BYRDWATCHER: A Field Guide to the Byrds of Los Angeles
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ROGER McGUINN
With the Byrds and Solo: 1964-1974

Roger McGuinn Discography

Roger McGuinn Bibliography




To read about the pre-Byrds career of Jim McGuinn, see Jim McGuinn, The Early Years: 1956-1964. This Chapter begins with a few words about McGuinn's role in the band; the story of the Byrds from 1964 to 1973 will be chronicled in detail in the forthcoming Byrds History Section.


McGuinn and the Byrds

Gene Clark wrote most of the songs, and David Crosby was the one with the connection to producer/manager/mentor Jim Dickson, but there was never any question (in 1964 anyway) that McGuinn was "the leader of the group," as Billy James says in the liner notes to Mr. Tambourine Man. In part it was because he was the only Byrd who could play his own instrument well; mostly it was because he was the only one with experience in the music business. Crosby would challenge McGuinn's leadership in 1967, and a year later Gram Parsons would do the same, but in all the permutations of the Byrds, the only constant was McGuinn.
His Rickenbacker technique gave the band its signature sound; his voice was flexible but always distinctive, in Dylan-mode and out; and his ability to synthesize different musics into something new provided the band with its modus operandi. His songwriting skills grew dramatically on the first five Byrds records: on Tambourine Man, he contributed only a couple Beatle pastiches, but soon he would be (co-)writing songs like "5D" and "So You Want to Be A Rock 'N" Roll Star" and "Change Is Now." Even on the less-impressive albums after Sweetheart of the Rodeo, McGuinn provided most of the great moments: "Bad Night at the Whiskey," "Ballad of Easy Rider," and "Chestnut Mare," for example.
McGuinn has been criticized over the years for being too autocratic, for being too democratic, for being too emotionless, and for milking the Byrds franchise longer than he should have. But one listen to the unbelievable Coltrane-style guitar break in "Eight Miles High" shows why, even after all their past differences, David Crosby still believes that "Roger McGuinn is a genius."* Crosby summed it up well around the time of the band's induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: "Roger was the main thing in the Byrds, and everybody knows that."*


Heave Away: The Adventures of Roger McGuinn

By January of 1973, Roger McGuinn had too many irons in the fire. He was still leading the Columbia Byrds, with Clarence White, Skip Battin and John Guerin on drums. He was working with the original Byrds on their reunion album. And he was recording songs for his first solo LP. It looked like 1973 might be a big year for Roger McGuinn.
To top it all off, Bob Dylan asked McGuinn to join the February '73 sessions that would result in the soundtrack to Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid (Columbia, 1973). The busy Byrd played on most of the album, including the transcendent single, "Knockin' On Heaven's Door," easily the best thing Dylan had done since Nashville Skyline (Columbia, 1969).
It was an auspicious way to begin the year, but by the time Roger McGuinn (Columbia, 1973) came along in June, everything had changed. McGuinn had disbanded the Columbia Byrds in February, and the original Byrds had declined to tour or work together as a group after critics savaged the reunion album. The solo album would be McGuinn's last chance to make good.
Several of the tunes were impressive -- judging from Farther Along and the reunion LP, he'd been saving up songs. Actually, four of the songs had earlier been recorded by the Byrds in January and June of 1972, but they were all recut for the LP. Helping out were Beach Boy Bruce Johnston; Spanky MacFarlane of "Our Gang" fame; Byrds session players Jim Gordon, Jerry Cole, and Hal Blaine; ex-Burrito Chris Ethridge; saxman Charles Lloyd; and master steel guitarist Buddy Emmons. Dylan repaid McGuinn by playing harmonica on the album's standout track, "I'm So Restless," in which McGuinn and Jacques Levy skewered Dylan, Lennon, and Jagger over a folky acoustic guitar. All five original Byrds appeared on "My New Woman," an effective return to the Crosbyite jazz-rock of Younger Than Yesterday. Crosby also added backing vocals to "Bag Full of Money," a highjacking tale.
Elsewhere, McGuinn touches all the Byrd bases. There's science ("Time Cube," written with Bob Hippard); airplanes ("Draggin'"); a sea chantey ("Heave Away"); gospel ("Stone"); traditional folk ("The Water Is Wide") and a modern folk cover ("Lost My Drivin' Wheel," popularized by Tom Rush).
It was a good game plan, but it lost something in the execution. The original producer was Terry Melcher; McGuinn felt Melcher drowned the album in weird vocal effects and redid most of the production work himself. One suspects that Melcher gets the blame for the annoying children's chorus on "Stone" (an otherwise strong number by Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham). On the other hand, McGuinn is the most likely culprit for the overemphasis on the now-dated Moog synthesizer.
Despite some reservations, the critical consensus was that this LP was the best thing McGuinn had done since (Untitled) and maybe since Sweetheart of the Rodeo. Ultimately, the album reached #137 during a nine-week chart stint -- slightly better than the showing for Farther Along, but considerably lower than the placing for the Asylum reunion LP earlier that year.
Meanwhile, McGuinn assembled a touring band dubbed "The Adventures of Roger McGuinn" featuring ex-Byrd John Guerin, former Association bassist David Vaught, and session keyboardist Michael Wofford; they toured behind the LP during the second half of '73. Reviews of this aggregation were lukewarm, and McGuinn later admitted that they had been too intent on playing jazz rock. "I wanted to be a jazz musician," McGuinn said in late '74. "I had the guys, but I wasn't there."* By the end of the year, the Adventures of Roger McGuinn had ended.


Peace on You

From January to June of '74, McGuinn performed a series of solo shows in theaters and clubs. Aside from a few solo gigs in support of Roger McGuinn, these were the first solo shows McGuinn had played since the formation of the Jet Set ten years earlier. At the same time, McGuinn was in the studio with a group of session vets that included Hillman chums Paul Harris, Al Perkins, Donnie Dacus, and Dan Fogelberg. Also on hand were Al Kooper and ex-Turtles Flo & Eddie. The resulting album, Peace On You (Columbia, 1974), was released in August. CSN vet Bill Halverson was brought in by Columbia to produce, and McGuinn chafed under his direction. The result was an album with some good moments -- most notably "Gate of Horn," co-written with Jacques Levy about the legendary Chicago folk club where McGuinn spent much of his teen years -- but some not so good as well. Critical reception was less positive than for his debut. On the other hand, the album eventually hit #92 on the charts. When it was time to assemble another live band to support the album, McGuinn decided not to move away from the jazz rock of The Adventures and go back to the country rock sound of the latter-day Byrds.



To read about McGuinn's next three solo LPs, see The Solo Years: 1974-1977.



Notes

"Roger McGuinn is a genius." Crosby at 81.

"Roger was the main thing..." DiMartino, Spin at 84.

"I wanted to be a jazz musician." Rensin at 15.


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Band Members | McGuinn | 1964-1974

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