The Byrds

      Mr. Tambourine Man (Columbia, 1965)
      Turn! Turn! Turn! (Columbia, 1965)
      Fifth Dimension (Columbia, 1967)
     Younger Than Yesterday (Columbia, 1967)
      The Byrds Greatest Hits (Columbia, 1968)
      The Notorious Byrd Brothers (Columbia, 1968)
      Sweetheart of the Rodeo (Columbia, 1968)
    Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde (Columbia, 1969)
     The Ballad of Easy Rider (Columbia, 1969)
   Live at the Fillmore West February 1969 (Columbia, 1970)
   Untitled (Columbia, 1970)
   Byrdmaniax (Columbia, 1971)
   Farther Along (Columbia, 1972)
   The Byrds (Asylum, 1973)
     Preflyte (Columbia, 1973)
     In the Beginning (Rhino, 1988)
     Never Before (Murray Hill, 1989)
     The Byrds [Box Set] (Columbia/Legacy, 1990)
      Greatest Hits (Columbia/Legacy, 1999)
     The Complete Flyte (Sundazed, 2000)
     Live at The Fillmore West February 1969 (Columbia/Legacy, 2000)
     There is a Season (Columbia/Legacy, 2006)
     Live at Royal Albert Hall 1971 (Sundazed, 2008)

The Byrds were one of the great Sixties bands, evolving from sure-footed pop craftsmen to astral travelers with their own innovative style of guitar glimmer. Roger McGuinn was a folkie who'd gotten turned on to rock & roll when he saw the Beatles in A Hard Day's Night, and his chiming 12-string Rickenbacker sound became a permanent part of rock's musical language from the opening notes of "Mr. Tambourine Man." The Byrds' first big hits were covers, so they've been consistently underrated as a songwriting band, but Gene Clark, who mostly just stood around and banged a tambourine onstage, wrote some of the best tunes of the Sixties. McGuinn, Clark, the pre-Stills, pre-Nash folkie David Crosby, bluegrass-bred bassist Chris Hillman, and pouty-lipped drummer Michael Clarke were the very definition of folk-rock exuberance, five mod California boys high on guitar power.

Mr. Tambourine Man is one of rock's greatest debut albums, with the frail, kindly, and basically anonymous voices weaving together in folkish harmonies to float in the sound, submerging the lyrics in a rush of pure electric energy. The attention getters were the Bob Dylan covers (particularly the title hit and an ace "Spanish Harlem Incident"), but actually, the most vital songs on the album are the Gene Clark originals such as "Here Without You," "I Knew I'd Want You," and "I'll Feel a Whole Lot Better." Like all the early Byrds albums, Mr. Tambourine Man benefits from the superb Columbia/Legacy reissue series, which presents definitive versions of each album with outtakes and singles; the prize on Mr. Tambourine Man is "She Has a Way."

Turn! Turn! Turn! was a hasty followup, but the band had plenty of material on hand, going back to the well for more Clark songs: the almost Lou Reed–like ramble "Set You Free This Time," the devastated drone "If You're Gone," the morosely uptempo "The World Turns All Around Her." As a sign of things to come, the band also did the country standard "Satisfied Mind," and, for some reason, "O Susanna." The Legacy reissue adds the essential B side "She Don't Care About Time."

Fifth Dimension is the Byrds' most underrated album. Clark was gone by this point, but the band made up for the holes in the songwriting by turning up the guitars. It's an album of bold, expansive machine-head psychedelia, mixing ancient Celtic folk standards ("Wild Mountain Thyme," "John Riley") with the space-age electric charge of "I See You" and "2-4-2 Fox Trot (The Lear Jet Song)." The groundbreaking hit "Eight Miles High" is the band's highest of highs, blending Coltrane-influenced 12-string squiggles with eerie harmonies for a truly hypnotic sound. And the lyrics are about airplane travel. Right! There's filler (a weak "Hey Joe," the inept R&B instrumental "Captain Soul"), but David Crosby contributes the catchily mush-headed "What's Happening?!?!" Younger Than Yesterday is a smoother version, with Chris Hillman bringing a straightforward country influence to "Time Between" and "Have You Seen Her Face." Unfortunately, the songs trail off halfway through, with Crosby's "Mind Gardens" a real monstrosity.

The Notorious Byrd Brothers was Roger McGuinn's attempt to make his own Pet Sounds or Sgt. Pepper; he missed, but with producer Gary Usher, he came up with a unique and powerful elegy for Sixties idealism, overlooked at the time yet recognized as a classic now. It's ethereal, mournful, beautiful, hardly ever rocking, with a touching sadness in spaced-out melodies such as "Natural Harmony" and "Dolphin's Smile." "Goin' Back" is a great old Goffin-King ballad, originally a hit for Dusty Springfield, here remodeled into a farewell to the Summer of Love; "Draft Morning" is a Vietnam song that ends with McGuinn playing "Taps" on guitar. It's a very comforting album to put on when you're hung over.

For Sweetheart of the Rodeo, the Byrds became a totally different band, exploring the new frontier of country rock. New member Gram Parsons was the catalyst, as the band cut back on the electricity to embrace a rootsy sound of fiddle, banjo, and pedal steel twang, doing reverent covers of Merle Haggard and Louvin Brothers songs. Sweetheart peaks with a great version of Dylan's scary "Nothing Was Delivered," as well as the Parsons ballads "Hickory Wind" and "One Hundred Years from Now." Unfortunately, much of Parsons' singing was erased because of legal conflicts; the 1997 reissue restores the complete Parsons vocals for a definitive edition of one of Sixties rock's most influential albums.

Sweetheart was the last of the Byrds classics. Parsons and Hillman left to form the Flying Burrito Brothers, who brought the country moves of Sweetheart to fruition with the 1969 masterpiece The Gilded Palace of Sin. Meanwhile, McGuinn assembled a new band and started making de facto solo records under the Byrds name. Dr. Byrds has "Drug Store Truck Driving Man," a showcase for guitar picker Clarence White. Easy Rider, the best of the later Byrds albums, has the oddly funky long-hair Jesus-freak anthem "Jesus Is Just All Right" and a beautiful reading of Woody Guthrie's "Deportee."

The last gasps: the largely live double album Untitled, the studio-slick Byrdmaniax, the tired Farther Along, the failed reunion Byrds. Preflyte was a collection of pre—Mr. Tambourine Man acoustic sessions, with top-notch originals such as "Boston" and "The Airport Song." In the Beginning has largely different versions of this material; the complete collection, a must for fans, is Sundazed's The Complete Flyte. Never Before and the box set Byrds introduced many rarities; the 2006 box There is a Season is an expanded version of the Byrds box.

Greatest Hits downplays the band's weirdness, with too many Dylan covers, but still makes an excellent introduction, especially the expanded 1999 edition with the key album tracks "Have You Seen Her Face" and "Set You Free This Time."

Portions of this album guide appeared in The New Rolling Stone Album Guide (Fireside, 2004).

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