Hey, it’s the 4th of July! A wonderful time to celebrate the good ‘ol US of A! Hangin’ out on the lawn! Eating corn and potato salad! Going to crappy pool parties with a bunch of obnoxious people you haven’t seen in years and never want to see again! Shootin’ off borderline illegal explosives that make pretty colors like blue and red! UNCLE SAM IS PROUD TODAY.
And since it’s America’s most glorious day among glorious days, I feel it’s a perfectly flimsy excuse to discuss one of America’s finest pop groups: The Byrds. Why the Byrds? Well, it’s simple – the Byrds are the one American band that have anything in common with those proud hot-headed American Revolutionaries back in the good ‘ol 1770s. Just think about it: where the American revolutionaries stole the British colonies from King Whoever, the Byrds stole British Invasion from the Beatles! Where America took those colonies and developed their own country, with their own customs and whatever, the Byrds took that British Invasion sound and shoved apple-pie Americans Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan in there creating a “revolution” called folk-rock! Where Thomas Paine wrote Common Sense to slander the British, Roger McGuinn wrote “So You Wanna Be a Rock ‘n Roll Star” which was probably a dig at the Stones or something! Where the Boston Tea Party dumped all that British tea in the Boston Harbor, the Byrds stole a truckful of promo-copy Rubber Soul vinyls and dumped them in the Los Angeles River along with Neil Young and the Hawks! (True story.)
Bottom line: the Byrds were just as important as Thomas Jefferson. If not more so.
Now the album. Most people who know me well know that I don’t like compilations – if I love a band enough, I feel like I owe it to them to check out their official albums rather than some tacky 5-buck best-of. But I am fond of singles collections, especially from 60’s bands who commonly released a slew of non-album singles (The Beatles’ Past Masters and the Who’s Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy come to mind), not to mention B-sides and various unreleased rarities. Byrds Greatest Hits, admittedly, is nothing more than a bunch of mid-sixties Byrds hits that can mostly (if not totally) be found on their best studio albums. But considering the quality of the songs here as well as the impeccable structure of the album (in chronological order from ’65 to ’67), it packs an all-encompassing punch every compilation strives for. Essentially, it’s a document of the peak years of one of the best American bands of the ’60s, with eleven classic songs. Tough to argue with that.
I don’t know. Maybe I have a personal bias. For one, Greatest Hits was my first exposure to the Byrds; back when I had a new record player and limitless access to my dad’s vinyl collection, Greatest Hits was one of my favorite little treasures. Besides Mr. Tambourine Man it’s still the only Byrds album I have. So while I’m hardly a Byrds expert, I feel that Greatest Hits does its job admirably – like the Beatles’ 1, it’s a collection of great songs that makes me want to hear more. Which I’m pretty certain is the goal of any decent compilation.
The song selection here is perfect. Yeah, there’s lots of covers, but I feel guilty even calling these songs “covers.” Anybody who accuses the Byrds of being sub-Dylan hacks aren’t getting the point – while they did cover lots of folk standards, they’d inject them with original guitar and vocal hooks, turning them from died-in-the-wool static melodies into gloriously arranged pop dazzlers. Case in point: the inimitable 12-string guitar riff in “Mr. Tambourine Man,” or the lovely new vocal bridge in “All I Really Wanna Do,” or (most famously) the completely reworked arrangement of Pete Seeger’s Bible adaptation “Turn! Turn! Turn!” During their peak, the Byrds had such an expansive, pretty sound that they could make any folk tune sound like a pop masterpiece. But while this set is dominated by covers (four Dylans, two Seegers), the five originals here are just as good if not better. “Eight Miles High” was the Byrds’ first major foray into psychedelia and one of the first of the genre to make it onto American radio; “Mr. Spaceman” is a cute little bouncy pop tune; “5D (Fifth Dimension)” is an absolutely cool folk-strummer that just gets prettier and prettier the more it builds; “So You Wanna Be A Rock ‘N Roll Star” is as pointed as rock satire could get from a 60’s pop band. And then there’s my personal favorite Byrds song, “I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better,” penned by the oft-unappreciated Gene Clark. Unlike the Byrds’ more serious efforts, “Feel A Whole Lot Better” is an effortless pop gem.
If you need a decent introduction to the Byrds, you can’t go wrong with this album. It gives you a little taste of their best era, before they jumped head-first into country-rock and endless jamming. It’s divided up perfectly: folk-rock on the A-side, psychedelia on the B-side (although you’ll find strands of both on each side). But hey, don’t take my word for it – Rolling Stone apparently liked it enough to throw it on their 500 Greatest Albums list. Obviously their word is much more important on this matter than my own (they did give Linkin Park four stars last year, after all).
But hey – let’s celebrate the Byrds like we celebrate America. ’cause who’s more fuckin’ American than the Byrds, I ask you? Who?? (Well, ok, the Byrds never wrote as song about putting our boot up the Arabs’ asses. Touche, Toby Keith, touche.)
Ah crap, forget it. It’s the 5th.