Classic Music Review: The Byrds Greatest Hits

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American music critics of the era fell over backwards describing the virtues of The Byrds when they first hit the scene. They were credited with creating folk rock, influencing The Beatles (allegedly on Rubber Soul) and, believe it or not, adding new depth to rock lyrics when Gene Clark inserted the word “probably” in the line “and I’ll probably feel a whole lot better when you’re gone.”

Great song, but come on! One lousy adverb doth not a fucking genius make!

My take on the reviewer excess that welcomed the arrival of The Byrds is that American critics were feeling terribly insecure and perversely patriotic because the British Invasion bands had conquered the pop charts and they were desperate for an American band to challenge the dominance of The Beatles. The critic Mark Deming, the idiot who extolled the lyrical excellence of “probably,” had obviously forgotten about Chuck Berry, whose lyrics had greater depth than the bulk of The Byrds’ originals. Their “invention” of folk-rock is a bogus claim, as Eric Burdon and The Animals electrified folk songs long before The Byrds became The Byrds, and as I mentioned in my review of The Animals, it wasn’t that difficult to do anyway. The claims that they influenced The Beatles are based on stray comments by McCartney and Harrison, who said nice things about them in interviews in music magazines. Trade papers always love to turn the music profession into an environment of competition and conflict, and twist offhand comments into matters of faux significance. The truth is The Byrds would never have come into existence without The Beatles: after seeing A Hard Day’s Night, McGuinn insisted that the fledgling band copy the equipment The Beatles used in the film, right down to the Rickenbacker that gave them their allegedly distinctive sound. Any musician can pick up an idea from another musician, so it’s a cheap argument to claim that someone is influential based on insignificant similarities. I will stick to my position that the person with the greatest influence on the rockers of that era was Bob Dylan, who showed them that lyrics didn’t have to be limited to boy-girl stories.

I also find it difficult to credit The Byrds as a significant influence when they spent so much time covering other people’s songs. This collection contains six covers and five originals. Four of the covers were Dylan songs; the other two were Pete Seeger adaptations. The reason they did so many covers of Dylan songs is simple: Columbia Records was Dylan’s label, and the record company executives must have been delighted to have another marketing channel for their most valuable property. Later they would write more of their own songs, a development that was more successful at fueling ego-conflicts than achieving musical excellence.

From a commercial perspective, The Byrds gave the Yanks some hope when two singles made it to the top of the charts in the U. S. within six months. Not exactly the Fab Four holding all top five spots (and twelve singles in all) on the Billboard Hot 100 the week of April 4, 1964, but that was yesterday’s news! Americans love shouting “We’re Number One!” and victory is victory, no matter how fleeting. The Byrds would never place another single in the Top 10, and their only album to get there was this one.

On the artistic side of the ledger, The Byrds proved to be another band that showed more promise than they delivered. From the historical perspective, the kiss of death for me was their decision to record “My Back Pages” for Younger Than Yesterday in 1967. They did a nice job with the song, but they should have weaned themselves completely from Dylan by their fourth album. The Byrds did get more experimental after their pop chart fade, especially with the album The Notorious Byrd Brothers. However, their experimentation focused on creating unusual sounds rather than improving the quality and range of the underlying music. Beneath all the phasing and flanging you find pretty much the same old folk-rock formula. They never had a completely focused artistic direction, eventually ending their run as a country rock band after dipping into the acid-laced waters of psychedelia.

So, no, I’m not impressed. The Byrds did some nice songs and, following the influence of the Fab Four, some nice harmonic pieces. I will give them credit as facilitators for the movement to infuse pop songs with lyrics of significance, but I have to take away fifty points because those lyrics were Bob Dylan’s. When you get past the hype and look beneath the hood, there really wasn’t much there there.

“Mr. Tambourine Man”: A couple of years later, people would go apeshit when it was discovered that The Monkees didn’t play the instruments on their maiden record. Well, except for Jim McGuinn, neither did The Byrds. Producer Terry Melcher (son of Doris Day, also an artist for Columbia Records) didn’t think the rest of the band was good enough, so he hired session men for the single designed to launch the group into stardom. To the credit of the other members, they did manage to raise their skills enough in a few short months so that Melcher allowed them to record the rest of the album.

Putting all that aside and ignoring the fact that this is but a mere sample of Dylan from a much longer song (a song I don’t care for much anyway), “Mr. Tambourine Man” is technically a great single, if a tad too slick for my tastes. The combination of jangly Rickenbacker and that simple bass slide is a superbly engaging piece of musical arrangement, and the harmonies are both high-quality and pretty enough to make you want to follow each harmonic path. The use of such complex lyrics in a pop song was indeed a radical event at that moment in musical history, so I’m sure it opened the minds of many a songwriter to greater lyrical possibilities. But The Byrds’ role in all that was that of messenger . . . someone with more talent wrote the message.

“I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better”: Gene Clark was The Byrds’ primary in-house songwriter while he was there and his departure due to fear of flying (and McGuinn’s short-sighted refusal to consider accommodation) was a tremendous loss to a band that always seemed to struggle to move beyond its status as a Bob Dylan promo band. I don’t know what changed in the few months from the date when Melcher refused to let them play, but they all sound pretty damned good to me on this track! “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better” rocks harder than most of their early folk-driven tunes while still managing to integrate their strong harmonic capabilities. The rhythm guitar mix with the Gretsch in one channel and the Ric in the other drives the song, and the tonal differences in the two instruments are so distinct that the doubling-up of the rhythm never sounds muddy. Chris Hillman’s bass plugs the holes nicely and Michael Clarke keeps things moving with a steady beat and some key fills. This is also one of my favorite McGuinn vocals, for though he never goes rough, he sings it with enough power and variation to give the vocal ample depth. The call-and-response harmonies are looser and not as pretty as you’d hear with The Hollies, but they work in a song that’s designed to rock. The Byrds proved they could deliver the goods in a free-flowing rocker and I wish more songs like this filled their catalog.

“The Bells of Rhymney”: Pete Seeger turned Idris Davies’ poem of a Welsh mining disaster into a folk song, and The Byrds turned it into a reasonably accessible pop tune. Whether they captured the tragic nature of the event is a matter of debate. The Wikipedia article on the song mentions that the author of The Icons of Rock certainly thought so: “Scott Schinder has noted that the band’s rendition of the song ‘managed to craft the dour subject matter into a radio-friendly pop song without sacrificing the song’s haunting message.'” I call bullshit on Mr. Schinder, as I would any toady of an author with a penchant for elevating rock stars to god-like status. “Dour” subject matter? It’s called the needless loss of human life, dickhead! I don’t find The Byrds’ rendition a particularly moving performance compared to similar translations of tragic events by artists like June Tabor or Steeleye Span. I also think they overplayed their hand with the Rickenbacker, which I find positively annoying on this song.

“Turn, Turn, Turn”: McGuinn had played on recordings of this song by The Limelighters and Judy Collins, so it was pretty simple trick to plug in the Ric and turn it into The Byrds second #1 hit. Pete Seeger’s adaptation of one of the few chapters in the Christian bible actually worth reading is a stirring cry for peace in a world where war is overused as means of settling conflicts, and The Byrds do a wonderful job capturing the emotional subtext of the lyrics. The arrangement is exceptionally strong with its multiple caesuras and the shift in dynamics between chorus and verse adding to the dramatic effect. The harmonies are on point, and McGuinn does a fine job adjusting his voice between chorus (detached, philosophical) and verse (passionate, yearning).

“All I Really Want to Do”: The market for their cover of Dylan’s “All I Really Want to Do” shrunk when Cher released her version at the same time. Both versions are Rickenbackerized, according to the rules of pop-rock hit making in mid-1965. The Byrds’ version is the far more interesting of the two, as they take liberties with melody, harmony and chord structure to squeeze everything they could out of the tune. I find the song rather boring and not one of Dylan’s best efforts, but The Byrds made it into a much stronger piece.

“Chimes of Freedom”: Our third Dylan song is another excerpt of a much longer song, and I have to say I prefer the detached wonder of Dylan’s original to The Byrds’ version, which sounds positively eager and overly enthusiastic. At this point in the record I was thinking, “Boy, I hope these guys change it up pretty soon or I’m going to have to dump them for Gary Lewis and the Playboys.”

“Eight Miles High”: Hooray! Something different! Written about their first and rather unpleasant tour in the U. K. (where they were sued by a band called “The Birds” and suffered the slings and arrows of the British press), the song faced a partial ban in the U. S. because it was believed to be a promo spot for mind-bending hallucinogens. This was allowed to happen because Americans have always been more consistent about defending the Second Amendment than the First.

The lyrics are hardly a blatant advertisement for the joys of frying one’s brain, but a description of cold, gray London through the rain-splattered windows of a limousine using impressionistic/symbolist language:

Round the squares
Huddled in storms
Some laughing
Some just shapeless forms

Sidewalk scenes
And black limousines
Some living
Some standing alone

Though The Byrds claimed that the music was influenced by repeated applications of Coltrane and Ravi Shankar on the tour bus, that’s a serious exaggeration. The chords are standard pop chords; the time signature is 4/4. Nothing fancy there. The primary support for this assertion is McGuinn’s lead guitar solo, which sounds more like the free-form of Ornette Coleman than the complex, disciplined sophistication of Coltrane. The notes he selected may reflect modes more common in Indian music, so I guess you could claim Ravi DNA, but really, what’s the point? It’s a good progressive rock song with intriguing lyrics and an expectation-defying sound that told the world that The Byrds were committed to exploring new possibilities in music. The lead solo certainly was influential, allowing other more talented guitarists to search for possibilities beyond the obvious. I consider “Eight Miles High” the high point (a terrible pun, even for me) of their career. Really.

“Mr. Spaceman”: Is it possible to have the career high point and low point on the same album? I proclaim it so! Winner of my “Oh, for Fuck’s Sake” award on Fifth Dimension AND The Byrds Greatest Hits, this song is a loser on two counts. First, it’s the beginning of the countdown to the point when Hillman and Gram Parsons would transform The Byrds into a more countrified version of the Grateful Dead; second, it’s as cute as anything David Seville ever did.

“5D (Fifth Dimension)”: There’s nothing worse than a rock star who has found religion. McGuinn had changed his name to Roger according to the practices of his new faith, choosing a name that hardly evokes images of a spiritual quest unless you’re a Yankees fan and consider Roger Maris’ chase of Babe Ruth some sort of Hejira. Despite the convoluted lyrics allegedly devoted to explaining Einstein’s Theory of Relativity (actually it sounds more like a drug song than “Eight Miles High”), the music is as Dylanesque as you can get.

“So You Want to Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star”: Wait! Maybe there is something worse than a rock star who has found the truth: a rock star bitching about what a shit job he has fending away the groupies and dealing with his cynical commercial masters! Accompanied by a busy arrangement with mariachi-style trumpets and the sound effects that found their way into many tunes of the time, this song would have worked better as their epitaph. 

“My Back Pages”: The Byrds finally succumb to Death by Dylan. Interestingly enough, I think this is their best Dylan cover, but they should have avoided the temptation, taken an honest look at themselves and said, “Hey! We need a unified artistic direction or we’re as dead as Billy J. Kramer and The Dakotas!” The Byrds certainly went in all kinds of directions after Younger than Yesterday, with Crosby displaying the same tendency to overrate his talents that characterized future bandmate Graham Nash and McGuinn ceding control of the band to the country faction. It didn’t work out too well.

The Byrds won a few pop chart skirmishes against the Brits, but while they were enjoying the accolades and the drug scene, The Beatles would produce Rubber Soul, Revolver and Sgt. Pepper and The Stones would release Aftermath and Between the Buttons (while enjoying the accolades and the drug scene). The Byrds never came close to producing anything that rivaled those records, because they lacked the imagination and musical talent to do so. This was something that afflicted many American bands of the era: promising starts leading to musical cul-de-sacs. American critics with their ingrained sense of superiority may not want to accept that, but the truth is that American rock music in the 1960’s never really found its groove in the same way that the folks in Motown did.

14 responses

  1. […] The Byrds, The Byrds Greatest Hits […]

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  2. […] Latest Classic Music Review: The Byrds Greatest Hits […]

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  3. I love the Byrds (the orginial incarnation), but you’re correct that their role in music is a tad over-rated by critics and historians. Their legacy includes a lot of lost potential, especially Gene Clark. His problems went far beyond just a fear of flying – he suffered from deep general anxiety in the era before anxiety controlling medication was worked out.

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  4. PS–the word “probably” had to be added; without it there wouldn’t be enough syllables in that line.

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  5. Chris Hillman’s talk at the Library of Congress is a great
    oral history of the life and times ; of the people and places and music.
    Forty years in eighty minutes.

    He is open and transparent ; the talk provides critical insights to much of this
    ARC review.

    i can not seem to get a link working.
    Hillman’s comments on the Byrds// Beatles begin at the 22 minute mark.

    Perhaps someone will post the link.

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  6. At a time when I was playing guitar a lot more often I remember hearing that the timing was off in a Monkees song. If they started playing their own instruments they shouldn’t have, probably.

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  7. Another great, accurate and incisive ARC review!

    If ever there was a band that has had tons of utter bullshit written about them, it’s this lot. I got BANNED a few years ago from a renowned music forum for agreeing with another poster who expressed the opinion that Roger McGuinn was devoid of originality. He made a strong case for his argument, I joined in then the forum owner screamed at us and we could no longer log in. Utterly petulant because there are some of us – like yourself – who DON’T agree that The Byrds were so mighty and wonderful as critics and writers proclaim.

    First of all, they ripped off and fused Dylan, The Beatles and… drum roll… The Searchers. Not that McGuinn has ever had the grace to admit the Searchers influence but Mike Pender did THAT “jangly” guitar and had hits using it before The Byrds came along. Those first albums are monotonous as hell and it’s believed that Gene Clark was mainly the driving force. Bye bye Gene and then David Crosby and Chris Hillman stepped into Gene’s shoes… McGuinn readily went along with whatever they wanted and Hillman was trying to steer into a more country direction only for Crosby to foul things up as he had no sense of direction at all. Cue another couple of confused albums. Bye bye Crosby, Hillman gets his mate Gram Parsons into the band and the pair of them pushed for all out country and as usual, McGuinn went along with it resulting in that godawful “Sweetheart Of The Rodeo” rubbish after which bye bye Hillman and Parsons and the band had no real identity after that… but still kept tossing in the occasional Dylan cover. Yeah… that’s the mighty McGuinn. Oh, how controversial my views are but the musical evidence backs it up. Though it sounds like I hate the guy, I don’t, but the way he’s been heralded as if he’s some genius is complete and utter tosh.

    The Byrds recorded enough material for a decent best of compilation but this isn’t it as it leans too heavily on the monotonous jingle jangle era. I’ve listened to their entire works spurred by the rave stuff I kept reading about them and granted, there’s a handful of great tracks in there but most of it is pleasantly forgettable. I was rather disappointed since they were hyped up so much, I was expecting something more, something more radical but… and that’s how I feel about The Byrds in one word – BUT…

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  8. Over the past couple years, I’ve bought up the first six Byrds albums, always hoping that the next one would be better than the ones I already have, and I’ve mostly been disappointed. I think the first album is the only one with a claim to greatness, and I’m not sure if that claim is justified. So the Greatest Hits is probably the way to go with this band.

    I wonder how “Mr. Spaceman” got on there. Was it really a hit? Those Byrds songs about extra-terrestrials are all so embarrassing. I agree that the Byrds’ influence on the Beatles was minimal, but one thing I noticed all on my own is that their song “Thoughts And Words” sounds like a precursor to “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”

    The CD reissues of the Byrds albums are really well-done, by the way, with liner notes that get right to the point and bonus tracks that are sometimes worthwhile and are separated from the actual album by several seconds of silence. Every band should have reissues like this. Unfortunately, the music is highly variable in quality and somewhat lacking in originality–something that you’ve captured nicely in this review.

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    1. Thank you—I have the same feeling that The Byrds shoulda, coulda been much better than they were. After doing the Dad’s 45’s series, I noticed this same tendency with a lot of L. A. bands: there was obvious talent but a general lack of artistic direction. Still, I will have to check out the CD reissues—I love it when the powers that be take the job seriously and give us a true retrospective of an artist’s work.

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      1. Somebody once observed that the British bands of the sixties had a better work ethic than the American bands and were more focused on becoming successful and maintaining their success. The contrast is really striking when you think about it. I wonder why there was such a big difference. Maybe the more rigid class structure in England made musicians feel like rebels if they made a lot of money, allowing them to rub elbows with the upper classes, while in America musicians felt like if they made a lot of money they would actually BECOME part of the hated establishment that was shipping young men off to Vietnam to die. So the Americans were more ambivalent about success, causing them to self-destruct, either intentionally or unintentionally.

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        1. That is a very perceptive comment—it’s something I’ve always felt but couldn’t put words to it. You can hear the intense desire to escape the lower classes in The Beatles’ version of “Money,” but also in the sheer quality of musicianship in many of the Invasion bands like the Yardbirds and Kinks. There’s more commitment in the sound of a British band of that period; the Americans sometimes sound like they don’t take the music seriously.

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  9. New to your site, and properly impressed most of the time (though George S remains the King; happy to make you the Queen!) Just a quick point about the Byrds, though: it’s well enough to criticize their obsession with Dylan, but to not review their very best album, Younger than Yesterday is to do them a great disservice. Beautifully crafted songs, and proof that even without the mercurial Gene Clark, they could compete with the better British groups. Do please add a review sometime, it should be on your list of classic 60’s albums.

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    1. Great idea! Thank you.

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