So You Want To Be a Rock’N’Roll Star
The Byrds’ classic was a rebuke to the Monkees. And a great song.
There were a lot of home grown answers to the British Invasion. One of the earliest, strongest and most resonant blasts back across the Atlantic came from The Byrds. For home grown cool, you couldn’t do much better. With the distinctive chime of Roger McGuinn’s 12-string Rickenbacker they electrified and amplified folk music, paying particular attention to Bob Dylan. His move from acoustic to electric guitar was in no small part their doing. The first hit they had was his song “Mr. Tambourine Man,” and it was a doozy. Featuring the catchiest lick this side of “Satisfaction,” it was all peaches and cream vocally. Frankly the last time I liked David Crosby was when he was padding out the amazing vocal blend this band possessed.
Early on their secret weapon was the songs written by Gene Clark. They were startling in the way they reminded you of The Beatles without a hint of copyright infringement. “I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better” is desert island great. Clark was a troubled man and the group was led by McGuinn. I don’t know what the dynamic was, but he was gone after a few records and the focus was back on the leader. Also stepping up to the plate was bassist Chris Hillman. On their fourth album, “Younger Than Yesterday, “ he contributed four songs and co-wrote today’s subject, “So You Want To Be a Rock’N’Roll Star.”
Although it was written as a light rebuke to The Monkees and other instant pop stars, it really needs no back story. It’s an exciting roller coaster ride, all tempo as it winds over, around and down. Based on a nifty riff from McGuinn and a propulsive bass line by Hillman, it more than likely features some of the Wrecking Crew, the A list session players in L.A. But the drummer is the Byrds’ own Mike Clark and he nails it.
The words, as concise and funny as they need to be, skewer the rock biz in under two minutes.
So you want to be a rock and roll star?
Then listen now to what I say
Just get an electric guitar
Then take some time and learn how to play
And with your hair swung right
And your pants too tight, it’s gonna be all right
Then it’s time to go downtown
Where the agent man won’t let you down
Sell your soul to the company
Who are waiting there to sell plastic ware
And in a week or two if you make the charts
The girls’ll tear you apart
The price you paid for your riches and fame
Was it all a strange game? You’re a little insane
The money, the fame, and the public acclaim
Don’t forget who you are, you’re a rock and roll star
© Chris Hillman, Roger Mc Guinn
Musically this is interesting because it doesn’t reach the home key of D until the chorus, which gives it a searching quality. The verses are all G and A, better known as the four and five chords in that key. They point toward resolution, but hold off as McGuinn works his magic. Riding atop this supercharged riff is the South African trumpeter, Hugh Masekela. This is long before Graceland. Speculating here, but several of The Byrds came from folk backgrounds and they may have met his wife Miriam Makeba in a coffee house. With the overdubbed screams and the fast tempo it all translates into a heckuva ride while it lasts. Surprisingly, it stalled at #29 on the charts and never really did anything in England. It did go on to become a classic of sorts, recorded by Tom Petty and Patti Smith, among others.
Like most good groups, the Byrds couldn’t get along and eventually fell apart. McGuinn went on to a few more versions of the band, notably the one with Clarence White and Gram Parsons. Their album, “Sweetheart Of The Rodeo,” is groundbreaking in it’s unabashed love of country music. It gave permission to all kinds of groups to do the same, but remains a pinnacle in that field. Crosby hooked up with a couple others guys — Steven Stills and Graham Nash — who had already been in their best bands and took the harmony thing to it’s logical conclusion. I prefer The Hollies and Buffalo Springfield, but the rest of the world disagrees.
1967 was a watershed year. The unofficial break with the early and mid 60’s happened at ten minutes after three on a sunny day somewhere in San Francisco. They’re still trying to pinpoint it. After that tidal change things went a little too bell-bottom-y and wishy washy for me to view it as progress. But good things were around the corner — Punk, Funk and more. The spirit of that truly vital era lives on in today’s music, just somewhere left of center on the radio dial.
Correction 12:20 p.m. March 20: Hal Blaine, the drummer I originally credited for being on this track, wasn’t. It was Mike Clark. I have been corrected by two people I trust, one who was in touch with Blaine. Blaine was a solid, creative presence on so many hits, I assumed it was true. The knock on Mike Clark came after the “Mr. Tambourine Man” session with Blaine on drums and Larry Knechtel on bass. Being bumped stung and he threw a loud public fit (and adding insult was that “Mr. Tambourine Man” was a smash). Anyway I now know better. Clark and Chris Hillman nailed this groove perfectly and also played on the seminal “Eight Miles High.” My apologies to him for not looking deeply enough into this story.