Even the most casual followers of americana are aware of the importance The Byrds had on the genre, even though formally they released ‘only’ 12 official albums. And among those, even the weaker ones, like ‘Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde’ (1969) or ‘Byrdmaniax’ (1971) included at least a couple of strong songs.
Throughout their career together, The Byrds were one of the first bands to fully integrate pop and rock influences with folk and country music and had four brilliant songwriters in Roger McGuinn, Gene Clark, David Crosby, and Chris Hillman.
At the same time, they still remain one of the best bands that were able to pick songs from other writers, whether traditional folk songs or their staple covers of Bob Dylan and Goffin/King, and turn them into something of their own while still retaining the original spirit of the song. Their complete output is one of the singular ones that, at the same time, reflects the spirit of the times these songs were recorded in, and continues to have relevance today.
Selecting 10 of their essential songs is a tough one, particularly because some of the greatest covers in rock music, like their versions of Dylan’s ‘My Back Pages’, ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ or the traditional ‘Turn Turn Turn’ could not be included here. Still here is one take on a choice of their best originals.
Number 10: ‘So You Want to Be a Rock ‘N’ Roll Star’
This was The Byrds at their rockiest, yet this Hillman/McGuinn tune had all the signatures of their take on incorporating rock into folk music with all the psych rock elements that were signature of the times. The song also has some bitter observations on what the recording industry has become, having relevance even today.
Number 9: ‘Change Is Now’
Another Hillman/McGuinn gem with The Byrds at their most psychedelic, gracing ‘The Notorious Byrd Brothers’ (1968), possibly their best singular album. Unusual chord changes at the time, and country music elements abound. “Change is now, change is now” they sang with their trademark harmonies, making this song quite timeless.
Number 8: ‘Chestnut Mare’
The song was a result of a strange combination of McGuinn and a New York psychologist, Jacques Levy who were working on a country & western musical adaptation of the opera ‘Peer Gynt’ entitled ‘Gene Tryp’. The Byrds at their most countryfied post ‘Sweetheart of The Rodeo’ and in their best storytelling mode.
Number 7: ‘She Don’t Care About Time’
Early on, Gene Clark was the most advanced songwriter within the band. This song never made it to the charts, as it was somehow relegated to b-side status for ‘Turn, Turn, Turn’. Clark was always a big romantic, and in that respect, this song is a sign of what great stuff he was yet to come up with as a solo artist. At the same time, McGuinn adds excellent Bach-inspired guitar lines here.
Number 6: ‘Hickory Wind’
One of the best songs Gram Parsons wrote (with Bob Buchanan) while he was still with the band during his brief six-month stint. The song shows his immense influence on their most ‘countrified’ album ‘Sweetheart of The Rodeo’ (1968). Possibly the best song on that album, and while along with ‘One Hundred Years From Now’ it was only one of the two Parsons’ songs on the album, his influence on the whole album is commanding.
Number 5: ‘Renaissance Fair’
One of the best songs David Crosby (with McGuinn) wrote while with the band. A reflection of the lower power spirit of the time, the song might be one of the more underrated in The Byrds’ cannon. It was so important to the band that the guys decided to include it in the band’s set at the Monterey Pop Festival during the summer of 1967. With its harmonies, it still sounds fresh and new even today.
Number 4: ‘Dolphin’s Smile’
A joint Crosby/Hillman/McGuinn affair, so characteristic of the band in their prime, both with its intricate harmonies and some nifty chord changes. The quality of the song and others that Crosby wrote solo or in collaboration with other band members were not able to keep him in the band, as the other members, fed up with his personal antics replaced his picture on the cover with that of a horse.
Number 3: ‘Ballad of Easy Rider’
An iconic McGuinn song, serving as the main theme for an iconic road movie, with all the signs of the times. It is couplet with an often-told anecdote about Dylan allegedly meeting Roger McGuinn for dinner one evening, and in the course of the meal handed him a napkin with the song’s first verse on it. True or not, McGuinn definitely came with a great second verse too, and a country-tinged melody to boot.
Number 2: ‘I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better’
While Gene Clark was a member of The Byrds he was possibly the strongest songwriter within the band, and this song was the first band original that (rightfully) made it to the charts. On it, Clark combines two of his greatest loves – country music and The Beatles-style pop/rock to a great effect, practically nailing what was dubbed folk-rock at the time and of the best Byrds’ originals.
Number 1: ‘Eight Miles High’
The Byrds as psych folk/rock icons at their best. It was inspired by the band members’ first flight to London, with all the drug connotations abound, even though the band members insisted it was essentially not about drug use. It was Gene Clark’s last contribution to the band and a somewhat contentious one among the band who actually wrote it, finally credited to Clark, Crosby, and McGuinn. At the same time, it shows all of The Byrds’ genius as a band, and one of their favourites even today.
The good thing about lists is you can always debate omissions, inclusions and rankings, particularly with a band as iconic as the Byrds, but the positive thing about this list it covers their later more inconsistent releases as well. I’m also glad Hillman gets a writer mention within the selections.
Everybody Has Been Burned. Crosby’s finest – achingly sad & beautiful.