The Byrds’ 20 best songs

Famous fans and The Byrds themselves choose their greatest tracks

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8 DRAFT MORNING
From The Notorious Byrd Brothers (Jan 1968)
Hillman’s undulating bass and Crosby’s carefree lyric illustrate the divide between the hippydom of California and the escalating war in Vietnam.

JONATHAN WILSON: I have always loved “Draft Morning”: the production, the groove, the dulcet-toned vocals. The melody is gorgeous, but it’s the irreverent attitude and anti-war sentiment that holds your interest. The message is being wrapped in this mellow beauty. I first heard them when I was very young. My dad’s band played a few Byrds covers I heard growing up, so I probably knew who Roger McGuinn and David Crosby were before I could speak. When I listen to them, I hear the gap between The Everly Brothers and The Beach Boys, great harmony groups, and the psychedelic era of California bands like Love. I met David Crosby at his 70th birthday party and we sang together for the first time at the No Nukes concert in 2011. There’s just something larger than life about David – he lights up a room with his energy. I sang high harmony above Graham Nash on a folk song while Croz was in the wings. I said: “Jesus, man, I can’t believe I have to go out in front of 10,000 people and sing above Graham Nash, the greatest high harmony singer in the world.” Croz looked at me and said: “I used to, you can fucking do it!” I hit the parts, thank God – he yelled [encouragement] from the side stage. He’s a brilliant man and one of the coolest motherfuckers there’s ever been in the rock’n’roll game.

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7 I’LL FEEL A WHOLE LOT BETTER
From Mr Tambourine Man (June 1965). B-side of “All I Really Want To Do”, June 1965. UK chart: 4. US chart: 40
A classic that embodies the early Byrds sound: ringing Rickenbacker, tambourine and heady harmonies, with Gene Clark in his imperious pomp.

MIKAL CRONIN: The Byrds are one of those bands that just always seemed to be around. You’d hear their songs all the time and find out who performed them later. I really love “I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better”. It’s simple but has some interesting chord changes and vocal harmonies. I like how the harmonies build as the song progresses. They come in for the first time in the first chorus then continue. That’s a technique I’ve tried to incorporate in my own music. It’s a good trick to keep structurally simple songs interesting all the way through. The bassline is great in this track, too. In the third verse it seems that Hillman flubs a little bit. He hangs too long on the A before dropping down to the E with the rest of the band. I love it when bands leave in little ‘mistakes’ like this in recordings. I imagine them recording it live, the bass flubs in an otherwise great take, they look at each other, smile and keep jammin’.

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6 HICKORY WIND
From Sweetheart Of The Rodeo (August 1968)
Gram Parsons’ signature tune, with country greats Lloyd Green on pedal steel and John Hartford on fiddle, was a vivid evocation of Southern life, juxtaposed with the spiritual bankruptcy of wealth.

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EMMYLOU HARRIS: Working with Gram Parsons made me stop wanting to be a folk singer and get into country music. I suppose I was moving toward that when we were working together.  But with his death, I just felt I needed to continue doing whatever it was we were doing. It was still early on and I was finding my way. Fortunately, I hooked up with some great people who shepherded me through it. “Hickory Wind” is one of Gram’s most important songs, certainly one of the saddest and most beautiful. He was a country boy and that longing was a real deep part of that. You can hear it in even his most cryptic writing. Sweetheart Of The Rodeo is very important. Unfortunately, you don’t hear him on it unless you get the versions on the boxset, but he’s all over that record. He and Chris [Hillman] are the reasons that record happened. I came to an appreciation of that album late – because I’d been right to the well with Gram – but it changed a lot of things. So much came as a result of that record. And the songs are stunning. It was so far ahead of its time.

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