It's been more than 30 years since The Byrds crashed and burned for the last time, seemingly forever, after an abortive 1973 reunion album by the band once hailed as "the American Beatles."
Formed in late 1964, the original lineup of this legendary (and legendarily fractious) Los Angeles group featured singer-guitarists Roger McGuinn and David Crosby, singer-percussionist Gene Clark, bassist Chris Hillman and drummer Michael Clarke.Clark left by early 1966. Crosby was ousted in October 1967 after repeated creative and personal differences with McGuinn, while Clarke quit two months later. With Hillman gone by late 1968, McGuinn was the only founding member still on board.
McGuinn, Hillman and Crosby reteamed in 1989 to play three club shows in a failed attempt to win back legal rights to the band's name from Clarke, who was then touring with hired hands as "The Byrds, featuring Michael Clarke." In January 1991, the five original Byrds buried the hatchet for one night and reunited for their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Clark died three months later, while Clarke passed away in 1993.
McGuinn has since spurned repeated entreaties to regroup with Hillman and Crosby, who now owns the legal rights to The Byrds' name, but had no involvement in "There Is a Season," the band's new recently released four-CD/one-DVD box set.
Regardless, the legacy of this long-defunct band continues to soar.
"I think The Byrds really broke a lot of fresh ground, and I'm intensely proud of what we did," said Crosby, 65, speaking by phone from a recent concert stop with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. "We pushed the envelope in a lot of ways, musically and conceptually, over the couple of years that we were really doing it."
Folk-rock, psychedelia, country-rock and more, The Byrds made a profound impact on pop music in general and on the rootsy idiom now known as Americana specifically.
"They created folk-rock and paved the way for Bob Dylan to come into the pop music world," said Bruce Springsteen band guitarist Little Steven, the host of the "Little Steven's Underground Garage," a nationally syndicated radio show. "The Byrds' version of Dylan's 'Mr. Tambourine Man' literally changed pop music forever."
Brendan Benson, who with Jack White now co-leads the hot new rock band The Raconteurs, was similarly enthused.
"The Byrds are really significant," he said. "They popularized multiple vocal harmonies and the multi-tracking of vocals. The Beatles were doing two- and three-part harmonies, and The Byrds were doing five- and six-part harmonies."
The group's influence is especially evident in the work of such classic-rock icons as The Eagles and Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, and in such later bands as Crowded House, The Jayhawks, Richmond Fontaine, The Strokes and countless others.
It is also apparent in such timeless Byrds' songs as "Eight Miles High," "So You Want to Be a Rock 'n' Roll Star" (which Pearl Jam has memorably covered in concert) and "Mr. Tambourine Man" (which topped both the American and English singles charts in 1965 and helped transform its composer, Dylan, into a pop-rock superstar).
In addition, McGuinn's chiming 12-string guitar work helped popularize that instrument with fans and fellow musicians alike. And The Byrds' trademark jingle-jangle sound created a template for Big Star, R.E.M., The Bangles and a slew of other bands in the 1970s, 1980s and beyond.
"The greatest legacy The Byrds left is, well, it didn't leave us with millions of dollars, but it is a great legacy that did influence so many bands," said Hillman, 63, from his Santa Barbara, Calif., home. "Needless to say, Tom Petty owes his career to The Byrds. He took that heavy Byrds' influence - which he acknowledges - absorbed it, and it evolved into a whole other thing. I'll hear our influence in all kinds of artists, and that's the best part of it."
The Byrds' ascent in the mid-1960s came at a time when a talented young band had as many artistic options available as it was capable of pursuing. The Byrds drew not just from folk, country and rock, but also from jazz, Indian ragas and - in McGuinn's 1965 song, "She Don't Care About Time" - Bach's "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring."
"Their musicianship was stunning," said longtime fan Bonnie Raitt. "I was so proud to have a California band be involved in electrifying country and folk music and helping create psychedelia."
According to McGuinn, Crosby and Hillman, 1966's "Eight Miles High" was influenced equally by the John Coltrane Quartet's "India" and by the masterful sitar playing of Ravi Shankar. Crosby subsequently introduced Shankar's music to George Harrison, who soon became a disciple of the Indian music legend and began playing sitar with The Beatles.
"It was a wonderful time for music," McGuinn, 64, said from his home in Florida. "There was an artistic renaissance going on, something I think only happens once or twice in a century. You could do anything you wanted and there was less competition, so it was a lot easier for a band to come from total obscurity to having a No. 1 hit.
"I was looking at Pollstar (a leading concert-industry publication) the other day, and there are about 7,500 musical acts on the road now. I think there were only 100 or so when the Byrds started. In the early '80s there was a period where The Byrds almost didn't exist - I don't know why - and then, maybe with R.E.M., people started playing attention and there was a resurgence."
Until the late 1960s, when this country nearly imploded in the wake of anti-war protests, race riots and the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, Hillman regarded the decade as "an innocent, idyllic time."
"Artistically," he recalled, "it was a blank canvas."
Or was it?
"When we started, that blank canvas and 'do anything we want' approach was certainly not there," Crosby said. "When we recorded our first single, 'Mr. Tambourine Man,' in early 1965 it was with all studio session musicians. Roger was the only one who got to play on it. They expected us to do the whole album the same way, with studio guys.
"As a matter of fact, Columbia Records only wanted to sign Roger. Our manager said: 'Well, you have to sign the harmony singer - which was me - but you don't have to sign anyone else.' I said: 'I'm not doing it, unless you sign everybody.' So it was very difficult. But when we had a hit everything got easier. Then, they let us do what we were going to do, because we had that hit. And then we had more hits. It's hard to argue with hits."
The Byrds scored seven Top 40 hits between June 1965 and May 1967, including 1965's chart-topping "Turn! Turn! Turn!" (based on folksinger Pete Seeger's lyrical adaptation of the Book of Ecclesiastes). The band's first five albums rank among the finest by any rock group, then or now.
Never mind that the bluegrass-steeped Hillman was a newcomer to rock (and to playing bass), or that former conga player Clarke - who got the gig in part because he looked like both Brian Jones and Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones - had never sat behind a drum kit before, let alone played one.
Because with almost dizzying speed, the fledgling group took off, even though its live shows rarely came close to the stellar quality of the band's albums.
"I think Roger will back me up when I say that we were generally apathetic on stage" Hillman said.
"Because of a lack of performing experience, the original band was better in the studio than in concert," McGuinn said.
But Crosby sees it differently: "I think we were terrific live."
The Byrds' box set, "There Is a Season," features 99 chronologically sequenced songs and a DVD of vintage TV performances by the band. It is the successor to "The Byrds," a 1990 box set that is out of print.
The new set includes three 1964 songs that McGuinn, Clark and Crosby cut under the band names the Jet Set and the Beefeaters. There are probably more alternate versions of Byrds' songs than most listeners will want, although fans of the 1970 edition of the band (when McGuinn was the only original member) will welcome the several previously unreleased live cuts featuring ace guitarist Clarence White.
"Well, let me be totally frank with you," Hillman said. "The Byrds were the original five guys. As much as I admired Clarence - I actually hired him to be in the group - in all honesty, the second two CDs in this box set aren't representative of what The Byrds were, which was the original five guys."
Crosby has no problem with the inclusion of White, who he calls "a great musician." However, like Hillman, he believes the Byrds lost its essence early on. "My opinion is, it stopped being The Byrds after Gene Clark left and they threw me out."
The box set also includes written appreciations by Tom Petty and the Jayhawks' Jay Louris, as well as a DVD with 10 TV performances by the band from such 1960s TV shows as "Hullabaloo." While all of the TV clips are lip-synced, the sight of The Byrds surrounded by wildly gyrating go-go dancers seems straight out of an "Austin Powers" movie.
"All those shows were so contrived, it was hard to keep a straight face," McGuinn said.
Hillman, who watched the DVD recently with his grown children, laughed at the vintage footage. Crosby also chuckled as he recalled The Byrds' mimed TV performances all those years ago.
"There are a lot of times where you can catch that we think it's pretty hysterical," he said. "I remember a lot of times when we didn't plug our guitars into the fake amplifiers, but into each other, just to see if anyone noticed."
And did anyone?
"No," Crosby replied, "so it was useless."
EDS - Note language in second-to-last graph
Without McGuinn, The Byrds will stay grounded
By George Varga
Copley News Service
If it were up to David Crosby, The Byrds would start flying again tomorrow, if not today. But former Byrds' leader Roger McGuinn is dead set against reuniting, no matter how often Crosby asks him.
It also doesn't matter to McGuinn how much The Byrds only other surviving original member, Chris Hillman, would like to reunite the band, whose career-spanning new box set, "There Is a Season," was recently released by Sony BMG Legacy.
"The overriding sadness in me is that really good music could be made, and isn't being made, because of some sort of ego (problem) or held-over anger from however many years ago," Crosby lamented. "Whatever it was I did to Roger, I wish he could let go of it so there would be more music. But if he won't, I can't do anything about it. The last time I asked him, his line was, 'I'd rather join the Army,' which is kind of a slap in the face. That was a year ago."
McGuinn, Hillman and Crosby have not performed together since The Byrds were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991.
"We would never be able to capture the beautiful exuberance we had, so I think it's great to leave it as this beautiful legacy and a nice memory," said McGuinn, who recently released "The Folk Den Project, 1995-2005," a four-CD box set of his solo work. "David has a wonderful thing going (musically) and so does Chris, so I don't see any need (to reunite)."
McGuinn and Hillman fired Crosby in late 1967, following repeated personality and artistic clashes. Crosby quickly bounced back with Crosby, Stills & Nash, whose debut album featured several Crosby songs that McGuinn had rejected for The Byrds (including "Guineverre"). The two had also heatedly clashed over Crosby's song "Triad," which McGuinn rejected outright.
That there was no love lost between The Byrds and their ousted co-founder was further illustrated by the fact that, on the cover for its 1967 album, "The Notorious Byrd Brothers," the band replaced Crosby's picture on the cover with a photo of a horse.
"I think David would have left on his own, if we hadn't asked him, because he was getting tired of us and Stephen Stills had his ear and was wooing him," McGuinn said. " ... If we hadn't fired him, he would have quit The Byrds."
Not so, Crosby insisted.
"I had no intention of leaving," he said. "But I didn't just want to be the 'cute little guy' singing harmony. I thought I had a good voice and thought I was starting to write good songs. So, it was a struggle.
"I was young, I had a large ego and I'm sure I was a pain in the butt to Roger at some point. I also enhanced his music pretty drastically, so it's a balance. Nobody is perfect, and I certainly wasn't then. But I think I made some of the best music of my life with him, and I think that has merit."
Hillman, meanwhile, would be happy just to sit down with his former colleagues.
"We are in our 60s now and it would be nice to go out and have dinner together," Hillman said. "I talk to David quite a bit; Roger is kind of reclusive. I don't know if reforming would open a lot of old wounds that are best kept shut, but I love both those guys."
But couldn't The Byrds reunite again for their fans?
"I really feel like it would be 'reheating a souffle,' to quote what Paul McCartney once said about getting The Beatles back together," McGuinn said.
Crosby was incredulous.
"'Reheating a souffle!' ... He's such an ass," Crosby said.
"But ... I'd work with him at the drop of a hat, because he is that good. I think he's brilliant and I'd give most of the credit for The Byrds' success to him. I would gladly fly wingman to Roger again."