50 Years Ago: The Byrds Avoid the Sophomore Slump on ‘Turn! Turn! Turn!’
In June 21, 1965, a band out of Southern California named the Byrds signaled the beginnings of the soon-to-be wildly popular folk-rock movement with its debut record Mr. Tambourine Man. Just a little bit under six months later, on Dec. 6, 1965 they furthered the cause and reached an even wider audience with the release of their seminal album Turn! Turn! Turn!
Comprised of six covers of folk songs -- including takes on Bob Dylan's “The Times They Are a-Changin'” and "Lay Down Your Weary Tune" -- and five originals, Turn! Turn! Turn! built on the sonic formula that the band had established on its first release by marrying gorgeous, multi-layered vocal harmonies with the signature sound of bandleader Roger McGuinn’s singing 12-string Rickenbacker guitar.
In an interview years after the fact, McGuinn revealed how he came upon the group’s era-defining chime. “The sound that I have on the electric 12-string came about because I played the five string banjo before I'd played the electric 12-string,” he explained. “I'd developed a number of rolling pick patterns that I applied to the electric 12-string. So if you listen to the rhythm work on say, "Turn! Turn! Turn!", you'll hear a rolling arpeggio pattern underneath. That's me playing the electric 12-string. Then I played the lead break on the G string going up and down the neck.”
The album’s title track and lead off single was actually a take on a Pete Seeger song from the '50s that the singer had built out of a passage from the Book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible. Shortly after debuting in October, the single took off like shot up the charts before finally taking over the top spot just two days before the full record went on sale. The song seemingly galvanized the burgeoning counter-culture youth movement in America who, at that moment, were just beginning to question those in positions of institutional authority and express opposition to an increase in America’s involvement in the war in Vietnam and the compulsory draft system.
Years later, David Crosby recalled what kind of impact the success of the song had on Seeger’s perception among the public at large. “'They used to do everything but burn crosses on my lawn for being a communist,'” Crosby remembered Seeger explaining in a contemporary letter to the band. “'Now they come around and ask for my autograph, and I just can't tell you how much good you've done me in this town, I really appreciate that. People like me again and I just really do appreciate that. You boys are wonderful boys.'"
Shortly after Turn! Turn! Turn! hit the record store shelves, the band went through the first of what would eventually become an array of lineup changes when its lead songwriter Gene Clark decided to leave through an amalgamation of jealousy, bad feelings over songwriting royalties and a fear of flying. Undeterred, the Byrds soldiered on and two months later re-entered the studio to begin work on their third record Fifth Dimension.
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