My two sons were surprised. None of their high schools friends had ever heard of the Byrds. They’d heard of the Beatles—of course—and Simon and Garfunkel, and the Rolling Stone, all from the 1960s. But the Byrds? No. At our house the Byrds was a staple, old friends whose songs never wore out their welcome: “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “Turn! Turn! Turn!” “Eight Miles High,” “So You Want To Be a Rock ’N’ Roll Star” to name but a few.
There was something beguiling about the choir of multi-tracked vocal harmonies, the jingle-jangle of electrified 12-string guitar, and the twangy vocal stylings of space cowboy Roger McGuinn. McGuinn was more than the Byrds’ frontman. He was the visionary who combined folk and rock to create a whole new sound. Band members came and went. It didn’t matter. McGuinn was the Byrds. When the Byrds’ franchise wore out its welcome in the early ‘70s, McGuinn moved on to a solo career and toured with the likes of Bob Dylan and Tom Petty. When that ran its course, he joined with two ex-Byrds to form a new outfit—McGuinn, Clark and Hillman. Despite a host of new songs in tune with the slick ‘80s pop aesthetic, the trio failed to recapture the old magic. McGuinn returned to flying solo and discovered he still had a large and devoted following, not only in America but in Canada, England, the Netherlands, and Germany. Indeed, McGuinn continues to tour America and Europe, in the company of his third wife, who doubles as his manager and keeper of the McGuinn travel blog.
Below are reviews of three albums that testify to McGuinn’s unique artistry.
MR. TAMBOURINE MAN (1965)
When "Mr. Tambourine Man" broke big in the summer of 1965, faster than you could say “folk-rock,” the Byrds were hailed as America's answer to the Beatles. The funny part was, the Byrds weren't true rockers like the Beatles. Roger McGuinn, Gene Clark and David Crosby were folkies. Columbia Records signed them because their vocal harmonies sounded Beatlesque. Ambitious as the three were, they weren’t ready for success. After "Mr. Tambourine" topped the charts, they scrambled to perform in public as something they weren’t—seasoned rock `n' rollers. They also scrambled to come up with enough quality songs to fill an album. Gene Clark was the group’s sole romantic and most proficient songwriter but all his songs tended to sound alike. Management said variety was needed to showcase their talent. Fights were common. McGuinn and manager Jim Dickson argued over the direction the band was taking. Crosby was upset because his songs weren't considered worthy. And producer Terry Melcher presented yet another point-of-view, that of Columbia Records, which was banking heavily on the band’s success. Despite bruised egos and at least one black eye, the Byrds added three more Bob Dylan songs, sang three-part harmony until they were hoarse, while studio engineers discovered a way to make McGuinn’s 12-string resonate huge as an orchestra. The result was a pop masterpiece.
Entitled "Mr. Tambourine Man,” after the hit single, the album was an overwhelming success—embraced by the kids and the growing counter-culture, praised by music critics on both Coasts, and by the Beatles themselves, who announced to the world that their favorite American band was the Byrds. What made the album stand out was its sound: the Byrds' gothic harmonies intertwined with resonating guitar solos. McGuinn put it best when he described their sound as a "krrrriiiiisssshhhh" jet sound. "It's the mechanical sound of the era," he said, grinning like the Cheshire Cat. Whatever it was, no other band could duplicate the Byrds' unique 12-string symphony and ethereal harmonies. Thirty years later, critic Richie Unterberger pronounced the Byrds' first album as "One of the greatest debuts in the history of rock. `Mr. Tambourine' was nothing less than a significant step in the evolution of rock & roll itself."
NOTORIOUS BYRD BROTHERS (1968)
The Byrds were at a creative peak when they entered the recording studio on Sunset Boulevard to make this brilliant yet flawed album. Producer Gary Usher created the appropriate sound world in which countrifed steel guitars blended perfectly with psychedelic electric guitars, grounded with the baroque sound of a string quartet. But the Byrds' famous vocal harmonies suffered as a result. Part of this may have been due to David Crosby's dismissal midway through production, and part of it may have had to do with the recording mix. As it is, the krrriiissshhh of vocal harmonies sounds an octave higher than usual, as if the recording engineers speeded up the tape. No matter. This a wonderfully inventive album that abounds with creative confidence and compares favorably with the Beatles’ "Sgt. Pepper." Standout cuts include McGuinn's magnum opus "Get to You,” plus "Goin' Back,” "Natural Harmony,” Crosby’s “Draft Morning,” and "Wasn't Born to Follow.”
When future musicologists get around to sifting through Roger McGuinn's solo albums and Byrds’ records, they're going to place "Thunderbyrd" somewhere near the top. As one of his songs says, "It's not the singer, it's the tune." With this, his fifth solo effort, he finally had a superb list of tunes to record, and sang them like he meant it.
"Thunderbyrd" was recorded at a low ebb in McGuinn's career. The Byrds had long-since disbanded, and his modest solo career was going nowhere. He was still working with lyricist Jacques Levy, and the pair wrote four enticing tunes: "Dixie Highway", "It's Gone", "I'm Not Lonely Anymore", and "Russian Hill." To these were added five others: "American Girl" by Tom Petty (“a long-lost Byrds tune,” as McGuinn wryly put it), "All Night Long" (a Peter Frampton tune), "We Can Do it All Over Again", "Why Baby Why" (by George Jones), and Bob Dylan's "Golden Loom.”
When recording began McGuinn realized his backup band wasn't up to it, so he fired them, and recruited a new band. The new band was up to it, consisting of future Fleetwood Mac guitarist Rick Vito, drummer Greg Thompson, and bassist Charlie Harrison. With a strong set of songs to sink his teeth into—and McGuinn re-committed to being a Rock ’N’ Roll star—the recording sessions were magical. Every song sounded right, and "American Girl" joined McGuinn's short list of most requested songs ("Mr Tambourine Man", "Turn! Turn! Turn", "Eight Miles High,” “My Back Pages” and "So You Want to be a Rock N Roll Star”).
It wasn't long after the release of "Thunderbyrd" that McGuinn began performing again with Gene Clark and Chris Hillman, two of his old bandmates from the Byrds. The results were mixed. While the trio wowed audiences from coast-to-coast, their studio albums failed to click. "Thunderbyrd" stands as McGuinn's one truly inspired album outside of the Byrds.