I love this piece of rock writing so I’m reproducing it here. It portrays both the glamour and the squalor of 1960s London. It reminds me of a factual version of the film Withnail and I, but it’s the story of a music-loving kid rather than a couple of unemployed actors. The article makes reference to the tragedies which befell the author’s family. Wikipedia says these included the deaths of his father (fatal heart attack, late 50s), brother (drowned), sister (fatal brain haemorrhage) and mother (emaciation), among other fatalities. It reinforces my view that when extremely bad shit goes down in your life, the music will get you through.
Please advise me of any errors, I OCRed this from the remarkably error-filled sample pages of the book on Amazon.com. It makes me glad I got the hardcover rather than the Kindle edition.
The Ghost of Electricity Revisited
by Johnny Rogan
(Preface to Requiem for the Timeless Volume 1)
CURIOUS readers have often asked me why I became so immersed in the saga of the Byrds. Americans have additionally wondered what it must have been like to experience California’s answer to the Beatles at a time when all things British seemed unassailable. Usually, I respond with references to changing cultural trends in popular music, but that is an academic's answer. The truth is at once more simple and more complicated. Recalling the origins of the Byrds' phenomenon takes me back to a time just before I was a teenager. Treasured memories are sometimes tarnished, if not eroded, by passing decades until only the basic outlines remain. The intensity of the detail is lost as new experiences crowd the mind leaving only an overfamiliar, emasculated litany of events. But event can be transformed into myth and memory maintained through mental exercise. Even today, I still think about that time. Walking the streets at three or four in the morning, as is my wont, my mind commutes back to that period, as it has always done. At such moments, songs, feelings and experiences are regrounded firmly in the present. To this day, I can tell you every number 1 single of 1965 in chronological order, complete with label details and other minutiae, but this is no mnemonic party trick but something closer to an act of emotional catharsis, almost as if the recordings and events are happening in real time. It is a mysterious process and, somehow, the Byrds are at the centre of it. This is where it all began.
1965 was a fascinating year whose unfolding drama I can effortlessly conjure partly thanks to the exceptional number of superb singles that were released on an almost weekly basis. The Beatles and the Rolling stones were in full blossom, carving up the charts with a series of number 1 hits, every one of them a classic: ‘I Feel Fine’, ‘Ticket To Ride’, ‘The Last Time’, ‘Help!', ‘(I can't Get No) satisfaction’, ‘Get off of My Cloud’, ‘We can work It Out’/'Day Tripper.’ In any other year, such a treasure trove of singles from the UK's top two groups would have been reason enough to inspire a young kid to devote his forthcoming teenage life to all things pop. The fact that there were equally great releases on offer from such acts as the Kinks, the Animals, the Who and the Yardbirds testified to a pop renaissance, whose profound influence is still felt decades on.
What was most gratifying about that time was the strong sense of democracy in pop. This was an era when pre-teens, teenagers and young adults could appreciate pop music that was not aggressively marketed for their benefit only. Easy-listening balladeers, thumping beat merchants, R&B shouters and aspiring protest singers could appear alongside each other on Top Of The Pops without the audience feeling any sense of incongruity. This lack of snobbishness was marvellous to behold and would soon be lost as pop music became deconstructed and classified into convenient categories and target groups for advertisers, marketing departments and counterculture chancers.
Post-punk feminist critics have often casually dismissed mid-Sixties pop as a barren ground for women, but such a sweeping assertion ignores the startling number of female artistes that congregated in the charts during that remarkable year of 1965. In the first few months alone, the list included Cilla Black, Dusty Springﬁeld, Sandie Shaw, Petula Clark, Lulu, Twinkle, Francoise Hardy, Marianne Faithfull, Keely smith and Jackie Trent. Indeed, it could be argued that female performers had never been better represented.
Back then, I still had the enviable ability to appreciate the momentous in the moment with a passion and sense of wonder that is always freshest in an impressionable young mind. Spoiled by the sheer number of brilliant singles, I assumed that the proliferation of pop groups and increasingly interesting records would carry on forever. Every week there was something new to discover as the tideof hits, ravenously demanded by record companies, seemed unstoppable. Great pop is best captured amid a feeling of temporal dislocation—an intense absorption in the moment, reinforced by the feeling that the instant is of such significance that it will later be recalled with similar and, possibly even greater, intensity. In late March, I heard a new single, so unusual in its vocal execution and literacy that it caused a shiver of excitement. The pop press had belatedly discovered Bob Dylan, the newly-dubbed ‘king of folk’, whose ‘The Times They Are A-Changin" was heading towards the Top 10. soon after, it was joined by the contrasting ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’, whose amphetamine-fuelled lyrics were sung at a blistering speed that made you marvel at the ingenuity of the performance.
The arrival of Bob Dylan in Britain that year transformed the pop landscape. His presence affected everybody on the scene and even reached a pre-teen like me. suddenly, there was the realization that pop was not only entertaining and exciting, but erudite too. From March through to the summer, I was keenly aware of an intense feeling of anticipation that something important was about to happen. It was almost tangible. Subconsciously, perhaps, I was awaiting the emergence of a group that I could call my own, whose presence might capture my time as effectively as the Beatles had galvanized the lives of my close elders two years before. Back then, I had watched the Fab Four phenomenon with intense fascination and considerable excitement but always, it seemed, ever so slightly from the outside. They would always be my second favourite group. when Jim McGuinn later explained that there was a gap in the musical spectrum somewhere between the Beatles and Bob Dylan, that was precisely where my heart secretly lay.
While growing up in Pimlico, in the city of Westminster, the swinging sixties were swirling all around me, but that world existed largely in the minds of glossy magazine writers rather than in the daily lives of ordinary people. For all the superﬁcial glitz, London in 1965 was still a city attuned to the austerity of the Fifties. What was left of my death ravaged family lived in rented rooms in a street opposite Dolphin Square, a world famous luxury block populated by actors, pop stars, politicians, doctors, minor royals and privileged professionals. Super vigilant nocturnalists might even have spotted Phil Spector there on his London visit the previous year, but you were more likely to see former pop idol turned variety star Craig Douglas, or the perfectly enunciated Eurovision presenter and Camay soap beauty, Katie Boyle. The opulence of Dolphin Square, with its beautiful gardens, fountain, swimming pool, squash court and enticingly labyrinthine basements, provided the perfect playground for illegal outsiders who knew its secret entrances and exits. Those sociologists who spoke of a new egalitarianism would have found Pimlico a classic case of the wealthy and the needy living almost next door to each other in a continual culture clash. Across the road from Dolphin Square, I dreamed not only of the Beatles and Bob Dylan, but of the wonders of electricity. Our rooms were entirely lit by gaslight, just like you see in Victorian melodramas. The communal hall, always atmospheric, had no light at all and getting around the place meant holding candles or learning to see in the dark. The city was not yet a smokeless zone, so heating came from coal fires and burnt wooden fruit crates taken from the greengrocers and chopped up with a hatchet. Removing ashes from the grate and emptying the urine-ﬁlled chamber pot were usually the first tasks of the day. There was no private toilet or bathroom.
Bizarrely, light entertainment was offered courtesy of cable radio, a system that required neither electricity nor batteries, but was pumped through from the local British Relay in Moreton street. The set stood in the kitchen, with a switch offering only two channels: the Light Programme and the Home Service. Visualizing the room, I can see a second-hand Queen Ann chair, a marble table for baking and pencilling, a pre-War coal-black iron oven, a Butler sink with a single cold water tap underneath which is a bucket lined with one-inch of disinfectant mixed with water for lavatorial use. On a fading green linoleum floor, the smile of Wayne Fontana beams from the front page of issue 945 of the New Musical Express, while a coal fire burns, its flames competing with an adjacent gaslight, whose eroding mantle leaks a peek-a-boo blue-and-orange flame. There is a food cupboard, or ‘press' as we call it, on top of which lies a never-to-be-opened packet of pretzels, itself part of a package of dangerously exotic American food that had been presented to the poor of Pimlico several years before following a glorious kids' party at the US Embassy in Grosvenor Square, during which a number of my fellow supposedly underprivileged tykes tore down the Stars And Stripes flag.
On reflection, this kitchen scene sounds like some post-modern urban fantasy, in which wildly contrasting cultural artefacts have collided to create an almost Orwellian setting. While Victorian gaslight bathed the room in its eerie glow, the strangely futuristic cable radio offered state sanctioned music played on shows whose very titles, Housewives' Choice and Workers' Playtime, betrayed the lingering, benign condescension of a broadcasting company that still prided itself on knowing what was best. The Home Service spoke reverentially of Winston Churchill, a far from popular figure in our household, whose funeral had recently taken place at nearby Westminster Abbey. It was one afternoon in this austere, storybook house that I first learned of the Byrds.
On Wednesday, 2 June 1965, I came home at lunchtime from school, ate two chocolate biscuits with a saucepan-heated milky coffee—my sole culinary skill as a 12-year-old—and opened the pages of that week's New Musical Express, which I had been religiously purchasing since the start of the year. Sandie Shaw was at number 1 with 'Long Live Love', but the Top 10 resembled a chart from another era, one that I still treasured as some kind of lost golden age. The two highest climbers were the Everly Brothers' ‘The Price Of Love' and Elvis Presley's 'Crying In The Chapel' and it seemed to me at that time-bending moment that we might be about to witness some kind of Fifties' revival. That, in itself, was terribly exciting, akin to a science fiction fantasy. The NME even allowed you to project yourself, as if by magic, into another time zone by printing weekly charts from five and ten years ago. Spookily, the Everlys were top this same week in 1960 with ‘Cathy's Clown', and I remembered that song with great fondness—even my brother and sister were alive and well back then. Maybe if I concentrated enough I could mentally travel back into that time of innocence and wonder.
However, it was the 1955 chart that proved most perplexing. Many of the song titles and performers prompted no immediate recognition whatsoever, but surely they had to be there buried deep in my subconscious. Perhaps if I concentrated enough I could bring them back. How could 'Give Me Your Word' by Tennessee Ernie (Ford) be number 1 for so long (seven weeks) without me being able even to hum the tune? Why weren't old pop hits ever played on the radio? I was amazed to see three versions of 'Unchained Melody' in the 1955 Top 10, including a rendition by someone called Les Baxter who, it would later transpire, was a bit player in the David Crosby story. Remarkably, a tune titled 'Cherry Pink' was both number 1 and 2 and there were also two versions of 'Stranger In Paradise' in the Top 10. All this conjured up visions of a deeply deprived pop culture wherein there were only a limited number of songs, most of which seemed to hang around the upper regions of the charts forever. Slim Whitman's 'Rose Marie' reigned at the top in 1955 for 11 consecutive weeks. I concluded that all this was a musical equivalent of post-war rationing. We now lived in different times, albeit without electricity, bath or toilet, and still grateful for the second-hand clothes bought from the stalls of Chapel Street market, off the Edgware Road. But Dylan was correct to proclaim that the times were changing.
The year 1965 was all about movement and rapid change, but it was salutary to consider that, a mere decade before, pop music had been rationed like bacon and eggs, and the world revolved at around 16 rpm. Ending this reverie about passing time which the NME had unintentionally inspired, my eyes lowered to scan the 'Round The World' charts, an entertaining interlude which offered the opportunity to marvel at the eccentricities of other nations: Denmark had the Beatles' Rock And Roll Music' at number 1; the theme from Zorba The Greek was top in the Lebanon, where former chart star Brenda Lee was challenging in second place; Bermuda's biggest hits this week featured such obscure names as Billy Stewart, Lou Johnson and Gene Chandler, all singing songs I would never hear. Alas, this procession of featured nations varied weekly, but I assumed Kathy Kirby's 'I Belong' (again unheard) was probably still top in Israel and the Ventures were no doubt dominant in Japan, having bagged the top two positions the week before. Of course, all this proved that the only thing that mattered chart wise was NME and maybe Billboard – the rest of the world existed in a bizarre musical dimension beyond reason or imagination.
Seeking affirmation of this unholy notion, I scanned the listing of the 'Best Selling LPs in Britain' and took a kid's delight in the fact that my current hero, the newly lauded Bob Dylan, was holding off the irredeemably square The Sound Of Music soundtrack from the number 1 spot with his ultra hip Bringing It All Back Home. As always, I concluded my chart check by browsing through the 'Best Selling Pop Records In US', published courtesy of Billboard'. Bermuda, Japan and the Lebanon were all there for my xenophobic amusement, but America was always important and intriguing, as it sometimes provided accurate glimpses into the future. Admittedly, it overstated the chart potential of various Tamla Motown releases relative to the UK and made acts like Gary Lewis & The Playboys false gods, whom we disdainfully rejected. That said, the cultural divide in the wake of the Beatles had narrowed. I was always on the lookout for something unusual in their listing, a portal into an unknown future. On that memorable afternoon of 2 June, I spotted something worth further investigation. Suddenly, there it was, sandwiched between Herman's Hermits' Silhouettes' and Freddie And The Dreamers' Do The Freddie.' You couldn't miss it—it was the week's highest chart entry—'Mr Tambourine Man' by the Byrds.
It was the song title and strange name that first struck me. At that stage I was completely unaware of Dylan's involvement, for he still existed primarily as a singles exponent in my limited world-view. While intrigued by Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited, they were album titles whose contents you never heard on the radio and certainly could not yet afford to buy without a massive investment. I coveted them, but waited. In 1965, I felt attuned to all things Dylan, but I discovered the Byrds by accident. The eye-catching title 'Mr Tambourine Man' was so exotic and unusual that you knew instantly this was a song you had to hear. As for the group name, that was even more perplexing. At first glance, and for some days afterwards, I innocently assumed it must be pronounced "Bye-Rids", which sounded positively weird.
I watched excitedly as the record headed for number 1 in Billboard and was then released here. I first heard it during that opening week of June, and it certainly was different. McGuinn's strange vocal inflexions, that distinctive Rickenbacker chime and the sumptuous harmonies all contributed to a record that sounded unlike anything I had ever heard before. It was almost as powerful as hearing 'Heartbreak Hotel' when I was about four years old—a treasured childhood memory. Several radio plays later, I was completely entranced and watched with vicarious pride as the song leapt to number 1.
The Byrds wasted no time in exploiting their new-found fame in England. While it has understandably gone down in the annals as a disaster, the group's tour of the UK won many lasting converts. I managed to see them playing Top Of The Pops and Ready, Steady, Go! and was amazed to discover that the image was as powerful and invigorating as the music. They looked infinitely hipper than the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds, the Kinks, the Who, or anybody else. Their appearance seemed almost otherworldly. Crosby resembled a comic book hero come to life with his extraordinary cape; McGuinn's dark, rectangular, granny glasses, never before seen in this country, seemed specifically designed to provide him with an air of Dickensian disdain, broken only by a disconcertingly manic grin; Gene Clark, the well-toned extra vocalist with striking raven hair, played a tambourine, in keeping with the group's hit song; bassist Chris Hillman betrayed a look of childlike bemusement, like some lost character in Peter Pan; and the drummer, Michael Clarke, resembled a younger, taller and more glamorous Brian Jones.
Rushing home one lunchtime to catch The Top Ten Game on the Light Programme, I was thrilled to hear a studio audience unanimously vote the newly released `All I Really Want To Do' number 1, thereby dislodging 'Mr Tambourine Man' in their fantasy chart. The very idea of the Byrds at numbers 1 and 2 was a thrill to be savoured. Despite all the bitchiness later evident in reviews of the Byrds' stage act, there was no doubting their greatness on record. Their first two singles enlivened the greatest summer that pop music has ever known, and saw them challenge the Beatles' ‘Help’, Bob Dylan's 'Like A Rolling Stone' and the Rolling Stones' (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction' for ultimate chart honours.
Back then, the acid test for any great group lay in the quality of their B-sides. In some ways, that told you all you needed to know about long-term potential, and the Byrds never disappointed. A single listen to 'I Knew I'd Want You' or 'Feel A Whole Lot Better' indicated hidden depths and tremendous reserves of strength that augured well for a wonderful future.
The Byrds left England on a sour note, replaced in the public's affection by the newly arrived Sonny & Cher. Folk rock continued to stay in vogue for several months, but that was not enough to rescue the third single, 'Turn! Turn! Turn!', which barely scraped into the charts, despite its enormous success in America. From that point on, following the group required a strong immunity to the vagaries of public taste. I remained optimistic that they might recover lost ground in Britain, wrongly predicting another number 1 in the near future, which surely would have been followed by a tour. Meanwhile, there was the challenge of keeping up with their recorded output. Saving up for records was a perverse luxury when you didn't have electricity. Singles were acceptable in limited doses but, at 32/6d, albums required months of careful saving and were impossible to justify if you didn't even own a record player. In a remarkable act of subterfuge, I squirreled away some Christmas paper round tips and ten bob Irish postal orders, then shamelessly went out and bought a couple of LP record tokens at nearby Recordsville in Wilton Road. Fearing rebuke for such a secret and wilfully extravagant purchase, I then mailed the tokens to my address at 16 Colchester Street, accompanied by a note of congratulations from an unnamed imaginary DJ for having supposedly won a competition on Radio Luxembourg. That was how I came to purchase the first albums I ever owned: Mr Tambourine Man and Turn! Turn! Turn!.
Deprivation brings its own frustrations and rewards and actually hearing these records was not always easy. I can remember some nights sitting alone in the kitchen, staring at those alluring Byrds sleeves and longing for the opportunity to hear such oddities as 'We'll Meet Again', 'Oh! Susannah' and the many new Dylan songs and group originals on offer. There was even an ode to JFK—mysteriously devoid of a writing credit on the record—which reminded me of the time I had seen the doomed president and his iconic first lady Jackie in Victoria Street, just months before his assassination. The Byrds were always good at conjuring up poignant memories, even ones you didn't know you treasured. The longing to hear those albums made the listening experience an event in itself. Occasionally, more affluent friends with record players or family radiograms came to the rescue, but all too often that seemed to be by special appointment only. Less well-off families, including my own, were reluctant to allow anybody inside their homes. Neighbouring kids usually remained outside on the doorstep. Funnily enough, it was exclusively on summer visits to Ireland that I could listen to all these records uninterrupted through long rain-tinged weeks. At the barracks at the top of Doneraile Walk, Tramore, we may not have had baths, fridges or inside toilets, but electricity was in plentiful supply and you could blast out the Byrds and Dylan from the back parlour, loud and proud.
Back in London, radio offered solace whenever staring at unplayable records proved tantalizing. Cheap transistors were all the rage and when Sid the Paper Man upped my paper round money to 10 shillings a week I wasted no time in purchasing a set for 19/6d at Piercy's electrical shop in Lupus Street. Both the pirates and Radio Luxembourg offered aural exotica beyond the imaginations of those responsible for the Light Programme's bland playlist. I clearly remember wandering around a bomb site in Cornwall Street, Pimlico, surveying the desolate rubble, as my transistor played an entrancing new release: 'Set You Free This Time.' The ravaged setting added an even greater poignancy to Gene Clark's word-packed tale of fractured love. The next day I rushed out of the school gates and bought the single at the Army & Navy Stores in Victoria Street, insisting that the sales assistant play it twice before handing over my money. At that moment, in that listening booth, I realized the Byrds had reached a new plateau and would survive with or without Dylan's patronage.
Not long after, I learned the sad news that Gene Clark had left the group. 'Eight Miles High' followed, a mind-blowing single that never dated and sounded better and better with each passing year. It elevated the Byrds in the eyes of discerning critics, even though indent in the music press remained sceptical. Although played frequently on pirate radio, the track was only a minor hit in the UK. Its supposed drug connotations provoked no comment at all, although a radio ban was reported in the US, which seemed faintly ludicrous. The remainder of the year was a quiet period for the Byrds. I missed Clark's songwriting on their third album, with its relatively meagre 11 songs, and wondered whether they could survive and thrive without him.
1966 was the year of the Anglophiles. England, and more especially London, was deemed the music and fashion capital of the world. Riding around on my bicycle, buying records, bunking into Battersea Fun Fair to save the 6d entrance fee, sampling bottles of Guinness and cider or wandering around pinball arcades in Soho, I felt the empowering, if delusory, swagger of youth unbound. A general sense of optimism was palpable on the streets. Attitudes were changing and the media seemed to be kneeling in gratuitous homage before the inviolable altar of youth. Although I didn't know it at the time, the Small Faces had recently moved in down the road, consuming drugs and women in spendthrift abandon at their rave pad in Westmoreland Terrace, across the road from the Stanley Arms. Every evening I passed by their house on my bike delivering papers for Sid the Paper Man, unaware of the pop saturnalia in my midst.
This focus on all things English was hardly good news for the Byrds. They no longer featured in the NME, appeared on Top Of The Pops or graced the Top 20, so it became increasingly difficult to justify their existence to sceptical schoolfriends. At that time, certainly for kids of my age and background, there was no concept of cult status or indie credibility. If you wanted to champion the obscure, you were old and elitist and probably listened to jazz or folk, not pop. For young kids, it was all about hits and misses, and the fact that so many great singles charted proved the wisdom of that brutal commercial logic.
The Byrds re-emerged in early 1967 with 'So You Want To Be A Rock 'n' Roll Star' and tantalized a nation by appearing on Top Of The Pops, yet neglecting to undertake a major tour. The release of the single coincided with the enforced demolition of our house, which saddened me greatly, but it was amusing to graduate to a council flat which boasted a toilet, bathroom and even a private bedroom. A first bath felt like sinking into the sea, only warmer, but the experience was eclipsed by the miracle of electricity. There were sockets all over the flat, positively inviting consumer durables, although absurd, undreamed of luxuries like fridges, washing machines and vacuum cleaners were clearly out of the question. To this day, I question their relevance, like an acoustic folkie still baffled by electricity. Nevertheless, a rented black and white television with three channels ushered in a new era. I celebrated this technological good fortune by trading in my sadly departed sister's old manual typewriter for a record player. For the remainder of the decade the Byrds' story unfolded against a virtually non-stop soundtrack of their every song played over and over on my faithful phonogram. At night, when the record player was off, I'd often stay up till 2 am listening to the transistor, and awaiting that thrill of excitement whenever the pirates played a Byrds' song alongside the familiar hits of the time. I was late for school every day of the week, including lunch times, when I insisted on listening to an entire LP of theirs uninterrupted. It was a daily ritual.
The Byrds' successive chart failures brought moments of suffering, but every time they released a new record it was a wondrous event. Younger Than Yesterday provided the final conviction, and one was needed then, that they were arguably the greatest group of the era. This was a period when they had acquired that almost indescribable touch of greatness, spread over an entire album's worth of songs. Suddenly, David Crosby was a songwriter par excellence, right up there with Clark and McGuinn. Even Hillman, the once shy bass player, was composing instant classics. Was there no end to this group's talent? I thought the Byrds had outdone the Beatles on Younger Than Yesterday and reckoned them to be at the forefront of a new revolution in popular music. These were heady considerations at such a young age. There was no UK underground press back then to offer interviews or commentaries on the group or their music, and filtering news meant scouring other music papers like Disc and Record Mirror, or catching nuggets of news in columns like America Calling.
The disintegration of the Byrds in late 1967 came via conflicting, desultory and belated bulletins. Crosby was out, Clark was back, then Clark had left again. Little or no explanation was given for this cataclysmic series of changes. `Byrds Make Trio Debut', headlined the NME when reviewing their single `Goin' Back' in Christmas week, but by then Michael Clarke had gone too. I was so deflated by the news that I delayed purchasing The Notorious Byrd Brothers for nearly two months, assuming that it must be a severely watered-down work. I was astounded to hear how strong the album sounded given the obvious conflict surrounding its creation. Even at their apparent weakest, the Byrds could still challenge and match the Beatles to my mind.
The recruitment of Gram Parsons and the abrupt move towards country music no doubt bewildered some fans, but by this time I was ready to expect anything from this group. They seldom ceased to astound. In 1968, they played their grandest show yet in the UK, appearing with new boy Parsons at the Royal Albert Hall. Wow! It was an eventful Sunday evening when I took the 52 bus from Victoria to the RAH, completely unaware of what might happen. Assuming there was probably some formal dress code at this magnificent institution, I wore a Burton's suit, recently purchased by my mother. That detail is also revealing. Fridges, phones, washing machines and vacuum cleaners may have been beyond the family budget or imagination but, as Mr Dick had suggested in David Copperfield, it was very, important to have a suit for Sunday best. Fortunately, I was not alone. Both McGuinn and Parsons also wore fine suits that evening. Gram's had a reddish hue and was the most striking garment I'd seen since David Crosby's impossibly fab green suede cape.
It is difficult to convey the sense of expectation, even consternation, surrounding this crucial concert. Since their controversial 1965 UK tour, the one constant in reports of the Byrds had been their disappointing live performances. At the height of Crosby's dominance, transatlantic bulletins reviewing their LA shows were full of acerbic put-downs of their onstage cool and interminable tuning sessions between songs. Even Derek Taylor, their own publicist, had heretically described their appearances at the Whisky as "terrible". Now they were descending on the Royal Albert Hall in the full glare of the British music press, not to mention an audience that included rock's hip elite, among whom was an assortment of Beatles and Rolling Stones. Equally worrying was the concert's line-up of up-and-coming stars (Joe Cocker, Grapefruit, the Alan Bown, the Easytheats and the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band) any one of whom might distract attention from the Byrds. Most disconcerting of all, however, was the presence of the Move who, unlike their American rivals, were chart regulars and boasted one of the most exciting stage acts of the period. They even featured a cover of 'So You Want To Be A Rock 'n' Roll Star' in their set, although it would not be played on this all-important evening. As if inviting disaster, the Byrds had agreed to close the first half of the concert, leaving the Move the honour of ending the night and, most likely, stealing the show. Fortunately, it was the Byrds who won the accolades with a thrilling set that secured them their first major headline in NME since the glory days of 'Mr Tambourine Man' and `All I Really Want To Do.' One of my abiding memories is the thrill of hearing the shout "bring back the Byrds" during the second half of the concert, as if confirming that the old prejudices about their live shows had finally been put to rest.
Some latter-day music historians insist that Sweetheart Of The Rodeo was greeted with bewilderment and contempt. "Country fans despised it and Byrds fans thought it was a counter revolutionary joke," was one recent revisionist assessment. While this may have been true among the counterculture elite in America, it was clearly not the case throughout England, where 'You Ain't Going Nowhere' had reached the lower regions of the chart and was frequently played on both the Light Programme and the pirate radio stations. Whatever anyone thought of the Byrds' new musical direction, it was no longer a massive shock by the time Sweetheart Of The Rodeo appeared at the end of September 1968. The album was a challenging but beautiful piece which confirmed my growing belief that the Byrds could conquer almost any musical genre.
Of course, they had to spoil it, as usual, with more damaging line-up changes. At the end of 1968, even I thought they must be finished and mourned their passing that Christmas. Two months later, they re-emerged with a great new single and the adventure began all over again. That same year, my history teacher allowed me to submit 'the history of pop music' as a CSE project for examination. Needless to say, the Byrds featured heavily.
In 1970, I was transferred to the newly built Pimlico School which, rather poignantly, stood on the very spot where our gaslit house had once been. The new decade saw a confident counterculture largely unaffected by events such as the Altamont tragedy or the break-up of the Beatles. It would be some time yet before the Sixties' party was officially deemed over. Three years after Haight-Ashbury, LSD reached Pimlico's working classes and it was intriguing to witness recently skinheaded hooligans growing their hair, abandoning allegiances to Chelsea Football Club and proclaiming the wonders of the heaven and hell drug. Nobody came out with any negative or condescending comments about the Byrds any more. They were back in vogue thanks to the best-selling (Untitled) and 'Chestnut Mare', their first UK Top 20 hit in four years. Their final two albums for CBS were not the strongest by their standards, but still received far more press attention than their brilliant mid-period work.
By this point, the Byrds had decided that the UK was a cool outpost for touring purposes. The McGuinn/White/Parsons/Battin line-up played here regularly and their live shows were invariably excellent. Like many fans of that time, I have fond memories of performances at the Royal Albert Hall and the Rainbow and I was lucky enough to attend a Top Of The Pops' recording where they played their new single, 'I Trust.' In August 1971, they appeared at the Lincoln Folk Festival, billed as 'the acoustic Byrds.' I slept in a graveyard after the festival, then made my way home.
At the end of the following year, they split. I was still a teenager, at 19, but it seemed that they had already taken me through an entire lifetime. Their reunion album was released in the year after I finally left school. I returned shaven-headed from a monastery on a mountain in Ireland in time to savour this unlikely turn of events. I had never expected a groundbreaking work in the tradition of Younger Than Yesterday or Notorious so I loved the record at the time, which easily eclipsed Byrdmaniax and Farther Along. Not long after, Clarence White and Gram Parsons both died in tragic circumstances. I still had fond recollections of Gram and Kevin Kelley and more recently had been thrilled to see the New Kentucky Colonels whom Clarence had brought to Europe.
I had hoped that the original members of the Byrds would persevere with a follow-up album and tour, but that proved a false dream. In the end, it didn't matter that much. There were already enough offshoot ventures, from the Flying Burrito Brothers through Dillard & Clark and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young to keep you in listening pleasure for years. Looking back, the Byrds single-handedly spawned an entire subgenre of LA rock, which is a lasting testament to the immense talent contained within their ranks.
For the next seven years after their demise, I was at university, first studying English Language & Literature in Newcastle upon Tyne, then as a postgraduate in Nova Scotia, and finally at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford. During those years I wrote about the Byrds in specialist music magazines like Zigzag and Dark Star and made the bold decision to write a book on them. Collating research material was no easy task in those days and arranging interviews as a student without a phone sometimes proved problematical. But I was nothing if not determined. After winning a fellowship and scholarship for work in Anglo Saxon, I completed a Masters degree in double quick time and used the remaining money to finance a spell in Hollywood, where many of the original interviews for the book were done back in the Seventies. Since then there have been countless more interviews with scores of their associates, and I don't suppose this book will be the last word from me on the subject.
From a writer's viewpoint, the Byrds were always great interviewees, even when they weren't being too co-operative. Their story was a highly emotive drama and I was always impressed by the forthright tone and unflinching honesty with which they recalled their darker moments. During the late Seventies there was a lot of cocaine around, which no doubt added an impressive air of candid acidity to their world-view. Then again, the Byrds always did tread a fine line between idealism and cynicism: listen to 'Renaissance Fair and `So You Want To Be A Rock 'n' Roll Star', respectively, for two contrasting views of the rock world.
Apart from Crosby's famous recommendation of LSD, onstage at the Monterey Pop Festival, the Byrds were reasonably discreet about their drug use. Still, they could always surprise you. When three of the originals arrived here on a package tour in 1977, RSO Records threw a lavish party for them across from the Mayfair Hotel. I can fondly remember bumping into McGuinn in a toilet there and he immediately produced some cocaine, which he offered as though it were a packet of cigarettes. When a friend added, "I never tried that", McGuinn replied: "I don't want to corrupt you." I excused myself and returned upstairs where Gene Clark and Tommy Kaye were proving that alcoholism was alive and well. Clark stood up and toasted me that evening in front of the entire assembly. He was both cordial and enigmatic on that tour, and we got on well. Hillman was sharp, funny, engaging, likeable and extremely professional, but in the end he was the one who left the tour and returned home.
By the time I caught up with them again, back in the States, they were experiencing new-found fame as McGuinn, Clark & Hillman. But you didn't have to be a psychologist to detect an iciness in their interaction. Los Angeles in the late Seventies was characterized by a wilfully blind and peculiarly insular hedonism in which the attendant Caesars continued to drink from the demulcent dregs of a once golden cup, already tarnished by cocaine excess. At its most delusory, it resembled a never ending party—even several of the old Ciro's set were still around happy to be interviewed into the early hours—but once you left the City of Angels, it was clear that an era was coming to an end. The Eighties were upon us and the Byrds were scattered once more.
All the original members seemed adept at pushing themselves towards the edge, but not all were capable of avoiding the abyss. Crosby's cocaine addiction seemed certain to end his career and probably his life. One year on, back in London, I remember asking him how much time he felt he had left as he inhaled hungrily from his pipe. "About five years or so," he mused. It was difficult to decide whether he was referring to his career or his life. On reflection, it was probably both.
Crosby was staying at a small guest house in Denbigh Street, adjacent to Pimlico School on whose site, 15 years before, I had first learned of the Byrds' existence. I tried to take him to the Lord High Admiral or across to Recordsville to see a different world, but he wouldn't be distracted from his stash. His descent into freebase hell later in the decade could not disguise a resilient spirit, whose corrosive ego provided both the reason for his doom and the means of his salvation. He was a burning mass of passion, pride, hubris and regret, but blessed with a clear-eyed, almost painful honesty, that was genuinely moving. Always the most articulate of the Byrds, he gave me the best interview of my life. It was an extremely moving experience, never to be forgotten.
Back then, I was an intensely interrogative interviewer, still immersed in academe, who saw the role of the detached commentator and critic as crucially important. "Don't get too close" was a dictum to be followed, no matter how much you were enjoying an opportunity to socialize. When Crosby proudly showed a picture of his boat, the Mayan, and suggested a visit to San Francisco and even dangled a tentative, if unlikely, book project, it was difficult not to be swept along by the sheer force of his passion. He seemed to care about the Byrds and its legacy far more than McGuinn did at the time, and was more trusting than Hillman and a better communicator than Clark. Of course, there was always the danger of factions and competing loves with the Byrds. It was important to obtain an uncompromising interview and for that you had to be impartial at all costs. Schmoozing was enjoyable, ego-gratifying and tempting, but so is the devil. For a writer, the performer as surrogate friend is invariably a dangerous trade-off. Familiarity often leads to favouritism, complacency and even contempt. There are further complications. If you get too close, you're in danger of losing the magic that got you interested in the first place. Over the years, I had plenty of opportunities to hang out, and often did, but I always remembered that writing a group biography meant knowing when to leave the party with your impartiality and integrity intact. It probably helped that I loved them all equally for different reasons at different times. That still holds to this day.
When I first started writing about the Byrds all of the above seemed terribly important. We were only a decade away from the glory days of 'Mr Tambourine Man' and there was a lot at stake. I still vainly hoped they might reunite and fulfil McGuinn's dream of creating something as significant as 'Eight Miles High' or The Notorious Byrd Brothers. Rather than revelling in their past greatness and flattering their achievements, my approach as an interviewer was to encourage them to try even harder. With albums like Crosby's If I Could Only Remember My Name and Clark's No Other, there was evidence of great innovation but, unreasonably at times, I believed they needed to sustain this standard and eclipse all comers. I was always greedy for greatness on their behalf.
Of course, by the Eighties you were pathetically happy just to hear them still record anything. By then they were part of rock's history rather than its future. Nevertheless, their influence was everywhere and the phrase `Byrds-like' had virtually become a cliché. By the end of the decade, their past was being reassembled in the manner of an archaeological dig, courtesy of the many unearthed tapes recorded during their golden era. Soon after, Sony Records generously offered me a sizeable fee to provide song notes, memorabilia and feedback for the extensive reissue series. Songs doomed to extinction 40 years ago suddenly found a new life on CD; innumerable backing tracks, alternate takes and long forgotten snippets of in-studio argument were tagged on at the end of their reissued albums. There was a strange poetic justice at work here as the ghostly voices of their former selves laid claim to a destiny that was denied them all those years ago. In the end, the Byrds' myth conquered even time itself, or so it seemed.
The deaths of Gene Clark and Michael Clarke ended the dream of any full-scale reunion, just as Lennon's assassination had done with the Beatles' myth. Anything else would be merely partial and inadequate, although nostalgists, promoters and the surviving Byrds would all have benefited on some level.
After all I had written about the group, I was amazed to discover that there was still more to be discovered and learned—and it was all great stuff. I never stopped writing or listening. I kept going back. The research, conversations and interviews with an extended cast have continued up until this very day. I'm still searching, reflecting and trying to improve my own understanding and appreciation of the story. It has taken an entire lifetime. Gloriously, their music continues to resonate with new meaning as well as reaffirming the beauty of a treasured past. One thing I never wanted to do was choose between them, nor make any one of them a hero or villain. They were all fallible, like the best of Shakespearean characters, and almost as fascinating. As this first volume shows, the Byrds' saga is a remarkable adventure and a parable of the age in which they lived.