Before we begin reviewing the final Top Ten songs in our Byrds’ Top 25 Songs countdown, I thought we’d take a break and mull over some Byrds-related topics.
Honorable Mentions (click on hyperlinks to play video)
The Byrds released 130 songs on twelve albums and a small number of 45-only singles. They also had a few recording session outtake songs that were excellent. Picking 25 top songs out of that collection was no easy task, so let’s recognize five other songs as honorable mentions:
The Airport Song (2:04) by David Crosby and Jim McGuinn, 1964 (unreleased)
David Crosby’s velvety tenor here is stunning, but this jazzy song from the band’s earliest recording sessions in 1964 didn’t fit the Byrds’ emerging folk-rock style. There will be more on Crosby’s penchant for jazz as we continue our countdown.
She Has a Way (2:26) by Gene Clark, 1965 (unreleased)
Jim (later Roger) McGuinn’s simple riff on his chiming 12-string Rickenbacker electric guitar is a force of nature in this unreleased love lament by Gene Clark.
Dolphin’s Smile (2:00) by David Crosby, Chris Hillman, and Roger McGuinn from The Notorious Byrd Brothers, 1968
This was Crosby’s first of many nautical-themed tunes. After firing Crosby, McGuinn and Chris Hillman paid him $10K as a settlement, which he used to buy a 74-foot schooner.
Jesus Is Just Alright (2:10) by Art Reynolds from Ballad of Easy Rider, 1968
The Byrds covered a significant number of Gospel songs, although no member was a Christian until McGuinn accepted Jesus Christ as his Savior, post-Byrds, in 1977. The Byrds’ released this song as a single, but it stalled at #97 on the Billboard charts. The Doobie Brothers’ 1972 version did significantly better, peaking at #35.
Just A Season (3:50) by Roger McGuinn and Jacques Levy from Untitled, 1970
McGuinn ponders the meaning of life. Reminds me of the Book of Ecclesiastes.
Two Top 40 Songs That Didn’t Make My List
The Byrds had seven Top 40 singles, including the two below, but these two particular songs didn’t make my Top 25 list because I’m just not personally fond of them.
All I Really Want To Do (2:02) by Bob Dylan from Mr. Tambourine Man, 1965
The story goes that Cher of Sonny and Cher heard the Byrds perform this Dylan cover live and beat the boys to the punch by recording and releasing her version the same week the Byrds released theirs. Cher’s single peaked at #15 on the Billboard chart, while the Byrds’ cover stalled at #40.
Mr. Spaceman (2:09) by Jim McGuinn from Fifth Dimension, 1966
This novelty tune with a country melody was the first of several McGuinn compositions dealing with space travel and aliens. The song inexplicably reached #36 on the Billboard charts. I’d be happy to never hear it again.
Assertion: The Byrds just covered other people’s songs, especially Bob Dylan’s.
Rebuttal: Of the 130 songs on the band’s 12 albums, 77 or 59% were written by members of the Byrds, not exactly the track record of a covers band. The Byrds did record 11 Bob Dylan compositions, but the band’s melding of Dylan folk and Lennon-McCartney rock ‘n’ roll was a significant step in the history of popular music.
Assertion: The Byrds did not play the instruments on their records.
Rebuttal: It’s true that producer Terry Melcher allowed only Jim McGuinn to play on the Byrds’ first single, “Mr. Tambourine,” and its B-side, “I Knew I’d Want You.” The famous “Wrecking Crew” session musicians filled out the rest of the instrumentation on those two songs. However, the Byrds did play their own instruments on every other recording that followed.
The Byrds recorded 12 albums over the span of 1965 to 1973. When I set out to select the Byrds’ 25 Top Songs, I desired to select at least one song from each album. The quality of the band’s music declined noticeably after “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” (1968), with Roger McGuinn remaining as the only founding member, but there was at least one gem in each of the Byrds’ last 6 albums. The 12 albums are represented by the following number of songs in our countdown: Mr. Tambourine Man – 3, Turn! Turn! Turn! – 3, Fifth Dimension – 3, Younger Than Yesterday – 5, The Notorious Byrd Brothers – 3, Sweetheart of the Rodeo – 1, Dr. Byrd and Mr. Hyde – 1, Ballad of Easy Rider – 1, Untitled – 2, Byrdmaniax – 1, Farther Along – 1, and Byrds – 1.
The Anonymous Byrd
The Byrds’ original drummer, Michael Clarke, gets very little mention in this series because he didn’t write or sing on any songs, and, well, he just wasn’t that good of a drummer. The band had recruited Clarke in 1964 strictly because of his looks (said to have been a cross between Mick Jagger and Brian Jones). He had no actual experience behind a drum kit. Clarke’s lack of technique was legendary. At the end of a long gig his hands were often bloodied. Clarke quit the Byrds in 1967 and had long stints with the Flying Burrito Brothers and Firefall. In 1983, Clarke was without a job and began touring as “The Byrds featuring Michael Clarke” (often sans the “featuring Michael Clarke” part) with an ever-changing assortment of journeyman musicians, including former Byrds, Gene Clark, John York, and Skip Battin. Roger McGuinn, Chris Hillman, and David Crosby didn’t take kindly to their former drummer touring as “The Byrds” (imagine Ringo touring as “The Beatles”) and a legal battle ensued over the rights to the band’s name in 1989. A judge declared Clarke the winner because the others hadn’t used the name in 16 years, but his victory was short lived. Clarke died of liver failure in 1993 at the age of 47.
The Byrds’ 50th Anniversary came and went in 2015 without a reunion tour, although original members Roger McGuinn, David Crosby, and Chris Hillman were all still performing. What happened? Although Crosby repeatedly pleaded for a reunion, McGuinn repeatedly declined. He was not interested in touring with his irascible ex-bandmate. McGuinn and Hillman did tour together in 2018 with Marty Robbins in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” album, which Crosby had not participated in. McGuinn is now 79, Crosby 80, and Hillman 77.
I recently learned that BMG Publishers will be releasing a coffee table book in October 2022 commemorating the Byrds’ early years. “The Byrds: 1964-1967” will be a large-format, 400-page collection of photographs of the original founding members of the band, Jim (later Rodger) McGuinn, Gene Clark, David Crosby, Chris Hillman, and Michael Clarke. Intermixed with the 500 pictures from such notable photographers as Henry Diltz, Jim Marshall, Linda McCartney and Barry Feinstein will be commentary from the three surviving members of the band, McGuinn, Crosby, and Hillman.
Wow! I intended for this interlude to be only 500 words, but it turned into 1200! Enough chatter. Next week we continue our countdown with song #10!