Beatle George Harrison introduced the world to the Rickenbacker 12-string electric guitar—a revolutionary rock instrument for 1964—with the chiming, timeless chord that opens A Hard Day’s Night.
But it took a Chicago native, a 1960 Latin School graduate, an Old Town School of Folk Music student trained on banjo, to take the instrument to iridescent regions eight miles high and beyond.
“It’s not an easy instrument to master, especially the Rickenbacker, because the neck is so narrow,” says Byrds founding member Roger McGuinn, whose music is celebrated on the CD/DVD package The Byrds: There Is a Season (Columbia/Legacy, $54.98). “I personally like the sound of it, the harpsichord quality of it. And when I saw George Harrison in A Hard Day’s Night, I went out and traded in my Gibson 12-string acoustic that Bobby Darin had given me; he had hired me as a 12-string player.”
McGuinn’s “jingle jangle” sound, as he calls it, dominates much of this four-CD, single DVD set, which traces the Byrds’ evolution through the folk-rock movement to country-rock—two spheres where the band became a pioneering force. Even today, bandmate and bassist Chris Hillman credits McGuinn with being the glue that sealed four very disparate musicians (including vocalist Gene Clark, drummer Michael Clarke and guitarist-vocalist David Crosby).
“Roger was the best musician in the bunch,” Hillman says. “He had been a session musician before the Byrds and he had to be right on the money timewise. To this day, I hold him in high regard as a great musician.”
Not that Hillman was a slouch. Numerous authorities (including Stuart Shea, author of the recently published The 1960s’ Most Wanted) consider Hillman one of the most innovative bassists of the decade, up there with Paul McCartney and the Who’s John Entwistle. But Hillman, a mandolin prodigy before joining the Byrds, sounds self-effacing discussing his entrance into the group.
“David was going to be the bass player, but it wasn’t comfortable for him,” Hillman recalls. “I was probably the 15th guy they called, I don’t know. But I saw something magical in the way they were doing things, so I bluffed my way in. And thank goodness I did.”
Speaking of bluffing, all of the 10 songs on the bonus DVD are lip-synced affairs from ‘60s TV. Still, that doesn’t make them any less delightful to watch. The clip for “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better” features the Byrds squeezed between two faux-brick towers crowned by caged go-go dancers—their gyrations so frenetic it looks like the set will collapse on the boys at any moment.
McGuinn recalls those video shoots with some amusement: “We had fun with those shows, we would always crack up when we did them. And we would trade clothes; sometimes I would wear Crosby’s cape and he would wear my glasses. I just watch them and it brings back a lot of fun. Plus they’re delightfully dated, with the dancers doing the frug in the background.”
Hillman compares the era to the 1996 Tom Hanks movie That Thing You Do!, which depicts a fictional ‘60s group that hits it big overnight. “That was what the Byrds was like. That was who we were, and what we were,” he says. McGuinn finds the movie analogy apt, though it brings back memories of a more manic sort.
“The girls, the fans were actually pretty brutal,” McGuinn recalls. “They tried to rip your clothes off, they stole my license plates, they tackled me running from the gig to my car. You thought you were in physical danger. It was before good security. Or monitors. Our first amplifier was basically a home stereo system.”
The Byrds, as Tom Petty writes in the liner notes, gave fans of American rock something to be proud of in the British invasion days. But remarkably, the original lineup never even made it to the two-year mark. Clark left after a nervous breakdown in early 1966; Crosby was fired by McGuinn and Hillman the following year, around the same time Clarke left. Crosby, of course, went on to greater fame in a certain supergroup with Stephen Stills and company, and the Byrds would later discover and recruit such legendary talents as Gram Parsons and Clarence White.
Two original Byrds, Clark and Clarke, died shortly after the Byrds were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991. To be sure, McGuinn and Hillman thrived long after the Byrds called it quits in 1973. Through his Folk Den Project, started in 1995, McGuinn continues to preserve and record folk music gems, while Hillman has garnered praise for his work in the Desert Rose Band.
What both men so astutely observe is that the Byrds, unlike the Beatles, were a collection of five musicians who didn’t come up through the musical ranks as teenage friends: As soon as the band was formed, it was on a worldwide stage.
“The worst analogy would be that it would be like having four ex-wives,” Hillman laments. “Maybe things are best left sealed. But I miss Gene and Michael more than I can tell you. And I wish the rest of us could just get together for a dinner sometime. There is no animosity between us.”