The term “Folk Rock” didn’t exist, until the American music press came up with it to describe The Byrds’ album Mr. Tambourine Man in June of 1965.
“Mr. Tambourine Man” was an unreleased song by Bob Dylan when the members of the Byrds first heard it. It was an acoustic folk song in 2/4 time.
The members of The Byrds came from a folk background, but had been experimenting with adding a “Beatles sound” to folk songs. Jim McGuinn (he later changed his name to Roger McGuinn), said The Beatles had already incorporated some folk minor-chord changes into their music as far back as 1963. In 1964, McGuinn also saw George Harrison play a Rickenbacker 12-string guitar in the film “A Hard Days Night”, and bought his own.
The Byrds had been struggling to become successful in the music business, and McGuinn thought “Mr. Tambourine Man” was their last chance to get it right. The Byrds changed the time signature to a 4/4 rock beat. They also selected what they felt were the best verses, in order to keep the song under 3-minutes, so radio stations would play it. Roger McGuinn’s bright 12-string guitar playing was featured to give it a “jangly” sound. McGuinn, Crosby, and Clark sang in beautiful three-part harmony as arranged by David Crosby.
Because of the importance of the make-or-break recording, session players were used for the remaining instruments of the single. They also played on the flip side, but that was it. From that point on, the playing and singing was by the members of The Byrds. The single was released in April of 1965.
The song “Mr. Tambourine Man” went to #1, and the album rose to #6. Other notable songs on Mr. Tambourine Man are the excellent “I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better” written by Gene Clark, “The Bells Of Rhymney” by Pete Seeger & Idris Davies, and two more Bob Dylan songs “Chimes Of Freedom” and “All I Really Want To Do”. That last one was also covered by Cher. She was just coming off the first Sonny & Cher hit “I Got You Babe”. The duo had heard The Byrds perform the Dylan song at a club in Los Angeles, and rushed to put it out.
The Byrds were the major players in the move to Folk Rock, but they certainly weren’t alone. The Beau Brummels had released “Laugh Laugh” (#15) and “Just A LIttle” (#8) in early 1965 prior to the success by The Byrds. Also, The Searchers had used the same jangly 12-string guitar work on “Needles & Pins” (#13) and “When You Walk In The Room” (#35) in 1964. However, “Mr. Tambourine Man” was the first recording to mix that rock sound with true folk lyrics as written by Bob Dylan. That’s why the term Folk Rock was so appropriate.
Bob Dylan liked the new arrangements by Roger McGuinn and the rest of The Byrds. He too had been experimenting with adding a band sound to his music, and he completed the move in 1965 with the classics “Like A Rolling Stone” and “Positively 4th Street”.
Meanwhile, The Byrds recorded their second album of 1965, Turn! Turn! Turn! The title track (written by Pete Seeger) charted as a single in November, and was another #1 hit. Other tracks include Dylan’s “Lay Down Your Weary Tune”, and a McGuinn song about the JFK assassination, “He Was A Friend Of Mine”.
Folk Rock grew with artists like The Turtles (“It Ain’t Me Babe” by Dylan), The Beatles (“You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away” & George Harrison’s homage to The Byrds “If I Needed Someone”), Barry McGuire (“Eve Of Destruction”), The Grass Roots (“Where Were You When I Needed You”), The Lovin’ Spoonful, The Mamas & The Papas, Simon & Garfunkel, and more.
Music styles progressed quickly in the ’60’s. Just 6-months after The Byrds released “Mr. Tambourine Man”, the unofficial start of Folk Rock, Gene Clark, Roger McGuinn, and David Crosby wrote the song “Eight Miles High” (November 1965).
The song was recorded at the beginning of 1966, and released in March. Released just weeks earlier was “Shapes Of Things” by The Yardbirds. Both songs hit the Top-40 in April. These two are considered the first full-blown examples of Psychedelic Rock. Other recordings had included elements used in Psychedelic Rock, but these two songs were the culmination of those experiments.
For their third album, Fifth Dimension (July, 1966) The Byrds recorded without Gene Clark, who left after “Eight Miles High”. He reportedly left because of tensions in the band, as well as a fear of flying. The quality of the album was not up to the first two albums. It still had some Folk Rock (no Dylan songs though). It also had Psychedelic Rock (“Eight Miles” and “5D”), and Country Rock (“Mr. Spaceman”). It showed The Byrds were willing to expand their sound.
The Byrd’s 1967 album would have more of the same, but at a higher quality level.
Younger Than Yesterday might be The Byrds’ best album…right there with Mr. Tambourine Man. Like Pet Sounds, it wasn’t extremely popular at the time of release, but has grown in stature. “So You Want To Be A Rock & Roll Star” (with a horn part by Hugh Masekela), and “My Back Pages” (written by Bob Dylan) were the hit singles. Chris Hillman who’s an accomplished guitarist and mandolin player, as well as bassist, really came through with his songwriting. He contributed the Country Rock songs “Have You Seen Her Face”, “Time Between”, and “The Girl With No Name”. David Crosby also impressed with “Everybody’s Been Burned” and “Renaissance Fair” (with McGuinn).
The Notorious Byrd Brothers was released in January of 1968. It was one of their weaker efforts, and didn’t sell as well as previous albums. On the plus side, the album included a couple of strong songs by Carole King & Gerry Goffin, “Goin’ Back” and “Wasn’t Born To Follow”. The Byrds blended the elements of Folk Rock, Psychedelic Rock, and Country Rock into their songs, instead of displaying them in separate songs. It may have been the first album with a pedal steel guitar and a Moog synthesizer.
This was the last album to feature David Crosby. He left/was fired mainly due to creative differences and some admittedly erratic behavior. He felt more of his songs should have been included on their albums…in particular his threesome song “Triad”. Drummer Michael Clarke was also dismissed from the band.
From this point, The Byrds would no longer have hit singles, but would still release influential albums, especially for Country Rock. The years of many personnel changes (1968-1971), resulted in a real mixed-bag of albums, Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde, Ballad Of Easy Rider, (Untitled), Byrdmaniax, and Farther Along. They did include some good songs… “Hickory Wind” (by Gram Parsons), “You Ain’t Going Nowhere”, “Ballad Of Easy Rider”, “Jesus Is Just Alright”, “Just A Season”, and “I Wanna Grow Up To Be A Politician”.
The original line-up of The Byrds had a reunion in 1973 for one last album, Byrds. It was a commercial success (#20), and the highest charting Byrds’ album since their first. However, it was not popular with critics who thought the band had not really jelled. Good tracks include “Full Circle”, two Neil Young songs “See The Sky About To Rain” & “Cowgirl In The Sand”, and David Crosby’s vocal on the Joni Mitchell song “For Free”.
The Byrds Box Set (4 CD’s) was released in 1990…I couldn’t pass it up. It’s a great history of the band, has some never before released songs, and four new studio tracks. These include “From A Distance” (later recorded by Bette Midler, but the Byrd’s folk treatment is better), “Love That Never Dies” and a re-recording of “He Was A Friend Of Mine”, adding a third harmony part. The three tracks were recorded by Roger McGuinn, David Crosby, and Chris Hillman. Highly recommended is a single disc collection of The Byrd’s best songs, 20 Essential Tracks From The Boxed Set. (Zoom or click to enlarge the image.)
Roger McGuinn, David Crosby, Chris Hillman and Gene Clark all continued to make more good music. David Crosby became the most famous, with a little help from his friends Stephen Stills, Graham Nash and Neil Young.
The Byrds were not “America’s answer to The Beatles” as they were once mislabeled; however, they gave us many classic recordings, and were very influential pioneers in the evolution of Folk Rock, Psychedelic Rock, and Country Rock.
Update 1/19/23: David Crosby passed away at the age of 81. The last couple of years, David talked about his fragile health. His family was with him when he passed. Crosby had been working on a new album, and was planning for a tour before his passing.