In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the principal players in popular music’s counter-culture swooped on Los Angeles. Singer-songwriters like Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and Jackson Browne became the elixir to the mainstream pop that was being recorded at the time, as they pitched camp in Laurel Canyon and produced timeless albums like Blue, After the Gold Rush and For Everyman.
As the 1970s progressed, the Californian folk music and singer-songwriter gave way to the corporation of West Coast rock and roll. Many of the once small-time gang of visionaries became superstars, such as Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and The Eagles. However, before The Eagles came The Byrds – and they helped to begin it all.
One of the first true harmony groups in rock music, their distinctive sound is still influencing popular music to this very day. Hits like Mr Tambourine Man and So You Want To Be A Rock ‘n’ Roll Star remain among some of the most enduring songs of the 20th century.
Now the co-writer and singer of so many of The Byrds’ hits, Roger McGuinn, is back out on the road, and will be calling in Leeds at the City Varieties Music Hall this Sunday.
McGuinn released a new live album this year, Stories, Songs and Friends, which is the same show he is touring with at the moment. “It was recorded for my mother,” says McGuinn. “She was turning 102, she’d broken her hip so she was bedridden, and we recorded it so she could hear the concert. Then I listened to it, and it sounded nice and I thought, ‘hey, let’s release it’.”
As the title suggests, the show is a mixture of songs and stories from McGuinn’s long and astounding career, including plenty of stories from his days in The Byrds. “I love telling the story of how The Byrds got together; that’s probably one of the most-asked questions that I get from people.”
The Byrds, which McGuinn played guitar and sang for along with David Crosby, were one of the biggest bands in the heyday of rock and roll. They have been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and Rolling Stone ranked them within the top 50 of their 100 Greatest Artists of All Time list.
They were the first band to fuse rock and folk together into one genre, and also had a considerable role in creating psychedelic rock, largely thanks to McGuinn’s guitar style. One of their most enduring songs, Eight Miles High, was interpreted as a song about drugs, when in fact, it was written about landing in London for a tour of the UK. “I guess the theme of Eight Miles High would suggest that it was psychedelic, but we were just trying to do jazz fusion, and it was interpreted as being psychedelic. The song is about the girls at concerts and the kind of disorientation we had, because street signs in the US are up on poles on the corner, and in the UK they’re up on the side of a building, and we didn’t know that so we were kind of disoriented.”
Their first album, Mr Tambourine Man, was also ranked among Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list. Nonetheless, McGuinn says that at the time, the band were completely unaware of the history they were making. “We were just trying to find our voice and keep a beat. We were all folk singers, so a beat wasn’t really important in folk music, so we became a jazz band overnight. We had to keep a beat or people would fall down and trip over themselves,” he laughs.
After The Byrds split up in 1973, McGuinn went solo and worked with the likes of Bob Dylan and Tom Petty. One of his projects that he has been working on for 19 years is his ‘Folk Den’, which is featured on his website, and allows fans to download a different traditional folk song for free each month.
“Especially in the US, folk music turned into a singer-songwriter genre, as opposed to traditional. I know in the UK there’s a large group of people who like traditional music, so it doesn’t really apply there, but it does in the States. I wasn’t hearing the blues and the cowboy songs and the sea shanties that I’d grown up with, and I thought I’d do something about it. It was back in ‘95 when the internet was pretty new, but I knew how to record things and put them up there for free downloads, so the idea occurred to me to keep them up there and for people to download the songs, and learn them
and keep them going.”
Roger McGuinn is now 71, but does he see himself continuing to tour the world and record? “Yes, I intend to keep doing it for the rest of my life.”
September 28, Leeds City Varieties, 8pm, £29.10. https://www.cityvarieties.co.uk/Online/RogerMcGuinn