Flashback Footage: The Byrds Performances that Changed Rock

by Peter Wendel
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The Byrds in ’65 (McGuinn, far right)

In honor of Roger McGuinn’s 74th birthday, let’s flashback to the psychedelic ’60s when The Byrds’ frontman was changing the face of rock-n-roll.

The Los Angeles-based quintet formed in 1964 and first made its mark as a Dylan cover band, blending traditional folk music with the edgier, racier sound of British Invasion bands (think The Beatles). The Byrds brand was built around crisp, clean vocal harmonies and McGuinn’s “jangling” 12-string Rickenbacker 360 (guitar). The Byrds, indeed, defined the high-sparkle “California sound” of the mid-’60s.

Rickenbacker360

12-string Rickenbacker

The band’s most memorable songs include original works “Eight Miles High” and “I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better” as well as covers of Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” and Pete Seeger’s “Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There Is A Season).”

Although the band underwent a handful of personnel changes over the years, the original quintet consisted of McGuinn (lead guitar, vocals), Gene Clark (tambourine, vocals), David Crosby (rhythm guitar, vocals), Chris Hillman (bass guitar, vocals) and Michael Clarke (drums). Additional members include country-rock pioneers Gram Parsons and Clarence White.

Here are some of the classic song performances that made The Byrds one of the most influential bands of the ’60s. Enjoy!

I’LL FEEL A WHOLE LOT BETTER
The Byrds in 1965

This Byrds original – written and sung by Gene Clark – is from the band’s 1965 debut album, Mr. Tambourine Man. The track has all the makings of Top-10 hit: super-high energy, defiant (yet optimistic) lyrics and one of rock-n-roll’s greatest hooks. The dancing ladies on the set remind us of how crazy things could get back in the mid-’60s as folk music collided with the British Invasion.

THE TIMES THEY ARE A-CHANGIN’
The Byrds in 1965

The Byrds add shimmering jangle to Dylan’s 1964 counterculture classic. Band aside for the moment, this has to be the strangest stage set in the history of televised musical performances. Duck hunting, anyone? Ducks are birds, right?

TURN, TURN, TURN!
The Byrds in the mid-’60s

The Byrds’ adaptation of Pete Seeger’s song features the lofty power of McGuinn’s guitar work. The optimism of the band shines through like the first days of spring.

THE WHEEL’S ON FIRE
The Byrds in 1968

Another spectacular Dylan cover – a song that hearkens back to Bob’s near-fatal motorcycle accident in the summer of 1966. By the time this footage was taken in 1968, The Byrds’ original quintet had broken apart with the departures of Gene Clark, David Crosby and drummer Michael Clarke. The trippy wildness of the audience (see the video) is worth the price of admission.

YOU AIN’T GOING NOWHERE
The Byrds in 1968

A classic cover of Dylan’s classic 1967 track. Whoo-eee, ride me high…

JESUS IS JUST ALRIGHT
The Byrds in 1970

Here we have another powerful reinterpretation by The Byrds. You’ll notice that the ’70s brought a little rougher edge to the band. “Jesus Is Just Alright” is a gospel song penned by Arthur Reid Reynolds and released by his band, The Art Reynolds Singers, in 1966. The Byrds covered the song on on their 1969 album, Ballad of Easy Rider. The Doobie Brothers covered it on their 1972 album, Toulouse Street. The footage comes from Fillmore East on September 23, 1970. The Allman Brothers Band also performed that night.

EIGHT MILES HIGH
The Byrds in 1970

This might just blow your mind. Although heavily edited, this footage gives you a glimpse of the wild side of The Byrds as they perform a tripped-out version of their classic ode to drugs, “Eight Miles High.” It is widely credited with being the very first “psychedelic rock” song.

MR. TAMBOURINE MAN (acoustic)
The Byrds in 1972

A toned-down acoustic version of the Dylan cover that made The Byrds a sensation in 1965. The Byrds’ version is the title track from their 1965 debut album. The band’s reinterpretation of Dylan’s song made it all the way up to #1 in both the United States and the UK.

Peter Wendel is a journalist and PR consultant. He's attended hundreds of concerts and festivals, including the Peach, Mountain Jam, the All Good and Lockn'. He's ridden legendary Grateful Dead runs from Ventura County Fairgrounds to Irvine Meadows (CA) from the Nassau Coliseum (NY) to the Boston Garden (MA). Peter is a former U.S. Marine who – after running into trouble with every last one of his commanding officers – received an honorable discharge and a direct order never to return. Born in California and raised in New Jersey, Peter lived in Boston and Joshua Tree (CA) before settling in the nation's capital. Find him on tour at PWendel@SongMango.com.

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