“So You Want to Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star” is a song by the American rock band The Byrds, written by Jim McGuinn and Chris Hillman and included on their 1967 album, Younger Than Yesterday. The song was released as a single on January 9, 1967 (see 1967 in music) and reached #29 on the Billboard Hot 100 but failed to chart in the United Kingdom. The song was inspired by the hype surrounding the creation of The Monkees, whose television series had recently debuted in America and had launched the pre-fabricated band to international fame. The manufactured nature of the group caused Hillman and McGuinn to look upon the current state of the pop world with more than a little cynicism.
Musically, one of the song’s main hooks is provided by McGuinn’s striking 12-string Rickenbacker guitar riff, while Hillman’s driving bass-line forms the core of the song. Hillman has stated that he composed the song’s bass guitar part during a recording session for South African musician Hugh Masekela. The song also features the trumpet playing of Masekela, which represents the first use of brass on a Byrds recording. In addition, “So You Want to Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star” features the sound of hysterical teenage pop fans screaming. These screams were recorded at an August 15, 1965 Byrds’ concert in Bournemouth by the band’s publicist, Derek Taylor, at McGuinn’s request.
Rolling Stone editor David Fricke has noted that although the song’s lyrics are heavily sarcastic, beneath the playful cynicism there is a deeper, implicit irony to the song; The Byrds had, themselves, achieved almost overnight success with the release of their debut single, a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man.” However, the band’s members all knew, from their common bitter personal experiences, that the most difficult part of success was in staying successful, staying ahead of the curve artistically, and staying sane under the immense pressure of stardom.
During an interview with music journalist Pete Frame, McGuinn noted, “Some people have accused us of being bitter for writing that song, but it’s no more bitter than ‘Positively 4th Street.’ In fact, it isn’t as bitter as that. We were thumbing through a teen magazine and looking at all the unfamiliar faces and we couldn’t help thinking: ‘Wow, what’s happening…all of a sudden here is everyone and his brother and his sister-in-law and his mother and even his pet bullfrog singing rock ‘n’ roll.’ So we wrote ‘So You Want to Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star’ to the audience of potential rock stars, those who were going to be, or who wanted to be, and those who actually did go on to realize their goals.”
The band performed the song on a number of television programs, including Popside, Top of the Pops, Drop In, The David Frost Show, and Beat-Club. The band also performed “So You Want to Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star” as the final song of their appearance at the Monterey Pop Festival, with the help of guest musicians Hugh Masekela and Big Black. The Byrds’ performance of the song at Monterey is included on the 1992 The Monterey International Pop Festival CD box set.
In addition to its appearance on the Younger Than Yesterday album, “So You Want to Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star” also appears on several Byrds’ compilations, including The Byrds’ Greatest Hits, History of The Byrds, The Original Singles: 1965–1967, Volume 1, The Byrds, The Very Best of The Byrds, The Essential Byrds, and There Is a Season. Live performances of the song are included on the live portion of The Byrds’ (Untitled) album, as well as on the Live at the Fillmore – February 1969 and Live at Royal Albert Hall 1971 albums.
The earliest covers of “So You Want To Be A Rock ‘n’ Roll Star” were an instrumental version on The Royal Guardsmen’s 1967 album The Return of the Red Baron and the British band The Move’s version on their 1968 EP Something Else from The Move, which was recorded live at the Marquee Club in London. Hookfoot, the British group who served as Elton John’s backing band for a number of years, also released the song as a single in 1974. The song was covered by Scottish hard rock band Nazareth, as part of the track “Telegram” on their 1976 album Close Enough for Rock ‘n’ Roll.
In 1979, “So You Want to Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star” was recorded by The Patti Smith Group and released as the third single from their album Wave.
The song was also covered by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers during their Southern Accents tour, and it appears on the live album Pack Up the Plantation: Live!
Black Oak Arkansas covered the song on their 1977 The Best of Black Oak Arkansas album, with the song later being included on the Hot & Nasty: The Best of Black Oak Arkansas compilation album in 1993. The Swedish pop group Roxette included the song in their 1993 MTV Unplugged show. In 2006, Les Fradkin released a cover version of the song on his album Goin’ Back. Also, the Dutch rock band Golden Earring covered the song as a bonus track on their This Wheel’s on Fire CD single. Jon Bon Jovi has also covered the song in live concerts.