#127: The Byrds, "Younger Than Yesterday" (1967)

127 Younger Than Yesterday.jpg

Keys jangle. Nerves jangle. Most of all, the Byrds jangle.

It’s because the Byrds jangled that we have the Athenian jangle of R.E.M. and Love Tractor, the Antipodean jangle of the Go-Betweens and the Church. The Byrds compelled the Hang-Ups and the Jayhawks to jangle up one side of Hennepin Ave. and down the other. (The Replacements’ Let It Be is a catalog of embittered, dysphoric anti-jangles.) In far-flung Manchester, Johnny Marr became the preeminent jangler of his or perhaps any generation; in Glasgow, Edwyn Collins wore his fringe, by his own admission, like Roger McGuinn’s. Tom Petty—may he rest in peace—jangled.

The jangle is a kind of figuration, an element of musical material that occupies the foreground-most parallax plane. It’s often an accompanimental texture, but just as often—deemed sufficiently pleasing on its own—it accompanies nothing. Jangles lend themselves especially well to introductions, where the intricacy of their glimmering wiry webs can be admired before the singing starts. In virtually every case, a jangle is a warning that a white man is about to cut to what he perceives to be the heart of the matter in a way that is at once earnest and coolly detached, sunny and in shades.

Younger Than Yesterday is a Wunderkammer of jangles. They may not be what makes the album great—that distinction might go to the record’s wit, its geniality, or its generosity—but they’re the medium in which it is made great. Three of them are explored in greater detail below; each transcription is accompanied by a hierarchical reduction on the lower staff.

 

“So You Want To Be A Rock ‘n’ Roll Star”

The stereo release of Younger Than Yesterday begins with a riddle: a jangle, but only in your left ear. Until the silence of the right channel is broken by the drums, one has to wonder: did I buy the wrong version? Has one of my hi-fi’s banana plugs gone rotten? But the Byrds are laughing with you, not at you. You want to be a rock and roll star so badly? Here, join us on the stage—the only place where the guitarist is on your left and the drummer is on your right. In this relatively good-natured entry in the only somewhat sufferable canon of songs about what a drag it is to be an impossibly cool and famous rocker in 1967, the stereo mix is your invitation to walk a mile in David Crosby’s Chelsea boots.

 

   Fig. 1: “So You Want To Be A Rock ‘n’ Roll Star”

Fig. 1: “So You Want To Be A Rock ‘n’ Roll Star”

The song’s jangle itself betokens rock and roll: a heavier touch, a heavier amp, and it might have anchored someone else’s arena-rock single ten years down the line had McGuinn not scooped it up. In the right light, the parallel fifths that outline the harmonic progression from ♭VII to I are no more than deconstructed power chords. As presented, however, the jangle’s essential jangleness is unmistakable; it inheres in the syncopation that brings the A halfway through the second beat rather than on the third, the leaps from string to string, the ringing sustain.

This jangle is a prime specimen: clean, bright, endearing. Stephen Malkmus’s Ess-Dog undoubtedly loved it. The notorious jangle of “Turn! Turn! Turn!”—with an overhanging ninth that seems to contain all the real wonder and tumult of an era now reduced to montages of hippies and Hueys—is an imponderable koan compared to the jangle of “So You Want To Be A Rock ‘n’ Roll Star.” You want to be a rock and roll star? It’s as simple as this.

 

“The Girl With No Name”

The ideal instrument with which to jangle is a twelve-string Rickenbacker (not least because it was McGuinn’s weapon of choice), but credible jangles have been perpetrated with Telecasters, Jazzmasters, ES-335s, and Les Pauls, among others. “The Girl With No Name”’s jangle is rendered by a twelve-string acoustic guitar, an orchestrational citation of the jangle’s fingerpicking folk origins.

   Fig. 2: “The Girl With No Name”

Fig. 2: “The Girl With No Name”

Like “So You Want To Be A Rock ‘n’ Roll Star,” “The Girl With No Name” opens with a jangle whose job is to decorate a prolongation of tonic by way of its lower neighbor ♭VII. Unlike the former jangle, however, the latter has a small crease, an irregularity that casual listening may not reveal: the G-natural in the second beat prefigures the root of the second chord, and the A in the third beat recollects the root of the first. (The dashed slurs in figure 2’s reduction indicate this relationship.) We might instead expect an A in the second beat and a B in the third; this more normative arrangement would produce a downward G-major arpeggio, loosely mirroring the ascending A major triad in the first half of the bar.

But the jangle is heteronomous. Its suspensions and anticipations do not necessarily resolve as one supposes they will. It is captive to the affordances of the instrument, the chutes and ladders of fingerboard geometry. It unspools at the whim of the guitarist, who in the case of “The Girl With No Name” was almost certainly stoned at the time of its composition. (The songwriting credit goes to bassist Chris Hillman, but one imagines that the jangle itself must have been hatched by McGuinn or Crosby.) A jangle is a part of the song it embroiders, but sometimes it catches a fancy of its own—so satisfying to play, so happy to be heard.

 

“My Back Pages”

That’s only sometimes. Other times, a jangle is the only jewel that fits in the song’s crown. The chimes that begin “My Back Pages” represent a distillation of the jangle to its barest essence and a crystallization of the contradiction at the song’s heart. A janglified fanfare, an austere pillar of perfect fourths, a no-tricks demonstration of the guitar’s very tuning: the jangle of “My Back Pages” is even simpler than the one from “So You Want To Be A Rock ‘n’ Roll Star.” A fifth and its root, a root and its fifth.

   Fig. 3: “My Back Pages”

Fig. 3: “My Back Pages”

The last three notes of the jangle—A, E, and A—begin, in true jangle style, not at the halfway point of the bar but an eighth note earlier. They are the three dots of an ellipsis that turns what had seemed to be a wall into a door, or at least a raising of the eyebrows in the direction of a window. It turns a rote double suspension, almost a straight-up subdominant, into an unexpectedly broadened possibility-space. That’s the kind of renewed lease on the future you might enjoy if you’re finally old enough to recognize and correct your youthful foibles but still young enough to have plenty of road ahead of you—and if you have enough self-knowledge to be aware of your place in life’s journey but not so much self-knowledge that you recoil from the undeniable preciousness and self-involvement of Bob Dylan’s lyrics. Now that you’ve got it all figured out, the jangle winks, the world is your oyster.

The Byrds were in their mid-20s when they made Younger Than Yesterday; it’s not hard to see the appeal that sentiment might have held for them. But what does it have to offer us now? When I was a few years older than that, I accompanied a vanload of North Dakota high schoolers on a tour of their home state. We were bringing a theatrical production to the public parks of their hometowns—some large, by the standards of North Dakota cities, and some very small. One day on the road (somewhere between Wishek and Jamestown, I think), a young man who was yet some years away from the kind of epiphany celebrated in “My Back Pages” asked me, wide-eyed, how to act on a first date.

It might not have meant anything to him, but I should have said that the jangle is how to act on a first date: light but honest, clever but genuine. That’s not a perfect answer, because the jangle’s not perfect; when it errs, it errs on the side of being too pleased with itself, and that’s not a great look on a riff or a dinner companion. All in all, however, it’s as good a model for construing and presenting yourself as any figurational construct in rock songcraft. If you have to be a white man with matters whose hearts must be cut to, let the jangle be your scalpel. That’s what I should have told that boy from North Dakota, with Younger Than Yesterday playing on the van’s stereo.

—Colin Holter