The BYRDS – ” The Notorious Byrd Brothers ” Classic Albums

Posted: May 26, 2019 in ALBUMS, MUSIC
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Californian folk-rock band The Byrds enjoyed immediate success in 1965 with their first single, a cover of Bob Dylan’s ‘Mr Tambourine Man’. The song was a watershed moment in pop music – combining Dylan’s poetic, creative lyrics with Roger McGuinn’s chiming twelve string electric guitar. The song launched the genre of folk-rock, influencing acts like Tom Petty and R.E.M..

By the time of their fifth album, 1968’s The Notorious Byrd Brothers, The Byrds were in turmoil, released in January 1968, on Columbia Records With three talented singer-guitarists competing for attention in their original lineup, band relationships were competitive and strained. Ace songwriter Gene Clark had already left the band, and David Crosby was fired in October 1967, during the sessions for The Notorious Byrd Brothers. The breaking point was the song ‘Triad’, about a ménage à trois, a song that the other members considered too risque at the time. Drummer Michael Clarke also left the band during the recording sessions, and much of the drumming on the album is from studio players Jim Gordon and Hal Blaine.

The Notorious Byrd Brothers was completed by the two remaining Byrds; McGuinn and bassist Chris Hillman, using studio musicians to fill out the sound. The Byrds had often recorded songs from outside songwriters, famously Bob Dylan, and this time two songs from the pen of Carole King and Gerry Goffin are covered. Even though he was fired during the sessions, David Crosby’s also influential on the record – as well as contributing three songs, his rhythm guitar and vocals are on half of the songs. He also plays bass on ‘Old John Robertson’.

1967 was the year of psychedelia, but albums like Dylan’s John Wesley Harding and The Band’s 1968 debut swung the pendulum back to an earthy, homespun feel. The Notorious Byrd Brothers splits the difference – psychedelia mingles with country touches like pedal steel. There’s also the band’s usual folk-rock, and other styles are explored – ‘Old John Robertson’ starts as jaunty country, but detours into a baroque string quartet. Closer ‘Space Odyssey’ is the most disparate. a Moog coloured sci-fi experiment.

It’s these experiments in texture that make The Notorious Byrd Brothers  among The Byrds’ best album. There’s enough of the Byrds’ usual folk-rock to make Notorious a representative album but every track has a different sonic palette, lovingly thought out and distinct.

1960s themes of love and unity are prominent in songs like ‘Natural Harmony’, but there are also hints of darkness in the drug song ‘Artificial Energy’ and the anti-Vietnam war ‘Draft Morning’.

The Byrds’ first six albums are all strong, and 1967’s Younger Than Yesterday is a strong contender as the band’s best album. In the aftermath of their sixth album, 1968’s Sweetheart of the Rodeo, Hillman quit the band leaving McGuinn as the only original Byrd. Later Byrds albums are more like McGuinn solo records, excepting the 1973 reunion of the original lineup on The Byrds.

The album’s opening track, “Artificial Energy”, features a prominent horn section and as such, can be seen as a stylistic relative of “Lady Friend” and “So You Want to Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star”, two earlier Byrds’ songs that made use of brass.  The song deals with the dark side of amphetamine use and it was Chris Hillman who initially suggested that the band should “write a song about speed”. The title was suggested by drummer Michael Clarke, and his input in the creation of the song was sufficient to afford him a rare writing credit Although the song’s lyrics initially seem to be extolling the virtues of amphetamines, the tale turns darker in the final verse when it becomes apparent that the drug taker has been imprisoned for murdering a homosexual man, as evidenced by the song’s final couplet: “I’m coming down off amphetamine/And I’m in jail ’cause I killed a queen. Although the press had accused the Byrds of writing songs about drugs in the past, specifically with “Eight Miles High” and “5D (Fifth Dimension)”, when the band finally did record a song unequivocally dealing with drugs it was largely ignored by journalists.

“Artificial Energy” is followed on the album by the poignant and nostalgic Goffin–King song “Goin’ Back”.With its chiming 12-string Rickenbacker guitar and polished harmony singing, band biographer Johnny Rogan has described the song as providing a sharp contrast to the negativity and violence of the opening track The song’s lyrics describe an attempt on the part of the singer to reject the cynicism that comes with being an adult in favor of the innocence of childhood.Thematically, the song recalled the title of the Byrds‘ previous album, Younger Than Yesterday, and the understated pedal steel guitar playing of Red Rhodes gives the track a subtle country flavor.

“Goin’ Back” Each of the previous Byrds albums features a iconic lead single; ‘Mr Tambourine Man’, ‘Turn Turn Turn’, ‘Eight Miles High’,and ‘So You Want To Be A Rock and Roll Star’are arguably their four best known songs. The nostalgia of ‘Goin’ Back’, written by King and Goffin, has flown under the radar a little, but it’s a lovely song, wistful and nostalgic.

Another song on the album that deals with the need to escape the confines of society is David Crosby’s “Dolphin’s Smile”.The song was an early example of Crosby’s penchant for using nautical imagery in his songs, a thematic trait he would utilize in future compositions, including “Wooden Ships” and “The Lee Shore”.The theme of unfettered idyllic bliss is further explored in the Hillman-penned “Natural Harmony”.Like “Goin’ Back”, “Natural Harmony” conveys a sense of longing for the innocence of youth, albeit filtered through the awareness-raising properties of psychedelic drugs. It has been suggested by some commentators that the song exhibits the strong influence of Crosby’s writing style, with its laid-back, jazzy feel and dreamy, high tenor vocal part.A second Goffin–King composition, “Wasn’t Born to Follow”, also displays country and western influences, albeit filtered through the band’s psychedelic and garage rock tendencies. The song’s country leanings are underscored by the criss-crossing musical dialogue between the electric guitar and pedal steel.The rural ambiance is further heightened by the striking imagery of the lyrics which outline the need for escape and independence: a subject perfectly in keeping with the hippie ethos of the day.

The McGuinn and Hillman composition “Change Is Now”, with its lyrics advising the listener to live life to the full, represents a celebration of the philosophy of carpe diem (popularly translated as “seize the day”).Within this context, the song’s lyrics explored a number of other themes, including epiphenomenalism, communalism and human ecology.The quasi-philosophical nature of the song prompted McGuinn to flippantly describe it in a 1969 interview as “another one of those guru-spiritual-mystic songs that no-one understood. An early instrumental recording of the song, listed under its original working title of “Universal Mind Decoder”, was included as a bonus track on the 1997 reissue of The Notorious Byrd Brothers“Change Is Now” is notable for being the only song on the album to feature both Crosby and future Byrd Clarence White together on the same track.

“Draft Morning” was one of the three songs that Crosby had contributed before he was forced from the band. McGuinn and Hillman had forgotten some of Crosby’s lyrics, so made up their own to fill in the blanks, much to Crosby’s displeasure. Despite the confused circumstances, ‘Draft Morning’ is beautiful – Hillman’s bass is loud in the mix, providing much of the melodic interest, while McGuinn’s exploratory solo temporarily upsets the serene atmosphere.

“Draft Morning” is a song about the horrors of the Vietnam War, as well as a protest against the conscription of men into the military during the conflict. The song was initially written by Crosby, but he was fired from the Byrds shortly after he had introduced it to the rest of the band. However, work had already begun on the song’s instrumental backing track by the time of Crosby’s departure. Controversially, McGuinn and Hillman decided to continue working on the song, despite its author no longer being a member of the band Having only heard the song’s lyrics in their original incarnation a few times, McGuinn and Hillman couldn’t remember all of the words when they came to record the vocals and so decided to rewrite the song with their own lyrical additions, giving themselves a co-writing credit in the process. This angered Crosby considerably, since he felt, with some justification, that McGuinn and Hillman had stolen his song. Despite its troubled evolution, “Draft Morning” is often considered one of Crosby’s best songs from his tenure with the Byrds. Lyrically, it follows a newly recruited soldier from the morning of his induction into the military through to his experiences of combat and as such, illustrates the predicament faced by many young American men during the 1960s. The song also makes extensive use of battlefield sound effects, provided for the band by the Los Angeles comedy troupe the Firesign Theatre.

Another of Crosby’s songwriting contributions to the album, “Tribal Gathering”, was, for many years, assumed to have been inspired by the Human Be-In: A Gathering Of Tribes, a counter-culture happening held in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park on January 12, 1967. However, in recent years, Crosby has revealed that the song was actually inspired by another hippie gathering held at Elysian Park near Los Angeles on March 26, 1967. Played in a jazzy, 5/4 time signature, the song’s vocal arrangement was greatly influenced by the music of the Four Freshmen, a vocal group that Crosby had admired as a youngster.

Another song on the album that uses a 5/4 time signature, albeit with occasional shifts into 3/4 time, is the McGuinn and Clark composition “Get to You”.The song recounts a plane trip to London, England, just prior to the advent of autumn, but the identity of the enigmatic “you” mentioned in the song’s title is not specified in the lyrics and thus, can be interpreted as either a waiting lover or as the city of London itself. Although Clark helped to co-write the song, he had left the Byrds by the time it was recorded and therefore does not appear on the track.

“Get To You” Gene Clark was bought band into The Byrds to replace Crosby. He only lasted three weeks, but was around for long enough to write ‘Get To You’ with McGuinn. ‘Get To You’ has a tension between McGuinn’s folk roots and psychedelia, and the time signature shifts between 5/4 and 3/4.

“Old John Robertson”, which had already been issued some six months earlier as the B-side of the “Lady Friend” single, was another country-tinged song that looked forward to the band’s future country rock experimentation. The song was inspired by a retired film director who lived in the small town near San Diego where Hillman grew up. John S. Robertson was something of an eccentric figure around the town, regularly wearing a Stetson hat and sporting a white handlebar moustache, which gave him the appearance of a character out of the old American West. In the song, Hillman tells the children of the town and their cruel laughter at this colorful figure, as well as the combination of awe and fear that he elicited in the townsfolk. During the recording of the song, Crosby switched instruments with Hillman to play bass instead of his usual rhythm guitar. The track also makes liberal use of the studio effects known as phasing and flanging, particularly during the song’s orchestral middle section and subsequent verse. The version of “Old John Robertson” found on the B-side of the “Lady Friend” single is a substantially different mix from the version that appears on The Notorious Byrd Brothers album.

The final track on the album, “Space Odyssey”, is a musical retelling of Arthur C. Clarke’s short story “The Sentinel”, which was also the inspiration for Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film, 2001: A Space Odyssey.The song makes extensive use of the Moog modular synthesizer and features a droning, dirge-like melody reminiscent of a sea shanty. Since “Space Odyssey” predates the release of 2001: A Space Odyssey, McGuinn and his co-writer, Robert J. Hippard, composed lyrics that referred to a pyramid being found on the Moon, as was the case in “The Sentinel”. However, the pyramid was replaced by a rectangular monolith in both the film and the accompanying novelization.

At the time of release The Notorious Byrd Brothers wasn’t a big hit album – it barely cracked the top 50 in the US,

In 1973, Jon Landau wrote in Rolling Stone: “Younger Than Yesterday and Notorious Byrd Brothers stand with Mr. Tambourine Man as their greatest albums and I used to have a hell of a time choosing between them.”

On the website Rate Your Music, The Notorious Byrds Brothers is tied with Younger Than Yesterday on 3.87/5 as The Byrds’ best album.

On the website Acclaimed Music, The Notorious Byrd Brothers is ranked as the #294 best album of all time. It’s ranked as The Byrds’ fourth best album, behind 1968’s country record Sweetheart of the Rodeo at #192, Younger Than Yesterday, and Mr. Tambourine Man.

The Notorious Byrd Brothers is included in the original edition of 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, along with four other Byrds’ albums. The book also quotes Chris Hillman, who says “I’ve talked to more people over the years who’ve said that’s their favourite Byrds album”.

thanks to Aphoristic Album Reviews for the words

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