Top 10 Byrds Songs

I’ve found myself dipping into The Byrds catalogue a lot more ever since Tom Petty passed away. Petty’s cover of “I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better” got me going one day, and ever since then I’ve been rediscovering the brilliance of these guys. I keep thinking that if things had worked out differently they could have been the definitive American Beatles, one of the three or four greatest bands of all time, but sadly, in the end The Byrds just couldn’t hold everything together.

What an amazing array of talent they had. Roger McGuinn, David Crosby, Chris Hillman and Gene Clark were excellent singers, songwriters and musicians, each and every one of them, and that is some kind of versatility. They were highly influential Rock pioneers, and many if not most of the songs on this list were highly original and truly trailblazing.

I have deliberately included only one Bob Dylan cover, the big one that launched their career. If the Byrds had a fatal flaw it may have been doing too many Dylan covers. They officially recorded at least 20, which is ridiculous, and it’s also sort of like cheating because you know the songs are already good. More importantly, your reputation as a major musical innovator is compromised if you’re covering somebody else’s work so much of the time.

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If The Byrds had made twenty or even ten more songs as good as the ones below instead of doing 20 Dylan covers, who knows how big they might have been? Easier said than done, but as the saying goes, to everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven. Or in the words of modern day street poets, it is what it is.


10. Mr. Spaceman

Did a young Tom Petty hear this song on the radio in 1967 and say to himself “that’s what I will sound like someday”? It sure seems like it because it’s all there, the vocal inflection, the humor, the gifted songcraft. And another hint of the country direction the Byrds were headed in.


9. Tribal Gathering

David Crosby never felt his contributions were given a fair hearing in the band, and the truth is that the Byrds never moved much towards the jazz-flavored stylings that Crosby favored. If they had given Crosby more space The Byrds would have made more music like this, the same kind of signature sound Crosby would eventually bring to his new partners Stills and Nash.


8. So You Want To Be A Rock ‘N’ Roll Star

It was early ’67 and people were already getting jaded about Rock Stardom. This short and sweet slice of scathing satire was apparently inspired by the Monkees, the pre-Fab Four. But dig the exotic rhythms, Chris Hillman’s amazing bass line, and Hugh Masekela’s trumpet flourishes, I’ve never heard another song remotely like it.


7. Hickory Wind

A best-of Byrds list has got to include something from Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, generally believed to be the album that gave birth to Country Rock, and it’s got to be a song by the grievous angel himself Gram Parsons, the driving force behind the band’s hard country turn, and a shooting star who deeply influenced Rock before tragically flaming out at age 27. You can’t get any closer to the root than he did.


6. Wasn’t Born To Follow

A lot of people really love this one because it was featured in the movie Easy Rider, a perfect fit because breezy, rootsy Byrds music works so well on an open highway on a sunny day. You should try it if you haven’t already. The band manages to give this Goffin/King number both a country and a psychedelic treatment, a rare double in the same song.


5. Chestnut Mare

In 1969 Roger McGuinn was one of a number of Rockers who wanted to combine their music with theater, it was the thing to do back then. McGuinn’s country Rock opera never got made but a few songs survived, including this shimmering, spellbinding cowboy story which was a big hit in the U.K. And we all know the horse is a metaphor for something.


4. I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better

Track 2 on their debut album, written and sung by drummer Gene Clark, again, this is pure pop perfection that should have been a huge hit. You can hear the Lennon/McCartney influences in the chord changes and structure, but those influences would disappear by the next album as the band found its own confident voice.


3. Mr. Tambourine Man

Any one of these top three Byrds tracks could be their very best, I could flip a coin to choose between the three of them. But this is the one that started it all. It begins with one of the most memorable licks in Rock history, one that McGuinn ripped off from Bach, and it alone would have made the song stand out. But then the incredible harmonies kick in, bringing Dylan’s vest-pocket mythologies to the unwashed masses for the first time, and suddenly we’ve got a significant cultural artifact on our hands, Folk Rock was being born, and the magic swirling ship was just setting sail.


2. Eight Miles High

The Byrds were the leaders of the Country Rock movement, but you could also argue they were Psychedelic Rock pioneers too. This song blew a lot of minds when it came out in March 1966. This was six months before the Beatles’ Revolver and its psych trailblazer “Tomorrow Never Knows”, and nobody had ever heard the kind of psychedelic and atonal guitar playing that McGuinn lets rip on “Eight Miles High”. McGuinn said he was channelling Ravi Shankar and John Coltrane and wasn’t intending to be psychedelic at all but it doesn’t really matter. The track was a game changer and one of the most important songs in Rock history.


1. Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There Is A Season)

McGuinn’s Rickenbacker chimed like church bells across the land in the Fall of ’65, heralding nothing less than a new awakening for a new generation. You can still taste the bittersweet in it today, hope for the future tinged with the sadness of the past, the wound of JFK’s assassination still fresh at the time. Lots of genius at work here: McGuinn’s arrangement, Pete Seeger’s melody and two big lyric contributions – the repeated title phrase plus the words “a time for peace I swear it’s not too late” – and whoever wrote the rest of these insightful, powerful, timeless words in the Book of Ecclesiastes.

So what are your favourite Byrds songs?

Photo credit: By Joost Evers / Anefo (Nationaal Archief) [CC BY-SA 3.0 nl (], via Wikimedia Commons

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