"There seems to be a cycle in rock music," says Mike Clarke, the original drummer for the Byrds, "and our sound seems to have come around again on the East and West coasts. A lot of new bands may have started with punk, but now you hear a lot of our folk-rock and country-rock thing. I like to think we were ahead of our time."
Clarke is hardly bragging. Between 1965 and 1969, the Byrds were on the cutting edge of stylistic advances in rock music that have reverberated through the '70s and '80s.
When three ex-folkies -- Roger McGuinn, Gene Clark and David Crosby -- joined forces in late 1964, their musical concept was simply to apply the jangly rock sound of George Harrison's 12-string Rickenbacker guitar to folk material. When they had finished applying this rock treatment to Bob Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man" in 1965, the Byrds instantly patented one of the most memorable and influential sounds in rock history.
As much as the Beatles, the Byrds helped usher in the new, progressive age of rock. Along with their folk-rock synthesis, the Byrds pioneered the use of country music, electronic experimentation, jazz and raga in rock. Beyond these diverse influences, however, was that unmistakable Byrds sound, a streamlined rush of choral harmonies and cascading guitars.
By the late '60s most of the original members had left for other projects, and the band became the solo vehicle for leader McGuinn. Nonetheless, the Byrds' impact was strong on country-rock pioneers such as the Flying Burrito Brothers (formed by two ex-Byrds, Chris Hillman and Gram Parsons), Poco and the Eagles, as well as on harmony-oriented groups such as Fleetwood Mac.
It is the Byrds' continuing relevance that has led to the Twentieth Anniversary Tribute to the Byrds, which will take place at the Saba Club tomorrow night.
"Gene Clark and I had been kicking the idea around for a while," Mike Clarke says. "Since the Byrds' 20th anniversary really was coming up, we decided the time was right to go out and pay tribute to the band. The Byrds have had a lot of influence, so we thought, 'Let's go and let people hear it again.' "
The tribute will be in two parts. A version of the Flying Burrito Brothers -- with original member Sneaky Pete Kleinow plus later members Rick Roberts, Michael Clarke and Skip Batten -- opens with a set of Burrito tunes. Then comes the Byrds set, bringing together original Byrds Clark and Clarke as well as Roberts, ex-Beach Boy Blondie Chaplin and Rick Danko of the Band. How does it sound?
"Well," Clarke says, "it is a tribute to the Byrds and not the Byrds. But we're all happy with the sound. We perform a representative selection of the Byrds' well-known material, especially the early folk-rock stuff. A lot of people don't realize how important Gene Clark was to that sound. When he left the group, we were devastated for a while."
Clark was a critical singer-songwriter in the early Byrds, writing "I'll Probably Feel a Whole Lot Better" and "Eight Miles High." However, it is possible to question a Byrds tribute that doesn't include the group's long-term creative leader, McGuinn.
"We tried to get all the original Byrds involved," says Clarke, "but Roger and Chris Hillman were already committed to other projects. Besides, you never know who might drop in."