The initial recording sessions for the Byrds 5th LP were unsettled & confused. David Crosby was a Niagara of creativity but seemed to have little consideration for the contributions & intentions of his 3 associates. It appeared that Crosby was looking for a way out &, in October 1967 he was gone. There was conflict & dissatisfaction with the attitude & ability of drummer Michael Clarke. He was out too, only to return then leave the group on the completion of the record. Still, as we always say down at the Freemasons Lodge, “ordo ab chao”, out of chaos comes order.Despite the problems the 2 remaining Byrds, Roger (formerly Jim) McGuinn & Chris Hillman with producer Gary Usher, did not drop the ball. “The Notorious Byrd Brothers”, an experimental, ethereal, beautiful record was released in January 1968.
Now this is a strange one. “Goin’ Back” was released as a single 3 months before “Notorious…” was ready. Clarke was still around but the Byrds were reduced to a trio & that really wouldn’t fly (ouch!). To promote “Goin’ Back” on “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” they called up Gene Clark, who had left the band in 1966, to make up the numbers. Gene was still signed to Columbia but his LP with the Gosdin Brothers had not sold well. He co-wrote a song, played a couple of gigs, added some backing vocals & hung around for all of 3 weeks. Crosby had not wanted to record this Goffin & King song, he wanted to leave the jingle-jangle behind. An early lethargic take does lack inspiration but McGuinn had an appreciation of how the Byrds had got to where they were, what was expected by their audience & he was right. “Goin’ Back” is a yearning for a lost innocence, a Rickenbacker infused reverie, a trademark sound still appropriate to their new music.
“The Notorious Byrd Brothers” was recorded across the release of “Sergeant Pepper’s…”.The bar was raised whether you were a musician on a bubblegum pop assembly line or were jamming in a Haight Ashbury crash pad. It was no longer enough for an LP to consist of a couple of hit singles & some quickly recorded knock-off soundalikes. You had to mean it ma’an. The same folk, country & jazz tinges present on “Fifth Dimension” & “Younger Than Yesterday” were still around . Gary Usher’s use of brass, strings &, more importantly, the Moog synthesiser moved the sound forward, creating a depth, an atmosphere which tied the whole thing together, brought a unity to the collection. A future member of the group spoke of his ambition to create a Cosmic American Music. He was too late, the Byrds got there on “Notorious”. Change Is Now.
Man, it’s tough to choose just 3 tracks from this LP. “Old John Robertson”, a country tear up moving into the baroque with strings & phasing, all in 1 minute 49 seconds.would be the choice of 2 of my associates but they are not here right now. “I Wasn’t Born To Follow”, another Goffin/King song, became a hippie anthem when it hooked up with Captain America & Billy for a spot of easy riding in “Easy Rider”. The introductory “Artificial Energy”, an amphetamine song which gets dark in the final verse, didn’t raise the controversy that “Eight Miles High” had. The moral panic had gone to San Francisco. For myself, only the closing sea shanty sci-fi “Space Odyssey” fails to make the cut.
David Crosby’s prints are still all over this record. He has 3 co-credits on the songwriting & appears on 5 of the 11 tracks. Crosby’s cutting-edge ideas about harmony & the lyrical content of his songs were sometimes too far out for his fellow band members but inspired them to experiment & develop. “Draft Morning” follows an inductee to the battlefields of Vietnam. Crosby’s lyrics were re-modelled by McGuinn & Hillman & he was not pleased. Now we know those ins & outs, the ups & downs. Then, we just had a stirring, beautiful song.The record had the 3 remaining Byrds & a horse on the cover. Roger McGuinn denied that this was a jibe at Crosby. Well, he would say that wouldn’t he ?
“The Notorious Byrd Brothers” is the most psychedelic of all the Byrds’ LPs, the last triumph of the original group that started all that folk-rock in 1965 with “Mr Tambourine Man”. There is not the harshness of acid-rock, it’s spaced-out, tripping on a sunny day by the lake with friends. A new wave of young groups were growing their hair & sporting hippy plumage while the Byrds ditched the moptops & dressed down. No longer at the centre of American popular music but not yet ready to be filed with the golden oldies. It was a turbulent time for the group, Roger McGuinn & his steadfast sidekick Chris Hillman had been knocked about a bit. They kept an eye on where it had all begun, omitted their more far out investigations & created assured, modern music which sounded great in 1968 & still does today & tomorrow. “The Notorious Byrd Brothers”…get on it.