Turn! Turn! Turn!

Uncut, 2016

IF The Byrds’ second album resembled a delayed second half of their first, there were reasons. The Byrds began recording “Turn! Turn! Turn!” the week after “Mr Tambourine Man” reached the shops; the two would be released six months apart. This was not an uncommon schedule amid the hurly-burly of the 1960s – the entire Beatles catalogue was issued in a blink over seven years – but it didn’t permit protracted cogitation. Like its (very immediate) predecessor, “Turn! Turn! Turn!” was a mixture of original compositions, Dylan covers, and selections from the American traditional canon.

And like its predecessor, “Turn! Turn! Turn!” was glorious, nigh flawless. Half a century on, it astonishes: an album which embodies yet transcends its times, sheer sunshine through your speakers. The revelatory potence it must have had at the time can only be wondered at, though something of The Byrds’ contemporary dazzle can be glimpsed in Lester Bangs’ Rolling Stone review of 1969’s “Preflyte”, a compilation of demos recorded by The Byrds before signing to Columbia: “They took the  basic lessons of The Beatles and the Stones, filtered them through Dylan and the less pretentious aspects of the folk scene, and came up with a big, new, visionary sound.”

But a major reason why The Byrds startled then, and endure now, was that while they were assuredly innovators – every subsequent bunch of suede-jacketed janglers owes them massively – they were never iconoclasts. The Byrds’ eventual embrace – or, really, invention – of what we now think of as “Americana” was entirely in keeping with a learned love of the deepest-rooted traditional idioms. Proper credits for the opening/title track of “Turn! Turn! Turn!” are music by Pete Seeger, lyrics by King Solomon, via the Book of Ecclesiastes, specifically chapter three, verses one through eight. The album closes with “Oh! Susannah”, the 19th century Stephen Foster minstrel singalong, the banjo on the singer’s knee replaced with a Rickenbacker: it’s both a giddy, unselfconscious joy in itself, and an early omen of the complete immersion in folk and country that The Byrds would later undertake on “Sweetheart Of The Rodeo”.

The Byrds also tempered their obvious psychedelic instincts with a rigorous discipline, understanding that the way to get weird sounds onto the radio and into people’s heads was to make sure they were set to a tune you could whistle (among those who absorbed this lesson were visitors to the “Turn! Turn! Turn!” sessions Paul McCartney and George Harrison, hanging out at the end of The Beatles’ 1965 US tour, shortly before returning to the UK to start on “Rubber Soul”). The Byrds would shift sounds, styles and lineups over the albums that followed “Turn! Turn! Turn!”, but they never wavered in their prioritising of melody above all other considerations: the more successful of The Byrds’ legion heirs on both sides of the Atlantic, from R.E.M. to The Smiths to Teenage Fanclub, would also adhere to this credo.

The Byrds’ choices from Bob Dylan’s songbook here are telling on this front. “Lay Down Your Weary Tune” and “The Times They Are A-Changin’” both contain multitudes, as Dylan’s songs generally do, but of all the things The Byrds could have played up, they make both all about the tune, the former gentle and mournful, the latter brash and bright. As was the case with the four Dylan covers The Byrds had recorded for “Mr Tambourine Man”, the chiming guitars and ringing harmonies reveal brilliant dimensions to the songs that Dylan’s own fretful, snarling delivery had suppressed. Dylan had not much troubled to cut the diamonds he’d disinterred: it took The Byrds to turn them into jewels.

There are two other covers on “Turn! Turn! Turn!”. “Satisfied Mind” is another early flirtation with Nashville, a Joe Hayes/Jack Rhodes standard recorded by pretty much everyone, most famously to this point by Porter Wagoner. The Byrds spotted the overlap of the hardscrabble fatalism and poor man’s pride that dominates the country lexicon with the pious rejection of materialism extolled by their shaggy-haired hippy friends in California (“The wealthiest person/Is a pauper at times/Compared to the man/With a satisfied mind,” etc). “He Was A Friend Of Mine” is a hoary trad ballad which Roger McGuinn had rewritten on the night of November 22nd, 1963, in deliberately archaic demotic, as a lament for John F. Kennedy (“He was in Dallas town/From a sixth-floor window a gunner shot him down”). If it’s a little mawkish, and it is (“Leader of a nation/For such a precious time”) this is forgivable; the lustre had not yet been stripped from Camelot by more sober appreciation of Kennedy’s personal recklessness.

The five original Byrds compositions on “Turn! Turn! Turn!” are mostly the work of Gene Clark, recording his last Byrds album before leaving the group, a sundering prompted by the difficulty of accommodating that many egos on one stage, and by Clark’s pathological horror of aeroplanes (McGuinn is said to have informed him, with possibly too-good-to-check succinctness, “If you can’t fly, you can’t be a Byrd.”) They are all exquisite. “Set You Free This Time” is a lament to languished possibilities, the stately guitars a counterpoint to the frantic, jabbered grief of the lyrics. “The World Turns All Around Her” is a somewhat older and wearier cousin to “I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better”. “If You’re Gone” is a bleak confessional again redeemed, as is all of Clark’s largely mournful catalogue, by his inability to write anything not possessed of a tune like spring coming. These three songs total less than eight minutes, and in them you can hear the entire careers of Big Star, The Flamin’ Groovies and The Go-Betweens.

McGuinn, still officially known as Jim McGuinn – he adopted “Roger” later, after embracing an Indonesian faith called Subud, as was the style at the time – provides the two remaining tracks. “It Won’t Be Wrong” had previously been released by a fledgling Byrds as “Don’t Be Long”, under the name The Beefeaters, and richly deserved this exhumation and reupholstering. “Wait And See”, McGuinn’s first collaboration with David Crosby, is the closest the album has to a weak track, a colour-by-numbers beat single down to the rhymes of “walking” with “talking” and “eyes” with “realise”, which should have elicited weary groans from the rest of the group even at this early stage in the development of rock’n’roll – a process which The Byrds had suffused with renewed energy, and not for the last time.