02/23/2003 9:00p PT
Robert Olsen - Reviewer
The Byrds were arguably, no, strike that…they were the most influential rock group of the sixties. They have been credited with the birth of folk-rock, acid-rock, raga-rock, country-rock, and probably even the glut of acoustic “rock” into the seventies. One can hear nuggets of jazz and electronic influences throughout their canon. While the original group (Jim/Roger McGuinn, David Crosby, Gene Clark, Chris Hillman, and Michael Clarke) were together for only two albums, their combined group and solo efforts have left a legacy unparalleled in American Rock Music. The Sony Legacy series re-issued all of their albums in expanded versions a few years ago, and (rumor has it) is planning to upgrade the Byrds catalogue to SACD versions in the near future.
At this point in time, I still haven’t finished the transition of my entire collection to the CD format. Minor issues like space and funds always seem to come into play. But there’s always room for more Byrds and related material. Basically, I’ve been watching the birth of SACD from a distance. Despite a focused campaign by some friends, I’d been able to resist the bug…until now. I was put into the position of having to upgrade my equipment recently, so when I found that the cost of adding SACD capability to my system was (relatively) minor, those little voices came back to haunt me and I took the plunge. I swore to my wife that I only wanted a few discs and she caved. Probably didn’t want to hear me whine for years about what I'd missed. So…off to Tower where I picked up the only copy of the "Byrds Greatest Hits" SACD (expanded version). It sat around for a few days until everything was hooked up. When the sound guy said he was going to test the system with a John Denver SACD, I quietly announced that there would be no John Denver in my house and on my system. I had just the disc to check out.
As the first note of McGuinn’s Rickenbacker 12-string rang out the introduction to "Mr. Tambourine Man", I was instantly transported back in time---almost 38 years. The harmonies continue to be exquisite and the unique blend of Bach, Beatles, and folk music, played to a dance beat with McGuinn’s almost prayer-like vocal re-affirmed that magic does, indeed, exist. This was clearly the song that branded the Byrds as Dylan-interpreters. But it was like nothing else played on the radio those days. When I first saw them on Hullabaloo, they looked as if they just stumbled out of Sherwood Forest, cool, detached, and hip. I mean, what was it with that long hair? The Ben Franklin glasses? Crosby’s cape? Something was beginning to happen then and there.
"The Byrds Greatest Hits" is a misnomer of sorts. They didn’t have many “hits”. In fact they only had two songs top the charts at #1. It is essentially a compilation album featuring some of the better known recordings from the first 4 albums. The songs don’t really represent the best work of the group (the expanded versions of later releases clearly show some glaring omissions and raise questions about how some cuts made the album while superior material was left off (see John Rogan’s book, The Byrds for the most complete history of their legacy). The first album is over-represented, and there’s an unwholesome emphasis on the Dylan cuts. Nevertheless, at the time the album was stunning in its breadth and provided the next generation with a good sample of the sound and direction of the group.
Overall, the SACD version is breathtaking. The separation and clarity is like nothing I have ever heard before. The “tinny” sound that many associate with compact discs is striking only in its absence. The disc brings all of the warmth of the original analog recordings to life. Most especially on the bass, where there seems to be more punch. The high point for me was being able to hear the unique harmonics of that classic Rickenbacker sound. The Ric 12-string used by McGuinn is different from the traditional 12-string guitar in that the octave strings are reversed. So, if one is flat-picking with a downward stroke, you will hear the harmonics of the octave strings rolling off. McGuinn’s style was unique at the time since he used a combination flat-pick and travis-pick style…very similar to a banjo strum (once again, his folk roots show through).
The separation of the harmonies illustrates the folk vision with McGuinn singing lead while Crosby and Clark sing the same melodic line, only higher and lower parts respectively. Here’s a rundown of the cuts:
Mr. Tambourine Man -
This is the one that started it all. McGuinn was the only one who was allowed to play on this cut. Studio musicians (Leon Russell, Hal Blaine and others) substituted for the other members on direction from the studio heads. The vocals were pure Byrds, however. The song only used one of Dylan’s verses, but there are numerous tapes in circulation that have various members trading off on the verses.
I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better -
This song, written by Gene Clark, contains all of the trademark Byrds elements, ringing 12-string guitar, and some incredible vocals by McGuinn and Clark. While Clark compositions dominated the 1st 2 albums, they were more closely linked to the Beatles at the time with their boy/girl themes. Yet, one can begin to hear the unique vocal phasing and patterns that marked his songs in later years. This has been covered by other groups on many occasions, the most popular version being Tom Petty’s.
Bells of Rhymney -
For me, this is the greatest Byrds song of all. It was taken from a Pete Seeger adaptation of a poem by The Welsh poet, Idris Davies. It tells the story of a mining disaster in Wales and can only be characterized as transcendent and mythological. The harmonies soar at the end and the 12-string break is unlike anything I’ve since. The roots of the arrangement can be heard in McGuinn’s backup work on Judy Collins' 3rd Album. About 30 years after the initial release, I was in a club in London, for a solo McGuinn concert. I was surprised to hear him acknowledge that, while they took special pains to pronounce the difficult names of the Welsh towns in the song, they had mangled the pronunciation of Rhymney. Someone in the audience screamed out…”It’s Rhumney, ya bloke!” McGuinn smiled, said…”Yeah” and proceeded to sing the song (all verses) with the correct pronunciation.
Turn, Turn, Turn -
This is probably the best recognized Byrds song. At 3:30, it was also one of the longest #1 songs at that time. It took them almost 72 takes to get the finished version, but it represented the most accomplished rendering of a folk song and cemented the Byrds as chart toppers after a few near misses. The arrangement was also from McGuinn’s work with Judy Collins. The song truly struck a note with the plea at the end “….a time for peace, I swear it’s not too late”. Vietnam was looming on the horizon, but hope still remained strong. I was taken by the irony of the reunited Byrds singing the same words at their induction into the R&R Hall of Fame as the bombs began to rain down on Baghdad during the Persian Gulf War. Seems pretty real today as well.
All I Really Want to Do -
This was supposed to have been the follow-up to Tambourine Man, but the Byrds were beaten out by Sonny & Cher’s version that they copped from hearing the Byrds rehearsals and concerts. The released single was a superior version than this one, being more abrasive and urgent. Not one of my favorites, but the guitar wrap at the end is always fun to play.
Chimes of Freedom -
Here, the Byrds hit their Dylan cover pinnacle. This remains one of McGuinn’sbest vocal performances while Crosby’s high harmonies were positively angelic. A Byrds copy band tooke their name from the last verse “Starry-eyed and Laughing”. They had the Rickenbackers, the harmonies, but they didn’t have the vision.
Eight Miles High -
This song shows the Byrds at their creative peaks. It was blend of jazz (listen for sections of Coltrane’s Africa Sessions in the breaks) and Indian Ragas (McGuinn ran his guitar through some gadget in a cigar box the increased the compression and gave it the unique drone as he ran through jazz scales). While the song was climbing the charts (it peaked at #14), rumors began to circulate that the song was about the wonders of drugs (the Byrds denied the rumor somewhat half heartedly). They claimed it was written during a tour of England (“Rain-gray towns…small faces unbound”). Probably the truth is somewhere in the middle. Years later, a pirate version of the song was released with a more raw and frantic sound. It turns out that this was to be the single, but the Byrds recorded it at RCA studios and Columbia would not allow this due to union rules. The song was banned from the radio…unheard of at a time when the Beatles were still singing about “we can work it out”, and marked the end of the Byrds as a pop band. It took them to new creative heights as Gene Clark left the Byrds, due to a fear of flying and led to the most innovative series of 4 albums ever recorded.
Mr. Spaceman -
Pure fluff. Here you begin to see some country influences (incredible considering all the other genres that were present in the Byrds work at this time. The song was prompted by McGuinn’s interest in space travel. Great guitar break.
This was a departure, even for the Byrds. Abstract lyrics…waltz-time arrangement, and an organ drone (played by Van Dyke Parks). It dealt with the universe, time, and surrender. Mcguinn’s vocal was adventurous and the song ends with an outstanding double-tracked Rickenbacker solo. Given its abstract nature, it’s no surprise that everyone suspected that drugs were behind the lyrics. While the song was not a great success, it clearly set the tone for the third, and transitional album, 5D.
So You Want To Be a Rock ‘N’ Roll Star -
Listen…you can hear Hugh Masekela’s trumpet in this cynical tome about the state of rock music at the time. It was rumored to be about the crass commercialism of manufactured groups like the Monkees. Interesting, given the lack of Byrds playing on Mr. Tambourine Man. The screams were recorded at some early concerts in 1965. This song began to show the maturing Byrds as the individual personalities were submerged into a group identity for the 1st time. The musicianship was taken to new levels, especially Chris Hillman’s bass playing.
My Back Pages -
In the middle of this creative upheaval, the Byrds clearly missed their position at the top of the charts. They opted for a Dylan cover, with a characteristic but restrained Byrds slant. A more interesting version appeared on the Legacy re-issue with the guitar solo played through a Leslie.
It Won’t Be Wrong -
This was a re-worked version of a pre-Byrds single recorded as the Beefeaters. Interesting guitar interplay, but not sure why it made it to the Greatest Hits.
Set You Free This Time -
Gene Clark was beginning to mature as a songwriter here. This is easily one of his best vocals, and the guitar work is beautifully restrained. Clark’s gift for vocal structure and phrasing begin to shine with this cut. He also has a downright pretty harmonica solo.
Have You Seen Her Face -
With Gene Clark’s departure, Chris Hillman stepped into the gap admirably with developing skills as a singer and songwriter. This track features a manic McGuinn solo on a six-string Gretsch. Note an increasing country/jazz influence on this cut.
The Byrds had a vision. Whether one considers them to be a collection of McGuinn’s sidemen, they undoubtedly provide a collective portrait of America’s musical genres from folk and mountain through jazz and electronic. The SACD versions of the entire collection are already on my Christmas list.
Copyright © 2002-2003 Matthew Rowe. All rights reserved.
Released: January 30, 2001