Early rock ‘n’ roll was quintessentially American, the product of different cultures combining to make something entirely new and renegade. A decade after its inception, though, rock ‘n’ roll was no longer a solely American art form. By the mid-’60s, the British Invasion was in full bloom, and bands like the Kinks, the Who, the Beatles, and the Rolling Stones had made rock ‘n’ roll a largely British game. Two names, however, stopped the Brits from forever wrenching rock out of the cultural grip of America. The first, of course, was Bob Dylan, who put his indelibly American stamp on the Beatles by giving John Lennon a joint and explaining that lyrics do matter. The second name belongs to a band that belongs in the upper tier of rock’s pantheon, along with the best groups Britain ever spawned; this band is the Byrds. Perhaps more than any other band in rock history, the Byrds not only pioneered a distinct sound that lives to this day, they also combined, invented, and perfected a number of subgenres. In doing so, they put the American flag back on the landscape of rock, and it hasn’t been removed since.
There Is a Season, a new box set consisting of four CDs and a DVD, chronicles the career of the Byrds in all its phases: the early days before the band had settled on a name, the period that saw the band dominate the pop charts, the tumultuous years of personnel changes, the rebirth as country-rock pioneers, and the scattered reunions. What emerges from the 99 tracks here is a portrait of very prolific band: while the Byrds were only a band for nine years, they released 13 albums, and their weakest efforts were more consistent and inspired than many of today’s bands. Even more amazing, the band was able to cultivate an unmistakable sound even in their earliest recordings, and they maintained that sound while moving through folk-rock, psychedelic-rock, and country-rock, not to mention a small tribe of band members.
Unlike the previous Byrds box set, this one begins when the band was in its embryonic stages, starting when Roger McGuinn, David Crosby, and Gene Clark first collaborated as the Jet Set. “The Only Girl I Adore”, the one track here by this early incarnation of the band, lacks McGuinn’s signature Rickenbacker jangle, but on full display are the other two elements that comprised the Byrds’ signature sound: harmony and melody. An acoustic ballad of the troubadour variety, the song also reflects the folk tradition that would serve as the foundation of the band throughout its career. Later, the trio of the Jet Set would be joined by Chris Hillman and Michael Clarke and, trying to seem British in both name and sound during a period of Anglo-mania, the group was briefly known as the Beefeaters. Two tracks by the Beefeaters, “Please Let Me Love You” and “Don’t Be Long”, are included, and they sound like lost tracks from the Beatles circa 1964: jaunty, chimey, and catchy.
It wasn’t until the band decided to record Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” that their formula solidified. Led by Roger McGuinn’s shimmering 12-string Rickenbacker guitar, that distinctive sound would also send the Byrds straight to the top of the charts, if only for a brief period. All of the big hits are, of course, included here, but so are lesser-known gems from this same period. Gene Clark, in particular, wrote some of the group’s best early songs, specializing in melancholy and romantic ballads such as “Here Without You”, “I Knew I’d Want You”, and “She Has a Way”. Though these songs are not as well known as the covers of Dylan and Pete Seeger’s “Turn, Turn, Turn”, they prove the diversity of the band. Not only did the Byrds uphold the folk tradition by updating and recording the work of others, they were also adept at working in the rock tradition of writing originals.
This blending of folk with other genres and subgenres would define the Byrds’ career, most notably in their pioneering of psychedelic rock and country-rock. Both periods are fully covered on There Is a Season, each showing how the band took the nimble musicianship inherent in folk and applied it elsewhere. By this time, the band was bleeding members due to internal conflicts, but amazingly the quality of their work did not suffer. Tracks such as “Stranger in a Strange Land”, “Eight Miles High”, and “Universal Mind Decoder” are proof that nobody did psychedelia better than the Byrds, and you only have to look at Beachwood Sparks to see the influence of these songs. As for country rock, 1968’s Sweetheart of the Rodeo is often credited with planting its seeds, and it marks Gram Parsons’ ascension into folklore. Here again, the Byrds worked within the folk tradition by reworking existing songs, and their versions often outshined the originals; a live version of “Pretty Boy Floyd” is included on Disc Three, and it sounds both fuller and more immediate than Woody Guthrie’s grainy original. Those interested in alt-country should buy this collection for historical reasons alone; those same seeds that grew into country rock would later bloom into the alternative-country movement of the ’90s.
Though the Byrds only reached the popular heights of the Beatles, the Who, and the Stones for a short period in the mid-’60s, their influence is arguably greater than any of their peers. Their folk jangle still resonates in bands like Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, R.E.M., and the Jayhawks. And, if you wanted to take a wider view, you could say that everyone labeled red dirt, space rock, cosmic rock, alt-country, or just plain folk owes some debt to the Byrds. Indeed, There Is a Season is a must-have for any serious collector of music. Not only does it provide an impeccable chronicle of the Byrds’ career year-by-year, it also includes a slew of other treats: previously unreleased tracks, live television performances, the complete discographic information on each track, liner notes with contributions from Tom Petty and Gary Louris, and a very thorough essay by David Fricke. Nothing has been withheld, and this is certain to be the definitive collection of the Byrds, a band who made timeless music and, in the process, came to define Americana.