Graded on a Curve:
The Byrds,
Greatest Hits

So I died and went to Heaven (naturally) and who should I see as I step off that divine airline but The Byrds’ Roger McGuinn. Which took me back a bit, as McGuinn is still very much alive. So I said, “Roger, sir, what are you doing here?” and he replied, “God likes my music so much he’s given me a hall pass to come and go as I please.” So I asked him what the Lord’s favorite Byrds songs are and he said, “Well, you’d think it would be ‘The Christian Life’ but he actually doesn’t like that one very much. Says it’s a straightedge bummer. No, the song that always gets him is ‘Wasn’t Born to Follow’ or, if he’s been partaking of the magic mushrooms that are everywhere up here, ‘Eight Miles High.’ Says it can turn the most twisted trip into a Holiday Inn of the Mind.”

So here I am, typing this in between playing chess with Sam Cooke and drinking brandy with Richard Manuel, and basically all I want to say is that The Byrds were a great band, a very great band. Stylistically they traveled a weird but not unique road from their early days as the Jet Set, from folk rock to psychedelia to pure country to a combination of all of the above, while establishing themselves as the world’s best Dylan interpreters—so that with every new album you didn’t know what you were going to get, but you knew it would be interesting. Between the band’s extraordinary harmonies to McGuinn’s guitar tuned to the key of LSD it was hard to go wrong. And the talent! Between McGuinn (who was calling himself Jim then) and David Crosby and Gram Parsons and Gene Clark and Chris Hillman and Clarence White—all of whom passed through The Byrds at one point of another—they had enough great musicians to fill a whole wall in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

And the problem with The Byrds is figuring out which album to review, because between the innovative folk rock of their first LPs, the psychedelia of their later LPs, the cosmic country of Sweetheart of the Radio, and the powerful but not so easy to categorize later albums such as The Notorious Byrd Brothers (which inexplicably features three of The Byrds and Mr. Ed on its cover) I’ll be damned if I can choose a favorite, which is why I’m reviewing The Byrds’ Greatest Hits, which is great but limited because it came out in 1967—after only four albums—and hence before they recorded some of their best songs, such as “Wasn’t Born to Follow,” “Hickory Wind,” “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” “You Don’t Miss Your Water,” “Bad Night at the Whiskey,” and “Chestnut Mare.” It’s also too heavy on the Dylan—four songs out of ten? Come on!—but it remains the best alternative to anyone looking for a single LP overview of the band’s many transmutations.

The LP opens with the perky “Mr. Tambourine Man” off their 1965 debut, which showed The Byrds to be progenitors of a new sound: folk rock. Their debut LP showed The Byrds to be a sort of anomaly; their sound was unique, but they looked primarily to other artists for material. Such as the LP’s opener, which shows off the ethereal vocal harmonies of Clark, McGuinn, and Crosby; McGuinn’s jingle-jangle 12-string Rickenbacker guitar; and that ever-present tambourine, all of which make it the definitive take of the song. Fun fact—Terry Melcher had so little faith in the band’s musical abilities that McGuinn is the only Byrd playing on the track. It’s a popular myth that the sessions men who made up the legendary “Wrecking Crew” played on all of the debut album’s tracks, but it’s untrue; only two songs (“Mr. Tambourine Man” and “I Knew I’d Want You”) were played by ringers, before the band convinced Melcher they were up to playing their own material. The LP’s second track, “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better,” is a perky put down song ala Bob Dylan featuring the same trio of vocalists crisscrossing one another as “Mr. Tambourine Man,” and is catchy as a pit filled with punji sticks. Most importantly, it proved that The Byrds could write great songs on their own and weren’t just interpreters of other artists’ material.

“The Bells of Rhymney” is the third of five songs on the greatest hits off the band’s debut LP, which gives you an idea of the relative weakness of the band’s next two LPs. A lovely tune, “The Bells of Rhymney” features lots of great jangling guitar by McGuinn as well as the band’s trademark vocal harmonies, and has a drone-like feel that will send you into a beautiful trance. Next up is “Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There Is a Season).” The archetypal Byrds song, its wistful and spiritual lyrics are perfectly aligned with McGuinn’s lovely guitar and the band’s vocal harmonies, and the song is a joyous ode to acceptance and universal harmony, neither of which I’m particularly big on but I forget whenever I hear this tune. Released in 1965 it sounds ahead of its time; if ever there was a song harkening the coming of the Summer of Love, it’s this one.

The LP follows “Turn” with two Dylan tunes, the folk-rock “All I Really Want to Do” and the anthemic “Chimes of Freedom.” The first isn’t one of Dylan’s best songs, but The Byrds make it work thanks to their vocals, McGuinn’s guitar, and more cool tambourine. It’s wonderful how their voices ascend on the choruses, almost as cool as the guitar that opens “Chimes of Freedom.” It never fail to amaze me how The Byrds manage to sand the rough edges off Dylan’s songs without doing them a fatal injustice thereby—the band’s harmonies and McGuinn’s guitar may distract one from Dylan’s prophetic lyrics, but not much. The band simply plays Dylan’s songs in another dimension, and by so doing manages to avoid slavish imitation.

Side 2 takes us into the acid era, one where McGuinn had taken over as primary songwriter following the departure of Gene Clark. Three of its tunes come off 1966’s Fifth Dimension, the cover of which features The Byrds riding a magic carpet and the band’s name in paisley, and guess what? It’s the Summer of Love. “Eight Miles High” is a definitive acid statement, what with McGuinn freaking out on the guitar and the band’s vocal harmonies carrying the song’s lovely and decidedly psychedelic melody to great altitudes. But it’s the miraculous guitar that dominates, with McGuinn attempting to simultaneously emulate John Coltrane’s saxophone sound on “India” while incorporating a touch of Ravi Shankar raga to enhance the Indian vibe. It’s followed by that friendly intergalactic ode, “Mr. Spaceman.” Far folksier than its title would lead one to expect, it’s a lark of a tune, with the vocalists begging the spaceman in question to take them “along for a ride,” and for some reason its playful spirit has always reminded me of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Lookin’ Out My Back Door.”

“5D (Fifth Dimension)” is a remarkably lovely description of an acid trip; the melody will sweep you away, the group vocals on the chorus are transcendent, and the lyrics “And I saw the great blunder my teachers had made/Scientific delirium madness” never fail to strike me as the perfect description of the way LSD can open your mind to possibilities that lay waste to the sad limitations of rational thought. Everybody should have a favorite Byrds tune and this is mine, with “Wasn’t Born to Follow” coming in a close second.

“So You Want to Be a Rock’n’Roll Star” and The Byrds’ cover of Dylan’s “My Back Pages” both come off 1967’s Younger Than Yesterday. The former is more fast-paced than your normal Byrds tune—it’s one of the rare Byrds songs that owes nothing to folk—and highlights McGuinn’s remarkable guitar and one very cool trumpet. An unusually cynical tune from a normally positive band, it spells out the steps you need to become a rock star, interspersed with the cries of one of those audiences of little girls that came along after the advent of the Beatles. The LP closes with “My Back Pages,” and is a throwback—forget psychedelia ever happened, everybody—to the band’s folk-rock roots. Not my favorite Dylan tune, this one, but it’s smooth as a menthol cigarette and features a lovely solo by McGuinn, great vocals on the choruses, and those famous lines, “But I was so much older then/I’m younger than that now.”

As the years went on band members came and went, and by 1973 McGuinn was the only original member left. The ethereal harmonies went the way of the departing members, and while I like 1969’s Dr. Byrds and Mr. Hyde by 1971, which saw the release of both the weak Byrdmaniax and Farther Along, they were largely a spent force. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned in Heaven, it’s that God really is all forgiving. Who’d have thunk it? He even likes “America’s Great National Pastime” and “Antique Sandy” off Farther Along, and I once caught him humming the Kim Fowley-penned “Citizen Kane.” I think he hears remixes off them in his mind.

As for McGuinn, I spent an afternoon playing lawn darts with him and he told me his only regrets are recording over Gram Parsons’ vocals on three songs off Sweetheart of the Rodeo, and letting David Crosby put the wimp-rocker “Dolphin’s Smile” on The Notorious Byrd Brothers. But the highest words of praise for The Byrds were spoken by Miles Davis, of all people, who told me, “Motherfuckers laid down some fucking righteous shit on fucking ‘Eight Miles High.’ Almost makes me motherfucking jealous. I said fucking almost, mind you. Almost, motherfucker.”


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