The Byrds’ Top 25 Songs: #10, “Chestnut Mare”

Oh, boy! Here we go! We’ve reviewed songs #25 through #11 in our Byrds’ Top 25 Songs countdown, and they were all excellent tunes, but now we’re finally getting to the Top Ten “cream of the crop” of the Byrds’ recordings. Four of the upcoming Top Ten were Billboard Top 40 commercial successes, plus a near-miss, while the other five were exceptional songs in their own right.

“Chestnut Mare” (5:08)
Written by Roger McGuinn and Jacques Levy
Produced by Terry Melcher
From “Untitled,” Columbia Records, September 14, 1970, also released as a single, October 23, 1970

The Byrds’ leader and guitarist, Roger McGuinn, and Broadway impresario, Jacques Levy, met in 1967 and teamed up to write 26 songs intended for a musical that never materialized. Four of those songs were recorded for the Byrds’ ninth album, “Untitled,” including song #10 in our Byrds’ Top 25 Songs countdown, “Chestnut Mare.”

“Chestnut Mare” tells the whimsical story of the aforementioned musical’s protagonist, Gene Tryp, who sought to capture and tame a wild horse. It was distinct among Byrds songs in its narrative approach, with much of the vocals being spoken rather than sung. “Chestnut Mare” was clearly the best song on “Untitled.” Columbia rightly released the tune as a single a month after the album’s debut, but it inexplicably stalled at #121 on the Billboard singles chart (in contrast, the song reached #19 in the U.K.). Nevertheless, the song was a favorite of concert audiences and received extensive airplay on Top 40-indifferent FM radio. In addition to its entertaining, lyrical story, “Chestnut Mare” features some wonderful guitar interplay between McGuinn on his twelve-string Rickenbacker and Clarence White on both his Telecaster and Martin D-28 acoustic guitar.

The five albums by the 1969-1971 McGuinn-White Byrds were of uneven quality, but “Chestnut Mare” compares with the very best songs from the original, 1965-1968, McGuinn-Clark-Crosby-Hillman line-up.

It’s my pleasure to present song #10 in our Byrds’ Top 25 Songs countdown, “Chestnut Mare.”

The Byrds Top 25 Songs – Interlude

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.

Popular Misconceptions

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.

Album Representation

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 Byrds’ 12 albums surround a greatest hits collection on this quilt.

The Anonymous Byrd

Michael Clarke

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.

No Reunion

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.

New Book

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!

The Byrds’ Top 25 Songs: #11, “What’s Happening?!?!”

“What’s Happening?!?!” (2:35)
Written by David Crosby
Produced by Allen Stanton
From “Fifth Dimension,” Columbia Records, July 18, 1966

The Byrds had tipped rock ‘n’ roll on its head in 1965 with their melding of Dylan folk and Lennon-McCartney pop to create folk-rock. But band member, David Crosby, chafed at formulaic categorizations and was eager for the Byrds to explore other musical genres. The story goes that Crosby had asked band leader and tekkie, Jim (later Roger) McGuinn, to record a few of his favorite albums at the time on McGuinn’s new fangled cassette tape player/recorder. As the Byrds traveled by bus from city to city as part of Dick Clark’s “Caravan of Stars” in the Winter of 1965, they collectively listened to John Coltrane’s “Africa/Brass”and “Impressions” LPs as well as albums from Indian sitarist, Ravi Shankar. Mile after mile and hour after hour, the Byrds were inundated with Coltrane’s sax and Shankar’s sitar, which would produce very noticeable results on the band’s next album, “Fifth Dimension,” including song #11 in our Byrds’ Top 25 Songs countdown.

“What’s Happening?!?!” has the distinction of being the first tune penned solely by Crosby on a Byrds album. Crosby asks existential, counter-culture question after question, followed by a musical “response” from McGuinn, mimicking Shankar’s sitar using his twelve-string Rickenbacker guitar. Nope that is NOT a sitar, folks, however, McGuinn does an incredible imitation. Several other songs on “Fifth Dimension” feature McGuinn’s faux sitar drone as well as elements of Coltrane jazz. “Fifth Dimension” wasn’t the first rock album* to introduce the sitar sound, but it helped in popularizing “raga-rock.” Crosby’s delightful tenor vocal here foreshadows his accomplishments with Crosby, Stills, and Nash three years later.

“What’s Happening?!?! was also released as the B-side of the “Mr. Spaceman” 45-single on September 6, 1966. However, Top 40 AM radio audiences were much more receptive to McGuinn’s forgettable A-side novelty tune than Crosby’s existential ponderings accompanied by ersatz sitar dronings.

Gene Clark’s abrupt departure from the Byrds in March 1966 had opened up opportunities for the ambitious and increasingly confident Crosby, like “What’s Happening?!?!,” but his confrontational personality and his Top 40-ambivalent musical experimentations led to rising tensions within the band, leading to his firing just nineteen months later in October 1967.

Fasten your seat belts, folks, because next week we begin our final approach, reviewing the Top 10 songs in our Byrds’ Top 25 Songs countdown! Or do we?

*Trivia: The Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood” (“Rubber Soul,” 1965) was actually the first rock song to feature a sitar, and, yup, it was none other than David Crosby who initially introduced George Harrison to the sitar.

Personal note: I thought David Crosby and other rock star “prophets” back in the day were pretty cool for challenging the status quo and asking the big existential questions. They could have found the answers to their questions in God’s Word.

The Byrds’ Top 25 Songs: #12, “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better”

“I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better” (2:31)
Written by Gene Clark
Produced by Terry Melcher
From “Mr. Tambourine Man,” Columbia Records, June 21, 1965. Also released as the B-side of the “All I Really Want to Do” 45-single on June 14, 1965

Song #12 on our Byrds’ Top 25 Songs countdown has garnered increasing respect and admiration over time. Gene Clark was the Byrds’ primary songwriter during his short tenure with the band from 1964 to 1966. Most of his songs were laments over broken romances, including “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better.” This gem was released as the humble B-side of the single, “All I Really Want to Do,” but acquired a following of its own and managed to peak at #103 on the Billboard charts.

Over the decades, “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better” has become increasingly recognized by fans and music critics alike as one of the Byrds’ best songs from their early period. The recording has a high degree of musical energy with Crosby’s rhythm guitar, McGuinn’s jangly twelve-string Rickenbacker lead guitar, Hillman’s bass, and Clarke’s drums synchronically driving the beat. Clark’s lyric, “I’ll probably feel a whole lot better when your gone,” ambivalently masks a degree of pain, regret, and uncertainty over the romantic betrayal and upcoming breakup. Music critic, Mark Deming, wrote that the use of the word “probably” in the refrain lends the track a depth of subtext that was unusual for a pop song in the mid-1960s. “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better” definitely sounds like a 1965 pop record in contrast to several of the Byrds’ time-transcendent hits, but it’s a great 1965 pop tune.

“I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better” has been covered by many artists, but most importantly by Tom Petty on his 1989 solo album, “Full Moon Fever,” which introduced a new generation to the song (and to the Byrds) and boosted its cachet tremendously. Rolling Stone magazine actually ranked “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better” as song #234 on its 2006 list of “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time,” quite a feat for a humble B-side.

The Byrds’ Top 25 Songs: #13, “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”

Fasten your seatbelts, friends, because with song #13 on our The Byrds’ Top 25 Songs countdown, we’re about to go deeper into country music than many of you have ever gone before.

“You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” (2:33)
Written by Bob Dylan
Produced by Gary Usher
From “Sweetheart of the Rodeo,” Columbia Records, August 30, 1968

At the start of 1968, the Byrds were in a quandary. With the firing of David Crosby during “The Notorious Byrd Brothers” sessions, the band was down to only two members, Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman. An acquaintance of Hillman’s, Gram Parsons, was invited to audition and was subsequently hired.

For the band’s next project, McGuinn envisioned a double-album sampling the entire spectrum of American music, from early Appalachian jug tunes to the electronic Moog synthesizer. But Parsons had an agenda of his own and also had an enthusiastic ally in Hillman, who had brought some country-flavored compositions to the band’s previous album. Parsons convinced McGuinn that the band should fly to Nashville to record an entire album of straight-ahead, hardcore, country music tunes.

“We’d hired a pianist, but we got George Jones in a rhinestone suit!” – Roger McGuinn

It was both a courageous and foolhardy move. The youth culture hated redneck country music and country music fans hated rock ‘n’ roll “hippies.” But Parsons had an “evangelistic zeal” to “convert” rock audiences to country music.

Columbia Records had sent the Byrds some unreleased Dylan demos from his “Woodstock sessions,” and the Byrds opted to cover “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” adding a decidedly country twist. Don’t bother trying to figure out the obtuse, nonsensical lyrics, but the song has an infectious melody and chorus. McGuinn sings a good lead, but it’s Nashville session player, Lloyd Green, on pedal steel guitar, who makes this recording as country as anything they were playing down at the Grand Ole Oprey.

Newcomer Parsons dominated the Nashville sessions to the point that he argued the band should change its name to “Gram Parsons and the Byrds.” Cooler heads prevailed and Parsons’ lead vocals were later expunged on three songs and replaced with McGuinn’s. Parsons, in essence, fired himself from the band two months prior to the release of “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” by refusing to tour apartheid-divided South Africa with the other Byrds.

“You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” was released as an early single on April 2, 1968, but rock ‘n’ roll AM Top 40 radio listeners weren’t ready for it. The song peaked at only #74 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. However, some folks definitely did take notice. “Sweetheart” is now revered as a historic, pioneering, seminal album that ushered in country-rock just as Parsons had envisioned. The LP was released a full seven months ahead of Dylan’s “Nashville Skyline.” Despite its initial cool reception, “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” easily deserves the #13 spot in our countdown of the Byrds’ Top 25 Songs.

Following “Sweetheart,” the Byrds pulled back from hardcore country and settled into a country-rock compromise.

Trivia: Dylan released his own version of “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” three years later in 1971 in which he annoyedly name-checked McGuinn for transposing the lyric, “Pick up your money, pack up your tent” to “Pack up your money, pick up your tent.”

The Byrds’ Top 25 Songs: #14, “Time Between”

“Time Between” (1:53)
Written by Chris Hillman
Produced by Gary Usher
From “Younger Than Yesterday,” Columbia, February 6, 1967

Byrds bassist, Chris Hillman, grew up in Rancho Santa Fe-San Diego and developed an interest in the burgeoning Southern California country music scene. He had been a member of several SoCal bluegrass bands before he was drafted into the Byrds. Hillman was limited to playing bass on the first two albums, however, the resignation of Gene Clark from the band in early-1966 opened up multiple opportunities. Hillman contributed vocals for the first time on the “Fifth Dimension” LP and brought, not one, but five song compositions to the “Younger Than Yesterday” recording sessions. One of those tunes is #14 in our Byrds’ Top 25 Songs countdown.

“Time Between” was the very first song ever written by Hillman. At first listen, you might think it’s just a simple country-rock song, but there’s much more to it than meets the ear. Other rock bands had previously recorded country-themed tunes with tongue-firmly-in-cheek, like the Beatles’ cover of Buck Owens’ “Act Naturally” (“Help,” 1965), but “Time Between” is arguably the first straight-ahead, pure country song ever recorded by a major rock ‘n’ roll band.

To give the song an authentic country twang, Hillman brought in Clarence White, one of SoCal’s best, young, country guitarists. Fifty-four years later, accomplished country guitarists still marvel at Clarence’s mastery displayed throughout this song, particularly the jaw-dropping solo (1:14 to 1:32). If you take the time to listen, you’ll be hearing a virtuoso. In addition to White, Hillman tapped one of his former bluegrass bandmates, Vern Gosdin, to add some acoustic guitar and backing vocals. David Crosby later insisted that Gosdin’s vocals be expunged from the recording and replaced by his own. Vern Gosdin, as some of you may know, would go on to have a huge country music career.

Trivia: “Time Between” documents a long-distance, trans-Atlantic romance involving Hillman and Anya Butler, English secretary to Kit Lambert, manager of The Who. The two married in 1967, but divorced in 1968. Hillman included “Time Between” as part of his in-concert repertoire over the next 54 years. He actually re-recorded the song in 1987 for the debut album of his outstanding Desert Rose Band.

The Byrds’ Top 25 Songs: #15, “My Back Pages”

“My Back Pages” (3:08)
Written by Bob Dylan
Produced by Gary Usher
From “Younger Than Yesterday,” Columbia Records, February 6, 1967, also released as a 45 single, March 13, 1967

You’ve patiently stuck with me as we reviewed the first 10 songs in our Byrds’ Top 25 Songs countdown. Only 2 of those songs were released as singles and none received any significant airplay. This week we present #15 in our countdown, “My Back Pages,” a Top 40 hit that many of you baby boomers may have actually heard on AM radio way back in 1967.

The album, “Younger Than Yesterday,” saw the Byrds entering their peak creative phase with pioneering and eclectic forays into jazz-rock, raga-rock, psychedelia, and country-rock. But “My Back Pages” is a throwback to the band’s earlier folk-rock roots with an anti-protest-song twist. With this song, Bob Dylan basically disavowed all of his previous protest material.

In a soldier’s stance, I aimed my hand
At the mongrel dogs who teach
Fearing not that I’d become my enemy
In the instant that I preach
Sisters fled by confusion boats
Mutiny from stern to bow
Ah, but I was so much older then
I’m younger than that now

The Byrd’s lead guitarist and unofficial leader, Roger McGuinn, later stated that the song was suggested by the band’s ex-manager, Jim Dickson, when McGuinn’s and Dickson’s cars were coincidentally stopped side-by-side at an L.A. intersection. An increasingly radicalized David Crosby strongly resisted recording “My Back Pages” because he felt it was a step backwards both musically and politically.

“My Back Pages” was a very good song on an exceptional album. McGuinn’s simple-but-catchy guitar solo stayed in my head for quite a long time. As a single, “My Back Pages” reached a respectable #30 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, the last Byrds’ single to crack the Billboard Top 40. Looking ahead, we’ll be revisiting the outstanding “Younger Than Yesterday” an unparalleled four more times (!) in our countdown to #1.

Trivia: Guest artist, Van Dyke Parks, plays organ on this tune, as he also will on song #6 in our countdown. An obscure internet article notes that the Byrds’ cover of “My Back Pages” actually reached the #3 slot on Rochester, NY’s AM radio Top 40 local chart.

The Byrds’ Top 25 Songs: #16, “If You’re Gone”

“If You’re Gone” (2:45)
Written by Gene Clark
Produced by Terry Melcher
From “Turn! Turn! Turn!,” Columbia Records, December 6, 1965

The Byrds’ debut album, “Mr. Tambourine Man,” was widely and enthusiastically hailed for pioneering the folk-rock sound. Many songwriters and musicians hopped aboard the folk-rock bandwagon and even the Beatles and Bob Dylan took note and changed musical course due to the extremely influential LP.

With their sophomore album, “Turn! Turn! Turn!,” the Byrds continued their folk-rock sound, although with some of the sparkle missing from “Mr. Tambourine Man.”

Along with two other songs, Gene Clark contributed “If You’re Gone,” what the album’s Wiki article calls “a poetic confession of emotional insecurity.” Yup, there’s a lot of “ifs” in this song: 14 total. Talk about insecurity! Clark sings an excellent lead vocal. Another notable element of this tune is the distinct vocal sustain/droning that producer, Terry Melcher, later credited to band leader, Jim (later Roger) McGuinn. Stated Melcher, “McGuinn had this good idea for using a fifth harmony to create a droning effect, like that of a bagpipe or drum. On the album it really does sound like another instrument.” Rock historians note that “If You’re Gone” was the first among many later tunes to use a vocal sustain effect. McGuinn’s chiming twelve-string Rickenbacker provides a lively counterbalance to the vocal drone. While “If You’re Gone” was considered one of the better cuts on the album, it was too slow and melancholy to be seriously considered as a single release.

I certainly liked the “Turn! Turn! Turn! LP, although I agree with McGuinn that it wasn’t at quite the same level as the band’s debut album. But I really liked “If You’re Gone” for its emotional honesty/rawness and for that very distinctive vocal sustain, for which it earns the #16 spot in our Byrds’ Top 25 Songs countdown.

This is Gene Clark’s third song in our countdown. He has two more coming up, including song #1.

We’ve already reviewed 10 songs in our Byrds’ Top 25 Songs countdown and have yet to encounter one of the band’s popular hits. Well, next week we’ll be featuring a Byrds tune that you baby boomers definitely heard on AM radio back in 1967.

The Byrds’ Top 25 Songs: #17, “Natural Harmony”

“Natural Harmony” (2:11)
Written by Chris Hillman
Produced by Gary Usher
From “The Notorious Byrd Brothers,” Columbia, January 15th, 1968

Most people know the Byrds for their initial, jingly-jangly, folk-rock phase marked by the iconic 1965 singles, “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Turn! Turn! Turn!” But the band went on to pioneer a variety of novel musical styles including jazz-rock, raga-rock, psychedelic-rock, and county-rock. The band reached its creative peak with the albums, “Younger Than Yesterday” (1967) and “The Notorious Byrd Brothers” (1968). The excellence of “Notorious” is quite remarkable given that David Crosby and Michael Clarke were absent from half of the recording sessions due to having been fired and having quit the band respectively.

“Natural Harmony,” song #17 in our Byrds’ Top 25 Songs countdown, is a deep cut on the “Notorious” LP. Bassist, Chris Hillman, penned this ode to joie de vivre* with its evocative chorus,

Dancing through the streets side by side, head thrown back, arms open wide.

We can definitely hear Hillman’s bandmate, David Crosby’s influence in this song, with it’s laid-back, jazzy, ethereal feel. Producer Gary Usher employed several studio effects that were popular at that time to create perhaps the Byrds’ most psychedelic-sounding song. Guest keyboardist, Paul Beaver, contributes some other-worldly effects with the newly-introduced Moog Synthesizer. “Natural Harmony” was one of the earliest rock tunes to feature the Moog. Jim Gordon fills in expertly for Clarke on the drum kit.

On perhaps the Byrds’ finest album, this was one of my favorite tunes. The studio effects no doubt date this song, but it’s an excellent specimen from the psychedilia era. We’ll be revisiting “Notorious” two more times as we continue to count down the Byrds’ Top 25 Songs.

*Joie de vivre (French: “exuberant enjoyment of life”) is a fleeting mirage outside of salvation in Jesus Christ.

The Byrds’ Top 25 Songs: #18, “The Bells of Rhymney”

“The Bells of Rhymney” (3:30)
Written by Idris Davies and Pete Seeger
Produced by Terry Melcher
From “Mr. Tambourine Man,” Columbia, June 21, 1965

For song #18 in our Byrds’ Top 25 Songs countdown, we go all the way back to the band’s 1965 debut album, “Mr. Tambourine Man.” With that LP, the Byrds introduced a new genre to the pop music scene by combining Bob Dylan folk and Lennon-McCartney rock ‘n’ roll to create “folk-rolk.”

In addition to its same-named, chart-topping #1 single, the album included many excellent tunes, including a couple of protest songs, Dylan’s “Chimes of Freedom” and “The Bells of Rhymney.” Protest songs were a standard in the folk category and made the transition to folk-rock.

Folk singer and member of the American Communist Party, Pete Seeger, had adapted Welsh poet, Idris Davies’ Gwalia Deserta (“Wasteland of Wales”), a lament about miners toiling in unsafe mining operations throughout Wales, into a general critique of greedy and remorseless capitalists.* The Byrds adapted Seeger’s protest song into one of their best early tunes. Jim (later Roger) McGuinn, the band’s lead guitarist, was already familiar with the song after having previously arranged it for folk singer, Judy Collins, on her third album, “Judy Collins 3” (1964).

The jingle-jangle of McGuinn’s twelve-string Rickenbacker is front and center on this tune, with David Crosby and Chris Hillman contributing the distinctive rhythm guitar and bass parts respectively. The band’s trademark complex harmony singing is also on display (Crosby interjects his high harmonies in the last half of the song). A music critic captured it perfectly by noting that the band’s rendition of “The Bells of Rhymney” “managed to craft the dour subject matter into a radio-friendly pop song without sacrificing the song’s haunting message.” It didn’t occur to me until I wrote this post, that McGuinn’s chiming electric Rick evokes the peals of the church bells of the Welsh towns in mourning after a mining disaster.

Frivolous trivia: 1) The Beatles’ George Harrison would later send a grateful note to McGuinn, acknowledging that he “borrowed” the guitar riff from “Bells” for his excellent “If I Needed Someone” (listen here). 2) The correct pronunciation of Rhymney in Welsh is actually “Rhumney.”

Sad trivia: 439 miners and 1 rescuer died in the explosion and fire at the Senghenydd Colliery in the Rhymney Valley on October 14, 1913, the worst mining disaster in U.K. history.

* Postscript: I’m not sure how Communist Seeger squared Stalin’s Gulag with his laments about greedy capitalists.