Bands choose their members for many reasons, but you’d think the ability to play would be at the top of the list. It didn’t quite work out that way in the summer of 1964 when the Byrds, one of rock’s most influential bands, were finalizing their line-up. With four very talented members already in place, they only needed a drummer. Fate struck when they saw Michael Clarke walking past the Troubadour club in LA “We didn’t care if he could play drums or not,” Roger McGuinn recalled with a laugh the other day. “He looked like two of the Rolling Stones rolled into one!”
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Specifically, Clarke boasted the dense bangs of Brian Jones and the lush lips of Mick Jagger, not to mention the slender physique of all of today’s classic rockers. Just the fact that one of music’s most revered and respected bands would reward features that they do so highly proves definitively the power look, style and fashion in popular music. While it may be obvious in the world of modern pop, such elements were far more rarely recognized in the rock’n’roll world of the 60s, when the mantra was “it’s about the music, man.”
As McGuinn made clear, “when you’re in a band, you want to create a mystique. Visual style has always been very important to that,” he said.
A lovely new photo-driven book, entitled The Byrds 1964-67, aims to prove that during that era the Byrds resonated almost as much in the realm of style as they did in sound. History rightly records the Byrds as the band that, at dizzying turns, pioneered folk rock by electrifying Dylan songs like Mr Tambourine Man and Pete Seeger’s Turn! Turn! Turn!, helped create psychedelic and raga rock 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 seminal Sweetheart of the Rodeo album. Through extensive interviews with the three surviving original members – McGuinn, Chris Hillman and David Crosby – the book contains many entertaining details about the development of these sounds, as well as the band’s difficult interpersonal relationships along the way. But the images tell a different story, one fired by a sartorial flair and whimsy, as well as by the power of male beauty. “Tom Petty once said, ‘The Byrds were a good band,'” Hillman recalled with a laugh. “He said, ‘they had great hair and clothes,’ and we did!”
That angle was hardly lost on the youth magazines of the mid-’60s, which featured them in “groovy” photo spreads underscored by drooling captions. “In those days, before we were constantly bombarded with visual images through social media, it took the presence of a band like the Byrds in teenybopper magazines and on American TV to present a new gateway to dressing,” said Holly George-Warren. who wrote the book Rock in Fashion together with designer John Varvatos. “The Byrds were the band that brought the Anglo cool introduced by the Beatles and the Stones to America.”
In fact, when the Byrds chose their first wardrobe, their template was the early Fab Four. In doing so, they adopted a uniform look, outfitting the members with tab-collared shirts and tight black suits trimmed in velvet. But the look didn’t last long and the members never favored it. “We didn’t like the matchup,” Hillman said.
No wonder they were relieved when their outfits were stolen at a club they were playing at one night. According to Hillman, the culprits were members of Little Richard’s band. “When Roger McGuinn told John Lennon about it,” Hillman recalled, “Lennon said, ‘I wish they had stolen ours suits!’”
In fact, the Beatle suits were the second look adopted by the Byrds. In their formative days, when they were still known as the Jet Set, the first players wore crisp white shirts that made them look as stylish as choirboys. “We had worked with folk bands and they had that look,” McGuinn said. “Groups like the Kingston Trio started the collegiate style and we went with it. Gradually we became more bohemian.”
“They started adopting very individual looks,” George-Warren said. “What you saw in that period was an early sign of what would later become the ‘counterculture look’.”
One of the most notable, and imitated, early style choices was McGuinn’s use of tiny, rectangular wire-rimmed glasses, an accessory that can be obtained cheaply at any drugstore. McGuinn made them look distinct by tricking them out with cool blue lenses. He was inspired by the round cobalt blue glasses worn by Lovin’ Spoonful singer John Sebastian whom McGuinn had met in his days on the Greenwich Village folk scene. “I said, ‘wow, those are cool shades!'” McGuinn recalled. “He said ‘try them, look up at the street lights and move your head around. It looks really groovy!’ So I put in the blue lenses. I wasn’t going to use them all the time, but then a TV producer in England saw them and said, “everyone needs a gimmick.”
“A pop star hadn’t had that kind of effect on glasses since Buddy Holly and Roy Orbison,” George-Warren said. “Later we got to see John Lennon with his granny glasses.”
The book includes photos of guys in the audience wearing these glasses, first at Ciro’s, a club on the Sunset Strip where the Byrds first built an audience and a stage. The club, which was outfitted in old Vegas-style booths, had been big in the 1940s, when crowds came for acts like Tony Bennett and Sinatra. In the 60s it had fallen on hard times. The bookers revived it by booking the Byrds. “We filled that place, man,” David Crosby said. “It was packed with people and there was a line down the block to get in. Everyone noticed, which really helped us.”
The Byrds attracted further attention by having their female friends act as go-go dancers at Ciro’s, a feature they later took on the road. At the same time, the demeanor of the band members remained cool. “As performers, the Byrds were reserved,” Hillman said. “We weren’t a show band that moved around and smiled.”
To maintain an equally cool look, Hillman faced a significant challenge. Because he wanted to fit in with the other guys, he worked hard to straighten his naturally curly hair. “I washed it out and put a setting gel on it,” he said. “I would go through all that work, and as soon as we got to the Midwest in the summer, where it’s very humid, my hair would ‘bubble’ into springs.”
Inspired by Dylan’s proud curls, Hillman finally let her hair go wild. It coincided with several members’ move to adopt more unusual clothing. Their looks changed as quickly as their music did. No wonder McGuinn compared the Byrds to “an electronic magazine” designed to reflect an ever-changing world. Crosby introduced the most eccentric styles in the band, with headdresses in focus. In early ’67, he made a statement by redesigning a classic Borsalino fedora. “I saw the Borsalino in the store and I liked the color,” he said. “I decided to crush the top of it to make it look like a cowboy hat, and it really worked.”
Six months later, he wore an ushanka-style hat to match the Russian shirt he had chosen for a photo shoot. In his most theatrical move, he wore a flowing leather cape. “If you want to see something really stupid, try riding a motorcycle with a cape on,” Crosby said with a laugh.
“David looked like some kind of hippie superhero driving through the Hollywood Hills,” McGuinn said.
Meanwhile, McGuinn himself favored conservative jackets and ties, but flashed psychedelic colors. “I went to prep school where we had to wear a tie every day,” he said. “So that look was normal to me.”
McGuinn made another statement by sporting a goatee, a look that had been big with beatniks in the ’50s but fell out of style in the mid-’60s before McGuinn helped revive it. The look came by accident. One day, while riding a shave scooter, “I went bam and landed smack on my lip,” McGuinn said. “We had a TV show next week so I grew a goatee to hide the bruise.”
The Byrds also had a strong visual impact on their album covers. Photographer Barry Feinstein used a fisheye lens to capture the image for their debut in 1965. It was one of the first uses of a technique that later became a psychedelic cliché.
The band member the camera loved most was Gene Clark, a gifted singer who was also the band’s most prolific songwriter in the early days. Clark was Hollywood handsome and, as a photo of the guys in bathing suits makes clear, totally shredded. “He grew up on a farm in Kansas, so he was polished,” Hillman said. “The guy never went to the gym, but he looked like he did. When the curtain opened, every young lady in the house would focus right on him.”
Unfortunately, Clark had mental health issues and also developed a fear of flying which together caused him to quit the band twice. “He just went off the deep end,” McGuinn said. (Clark died of alcohol-related problems at 46, as did Michael Clarke at 47.)
Although the group continued to lose members in the early years, they continued to soar musically. Their 1968 album The Notorious Byrd Brothers, which ended after the group lost both Crosby and Clark, was a creative triumph that moved them in a more rustic direction both sonically and visually. The musicians’ flair for style lasted beyond the three years covered by the book. When Hillman left the Byrds in 1969 to help form the Flying Burrito Brothers with another ex-Byrd, Gram Parsons, they became the first rockers to wear “Nudie suits,” a style popularized by country stars such as Hank Williams and Porter Wagoner. Created by Nudie Cohn, these outfits featured elaborate rhinestones and dense embroidery with images of the buyer’s choice. Parsons’ outfit contained marijuana leaves. Hillman’s boasted giant peacocks.
Hillman’s choice of images highlighted one of the most revolutionary aspects of the rock style of the 60s. Like peacocks in the aviary world, rock culture focused on men as sex objects rather than women, a shift that was as subversive in the 60s as the music itself. “It was for the gaze of women – and men, even if they would never admit it,” said George-Warren. “They pretended that looks don’t matter. It was always nonsense.”
Beyond the broadening of the sexual lens, the era also saw changes in the class of people involved in rock. “Before bands like the Byrds, rock ‘n’ roll musicians had never come from the upper middle class,” said Danny Fields, who edited the youth magazine Datebook in the ’60s and went on to discover Iggy Pop and manage the Ramones. “They were either like Elvis from the South, or working-class Italian kids singing doo-wop in the Northeast, or Black. The Byrds were among the first bands that middle-class white kids could really relate to. We worshiped them because they were the first cool thing American band that made beautiful music and had hits. And they were hot!”
For all of Byrd’s visual allure and musical depth, McGuinn said he found the experience of looking through the book, “a little sad, because it all fell apart in the end.”
But Hillman sees the more positive side. “People who weren’t even alive at the time can now look at these pictures and get a new perspective on the group and how different we were,” he said. “In all sorts of things we were creative.”