Well, here we are, down to the final two songs in our Byrds’ Top 25 Songs countdown. Song #2 was a hastily-written, cynical retort to rock ‘n’ roll phoniness and has become a much-appreciated classic.
“So You Want To Be A Rock ‘N’ Roll Star” (2:05)
Written by Jim McGuinn and Chris Hillman
Produced by Gary Usher
From “Younger Than Yesterday,”* Columbia Records, February 6, 1967. Also released as a single, January 9, 1967
The Byrds had scored two #1 singles in 1965 with “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Turn! Turn! Turn!,” but as the band shifted away from folk-rock to explore other musical forms, their popularity declined. “The Monkees,” a television comedy show about a fictional rock band, debuted on NBC in September 1966, and took the teenager audience demographic by storm. A best-selling single (“Last Train to Clarksville”) and album quickly followed even though the faux band was strictly the figment of some Hollywood producer’s imagination. The ersatz Monkees had done none of the grinding work (write, practice, play – repeat), but were being recognized and rewarded as if they were an actual band. The road-weary Jim McGuinn and Chris Hillman of the Byrds noted the meteoric success of the “pre-fab four” Monkees and penned “So You Want To Be A Rock ‘N’ Roll Star” in response, a cynical and sarcastic look at the calculated, business side of rock ‘n’ roll.**
Bandmates, David Crosby and Hillman, had previously been invited to sit in on a recording session featuring South African jazz artists, Letta Mbula and Hugh Masekela. With African jazz rhythms still swirling in his head, Hillman weaved them into the melody for “So You Want To Be A Rock ‘N’ Roll Star.” McGuinn recalled a ditty he had once worked on with South African singer, Miriam Makeba, during his pre-Byrds days that he developed into the song’s bridge. Hillman later recalled that he and McGuinn amazingly finished writing the song in only 30-40 minutes (Byrds: Requiem for the Timeless, p. 313).
This is a thoroughly delightful tune. The lively melody contrasts with the cynically biting lyrics. That’s previously-mentioned Masekela on trumpet, the first time brass was used on a Byrds recording. Percussionist, Danny “Big Black” Rey, is also credited as a guest artist and I assume he’s providing the distinctive scratching sound playing the güiro. The bobby-soxer screams were recorded at an actual Byrds concert during the band’s otherwise disappointing tour of England in August, 1965. The song inexplicably peaked at only #29 on the singles charts at the time, but has been covered by many, many appreciative artists and bands over the years.
It’s my pleasure to present song #2 in our Byrds’ Top 25 Songs countdown, “So You Want To Be A Rock ‘N’ Roll Star.”
*I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that five of the tunes in our Byrds’ Top 25 Songs countdown are from the excellent “Younger Than Yesterday” album, the most from any of the band’s 12 LPs.
**The Byrds were not without their own “manufactured” aspects. Michael Clarke was chosen to be the drummer of the band based solely on his looks. He had no previous experience sitting behind a drum kit. Also, except for lead guitarist, Jim McGuinn, the Byrds were not allowed to play their instruments on the band’s first single, “Mr. Tambourine Man.”
I toyed with writing a version of this song for aspiring Steven Furtick-wanna-be, hipster, mega-church pastors, but could only come up with a single line:
🎼 …Just get a swag hairdoo, some skinny jeans, and a Jesus tattoo.
Next week, after six months of anticipation, we’ll finally reveal song #1 in our countdown of the Byrds’ Top 25 Songs.