The Byrds

The Byrds

Legacy / Columbia Records, 1973

REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen


When I turned 20, Mom Pierce offered to buy me anything I wanted at the area record superstore. Heading to Rolling Stone (located in Norridge, Illinois - haven't been there in years), I made a rather strange selection: the then-new-release box set from The Byrds. It was strange for the simple reason that I didn't know much about Roger McGuinn and crew except for the one or two songs I had heard on the radio.

Eight years later, I still don't know a lot about the band - one reason is I lost the damn book that came with the box set And while I couldn't appreciate the sudden change from light rock to country that The Byrds underwent when I was 20, it seems a little more understandable these days. This set (now apparently out of print, though you can still get it at the little used record store I frequent) serves as more than an introduction or a retrospective of The Byrds; this is a college course packed into four cassettes.

The first portion of the set features a band that is not only engaged in some serious Bob Dylan worship, but is also sounding like they're held together with duct tape. The musical tightness just isn't there on the first few songs. One can understand this being the case on "Mr. Tambourine Man," a song which featured only McGuinn from the band, but even other songs like "Chimes Of Freedom" and "All I Really Want To Do" feature a band whose excitement of recording is clearly heard as they tend to rush certain portions of their music. Maybe it was a vocal here, a guitar line there, but it's noticeable (though it's far from a distraction). By the time they kick into "She Don't Care About Time" (featured in a previously unreleased version) and "Turn! Turn! Turn!" (the song that started it all for me with The Byrds), the band sounds a lot tighter. (Not surprisingly, the tensions in the band were rising around this time.)my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

If I had to make the call, I would have sliced "The Bells Of Rhymney," "Lay Down Your Weary Tune" and "Hey Joe" (sorry, but Hendrix's version will always be the one for me), simply because they don't reflect well on The Byrds, and are more distracting than some other cuts like "I Know My Rider" and "Spanish Harlem Incident".

The experimental side of The Byrds is evident early on in the track "Eight Miles High," but can clearly be heard on the second tape. The song that kind of spelled the end of the rock era of the band was the controversial number "Triad," a song that pales in comparison to some of the shit polluting the airwaves today. (Then again, in the '60s, a song advocating a menage a trois would have been the top of the iceberg.) One song that falls under the "shoulda-been-a-classic" moniker is "My Back Pages," a sentimental tale about life and the lessons learned. The more I hear this track, the more I love it.

While there are a few more rockers left in The Byrds, the country aspect clearly kicks in somewhere along side four. (One song I definitely would have cut was "The Christian Life," a "holier-than-thou" number that just annoys the listener, even if they happen to be of that faith. Check me if I'm wrong, but didn't McGuinn get involved with some religious cult that wasn't Christianity? Isn't that why he changed his first name from Jim to Roger?)

A simple fact must be stated by the time you kick into the second half of the box set: If you weren't aware of the Byrds's move into country music, you're gonna hate almost the rest of the set. When I first listened to this in 1990/1991, I was so shocked, I filed the tapes away, only pulling out the first tape to hear the songs I knew well. However, if you give tapes three and four a fair shot, they prove to have some very entertaining moments on them. Tracks like "Hickory Wind," "This Wheel's On Fire," "Old Blue" and "Black Mountain Rag" make the time just fly. (Any lover of guitar work should definitely give "Black Mountain Rag" a spin - and allow your jaw to hit the floor hard.)

By the time you hit tape four, you can hear the band running out of gas - how do you explain a waste like "Chestnut Mare"? - though there still are some quality moments contained therein. Check out "White's Lightning" for proof. The eventual reunion of McGuinn, Chris Hillman and David Crosby at the 1990 tribute to Roy Orbison (and the four studio tracks recorded to re-establish ownership of the band name) prove that The Byrds still had the magic they showed in the '60s and early '70s. In fact, after hearing the studio efforts from 1990, I wonder why McGuinn, Hillman and Crosby didn't give The Byrds another serious try; tracks like "Paths Of Victory" and "Love That Never Dies" blew me away.

Trying to digest this whole set in one sitting is asking a lot of anyone (I was able to complete it in just over two days driving in my car), but there are a lot of great moments on The Byrds. And while there are their fair share of landmines in the set as well, listening to this set will help you understand where bands like The Eagles came from, and how Tom Petty was influenced. This particular set is going to be a little harder to find these days, but if you've got the time and patience (and are willing to roll with the musical changes), this set will be a wonderful addition to your library.

Rating: B-

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© 1998 Christopher Thelen and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Legacy / Columbia Records, and is used for informational purposes only.