In the spring of 1965 the American record buying public was in thrall to the British Beat. In April & May there were #1 records for Herman’s Hermits (twice !), Freddie & the Dreamers, Wayne Fontana & the Mindbenders &, of course, the Beatles. I know… the Stones, the Who & the Kinks were only just getting started. England was swinging like a pendulum do while the US of A didn’t yet know what time it was. In June there was a Motown led comeback. The Supremes had, wonderfully, their 5th successive chart-topper. That 4 Tops’ Sugar Pie & Honeybunch combination proved irresistible …still does. The Beach Boys were around too with their great songs about cars & girls & surfing. They were in that striped shirt phase, between the plaid Pendletons & the Good Vibrations.Well groomed young men, clean cut music. In the first week of July “Mr Tambourine Man” by the Byrds marked America’s coming to terms with the new Mod squad which had so entranced the youth. The first US group with hair over their ears to have a #1 hit.
It was a simple plan quite beautifully executed. Bob Dylan, the folk singer,that’s the man, had “gone electric” earlier in 1965, an act of treason according to the keepers of folk’s traditional beards. You know. old people, like over-25s. Me, I was a new teenager when I bought my first Dylan LP. “Another Side of …” may have been an acoustic record but we knew that the 23 year old was writing rock & roll songs. John Lennon’s “I’m A Loser”, on “Beatles For Sale” showed the influence he was already having on pop music. “Mr Tambourine Man” is from the “folk” side of “Bringing It All Back Home”. The addition of a 12-string Rickenbacker jangle & some harmony vocals, the cutting of 3 of the 4 poetic verses, made for an instant pop classic. On the Byrds debut LP producer Terry Melcher applied this formula to 4 Dylan tunes &, I guess, invented folk-rock. They helped to make a quality record.
Master publicist Derek Taylor attempted to manoeuvre the Byrds into the centre of Los Angeles/Hollywood cool but these were different days. The group were quickly swept up by the “America’s Beatles” tag. They were teen idols, smiling their way through TV appearances & photo shoots. Guitarist Jim McGuinn wore his “granny” glasses, David Crosby had his cape. Blonde drummer, Michael Clarke was the best Brian Jones lookalike in the country while bassist Chris Hillman’s straightened moptop still makes me laugh. Another Dylan song “All I Really Want To Do” was chosen as the follow up despite Cher’s version having a head start. Ms Sarkisian had probably pinched the Dylan cover idea but she had the biggest hit. Maybe the Byrds should have gone with this B-side because it does kinda rock.
Gene Clark was the other singer in the group. He was a songwriter too. There were 5 of his songs on that debut LP. “I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better” ,well, as the song goes “probably”, shows that the Byrds did not rely exclusively on Dylan for a folk foundation to their rocking music. “Feel…” became another classic tune. The Flamin’ Groovies & Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers both recorded good, respectful covers, versions that will get you singing along, that aim for but just don’t hit that Spirit of 1965 bullseye. However Jim sang lead on the Dylan songs & on the title track of the follow up, Pete Seeger’s folk anthem “Turn, Turn,Turn”, another #1 hit. Jim took centre stage among the frantically frugging go-go girls, in front of the screaming fans, while Gene was out on the side, the tambourine man.
“Turn, Turn, Turn” included 2 more Dylan covers & 3 songs by Clark. The Beatle-y “She Don’t Care About Time” made only the B-side of the”Turn…” 45, not the LP. “Set You Free This Time” was the Byrds first single of 1966 & it failed to reach the Top 50. Within a month Columbia were promoting the flipside, “It Won’t Be Wrong”, a McGuinn song. Gene wrote songs about a sad & beautiful world, gentle, poignant things that added substance to the group’s LPs. It seemed, & was perhaps confirmed over the next decade, that his individual voice & talent did not appeal to a mass audience.
It was around this time that the Byrds finally got paid for their success. Young men who, 18 months earlier, were just glad to hear their record on the radio learned some things about the music business. Gene wrote the songs & he was the guy arriving at the studio in a red Ferrari. Both McGuinn & Crosby were beginning to assert their own strong personalities & to find the pop treadmill a little old. Check the clip for that single, David in Jim’s glasses & Jim in the cape ! They were both beginning to write songs of their own too. It could have been jealousy which kept Clark’s songs off the LP, it could have been that there were just too many songs. Whatever, by the end of February 1966 Gene Clark was out of the Byrds. The authorised version was that his Pteromerhanophobia made travel too difficult. I didn’t buy that as a 13 year old kid & I don’t believe it now.
Gene went off & played a major part in inventing country rock. He & Doug Dillard’s “The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard & Clark” is a triumph. The now 4 piece Byrds knew that change was needed if they were to avoid the built-in obsolescence of pop. “Fifth Dimension” was released in July 1966, the band were more involved in the writing & there were no Dylan covers. The LP covers a range of styles, folk, country. space rock, raga rock (gotta have a label). The pivotal song was written mostly by Gene on the group’s 1965 UK tour (where the press battered the Byrds for even presuming any comparison to our Fab Four). “Eight Miles High” moved folk-rock forward towards psychedelia, got itself banned on the radio & moved the Byrds into a new musical chapter.