With the release of their 1965 debut record, these five fine feathered friends were hailed as "America's Answer to the Beatles." The tag was both misleading and, well, pretty much inappropriate. That's because Roger McGuinn, David Crosby, Chris Hillman, Gene Clark and Michael Clarke - and their music - was nothing like what the Fabs were up to, much less some sort of planned Uncle Sam "response" to mop toppled hordes popping up and reselling American R&B to eager Caucasian teens.
And, as Martha Stewart would say, that was a good thing. McGuinn's chiming 12-string Rickenbacker, the Dylan covers, the raga-rock space-age songs and harmonies had pretty much nothing to do with whatever the Lads from Liverpool were up to at the time.
The original Byrds (l-r): Chris Hillman, David Crosby, Michael Clarke, Roger (Jim) McGuinn, Gene Clark
Nonetheless, the Byrds did the impossible (make Dylan danceable!), the improbable (pioneering country-rock!) and implausible (many men with large egos in the same band!) all together a messy affair that resulted in some of the finest music of the classic rock era including (and beyond) singles like "Mr. Tambourine Man," "Turn! Turn! Turn!" "Eight Miles High," "Mr. Spaceman," "Wasn't Born to Follow," "Chestnut Mare," and the track that gives this book its title.
Norwegian rock journalist Christopher Hjort (Strange Brew: Eric Clapton and the British Blues Boom 1965-1970) has written an exhaustive - and I mean exhaustive - timeline of the group's arc, in calendar form, from formation to heyday to dissolution. If a member of the Byrds sang, played, wrote or farted, it's down all down here.
"Mr. Tambourine Man," 1965 (with birdhouses)
Want to know how the band got to London on its first English tour? They took TWA flight 770 to London, of course, arriving at 8:05 a.m. Limey Time. Know who opened for them on March 26, 1966 in White Plains, New York? It was a regional band called Thee Strangeurs, whose lead singer was one Steven Tallarico (he would later change his last name to Tyler). When did they record record "Drug Store Truck Drivin' Man?," which jabbed at Nashville DJ Ralph Emery? October 8, 1968.
This kind of detail, though, is both the book's biggest strength and weakness. Casual Byrds fans with only Greatest Hits or Sweetheart of the Rodeo on their CD shelf should think twice before getting this (but it's alright). Johnny Rogan's The Byrds: Timeless Flight Revisited is a better straight-ahead narrative biography. For Byrdmaniax or those who want to follow every concert, recording session, radio, and TV appearance, though, Hjort's tome is both detailed and insightful.
"Jesus Is Just Alright," 1970 (pre-Doobies)
And while quoting overlapping contemporary record and concert reviews gets very repetitive after awhile, two things emerge about the Byrds' career. They could never, ever (especially in the "classic years") match their fine records with anything resembling compelling live performances, and also that concerts in the '60s/early '70s were handled a bit different from what most of us know today.
The Byrds, like many other acts, played whatever venue was booked and at any price. Even after notching many radio hits, the band gigged at high-school dances, community auditoriums, and local television teen dance shows - anything to get their music out (or what their managers told them). And looking at the geography of their itineraries, with no rhyme or reason for distance and location of shows, it makes modern bands who "tire of the road" seem like pussies in comparison.
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Later Byrds (the country-fried years, l-r): Roger McGuinn, Skip Battin, Gene Parsons, Clarence White
For the record, the Byrds in some flight formation played Houston three times: May 8, 1966 at an "unknown venue"; October 5, 1969 at the Sam Houston Coliseum (incredibly, with the Grateful Dead, the Jefferson Airplane, and Poco - though the band's set was cut short at 40 minutes due to curfew); and April 20, 1972 at the Astrohall.
Make no mistake - So You Want to Be a Rock 'n Roll Star is an amazing piece of research. But it's meant for hardcore Byrds fans or rock nerds most of all - present company included, of course. - Bob Ruggiero
Jaw Bone Press, 336 pp., $29.95