But is it about the Monkees or not?
With Gene Clark gone from the band, the Byrds’ star was fading. Without their lead singer and most commercial songwriter, their last two singles had only reached numbers 44 and 36 in the charts. Their imperial phase had only lasted a little under a year, between Mr Tambourine Man and Eight Miles High and the pop audience was already on the lookout for the next big thing.
So it’s unsurprising that the new wave of teen idol pop stars was something that the Byrds looked on with, at best, ambivalence. While they were hardly an organic, dues-paying, band themselves (having not played on their first single, and having a drummer who was chosen for his looks rather than his playing ability), nonetheless it galled them when, as Roger McGuinn put it, “We were thumbing through a teen magazine and looking at all the unfamiliar faces and we couldn’t help thinking: ‘Wow, what’s happening…all of a sudden here is everyone and his brother and his sister-in-law and his mother and even his pet bullfrog singing rock ‘n’ roll.’”
This experience inspired McGuinn and Chris Hillman to write a song mocking all these youngsters who were becoming rock stars by just having the right hair and attitude. Hillman had gone from not being a songwriter at all when the band’s first two albums were released to being their most prolific writer, and had come up with the bassline for the song while playing on a session for the trumpeter Hugh Masakela. Hillman and McGuinn then added the lyrics, which seem more passionate than crafted, with many lines having scansion that doesn’t quite fit the melody.
To produce the single, and the album Younger Than Yesterday for which it was intended, the Byrds turned to Gary Usher, who knew a thing or two about manufactured bands himself, having spent his time since he stopped working with Brian Wilson on producing bands such as The Peanut Butter Conspiracy, The Silly Surfers, The Weird-Ohs, and The Hondells, often working for Ben-Ven Productions, an independent production company owned by Nik Venet and his business partner Fred Benson. Possibly more to the point, he had recently produced Gene Clark’s first solo album.
Usher’s more experimental attitude would soon help push the band into new areas very far from their original folk-rock sound, but here what we have is pure 1966, a band clearly moving on into new musical territory, but with enough similarities to their earlier work that nobody could mistake it for anyone else. The main clues that the Byrds were going in a new direction were the addition of Hugh Masakela’s trumpet — the first time that the band had used brass on their recordings — and Chris Hillman’s bass, which had previously been low in the mix, being promoted essentially to the status of a lead instrument. The song also used sound effects — audience screams that had been recorded by Derek Taylor during the band’s 1965 UK tour– something that they had never done before. It’s clearly an advance, albeit an incremental one, on the band’s earlier recordings.
But there’s a big controversy about the song, one that still raises its head to this day — is it about the Monkees?
Both McGuinn and Hillman have said it isn’t, but songwriters aren’t always the most reliable guides to their creations. And certainly Michael Nesmith thinks it isn’t — he planned an interactive video (and later an interactive CD-ROM) based on the song in the 1980s. But it still ends up getting said, over and over, that it is.
It isn’t, of course. While the Monkees were definitely in the news at the time (the day that the Byrds started work on this track, in fact, was the day that they got a gold record for their second single I’m A Believer, November 28 1966), the controversy about them not playing on their own records didn’t start until Saturday 28th January 1967, when the Saturday Evening Post released an article “exposing” them.
In truth, the song is about the Monkees — but only to the same extent that it was about Dino, Desi, & Billy, the Grass Roots, Gary Lewis & The Playboys, Paul Revere & The Raiders, or, indeed, the Byrds themselves. The coincidental timing of this single being released just as the Monkees’ manufactured status became a big news item is actually to do with bigger cultural factors.
The end of 1966 and beginning of 1967 was the time when “pop” and “rock” were first starting to split from each other — a split which will play out over the course of the rest of this book. Rock was starting to be defined against pop — as “authentic” and “art”, as opposed to “manufactured” and “commercial” pop. The Byrds’ pop career was effectively over — they simply weren’t having big hit singles any more — and so they had to position themselves as rock artists rather than pop stars if they wanted to continue to have any career at all. The Monkees, meanwhile, were the biggest new pop band, and so would automatically be seen as what the rock bands were defining themselves against, even if, as we shall see, the reality was somewhat different.
Either way, the controversy managed to get the Byrds back into the top thirty, but it wouldn’t last. Their next single, a cover of Dylan’s My Back Pages would be the band’s last top forty hit. And there would soon be many more changes in the band…
So You Want To Be A Rock ‘n’ Roll Star
Composer: Roger McGuinn & Chris Hillman
Line-up: Roger McGuinn (guitar, vocals), David Crosby (guitar, vocals) Chris Hillman (bass, vocals), Michael Clarke (drums), Hugh Masakela (trumpet)
Original release: So You Want To Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star/Everybody’s Been Burned, The Byrds, Columbia 4-43987
Currently available on: Younger Than Yesterday, Columbia Legacy CD
The B-side (Everybody’s Been Burned) is certainly less commercial than the A-side, but it’s a more interesting song, and it clearly became a signpost for Crosby’s artistic direction.