Certain Songs #160: The Byrds – “So You Want to Be A Rock ‘n’ Roll Star”

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Album: Younger Than Yesterday.

Year: 1967.

With its driving circular riff, Hugh Masekela trumpet and sound effects of screaming girls, “So You Want To Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star” pretty much says its piece and gets the hell out of the way. With no chorus and deeply cynical lyrics – could be aimed at The Monkees, or it could be aimed at The Byrds themselves –i t was probably also the first Byrds song I noticed on the radio, and therefore, a key reason I decided to check them out.

So you want to be a rock ‘n’ roll star
Then listen now to what I say
Just get an electric guitar
And take some time and learn how to play
And when your hair’s combed right and your pants fit tight
It’s gonna be all right

The beauty of this song to me is that it reads more cynically than it plays. While the new, more experimental period signified by “Eight Miles High” in retrospect clearly also signified the commercial death knell (relatively speaking, of course) of The Byrds, the reality is that they were only a commercial powerhouse in 1965, when folk-rock felt new.  

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 will tear you apart

So even as the four albums they released from 1966-1968 were among the greatest in the 60s, all for totally different reasons, fewer and fewer people heard them.  And by the time they wrote “So You Wanna Be A Rock ‘n’ Roll Star,” a seemingly surefire single if there ever was one, it barely dented the top 30. Of course maybe that’s because it wasn’t so surefire after all, as McGuinn & Hillman neglected to come up with a chorus outside of the “La-la-las” at the end.

What you pay for your riches and fame
Was it all a strange game
You’re a little insane
The money that came and the public acclaim
Don’t forget what you are
You’re a rock’n’roll star 

Many many years later – in 1984, I believe – MTV did a show called “Rock Influences,” which purported to take a contemporary band and show how they were influenced by a particular musical genre. The inaugural episode featured R.E.M. and the genre was Folk-Rock.

So along with some boss vintage clips – including the first time I ever saw a clip of Bob Dylan just killing it with “Maggie’s Farm” at the Newport Folk Festival – “Rock Influences” showed excerpts from a R.E.M. show where various folk-rock luminaries like John Sebastian and Roger McGuinn shared the stage with them.

John Sebastian, of course, seemed fine with the whole thing, sporting his auto-harp and enthusastically singing “Do You Believe in Magic” while Michael Stipe and Mike Mills sang “ahhhhhhhhhhs” in the background. It wasn’t great, but it was kinda fun.

But the “So You Want to Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star” with Roger McGuinn was kind of a trainwreck. He clearly didn’t want to be there, and there is a moment in the first verse where Michael Stipe sings the wrong words on the harmonies and you could almost see McGuinn do the mental calculation on whether or not he’s going to hit Stipe over the head with his guitar.

Fan-Made Video for “So You Want to Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star”

R.E.M. & Roger McGuinn perform “So You Want to Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star” live in 1984

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