Listening to the Byrds, I sit upright almost saluting the jingle-jangle 12 string guitar, which can sound like a sitar or bagpipe, and for that matter, even a tambourine. McGuinn can play it that way, and this has become his signature sound. But if you want to get up into the sound grill, use Beatles’ harmony with Harrison’s 12 string (“If I needed someone”) with Bob Dylan’s lyrics, and you have the Byrds. Fair enough, the Byrds were in danger of remaking too many Dylan songs anyway, yet Dylan wasn’t played that much on popular radio at the time. Younger bands, like the Byrds, looked to Dylan and made him a cult figure by covering his songs even before he was popular. The Byrds’ posture was by association to Dylan, and not by comparison. And even though they were the most popular band in LA, they weren’t as experimental as the Beatles, nor as poetic as Dylan. They served to make Dylan’s electric cross-over more palpable, their harmonies more soothing to Dylan’s screeching. But this was their point of departure, and later, they became their own band with songs like “5 D,” which swings in 6/8 time, the heavy bass line supporting the in and out harmonies and the joyful exploding 12 string guitar solo at the end of the song. They also had the tongue-in-cheek song of “Mr Spaceman,” which featured McGuinn’s no hassle style of slanted side-saddle hangover vocal phrasing. The Byrds’ earlier psychedelic phase was arguably the most interesting material they put out, and this is in comparison to the feckless country wreck style that later happened.
The Byrds, like Buffalo Springfield and the Grateful Dead etc., veered into other genres – folk, country (it still confuses me as to why these folksy California bands brought in bad versions of country), and psychedelia. It was all about an eclecticism that was free-floating, yet grounded in rock music which was defining itself. The Byrds, like many other bands, used folk as a way to define a new sound away from the blues. The west coast had this cosmic cowboy thing happening, and the Byrds nailed it with a weird floral hippie look – granny glasses, mopped hair, ponchos, suede leather boots, and all things paisley. They were based in LA’s Laurel Canyon, and they were the band that set the scene; everyone wanted their success and be connected to them.
Many bands like the Byrds and Love lived in Laurel Canyon and played at Monterey Pop. When David Crosby got fired from the Byrds sometime after Monterey, he had the community of Laurel Canyon and he could hook up with Stephen Stills. They formed the super-ego – Crosby, Stills, Nash, and should-have-been Neil Young’s group. People were breathless with excitement at the implications of this even before they released their first album. What could’ve been an incredible “Mr Soul” meets “8 miles high” plus “Bus Stop” and “Cinnamon Girl” rock and roll stew, now drifted into a smug, arrogant, melancholy and bloated wooden ship of Suite Judy Blue Eyes. Beneath their sleepy, confessional folk tunes, Stephen Stills suppresses any odor of rock guitar. It’s as if someone had told him to turn it down to a gargle. Electric guitar isn’t mellow here. And worst yet, the drums, which they suppressed into soft sandpaper, flapped along with their yawning, inert tempos. Their rhythm section was mainly reduced to an anonymous bass line. They wiped away everything rock and roll on this terror voyage leaving a tepid hippie version of barber shop harmony. It really didn’t get any better than that after a couple of albums. But, at least Neil Young survived with his instinct, and Stephen Stills later showed what he was all about with his solo album by bringing in the guitars of Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton.
Crosby, Stills, and Nash released their first album in 1969. Someone gave me that album for Christmas that year and honestly it was hard for me to listen to with everything else that was going on that was more exciting. This was the same year the Stooges released their first album. I was very young, and I bought the Stooges album without knowing who they were. I bought it based on the cover photograph because the band didn’t look like hippies at all. They looked like young thugs from my neighborhood and very familiar. Rarely played, the Crosby, Stills, and Nash album got sent to the margins of my collection. The Stooges album was played until the grooves were no longer apparent. The enemy was at the gates.