As a group, The Byrds had more talent than they knew what to do with, and who were a sort of California equivalent to The Beatles (only with superior harmonies, and a certain darker sensibility), whose interpretations of Bob Dylan were as seminal as they were authoritative. David Crosby also brought a political element to the fold, making statements which neither Lennon nor McCartney would have ever dreamt of making themselves, or at least not in the early part of their careers. However after (only!) four LPs, the band began to fray due to the customary combination of egos, drugs not to mention artistic differences, which meant that by the time the album was completed, Crosby, Gene Clark, and drummer Michael Clarke would no longer be in the band (Clark had already left in 1966, but returned for a few weeks of recording, before leaving again). Though as acrimonious as relationships were, The Notorious Byrd Brothers is now, as it was then, regarded as their most visionary work, encompassing folk-rock, country-rock, psychedelic pop, and even jazz. There’s some Moog in there as well, so overall a pretty eclectic, experimental affair, at least by 1967 standards.
First up is the brass infused “Artificial Energy”, a song about speed, and perhaps one of the era’s first anti-drug songs (well, not all drugs). The lines “I’m coming down off amphetamine/And I’m in jail because I killed a queen” describe the murder of a homosexual, and reminds me of something one might have heard in a Lou Reed song. “Goin’ Back” follows, and is a lovely nostalgic driven number, about the travails of growing older, while at the same time wistfully reflecting on the innocence of childhood, a time when one needn’t worry about the wider world and all its eternal complications. “Natural Harmony” is where things get a bit spacey, with phased vocals and instruments, along with Moog and subtle steel guitar. Like a 1967 version of The Stone Roses, minus the ecstasy. And now we segue into the exquisite “Draft Morning”, with its rising and floating harmonies. It has Crosby written all over it, although the song is somewhat controversial in that while the backing track had been completed, following Crosby’s exodus, Chris Hillman and Roger McGuinn decided to complete it themselves, going so far as to write their own lyrics from what they could remember from Crosby’s own, thus attaining song-writing credit in the process. But the song has a serious side, and that is the drafting of American youth to fight in a war as pointless as it was senseless.
“Wasn’t Born to Follow” is perhaps the most well-known tune on the album, owing to being included on the soundtrack to 1969’s counter-culture film “Easy Rider”. Clarence White provides the plaintive country-style guitar, and is a fine example of the band’s effortless ability to infuse old musical ideas with the new, and in the process record a psychedelic-country masterpiece, and all in the space of around two minutes by the way. The lyrics are also quite beautiful.
The delightful “Get to You” follows (after a door slam), where McGuinn documents a plane journey to London. The lilting melody is as lovely as it memorable; a superb number indeed, and one I could listen to again and again. Next we get all spiritual and guru like with “Change is Now”, although judging by the slight country and western influenced interludes I can’t imagine that too many fans of the Grand Ole Oprey would have suddenly gone Vegan and decided to let their hair grow long after listening to this. However the country-rock continues with Hillman’s “Old John Robertson”, where for 1:49 he reminisces about some aging eccentric who lived in his area when growing up, whom people sometimes ridiculed for his appearance and behaviour.
“Tribal Gathering” is another Crosby song, and it’s a strange thing to be sure. Jazz, pop, heavy rock, you’ve got it; and all in the space of just over two minutes. Crosby expresses his obsession with the sea on “Dolphin’s Smile”, a theme he would revisit on “The Lee Shore” just a year or so later. What this song confirms more than any other on this album is the disparity between Crosby’s own artistic leanings and those of his fellow Byrds. Mind you, it probably didn’t help that he had an ego the size of the Taj Majal.
The last track “Space Odyssey” is a little too weird for my taste, like a bunch of Scotsmen who’ve just dropped acid and decided to take up playing the Moog for a living. In other words, forgettable.
This was the sole Byrds LP in my father’s collection when I was growing up, which probably goes a long way to explain why it is my favourite (Mr Tambourine Man is second in line). After this, with Hillman and McGuinn the only two permanent members left, The Byrds took off on an entirely different trajectory from the one on which they had previously travelled; taking the band in a far more country-rock oriented direction (especially once Gram Parsons joined the group), a genre that would soon become an industry in itself (think Poco, Pure Prairie League, Flying Burrito Brothers etc).
In 1973 the original line-up reunited to record what was at the time considered to be a less than inspiring LP. However times had changed, just as they were changing in 1967. Put too many talented people into the same room, and you are bound to get friction. Creativity is often like that. What is often painful for the artist, is pleasurable to the listener. Yet through all the hostility and turmoil, they managed to bequeath to the world a document such as this.