Greatest Hits

The Byrds

1965/1999: Columbia CK 66230

  1. Mr Tambourine Man
  2. I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better
  3. The Bells of Rhymney
  4. Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There is a Season)
  5. All I Really Want to Do
  6. Chimes of Freedom
  7. Eight Miles High
  8. Mr Spaceman
  9. 5D (Fifth Dimension)
  10. So You Want to Be a Rock ’n’ Roll Star
  11. My Back Pages
  12. It Won’t Be Wrong
  13. Set You Free This Time
  14. Have You Seen Her Face

I must preface any comments I’m about to make with a very important disclaimer: I wasn’t raised on the Byrds, their work wasn’t contemporaneous to my life, and I have never fully explored their oeuvre in my adult life. Not that my comments are denigrations or even particularly negative, mind you—I just want it clear from the start that what I have to say about this album is prima facie, strictly based on uninformed impressions. Naïveté, if you like, or ignorance, or innocence…it really doesn’t matter to me, as I’m writing to celebrate, but I wanted to be clear right off the bat that I’m not making scholarly observations here.

Now that that’s out of the way, I’ll esplain why I have this CD at all, given my acknowledged ignorance as to the Byrds’ legacy. It’s very simple, actually: when I was maybe 9 or 10 I had checked out an LP from the Walla Walla Public Library that included the track “Eight Miles High,” and I was pretty amazed by it, and that recording stayed in the back of my mind for many, many years. When I finally decided, in my early adulthood, to get a copy for my ownself, I did so on the recollection that it was on another album—I think it was by the band Lighthouse, I can picture the cover but even hasn’t resolved that issue for me yet—and thus I spent years on a wild-goose chase for what should have been an easy acquisition.

When I finally got smart and simply searched for a song called “Eight Miles High,” things came together and I zoomed in to this Greatest Hits collection. As I’ve written elsewhere, I’m not really a fan of Greatest Hits things but in this case it did have the one song I was looking for for so long, and it seemed a reasonable solution to just get the damned thing after all this time. When I finished playing the track in question countless times to satiate myself and got around to listening to the rest, I realized I was skimming only the surface of a profound amount of 1960s rock history’s development that I’d either avoided or escaped knowing about, depending on your point of view. I mean, I know this kind of development was vitally important in Rock Music History, but does it actually merit obsessive deification and analysis in the greater perspective of all Music History, even all Rock Music History? The Byrds, The Who, The Stones, The Whoevers, they were all part of the picture, but I can’t quite bring myself to think of them as a pantheon of Olympian gods as they seem to be (or have been) to others with more personal connections to those days.

And certainly, as I’ve indicated in my comments about Beatles recordings, they may or may not have been “groundbreaking” but in any case they certainly were far from immaculate, and the sloppiness and other flaws of those recordings (and I’m referring now to the performances, not the technical recording processes) have long kept even the most allegedly iconic and earth-shatteringly brilliant recordings at arm’s length, for me: maybe it’s just that they’re so massively eclipsed (in most cases, not all) by what has followed, but I frankly can’t find the bulk of these recordings so massively innovative or even (in some cases) good.

Having said all that…. I have mixed reactions to this Byrds compilation, but I’ll start with the track that I first knew of (even erroneously attributed), “Eight Miles High.” Of course when I heard it as a child I had no awareness of its drug-trip connotations or implications…but even now I listen to it and think “well, yeah, I suppose it could be drug-trip-related, but that’s not crucial to the song, really.” And actually what I hear when I play it now is a tribute to the British Invasion sound of the 1960s—“rain-grey town, known for its sound…in places small faces unbound…” Liverpool?

And overall most of this album doesn’t particularly grab me. With exceptions. At the top of that list would be the “bonus track” “It Won’t Be Wrong,” (originally released on 1965’s “Turn! Turn! Turn!” but even before that, in 1964, in a less gripping form called “Don’t Be Long”), which still dazzles me. That track massively upstages “Eight Miles High,” for me, but then I’m a confessed fan of melodic and chorded beauty, and “It Won’t Be Wrong” gushes so beautifully and darkly within its pop-song structure. I love how it darkly and sensuously sways along its melodic spine and flares into passionate vocal chords almost parenthetically…. And such chord flares! I never tire of listening to this track (and the louder the better)….