Byrds


(Copyright © 1999 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions - Termini d'uso )
Mr Tambourine Man (1965), 7/10
Turn Turn Turn (1965), 6/10
Fifth Dimension (1966), 6.5/10
Younger Than Yesterday (1967), 7/10
Notorious Byrd Brothers (1968), 7/10
Sweetheart Of The Rodeo (1968), 6/10
Ballad Of The Easy Rider (1969), 6/10
Dr Byrds And Mr Hyde (1969), 5/10
Untitled (1970), 5.5/10
Byrdmaniax (1971), 4/10
Farther Along (1972), 4/10
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As the band that co-developed (and popularized) folk-rock, acid-rock and country-rock, the Byrds were responsible more than anyone else for creating an American sound (and, more specifically, a California sound) in the 1960s. Historically, they bridged the era of surf music (and Mersey-beat) with the era of acid-rock. In reality, there were three groups called Byrds: the folk-rock group, best represented by Feel A Whole Lot Better (1965) although best remembered for the Dylan covers; the psychedelic group, and the country-rock group. Their version of psychedelic-rock, as announced by Fifth Dimension (1966), one of the first psychedelic albums, was more complex and erudite than the average, borrowing elements from free-jazz and Indian music. The Byrds equated the "acid" trip with space exploration, thereby coining a form of "space ballad". When David Crosby left and Gram Parsons joined, the sound took a turn towards the tradition and Nashville. Notorious Byrd Brothers (1968) was still an eccentric hodgepodge of acid-rock, raga-rock, pop and country, but Sweetheart Of The Rodeo (1968) is one of the two albums credited with inventing country-rock. These three groups had in common two things: the name and Roger McGuinn's guitar.
(Translated by Ornella C. Grannis)

Perhaps the Byrds didn't invent folk-rock, or psychedelic rock, or country-rock, although they were the first to put them on the charts, but surely they linked the era of vocal ensembles (Everly Brothers, Beach Boys, Beatles) with that of the rock bands (Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead).

"Byrds" is actually the name of three different bands: the band that linked Dylan with the Merseybeat, the band that initiated spatial-psychedelic rock, and the band that dove into country-rock. The band was a breeding ground of musical genres, practically one for every era.

Each one of these three phases has been characterized by the leader who wrote their material and embodied their inspiration: the duo Clark-McGuinn in the beginning, David Crosby in the mid-period and McGuinn in the end. The Byrds contained three strong artistic personalities: the sweet and introverted Gene Clark, the dreamy and ethereal David Crosby, the practical and professional Roger McGuinn. All three would eventually establish solo careers that would seem the natural continuation of their respective phases with the Byrds.

In the 90s the Byrds, along with Velvet Underground, were deemed the most influential musicians of the new generation of alternative rock. Roger (or Jim) McGuinn and David Crosby, who met in Los Angeles in 1960, had mastered the art of post-Dylan folk singing in the Village, and had relocated to California to spread the gospel. In Los Angeles they encountered the sparkling harmonies of the bluegrass of the prairies and the crystal clear vocal harmonies of the Merseybeat that was sweeping about after the Beatles tour. The bluegrass heritage was particularly strong in Chris Hillman, a San Diego mandolin player (former leader of the bluegrass band Hillmen) recruited to play bass. The Merseybeat was Gene Clark's passion. Clark, a Kansas City native, was an ex-member of the New Christy Minstrels. Michael Clarke sat at the drums until 1967.

In the beginning, however, the Byrds modestly presented themselves as paying homage to the great tradition of folk singing, in particular to he who was becoming a national myth: Bob Dylan. The brilliant idea of the Byrds was to arrange Dylan's songs as if they were catchy Merseybeat or surf hits, that is employing multi-part vocal harmonies, in the style of the Beach Boys, playing electric guitars as they did in Great Britain, and accelerating the tempo to render it allegro. The Byrds' sound fired up three electric guitars, led by McGuinn's 12 string Rickenbacker. The vocal parts were managed by four high voices lead by Clark, although the most celebrated was McGuinn, more nasal and therefore closer to Dylan's inflection. Except for the drums, all other instrumental parts were dispatched to seasoned session men.

Having worked a couple of years for Judy Collins, McGuinn had some experience in the production of folk music, which he applied to Dylan's music.

The Byrds burst on the scene of rock music in the summer of 1965 with their ethereal and catchy version of Mr. Tambourine Man, completely transformed by a tornado of guitar jingle-jangle.(Producer Terry Melcher shares the credit for this one.) That humble cover marked the coming of a new genre: folk rock, combining Dylan's lyric genius and the Beatles' melodic acumen.

The original material, mostly written by Clark, seemed less exciting only because it wasn't signed by Dylan, but in reality it was quite innovative. Feel A Whole Lot Better not only doubled the intensity of the jingle-jangle, but it projected it onto an acrobatic rock and roll beat that sounded both fiery and frenetic.

Among the greatest hits are also the cover Turn Turn Turn (music written by Pete Seeger, lyrics from the Old Testament) sung in appropriately biblical tone, and It Won't Be Wrong.

Within a year of their debut, two albums were released, both somewhat diminished by the fact that they were essentially anthologies of covers. To the first one, Mr Tambourine Man (CBS, 1965), goes the merit of having set the standard for clean and elegant production. The album includes (along with four songs written by Dylan) a couple of classics: the tender confession I Knew I'd Want You and joyful declaration All I Want To Do. In both songs the creative exuberance of the delivery is married to Dylan's no nonsense approach. Ringing guitars and interlinked vocals provide a breathtaking balancing act.

With their music, their call to clean and noble feelings, and their belief in the benevolence of drugs, the Byrds started a small revolution; they anticipated what in a matter of months would be become the San Francisco hippie movement.

Their follow-up album Turn Turn Turn, however, was less exciting than the first.

Stimulated by acid rock - a genre they helped create, in 1966 the Byrds began a process of renewal. In contrast with the linearity of their first hits, the band gave into fragile harmonies and crafty melodies such as Set You Free This Time. The new musical horizon was steeped in Hinduism and LSD: Eight Miles High (McGuinn's masterpiece, with a solo inspired by John Coltrane) and Why were the manifestoes of the day. Unfortunately the change created friction within the group and Gene Clark decided to part during the recording of Fifth Dimension (CBS, 1966).

Detailing imaginary travels, the lyrics of the new album crossed the barrier of mere entertainment, venturing far into the unknown. Renouncing the easy results of the "jingle-jangle," the instruments took undaunted liberties with both harmony and rhythm. The structure of their songs became ever more independent. An instrumental blues (Captain Soul), a stirring country (Fifth Dimension) and a sweeping bluegrass (Spaceman), marked the end of the hit season and the beginning of David Crosby's lead. The 45s from this album (Eight Miles High, Fifth Dimension and Mr. Spaceman) generated a scandal. Their generation was seduced by the revelations of space-rock and raga-rock, both a product of the fervid mind of the new leader at work.

Crosby is the sole inspiration behind the fourth album. Younger Than Yesterday (CBS, 1967) allows ample space for Latin jazz harmonies (the cynical So You Want To Be A Rock And Roll Star, about the wheeling and dealing of the music business), sweeping visions (CTA 102, a bluegrass tribute to a quasar, full of electronic distortions and inspired by Karlheinz Stockhausen), and oriental flavored psychedelia (the raga-rock Mind Gardens). This record is the Byrd's most compelling and most meaningful artistic contribution to the music of their time. The band that introduced itself as the creative alternative to Dylan's intellectualism parted ways with the tradition of the Village master to start a new genre that reshuffled folk, blues, jazz, oriental music and vocal dissonance into mini abstract symphonies. McGuinn on guitar and Hillman on bass drew harmonic pictures ever more complex, while Crosby's ballads (such as Everybody's Been Burned and It Happens Each Day) aimed toward and reached true sophistication. Even the obligatory Dylan cover, Younger Than Yesterday, is somehow transformed into a small masterpiece, as the herald of the San Francisco Bay concepts.

Conflict arose again, this time between Crosby and McGuinn, who resented the turn towards drugs and mysticism. In the end the scale was tipped in favor of McGuinn, and Crosby left the band, replaced by a musician of the Nashville school, Gram Parsons. With the ambigous Notorious Byrd Brothers (Columbia, June 1968), the Byrds lay an imaginary bridge between Nashville country and psychedelic rock, tradition and revolution. Old John Robertson goes hand in hand with Tribal Gathering, an evocation of love-ins. Although less innovative than the previous album, Notorious Byrd Brothers is full of dreamy songs such as Draft Morning and Dolphin's Smile, eccentrically arranged, employing sound effects, baroque strings, rhythm and blues horns. Songs such as Natural Harmony and Space Odyssey were basically electronic music. Moog Raga and Change Is Now further explored the relationship between raga and rock. The instrumental Universal Mind Decoder continued the space journey of CTA 102. Wasn't Born To Follow (written by Goffin and King) remains a pearl of their repertoire. The album flows like a lavish, sumptuous song cycle, closer to the vein of the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds than to Nashville's country music.
Bob Dylan had just released John Wesley Harding (December 1967), which put a symbolic end to the psychedelic era, and the Byrds, once again, followed in the steps of the master.

The record that sanctioned the birth of country rock, and in a sense its manifesto, is Sweetheart Of The Rodeo (Columbia, August 1968). The lineup in this album revealed itself to be temporary, since Hillman and Parson (the author of the best pieces Hickory Wind and One Hundred Years >From Now), left McGuinn to continue solo in the new genre.

McGuinn reconstituted the band with other Nashville vets such as drummer Gene Parsons, guitarist Clarence White (former leader of the bluegrass band Kentucky Colonels) and the bass player Skip Battin, and from that moment on maintained himself on the "beaten" path of country-rock, moving the sound closer, but in a pleasant way, to easy listening.

Ballad Of The Easy Rider (Columbia, 1969), strengthened by the celebrated title song, and also by Gunga Din and Jesus Is Just Alright, was their last relevant album. Dr. Byrds And Mr Hyde (Columbia, 1969) doesn't contain anything meaningful. Lover Of The Bayou and Chestnut Mare are two pearls off the double album Untitled (1970), half live and half studio. Byrdmaniax (1971) and Farther Along (1972) are the last two albums.

McGuinn tried in vain to get back on his feet by putting together the original lineup for a nostalgic record, The Byrds (Asylum, 1973), a compilation of beautiful songs (such as Full Circle), that never found a following. Afterwards he officially disbanded the Byrds and embarked on a solo venture.

Hillman and Parsons formed the Flying Burrito Bros.

Another sort of reunion was marked by the unimpressive album McGuinn Clark Hillman (Capitol, 1979).

Oddly enough, in the 1990s drummer Michael Clark took possession of the Byrds trademark to play the clubs with a band that in reality had only one original member of the Byrds. Naturally the other Byrds excommunicated him.

The Byrds (1990) is a four record box set that retraces their career.

Gene Clark died in 1991. Michael Clarke died in 1993.

Forse i Byrds non inventarono ne' il folk-rock ne' il rock psichedelico ne' il country-rock (anche se furono i primi a portarli in classifica), ma certamente costituirono da ponte fra l'era dei complessi vocali (Everly Brothers, Beach Boys, Beatles) e l'era dei complessi veri e propri (Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead).

"Byrds" e` in effetti una sigla che denota tre complessi diversi: quello che fuse Dylan e il Merseybeat, quello che conio` il rock spaziale-psichedelico, e quello che si lancio` nel country-rock. Il complesso e` stato una vera fucina di generi, praticamente uno per ogni epoca.

Ciascuna di queste tre fasi e` stata caratterizzata dal leader che ne ha impersonato l'ispirazione e scritto il materiale: la coppia Clark-McGuinn all'inizio, Crosby nel mezzo, McGuinn alla fine. Le loro tre forti personalita` artistiche, dolce e introversa quella di Gene Clark, sognante e irreale quella di David Crosby, pratica e professionale quella di Roger McGuinn, daranno vita a carriere soliste che saranno la naturale prosecuzione della rispettiva fase dei Byrds.

Negli anni '90 i Byrds saranno con i Velvet Underground i musicisti rock piu` influenti sulle nuove generazioni del rock alternativo.

Roger (o Jim) McGuinn e David Crosby (che si erano conosciuti nel 1960 a Los Angeles) avevano appreso al Greenwich Village l'arte del folksinger post-dylaniano ed erano emigrati in California a divulgarne il verbo. A Los Angeles fecero conoscenza con il bluegrass delle praterie (e le sue scintillanti armonie chitarristiche) e con il Merseybeat che dilagava dopo la tournee` dei Beatles (e con le sue cristalline armonie vocali). Il retaggio del bluegrass era particolarmente forte in Chris Hillman (mandolinista di San Diego, reclutato al basso, gia` titolare della bluegrass band Hillmen) e il Merseybeat era la passione di Gene Clark (proveniente da Kansas City, ex membro dei New Christy Minstrels). Alla batteria sedette fino al 1967 Michael Clarke.

Agli inizi, comunque, i Byrds si proposero piu` modestamente di rendere omaggio alla grande tradizione dei folksinger, e in particolare a quello che stava diventando il mito nazionale: Bob Dylan. L'idea geniale dei Byrds fu quella di arrangiare le canzoni di Dylan come se si trattasse di hit della surf music o del Merseybeat, cioe` impiegando armonie vocali a piu` parti (alla Beach Boys), chitarre elettriche come si usavano in Gran Bretagna, e accelerando il ritmo in modo da rendere le melodia piu` allegra e orecchiabile. I Byrds esasperarono soprattutto le chitarre, ben tre (ma soprattutto la Rickenbacker 12 corde di McGuinn). Le parti vocali erano gestite da quattro voci alte (la solista era Clark, ma piu` celebre fu quella nasale di McGuinn, la piu` vicina alle inflessioni dylaniane). A parte la batteria, le altre parti strumentali erano affidate a sessionmen stagionati.

McGuinn, avendo lavorato due anni per la cantante Judy Collins, aveva acquisito un minimo di esperienza come arrangiatore di canzoni folk, e da li` nacque l'idea di arrangiare quelli di Dylan.

I Byrds irruppero sulla scena della musica rock nell'estate del 1965 con la loro versione, eterea e orecchiabile, di Mr Tambourine Man, trasformata soprattutto da un tornado di jingle-jangle chitarristici (merito anche del produttore Terry Melcher). Quella umile cover segno` l'avvento di un genere nuovo: il folk-rock. Quel genere combinava il genio lirico di Dylan e l'astuzia melodica dei Beatles.

Il materiale originale, scritto per lo piu` da Clark, fece meno scalpore perche' non era firmato "Dylan", ma in realta` Feel A Whole Lot Better era ben piu` innovativa: non solo raddoppiava l'intensita` del jingle-jangle, ma lo proiettava anche su un acrobatico rock and roll, con un effetto al tempo stesso incalzante e caotico.

Un altro grande successo fu la cover di Turn Turn Turn (scritta da Seeger e cantata in tono quasi biblico) e It Won't Be Wrong.

Nel giro di un anno uscirono anche i primi due album, entrambi sminuiti dal fatto d'essere essenzialmente raccolte di 45 giri e di cover. Il grande merito del primo, Mr Tambourine Man (CBS, 1965), e` in realta` quello di aver imposto uno standard di produzione improntato alla pulizia formale. L'album (oltre a quattro brani di Dylan) contiene qualche classico, dalla tenera confessione di I Knew I'D Want You alla briosa dichiarazione di All I Want To Do, nei quali gli accenti "dylaniani" si sposano a una sbrigliata fantasia esecutiva. Scampanellii di chitarre e intrecci vocali si danno a equilibrismi sempre piu` mozzafiato.

I Byrds causarono una piccola sommossa musicale, non solo per la musica, ma anche per le pose da drogati, e anticiparono tutto cio` che di li` a pochi mesi sarebbe stato il fenomeno hippie di San Francisco, con la loro concezione taumaturgica degli stupefacenti e il loro richiamo a sentimenti nobili e puri.

Il successivo Turn Turn Turn e` pero` meno eccitante del primo album.

Incalzati dal genere acid-rock che avevano contribuito a creare, i Byrds cominciarono a rinnovarsi gia` nel 1966. Con Set You Free This Time il gruppo affrontava armonie sbilenche e melodie sornione, in contrasto con la linearita` dei primi hit. I nuovi orizzonti musicali erano rappresentati dall'LSD e dall'induismo: Eight Miles High (capolavoro di McGuinn, con un assolo ispirato da John Coltrane) e il suo retro Why ne furono i rispettivi manifesti. Il nuovo corso creo` pero` i primi attriti all'interno del gruppo e Gene Clark decise di abbandonare il complesso mentre stavano registrando Fifth Dimension (CBS, 1966).
I testi del nuovo album superavano nettamente la barriera del mero intrattenimento adolescenziale e cominciavano a parlare di "viaggi" immaginari. Gli strumenti si prendevano licenze ritmiche e armoniche sempre piu` sfacciate, rinunciando al facile effettismo del "jingle-jangle". La struttura della canzone era sempre piu` libera. Un blues strumentale (Captain Soul), un country epico (Fifth Dimension) e un bluegrass spaziale (Spaceman) segnarono la fine del periodo degli hit, esemplificata dalla presa di potere da parte di Crosby. I 45 giri tratti dall'album (appunto Eight Miles High, che di fatto invento` il raga-rock, Fifth Dimension e Mr. Spaceman) fecero soprattutto scandalo, e la loro generazione si lascio` sedurre dalle ingenue rivelazioni dello space-rock e del raga-rock, entrambe dovute alla fervida mente in ebollizione del nuovo leader.

Crosby e` l'ispiratore assoluto del quarto disco, Younger Than Yesterday (CBS, 1967), che concede ampio spazio alle armonie jazzate e caraibiche (come nella cinica So You Want To Be A Rock And Roll Star, sulle truffe del rock), alle visioni spaziali (CTA 102, dedicata a un quasar, ancora sui ritmi bluegrass, ma con una folle corsa di disturbi elettronici, ispirata dalla musica di Karlheinz Stockhausen) e alla psichedelia orientaleggiante (il raga-rock di Mind Gardens). Questo disco rappresenta anzi il contributo artistico piu` valido e importante lasciato dai Byrds alla musica del loro tempo. Il complesso, che si era presentato fin dall'inizio come l'alternativa fantastica all'intellettualismo dylaniano, esce dalla tradizione del maestro del Greenwich Village e inaugura un nuovo filone che rimescola folk, blues, jazz, oriente, elettronica e dissonanze vocali, in mini-sinfonie astratte a tesi. McGuinn alla chitarra e Hillman al basso disegnano figure armoniche sempre piu` complesse e le ballate di Crosby (come Everybody's Been Burned e It Happens Each Day) puntano in direzione di un sofisticato canto d'autore. Younger Than Yesterday e` un piccolo capolavoro, anticipatore dei concept della Baia.

All'interno del complesso si crea allora un conflitto di tendenze fra Crosby e Mc Guinn, che vede di malocchio quella svolta lisergica. Alla fine la bilancia pende in favore di McGuinn: Crosby se ne va e, con un ambiguo Notorious Byrd Brothers (Columbia, giugno 1968), i Byrds stendono un ideale ponte fra rock psichedelico e country di Nashville, fra tradizione e rivoluzione: Old John Robertson va a braccetto con la rievocazione dei love-in Tribal Gathering. Nella formazione entrano musicisti di quella scuola, fra cui Gram Parsons. Meno rivoluzionario del precedente, contiene comunque canzoni sognanti come Draft Morning e Dolphins Smile, ed e` arrangiato in maniera ancor piu` eccentrica (effetti sonori, archi barocchi, fiati rhythm and blues). Canzoni come Natural Harmony e Space Odyssey erano praticamente musica elettronica. Moog Raga e Change Is Now rendevano piu` complessa la fusione fra raga e rock. Lo strumentale Universal Mind Decoder continuava le bizzarrie spaziali di CTA 102. Per Artificial Energy il critico Sandy Pearlman di "Crawdaddy" invento` l'espressione "heavy metal". Wasn't Born To Follow (scritta da Goffin and King) e` comunque una delle perle del repertorio pop. L'album fluisce come un ciclo di canzoni sontuoso e lussureggiante, piu` nella tradizione di Pet Sounds dei Beach Boys che in quella di Nashville.
Bob Dylan aveva appena pubblicato John Wesley Harding (dicembre 1967), che aveva simbolicamente messo fine all'era psichedelica, e i Byrds ancora una volta seguivano le orme del maestro.

Il disco che sanci` la nascita del country-rock, e in un certo senso il suo manifesto, e` Sweetheart Of The Rodeo (Columbia, agosto 1968). La formazione di questo album si rivelo` pero` provvisoria, in quanto Hillman e Parsons (autore anche dei brani migliori, Hickory Wind e One Hundred Years From Now), intrapresero per conto proprio la strada del nuovo genere, lasciando solo McGuinn.

Da quel momento McGuinn, ricostruito il complesso con altri reduci di Nashville come il batterista Gene Parsons, il chitarrista Clarence White (titolare della bluegrass band Kentucky Colonels) e il bassista Skip Battin, si mantenne sul sentiero del country-rock piu` "autostradale", cioe` un suono piacevolmente vicino all'easy-listening.

Ballad Of The Easy Rider (Columbia, 1969) vanta ancora Ballad Of Easy Rider (testo in gran parte di Dylan, anche se non accreditato), di Gunga Din e Jesus Is Just Alright.
Dr Byrds And Mr Hyde (Columbia, 1969) non contiene nulla di significativo.
Lover Of The Bayou e Chestnut Mare sono le perle del doppio Untitled (1970), meta` dal vivo e meta` in studio.
Byrdmaniax (1971) e Farther Along (1972) sono gli ultimi album.

McGuinn tenta invano di risalire la china mettendo insieme per un disco nostalgico la formazione originale. Il The Byrds (Asylum, 1973) che ne viene fuori e` una raccolta di belle canzoni (come Full Circle) senza seguito. Allora McGuinn scioglie definitivamente i Byrds e si lancia nell'avventura solista.

Hillman e Parsons formeranno poi i Flying Burrito Bros.

Un'altra mezza reunion sara` l'album di McGuinn Clark Hillman (Capitol, 1979), ancor meno saliente.

E` curioso che negli anni '90 fu l'ex batterista Michael Clarke a impossessarsi del marchio Byrds e a battere i club nostalgici con una formazione che in realta` non aveva che un solo membro dei Byrds. (Naturalmente gli altri Byrds lo scomunicarono).

The Byrds (1990) e` un box-set quadruplo che ripercorre la loro carriera.

Gene Clark e` morto nel 1991 e Michael Clarke e` morto nel 1993.

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