Combining the folk sensibilities of Bob Dylan with the shimmering pop melodies and harmonies of the Beatles, The Byrds were something of a 60s hybrid folk rock dream. If only for their harmony-rich versions of Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man" — which fused the lyrical genius of the folk legend with the harmonic and melodic ingenuity of the Fab Four -and Pete Seeger's "Turn! Turn! Turn!," drenched in the 12-string jangle of McGuinn's Rickenbacker guitar, the Byrds would have earned their place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. At a time when rock and roll was exploding on all fronts, the Byrds led the way with an insatiable curiosity about the forms and directions pop music could take. In so doing, they became peers and equals of their mentors.
McGuinn had been a folk-music accompanist for such acts as the Limelighters, the Chad Mitchell Trio and Judy Collins, among others. Singer/guitarists David Crosby and Gene Clark were West Coast folkies, while bassist Chris Hillman and drummer Michael Clarke arrived with bluegrass and rock backgrounds, respectively. Formed in Los Angeles in 1964 (and briefly known as the Jet Set and the Beefeaters), the Byrds built their sound upon the three-part harmonies of McGuinn, Clark and Crosby, peaking during 1965-67, when they broke the Top 40 seven times while extending rock into new underground areas.
By the time the Byrds recorded the landmark Sweetheart of the Rodeo album in 1968, original members Clark and Crosby had dropped out and country-rock pioneer Gram Parsons had come aboard for a brief but influential stay. McGuinn was the only original member of the four-man lineup that lasted from 1969-72, which included guitarist Clarence White, bassist Skip Battin and drummer Gene Parsons. This version of the Byrds recorded several albums, including the double album Untitled, and evolved into a tightly-knit performing group, outstripping the original lineup on that count. (Sadly, guitarist White was killed when he stepped in front of a truck in 1973.) The five original Byrds convened for an ill-fated reunion album in 1973, but by this time the group members were all doing well on their own: McGuinn and Clark as solo artists; Crosby as part of the harmony-based supergroup Crosby, Stills and Nash; Hillman, as a solo artist and member of Souther, Hillman and Furay; and Clarke as drummer for Firefall.
By the mid-90s the Byrds were acknowledged as one of the most influential bands of the rock era, and, like the Beatles, little of their catalogue sounds dated. Albums such as The Notorious Byrd Brothers and Younger Than Yesterday are certified classics, and much of their earlier catalogue is indispensable. McGuinn continues to tour small venues with his Rickenbacker and Martin 12-string acoustic, Crosby has a new liver and a new family, and Hillman is producing some excellent bluegrass with Larry Rice and Herb Pedersen. It is sad that the late Gene Clark, the Byrd's prolific songwriter, is only now receiving universal acclaim. His song "Feel A Whole Lot Better" is recognized as a classic of the 60s; ironic that it only appeared as a B-side in 1965.