When Jim McGuinn, Gene Clark and David Crosby formed The Jet Set in 1964, they didn't foresee the explosion of folk-rock acts that would dominate and define the following year, and they certainly didn't expect to be leading the way. The newly-coined "folk-rock" tag encompassed many singers and songwriters as 1965 progressed and U.S. artists began to reclaim some of the territory lost to British acts in the wake of The Beatles the previous year. Such a blend of styles wasn't even what the three were shooting for (nor were they sure at first where they were headed musically), but The Byrds were perceived that way by industry pros, trade magazines and thus the public at large.
Jim McGuinn, a fan of Elvis Presley, The Everly Brothers and just about all rock and roll singers of his childhood, began practicing guitar and banjo during his teenage years in Chicago and was playing with various folk groups by the early '60s. After brief stints backing The Limeliters and The Chad Mitchell Trio, he was hired by Bobby Darin as a session guitarist, then as a songwriter for Darin's T.M. music publishing company working out of New York's Brill Building. Gene Clark was raised in Kansas City and went into folk music by way of his admiration for The Kingston Trio; around 1963 his career took a leap forward when he became a member of The New Christy Minstrels. Moving to Los Angeles in 1964, he met McGuinn at Hollywood's Troubador and the two began making music together. David Crosby didn't have to travel very far toward his fate; an L.A. boy with family members in the film and music businesses, he was a singer with bandleader Lex Baxter's pop group The Balladeers and had done some demo recording in the hope that it would lead to a solo career. David fell in with McGuinn and Clark while frequenting some of the same haunts. Before long they were auditioning as the Jet Set for Elektra Records founder Jac Holzman and a single release, under a different name, was the result.
"Please Let Me Love You" featured the trio's vocals, backed by studio musicians. It was pressed on Elektra subsidiary Bounty Records before a release on the parent label hit stores in late 1964. They were credited as The Beefeaters, a name that would probably have fooled listeners into believing the band was British, but it was a non-issue; the single stiffed. They ditched the Beefeaters idea and continued as the Jet Set, though records were never made under that name. Bassist Chris Hillman and drummer Michael Clarke were added and the quintet's sound took shape somewhere between American folk and British rock. Manager Jim Dickson (an earlier associate of Crosby's), who had produced the Beefeaters record, got his hands on a Columbia demo disc (that he perhaps smuggled out of the label's offices) of Bob Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man," which the band decided to adapt to a rock arrangement in the fall of '64. You've got to hand it to Dickson; he had connections in the music biz. He invited Dylan to World Pacific Studios to hear the result and received an energetic endorsement from the song's author.
The band signed a contract with Columbia Records in November 1964. The group collectively agreed to change its name; The Byrds was chosen as a tribute to the cleverly misspelled Beatles handle. "Mr. Tambourine Man" was recorded under producer Terry Melcher (resident Rip Chords hitmaker and only child of box office superstar Doris Day), with session musicians backing the vocals of the three singers as before, even though they had a full band at the time. There was one exception: McGuinn played a 12-string Rickenbacker that he had obtained after becoming mesmerized by the Beatles' conspicuous affection for the brand. Bob Dylan's no-frills original was released on the album Bringing it All Back Home in the spring of '65, about the same time the Byrds' amped version began its climb. On its way up the charts, while the band was performing regularly at Ciro's nightclub on Hollywood's Sunset Strip, Dylan dropped by to blow harp with the band, bolstering their confidence in the process. "Mr. Tambourine Man" hit number one at the end of June.
The label's insistence on releasing another Dylan cover for the follow-up single (as opposed to the band's desire to do an original tune) resulted in a misfire; "All I Really Want To Do," featuring all band members playing on the recording (which would be the norm from that point on), suddenly found itself in competition with a version by Cher, on the verge of her breakthrough as the more alluring half of Sonny and Cher. The two singles kept pace throughout July as "Tambourine" sat comfortably in the top ten, but Cher's version pulled ahead at the end of the month, reaching the top 20 while the Byrds' version barely touched the top 40. In Los Angeles, where Cher's single hit number one, Clark's formidable songwriting skills were on display via "I'll Feel a Whole Lot Better" on the single's flip, which was treated as the A side by local stations.
A different type of song wound up as the third Columbia single. Pete Seeger had set his own music to selected lines from Ecclesiastes 3:1-8; 'To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven...' interspersed with his own title, "Turn! Turn! Turn!" and, to follow 'A time for peace,' Seeger's closing line '...I swear it's not too late.' This fresh take on a biblical passage found favor with folk acts, including the Limeliters and Judy Collins who, in addition to Seeger, recorded the song in the early '60s. The Byrds put their stamp on the tune with the now-familiar jangly 12-string guitar work of McGuinn (by this time sporting his trademark Benjamin Franklin glasses); it sent the band back to number one in December 1965.
A big change occurred in early '66: original member Gene Clark left the group over disagreements with other band members including an issue with his own fear of flying. Having provided the group's main songwriting spark, his departure left a gaping hole, yet no one was brought in to replace him. The next single, Clark's breakup ballad "Set You Free This Time," seemed an appropriate parting statement. The flip side reworked "Don't Be Long," the Beefeaters B side cowritten by McGuinn and Harvey Gerst, the only lyrical change being in the title, "It Won't Be Wrong." I once heard someone refer to the song as a "minor masterpiece," simply and accurately put, yet surprisingly neither side of the single rose very high on the charts.
The band veered away from folk-rock in '66 and began producing multilayered, experimental music that was at the leading edge of music's coming psychedelic phase. "Eight Miles High," a Clark-McGuinn-Crosby concept with lyrics so random as to be wide open to interpretation, left many to assume they were heavily into drug use. The wildly original production stands as their biggest hit behind the two earlier chart-toppers. Subsequent hits "5D (Fifth Dimension)" and "Mr. Spaceman" (both penned by McGuinn) furthered the general opinion that the guys were strongly influenced by hallucinogenics; the music ultimately stands the test, regardless of origination.
1967 kicked off with "So You Want to Be a Rock 'n' Roll Star," broaching a subject tackled five years earlier by Brook Benton with "Hit Record," namely a fascination with the seeming ease of getting a record deal, scoring a hit and becoming a star; in the case of the Byrds, they were commenting, not altogether seriously, about so-called "manufactured" groups like The Monkees, while being all too aware their initial rise could have been pigeonholed into the same category. The song's arrangement was indeed serious, though, employing African-based rhythms and featuring South African jazz musician Hugh Masekela on trumpet (paving the way for the prolific brass master's own smash hit "Grazing in the Grass" a little more than a year later).
Dylan's "My Back Pages" came next, a top 30 hit in May '67 and the group's last to make the upper reaches of the pop charts. The mostly-overlooked (but eventually appreciated) "Have You Seen Her Face" (a Hillman song) and "Lady Friend" (Crosby's creation) completed the year's output of singles. The band's music all but disappeared from commercial radio for a time after '67; sales peaked with their late-'67 Greatest Hits collection. Michael Clarke departed, as did David Crosby, who raised his profile considerably before decade's end with Crosby, Stills and Nash. Gram Parsons came on board in '68, but he and Chris Hillman left soon after to do their thing with The Flying Burrito Brothers. Jim McGuinn, calling himself Roger McGuinn after an exposure to Eastern religion, continued as the sole original member.
A number of musicians came and went in the next few years as the band's music evolved; singles like Gerry Goffin and Carole King's "Goin' Back" retained the original Byrds flavor, giving nary a hint that the band was in turmoil. "You Ain't Going Nowhere" gave another impression, though, as the group's sound emphasized country influences; 1969's "Wasn't Born to Follow" solidified the direction into country-rock territory. In typical fashion, they were ahead of the curve with a musical trend that would become widespread in the 1970s.
McGuinn's "Ballad of Easy Rider" served as the theme for the immensely popular and influential film Easy Rider, directed by Dennis Hopper, who also starred with Peter Fonda and Jack Nicholson (stealing scenes with his first of 12 Oscar-nominated performances). "Jesus is Just Alright" (written by Art Reynolds and later a hit for The Doobie Brothers) and "Chestnut Mare" (an allurring narrative by McGuinn and Jacques Levy for a planned, but never realized, rock musical) were notable 1970 releases. By 1972, Roger McGuinn had reached a point of frustration with the band and in early '73 the group disbanded. All five original members had discussed reforming the original Byrds and came together for the first time in seven years with one final album on the Asylum label titled, simply, Byrds and featuring the single "Full Circle." The album was not well received by critics and sales fell short of expectations. The Byrds flew off in separate directions a few months later. McGuinn, Clark and Hillman, the three original Jet Setters, popped up in 1979 with the hit single "Don't You Write Her Off." Reunions of surviving group members have occurred throughout the years.
- Please Let Me Love You - 1964
as the Beefeaters
- Mr. Tambourine Man - 1965
- All I Really Want To Do /
I'll Feel a Whole Lot Better - 1965
- Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There is a Season) - 1965
- Set You Free This Time /
It Won't Be Wrong - 1966
- Eight Miles High - 1966
- 5 D (Fifth Dimension) - 1966
- Mr. Spaceman - 1966
- So You Want to Be a Rock 'n' Roll Star - 1967
- My Back Pages - 1967
- Have You Seen Her Face - 1967
- Lady Friend - 1967
- Goin' Back - 1967
- You Ain't Going Nowhere - 1968
- Lay Lady Lay - 1969
- Ballad of Easy Rider /
Wasn't Born to Follow - 1969
- Jesus is Just Alright - 1970
- Chestnut Mare - 1970
- Full Circle - 1973