45. The Byrds
By Tom Petty
The Byrds are immortal because they flew so high. For me, they're still way, way up there. They left a huge mark. First off, the Byrds were the first credible American answer to the British Invasion. All of folk rock — for lack of a better term — descends directly from the music the Byrds made. They were certainly the first to introduce any sort of country element into rock music. As if all that wasn't enough, the Byrds spurred on a good degree of Bob Dylan's popularity, too. And not to be too shallow, but they also were just the best-dressed band around. They had those great clothes and hairdos. That counted for something even then.
I'll never forget hearing "Mr. Tambourine Man" for the first time on the radio -- the feeling of that Rickenbacker twelve-string guitar and those incredible harmonies. Roger McGuinn told me he took that guitar sound from A Hard Day's Night, but McGuinn was a banjo player, and he played the Rickenbacker in this rolling, fingerpicking style — no one had really tried it before. George Harrison admitted that "If I Needed Someone" was his take on the Byrds' "The Bells of Rhymney." The Byrds were the only American group that the Beatles were friendly with and had a dialogue with. Those original Byrds really changed the world in that short time they were together.
In some ways, they were an unlikely group to become rock & roll stars. Chris Hillman was from the bluegrass world. McGuinn had been in folk groups like the Limelighters and the Chad Mitchell Trio, as well as playing with Bobby Darin. David Crosby came out of the coffeehouse scene, too. Gene Clark played with the New Christy Minstrels. McGuinn once told me that the Byrds had to get together and really learn how to play rock & roll as a group. That was their first quest. Imagine a bunch of recovering folkies trying to learn how to make people dance.
The Byrds represented Los Angeles as much as the Beach Boys, except that the Byrds were the other side of the coin — they were L.A.'s whacked-out beatnik rock group. They're part of what drew me to Los Angeles and made me want to be in a band. I got to see the Byrds once at the West Palm Beach pop festival on the same bill with the Rolling Stones. In the beginning, that was the original blueprint for the Heartbreakers — we wanted to be a mix of the Byrds and the Stones. We figured, "What could be cooler than that?"