The Byrds' 10 greatest songs ever, ranked
3 January 2023, 09:50
The Byrd Who Flew Alone – Gene Clark documentary trailer
Original songs, bible verses and superlative Bob Dylan covers – we rank the very best songs by The Byrds.
Listen to this article
The Byrds only existed for a few short years, but they were undoubtedly one of the most influential groups of the 1960s.
They zipped through folk rock, psychedelia and – after some lineup changes – country rock, laying down template after template for countless bands to follow in the decades that followed.
- 'Mr Tambourine Man' by The Byrds: The making of the folk-rock masterpiece
- Gold Meets... The Hollies: Tony Hicks and Bobby Elliott recall escapades with Little Richard
- Listen to the Gold 60s Live Playlist on Global Player
Some of The Byrds' biggest and best songs were written by the band themselves. Many were covers.
A fair number of their best-known recordings were written by their frequent muse Bob Dylan – 1979/2022 compilations The Byrds Play Dylan collected the band's 20 covers of Bob's work.
One of their songs was even nabbed from the Bible. But what were the greatest? We round up our ten favourite songs by The Byrds below and rank them all the way to the very best.
The Byrds -Mr Spaceman( studio TV 1966)
By 1966, The Byrds had already progressed from their folk-rock kick-off point to pure psychedelic bliss, and on 'Mr Spaceman' they started edging towards a touch of country, too.
Written by Jim McGuinn (aka Roger McGuinn), 'Mr Spaceman' was from that year's Fifth Dimension and helped prove that there was life after Gene Clark for The Byrds.
To help promote the release, one of the band's managers Eddie Tickner claimed that he had taken out a million-dollar insurance policy against the band being abducted by aliens.
Ballad of Easy Rider
The Byrds: Ballad of Easy Rider
'The Ballad of Easy Rider' was first recorded as a solo track by Roger McGuinn for the era-defining Easy Rider movie, but a full version by The Byrds came out a couple of months later.
The movie's star, writer and producer Peter Fonda actually wanted Bob Dylan to write the song. Bob said no, but did take the time to write down a single line on a napkin.
"The river flows, it flows to the sea/Wherever that river goes, that's where I want to be/Flow, river, flow."
"Give this to McGuinn. He'll know what to do with it," the uncredited Dylan said. And he clearly did.
I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better
I'll Feel a Whole Lot Better Byrds Stereo HiQ Hybrid JARichardsFilm 720p
'I'll Feel a Whole Lot Better' was originally a B-side to The Byrds second single (a cover of Bob Dylan's 'All I Really Want to Do'), but emerged as a hit in its own right, too, and made its way on to the band's first album.
Written by Gene Clark, who also sang lead, the main guitar riff definitely owes a melodic debt to The Searchers' 'Needles and Pins', but there are enough splashes of Byrdsy-ness to make this a great song in its own right.
So You Want to Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star
THE BYRDS 1967 - So You Want To Be A Rock n Roll Star
Written by McGuinn with Chris Hillman, 'So You Want To Be a Rock 'n' Roll Star' is a probably not-entirely-fair jab at The Monkees and their prefab origins ("And with your hair swung right / And your pants too tight, it's gonna be all right").
It's not too mean-spirited though, and is as sympathetic as it is scathing ("The price you paid for your riches and fame / Was it all a strange game? You're a little insane").
You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere
THE BYRDS - You Ain't Going Nowhere (1968)
One of The Byrds many Bob Dylan "covers", but it's not as straightforward as that.
Dylan wrote the song in Woodstock in 1967 in that out-of-the-spotlight moment after his motorbike crash, but he didn't actually release his version till September 1971 on the Greatest Hits Vol II compilation.
A recording from 1967 with The Band eventually surfaced on 1975's after-the-fact The Basement Tapes
Before both of those hit the stores, The Byrds version featuring Lloyd Green on pedal steel guitar was released in 1968 and featured on their groundbreaking country-rock album Sweetheart of the Rodeo after the band were sent some of the unreleased Dylan/Band Woodstock demos
My Back Pages
The Byrds - My Back Pages (Remastered)
Ending their run of hit singles the same way it started – with a Bob Dylan cover – 'My Back Pages' was The Byrds' last US top 40 appearance.
It was one of the songs that helped drive the wedge that would split the band, with McGuinn very much being in favour of it and David Crosby wanting the group to focus on their own stuff.
The hit single version was hacked down to two and a half minutes, with the full version appearing on the band's Younger Than Yesterday album.
Turn! Turn! Turn!
The Byrds - Turn! Turn! Turn! (1965) 4K
'Turn! Turn! Turn!' was written by Pete Seeger, with the folk icon putting it together in the 1950s. It was first released by The Limeliters on their 1962 Folk Matinee album
Most of the words are actually from the biblical Book of Ecclesiastes (chapter three, verses 1-8, if you were wondering).
Jim McGuinn had arranged it for Judy Collins in 1963, and his band performed it on the their tour bus as a favour for his future-wife Dolores, immediately making it his own and deciding to record it with the band.
He won the approval of Pete Seeger and topped the US charts while he was at it.
The Byrds - Goin' Back (1967)
By 1966, The Byrds were falling apart. David Crosby was increasingly unhappy with the band recording covers – Bob Dylan songs and others – rather than focusing exclusively on their own work.
He was pushing for the group to record his own song about threesomes 'Triad', while the rest of the group wanted to record a version of the stunning Carole King and Gerry Goffin number 'Goin' Back'.
The song had already been released by Dusty Springfield as a standalone single when The Byrds gave it a strung-out country vibe and included it on The Notorious Byrd Brothers album.
It nudged 'Triad' off the album, and the group sacked Crosby that October,.
Eight Miles High
The Byrds - 8 Miles high
Soaking up the influence of Indian music and jazz together with their own folk-rock vibe, The Byrds brought it all together to make a pioneering psychedelic rock classic.
Written by Gene Clark, Jim McGuinn, and David Crosby, 'Eight Miles High' earned a radio ban because of the pretty obvious drug reference – it still went top 20 in the US, though.
The song was also informed by the band's trip to London in August 1965, though for the record, commercial flights are usually nearer six or seven miles high, but eight just sounds better, doesn't it?
Mr Tambourine Man
The Byrds "Mr. Tambourine Man" on The Ed Sullivan Show
Bob Dylan first recorded 'Mr Tambourine Man' in June 1964, but wasn't quite happy with the backing vocals from Ramblin' Jack Elliott, so he re-recorded it seven months later for Bringing It All Back Home.
That album was released on March 22, 1965, but by then the band who would become The Byrds had already recorded their version.
How so? Well the band of Jim McGuinn, Gene Clark, and David Crosby – then still called The Jet Set – snaffled an acetate of that original 1964 demo via their manager Jim Dickinson.
LEGENDARY BAND TELLS Why Bob Dylan GAVE His Only #1 SONG to Them in the 60s | Professor of Rock
They decided to make it a bit poppier (read: a bit more like The Beatles) by shifting it into standard 4/4 and layering on the electric guitars. Even Bob loved it when he swung by the studio to have a cheeky listen.
Soon after, Michael Clarke and Chris Hillman joined the band, now called The Byrds.
Producer Terry Melcher insisted on having The Wreckin' Crew play most of the instruments, but The Byrds sang their bits and McGuinn added his 12-string sound to the group's finished version in January 1965.
It went straight to number one in both the UK and US (the first Dylan-written song to top either chart), and launched The Byrds as instant stars.