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Friday, 21 March 2014 10:00

'Eight Miles High': Top 20 songs by the Byrds

'Eight Miles High': Top 20 songs by the Byrds
Written by Rich Reese

The Byrds. They were called "The American Beatles" which is the equivalent of calling a young singer-songwriter "The New Bob Dylan." Just not fair. Knowing about the Byrds as long as I can remember, I always regarded that statement as a critic's way of saying, "These guys are good, really good."

Yeah, they are so good, and I like so many of their tracks that I knew it would be a battle to pick just 10 or 15 or 20.

I started with all the Byrds tracks that I have in my collection which is about 200+. I got rid of the duplicates that appear on various collections, then started listening to them all. I would then drift from my purpose and start singing along. "Could you turn that down just a tad?" my wife would ask. "Oh yeah, I'm working here," I mutter. "I'm putting together a list of my favorite Byrds songs."

So, I drop the one I was just singing into a playlist; "Byrds Faves" I've titled it. I get through them all and I open up the "Byrds Faves" playlist to see just how many "Faves" I have. I'm hoping there's somewhere in the neighborhood between 10 or 20. It would be great if it was 15! Fifteen, and, done! Well, I had 36 songs in there. That's three albums worth of favorites!

Great stuff though. Some songs folky, some totally rock, some have a hint of country twang, and some have that jazzy/Eastern stuff that McGuinn played around with for a while, or the Bach classical touches. They all were great to sing along with too, did I mention that? I kept thinking of how sweet these songs would sound performed live at Off Broadway by 12 St. Louis bands. My mind wanders when I listen to music. It wanders a lot. Also, I need to whittle this list down.

After some very difficult cuts, I have arrived at 20 Byrds tracks that at this moment in time are at the top of my list. See you at "Eight Miles High: A Tribute the Byrds" at Off Broadway on Friday, March 28. All proceeds from the show benefit KDHX, where I am proud to be a DJ.


1. "The Bells of Rhymney" (1965)

This is a song credited to Pete Seeger who used the words from the Welsh poet Idris Davies. The Byrds released it in 1965 on their debut album "Mr. Tambourine Man." It leaned heavily on their folk roots and featured those signature Byrd harmonies and Roger McGuinn's 12-string Rickenbacker guitar. I always delight in the cross-pollination between bands and eras; here's a great example. McGuinn saw George Harrison playing a Rickenbacker 360 12-string guitar in the film "A Hard Day's Night." He rushed right out and purchased one. A year after Harrison heard "The Bells of Rhymney," Harrison borrowed McGuinn's guitar riff for the song "If I Needed Someone," which appeared on the British release of "Rubber Soul."

2. "The Day Walk (Never Before)" (1965)

A Gene Clark composition with a great, funky bass line from the "Turn! Turn! Turn!" sessions. It was left off the record, their second, which was released in December of 1965. It eventually found release on reissues of the album some 20 years later.

3. "Eight Miles High" (1966)

The Byrds continued to evolve. In March of 1966 they released the driving single "Eight Miles High" which was co-written by Gene Clark, Roger McGuinn and David Crosby. The evolution of their sound included the influences of India, jazz and psychedelia. It also was the last single before Gene Clark's departure from the group.

4. "Goin' Back" (1967)

A song penned by Gerry Goffin and Carole King. The Byrds released it as a single in October of 1967 and on their LP, "The Notorious Byrd Brothers." Some very subtle country touches began to appear on this slow reflective track. The evolution toward country would soon become much more pronounced. David Crosby was fired from the Byrds in October 1967 (among other reasons for the dismissal, he opposed the recording of "Goin' Back"), so the core lineup for this song is: Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman, with Jim Gordon replacing Michael Clarke on drums, and with a likely harmony vocal from Gene Clark.

5. "Have You Seen Her Face" (1967)

"Have You Seen Her Face," written by Chris Hillman, perfectly blends folk and rock. A template you might say. You can still hear the harmonies of the Limeliters and the Chad Mitchell Trio. That folk is infused with a driving rock 'n' roll beat and features a sublime Indian-tinged guitar solo by Roger McGuinn. It was 1967 when this was released as a single (also appearing on the LP, "Younger Than Yesterday"); at that time, McGuinn and Crosby were both immersing themselves deeply in Indian culture and the music of Ravi Shankar.

6. "Here Without You" (1965)

It may sound a bit cliché, but I don't know what else to call a haunting ballad, other than, a haunting ballad. Exquisite harmonies and a soaring chorus that is impossible not to sing along with. It was written by a 19-year-old Gene Clark and eventually issued on "Mr. Tambourine Man."

7. "Feel A Whole Lot Better" (1965)

Another Gene Clark-penned song, this was the first hit written by a Byrd. Up until the time this was released, the band was best known for covers of Dylan and Pete Seeger. Clark had learned plenty from Dylan's songwriting. It would not have been, lyrically, out of place on a Dylan record of the day. If "chiming 12-string guitar" wasn't coined by listening to the Byrds, it should have been. Guitar solo in "Feel a Whole Lot Better" is all the evidence you need. It was the B-side to a single in 1965 and also on "Mr. Tambourine Man" from that same year.

8. "It Won't Be Wrong" (1966)

This is a song co-written by Harvey Gerst and Roger McGuinn which went through many incarnations. It was a minor hit when released as a single in 1966. It was also included on "Turn! Turn! Turn!" in '65. Nice time changes.

9. "It's No Use" (1965)

Make no mistake. Roger McGuinn was a guitar hero. He played that 12-string like nobody else had. Perhaps it was the banjo finger-picking, mixed with Chuck Berry and Steve Cropper, but what he did was not easily replicated. "It's No Use" co-witten by Clark and McGuinn, is from the 1965 "Mr. Tambourine Man" album and is an excellent example of his guitar expertise.

10. "Mr. Tambourine Man" (1964)

Written by Bob Dylan but played with a different time signature. A rock 'n' roll time signature. Released in April of '65 it went straight to the top of the U.S. and U.K. charts. As rock critic Richie Unterberger stated in regard to the whole "Mr. Tambourine Man" album, "One of the greatest debuts in the history of rock, 'Mr. Tambourine Man' was nothing less than a significant step in the evolution of rock & roll itself, demonstrating that intelligent lyrical content could be wedded to compelling electric guitar riffs and a solid backbeat."

11. "My Back Pages" (1967)

Another of the many Dylan covers knocked off by the Byrds. Well, I shouldn't say "knocked off," more like "mastered." They were able to trim off enough of the lyrics to make the songs more radio friendly, yet still retain the songs' meaning. This one appeared in 1967 on "Younger Than Yesterday" and made it into the top 40 when released as a single that same year.

12. "Please Let Me Love You" (1964)

An early Clark/McGuinn-penned tune released as a single in October of 1964 under the name the Beefeaters. It drew quite heavily on the music of the British Invasion, specifically the Beatles.

13. "She Don't Care About Time" (1965)

Gene Clark wrote the flip side to "Turn! Turn! Turn!," one of the many Byrds songs where it all came together perfectly: Great Gene Clark vocal with beautiful harmonies, stellar drum fills, fuzzed bass-line, chiming McGuinn guitar all incorporated into a driving rhythm.

14. "She Has a Way"

"She Has a Way" reminds us that the Byrds came from a folk tradition. It wasn't too long before this that David Crosby was trying to figure out how to hold his Gretch electric guitar. Not unusual to hear them leaning on those folk roots. This is yet another fine, early Gene Clark composition. It was recorded for (but left off of) "Mr. Tambourine Man"; it would eventually be released on Rhino's "…In The Beginning" album.

15. "The Times They Are A-Changing" (1965)

One of my favorite of all the Byrds' Dylan covers. There's a funky quality to it that bubbles under the surface. From the "Turn! Turn! Turn!" album released in 1965.

16. "Tomorrow Is a Long Ways Away"

Another early track which would wait until the early '80s to see release. Melancholy and dense it bears hints of the Beatles, the Hollies and the Zombies. The mark of many a great band can be determined by what is left on the cutting-room floor.

17. "Turn! Turn! Turn!" (1965)

Lots of folks had a hand in this one. Pete Seeger adapted some of the words from the Bible and added to them. He recorded a version in 1962. Roger (Jim) McGuinn played guitar on the Limeliters' version, which actually predated Seeger's version. A couple years later McGuinn was backing Judy Collins who used his new arrangement. Then, when with the Byrds, McGuinn suggested it to his new bandmates. It became their third single and the title track to their second record. The single struck a chord with its Pete Seeger-written-line about a time for peace not being too late. It would reach #17 on the charts.

18. "Why?" (1966)

This is the 1966 flipside of "Eight Miles High." More Coltrane-influenced McGuinn soloing laid down over a rocking beat. The first song on the list from 1966's "Fifth Dimension." Folk meets Coltrane meets Bo Diddley meets Hollies.

19. "You Movin'"

This is another early track which was written for the Byrds' live shows. The recording captures their high energy. Penned by Gene Clark.

20. "You Won't Have to Cry"

I seem to lean toward these early tracks by the Byrds. This one is exceptional. Written by Clark and McGuinn it features the fantastic trio singing of Clark, McGuinn and David Crosby. Also leans toward the British Invasion sounds of the day.

You may notice that there's nothing in this list beyond 1968 and the Notorious Byrd Brothers release. It's not that I didn't like the county-rock direction the Byrds were heading in; I just didn't like it as much as these 20. Now if I did my top 40, there would be plenty of Gram Parsons and Gene Parsons and Clarence White and Skip Battin and the others, but let's just say that's another list.

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