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Six definitive songs: The ultimate beginner's guide to The Byrds

Folk-rock pioneers, The Byrds, are one of the most celebrated acts of all time. Somewhat of a supergroup, they gave us some of the best-loved songs of the countercultural movement and of the 1960s in general. Known for the jangly Rickenbacker guitar riffs of Roger McGuinn, and partly inspired by the folk-rock forward steps of The Beatles’ record Rubber Soul, the band set a precedent for bands such as R.E.M., The Smiths and even Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers.

Best known for their cover of Bob Dylan’s 1965 track ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ and the iconic 1965 hit ‘Turn, Turn, Turn’, The Byrds were so much more than that, and so much more than the other stellar Dylan covers they released in their time.

No discussion of the band would be complete without touching on the brilliance of their original lineup. The truth is, only retrospectively, can the band be hailed as a supergroup. At the time of the band’s formation in 1964, they were not plucked from surrounding successful bands, rather, it is a reflection of the huge figures of rock they would all become. Roger McGuinn, Gene Clark, David Crosby, Michael Clarke and Chris Hillman all took pioneering strides.

This is the lineup that would send The Byrds to the superstardom they enjoyed back in the ’60s. Starting off as a folk-rock band, given the ascendancy of the counterculture and drugs such as LSD and marijuana, by 1965, only a year after forming, the band would become psychedelic heroes. Gene Clark departed the band citing a fear of flying, a deeply embedded fear he’d had since witnessing a fatal aeroplane crash as a child. Told by McGuinn, “If you can’t fly, you can’t be a Byrd”, Clark would then embark on a celebrated solo career, but that is a story for a different day.

Certainly definable as a band of the ’60s, The Byrds would carry on their prolific run. In December 1966, they released their jazz-inspired fourth album, Younger Than Yesterday, which included the McGuinn and Hillman penned ‘So You Want to Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star’. The track was a satirical and heavily sarcastic jibe at the manufactured nature of groups like The Monkees, marking The Byrds out to be so much more than the constant Bob Dylan cover band they are often regarded as.

Everpresent on the ’60s music scene, they became increasingly experimental as the decade wore on. As well as branching into country and western, their 1967 record The Notorious Byrd Brothers, saw the band use pioneering studio techniques such as phasing and flanging, which again, helped to mark them out as one of the era’s most important bands, even if many did not properly heed this at the time.

As with any massive band, tension and acrimony soon arose. Owing to drug use and David Crosby’s overbearing egotism, the end of the band’s original iteration was nigh. Crosby and Clarke were kicked out, leaving just McGuinn and Hillman as the last men standing. The band would then work with different musicians, and 1968 saw the dawn of what is now known as the ‘Gram Parsons Era‘, an interesting and overlooked chapter.

After this explicitly country-rock oriented period, the band would then hire guitarist Clarence White, before eventually splitting up in 1973 owing to comments such as this from the media, which described them as “a boring dead group”. Why such a change of fortunes you may ask?

Hillman had left the group in late 1968 and to join Parsons in The Flying Burrito BrothersThis can be regarded as the final nail in the coffin for The Byrds’ original run. After this, and moving into the ’70s, with each release they became increasingly removed from the band that everyone once loved. Things finally ground to a halt after a shambolic show at the Capitol Theatre in Passaic, New Jersey in 1973. Realising that the band had fizzled out and not wanting to damage their reputation further, McGuinn called time on the project.

Regardless, the band’s output in the ’60s is nothing short of iconic, and in actuality, we could spend all day discussing the band’s history because it is that complex. However, this piece is intended as an introduction for those who are unfamiliar with The Byrds.

A brilliant and experimental band, who in their early days boasted one of music’s finest ever lineups, they always deserve to be revisited. Thus, we have listed the 6 definitive songs by the band, including covers, as to miss them off would do the group a disservice. We’ve omitted ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’, though.

Join us then, as we list the 6 definitive songs by The Byrds.

The Byrds’ six definitive songs:

‘I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better’ – Mr. Tambourine Man (1965)

Written by frontman Gene Clark, this 1965 entry is one of the band’s most upbeat in their entire back catalogue. Originally released as a B-side, the song eventually managed to chart in its own right owing to its brilliance. What song was it released to accompany? Well, it was a cover. Of yes, you guessed it, Bob Dylan’s ‘All I Really Want to Do’.

This song is the one that really established the blueprint for the jangly indie that would become massive in the ’80s. Musically, given its hooky vocal melodies and jangly guitar lines, it is clear to see where R.E.M., The Smiths and The Sundays all took some of their cues. It is also an indicator of just how great of a songwriter Gene Clark was, a man who is sadly often overlooked.

‘The World Turns All Around Her’ – Turn! Turn! Turn! (1965)

Another Gene Clark classic, ‘The World Turns All Around Her’ was released as part of the band’s second album, 1965’s Turn! Turn! Turn!. Lyrically, it is an objective take on a romantic breakup. There is no jealousy or resentment, rather, Clark asks his ex-partner to go off and realise her potential. This is a remarkable breath of fresh air, particularly when you heed the time the song was released.

One of the band and Clark’s catchiest, it contains all the classic hallmarks of The Byrds, jangly guitars, vocal melodies and all, and is another stark reminder of just how overlooked they seem to be within rock ‘n roll discourse. 

‘5D (Fifth Dimension)’ – Fifth Dimension (1966)

The opening track on The Byrds’ psychedelic masterpiece, Fifth Dimension, this entry sees the band take on a mellower sound. Not psychedelic, it’s a folk-rock classic that features every hallmark of the band. Strangely, it also sees McGuinn give a loud, drawn-out “Oh!” during the first chorus.

An anthemic and uplifting number, again, you hear many of the influences that informed the jangly-indie of the ’80s, organ and all. Within it, we hear The Proclaimers, The Sundays and Inspiral Carpets. One of The Byrds best songs, and one of the best songs from the era, it’s a hidden gem that you’ll be saving straight away. 

It sounds as if the band almost knew this was going to be their last record, and perfectly sets the tone for the rest of the album. Hear it and weep. 

‘Eight Miles High’ – Fifth Dimension (1966)

During what was undoubtedly the band’s most prolific era in the mid-’60s, they released their psychedelic masterpiece, Fifth Dimension. It included the pioneering composition ‘Eight Miles High’, which mixed influences from sitarist Ravi Shankar and saxophonist John Coltrane, to create a colourful sonic palette that perfectly matched the fluid hedonist spirit of the counterculture.

Kicking off with the rumble of Clarke’s drums and Hillman’s bass, McGuinn’s guitar then cuts through the mix with a moment of genius shredding.

Then the song really takes off. The classic lineup of the band all link up with their iconic vocal harmonies, and it sends a shiver down the spine. Soothing but slightly sinister, it sets the temperament for the rest of the song. It sounds as if you’re literally coming up on psychedelics. The song represents the band’s classic lineup at their zenith and is such an earworm you’re certain to have it on repeat.

‘My Back Pages’ – Younger Than Yesterday (1967)

Originally a Bob Dylan song from his 1964 album, Another Side of Bob Dylan, the band did again what they were so good at. They gave Dylan’s song a make-over. A fresh, full-band take on Dylan’s protest songs, it does not disappoint. The band’s vocal harmonies on the song’s central vocal refrain “Ah, but I was so much older then/I’m younger than that now”, really drives the song’s message home.

Concerned with growing older and how we often become disillusioned with things we once held so dear as teenagers, The Byrds really bring Dylan’s acoustic original to life. A soothing yet introspective number, it is nothing short of a classic. 

‘So You Want To Be A Rock ‘n’ Roll Star’ – Younger Than Yesterday (1967)

Written by McGuinn and Hillman for the band’s 1967 fourth album, Younger Than Yesterday, ‘So You Want To Be A Rock ‘n’ Roll Star’ sees the band at one of their most ingenious points. Lyrically mocking the manufactured rock of the time, Hillman and McGuinn’s work is deeply ironic.

The music is also refreshing. Hillman provides one of his most unstoppable basslines, and even more significantly, this was the first time the band incorporated brass into their sound. Featuring a trumpet line from none other than South African jazz hero Hugh Masekela, this upbeat number has you moving instantly. 

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