My wife loves to cook, and she loves to have music on while she cooks. She usually doesn’t pick any specific album or artist, but uses a Pandora channel curated to her tastes (R.E.M., Indigo Girls, Melissa Etheridge, etc.) During her pot- and pan-rattling and music listening, I relax in the next room sipping my pre-dinner cocktail. (Don’t judge — my job is to do all the post-dinner washing and scrubbing.) Every so often, something incredibly random that Pandora, in its infinite AI wisdom, has decided fits on that channel will grab my ear from her countertop speaker. Maybe something featuring guitar with a touch of “jangle,” some vocal harmony, and a little light on the bass end. I hold up my SoundHound app and the song is invariably something from Matchbox Twenty or Mumford & Sons or some other generic Wonder Bread radio-rock band. I grimace and briefly wrestle with the notion that I may actually like these bands (or at least these songs), but then find relief in the knowledge that these guys are clearly channeling the Byrds. Maybe they think they’re channeling the Beatles, or Big Star, or R.E.M, but no…it’s the Byrds, whose legend seems to be fading even as their influence remains pervasive, if by now second- or third-hand.
I’m talking primarily about the first version of the Byrds here. Most people who know their music history know that the Byrds were really two bands — the 1965-67 folk-influenced rock band, and the 1968-73 country-rock band. The only thing the two had in common was lead guitarist Jim (Roger) McGuinn. The second iteration of the band we’ll leave for another entry next month.
The iconic five-piece original line-up lasted just over a year, but they made a hell of an impact…
Jim McGuinn, with his distinctive square-framed tinted glasses, mushroom of hair, and 12-string Rickenbacker guitar was the group’s visual anchor, usually parked stage left. In the center, working a tambourine for all he was worth, was vocalist and primary songwriter Gene Clark. Next to him was rhythm guitarist David Crosby, shoulders draped in a bottle-green velvet cape and flashing a lopsided, mischievous grin. The backline was bassist Chris Hillman and drummer Michael Clarke, both glowering stand-offishly under identical Brian Jones-style blonde bowl cuts fringing their eyebrows. Ethereal McGuinn and the deeper-voiced Clark traded off on lead vocals, or sung in unison. Crosby added the distinctive high harmony vocal. The driving engine was McGuinn’s electric 12-string, providing the adjective that’s always used to describe the Byrds’ sound — “jangly.”
All of them got their start on the coffeehouse folk scene. Three of them were already music business veterans. And none of them really got along with each other very well. The Byrds were all born into, if not privilege, then at least comfort. David Crosby’s parents were literal millionaires, who kept him out of juvenile hall as he spent his teen years crashing cars and vandalizing property. When Michael Clarke dropped out of school to “find himself” on an odyssey down the west coast, his doting grandmother sent him care packages and cash. This led to a certain self-centeredness in all the band members that contributed to the group’s eventual demise. And this is why I always preferred (and romanticized, I suppose) more working-class rock bands, who fought their way up from nothing together, and had a little more team spirit. The early-Sixties “folkies” always rubbed me the wrong way, anyway. White, well-scrubbed, middle-class college types warbling the “music of the people” with lilting, clearly-enuciated phrasing, and being so goddamned precious about it. They looked down their noses on “commercial” rock and pop, all the while judging and backstabbing each other mercilessly over their perceived “authenticity.” They were just as competitive as anyone else in the music business, while pretending to above such things
Jim McGuinn of Chicago always seemed somewhat otherworldly. A quiet, aloof presence, at first glance almost shy, but with an unstoppable ambitious streak and an iron will that kept him on top as the de facto leader of a very tempestuous band. He attended music school, and went professional at an early age, specializing in folk. As a teenager in the late 1950s and early 1960s, he was a touring member of the Limeliters and the Chad Mitchell Trio, playing the 5-string banjo. When Bobby Darin introduced a folk music segment as part of his live act, McGuinn was his accompanist on 12-string acoustic.
Gene Clark of Kansas City had played in various rock and folk groups since high school. He was discovered and hired by the famous folk collective the New Christy Minstrels in 1962, joining them for two albums before quitting. Sensitive and high-strung, Clark had a smooth tenor voice and a knack for songwriting.
David Crosby of Hollywood. Jesus, this guy. He impulsively became a folk musician out of rich-kid boredom, after dabbling in acting. He was spoiled, extremely temperamental, and thoroughly obnoxious. He admitted to being a “terrible folkie,” unable to properly finger-pick guitar in the traditional folk style (even his strumming was erratic). But he had a pretty voice.
McGuinn, Clark, and Crosby had all been aware of each other as fellow members of the L.A. folk scene, and they hung out together at the Troubadour Club in West Hollywood. In the first flush of Beatlemania, they put their still-shorthaired heads together and came up with a brilliant idea — combine the lyric poetry and protest songs of folk god Bob Dylan with the big-beat sound of The Beatles! They convinced a deep-pocketed music producer by the name of Jim Dickson to serve as their manager. He provided the trio with free studio space and unlimited time therein, and used his connections to get Columbia Records interested in hearing them. Fewer bands have ever been handed such an auspicious starting kit on a silver platter.
The trio — known as the Jet Set — immediately set to work recording demos, mostly from the pen of Gene Clark. The songs were decent enough, but still missing something. A more electric sound perhaps? McGuinn and Crosby were blown away after seeing the Beatles’ film A Hard Day’s Night in August of 1964. The film prominently featured George Harrison playing a 12-string Rickenbacker electric guitar, which at the time of the movie’s production was still a one-off prototype. The Byrds immediately had Dickson shell out for the now-available Rickenbacker, with a blonde wood finish, and also Harrison’s preferred 6-string, a plum-colored Gretsch Tennessean.
As they developed their sound further, committing to a more rock-oriented approach, they realized they needed a bassist and a drummer on a permanent basis. A friend of the trio, songwriter Ivan Ulz, recommended an 18-year-old dropout he knew from San Francisco. Michael Clarke (born Michael Dick in Seattle) had never touched a drum kit before in his life. His sole percussion experience was playing bongos on the beach like the beatnik he was. But he looked perfect. Strikingly handsome with a head full of shimmering hair, already insanely long. He was immediately hired and brought to the studio space, where he was given a pair of drumsticks and some cardboard boxes and told to master the rudiments of rock and roll drumming while funds were gathered for a real drum kit.
With McGuinn firmly installed on the Rickenbacker, the instrumental roles of Clark and Crosby were up in the air. Originally, Clark played rhythm guitar and Crosby’s sole task was to provide harmony vocals. But his awkward gyrations onstage during an early practice gig at the Troubadour provoked audience hysterics, and convinced everyone he needed to be stock-still and behind an instrument. At first, the bass player vacancy appeared to be neatly filled — but Crosby found he couldn’t play single-note bass and sing at the same time. So the Gretsch was stripped from Clark and given to Crosby, who could comfortably strum rhythm while harmonizing. A bass player would have to found elsewhere, as Clark was even weaker on the instrument.
They didn’t look far. Dickson, whose original production specialty was bluegrass, had a pet project in the form of bluegrass combo the Hillmen, named after their young mandolin prodigy, L.A. native Chris Hillman. The Hillmen could not get a record deal, and had recently gone defunct. Like Clarke and the drums, Chris Hillman had never even held a bass guitar before. That did not seem to be an obstacle to Dickson, who assumed anyone who could play mandolin could play bass. Hillman was duly hired, strapped to a cheap red Japanese bass guitar, and told to straighten his naturally curly hair into the proper British Invasion bowl cut. (His instrument was later upgraded to a Fender, and later still to a nice Guild semi-hollow body with a sunburst finish.)
Over the course of a memorable Thanksgiving dinner at the end of ‘64, ideas for a new band name were tossed around by the band’s brain trust (Dickson and McGuinn) after they found out that there was already a band called the Jet Set. “The Birds” quickly came up — it had that all-important “B” at the beginning, putting people in mind of that other “B” band, but it didn’t become a lock until they came up with the key spelling twist. “The Byrds” sounded suitably British. (Also, there was already a British rock band called the Birds, featuring future Rolling Stone Ron Wood.)
Rehearsals and demo sessions completed (the Jet Set demos can be heard on The Preflyte Sessions compilation), hair all grown out, and a recording contract in hand, the band did not even play a proper gig before heading into the Columbia studio on Sunset Boulevard to record their first single on January 20, 1965.
Or, more precisely, McGuinn went into the studio, accompanied only by session musicians. In what was common industry practice, Columbia did not want to waste expensive studio time recording take after take with untested instrumentalists, so they brought in some ringers. The label bosses grudgingly accepted McGuinn (they originally wanted Glen Campbell on the 12-string), but he would be backed by members of L.A.’s fabled “Wrecking Crew” — a loose-knit squad of seasoned pros who played on just about every pop record recorded in L.A. in the 1960s. So Crosby and Clark waited impatiently in the control room as McGuinn laid down the backing track with Larry Knetchel (bass), Leon Russell (electric piano), Bill Pittman and Jerry Cole (rhythm guitars), and the great Hal Blaine (drums). McGuinn, Crosby, and Clark taped their vocals later.
The song? Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Dylan’s version was not even released yet, but Dickson got his hands on an early version recorded for and rejected from Dylan’s 1964 album Another Side of Bob Dylan. Their studio-assigned producer, Terry Melcher, made some great post-recording production choices: McGuinn’s guitar is boosted to the max, and compressed heavily to provide that long sustain (“jangle”), with the rhythm guitars faded low and the electric piano entirely dropped (sorry, Leon). The other primary instrument is, of course, the tambourine, mixed high with heavy reverb. Funnily enough, I was unable to discover the actual tambourine player on the track (my guess would be Blaine via an overdub). They retained only one of Dylan’s four verses, and focused on the chorus, turning Dylan’s epic poem into a perfect, glistening pop song. “Folk rock” was officially born.
Dylan’s lengthy, re-vamped acoustic version was released on his Bringing It All Back Home album in March 1965. The Byrds’ version came out a few weeks later…and shot to #1. Dylan and the Byrds had perfect synergy. Bob gave them his stamp of approval and would continue to be a mentor and inspiration, even as their individual styles evolved.
Between the single’s recording and release, the Byrds kicked off their performing career at Ciro’s nightclub on the Sunset Strip (now site of the famous Comedy Store.) Some people claim the counterculture began in San Francisco, but those who were actually on the scene swear it began with the Byrds’ residency at Ciro’s in the spring of 1965. Their outlandish look and ear-splitting volume attracted a mix of the uber-hip and genuine street freaks, all gakked out of their skulls, outrageously dressed and dancing wildly. The band did not yet have a deep catalog to draw from. They played an eclectic set list consisting of British Invasion covers (the Beatles’ “Things We Said Today” was a favorite), Dylan tunes, blues songs (“Baby, What You Want Me To Do”), and a few Gene Clark originals. They were fond of saying every time Gene dated someone, they were guaranteed two good songs — the falling-in-love song, and the break-up song a few weeks later.
Their first album was recorded mostly that April. The Byrds had proved themselves to the Columbia brass, so there were no more session musicians on their recordings, unless invited by the band themselves. Hillman easily transferred his skills to bass, facilitated by the fact the the Byrds’ sound was never supposed to be all that bottom-heavy. High treble was the order of the day. Even Clarke found he could keep a semi-steady beat and drop in a few jazzy fills, although no one would ever put him anywhere near one of those “Top Drummers in Rock” lists. (I know this piece falls under my “Recommends” series, but I’ll be critical when I need to be. Just refer to 95% of what I have to say about David Crosby.)
The album has some more great versions of Dylan songs. “Chimes of Freedom” is my favorite Dylan protest song, and “All I Really Want To Do” was chosen as their second single. Gene Clark’s new originals made the old Jet Set demos from just the previous summer seem amateurish and trite. The melancholy “Here Without You” pefectly captures the feeling of loneliness, and “I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better” is a stone classic. The group continued to wear their folk influences proudly, and made their first attempt at re-working a Pete Seeger song, “The Bells of Rhymney,” to great effect. There are also some oddities, such as a cover of a Jackie DeShannon’s “Don’t Doubt Yourself Babe” (she was an early supporter), and the old torch song featured at the end of Dr. Strangelove, “We’ll Meet Again,” used here as the final track and closing the album with an ironic smirk. In what will become a recurring issue for the group, they left an amazing track on the shelf. The outtake “She Has A Way” would have made the album even stronger.
The album, titled Mr. Tambourine Man, hit shelves that summer, and the Byrds headed out on their first British tour — which was a legendary disaster. The British audiences and press were hard on the group. They felt the band had no stage presence, no energy. They stood motionless, staring into the middle distance, and did not engage the audience at all, not even to introduce the songs. In the band’s defense, they were exhausted, sometimes playing three venues in the same day. Several of them had come down with a nasty flu bug as well. The other main complaint was the overamplification. The Byrds played really, really fucking loud.
The only Brits who seemed to warm to them were the Beatles, who immediately befriended the Byrds and invited them to come hang out when they toured the U.S. that August. The upstart American band took them up on the offer during both groups’ precious few days off, lazing around a Hollywood Hills pool together, soaring on still-legal LSD. That fall, George Harrison sent the Byrds an advanced pressing of Rubber Soul, along with a note cheekily admitting he stole McGuinn’s intro to “The Bells of Rhymney” to open his own “If I Needed Someone,” the last Beatles song ever to feature the Rickenbacker 12-string that inspired the whole Byrds sound.
Things moved fast in the pop scene of the mid-60s. Columbia was already clamoring for a third single and a new album. After a few unsuccessful attempts to give Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’” a Byrdsian workover a la “Tambourine Man,” the group decided to take another dip into the Pete Seeger well. The result, “Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There Is A Season),” based on the Biblical Book of Ecclesiastes, was another #1. Like Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth,” the song has become audio shorthand for “The Sixties,” popping up in movie montages, Wonder Years episodes, and a particularly relentless Time-Life book commercial from my youth that was misspent in front of a TV. Anytime you see old footage of some hippie chick with a flower in her hair blowing bubbles or twirling, odds are, “Turn! Turn! Turn!” will be jangling away in the background.
At this point it could truly be said that the Byrds were America’s most popular group. But the top was a tough place to stay.
The accompanying album, Turn! Turn! Turn!, was recorded in the fall of ‘65 and in the record stores in time for Christmas. It followed the pattern of the first album — a monster title single, some Dylan songs (they finally nailed “The Times They Are A-Changin’”), some rocked-up, Byrdsified country/folk standards (“Satisfied Mind,” “Oh! Susannah” — yes, that “Oh! Susannah,” banjo on the knee and all), and some originals numbers, stronger here than on the first record. Clark’s “The World Turns All Around Her” and McGuinn’s “It Won’t Be Wrong” rank up there with “I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better” as Byrds classics. “Set You Free This Time” is a wordy, Dylanesque outpouring pretty much as good as the real Dylan (but without the venomous sting.) One of Clark’s best songs, “She Don’t Care About Time,” was relegated to the B-side of the “Turn!” single. (It was included on the CD reissue of the album, as were a lot of the outtakes and B-sides I mention here. Hats off to the amazing job Columbia did remastering and reissuing Byrds stuff, thirty to forty years after the original releases.)
Both 1965 albums are definitely of a piece, steeped in the typical Byrds sound — jangling Rickenbacker, harmonies, tambourine. Some say the second album was too repetitive of the first, but I consider it consistency rather than repetition. When you get right down to it, their huge influence and legacy through the coming years is really down to just the twenty-three songs on those two albums. And a change was due.
A new sonic direction was discovered with another stylistic mash-up in January 1966. Just as the original Byrds sound came from mixing the words of Dylan-style folk and the sound of the British Invasion, an idea for the next single came out of McGuinn’s obsession with the “free jazz” of John Coltrane, and the sitar recordings of Ravi Shankar that Crosby had been listening to for several months. While still recognizably Byrdsy, “Eight Miles High” was much more experimental than previous tracks, with McGuinn using his Rick not just for jangling purposes, but to imitate the unstructured skronk of Coltrane’s saxophone and the improvisation of Indian ragas that expands past the limitations of Western musical tradition.
On a flight to New York not long after the “Eight Miles High” session, the fragile Gene Clark finally succumbed to the pressures of life in the Byrds and had something of a nervous breakdown. The band announced his departure in March 1966, right as the “Eight Miles High” single was released — and was promptly banned by several radio station for purported “drug references.” (The band was no stranger to drugs, but in this case they were innocent — everyone in the Byrds’ inner circle swore long past any reason to lie that the song’s lyrics were inspired by their first lengthy overseas airplane flight to the U.K.)
The Byrds would not replace Clark, but continue as a four-piece. Hillman was promoted to third singer, and his background in country and bluegrass would soon be capitalized on, but the vocal harmonies would never be quite the same.
The inner peace-seeking McGuinn had recently became involved in the spiritual movement known as Subud, and channeled his newfound views on mankind’s place in the cosmos into a lilting waltz he called “5D (Fifth Dimension).” This follow-up single to “Eight Miles High” would lend its title to the album they were putting together for the pivotal summer of ‘66, but have a disappointing chart performance. The radio-listening public at large had cooled on the Byrds, and would never again send them #1 (or even #20). From here on they got weirder, and would become a band beloved mostly by other musicians, the underground press, and music nerds like yours truly.
The next album was patched together somewhat hastily, and did not have the uniformity of sound of their first two albums. Gene Clark’s writing and vocal presence is definitely missed. But it is audacious, even if it falls flat on its face a few times. Fifth Dimension was released into a market where it was competing with the Beatles’ Revolver, the Rolling Stones’ Aftermath, the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, and Dylan’s Blonde On Blonde. Although it’s built around the trippy “Eight Miles High” and shored up by the very strong “5D,” Fifth Dimension doesn’t quite hold its own against others in the class of ’66. For the first time, not a single Dylan cover is relied upon. They do hit the Seeger songbook one more time by including “I Come and Stand at Every Door,” which is a bit of a lightning rod among Byrds fans. Some find it a misfire — a tuneless, plodding dirge. Others think it’s a bold and risky departure from their signature style, with spooky, moving lyrics about the ghost of a child incinerated at Hiroshima. (The Holy Bee is in the former camp. I skip it.) “Wild Mountain Thyme” and “John Riley” sound a little more like traditional Byrds, but with a lush bed of orchestral strings, and the jaunty highlight “Mr. Spaceman” flirts with bluegrass. (Almost everything else came and went, but “Mr. Spaceman” earned a place in the band’s live setlist until the end of their career.) “I See You” and “What’s Happening?!?!” are proto-psychedelia, featuring the atonal, scattershot Coltrane/Shankar blend pioneered on “Eight Miles High.” Only one song was left in the vaults from these sessions, a powerful version of the traditional “I Know My Rider.” Why this was left off in favor of a subpar version of “Hey Joe,” or filler like the instrumental R&B pastiche “Captain Soul,” I don’t know. (Armchair album producing decades after the fact has always been a hobby of mine.)
The band members now walked on eggshells around each other, and occasionally exploded into vitriol and violence. The touring grind continued, and it was said their performances were either transcendent and magical, or so sloppy and careless as to be unlistenable — usually the latter, a reputation identical to a much later band, the Replacements. It was part of both bands’ legend and charm. But it was wearing them out. At the end of 1966, some sources claim that their management concocted a semi-secret plan: spend a concentrated period — say, four months or so — cranking out one more album, one more (hopefully hit) single, and one more tour. Then split all the profits in the band account equally and go their separate ways.
Whether or not they planned on following this to the letter, they certainly buckled down in the studio, and realized a stunning new truth that may have put retirement plans on hold: Chris Hillman had become a great songwriter. The lead-off single, “So You Want To Be A Rock ‘N’ Roll Star,” was a Hillman/McGuinn collaboration, a cynical and funny stab at “prefab” pop groups like the Monkees. It would have been a great track without further embellishment, but they had the brilliant idea of running an insistent trumpet part through the song, played by South African jazz musician Hugh Masekela. The song was not the massive smash they’d hoped for, but it represented their last respectable singles chart entry (#29) and kicked off what many feel is their greatest album, February 1967’s Younger Than Yesterday.
As “So You Want To Be A Rock ‘N’ Roll Star” (which will join “Mr. Spaceman” in a permanent space on the band’s live set list) fades out to canned audience screams recorded at a concert on their ‘65 U.K. tour, we get a first earful of Hillman’s solo songwriting efforts, “Have You Seen Her Face,” which is in my Top 5 all-time favorite Byrds songs and has my all-time favorite McGuinn guitar solo. Crosby contributes his best Byrds song, the world-weary “Everybody’s Been Burned,” and teams up with McGuinn for the excellent “Renaissance Faire.” Sadly, what may have been their best album also contains an example of Crosby’s worst instincts, the excruciating “Mind Gardens,” a melody-free trainwreck featuring the kind of cringe-worthy psycho-babble lyrics that represented the most dated and off-putting elements of psychedelia.
The bluegrass-meets-sci-fi “space rock” style of “Mr. Spaceman” is re-visited with McGuinn’s even more out-there “C.T.A.-102,” complete with bleeping flying saucer sound effects. Its childlike whimsy is a counter to the bitter pill of “So You Want To Be…” Two more contributions from Hillman, “Time Between” and “The Girl With No Name,” finally bring the country sound that had always been buried in the band’s DNA to to surface. They even brought in country guitarist Clarence White to add a real Nashville twang to the tracks. (He will reappear in the Byrds’ story later.)
As the album winds its way to a close, there is a return to their godfather, Bob Dylan, with a solid version of “My Back Pages,” in which the old-school ’65 Byrds sound is re-conjured for a brief moment of nostalgia. The album closes with a re-recording of their year-old B-side “Why,” which replaced the Indian-influenced solos of the original with a more straightforward rock approach. (Like the merits of “Stand at Every Door,” this is a fierce debate between hardcore Byrds fans as to which version is superior. I vote for the album version, but I’m in the minority. And as long as I’m playing armchair producer, my perfect version of Younger Than Yesterday would have swapped Crosby’s horrid “Mind Gardens” for his much-better outtake “It Happens Each Day,” and maybe toned down the silliness of “C.T.A.-102” just a little.)
On the verge of total implosion, the Byrds pulled together what is arguably their strongest album yet, and once again had a writer that could match Gene Clark. Disaster was (temporarily) averted, but the individual members still could not get along very well outside concentrated work in the studio. In a review of a February 22, 1967 show, a newspaper critic said “The Byrds will do anything for music except rehearse. One feels they should be introduced to each other.”
New sound, new look…the trim suits and Beatle cuts were long gone. Even McGuinn’s trademark square-framed shades were retired. In their place was a colorful, mixed-bag look more suited to the new era of beards, beads, and paisley. Crosby began hiding his rapidly thinning hair under a variety of hats, and was sporting his now-familiar walrus mustache. Hillman grew out an impressive set of natural poofy curls. McGuinn favored a neatly-trimmed goatee with oddly conservative turtlenecks and black undertaker suits. Clarke, now usually red-eyed and bleary from increasing dependence on the bottle, cultivated a surly Steve McQueen look, wrapped in scarves and pinstripes, but seemed to be the one Byrd who retained a sense of humor. Their stage presence had also changed. The recent setlists spotlighted David Crosby as lead vocalist, and instead of too-cool-for-school silence from all members, now Crosby rambled on at great length between songs, spouting inane hippie platitudes and endorsements of hallucinogens while tuning his guitar interminably. McGuinn and Hillman just glared icily at him during his spiels.
It was also around this time that Jim McGuinn changed his first name to Roger as part of his ongoing involvement with Subud, which encouraged its adherents to “retire” past identities.
Crosby’s proselytizing reached its widest live audience when the Byrds played the now-legendary Monterey International Pop Festival in June of 1967 — right at the start of the so-called “Summer of Love.” The material in the Byrds’ eight-song set burned by in a tangled rush, veering wildly from brilliance to sonic disaster and back again, with the vocalists audibly breathless and McGuinn’s fingers flying. The material was heavy on the last two albums, augmented by “Chimes of Freedom,” their JFK tribute “He Was A Friend Of Mine,” and their upcoming single, “Lady Friend.” Crosby’s between-song antics, including a paranoid rant about the Kennedy assassination, got them cut from the filmed footage and soundtrack album. At this point, he clearly wanted out of the band, and seemed to be trying to goad the others into firing him rather than quitting outright. Rumor had it he was eyeing a place with the Byrds’ great folk rock rivals, Buffalo Springfield, who had recently lost Neil Young, and with whom Crosby had been “guesting” for several gigs…
…but it was laidback Michael Clarke who cracked first, early in the recording sessions for the next album. After a lengthy harangue from Crosby, who laid into him for failing to nail the drum pattern on the song “Dolphin’s Smile,” Clarke decided to sit out the remaining sessions. He hung around on the sidelines, and sportingly played the live gigs for which they were already booked. Outside drummers were brought into the studio with Clarke’s blessing, and work on the album continued through the fall of 1967. Clarke was in limbo, not really in, not quite out.
In the midst of all this, Columbia released The Byrds’ Greatest Hits, which went to #6 on the album charts. Over 20 years later, it was the first non-Beatles CD the teenage Holy Bee ever bought and was the gateway drug for me and millions of other jangle addicts.
It didn’t take much longer for Crosby to end up on the chopping block. He had decided he didn’t want the others to sing on his “Lady Friend,” had their vocal tracks wiped, and re-recorded all the vocals himself. When the brass-augmented single (which actually was quite good) turned out to be a relative flop, the others took their revenge by refusing to put it on the new album. The album sessions began getting bogged down by arguments. Crosby wanted his skin-crawlingly creepy ode to polyamory, “Triad,” on the album. McGuinn and Hillman preferred the sentimental “Goin’ Back,” written by the old Brill Building team of Gerry Goffin and Carole King. This standoff was the last straw. McGuinn and Hillman finally decided Crosby’s narcissistic bullshit was more trouble than it was worth, and fired him in mid-September. “Goin’ Back” was released as a single almost as soon as the door closed behind Crosby, and “Triad” was given to Jefferson Airplane, which was pretty much what it deserved.
Out of the blue, Gene Clark was brought back into the fold to replace Crosby. He co-wrote a song with McGuinn (“Get To You”) for the new album, and may have sung on “Goin’ Back.” Some say this was intended to be the Byrds’ new line-up, others say Clark was just lending a temporary hand so the band could appear as a four-piece in promotional appearances for the “Goin’ Back” single. Either way, after a participating in a few concerts, and taping lip-synched performances on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour and some local TV spots, Gene Clark was gone again. With Crosby safely out of the picture, Michael Clarke got behind the kit in the recording studio at least one more time, but when recording sessions wrapped in early December, Clarke was quietly, but permanently, cut loose. He immediately jetted off to Hawaii like a man released from a prison sentence. The Byrds were now a duo.
The album they had been working on piecemeal through all this drama finally came out on January 15, 1968. The Notorious Byrd Brothers somehow doesn’t sound like the work of a band on its last legs, and has quite a few interesting experimental twists to recommend it. The first song, “Artificial Energy,” was the last song recorded, and features Clarke on drums for the final time. The standard Byrds instrumental line-up is dogpiled by a phased horn section and bouncy piano, and former mandolin player Hillman finally embraces his destiny as a truly great bassist with his soulful, Bar-Kays-style playing here. “Goin’ Back ” seems at first like simple ear candy (its origin as a Dusty Springfield vehicle is audible), but it’s deceptively complex, with subtle flourishes of steel guitar and baroque strings. A second Goffin-King composition, “Wasn’t Born To Follow,” provides the catchiest listening experience on the album. After using the words of Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger as their social conscience, the Byrds finally earn their stripes as original protest writers with Crosby’s anti-Vietnam War “Draft Morning.” (Half-a-demerit for the cheesy “warfare” sound effects provided by The Firesign Theatre. That kind of thing hasn’t aged well.) “Change Is Now” veers wildly between Eastern-style monastic chanting and country music breakdowns. While the previous summer single “Lady Friend” was rejected, the group had no hesitation re-mixing its B-side, “Old John Robertson,” and throwing it in as another sneak preview of their country-rock future. “Dolphin’s Smile” (the song that started all the trouble) and Hillman’s “Natural Harmony,” are slight and mellow, but very pretty. The ode to hippie utopia, “Tribal Gathering,” has a similar vibe, but is enlivened by some piercing guitar soloing.
Every song is awash, for better and sometimes worse, with swirling textures and sonic effects, and some of the earliest uses of the Moog synthesizer on record.
The cover of Notorious Byrd Brothers features Hillman, McGuinn, and Clarke leaning their heads out of three windows of a four-window stone cabin, with a horse’s head in the fourth. The joke at the time was the the horse represented Crosby, but they forgot to turn it around.
With its awkward release date, The Notorious Byrd Brothers sat on the dividing line of two eras. The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour and the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s Axis: Bold As Love — psychedelic extravaganzas by anyone’s standards — had only just come out a few weeks before. But bubbling under the surface was a backlash against garish, gaudy circus atmosphere of psychedelia. A rustic, back-to-basics approach, championed by groups like the Band and Creedence Clearwater Revival, was about to become to the “new” sound of ‘68. And a new-phase Byrds would soon be considered one of the leaders of the roots movement.
This 1967-1968 dual personality was neatly reflected by the music inside Notorious Byrd Brothers. The traditional sounds of something like “Old John Robertson” nestled next to trippy head music like “Artificial Energy.”
Kevin Kelley, a bookish Marine vet and classical composition student, was no one’s idea of a rock star. But he played drums in his high school marching band, and spent a brief tenure behind the drum kit of another L.A. folk band, the Rising Sons (with Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder.) He was also Chris Hillman’s cousin. The dates are fuzzy, but some time in the closing days of 1967, Kevin Kelley became the new drummer for the Byrds.
To Be Continued.