I first heard about Gospel music when I read Dave Marsh’s review of a Mahalia Jackson LP in an 80s rock magazine, so it makes sense that I first heard about The Byrds when I started reading reviews about a jangling, lyrical band out of Athens, GA around the same time.
Actually, I probably heard the same comparisons between the 60s folk-rock pioneers and pseudo-New Wave “quality Top 40” rocker Tom Petty a few years earlier, but REM touched me more deeply, being closer to my age and scene.
And thus making the connection even weirder — why would a post-punk band, with bass-lines sounding more UK twelve inch remix than roots-rock, mumble-coring about Marat and two-headed cows, have anything to do with twelve string-led feeling groovy harmonies? A 60s band of cowboy-hat fringe-wearing wearing guys who usually covered Dylan for a hit than make their own mayhem?
Because they actually did make their own mayhem, singing about “Artificial Energy” and being “Eight Miles High” with an adroit flair for breathtaking melodies and a cocksure sense of mixing psyche-noise with pop rhythms. Covering the contemporaneous best songwriter of their time occasionally while trying to hold their mad crew of differently talented personalities together song by song, The Byrds were both boundaries-breaking and a class act.
In the wonderfully weighty, mammoth-sized, and meticulously-detailed So You Want To Be A Rock ‘N’ Roll Star: The Byrds Day By Day 1965-1973 (Jawbone), author Christopher Hjort exquisitely explains how exciting and progressive this band was to many who may know only them from oldies stations.
How can a band this influential be so taken for granted by reputation? Even if you only have essential rock canon albums like the way-ahead-of-its-time “Notorious Byrd Brothers” or notoriously-throw-back-to-C&W-tradition “Sweethearts of the Rodeo” (which alongside each other share a space where Kraftwerk and the Louvin Brothers mingle) this is a glorious achievement.
Rare photos, cover art, flyers, interview segments, track listings, set lists, behind the scenes reporting, fanzine speculations, and more chronicle the daily collective existence of Roger McGuinn, Chris Hillman, Gene Clark. David Crosby, and short-lived but agent of change member Gram Parsons in one of the most fecund periods of rock history.
Yes, they mainstreamed folk rock. But The Byrds also gave the main textures for a lot of the music that sprang up after punk in the 70s, and their songs were covered by the Patti Smith Band and Husker Du; it’s also hard to imagine Elvis Costello’s first album without their influence in the apocalyptic lyrics and liquor fueled pub stomp — and even leading to the establishment of power pop as a genre.
These days, Americana and chamber pop have become the default aesthetic for indie rock, and it all truly begins here, from the Ecclesiastical torsion of “Turn! Turn! Turn!” on the pop charts, to the paradoxically enervating ennui of “Eight Miles High”; from reaching deep into Gospel (“The Christian Life”) and early experimentation with electronica. Can you imagine successful rock bands today putting out a 45 as vicious as the confessional “Bad Night At The Whiskey” b/w “Drug Store Truck Drivin’ Man”? From genre play in “London Calling” to the compelling worldview of Sufjan Stevens, The Byrds has been and still can be felt.
In my opinion, there is no better book on The Byrds than this one. Hjort inspires and educates with very element of the band’s sometimes hilarious, often frightening internal tensions and the outside critical evaluations are laid out day by day and year by year for 400 pages, generously illustrated and lovingly, painstakingly chronicled.
Chris Estey is a freelance writer who lives in Seattle and contributes to the KEXP Blog, The Stranger, and Three Imaginary Girls.