When the album simply entitled Byrds arrived on David Geffen’s Asylum label in 1973, it had been only about a year-and-a-half since the last record from the California folk-rock heroes. But the original line-up of Gene Clark, David Crosby, Roger McGuinn, Chris Hillman and Michael Clarke hadn’t recorded a complete album together since 1965. Byrds would be the group’s first long-player for a label other than Columbia Records – and the final Byrds album to date. Australia’s Raven Records label has recently remastered and reissued Byrds, with two bonus tracks from the solo Gene Clark which also featured the complete five-piece band.
Following the defection of Gene Clark from the band in February 1966, The Byrds’ line-up had been fluid, to say the least. Eleven members had passed through the ranks between 1964 and 1972 with only Jim (later Roger) McGuinn as the constant. The group’s sound had also shifted considerably from folk-rock to psychedelia to country-rock and every style in between. The Byrds’ final Columbia album, 1971’s Farther Along, featured McGuinn, Clarence White, Skip Battin and Gene Parsons (no relation to another former Byrd, Gram Parsons). In July 1972, with no new album in the works, Parsons was let go from the band, replaced on drums by John Guerin. Session pro Guerin remained with the live band through January 1973, though he was never considered a full-fledged member of the band. Skip Battin was next to go, dismissed after a February 10, 1973 show. Roger McGuinn asked Chris Hillman of the original band to step in for two more shows later that month and then called it a day on The Byrds’ touring line-up. But by that time, the original Byrds had already reunited and completed the album that would become Byrds.
McGuinn was still fronting the touring band when he and his four original bandmates entered Los Angeles’ Wally Heider Studios in October 1972, the hatchet having apparently been buried with David Crosby, who was named producer of the upcoming album. Impresario Geffen was the catalyst for the reunion, as he desired for the reformed Byrds to have a place of honor on his label’s impressive roster of SoCal rockers also including Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell and Eagles. With Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young on indefinite hiatus at that point, it was also perceived that the reformed Byrds could fill their void. By the end of sessions in November 1972, eleven songs had been laid down for Byrds.
With rich, recognizable harmonies in abundance, Byrds naturally featured songs by all four songwriters in the band: McGuinn, Clark, Crosby and Hillman. Clark supplied the mission-statement opener “Full Circle” and another one of the LP’s strongest tracks, “Changing Heart.” (“Full Circle” wasn’t written for The Byrds, per Clark, but might as well have been.) McGuinn co-wrote the haunting folk ballad “Sweet Mary” with Bob Dylan’s sometimes-collaborator Jacques Levy as well as the upbeat, likely autobiographical “Born to Rock and Roll.” (He would return to the song on his 1975 album Roger McGuinn and Band.) Chris Hillman penned two songs, both with his ex-Manassas bandmates. “Things Will Be Better” was written with drummer Dallas Taylor, and “Borrowing Time” with percussionist Joe Lala. (Lala had ever so briefly played with the Byrds in February 1973.) Crosby brought “Laughing,” an original Byrds-era song which he had previously recorded on his solo album If I Could Only Remember My Name, as well as the acerbic music biz commentary “Long Live the King.”
Three covers rounded out Byrds. “For Free” was plucked from the songbook of Asylum label mate Joni Mitchell’s Ladies of the Canyon; Crosby provided the lead vocal. Gene Clark urged his fellow Byrds to include two compositions by Crosby’s CSNY bandmate Neil Young: “Cowgirl in the Sand,” from Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, and “(See the Sky) About to Rain,” which Young hadn’t yet recorded. We have more after the jump!
Upon its release in March 1973, critics lambasted Byrds even if the public helped it to place in the Billboard Top 20. Though the album touched upon many of the styles that the band had explored, it was light on the “jangle rock” sound that many fans might have expected, and at times recalled CSN(Y) or Manassas as much as The Byrds. The lack of a positive response reportedly brought old tensions back to the fore and led to the scuttling of plans for a reunion tour and perhaps more recording. Still, time has been kind to this LP. Raven has expanded Byrds with two tracks from Gene Clark’s Roadmaster album of 1973, both of which feature the entire Byrds line-up as well as the participation of original Byrds producer Jim Dickson: “She’s the Kind of Girl” and “One in a Hundred.” Ironically, these tracks sounded more like vintage Byrds than almost anything on Byrds. At least two more outtakes were also recorded for Byrds: “My New Woman,” which appeared on McGuinn’s self-titled solo album later in the year, and “Fair and Tender Ladies,” which remains unreleased.
Clark, Hillman, Crosby, McGuinn and Clark made their final appearance together – and first since 1973 – at the band’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 1991; the previous year, McGuinn, Crosby and Hillman had reunited to record four new tracks under the Byrds’ name for a Columbia box set. Other than an impromptu 2000 onstage performance by that trio, The Byrds hasn’t been reactivated in the ensuing years, though Crosby has repeatedly made overtures to the press that he would be interested in another go-round. McGuinn has shown considerably less interest as he continues his own solo career.
Raven’s reissue of the underrated Byrds has been remastered by Warren Barnett and features new liner notes from Ian McFarlane. It’s available now at the links below!
- Full Circle
- Sweet Mary
- Changing Heart
- For Free
- Born to Rock and Roll
- Things Will Be Better
- Cowgirl in the Sand
- Long Live the King
- Borrowing Time
- (See the Sky) About to Rain
- She’s the Kind of Girl – Gene Clark (from Roadmaster, A&M 87584 IT, 1973)
- One in a Hundred – Gene Clark (from Roadmaster, A&M 87584 IT, 1973)