At the beginning of 1966 the Byrds, coming off 2 #1 singles, were the hottest band in America. The group’s 3rd LP “Fifth Dimension” was a less consistent piece, Gene Clark had left & his songs were missed. The Byrdsification of Bob Dylan songs, pivotal to the massive success, was absent this time around too. The 3 single releases from the LP failed to reach the Top 10 where their folk-rock contemporaries, the Mamas & the Papas & the Lovin’ Spoonful, had taken up permanent residence. The now 4 Byrds faced a new group dynamic, pressure to keep the hits coming & a music scene which was changing at a “blink & you’ll miss it” pace. In the first week of 1967 the Doors broke on through with their debut LP just weeks after the release of Love’s “Da Capo” with its revelatory single track on Side 2. Something was happening & by the end of 1966 the Byrds were no longer the hottest band in Los Angeles.
“Eight Miles High” is now a landmark song. It had been left behind by Gene Clark but Jim McGuinn & David Crosby contributed enough to share the billing. Was this acid-rock, space rock, raga rock ? Heavyweight names John Coltrane & Ravi Shankar were dropped not only by the critics. The band showed up at the press launch with a sitar. In 1998 Crosby said “they kept trying to label us; every time we turned around, they came up with a new one … it’s a bunch of bullshit.” & it was. One thing that was for sure, despite the group’s rebuttals, “Eight Miles High” is either about or inspired by drug use. Some US radio stations elected to protect the delicate ears of their listeners & did not play the record. This may have affected sales, the song may have been a little too ( a new phrase) “far out” for the group’s audience. No matter, it fits right into the whirl of great Sixties music & still sounds fine right here.
With 20% less people around there was space for David Crosby to step forward. His individual talent for imaginative harmonization would take this young man far in the next few years & on “Fifth Dimension” he was all over the songwriting either solo or in collaboration. As the lead singer/guitarist McGuinn was the guy who people pointed the microphone at & hindsight shows that for sure he was always looking out for himself & for the group. In these 2 promo clips he seems to be leaving it up to Crosby. His distinctive guitar drives both songs but he seems to be a little disconnected. “Was it all a strange game, you’re a little insane”, that’s how this one goes.
“So You Want To Be A Rock n Roll Star” is another stunning pop record. The bass guitar rumble, screaming teenage girls, Hugh Masekela’s trumpet, sour, cynical lyrics, producer Gary Usher packed a lot in to a short song. “So You Want…” is the first track of a Byrds LP which looked back at where they had come from, forward to where they were going but mostly was about right here right now. But this was the Spring before the Summer Of Love, change is now, time to tune in, turn on & go to San Francisco. The new thing was going “underground”, being on the charts & the teenage TV shows was no longer where the action was. The Byrds were a little too much part of that old scene to be down with the love crowd. One of the cool kids at my school was going with that flow. He bought the LP but didn’t like it. He sold me “Younger Than Yesterday”, one of the first LPs I owned, for 15 old English shillings, that’s 75 pence, just $1 American. Man, I was on the right end of that deal
Well, here comes bass player Chris Hillman, no longer rocking the Beatles mop-top but with 4 songs that capture that beat group plays country twang that the Fab Four did so well. The rock solid guitar sound on “Time Between”, “Have You Seen Her Face” & the others is one of the reasons why some days “Younger…” is my pick of the Byrds’ great records. Crosby’s songs show just how quickly things were changing . “Renaissance Fair” is a lilting melodic Byrdsian classic, “Everybody’s Been Burned”, an ethereal haunting thing & “Mind Gardens” is just fu…well it’s abstract.
Jim McGuinn, not as flamboyant as Crosby, didn’t really want “Mind Gardens” on the LP but gave it a pass. Crosby though, kept on pushing.The group had written & recorded a crappy, throwaway theme song for “Don’t Make Waves”, a film of similar quality. A final, disdainful “masterpiece” from Crosby showed just what he thought of such show biz nonsense. He had not wanted to record another Dylan tune. He was wrong & Jim was right. “My Back Pages” is a nailed-on cert for any best Dylan covers mix, it’s a beauty.
In June 1967 the Byrds performed at the Monterey Pop Festival, a 3 day gathering where Jimi, the Who, Otis Redding & Janis Joplin made the biggest splash. Our boys didn’t make the final cut of the movie of the gig, not hip enough. It would make interesting viewing. David Crosby’s introduction to “He Was A Friend Of Mine”, a song inspired by the assassination of President Kennedy, condemned the Warren Commission as a cover up. Another inter-song rant advocated a dose of LSD for “all the statesmen and politicians in the world.” When, the next day, he replaced the missing Neil Young in Buffalo Springfield, his fellow Byrds were resenting being told what to do by someone who did exactly as he wanted.
Then there was “Lady Friend”, a Crosby song written with the intent of returning the Byrds to the Top 20. That just didn’t happen. It’s a baroque & roll summertime smash, a big, bright boost. A month after its release a Greatest Hits collection became the Byrds biggest selling LP. The audience still wanted a bit of that old jingle-jangle from the band. The band blamed Crosby, he blamed the producer & the struggle for artistic control continued with the failure of his new song not helping his case.
So David Crosby was invited to hang up his cape. He went on to pills & hash, to Stills & Nash, to one of the best solo records I have ever heard & to a whole lot more. The Byrds, with McGuinn now calling the shots, stayed on the course set by “Younger…” & got down to recording another dead stone classic LP of the 1960s.