The Byrds – The Notorious Byrd Brothers
Some bands and individual performers can become pigeon-holed by their sound and/or image over a relatively brief period of time. MTV certainly played a role in that in the 1980’s, as to this day many non-fans assume Bob Dylan still sings in the nasally tone that they only heard, albeit many times, on his contribution to We Are the World, and Bruce Springsteen to them probably still wears a red bandanna and a jean jacket with the sleeves cut off. Dylan’s singing voice has probably been through nine or ten distinct incarnations over the years, with at least three different phases since U.S.A. for Africa, and Bruce has added to his playing and singing style a few times and traded the bandanna for a hair piece long ago. Another such band that many have one impression of, thanks to soul-sucking commercial Classic Rock and Oldies radio formats, is The Byrds.
The first Byrds album I ever “owned” was their original Greatest Hits that I pirated in 1985 onto cassette from my Uncle Chris’s original 1967 vinyl. I’m fairly certain it’s out in the garage with my other tapes that I continue to hold onto for posterity, and for those Grateful Dead soundboards my friend Mitch gave me years ago. But that hits album is the epitome of the early Byrds that is assumed by many to be the one and only Byrds sound: Roger McGuinn’s jangly 12-string Rickenbacker playing Dylan covers. While I love that music, the band evolved remarkably over its lifespan, and I consider The Notorious Byrd Brothers, released January 15, 1968, to be a fascinating shift that took a stunning leap with their next album later in the year.
For the heavy hitters in music, 1968 seems to have been a psychedelic hangover of sorts that inspired them to branch out, or at least “return to roots,” while many of the others were still playing catch-up in a commercially paisley world. Though Dylan didn’t release an official LP that year, he was cloistered in Upstate New York recording stripped down “weird America” music (to steal writer and critic Greil Marcus’s term) with The Band. The Stones stepped forward and backward all at once with straight forward rock and blues on their followup to Their Satanic Majesties Request, and the Beatles were all over the place on their upcoming double LP release. While this Byrds record is still considered “psychedelic” and McGuinn’s jingle-jangle guitar is very present, the band integrates hints of country music with a steel pedal, pop (the opening track, Artificial Energy, reminds me of Devol, the studio group that recorded incidental music for TV shows such as The Brady Bunch, but in a good way), and electronic music with the introduction of a Moog synthesizer into an overall more laid back, sometimes pastoral, sound. The themes include Vietnam, peace, love, freedom, ecology, and outer space. Far out, man.
Another theme that might have been considered far out and was put to tape but not the final LP song lineup was found in David Crosby’s Triad, which the band subsequently gave to the Jefferson Airplane to record and which Crosby would go on to include in CSNY live sets. The Byrds’ version finally ended up on the album’s remaster almost thirty years later. Crosby’s anger over this song about a ménage à trois being considered too risqué for inclusion, along with his increasingly unbearable personality, caused him to be fired during the album’s recording. Drummer Michael Clarke had quit briefly before this, due in part to disputes with Croz, only to return after the latter was fired. Clarke was then let go after recording was completed. Founding member Gene Clark (from my home state of Missouri), who had quit the group in 1966, returned for three weeks before quitting again. Despite all the group upheaval (i.e., drugs and ego) and the various styles and instrumentation introduced, this is a very cohesive album which stands on its own merits fifty years on without a major hit to anchor it.
- Artificial Energy
- Goin’ Back
- Natural Harmony
- Draft Morning
- Wasn’t Born to Follow
- Get to You
- Change is Now
- Old John Robertson
- Tribal Gathering
- Dolphin’s Smile
- Space Odyssey
Fun with Album Covers:
The location of the group photo on the cover of The Notorious Byrd Brothers is in Topanga Canyon, L.A. The horse in the photo was thought to represent the recently fired David Crosby, although perhaps the wrong end of the horse. It’s also the scene of another album photo shoot – for Linda Ronstadt – the following year. Today it appears to be a renovated guest house next to a rather posh Topanga spread.