BAnd you choose its members for many reasons, but you like to believe that being able to play will be at the top of the list. It didn’t work out that way in the summer of 1964 when the Byrds, one of the most influential rock bands, was putting the finishing touches to their lineup. With four talented members already, they only lacked a drummer. Fate struck when they spotted Michael Clarke hanging out at the Troubadour Club in Los Angeles “We didn’t care whether he could play the drums or not,” Roger McGinn remembers that day with a laugh. “It looked like two Rolling Stones rolled into one!”
Specifically, Clarke flaunted Brian Jones’ bushy bangs and Mick Jagger’s lush lips, not to mention the slender physique of all the classic rock of the day. The mere fact that one of the most famous and respected bands will be endowed with features like that conclusively proves the power of looks, style and fashion in popular music. Although this may be evident in the world of contemporary pop music, these elements are rarely acknowledged in the world of rock and roll in the 1960s, when the mantra was “it’s all about the music, man”.
As McGuinn explained, “When you’re in a band, you want to create a puzzle. Visual style has always been very important for that,” he said.
A wonderful new picture-driven book, The Byrds 1964-1967, aims to prove that during that era, Byrds had as much resonance in the world of style as he was in sound. History rightly goes down by the Byrds as the band that, through amazing turns, pioneered folk rock by teasing Dylan songs like Mr Tambourine Man and Pete Seeger’s Turn! Turn or turn! Turn!, helped create psychedelic rock and raga with songs like Eight Miles High and So You Wanna Be a Rock’n’Roll Star, and set a trend in country rock with the pivotal sweetheart of the Rodeo album. With extensive interviews with the three surviving members – McGuinn, Chris Hillman, and David Crosby – the book features many entertaining details about the development of those voices, as well as the band’s frantic personal relationships along the way. But the pictures tell a different story, one unleashed by taste and whims, as well as by the power of male beauty. “Tom Petty once said, ‘The Birds were a good-looking band,’” Hellman recalls, laughing. “He said, ‘They have great hair and clothes, and we did it!'”
This angle was hardly lost in teen magazines of the mid-’60s, which featured them in “cool” photo spreads emphasized by mouth-watering captions. “In those days, before we were constantly bombarded with visuals across social media, it took a band like Byrds in teenybopper magazines and on American TV to offer a new portal for dressing,” said Holly George Warren, who co-authored Rock in Fashion with the designer. John Varvatos. “The Byrds were the band that brought the great Anglo music of the Beatles and The Stones to America.”
In fact, when the Byrds chose their initial wardrobe, their template was the early Fab Four. In this vein, they adopted a uniform look, outfitting the members with high-collar shirts and tight black velvet suits. But the look was short-lived and the members never favored it. “We didn’t like compatibility,” Hellman said.
No wonder they were relieved when their suits were stolen at a club where they were playing in one night. According to Hellman, the perpetrators were members of Little Richard’s squad. Hillman recalls, “When Roger McGowen told John Lennon about it, Lennon said, ‘I wish they’d stole it,'” Hillman recalls. our suit!'”
In fact, the Beatles’ suits were the second look that Byrds adopted. In their formative days, when they were still known as the Jet Set, early players wore crisp white shirts that made them look as clean as the choir boys. “We’ve been working with folk bands and they’ve had that look,” McGuinn said. Groups like the Kingston Trio started this group style and went with it. Gradually, we became more bohemian.”
“They’re starting to have a very individual look,” said George Warren. What I saw in that period was an early sign of what would later become the ‘counter-cultural aspect’.
One of the most well-known and imitated options early on was McGuinn’s use of small, rectangular wire-framed eyeglasses, an accessory that could be obtained cheaply at any drug store. McGuinn made them look special by tricking them with cool blue lenses. It was inspired by the round cobalt blue glasses worn by Lovin’ Spoonful singer John Sebastian whom McGuinn met in his days in the Greenwich Village folk scene. “I said, ‘Wow, these are a great shade,'” McGinn recalls. ‘ He said ‘Try them, look up at the street lights and move your head. It looks really cool! So, I put blue lenses in it. I wasn’t going to wear it all the time but then a TV producer saw it in England and said, “Everyone needs a gimmick.”
“The pop star hasn’t had that kind of impact on glasses since Buddy Holly and Roy Orbison,” said George Warren. “Later, we get to John Lennon with Grandma’s glasses.”
The book features photos of boys in the audience wearing those glasses, initially at Ciro’s, a club on the Sunset Strip where the Byrds first built an audience and scene. The club, set up in old Vegas-style booths, was big in the 1940s when the public came for acts like Tony Bennett and Sinatra. By the 1960s, she had been through hard times. Rebooking through Birds Reservation. “We filled that place up, man,” said David Crosby. “It was full of people and there was a queue down the block to get in. Everyone noticed that, which really helped us.”
The Byrds attracted more attention by having their girlfriends work as Ciro dancers, a feature they later brought with them on the road. At the same time, the behavior of the band members remained calm. “As artists, Byrds were reclusive,” Hellman said. “We weren’t a show band moving around and smiling.”
To maintain an equally cool appearance, Hillman took on a major challenge. Because he wanted to fit in with other men, he worked hard to straighten his naturally curly hair. He said, “I washed it and put a fixing gel on it.” “I was going to go through all that work and a minute later we got to the Midwest in the summer, where it’s really humid, my hair was flowing into the springs.”
Inspired by Dylan’s proud curls, Hellman finally let his hair fall loose. This coincided with the movement of different members to adopt more unusual clothes. Their appearance changed as quickly as their music. No wonder McGuinness likened Byrds to an “electronic magazine” designed to reflect an ever-changing world. Crosby introduced the ensemble’s most unusual styles, focusing on headwear. In early ’67, he made a statement remaking the classic Borsalino Fedora. “I saw Borsalino in the store and liked the color,” he said. “I decided to squish the top of it to make it look like a cowboy hat and it really worked.”
Six months later, he donned an Ushanka-style hat to match the Russian shirt he had chosen for the photo shoot. In his most theatrical moves, he wore a flowing leather robe. “If you want to see something really silly, try riding a motorcycle with a hood,” Crosby said with a laugh.
“David looked like some kind of hippie superhero riding the hills of Hollywood,” McGowen said.
Meanwhile, McGowen himself favored conservative jackets and ties but appeared in a psychedelic color. “I went to middle school where we had to wear a tie every day,” he said. “So this look was natural to me.”
McGuinn made another statement by wearing a beard, a look that was big with the Beatniks in the 1950s but fell out of fashion by the mid-1960s before McGuinn helped revive it. The look came by chance. One day, while riding Moss’ scooter, McGowen said, “I went to the barber’s cart and a slap fell on my lip.” “We had a TV show the following week, so I grew a beard to hide the bruise.”
The Byrds have had a strong visual impact on their album covers as well. Photographer Barry Feinstein used a fisheye lens to take the photograph for the first time in 1965. It was one of the first uses of the technology that later became a psychedelic cliché.
The band member who loved the camera the most was Jane Clarke, a talented singer who was also the band’s most prolific songwriter in its early days. Clarke was handsome in Hollywood, and as the photo of the men in swimwear demonstrates, he was totally ripped off. “He grew up on a farm in Kansas, so he was dumped,” Hellman said. “The guy had never gone to the gym but he looked like he did. When the curtain opens, every young woman in the house will focus on him.”
Unfortunately, Clarke had mental health issues and also developed a fear of flying which together led him to twice leave the band. “It went a little bit off the deep end,” McGuinn said. (Clark died of alcohol-related problems at age 46, as did Michael Clarke at 47.)
Although the group continued to lose members in its early years, they continued to rise musically. Their 1968 album The Notorious Byrd Brothers, completed after the group lost Crosby and Clark, was a creative triumph that moved them in a more rustic direction both acoustically and visually. Musicians’ penchant for the style persisted beyond the three years covered in the book. When Hellman left the Byrds family in 1969 to help form the Flying Burrito Brothers with ex-Bird, Gram Parsons, they became the first rockers to sport “Nudie suits,” a style made famous by country stars like Hank Williams and Porter Wagner. Designed by Nudie Cohn, these costumes featured elaborate rhinestones and extensive embroidery featuring images of the buyer’s choice. Parsons’ clothing featured marijuana leaves. Hellmann flaunts a giant peacock.
Hellmann’s choice of images highlighted one of the most revolutionary aspects of 1960s rock style. Like the peacocks of the bird world, rock music culture focused on males as sexual objects rather than females, a shift that was just as devastating in the 1960s as the music itself. “It was for the eyes of women—and men, though they would never want to admit it,” said George Warren. “They pretended that looks didn’t matter. This was always nonsense.”
Besides the widening of the sexual lens, the era has also seen changes in the category of people involved in rock music. “Before bands like the Birds, rock and roll musicians weren’t upper-middle-class,” said Danny Fields, who edited Deet Book in the 1960s and who went on to discover Iggy Pop and manage the Ramones. “They were either Elvis from the South, working-class Italian kids singing doo-wop in the Northeast, or black. The Byrds were among the first bands that white middle-class kids could really relate to. We worshiped them because they were the first American band. Brilliant makes beautiful music and has hits. And they were hot!”
Despite all the visual appeal and musical depth of the Byrds, McGuinn said he found the experience of researching the book, “a little sad, because the whole thing fell apart in the end.”
But Hellman sees the most positive side. “People who weren’t alive at that time now can look at these photos and gain a new perspective on the group and how different we are,” he said. “In all sorts of things, we were creative.”