When most people think of The Byrds they imagine jangly guitars and heavenly harmonies but the band were so much more than 12-string guitars and Dylan covers. Over the nine years they were active they went from folk rock to psychedelic pop to country rock and even raga rock, pretty much perfecting every sound they tried, despite numerous line-up changes. Every era of the band – even the under-appreciated final years – managed to produce something truly special and worthy of listening to.
The one constant figure throughout all this was the quirky genius of Roger (Jim) McGuinn, not just a brilliant singer and songwriter but also hugely talented at seeking out old folk tunes and reworking other people’s songs (particularly Dylan of course). But McGuinn wasn’t the only person to make The Byrds great: Gene Clark, David Crosby, Chris Hillman, Gram Parsons and Clarence White in particular were all an invaluable part of that famous Byrds’ sound throughout the years.
With that in mind let’s delve into their rich back catalogue to uncover some hidden treasures…
1) “You Showed Me,” (1964) later on Preflyte (1969)
You probably know “You Showed Me” as The Turtles’ last big hit in 1969 or maybe even from Salt-n-Pepa’s funky rap version in the ’90s but you may not have realized that it was originally a Byrds song, written by Gene Clark and Jim McGuinn (before he changed his name to Roger) in 1964. The pair wrote it back in the very early days of the band when they were still just a duo playing folk clubs around Los Angeles. After they recruited David Crosby, Chris Hillman and Michael Clarke, the newly formed band – then known as The Jet Set – went into the studio to record demos some of which went on to appear, in newly recorded versions, on their debut album Mr. Tambourine Man.
For some reason “You Showed Me” didn’t make the cut and it wasn’t until 1969, months after The Turtles had hit the charts with it, that it finally saw the light of day on the archival album Preflyte. The Byrds demo version is a mixture of folky guitars and Beatles-inspired vocals but the expanded CD release of Preflyte (released in 2001) also includes a fantastic upbeat electric version that makes it even more confusing why “You Showed Me” was never recorded properly by the band.
2) “Here Without You,” Mr. Tambourine Man (1965)
Their first big hits may have been penned by Bob Dylan (“Mr. Tambourine Man” and “All I Really Want To Do”) but the principal songwriter in The Byrds’ early days was the magnificent Gene Clark. He was responsible for all five original songs (two co-written with McGuinn) on their debut album and all show what an incredible songwriter Clark was right from the start. His best known track from the LP, “I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better,” unbelievably was only deemed worthy of being a B-side (to “All I Really Want To Do”) but thankfully has since become known as one of the band’s classic songs (thanks in part to Tom Petty’s cover on Full Moon Fever).
But it’s not the only Clark gem on the album. “Here Without You” is a melancholy classic full of lonesome lyrics (“Streets that I walk on depress me”) and Beatle-esque melodies and of course McGuinn’s beautiful 12-string guitar. The mood is reminiscent of Clark’s later work and, as one of the band’s earliest original songs (it dates back to 1964), it’s amazing to think Clark was still in his teens when he wrote it.
3) “She Don’t Care About Time,” B-side of “Turn! Turn! Turn!”(1965)
By the time the band went into the studio to record their second album, Turn! Turn! Turn!, there were already tensions rising and most of these were due to the fact that Gene Clark had earned a lot more money than his band mates, all thanks to his numerous songwriting credits on their first album. Turning up one day in a new fancy sports car seems to have been the last straw and sadly because of this resentment (maybe rightfully so), some Clark gems got pushed off the album including “The Day Walk (Never Before)” (a particularly surprising decision to oust and sad that it took 20 more years to finally see the light of day) and maybe one of Clark’s best ever songs, “She Don’t Care About Time,” which was only released as a B-side to the single “Turn! Turn! Turn!” It’s Clark at his most poetic and could easily have been a hit on its own.
George Harrison later wrote to the band to tell them that Clark’s song, as well as their version of “The Bells Of Rhymney,” were the inspiration behind “If I Needed Someone” from Rubber Soul, further proving just how crazy it was to leave this song off the album. Hillman, at least, seems to have since realized that the song is something special including his version on his most recent album, Bidin’ My Time.
4) “I See You,” Fifth Dimension (1966)
By 1966, Clark could take no more and, increasingly isolated by the others, had left the band. His parting gift was the song “Eight Miles High”, collaborating with both Crosby and McGuinn for the first and last time. Clark’s absence though allowed the remaining Byrds to, ahem, spread their wings, so to speak, particularly David Crosby. “What’s Happening?” is the first Byrds song to get a sole Crosby credit but for my money the jazzy psychedelia of “I See You”, on which Crosby and McGuinn joined forces, is one of the real highlights of the album.
5) “Why,” B-side of “Eight Miles High” (1966)
If there ever a song The Byrds wrote that should have been a huge hit, it has to be “Why.” A brighter but less intricate version was included on their 1967 album Younger Than Yesterday but the best version is surely the one that appears as a B-side to their hit song “Eight Miles High.” Written by Crosby and McGuinn, it’s a magnificent swirl of R&B, pop and Indian influences, the band at the time having fallen in love with the music of Ravi Shankar. McGuinn in particular shines on the track, amazingly imitating a sitar on his guitar.
6) “Thoughts And Words,” Younger Than Yesterday (1967)
While Fifth Dimension gave McGuinn and Crosby a chance to shine as songwriters, Younger Than Yesterday is particularly notable for the emergence of Chris Hillman as a shining star in the band. Not only did he co-write (with McGuinn) the album’s biggest hit, the now classic “So You Want To Be A Rock ‘N’ Roll Star,” his other poppy and countrified contributions to the record are among its best: “Have You Seen Her Face”, “Time Between” and “The Girl With No Name.” But the best has to be Hillman’s least country-influenced tune, the psychedelic “Thoughts And Words,” with its groovy backwards guitar that was certainly inspired by The Beatles.
7) “Lady Friend,” Single (1967)
David Crosby emerged as a brilliant songwriter after Gene Clark left the band but the only Byrds A-side that bears a sole Crosby writing credit is the 1967 single, “Lady Friend.” Sadly the song wasn’t the hit they had hoped and was left off the subsequent Byrds album, The Notorious Byrd Brothers, and to be fair, although it certainly annoyed Crosby at the time, it probably would not have been a good fit (even though the B-side “Old John Robertson” was included) and Crosby was out of the band by the time it hit shop shelves anyway. That said, “Lady Friend” is a fantastic track and should have been a big hit.
8) “Draft Morning,” The Notorious Byrd Brothers (1968)
“Draft Morning” has to be one of David Crosby’s best and most powerful songs during his time with The Byrds but it’s also the one with the most controversial history. A timely protest song about the Vietnam War, Crosby had just given it to the band when he was suddenly fired after months of tension between him and the other members (Crosby refusing to participate in the recording of their cover of the Goffin/King track “Goin’ Back” appears to have been the final straw).
Rather cheekily McGuinn and Hillman decided to carry on working on “Draft Morning” without Crosby and to add insult to injury, when they couldn’t remember all the lyrics, decided to add some of their own thereby each getting a co-writers credit. Understandably Crosby was pretty pissed at this but even this troubled evolution doesn’t take away from the song’s undeniable beauty. McGuinn and McGuinn didn’t stop there either, they also dropped Crosby’s saucy ode to a ménage à trois, “Triad“, and then seemingly poked fun at his absence by including a horse’s head on the cover where Crosby should have been (although, to be fair, they always denied this).
9) “One Hundred Years From Now (Gram Parsons Vocal),” Sweetheart Of The Rodeo (1968)
Given Gram Parsons’ cult status these days and the recognition that his one album with The Byrds helped influence the whole country rock movement, Sweetheart Of The Rodeo is too well known to offer any real unknown pleasures (and to be fair every single song is a classic). However, one of Parson’s best tracks on the record, “One Hundred Years From Now, featured exquisite harmonies from Hillman and McGuinn rather than its author on lead vocals. Thankfully the Legacy Edition released in 2003 unearthed the Parsons-sung versions of this track and it is admittedly thrilling to hear his slightly more earthy take on the track that sounds like it would have fit nicely into one of his solo records.
10) “Old Blue,” Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde (1969)
Given that Hillman has always been a country boy at heart, it was no surprise that he took off with Gram Parsons (who left in protest to the band playing in South Africa during apartheid) to form The Flying Burrito Brothers, leaving McGuinn as the only original member of the band. Before Hillman went though, he and McGuinn had recruited the amazing Clarence White on guitar (who had actually played on three previous Byrds records as a session man) and Gene Parsons on drums. Once Hillman departed, John York also joined replacing him on bass.
The record that followed, Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde, attempts to find the middle-ground between the old Byrds jangle (complete with customary Dylan covers) and their embrace of country rock and is a joy if you are a McGuinn fan as he sings every track. The best song has to be McGuinn’s take on the traditional song “Old Blue,” an ode to a long gone doggy pal, which is just as sweet as it sounds.
11) “Gunga Din,” Ballad Of Easy Rider (1969)
The best song on the 1969 album Ballad Of Easy Rider is easily McGuinn’s title track written for the film Easy Rider (Dylan wrote the first line but it’s undoubtedly a McGuinn song and one of his very best too). But a close second surprisingly came courtesy of drummer Gene Parsons (no relation to Gram by the way). This gentle number was inspired by life on the road with The Byrds and an incident where band mate John York and his mother were refused entry to a fancy and rather snooty restaurant just because he was wearing a leather jacket (Gunga Din was Parsons’ nickname for York). After hearing about about it, rather than get angry, Parsons instead went home and wrote a rather lovely, ethereal song.
12) “All The Things,” (Untitled) (1970)
McGuinn had a clever move for the band’s next album: a double album that was half live and half new material. The resulting record not only showcased what a brilliant live act McGuinn’s new Byrds had become but also managed to link the band’s past hits with its present incarnation. Of the new tracks, it was McGuinn who once again shined, thanks to a number of songs he had written with theater legend Jacques Levy for a proposed country rock musical called Gene Tryp (based on the Ibsen play Peer Gynt, which to be honest sounds pretty bizarre).
The collaboration produced some of McGuinn’s finest songs in years, including “Lover Of The Bayou,” the lovely acoustic “Just A Season” and the excellent radio-friendly ode to a horse, “Chestnut Mare” (featuring the forever brilliant but chuckle-worthy line “she’ll be just like a wife”). But “All The Things”, which actually features ex-band member Gram Parsons on backing vocals, is the highlight for me. Unfortunately the rest of the studio album half of (Untitled) isn’t as great as these tracks and makes you yearn for what the completed Gene Tryp musical would have sounded like.
13) “Pale Blue (Alt Version),” Byrdmaniax (1971)
Byrdmaniax is by far the most loathed Byrds album thanks to uninspired songs and Terry Melcher (who had been a fine producer up until this point) trying to disguise this fact by dressing them up with syrupy strings, horns and female choruses (apparently all done without their knowledge while the band was on tour). Imagine having a guitarist as amazing as Clarence White on your record and then burying his licks with overblown strings and backing vocals, no wonder even the band were unhappy with the result.
Still there are a few decent McGuinn tracks but compare the sweet acoustic (Untitled) outtake of “Kathleen’s Song” (another song written for the abandoned Gene Tryp musical) to the glossy finished version found on Byrdmaniax and you’ll hear where the problem lies. The simple alternative version of “Pale Blue” (rather than the over-produced album version), that appears as a bonus track on the CD, just features the beautiful guitar work of McGuinn and White and is utterly lovely.
14) “Farther Along,” Farther Along (1971)
The band took matters into their own hands for their next album, producing it themselves. While boasting a better sound, it still proved an uneven affair and it wasn’t long before McGuinn decided to disband this version of The Byrds to make way for a reunion of the original members. One of the record’s few saving graces is the Clarence White-arranged version of the old gospel song “Farther Along.” Sadly, five months after The Byrds had broken up, Clarence White was tragically killed by a drunk driver, aged just 29. At his funeral Gram Parsons led the crowd singing this very song, which makes White’s version sound even more poignant today.
15) “Full Circle,” Byrds (1973)
The original five members of The Byrds briefly reuniting in 1973 should have been a spectacular affair but instead it’s a wildly uneven album with only Gene Clark bringing his best material to the table (the others have since admitted they were keeping back their best stuff for their solo records). So while it’s not a successful Byrds album (no Dylan covers and no jangly guitars sadly), it is a nice showcase for Clark’s talents, even on two (yes, that’s right, two!) Neil Young covers. Clark’s tunes are the real joy though; “Changing Heart” is a lovely, harmonica fueled country tune but “Full Circle”, originally recorded for Clark’s Roadmaster LP, featuring Hillman’s tasteful mandolin flourishes and Crosby’s gorgeous harmonies, is probably the album’s standout track.