By Todd Leopold
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(CNN) -- Ah, the sound of the Byrds: the jangly interplay of six- and 12-string guitars, the folk-tinged California vocal harmonies -- and the reverberations of Louvin Brothers murder ballads, Ravi Shankar ragas and John Coltrane's "Africa/Brass."
"What it amounts to," Byrds guitarist Roger McGuinn told Rolling Stone in 1970, "is that I've been willing to go along with the ideas that were different just because they were different, so you couldn't pin me down and say the Byrds [are] any kind of band."
Because, as a new box set -- "There Is a Season" (Columbia/Legacy) -- shows, the Byrds could be every kind of band.
McGuinn, Gene Clark and David Crosby came out of the folk scene. Chris Hillman was a young country singer. Michael Clarke, a conga player McGuinn and Crosby spied, "looked like Brian Jones and Mick Jagger combined," McGuinn says in a phone interview from his home in central Florida.
In those Beatlemania days, "We recognized the value of having a good-looking guy in the band," he adds impishly.
Later came country-rock pioneer Gram Parsons and bluegrass guitarist Clarence White, as the Byrds evolved from folk-rock groundbreakers to psychedelic experimentalists to country troubadours to ... well, by the end of the '60s, they were whatever sound emerged from the chemistry of the lineup, because Clark had quit, Crosby had joined Crosby, Stills and Nash, and Hillman and Parsons were part of the Flying Burrito Brothers. (Gallery: The legacy of the Byrds)
"The Byrds weren't so much a band as a focus, a training camp, where kids could come as novices and learn their trades and then depart, to become famous elsewhere, or disappear, or return, periodically, for a refresher course," rock critic Nik Cohn wrote in his classic pop history "Rock Dreams."
"Only Roger McGuinn remained constant, and the basic sound, and a sense of open spaces. ... The Byrds came to represent release, dreamed-of freedom for all those white-fleshed groups, in Europe and the East and the Midwest, who sat cooped up in cities, slowly choking on diesel fumes."
McGuinn, now 64, puts it more succinctly. Describing his plan for a musical career, he says, well, there wasn't one.
"I didn't really plan ahead," he recalls. "I wanted to be a soloist, like Pete Seeger. I just fell into the situation."
Making it in show business
McGuinn, who was born in Chicago, Illinois, had had an early taste of stardom. His parents were professional writers who wrote a best-seller about family life, "Parents Can't Win."
"I got a taste of travel," McGuinn recalls. "It helped shape my attitudes and gave me a love for show business." By the time he was 17, he'd chosen music as a career: "I knew what I wanted to do."
It could have all gone differently -- McGuinn acknowledges that he thought about going into television if music hadn't worked out -- but adds, "I had a string of breaks. I never really had a chance to do anything else." He played with Bobby Darin, the Limelighters and the Chad Mitchell Trio, ending up in Los Angeles as a soloist at the Troubadour, where he met Hillman and Clark, two other music veterans.
Crosby joined after hearing Clark and McGuinn harmonizing, according to David Fricke's "There Is a Season's" liner notes, and the group, first labeled the Jet Set and then the Beefeaters, started recording in 1964.
Then McGuinn, Crosby and Clark went to see "A Hard Day's Night." The Beatles film blew the musicians away; McGuinn recalls making a list of all the instruments the Beatles used. One of them was a 12-string Rickenbacker electric guitar.
And then there was a song, Bob Dylan's then-unreleased "Mr. Tambourine Man." With McGuinn's 12-string leading the way, the song became the spearhead of a new type of pop music -- "folk-rock." The single went to No. 1, and the Byrds were on their way.
Famously, McGuinn is the only Byrd who plays on "Tambourine Man"; the other Byrds weren't considered ready, so session musicians -- including drummer Hal Blaine and bassist Larry Knechtel -- filled in. McGuinn was pleased, even if the rest of the band was "pouty," he says: "I got to play with a great band."
But the rest of the Byrds quickly caught up.
"The funny thing was, the management team hired a guy from Vegas to teach us choreography," he recalls. "We were to wear suits with velvet collars and do dance steps. We didn't go along with it, and he said, 'You don't have what it takes to make it in show business.' And that's when we started to get tighter."
Band frays, but influence still felt
From that point, as the DJs used to say, the hits just kept on comin': "I'll Feel a Whole Lot Better," the No. 1 "Turn! Turn! Turn!", "Eight Miles High," "Mr. Spaceman," "So You Want to Be a Rock 'n' Roll Star."
By that time -- 1967 -- the band was fraying. Clark quit in 1966; Crosby was fired a year later; Clarke left a month after Crosby. McGuinn and Hillman added new Byrds, particularly Parsons, long enough to record the group's post-1967 high point, "Sweetheart of the Rodeo." Then Parsons and Hillman left and the Byrds underwent more changes. The original players got together for a 1973 reunion album, but though the Byrds name still sold tickets, the magic was gone.
"It didn't dawn on me until 1973 to go solo," McGuinn says now. "The Byrds were going strong. Once you get the machine cranked up it's difficult to turn off."
Columbia put out a box set in 1990, complete with newly recorded tracks. The reason for the new set, McGuinn says, is improvements in sonic technology -- not to mention the fact that the old set is out of print.
The group's influence on rock history is secure. As Tom Petty, a longtime acolyte, writes in some liner notes, "The Byrds bubbled over with great. ... These guys were not pinup boys. They were musicians."
Some of the Byrds -- Clark, Parsons, White -- have died. But Hillman, Crosby and McGuinn remain active: Hillman in country music (he had great success with the Desert Rose Band), Crosby with Crosby, Stills and Nash, and McGuinn as a solo and session musician.
Ten years ago McGuinn started the Folk Den, a way "to keep old songs alive." He says, for all the dizzying success of the Byrds, "it wasn't as rewarding as what I'm doing now."
Still, an old Byrd can always teach traditional music new tricks.
"I try to soup it up with the Rickenbacker," McGuinn says.
The Byrds in 1965: From left, David Crosby, Gene Clark, Michael Clarke, Chris Hillman, Roger McGuinn.
Like many bands of the time, the Byrds were influenced by the new sounds and sights they were experiencing. "Eight Miles High" came from a "disorienting" trip to England, McGuinn recalls.
"There were lots of cultural differences," he says. "And the press was out to get us." (The band had been overhyped as an "American answer to the Beatles.") "That was tough. But the kids liked us."
The song also showed the impact of Ravi Shankar's ragas and John Coltrane's jazz improvisations, which the group was listening to incessantly.
The whole sense of improvisation, dislocation and "high" lyrics gave the song a drug tinge, verboten in early 1966 America. It peaked at No. 14, a comedown after the huge success of "Turn! Turn! Turn!"