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Mining Gold From The Music Stream: The Byrds - Younger Than Yesterday

Aaron M. Olson, Messenger Clerk, Silver Lake Branch Library,
The Byrds
The Byrds. Photo Credit: Columbia Records

In almost any documentary, TV show, or feature film about the “peace & love” Sixties you will likely hear the familiar chime of a 12-string electric guitar arpeggiating its way through “Turn, Turn, Turn” or “Mr. Tambourine Man.” In fact, if you just imagine Daniel Stern’s voice, which provided the plaintive narration for The Wonder Years, you can almost immediately hear the aforementioned sounds providing that bittersweet, nostalgic accompaniment of yesteryear. And so for some, it is through this association that The Byrds have become a cliché of an era, a groovy novelty defined by one or two songs and a sound that we remember fondly but often leave as a stone unturned. The Byrds, though, were much more than an era-defining soundbite—they were pioneers of new directions in rock music from raga to space to country and beyond, they put poetry and protest into a palpable package, introducing youth culture to a deeper version of pop music, and they were an album-oriented band that produced bodies of work that to this day stand up in quality, scope, and inventiveness next to that of their contemporaries, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. One of their most consistent, cohesive, and enjoyable statements from start to finish is their 1967 album, Younger Than Yesterday.

Book cover for Younger Than Yesterday
Younger Than Yesterday

Younger Than Yesterday was The Byrds’ first album without founding member and primary songwriter Gene Clark, and saw the remaining quartet, notably Chris Hillman and David Crosby, pull up the slack and step in as songwriters. The sound of the album is undeniably that of The Byrds’ brand—the 12 string Rickenbacker, the lush vocal harmonies, the driving backbeats, and even the obligatory Bob Dylan cover—but because of the increased songwriting contributions from Hillman and Crosby, this set of songs ventured further into new territories, pushing the Byrds’ sound to a new level of daring and maturity.

Prior to becoming a Byrd, Chris Hillman had cut his teeth playing country and bluegrass mandolin in San Diego—first alongside future Eagles member Bernie Leadon in the Scottsville Squirrel Barkers, and then alongside future country star Vern Gosdin in the Golden State Boys (retroactively renamed The Hillmen after Hillman’s success with The Byrds). This folk/country/bluegrass upbringing laid deep roots within Hillman, and when it came time to write songs for The Byrds his compositions would reflect as much. In fact, these roots were so deeply ingrained that when feeling creatively invigorated after having played bass on a Hugh Masekela-produced session for South African singer Letta Mbulu, Hillman compulsively started writing; the song that sprung forth was “Time Between,” a song much more to do with country music than anything remotely South African. Hillman’s catchy and upbeat Younger Than Yesterday composition “The Girl With No Name” sits firmly in the country rock vein as well. Together these two songs look back to old country and bluegrass, but very much point forward toward The Byrds’ future as progenitors of the country rock genre as would be more fully explored later on The Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo, which famously included a pre-Flying Burrito Brothers Gram Parsons. The two other Hillman-penned songs on the album, “Thoughts and Words” and “Have You Seen Her Face,” fall more into the well-trodden Beatles/Byrds psychedelic rock category, but provide a connectivity in the album sequencing that helps push the record forward. They also provide some album highlights, including the crunchy and exciting guitar solo in “Have You Seen Her Face” and the raga-esque backwards guitar and layered vocals in “Thoughts and Words.” It should also be noted that for the first time Hillman sang lead vocals on all of his songwriting contributions, providing the Byrds’ signature vocal brand with a new, gentler, and less affected timbral element. Along with his songwriting and singing, Hillman’s bass playing comes into its own on this album, from the propulsive and hypnotic bass groove of the album single, “So You Want To Be A Rock ‘N’ Roll Star” (co-written by Hillman and Byrds frontman/figurehead Roger McGuinn) to the inventive and outstanding bouncing and noodling on Crosby’s album highlight, “Everybody’s Been Burned.”

Book cover for Fifth Dimension
Fifth Dimension

David Crosby, who’d contributed a couple of songs to the band’s previous record Fifth Dimension, was the other songwriter to step up to the plate in Gene Clark’s absence. On Younger Than Yesterday, Crosby would contribute two songs collaboratively with McGuinn and two as the sole writer. One of these Crosby-penned songs is the above mentioned “Everybody’s Been Burned,” which in addition to being an album highlight is also a career highlight for both The Byrds and David Crosby as a solo artist. Written in 1962, before The Byrds were even a band, “Everybody’s Been Burned” captures the distilled essence of Crosby’s signature brand of rock and roll—complex chords, serpentine melody, conceptually dark and murky lyrics, and his iconic smooth and soothing tenor voice. These Crosbynian elements combined with the creative support from the other Byrds—Michael Clarke’s hushed drumming, Hillman’s bass, Roger McGuinn’s spacious and effective guitar solo—add up to a unique piece of psychedelic beauty that, without bombast or dynamic leaps, relies only on vibe, groove, and feeling to make an engrossing and memorable three minutes of sound. Crosby’s other songs on this album are largely in this same psychedelic mode, and work to varying degrees—from the successful trip of “Renaissance Fair” to the faux-Donovan nightmare and arguable album low point of “Mind Gardens,” to the upbeat “Heatwave”-esque album-closer “Why”—sitting perfectly comfortable alongside with and complimentary to Hillman’s songs.

Book cover for Sweetheart Of The Rodeo
Sweetheart Of The Rodeo

The remainder of Younger Than Yesterday is rounded out with the delightful characteristically Byrds-esque interpretation of Bob Dylan’s “My Back Pages,” and Roger McGuinn’s contributions—the previously mentioned collaborations with Crosby, “Renaissance Fair” and “Why,” the Hillman co-write, “So You Want To Be A Rock ‘N’ Roll Star,” and the outer space ode, “C.T.A. - 102.” The latter two of these songs are quite notable for their idiosyncratic instrumentation elements—“C.T.A. -102”’s extensive use of sound effects and tape manipulation to reinforce its themes of aliens and space exploration, and “So You Want To Be A Rock ‘N’ Roll Star” featuring South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela and the recorded sounds of hoards of screaming teenage fans (this before Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band). These experimental and non-traditional sound/recording elements were in part the work of producer Gary Usher, who’d worked on a number of hot-rod and surf songs as well as with Brian Wilson on Beach Boys material. Usher would go on to produce The Byrds’ next two albums, The Notorious Byrd Brothers and Sweetheart of the Rodeo, which along with Younger Than Yesterday arguably make up the strongest period in The Byrds’ output.

Younger Than Yesterday captures the efforts of these hungry and young songwriter-musicians in a creatively fruitful time of genre and sound exploration and churns out a statement that is thoroughly consistent, constantly entertaining, and creatively stimulating; a record that could sit comfortably on any shelf alongside Revolver or Between The Buttons. Scratch beneath the surface of The Byrds a bit and you’ll find a deep well of quality material, much more than a couple familiar soundbites to soundtrack a generation in montage.

Younger Than Yesterday and the rest of The Byrds’ discography is available on Freegal. The Byrds’ 1973 reunion album, Byrds, is available on hoopla as well.