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Music

How John Coltrane inspired The Byrds to write their masterpiece

Whilst John Coltrane and The Byrds are not two names that you’d necessarily mention in the same breath, the two are inextricably linked. The former, who is one of the most celebrated musicians of all time, has influenced many, and it was through one of his most pioneering moments that he managed to give rock heroes The Byrds one of their most notable moments. It was a moment that would crystallise their standing as one of the most vital bands of the countercultural period and as masters of the burgeoning psychedelic movement. 

Despite the fact that he passed away 55 years ago, John Coltrane’s work has defied the passage of time in the starkest of ways. His relevance has not diminished but grown, and over the 21st century, contemporary musicians and audiences of all walks of life have been captivated by his work, keen for the avant-garde jazz that many critics and listeners found incomprehensible during his creative zenith in the early 1960s. 

Artists are now finding new ways of incorporating his form of jazz into rock, hip-hop, and dance in what is a testament to just how ahead of his time Coltrane was. Perhaps the finest saxophonist the world has ever seen, we hear flecks of his work in the music of Yusef Days, Radiohead, and Black Midi, who are in turn spreading the gospel of John Coltrane. 

A North Carolina native, Coltrane moved to Philadelphia after high school and studied music, and it was here that he learnt the skills necessary to become one of the most forward-thinking musicians of all time. Taught the bebop and hard bop forms of jazz, this extensive training allowed him to begin his foray into what became known as free jazz, an unrelenting and technical form that was unlike anything anybody had ever heard.

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As well as being a great artist in his own right, Coltrane collaborated with some of his most meritorious peers, such as the master of the trumpet Miles Davis and pianist Thelonius Monk. Whether it be Giant StepsAfrica/Brass, or Ascension, many of his records are must-haves for anyone claiming to be a muso. 

During the early ’60s, in his rise as one of the most experimental musicians on the planet, those who were also as forward-thinking were dazzled by the visceral sounds of Coltrane and his quartet. Included in this demographic was the classic lineup of The Byrds, comprised of Gene Clark, Jim McGuinn, David Crosby, Chris Hillman, and Michael Clarke. The band exploded onto the scene in 1965 with their timeless rendition of Bob Dylan’s ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’, and original cuts such as ‘I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better’.

Given their meteoric rise, the band toured for much of the year, and whilst on the road in the latter months, they only had one cassette recording to listen to on the tour bus, with sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar on one side and two albums of Coltrane’s on the others, 1961’s Africa/Brass and 1963’s Impressions. Well, to use a shameless pun, the latter certainly made an impression. Looking back, Jim McGuinn said: “We played that damn thing 50 or 100 times, through a Fender amplifier that was plugged into an alternator in the car.” One track on Impressions stood out for the band more than the rest, though: ‘India’. 

A droning piece that contains many emotional transitions, it is one of the clearest reflections of Coltrane’s vast array of musical tastes, blending jazz with the otherworldly essence of traditional Indian music. An avant-garde masterpiece, The Byrds were blown away by what they heard. The song had such an effect on them that it inspired the group to record the track that is regarded as by many as their chef-d’oeuvre, the psychedelic juggernaut ‘Eight Miles High’. A shimmering yet slightly ominous piece, it remains one of the finest rock tracks in existence.

A highlight of the countercultural era, thanks to the work of John Coltrane, The Byrds were able to produce what is arguably their most consequential moment and do their bit to influence the development of popular culture, a reflection of just how far-reaching the effects of Coltrane’s work has been.

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