brent johnson digs up another lost treasure, this week from The Byrds …
The 1960s was an endless stream of perfect, three-minute pop songs that sprang up the charts. And The Byrds’ ‘I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better’ easily sounds like it could have been one of them.
Only, it wasn’t really a hit. It never officially made the Top 100. It wasn’t even the A-side of a single.
Such is part of the strange allure of The Byrds.
The California quintet are members of the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame. They scored a pair of iconic No. 1 singles. But they had the unfortunate distinction of being an American band emerging at the time of the British Invasion. They never had the popularity of The Beatles, the longevity of The Rolling Stones, or the magnetic brute force of The Who. Maybe that’s why outside of their pair of chart-toppers, they never placed another song in the Top 10. Or why you don’t hear their songs saturate oldies radio as much as their English peers.
Still, it’s the intangibles that really made The Byrds:
— They helped invent folk-rock — bringing the music and poetry of New York coffee houses to American radio by infusing the sound with a backbeat and electric guitars.
— They gave Bob Dylan his only No. 1 song, taking ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ to the peak of the Billboard Hot 100 in 1965.
— They’re the only band to turn Bible verses into a chart-topping single. Their other No. 1 hit of 1965 was ‘Turn! Turn! Turn!’ — which lifts its lyrics directly from the Book of Ecclesiastes.
— They helped popularize psychedelic rock with 1966’s trippy ‘Eight Miles High’ and country rock with their 1968 album Sweetheart Of The Rodeo.
— Their penchant for jangly 12-string riffs — played beautifully by leader Roger McGuinn — was a precursor to an entire legion of college-rock guitarists in the 1980s, from R.E.M.’s Peter Buck to The Smiths’ Johnny Marr.
— They were the band that birthed one-third of Crosby, Stills & Nash. David Crosby was The Byrds’ original rhythm guitarists.
And yes, they were also the creators of one of the great should-have-been hits of the 1960s. ‘I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better’ was the flip side of the band’s cover of Dylan’s ‘All I Want To Do,’ which scraped the Top 40 in 1965. Even as a B-side, it generated some radio play, and it has since become a cult classic — taking the No. 234 spot on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 greatest songs of all time. But it’s not quite a standard.
Pity. It’s garage-rock heaven, with a driving beat, gorgeous chords, stellar harmonies — and a clever twist on breakup songs.
Some breakup songs spew anger at an ex. Others are full of sadness or longing. Others defiantly look toward the future.
This breakup song is a rarity: Byrds singer Gene Clark — who wrote the tune — flippantly tells his philandering partner that not only does he not want her anymore, his mood is bound to improve once he’s rid of her. It’s a little cruel, a little powerful, and a little punk-rock.
Or maybe it’s not. Clark tells her that he’ll “probably feel a whole lot better” when she’s gone. Maybe he isn’t sure. Either way, for a tune that seems as lyrically simple as most mid-’60s pop tracks, it’s message is a little more complex.
It’s baffling why this never became a smash. Then again, it’s kind of charming to know the ’60s was such a magnificent time for music that even its B-sides were brilliant.