The Notorious Byrd Brothers was a departure for the band.
In June 1967, the day the Summer of Love began, these musical siblings started recording their fifth album as quadruplets, and wound up twins. The Byrds wouldn’t finish what would be one their greatest albums album until early December, and the story of that productive if volatile time is full of drama and dissension.
The Byrds had entered Columbia Studios in Hollywood a few weeks after appearing at the Monterey Pop Festival. Much of the band felt the set soured when David Crosby ranted about a conspiracy to kill John F. Kennedy before playing “He Was a Friend of Mine.” Thanks to that remark, and Crosby’s STP motor oil sticker (a wink to an acronym celebrating LSD) on his guitar, the band was excluded from the film that documented the festival. The mood darkened further when, without letting his band mates know, Crosby filled in for Neil Young with Buffalo Springfield. Added to Crosby’s insistence on singing lead and announcing songs at be-ins such as San Francisco’s The Gathering of the Tribes, discontent derailed the new album sessions.
A bonus track concluding the 1997 deluxe edition of The Notorious Byrd Brothers tellingly features an “in-studio argument” listing Crosby, bassist Chris Hillman and singer-guitarist Roger McGuinn. While Michael Clarke was hired in 1964 more for his Brian Jones resemblance than his drumming skill, he had improved and contributed, but three years on, bandmates bickered over his commitment. In turn, Clarke disliked the new material from the other three, all of whom contributed songwriting to ambitious material musically inspired by The Beatles’ Rubber Soul and Revolver and permeated with lyrics about ecology, protest and peace. With Clarke no longer caring, Jim Gordon and The Wrecking Crew’s Hal Blaine (who in fact played drums on The Byrds’ “Mr. Tambourine Man”) replaced him, joined by some two dozen musicians supplementing the dwindling original Byrds.
McGuinn and Hillman fired Crosby next. The rhythm guitarist bristled at the pair’s decision to record the Gerry Goffin-Carole King composition “Goin’ Back.” His own risqué ode to a ménage à trois, “Triad,” was shunted aside in favor of this mellow country-rock tune, already a hit for Dusty Springfield. “Triad,” which would later appear on compilations and the 1997 deluxe Notorious, is essential Byrds, but it just didn’t fit McGuinn and Hillman’s concept of back-to-nature bliss.
Taken when Clarke still was around, the album cover features a Laurel Canyon stable, its open windows framing each of the trio. The fourth slot is taken up by a horse’s head. Persistent gossip claims this was a further dig at Crosby, but this has been debunked by the photographer.
The Notorious Byrd Brothers was a departure for the band, even more so than the explosively experimental “Eight Miles High.” After principal songwriter Gene Clark left, the band, the band tried to shed their reputation as simply folk-rock Beatleized Dylans. Early in 1967, Younger Than Yesterday sought to return the former hit-makers to the charts. Hillman’s country-rock leanings increased while McGuinn’s psychedelic musings found a congenial ear in producer Gary Usher. Having partnered with Brian Wilson, Usher had recently directed Gene Clark’s own solo debut. The Beach Boys and The Beatles set a higher bar that pushed The Byrds, and Usher urged the group into studio experimentation as Crosby and Clark shuffled in and out of the lineup.
Hillman and McGuinn brought in extra talent that included the Firesign Theater, who cooked up battlefield sound effects at the close of the poignant Vietnam narrative “Draft Morning,” which pops up midway through the first side of an album full of depth and emotion. While the band had been charged with endorsing drug use in such songs as “Eight Miles High,” the opening “Artificial Energy” pits its horns and groove against a somber cautionary tale of an amphetamine user’s incarceration after a murder. (Clarke had returned from exile for this track in December; soon after he either was fired or quit again.) Crosby’s “Tribal Gathering” has been mentioned as to its be-in genesis; “Natural Harmony” and “Change is Now” blend the band’s pop appeal with hip vibrations.
By his teens, Hillman was a bluegrass prodigy, and his witty tribute to hometown eccentric “Old John Robertson” lopes along as if it is an oft-covered Appalachian ditty. A phased cello exemplifies the effects crafted by Usher, McGuinn and Hillman. “Dolphin’s Smile” amps up the oddity as it invents noises to mimic sea creatures’ calls. “Space Odyssey” spins off of Arthur C. Clarke’s short story “The Sentinel,” a tale then being transformed for the big screen in 2001: A Space Odyssey. One wonders if McGuinn angled for a place on its soundtrack in the making. That worked for “Wasn’t Born to Follow,” a second Goffin-King ramble whose heavily flanged McGuinn was prominent in Easy Rider.
“Change Is Now” was graced by another gifted bluegrass guitarist, Clarence White, who would join the down-home transformation that turned Sweetheart of the Rodeo into a pioneering fusion of country-rock. But rather than a sudden lurch, the Byrds had been altering their flight pattern over three LPs before. Notorious endures as a sonic testimony to the tumultuous conditions of its making in and out of the studio. One wonders how much further the Byrds might have taken off into their psychedelic excursions if their original line-up had stayed on board.