So much more to The Byrds than jangly guitars…

The recent release of McCartney III drew my attention to the often-used phrase “trilogy of albums” and initially got me thinking about it in terms of his solo efforts.

These records have appeared over a 50-year period and despite their titles, McCartney, McCartney II and McCartney III and method of production, they don’t particularly have anything thematically in common.

In other words, one can call them a “trilogy” (and many have), but they were never intended as such as part of a grand plan, they just happened.

Nothing wrong with that.

But it did turn my mind to the more traditional notion of a chronological trilogy, that is, records released consecutively and in a shorter space of time than over half a century.

Also, I’m thinking of albums which demonstrate a definite evolution of style.

Immediately I think of Bob Dylan’s immaculate hat-trick from 1965 – 1966.

Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde On Blonde take some beating as a selected trio.

A journey through acoustic folk-rock, electric blues, psychedelic rock… blah blah, whatever you want to call it.

But a journey nevertheless.

I do not suggest that Dylan himself was thinking about “trilogies” either, he was just making records, which when played back-to-back, show us one of the most important and epic artistic progressions of the twentieth century.

All the major players of this era were at it really, not least The Beatles themselves, pushing the boundaries each time a new disc was put out, but I believe Dylan’s output from this time is all the more remarkable because he is a solo artist.

To produce such an enormous catalogue of memorable material in so short a space of time on your own is nothing short of extraordinary.

Whisper it now – “that’s what geniuses do” – and yes, Bob Dylan is a genius, whether he likes it or not. I’m glad we’ve got that out of the way.

The stream of consciousness continued for me though and while I could (and will in future posts) examine any number of Dylan songs or albums, I then began to consider another run of three from a group most often associated with Bob and maybe considered less on their own merits.

To the wider world, The Byrds are forever going to be remembered for two things: Dylan covers and jangly guitars.

In essence, that’s not a bad general legacy and one I would personally have no problem with.

However, there’s so much more to this group than their electric cover of Mr Tambourine Man.

Ironically, legend has it that this, perhaps their most famous cut, doesn’t even feature all the band.

If you’re into the idea of a “three-album-journey”, you could do a lot worse than look at The Notorious Byrd Brothers, Sweetheart Of The Rodeo and Dr Byrds and Mr Hyde.

The latter, in particular, remains a vastly underrated affair and I’ve never understood why.

All three together are certainly a journey.

Psychedelic folk to psychedelic rock to… country via bluegrass to alt-country back to blues-inspired-rock to… WHAT? This is beginning to sound like label gibberish.

Because it is, really.

“Americana” I’ve heard it described as.

Ultimately, the shift in styles across these three albums, released during the turbulent tail-end of the 60s, defies categorisation and doesn’t really need it.

It’s a sonic journey.

It’s art.

And it’s hugely enjoyable.

As the music changes, so does the line-up in the group.

Roger McGuinn is a great musician and a hard-working songwriter.

He honed his craft in the 1960s, there’s no denying that.

I was lucky enough to attend a couple of his live shows in more recent years and they were a joy.

His stunning solo interpretation of Pete Seeger’s The Bells Of Rhymney remains an all-time favourite of mine, but I digress…

By 1967 The Byrds were an accomplished group of individuals – that’s the point.

Members of the band drifted in and out, coinciding with musical changes and none more startlingly obvious than when Gram Parsons appears on the scene.

We are then treated to Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, one of those records which, like The Velvet Underground And Nico, is an absolute monster in terms of influence, while barely scratching the surface of contemporary charts.

I think it made number 77 on Billboard and didn’t trouble the UK chart at all on release.

What we hear is a rock and roll group performing country songs too well for the country establishment and too well for the rock audience.

It exists in its own space, initially niche, but nevertheless a self-evident example of musical boundaries being smashed and expectations being defied.

Great art, in other words.

Ironic that the allure of rock and roll would wrench Parsons away from The Byrds all too soon and that his obsession with country was strong enough to filter directly into The Rolling Stones’ output of the period, without him ever being in that band AND that they would then have huge hits with the material.

And then there’s the Dr Byrds record.

Rockier in sound than the previous country album, but buoyed again by the emergence of Clarence White’s distinctive guitar sound.

The musician was tragically run over and killed in 1973.

His contribution to the sound of the electric guitar is priceless – no need for explanations, just listen to the album.

What a talent and what a loss.

I’ll look at these records and the people concerned with their creation in more detail, but for now I just wanted to highlight what I consider to be a “great trilogy” in terms of a journey, from a group more often associated with cover versions and the mid-60s pop charts.

They may have been eclipsed by bigger acts at the time, but their influence, in its own way, has lasted just as long.

Long may it continue.


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