Revisiting The Byrds’ “So You Want To Be a Rock N Roll Star” After 55 Years, From The Monkees To REM

In late December, Tom Petty’s Twitter account reappeared in 1985 in a live clip of Petty and his band The Heartbreakers running on The Byrds’ “So You Want to Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star.” The band is on a lively peak, all tightly wrapped tight and simple confidence, as they navigate through the singles.

In fact, Petty makes it easy to achieve stardom. “So you wanna be a rock ‘n’ roll star/Okay, listen now, hear what I’m saying/Just get an electric guitar, take some time and learn how to play,” he sings, assuming a quiet road-like tone—a sage wearing advice to a younger musician. Even a potential hitch sparkles with confidence. When he warns, “And in a week or two, if you draw the charts, the girls will tear you apart,” the look on his face looks halfway between horror and delight.

In the burgeoning hands of Petty and the Heartbreakers, “So You Want to Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star” is a blueprint for stardom. However, over the years the song has been covered dozens of times, turning into an emotional lament, a mission statement, pieces of social commentary, and even an aspirational anthem.

The Byrds original, released January 9, 1967, is itself part cautionary tale, and part entertainment in the ever-changing musical trends. “We were browsing through a teen magazine and looking at all the unfamiliar faces and couldn’t help but think: ‘Wow, what’s going on…suddenly here’s everyone and his brother and sister-in-law and his wife’” Leader Roger McGinn said in a 1973 interview with ZigZag: “His mother and even his animal frog. The pet sings rock and roll.

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Words put forward a simple equation (get a guitar, learn to play it, look the part) but then warn of the consequences of fame: fickle audiences, the business side of things, personal sacrifice. There is a subtle undercurrent of dehumanization in all of this: becoming famous involves “selling out”[ing] Your soul for the company, the ‘plastic ‘hawk’ – the idea of ​​a rock star as a commodity further emphasizes Byrds with these lines: ‘Don’t forget what you are/You are a rock and roll star. “

However, in the same ZigZag interview, McGuinn downplayed the song’s reputation for being bitter. “So we wrote So You Want to Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star for potential rock star audiences, those who would make it, or who wanted to be, and those who actually went on to achieve their goals.”

The song is supposed to be inspired in part by the beloved TV band-turned-real-star Monkees—a comparison some view as unflattering. (For what it’s worth, the song meant to insult the Monkees was likely news to the late Peter Turk, who told Rolling Stone in 2007, “Nobody said anything like that to me. I took it at face value.”)

In the book Valley of Dreams: The Magic and Music of Laurel Canyon, McGinn and Hellman refute the So You Want to Be a Rock and Roll Star that is meant to insult the Monkees. McGuinn referred to the song as a “satire” of the “rip and burn” mentality of the music business, while Hillman directly said that the song “was not a character against the Monkees” but rather was “against the process, how contrived it was, like a boot-up on a ‘Tough Night’ “…Michael Nesmith was a good musician, good writer and good singer. The rest of these guys could handle their chores.”


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Musically, “So You Want to Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star” heralded a new chapter for Byrds. Jazz musician/singer Chris Hellman began taking on more songwriting duties starting from this era, initially generating musical ideas for this song when conducting a session with South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela. McGinn added his point when he and Hellman met. He said in 2015: “I showed Chris the guitar and he liked it. We wrote the whole thing in one afternoon, just like a tongue-in-cheek song.”

The result is another psychedelic, spiky folk classic from Byrds, with airtight harmonies and riffs bursting with delicious hazy tension. Masekela also contributes a great single, fluid on top of the song that cuts through any bitterness and adds an air of sophistication.

Perhaps not surprisingly, “So You Want to Be a Rock and Roll Star” quickly became the cover favorite. In the following years, The Move, Nazareth, and Black Oak Arkansas all focused on it. Most importantly, Patti Smith’s 1979 album “Wave” opened with Barnstorm’s cover of the song. In notes for the “Wave” line, Smith remembers hearing the song for the first time: “He seemed to say that in this line of honor, sooner or later everyone would get hurt and I couldn’t believe it.” However, those words were placed under a picture of her brother Todd Smith with some facial damage, courtesy of Master Vicious from the Sex Pistols.

With this context, “So You Want to Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star” becomes a whirlwind of conflicting emotions: impatience with bad behavior, doubt about fame, righteous anger, and a desire to do things better. Smith adds lyrics (“It’s a wicked game/You’re a little crazy”) and subtly alters the words out of Byrds. In this 1979 issue, stardom looks like a uniform – “when the hair is combed right / and your pants are tight” – while Al Byrds describes the pants as being “too tight,” a sacrifice for fame.

Honestly, instead of singing “Don’t forget who you are/You’re a rock ‘n’ roll star,” she shouts, “Don’t forget who you are/You’re a rock ‘n’ roll star.” On one reading, the latter may be worn as the Medal of Honor; Here, it can seem like a satirical quest towards someone who lives up to every bad cliché about fame. However, Patti Smith’s 1979 live set is cathartic and urgent. More so, it is reclaiming the surplus as they plant a flag for rock and roll stars in their own way.

Whether this promise can ever be fulfilled remains a thorny question. Decades later, artists are still grappling with the balance of stardom and self. For example, at the 1999 live performances, Counting Crows sang several lines from “So You Want to Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star” to preface their hugely successful ‘Mr. folk rock’ hit. Hearing forward Adam Duritz pleading, “Learn how Playing ‘in a sad, sharp voice at Woodstock 1999, I felt so disoriented. Sometimes when stardom happens, it leads to a notoriously ominous festival in everything but music.

Right before Tom Petty made his cover, REM performed “So You Want to Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star” with Roger McGinn for the 1984 MTV special about folk rock. The pairing made sense: REM has been frequently compared to the Byrds, and guitarist Peter Buck drew at least some inspiration from McGuinn. “When the band started playing, he was definitely a role model in how to take the simple chords, really, and turn them into something really melodic and interesting in the song, trying to combine the rhythm and the melodic line,” Buck told Salon in. 2016. “He has been an important guitarist to me.”

Through a modern lens, the performance is luminous. At that time, Al Reem was known as a very confident and free live action. On Halloween 1983, the band hit “So You Want To Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star” with frantic card. Months later, with McGuinn, the atmosphere was different. The veteran musician was clearly in charge: It was a complete, no-nonsense act, a steely look of focus on his face as he sped through the song’s rolling melodies. REM vocalist Michael Stipe in particular is respectful, partly undoubtedly for making sure he follows McGuinn’s (quick) lead. But the message was clear: “So You Want to Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star” might have been understandable as it was written – but perhaps there was something for musicians who follow The Byrds’ lead and perform fame on their terms and perks.

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