Friday, July 13, 2012

20 Things You May Not Have Known About The Byrds

As Roger McGuinn turns 70 today, Psychobabble takes a look at 20 things you may not have known about The Byrds!
1. During his pre-Byrds days, Jim (not yet Roger) McGuinn backed up Bobby Darin on guitar and banjo during the crooner's folk phase.

2. In The Byrds' original incarnation as the four piece Jet Set, singer Gene Clark played rhythm guitar and David Crosby played bass. Clark's inadequate guitar skill necessitated Crosby's move to rhythm and the hiring of bassist Chris Hillman.

3. When The Jet Set released a single in 1964 with Elektra Records, the label's Jac Holzman tried cashing in on the British pop craze by renaming his new acquisitions The Beefeaters.

4. According to Alan Clayson's book on The Stones' Beggars Banquet, The Byrds got their wings on "Mr. Tambourine Man" after British R&B maniacs The Pretty Things, who had "first refusal," passed on Dylan's demo.

5. In Martin Scorsese's 2005 documentary No Direction Home, Dylan scoffed at The Byrds, saying, "These jingly-jangly songs that are supposed to have something to do with me. I didn't really like that sound: folk rock, whatever that was." Brian Jones claimed Dylan sang a very different tune in 1965 when the Rolling Stone told Disc magazine, "I met Dylan at his hotel while he was in London, and he was playing (The Byrds' version of) "Mr. Tambourine Man" all the time. He just loves the sound of them." Of course, anyone looking for consistency from Bob Dylan is running a fool's errand.

6. "Mr. Tambourine Man" owes just as much to a fellow band of Californians as it does to Dylan. While Bob supplied the song the guys edited down for their first smash single, The Beach Boys inspired the sound. Producer and Beach Boys collaborator Terry Melcher even brought in The Wrecking Crew, Phil Spector's house band that played on The Beach Boys' mid-'60s records, to cut the backing track. According to Mark Dillon's Fifty Sides of The Beach Boys, Roger McGuinn (the only Byrd to play on "Mr. Tambourine Man") recalled Melcher telling drummer Hal Blaine to "get the feel of 'Don't Worry Baby'." The Byrds' use of block harmonies is equally indebted to The Beach Boys.

7. That Beach Boys influence on The Byrds predates the band, itself, though more in theme than sound. In 1963, young Jim McGuinn wrote and recorded a bubblegum-folk tune called "Beach Ball" with his group The City Surfers.

8. In his autobiography Stone Alone, Bill Wyman recalled a night on which The Stones were to share a San Diego stage with The Byrds. When a broken down car made Wyman's band a half hour late to the show, The Byrds were forced to extend their set beyond their usual repertoire. By the time The Stones finally showed up, Wyman was amused to see The Byrds occupying the crowd with their renditions of Rolling Stones songs! However, some further clarification from Christopher Hjort's book So You Want to Be a Rock 'n' Roll Star indicates The Byrds were actually playing "Not Fade Away", so the late Buddy Holly really had a more legit claim of ownership than The Stones.

9. Before Bryan MacLean became a major artist in his own right as a guitarist and singer in Arthur Lee's Love, he briefly roadied for The Byrds.

10. The Byrds' notoriously fraught summer of '65 trip to London (which inspired "Eight Miles High") got off on a particularly bad foot when they were served with legal papers nearly as soon as they touched down on the tarmac. Manager Leo De Clerck handed the band a writ insisting they stop calling themselves "The Byrds" because of "loss of work" damages incurred by his clients, a ferocious mod act called The Birds. With both bands' lawyers stalling at a draw, The Byrds continued calling themselves The Byrds, and The Birds soon folded. The British group's 18-year old guitarist Ronnie Wood would go on to a long and fruitful career playing with The Creation, The Jeff Beck Group, The Faces, and yes, The Rolling Stones.

11. David Crosby nearly got The Byrds kicked off "The Ed Sullivan Show" when Ed's son-in-law told them they'd have to shave some verses off the relatively lengthy "Turn! Turn! Turn!" Sullivan son-in-law responded to Crosby's indignant diatribe about maintaining the integrity of his "art" by telling The Byrds to fly off. After a plea from the band's manager, the show went on.

12. David Crosby was justifiably pissed that Roger McGuinn kept nixing his scheme to cover an obscure folk song by Billy Roberts. By the time The Byrds finally cut "Hey Joe" for Fifth Dimension, it had already been popularized by The Leaves as "Hey Joe, Where You Gonna Go". Having missed his opportunity to have first crack at the cover, Crosby would see "Hey Joe" become perhaps the most covered song of the late '60s. Of course, The Jimi Hendrix Experience's definitive version rendered all others, including The Byrds', superfluous.

13. During a 1983 interview, Gene Clark dropped the bomb that he'd written the first draft of "Eight Miles High" with Brian Jones!

14. Perhaps The Byrds' least likely celebrity fans were The Velvet Underground. Perhaps this is not so surprising since McGuinn's cacophonous work on songs such as "Eight Miles High" is not so far removed from that of Lou Reed. Gregg Barrios even compared Reed's playing on "All Tomorrow's Parties" to The Byrds' in a 1967 review of the single for Rag magazine. That same year, Reed told critic Ricard Meltzer that his favorite guitarists are McGuinn and the even more surprising George Harrison!

15. Although George Harrison had already discovered the sitar through its use on the Help! soundtrack, he did not hear the instrument's greatest artisan until David Crosby played the Beatle his prized Ravi Shankar records during The Byrds' London trip. Shankar's raga would have a profound influence on The Byrds' records in '66 and '67 too. Several years earlier, Crosby actually attended a Shankar recording session at Hollywood's World Pacific Studios.

16. "So You Want to Be a Rock and Roll Star" has long been viewed as a personal swipe at The Monkees. In fact, the song is only a dig at the prefabricated way the group was assembled. Chris Hillman later told interviewer Tom Doyle that the song was "a slight jab at... the process of taking a contrived thing and making a watered-down version of A Hard Day's Night on a weekly sitcom. It cheapened the music. It was never a jab at the four guys; in fact Mike Nesmith was a great singer and songwriter." Nesmith even jammed with The Byrds during their August 3, 1968, gig at the Berkeley Community Theater. However, rumors that The Byrds backed Nesmith on The Monkees' "What Am I Doing Hangin' 'Round" are totally false.

17. Gram Parsons originally wrote his boogying "Lazy Days" for possible inclusion on the soundtrack of Roger Corman's head flick The Trip. The version Parsons recorded with his International Submarine Band didn't make the cut, but he would rerecord it with his next two bands: The Byrds, who didn't issue it (though it has since been released on the expanded Sweetheart of the Rodeo CD), and The Flying Burrito Brothers, who did on their second L.P. Burrito Deluxe.

18. After The Byrds got their hands on the legendary "Basement Tapes" Dylan cut with The Band, they quickly recorded his "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere" for inclusion on Sweetheart of the Rodeo. In his haste, McGuinn mis-sang the lyric "pick up your money, pack up your tent" as "pack up your money, pick up your tent". This minor mistake was not lost on Dylan. Ever protective of his words and the order in which they should be sung, he rerecorded the tune for his 1971 Greatest Hits Vol. II with the typically sarcastic --and further garbled --corrective "pack up your money, pull up your tent, McGuinn".

19. Though the version of Gerry Goffin and Carole King's "Wasn't Born to Follow" included on The Notorious Byrd Brothers would ultimately grace the soundtrack of Bob Rafelson's Easy Rider, a version by the band the director helped create, The Monkees, was originally under consideration for the milestone independent film.

20. Dylan twice fobbed off Peter Fonda and twice gave a helping hand to Roger McGuinn when the actor came looking for songs to include on the Easy Rider soundtrack. Dylan first refused to hand over his 1965 recording of "It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)", necessitating a new version by Dylan-sound-a-like McGuinn. Then when Fonda asked for an original song for the film, Dylan just scribbled a few lines on a napkin, handed it to Fonda, and told him, "Here. Give this to McGuinn. He'll know what to do with it." McGuinn completed "The Ballad of Easy Rider" from those three lines: "The river flows, it flows to the sea / Wherever that river goes, that's where I want to be / Flow river flow."

I consulted a number of sources to assemble this piece, but the most essential by far was Christopher Hjort's So You Want to Be a Rock 'N' Roll Star: The Byrds Day-By-Day 1965 - 1973. Read my review of this excellent book here.
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