Inside the New Byrds

Roger McGuinn's Role Is Container for the 'Old' Sound

Kevin Kelly, Gram Parsons, Jim, Roger, McGuinn, Chris Hillman of the Byrds. Credit: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

It was in a smallish night club on the Sunset Strip that the Byrds broke in their act and suddenly became the best-loved and most exciting group in Los Angeles. That was eight hit songs, six albums, countless conflicts and changes in personnel and personality, and a little over three years ago.

It is close to ironic that the "new Byrds" – a phrase Roger McGuinn uses these days – should make their first West Coast appearance at the same club, Giro's. It is also interesting that the occasion for the appearance was a going-away party for Derek Taylor, the man who has worked for them hardest and stuck by them longest.

Long after Taylor had ceased being the Byrds' publicist, he said about Los Angeles, "It's a marvelously public place for suicide. How often have the Byrds cut their wrists in front of us in the Whisky-a-Go Go and in the Trip...?" He referred, of course, to the chaos of the early Byrds – Roger (then Jim) McGuinn, Mike Clark, Chris Hillman, Gene Clarke and David Crosby. He referred to a situation that often caused the Byrds to provide sets noted for excessive tuning, instrumental braggadocio, barely adequate voicing, and plenty of backstabbing, intentional musical fluffs.

Today only Hillman, on bass, and McGuinn, on lead guitar, remain, with Kevin Kelly on drums and Graham Parsons on keyboard and acoustical guitar, making the group a quartet. To hear them play and to hear the members of the group talk about themselves, the days of war seem past; the "new" Byrds are a group at last, a combination of musicians and friends, not just a combo of personalities.

A few days before the party at Giro's, Roger put it this way: "There are fewer hang-ups now. Before, we had some stars to contend with. It's much tighter now. The new group is better in person than the old one. There are fewer errors. There's no grandstanding. Nobody's doing the watch-me-catch-this-one bit. The music's better.

"We just finished a tour of Eastern schools. Columbia. Amherst. Salem College. MIT. And we started getting encores and standing ovations. We got a standing ovation at MIT! That never really happened before."

About David Crosby, who was once the major irritant in the group and left the Byrds several months ago at Roger's insistence, Roger now says, almost sadly, "It's too bad we had to lose his musical abilities."

Crosby's leaving the Byrds came after Gene Clark left and although a new album, The Notorious Byrd Brothers, was on the stands picturing the group as a trio, suddenly the Byrds were two.

Then Kevin Kelly replaced Mike Clark on drums, Kevin had played with Taj Mahal and the Rising Sons some years earlier, but had stayed away from groups, studying music at Los Angeles City College.

Kevin said last week: "One of the reasons I didn't get involved with another group was that I was looking for communication – communication within the group itself. The group's together now. We get along personally as well as professionally. So what happens is, we can make better music. I think we have that spiritually fine quality groups need."

Next to join the Byrds – about six weeks ago – was Graham Parsons, formerly the composer-arranger of the International Submarine Band. Roger said Graham had helped the group to shape itself musically.

"Graham added a whole hunk of country," he said. "Graham's bag is country and we're going to let him do his thing, and support, him and work together on things."

Which is not to say the Byrd's are now a country or bluegrass band, although that is (and always has been) part of what the Byrds were like. Chris Hillman came to the Byrds from a bluegrass group, with whom he played mandolin. Others in the early group had similar experience.

"I don't really see us as a 'new' group," Roger said. "The personnel hasn't changed totally. Chris and I are still there. I think we are the containers for the 'old' sound, and the new members augment that sound. We've grown, we've changed – that's all."

There is, however, a definite country emphasis in their sound – as evidenced in the songs they played at Giro's and how they played them, and as evidenced in a recent week-long visit to Nashville. While in Nashville they recorded nine country and blue-grass tracks for their next album, and between sessions broke down-South tradition and appeared on Grand Ole Opry.

"Columbia had to pull strings to get us on the bill," Roger said. "They don't fancy rock groups down there, not on Grand Ole Opry."

The album is planned as a two-record, 22-tune package, with the Byrds taking music from early blue-grass through what Roger terms "pure electronic music." The tunes recorded in Nashville will fill the first part of the package – among them Woodie Guthrie's "Pretty Boy Floyd"; Dylan's "You Ain't Goin Nowhere" and "Nothing Was Delivered"; "I'm a Pilgrim" and "Pretty Polly," both public domain; Tim Hardin's "Reputation" and two by Graham Parsons, "Hickory Wind" and "Lazy Day." (Dylan's "You Ain't Goin Nowhere" is set for a single release.) And although they took their Hollywood producer, Gary Usher, to Nashville with them, the Byrds used local musicians (notably on steel guitar) in the sessions and Kevin played "hog snare drum."

The set performed at Ciro's was, admittedly, an unusual one–created in part of nostalgia. After all, it was here the group started, and many of those present wanted to hear the old hits. So what happened was those in attendance heard two groups, the "old" and the "new."

The set was begun with "You Ain't Goin Nowhere," played in country style. In this song and on all other "country" tunes played that night they were joined by a man known as J. D., sitting in on steel guitar. The second number was equally Nashville in orientation.

And then, quite suddenly, came a song from their first album, "Chimes of Freedom," and for the rest of the evening they alternated songs from the heady past ("Mr. Tambourine Man," "Eight Miles High," "He was a Friend of Mine," etc.) with something they'd recorded more recently. The sounds were distinct and at times it seemed as if two groups were playing, not one. Except, of course, there was Roger's unmistakable voice and Chris' imaginative yet basic bass line throughout.

The material was different, surely, but so was the technique and effect. The Byrds, as Roger said, are tighter now. They appear secure in the country milieu. And what vocal force they lack in doing their old material–losing Gene Clark and David Crosby has made its mark–they gained with Graham Parsons in the new material. Graham sings often and he sings well, sharing "lead voice" with Roger. Chris, too, has added dimension to his voice and provides an important part of the vocal sound.

However "country" the new Byrds may sound, Roger insists this isn't really the sort of group they are. Only the tunes cut in Nashville will reflect this much country feeling, he said. The rest of the album is to be recorded in Los Angeles and much of it will be "contemporary."

"We're not going to be doing electronic music just for the sake of doing it," Roger said. "Nor will we ba doing what others have already done."

Roger said this element of their sound eventually will be part of their concert sound. He said the group has ordered a synthesizer for use in live performances.

The "new" Byrds are here–tighter both musically and personally. They may become five in number again, adding a steel guitar. Roger said they were thinking about that. (And pictures of the group, which would include Graham Parsons, have not been taken yet–perhaps for that reason.)

The album is scheduled for a late spring or early summer release. Between 25 and 30 tunes will be cut, Roger said, with the final selection based on what happens.

"We don't have a title for the album yet," he said. "That'll come in time. And it probably will have something to say about time–backward, forward, something – because the music we're doing will cover a lot of time."