So You Want to Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star?
Act/Artist: The Byrds
Release: Younger Than Yesterday
Release date: 6th February 1967
If someone said that they had overlooked or dismissed the debut Byrds album, I wouldn’t be in a rush to correct them or engage them in debate about it. When you have the singles that they had, it’s no disgrace to call them a singles band. The joy upon hearing Mr Tambourine Man for the first time upon release must have been close to indescribable. It’s a stunningly brilliant record that still sounds amazing after a thousand listens.
The first album is great though. A perfect encapsulation of fresh-faced innocence colliding with the teachings and stories from people further down the line. For many people, The Byrds were at their best when they were conduits for other people’s messages, bringing other songwriters songs to life in a lighter and more vibrant manner. You can bet my dad isn’t alone in thinking that the songs of Dylan only really sparked to life when they were covered by acts like The Byrds. I’d disagree with him on that point but then again, he probably hasn’t spent too much time immersing himself in anything Bobby made post 1965 (and that’s nothing to do with Bob flaunting electricity to the world, the east end of Glasgow was fully plugged in by that point). Anyways…
Has there ever been a more joyous song about a mining disaster? Admittedly, there aren’t too many songs on this subject (in popular culture at least, it’s certainly a topic more relevant to the folk-world…which is where The Byrds took the Pete Seeger song from) and the Bee Gees song at least has the good grace to start off in a morose manner. That perks up a bit but nothing compared to the ringing of McGuinn’s 12 string and the melodies. Oh, those melodies.
The second album was just more of the same with slightly poorer songs (although that doesn’t include Wait and See, a genuinely overlooked classic). The music was still on point and the formula was strong, and at the time, it probably went a long way to maintaining and building the group’s momentum. It is often difficult to review records from 50 years ago because the way we feel about albums, and certain bands, has changed.
Both of the first two albums released by The Byrds found their way into the market in 1965, June and December respectively. This was the norm and even though there were plenty of covers and newly arranged songs in the band’s canon at this point, pulling the songs together, the live shows and the promotional duties ensured the band barely got the chance to blink. In that backdrop, the freshness and energy remains a plus point and the band seemed best equipped to be The American Beatles…whether that was something to aim for or not.
But that was never going to be sustainable and a band who had genuine ambitions on creating a legacy could never stick to one sound or notable style. The band’s third album Fifth Dimension features some of their most experimental and brilliant work but it’s an uneven record. It’s the sort of record that writers will call a forgotten gem or underrated classic but that’s the ramblings of people who are trying too hard. In the grand scheme of The Byrds back catalogue, is it an album you would return to time and time again? The calibre of the singles would always ensure that there was a following for the record but The Byrds were better, much better, at other times.
Equally though, that album shouldn’t be judged too harshly. The first Byrds record without Gene Clark and the band’s first release without a Dylan cover, it was the beginning of a new Byrds, a rebirth that would be repeated time and time again. With that in mind, and the stepping stones it would lay for the band’s later albums, 5D is alright. And it is the home of this wonderful slice of raga-pop:
What’s Happenin’ by David Crosby is also excellent and it is sometimes overlooked that when he was firing on all cylinders, Crosby could come up with outstanding songs. Okay, he seemed like an utter dick at that point of his life but there were many people who were dicks and couldn’t write songs of that quality so he had a head-start on those folk. That was 1966 though and the 1967 version of The Byrds were about to soar higher than ever before.
The impact and influence of Chris Hillman cannot be overstated for this record. A true country-soul, Hillman would have to wait until Gram came on board to go full honky-tonk but his songs contained the mix of country and pop sensibilities that other bands would make millions from. Time Between is tremendous, perhaps not far from the songs that Mike Nesmith was pitching for The Monkees at the same time. If Hillman received payment for every musical delivery that took from the “you and me…you and me” at the tail-end of the chorus, he’d be richer than Dr. Dre and would be recognised as one of the most influential songwriters of all time. The sound is fully developed by the time Hillman and Parsons had the Flying Burrito Brothers up and running, making this track a delicious taster of what was to come.
At less than 2 minutes along, Time Between flies by and if it had been released as a single, it would have had kids firing their pocket money and paper route income into jukeboxes all day and night long. As it was, it’s just a component of an album that came rushing out of the traps with plenty to say. The sound of this song continues onto The Girl With No Name, a title that was so 1967 that it could have been stuck on the cover of Sgt.Peppers.
It would be wrong to mention The Monkees and not link it to album’s opening track. The Drone team have already nailed our colours to the Monkees mast with a supportive piece last month but you can see why there were complaints at the time, especially from those within the music business.
There is of course a huge level of irony about The Byrds being cynical about The Monkees. Let’s not forget that The Byrds exploded into life with a cover version that was recorded in the studio by The Wreckin’ Crew, the same musicians who would be utilised on various Monkees recording sessions. Given the barbs and criticisms that The Byrds has to contend with, being accused of living in Dylan’s shadow and knowing the pain of being classed as not talented enough to play on your own record, you would think that they may have been more hospitable towards the Monkees.
Hillman would later speak, at length over the years, about how it was a pop about the process of the TV show as opposed to the group or individuals. In an interview with Rock Cellar Magazine, Hillman said; “So You Want to Be a Rock ’n’ Roll Star was a parody about The Monkees’ experience. Here we were in our early ’20s speaking out like we were crusty old men who’d been a part of the business for a long time. I think Rock and Roll Star was written more about the contrived nature of their TV show, The Monkees. Mike Nesmith was a great player and great songwriter. We were not attacking them in that song. They were good guys but I think it was all about the idea of Hollywood doing a sitcom about a rock and roll group.”
It would also be remiss to not mention the trumpet work of Hugh Masekela that peppers the opening track of the debut record. You can pretty much take or leave brass on rock n roll records, it’s usually added in an unimaginative manner but it’s a big part of the song’s snap and bite, alongside that galloping bassline. What a way to start a record.
Another reason to rejoice about Younger Than Yesterday was that Bob was back. A cover of My Back Pages provided the inspiration for the title but it also helped to connect with some of the audience lost in the Fifth Dimension. It was 1967, Bob Dylan had grown sick of being Bob Dylan, or at least the Bob Dylan that people demanded he be, so there was scope for other acts to give the public what they wanted. It’s a tremendous song, a hands-up admission of no longer being as headfast or certain of being right; it’s a good place to reach.
The trademark Byrds sounds were present with the song kicking off with a chiming guitar motif, ascending to a lovely chorus with McGuinn being joined on pleasing harmonies.
Mind Gardens stands out, and depending on your viewpoint, perhaps not for the best. It seems a bit whiney and directionless but if you’re looking for a song that is now regarded as peak 1967, this would fit in perfectly. Drones, raga, backwards phasing and unintelligible lyrics, it’s all there…it is no surprise that this was one of Crosby’s key pieces on the record. David had three credits and a co-credit on the record, and on this track and Everybody’s Been Burned, he is certainly mining a darker path. Crosby was all about being real and standing up for what mattered, so it’s no surprise to see him leading the way into the darker aspects of the time.
However, it is on Why that Crosby at his best. The Indian influence was harnessed with a sharper pop finish, a great example of how McGuinn’s influence benefitted the group. Even if it wasn’t his song, he could be relied upon to bring it all together. With so many fantastic talents passing through the band over the years, it is sometimes easy to write off McGuinn. The others shone and burnt out quickly but through it all, McGuinn was there, providing a thread of consistency and uplifting pop sensibilities.
The loss of Gene Clark on the band also annot be overlooked. To the American public, he probably was The Byrds, after all, when they appeared on TV shows, he was the Tambourine Man, the man in the middle, singing the choruses and taking the acclaim while the rest of the band focused on playing their instruments. He also wasn’t wearing a cape or daft glasses. Clark was cooler, even by just not doing much, but he also wrote many of the songs that gave the band real depth.
Mr Tambourine Man was the song that catapulted The Byrds into the hearts and minds of youngsters all over the world but the flip-side was just as strong, which was no mean feat…and that’s all the excuse I need to drop this in.
And by February 1967, Gene Clark was branching out into the world with his solo debut record.
The real beauty of Younger Than Yesterday only unfolded when the full story of the band could be told. The record contains so many sign-posts for what they would become, and when you consider how few bands matched The Byrds for diversity or even schizophrenic musical tendencies (Dr Byrds & Mr Hyde was an album title that really hit the spot), that is saying something. This could have been a sprawling mess of a record but it is anything but, it stands as a cohesive and compact punch from start to finish. Again, it was easier to do this in the era when albums were less than 30 minutes long but when the quality and consistency is so high, is this a bad thing?
The remastered collection of Byrds records is one of the best sets of this kind and the inclusion of singles B-sides, live tracks and demos make the records even greater value. However, the bonus cuts reinforce how important the album was as a single entity, and it is a single entity that can be played back and forth over and over again.
In my view, The Byrds did get better, with their next two records being extremely different but fantastic examples of a band at the top of their game and on top of their genre. However, I’ll always return to Younger Than Yesterday, its an album of my own youth and exciting summers while standing as a memorable slice of mid 60s pop. Don’t forget to check out our Gene Clark page.