Top 10 Byrds Songs
The Byrds made their name as the best Bob Dylan cover band on the planet. But by the end of the ’60s, they were spearheading their own movements into jazzy psych-rock and twangy country-rock. The original celebrated quintet lasted only a couple of years. Before they finally called it quits in 1973, a dozen different musicians — including alt-country pioneer Gram Parsons — could put ‘The Byrds’ down on their résumés. The band’s frontman Roger McGuinn is the only member who played on their dozen albums, which includes everything from classic ’60s folk-rock (‘Mr. Tambourine Man’) to influential swerves into country (‘Sweetheart of the Rodeo’) to late-career stink bombs (the 1973 self-titled LP). Get ready to take flight with our list of the Top 10 Byrds Songs.
‘Chimes of Freedom’
It’s no secret that the Byrds were really, really into Dylan (keep reading for more on our list of the Top 10 Byrds Songs). Their 1965 debut album included four of his songs, including this ringing civil rights anthem. The key component to the band’s Dylan covers is their radio-friendly pop restructuring of his wordy and often complex folk songs. ‘Chimes of Freedom’ is a prime example.
‘5D (Fifth Dimension)’
The follow-up to the mind-melting Top 20 hit ‘Eight Miles High’ (see No. 2 on our list of the Top 10 Byrds Songs) was another another dose of whatever the Byrds were hitting in 1966. Roger McGuinn wrote the metaphysical lyrics (“Never hit bottom but keep falling through, just relaxed“), but Beach Boys cohort Van Dyke Parks supplies the kaleidoscopic keyboards.
‘All I Really Want to Do’
The Byrds covered Dylan better than anyone (see 50 percent of the tracks on our list of the Top 10 Byrds Songs), and this follow-up to ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ is one if their best. Dylan’s original version features acoustic guitar and harmonica; the Byrds add 12-string guitar, tambourine, a rolling bass line and glorious harmonies.
‘You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere’
Dylan’s original version of ‘You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere’ stems from the legendary Basement Tapes he made with the Band in 1967. He also recorded it for his second greatest-hits set in 1971, its first appearance on a Dylan record. The Byrds’ twangy version beats both by a mile. It’s the lead song on their pioneering country-rock album ‘Sweetheart of the Rodeo’ and their last great single.
‘My Back Pages’
The Byrds’ first album contained four Dylan covers. Their second had two. Their third had none. On their fourth album, they included one Dylan song over David Crosby‘s protestations. But this reflective cut is one of their best interpretations. Plus, the album’s title (‘Younger Than Yesterday’) is inspired by the song’s timeless refrain.
‘So You Want to Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star’
Word has it that McGuinn and bassist Chris Hillman wrote ‘So You Want to Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star’ after witnessing the Monkees’ sudden success. Whatever the case, the song (the band’s last single to chart in the 20s) drips with sarcasm and cynicism. The Byrds themselves were fracturing: singer Gene Clark left the previous year, and Crosby and drummer Michael Clarke would be gone before the next album was complete. Whether or not they know it, this song signals the split.
‘Turn! Turn! Turn!’
Following their No. 1 cover of Bob Dylan’s ‘Mr. Tambourine Man,’ the Byrds quickly returned to the studio to record their follow-up album. The lead single and title track adapted folksinger Pete Seeger’s interpretation of a song composed almost entirely of lyrics found in the Bible (“Book of Ecclesiastes” is even given co-writer credit). Like in ‘Mr. Tambourine Man,’ McGuinn’s jingle-jangle 12-string is heavenly.
‘I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better’
The only cut on our list of the Top 10 Byrds Songs sung by Gene Clark (who also wrote it), ‘I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better’ was originally released as the B-side to ‘All I Really Want to Do’ (and just missed the Top 100 on its own). Over the years, it’s become one of the band’s best-loved songs, thanks to Clark’s growing reputation and a spot-on cover version by Tom Petty. It features one of rock’s all-time greatest hooks, and it’s one of pop music’s biggest crimes that it wasn’t monster hit.
‘Eight Miles High’
The Byrds’ last Top 20 hit is as revolutionary as it is perplexing. Inspired by John Coltrane’s complex jazz pieces, as well as Ravi Shankar’s sitar explorations, ‘Eight Miles High’ takes rock ‘n’ roll to soaring, and tricky, heights. Plus, there’s the lyrical references, which may or may not be drug-related. It’s a wonder the song managed to get played on the radio in 1966. ‘Eight Miles High’ opened up brand new perspectives.
‘Mr. Tambourine Man’
How much better is the Byrds’ version of ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ than Bob Dylan’s original? For starters, they distill Dylan’s four verses to a compact single verse. They add one of the most defining guitar intros ever recorded. It immediately sounds like a pop hit (no surprise that it reached No. 1). And, frankly, McGuinn sings it better. The Dylan-covers thing eventually became a crutch for the Byrds, even after they moved on from them. But on their first hit, they totally owned the master.