby had all been aware of each other as fellow members of the L.A. folk scene, and they hung out together at the Troubadour Club in West Hollywood. In the first flush of Beatlemania, they put their still-shorthaired heads together and came up with a brilliant idea — combine the lyric poetry and protest songs of folk god Bob Dylan with the big-beat sound of The Beatles! They convinced a deep-pocketed music producer by the name of Jim Dickson to serve as their manager. He provided the trio with free studio space and unlimited time therein, and used his connections to get Columbia Records interested in hearing them. Fewer bands have ever been handed such an auspicious starting kit on a silver platter.
The trio — known as the Jet Set — immediately set to work recording demos, mostly from the pen of Gene Clark. The songs were decent enough, but still missing something. A more electric sound perhaps? McGuinn and Crosby were blown away after seeing the Beatles’ film A Hard Day’s Night in August of 1964. The film prominently featured George Harrison playing a 12-string Rickenbacker electric guitar, which at the time of the movie’s production was still a one-off prototype. The Byrds immediately had Dickson shell out for the now-available Rickenbacker, with a blonde wood finish, and also Harrison’s preferred 6-string, a plum-colored Gretsch Tennessean.
As they developed their sound further, committing to a more rock-oriented approach, they realized they needed a bassist and a drummer on a permanent basis. A friend of the trio, songwriter Ivan Ulz, recommended an 18-year-old dropout he knew from San Francisco. Michael Clarke (born Michael Dick in Seattle) had never touched a drum kit before in his life. His sole percussion experience was playing bongos on the beach like the beatnik he was. But he looked perfect. Strikingly handsome with a head full of shimmering hair, already insanely long. He was immediately hired and brought to the studio space, where he was given a pair of drumsticks and some cardboard boxes and told to master the rudiments of rock and roll drumming while funds were gathered for a real drum kit.
With McGuinn firmly installed on the Rickenbacker, the instrumental roles of Clark and Crosby were up in the air. Originally, Clark played rhythm guitar and Crosby’s sole task was to provide harmony vocals. But his awkward gyrations onstage during an early practice gig at the Troubadour provoked audience hysterics, and convinced everyone he needed to be stock-still and behind an instrument. At first, the bass player vacancy appeared to be neatly filled — but Crosby found he couldn’t play single-note bass and sing at the same time. So the Gretsch was stripped from Clark and given to Crosby, who could comfortably strum rhythm while harmonizing. A bass player would have to found elsewhere, as Clark was even weaker on the instrument.
They didn’t look far. Dickson, whose original production specialty was bluegrass, had a pet project in the form of bluegrass combo the Hillmen, named after their young mandolin prodigy, L.A. native Chris Hillman. The Hillmen could not get a record deal, and had recently gone defunct. Like Clarke and the drums, Chris Hillman had never even held a bass guitar before. That did not seem to be an obstacle to Dickson, who assumed anyone who could play mandolin could play bass. Hillman was duly hired, strapped to a cheap red Japanese bass guitar, and told to straighten his naturally curly hair into the proper British Invasion bowl cut. (His instrument was later upgraded to a Fender, and later still to a nice Guild semi-hollow body with a sunburst finish.)
Over the course of a memorable Thanksgiving dinner at the end of ‘64, ideas for a new band name were tossed around by the band’s brain trust (Dickson and McGuinn) after they found out that there was already a band called the Jet Set. “The Birds” quickly came up — it had that all-important “B” at the beginning, putting people in mind of that other “B” band, but it didn’t become a lock until they came up with the key spelling twist. “The Byrds” sounded suitably British. (Also, there was already a British rock band called the Birds, featuring future Rolling Stone Ron Wood.)
Rehearsals and demo sessions completed (the Jet Set demos can be heard on The Preflyte Sessions compilation), hair all grown out, and a recording contract in hand, the band did not even play a proper gig before heading into the Columbia studio on Sunset Boulevard to record their first single on January 20, 1965.
Or, more precisely, McGuinn went into the studio, accompanied only by session musicians. In what was common industry practice, Columbia did not want to waste expensive studio time recording take after take with untested instrumentalists, so they brought in some ringers. The label bosses grudgingly accepted McGuinn (they originally wanted Glen Campbell on the 12-string), but he would be backed by members of L.A.’s fabled “Wrecking Crew” — a loose-knit squad of seasoned pros who played on just about every pop record recorded in L.A. in the 1960s. So Crosby and Clark waited impatiently in the control room as McGuinn laid down the backing track with Larry Knetchel (bass), Leon Russell (electric piano), Bill Pittman and Jerry Cole (rhythm guitars), and the great Hal Blaine (drums). McGuinn, Crosby, and Clark taped their vocals later.
The song? Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Dylan’s version was not even released yet, but Dickson got his hands on an early version recorded for and rejected from Dylan’s 1964 album Another Side of Bob Dylan. Their studio-assigned producer, Terry Melcher, made some great post-recording production choices: McGuinn’s guitar is boosted to the max, and compressed heavily to provide that long sustain (“jangle”), with the rhythm guitars faded low and the electric piano entirely dropped (sorry, Leon). The other primary instrument is, of course, the tambourine, mixed high with heavy reverb. Funnily enough, I was unable to discover the actual tambourine player on the track (my guess would be Blaine via an overdub). They retained only one of Dylan’s four verses, and focused on the chorus, turning Dylan’s epic poem into a perfect, glistening pop song. “Folk rock” was officially born. Continue reading