Monday, October 19, 2015

If You're Only Going to Buy One Greatest Hits Set From... The Byrds

The Byrds were the first folk-rock act to hit the big time – their first #1 hit, “Mr. Tambourine Man” (written by Bob Dylan, which gave it some cachet among folk purists) hit the top in late June of 1965, a full six months before Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence.”  The good news is The Byrds were quite talented on their own, with two good songwriters to start with (Gene Clark and Jim McGuinn, who would change his name to Roger a couple of years later) and two that developed over time (David Crosby and Chris Hillman).  (Drummer Michael Clarke was not a songwriter; he was primarily recruited for his resemblance to Rolling Stone Brian Jones.)  The bad news is they self-destructed pretty quickly – Clark bailed out after two albums, Crosby was bounced a year after that, and Hillman split after their foray into a more pure country sound, Sweetheart of the Rodeo.  McGuinn carried on for a long time after that with a variety of musicians, but they put out so much product over that time (eleven studio albums over five and a half years?) that the name wound up being sullied.  After a half-hearted reunion of the original five members in 1973, the group stayed apart almost for good (more on that later).

With the exceptions of some early recordings released under various titles and the 1973 album Byrds, all of their recordings were for Columbia.  That means getting a good greatest hits set isn’t a problem – and compilations are probably preferable to all but two or three of the studio albums.  Of course, it also means there are a lot of hits sets out there, so finding the right one can be a challenge.

Here's my choice, and it's kind of an odd one:

The band’s output consists of five albums with most of the original group, five albums with McGuinn and a bunch of other guys, and Sweethearts of the Rodeo, which sounded like nothing that came before or after.  This is the only single-disk set that contains everything great from the first half of their career and everything that’s worth having afterward.  The bad news:  it contains nothing from Sweetheart of the Rodeo (possibly because the box set contained songs from that album as originally recorded with Gram Parsons singing lead, and no doubt Columbia wanted buyers to drop a bigger chunk of change on that), and three meh songs from a short reunion between McGuinn, Crosby, and Hillman in 1990 (to establish claim to the name over Clark and Michael Clarke, who had both toured in recent years with ersatz bands billed under the Byrds name).

This brings up another side issue - I'm not altogether sure why these reunion tracks were billed as "The Byrds" but no songs from the 1979-1980 McGuinn, Clark, and Hillman experiment are on any of these greatest hits sets.  Just guessing, but I would say it's any or all of the following three reasons: 1) McGuinn and Crosby agreed at the time not to call the band The Byrds because all five weren't involved, and stuck to it, 2) McG, C & H albums were on Capitol, so Columbia didn't want to lease any of the music, 3) they're not very good.

Getting back to this CD, I do like the price ($9.99 for the download on Amazon, but I saw it tonight for $5.99 at Best Buy), so I’m willing to overlook these flaws – if you’re desperate for the Sweetheart of the Rodeo stuff, look (and be ready to pay more) for The Essential Byrds or buy this and the actual Sweetheart album.

Here’s the rest, in chronological order (links are to the Wikipedia listings):
  • The Byrds Greatest Hits (1967) – The first greatest hits set with all the classic songs, and if you’re in your late 40s or older, the one you most likely already own.  Columbia deserves a bit of credit for adding three Gene Clark songs to the compilation, but at $11.99 for 14 songs it’s not much of a bargain.
  • Preflyte/In the Beginning/The Preflyte Sessions (1969 and onward) – a pile of tracks recorded before the band was signed by Columbia (they had gone under the names The Jet Set and The Beefeaters), which I’ve crunched into one listing.  Some of the material eventually showed up on official albums, but not all.  Reviews have been quite kind on the whole, and since In the Beginning was a Rhino release (they’re usually very careful about making sure their releases are no less than decent), they might be worth checking out.  That said, these are not the hit versions, and in some cases the record labels are minor.  

  • The Best of The Byrds: Greatest Hits, Volume II (1972) – If you ever wondered if a record label would dare release a greatest hits set without any actual, you know, hits (three charted singles here from Sweetheart of the Rodeo and beyond, none of which made it higher than #65), your answer is right here.  Inexplicably still in print and available for download; you’re better off getting these songs as part of a full-career compilation.

  • The Byrds Play Dylan (1979) – Not a hits set, but a compilation of Dylan covers.  The 1982 version had 13 songs and a hideous cover; the 2002 rerelease has 20 songs (so you can have the studio and live versions of “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Chimes of Freedom” – joy!) and a slightly less hideous cover.  At least it’s only $8.99 for the download.

  • The Original Singles: 1965-1967, Volume 1 (1980) – Man, Columbia had some lousy cover designs in this era.  16 songs, obviously from the McGuinn/Crosby/Hillman/sometimes Clark years.  A decent enough selection for an $8.99 download, but I’ve been warned the CD version sounds pretty lousy.  Volume 2 (songs from 1967-1969) was released only in Europe, and there was never a Volume 3 (it would have been much like Greatest Hits, Volume II listed above).

  • The Byrds (box set) (1990) – I bought this in 1998 because I somehow felt it was out of print and would stay that way, and, well, I wish I hadn’t been so anxious.  There’s nothing bad about the music – it’s got a pile of alternate takes, the aforementioned Gram Parsons lead vocals from Sweetheart of the Rodeo, the 1990 reunion songs (including a live version of “Mr. Tambourine Man” with Dylan), and it sounds fine.  That said, anything written by Gene Clark that wasn’t a hit is omitted (probably because of the legal battles at the time between Clark & Clarke and the other three), and there’s nothing from the Preflyte years or the 1973 bomb Byrds.  Finally, whoever designed the booklet really needs a good talking to – probably to save money, the text is printed in three colors (cyan, magenta, black), which saves almost no money and resulted in a bunch of pictures being done as faux duotones, plus a text design that looks like I did it (I’m not a designer).  20 Essential Tracks is taken in its entirety from this 90-track release.
  • Super Hits (1998) – Super Cheap would be a better description – it’s one of the two least expensive downloads on Amazon.  10 songs, and poorly selected (“America’s Great National Pastime” is included, but not “All I Really Want to Do”?).  Avoid unless there are no alternatives.
  • The Essential Byrds (2003) – Sony’s “Essential” series is generally pretty solid, and this is no exception – 33 songs over two disks, only eight of which came from after Sweetheart of the Rodeo.  The bad news:  a $16.99 download price.  Try to get Version 3.0 (which contains a third disk with six additional songs and a cardboard sleeve instead of a jewel box) or, better still, the British version (which I don’t think we can download here in the States, but I could be wrong), which has 45 songs.
  • There Is a Season (2006) – Apparently somebody at Columbia decided they needed a do-over on box sets, so here’s the second four-disk box from the band.  This one includes Jet Set and Beefeaters songs, plus two Gene Clark songs from the 1973 Byrds misfire, and the songs he wrote are more represented on the first couple of disks.  The bad news is there are few alternate takes and rarities.  This was intended to replace the first box set, but they’re both available for download (and this one is seven dollars more for nine more songs).
  • Playlist: The Best of The Byrds (2008) – Somewhat better than Super Hits for the same $7.99 price, although not by much.  14 songs, with the same questionable selections (“Spanish Harlem Incident”?).  There are better options.

There aren’t many solo compilations from the band members – Gene Clark could certainly use one (although it might be hard to pull that off because he was with a bunch of labels), and so could Roger McGuinn (easier, since most of his solo albums were with Columbia or Arista, which are both under the Sony banner).  Chris Hillman’s Desert Rose Band released a greatest hits set in 1992, but that’s hardly representative of his entire career.  Many of Gram Parsons’ solo recordings are on The Complete Reprise Sessions (2006) from the always-reliable Rhino, although my one-disk version of GP/Grievous Angel should be fine for most (and neither contains anything from his Flying Burrito Brothers days).  As for Michael Clarke, I’m sure there’s a Firefall greatest hits set out there somewhere. 

The one exception to this rule is David Crosby, which should be no surprise since he’s had the most successful and varied solo career (with several well-publicized detours, of course).  Voyage, from 2006, contains 51 songs (granted, only three are from the Byrds, but given he was only starting to write songs late in his tenure with the band, that’s no surprise), including a wide variety of solo, CSN, CSNY, and Crosby & Nash songs, plus a few from the band he headed with his son James Raymond as CPR.  Throw in a disk of unreleased material, and for an $18.99 download cost, it’s really worthwhile.


  1. I've got "The Essential Byrds" and think it's pretty great. Wish I had the UK version!

    All this writing and not even a sentence about The Wrecking Crew, who provided a majority of the backing music for the early Byrds work. They deserve a mention.

    Think you sell McGuinn, Clark & Hillman too cheaply. I've got that first reunion album and it's shallow but loaded with hooks. I actually listened to it on YouTube a couple months back and the sound was dated but the melodies and harmonies still solid. Didn't get the second one, no knowledge.

  2. You're right; I was thinking about The Wrecking Crew before writing this and then forgot to put them in. Wikipedia only mentions them as being on two tracks on the first album, but I wouldn't be surprised if there are more. Clarke was never an awesome drummer, and Hillman was relatively new to bass (although he's likely the most talented musician out of the original five).

    As for McGuinn, Clark & Hillman, I have that first album on vinyl (only got it about ten years ago), but I haven't heard in a long time. It has a lot of similarities to Firefall at their peak (same producers for the McG, C & H album and Firefall's Elan). Other than Don't You Write Her Off, it's very soft rock (Backstage Pass, Surrender to Me).

    There's a pretty good website, now on Waybac, that tells the tale of that band (as well as previous and subsequent Byrds doings):

    1. According to the movie (and Dave McGowan's book, which I gave you), it was pretty much The Wrecking Crew + McGuinn on the first couple recorded albums, while the other real Byrds played live. They all learned their instruments, but once they did, some guys chaffed and went out on their own and McGuinn increasingly took over. But the other Byrds had talent and Gene Clark was apparently a pretty good songwriter.

      The McGuinn, Clark & Hillman album is def late 70s mellow and the production is painfully dated, but I'll stand by the songs. Moreso than the guy from the link you shared, which was informative and helpful nevertheless. I do recall the album's harmonies being background singers, not the titular bandsmen, and McGuinn's signature ringing guitar is completely absent, so I guess it's both the production and the arrangements that suck. But I still think there are strong songs on that album, if poorly executed. If you've got it, give it a listen and LMK!

      You should def watch "The Wrecking Crew." Might be on Netflix. And have you done an entry for CSN(Y) yet?