Friday 4 July 2008

The Byrds "The Notorious Byrd Brothers" (1968) ('Core' Album #20, Revised Edition 2014)

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The Byrds "The Notorious Byrd Brothers" (1968)

Track Listing: 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 (UK and US tracklisting)

Were the Byrds ever really notorious? Liked, admired and respected by their peers they may have been, but most people tend to think of the Byrds as angelic choir boys rather than the in-fighting back-stabbers they actually are if you read one of their biographies. Notorious Byrd Brothers is fittingly named, however, both for the fact that this is the album the Byrds famously started as a quartet and finished as a duo (they’d be down to Roger McGuinn on his own in six months’ time) and all of the love-hate brother-like relationships going on within the band at the time (that’s brotherly love in the sense that’s shared by the similarly back-stabbing and in-fighting Wilsons, Davies and Gallaghers brethren on this list!) Not content with their shoddy treatment of fragile genius Gene Clark, whose own gloriously complex and groundbreaking songs were replaced by songs full of snipes about their former partner’s inability to cope with the pressure of fame, the band self-destructed completely during late 1967. Drummer Michael Clarke walked straight after these sessions, fed up with being jeered at for his playing which had actually come on leaps and bounds during the Byrds’ years – and David Crosby got unceremoniously booted out of the band in the end of 1967 because his songs were, ahem, ‘not very good’ and they’d be better off without him – the 1st CSN album is barely a year down the line at this point, remember.

In fact, the more I read about this most delightful of dysfunctional bands, the more confusing it seems that such different musicians ever even crossed paths in the early 60s never mind recorded four-and-a-bit albums with losing just the one member. Hardly any bands stay the best of friends during their recording years but this must surely be one of the only bands to have started seriously rowing before they even got a record contract! The other Byrds not mentioned so far, Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman, were never the most prolific of writers during the 60s and sure enough they got so desperate for material that they raided Crosby’s latest batch of demos and early recordings for this album, altering the lyrics along the way and causing yet more friction among the five now scattered Byrds. As a parting gesture they decided not to put Crosby on the cover and 'replaced' him...with a horse! (to be fair this sounds like a bit of 'horse-play', an unplanned joke that got out of hand when the band realised they didn't have a fourth head for their planned photo-shoot in a shack in the hills and grabbed the nearest solution, but it genuinely riled Crosby who still considers it a spiteful comment about his role in the band).

You see, for all my accolades about it later on in this review, Notorious really isn’t the properly thought-out and painstakingly crafted album the Byrds want you to think it is at all. Notorious is really two albums in one, partly recorded with an on-form Crosby at his unrepeatable 68-69 peak and then partly re-recorded in the singer’s absence; the other songs feature McGuinn and Hillman working more or less alone to plug up the holes and complete the record on time. Even with that convoluted and confusing background, most of this album’s highlights still belong to Croz. His lovely harmonies shimmer throughout this record and his songs – Draft Morning, Tribal Gathering and Dolphin’s Smile - are among the Byrds’ most atmospheric and groundbreaking tunes. In fact Crosby probably wanted to keep these songs for himself and CSN/Y, but after telling him his new songs were useless and weird, the rest of the band found themselves short of material and cannibalised old recordings and what they could remember from Crosby’s half-completed demos (that’s why all of these songs bear co-writing credits but they’re really Crosby’s with the odd line added!)  Recorded in the most miserable of circumstances, then, with band members tugging at the reigns this way and that, unable to agree on anything any more, The Notorious Byrd Brothers should be a horrid, pitiable mess - the album the Byrds started as a quartet and ended as a duo (counting the loss of Hillman and Gram Parsons on the next record, that's five members in four records!) Given that the band had already sounded weary and disillusioned on their last album ('So You Want To Be A Rock and Roll Star' is cynicism on a pop-sicle stick) you'd be fully within your rights to look at the dating (1968 was the most turbulent year for music, at least across the 1960s, full of unrest assassinations and Nixon) and find yourself be expecting an incoherent angry, screaming rant that doesn't hang together.

Instead Notorious, is one of the greatest albums ever made, not least because it's one of the most beautiful albums ever made. How on earth did a band who could barely stay in the same room as one another and all felt as if their futures were uncertain and hopeless find it in themselves to create such powerful, restive songs is beyond me - but they found the knack of turning all that tension into gold just in time. Many of the songs are gorgeous, melodic ballads that float with a serenity and calm and even those that aren't have lyrics that are wise beyonf their years, full of references to brotherly love and getting along (even if through gritted teeth) - a world away from the sometimes childish inter-band rants taking place (listen to the band argument taking place during 'Dolphin's Smile' and smuggled unlisted onto the end of the Norotious CD re-issue for an insight!) Crosby is in particularly blissed-out state on this record, with his 'Dolphin's Smile' and 'Draft Morning' amongst his most hauntingly gorgeous compositions (finished off by his colleagues after kicking him out the band when they realised they needed material in a hurry). McGuinn's 'Space Oddysey' imagines a happier future fifty years down the line, with the seeds planted in the 1960s ending up sprouting into gorgeous fruit just a generation or so later (sadly, we're still waiting). Hillman's 'Tribal Gathering' (written with Crosby's help) is the single most 'brotherly love' song The Byrds ever made, full of the peace and harmony and optimism that wasn't there in the studio. The joint 'Old John Roberston' remembers a strange old man the teenage Chris used to bully for being different and which the duo now want to worship and celebrate in their new-found love of humanity. And best of all the pair's classy fittingly turbulent but somehow serene  and accepting 'Change Is Now' shrugs it's shoulders and accepts the now for what it is. 'The Notorious Byrd Brothers' may have been recorded in trying circumstances but only the opening track 'Artificial Energy' (the Byrds' only drug song, whatever case has been made for 'Eight Miles High') sounds anything like the angry, angtsy songs you might expect and even that's clever in a 'we'll-write-a-song-around-the-new-production-gimmicks-we've-just-found-instead-of-simply-using-them-for-no-other-reason-than-they-sound-cool kind of a way).

Then again, if there's a theme to this record it's one of brotherly love and how wonderful it is to be alive in 1968 when mankind is coming together and everything in the future will be different - the last thing you'd have expected in the circumstances. 'Tribal Gathering' is the most extreme example, inspired by the 'Human Be In' at San Francisco's Golden Gate Park (a kind of early version of the Monterey Pop Festival), the first time so many young people had gathered in one place without any call for it. 'Natural Harmony' is a close second, with blurred images of people 'walking streets side by side, head thrown back, arms open wide' as if in a trance from love. 'Old John Robertson' is Hillman's adult guilt over his childhood antics with an eccentric character he now feels had much to teach him. 'Wasn't Born To Follow', soon to be a hippie anthem thanks to it's use in the 'Easy Rider' film, is a statement that everyone is unique and have their own lives to lead. 'Draft Morning' sees two worlds moving in parallel: one a beautiful sunlight morning paradise as the narrator makes his escape, another a horrifying image of battlefields, our guide now 'up early to learn to kill'. 'Change Is Now' delights in the change the youth of the day are bringing and in typical Byrds style tries to tell us that our future sci-fi selves will always be linked back to our country pasts (with one of the greatest instrumental breaks in rock music history. Seriously, if you're not convinced of the power of the hippie dream after the end then either you've been listening to too much George W Bush or you need a new pair of ears - let's play this album the next time there'a  war on and see how quickly both sides put down their arms!) 'Get To You' is a story-song about an aeroplane ride that yells with delight 'that's a little better!' as if simply taking this one journey has improved the narrator's hopes for mankind's spirits. 'Dolphin's Smile' tells us that the amphibians have beaten us to our universal peace and understanding anyway Finally, 'Space Odyssey' imagines a brighter future when our petty human differences have been put aside. In a nutshell the album's message is this: 'Change is now, all around - dance to the day when fear is unknown'.

'Notorious' then is a real album of it's day - and yet in many ways it's straining at the leash to go even further onto the next adventure. For a time it was set to do exactly that. The ever mischievous Crosby wanted 'Triad' for the album, a tale about his emerging lifestyle as part of a menage a trois that rejected all traditions of marriage and understanding with the tagline  'I don't really see - why can't we go on as three?' Shocking for some even today (I took great delight in selecting this track for one of my music lesson assignments to see if it still had the power to shock - what do you know? It did!) , 'Triad' is the logical conclusion to this album's boundary pushing but went too far for McGuinn and Hillman who threw the track out along with the singer (Crosby hated the drippy 'Goin' Back' and only helped to record it on the understanding this song would be left alone - in that context I'm with Crosby, straining towards the future rather than woefully looking back to the past, although it's too far ahead of our times now - it would have caused a revolution in 1968, which was exactly what the guitarist wanted! He gave it to Jefferson Airplane to record instead, where it made even more sense sung by Grace Slick's feminine voice but got far less attention). While an understandable absentee, I still say it's this album's loss - the mischevious debate held at this album's generational rallying call that would have allowed the album to go even further than reflecting it's times and imagining a brighter future - it could have lead them as well.

Now that we have the album re-issued on CD (with lots of brand spanking new bonus tracks) the most revealing moment comes not from the album itself but the unlisted 'hidden track' squirrelled away at the end - perhaps the most revealing ten minutes of any Byrds CD. The Byrds are trying to record 'Dolphin's Smile', the most serene and beautiful moment from a record full of them. Those harmonies float. Roger's guitar sounds like an ocean wave. The song takes shape. It's beautiful. And then - *crash*. Michael Clarke is throwing all his weight behind his drums like he's Keith Moon. Crosby urges his pal to 'try something gentle'. Clarke refuses. 'It's not beyond you Michael!' Crosby retorts before adding that he's always like that when someone suggests something he doesn't like. Producer Gary Usher kindly intervenes, telling him he usually has some good ideas. Clarke gets sulky. Then he gets cross, telling Crosby he's a 'drag' and 'attacks me all the time'. The band lose their cool, Crosby barking the unhelpful suggestion 'try playing right!' 'Can't you play the drums?' quits Hillman.'Send me away then!' cries Clarke. 'Poor Baby!' cries Crosby. 'Well, I never liked the song anyway' digs Clarke, aiming his digs where he knows they'll hurt. A band argument intervenes, the response of the others sounding as if that was the third one they've had just that day. Within mere months from this session (weeks in Crosby's case) both men are out the band. The ironic thing is the final version of 'Dolphin's Smile' - cut mere hours later - is beautiful. Clarke not only nails the lick the others are trying to get him to play here, he's invented a whole new one that's much trickier and complex than anything Crosby was trying to get him to do. Clarke's greatest drumming is on this album, in fact, especially his hard pulse and relentless rat-ta-tat that turns 'Draft Morning' drom a drifty dreaming song about rebirth into a song about escaping the draft. Once again, the magic of 'Notorious' is how it took the sheer chaos of events like these and turned them into positives, using band arguments as the springboard for pushing the boundaries of what it even means to be in that band.

While fans have always debated which Byrds album is the best (unlike The Beach Boys who always get lumbered with 'Pet Sounds' or Simon and Garfunkel with 'Bridge Over TRoubled Water', there's never been a general consensus on which Byrds record is 'the one') and I have soft spots for many, I have to go with 'Notorious'. No other Byrds album sounds this 'complete'. All Byrds albums have some master stroke on them somewhere (yep, even 'Byrdmaniax'!), but 'Notorious' is a remarkably consistent album where practically every song is a gem (only a rather dreary cover of 'Goin' Back' lets the field down). Gary Usher (once Brian Wilson's writing partner) glorious production is the band's best: it fills up the sound with all sorts of squiggly synthesiery bits (back when synthesisers were worth hearing and didn't sound the same on every bleeding record as they will in 210 years' time) and yet the vocals, guitar, bass and drums are always upfront and centre in the band's sound (not always the case down the years!) Perhaps best of all there are three terrific songwriters all arguably hitting their peak (or certainly one of them) all at the same time: while Gene Clark was the Byrd who ruled the roost on albums one and two, with McGuinn on album three and Crosby and Hillman swapping works of genius on album number four it's 'The Notorious Byrd Brothers' where each man's distinctive style really comes into it's own. The songwriting partnership struck up between Roger and Chris is especially good - light years ahead from the tired 'Rock and Roll Star' - and makes you wish they'd started writing together earlier: Hillman's love of roots and McGuinn's love of the future makes for a terrific blend of styles that, for now, are truly compatible (alas this record, only the second time the pair work together, is also the last and Hillman is gone after just one more LP). Above all 'Notorious' flies higher than any other Byrds album because it's the one that's more than the sum of it's parts: the sequencing of songs is genius, with tracks seguing into each other most naturally (despite coming from so many different sessions with so many different line-ups playing on them) or linked by sound effects that somehow work; each sounding as if it's 'meant to be'.

Best of all, each song takes you on a  journey somewhere new - with most of the journeys somewhere the Byrds have never been before. Even more than most groups around in the ever-changing sixties, the Byrds seemed to change their style as often as they changed their socks in this period, possibly more. Between 1966 and early 68 they went from Dylan-loving folk-rock cover artists, to Ivy League type pop merchants to space age cowboys and psychedelic spaced-out atmospheric splendour in the blink of an eye. We're used to hopping somewhere new with each Byrds flight - that's something fans just have to do to keepn up (although the sea-change from Notorious to the next record is a leasp to far for most, however well it's regarded nowadays).  If you think that change in style in a little under three years is weird, however, wait till you play this album, with its three-minute compact symphonies where two or three of these styles are quite naturally welded together, with traditional rockers breaking off for a good old country steel guitar solo in between bursts of feedback, not to mention setting a space-age message from infinity and beyond to a 19th century sea shanty backing. The curious thing in retrospect, though, is what's happened to the 'country' influence - first heard on the second album's 'Satisfied Mind', it's been picked up by mandolin player Hillman for his sogs on 'Younger Than Yesterday' but now - nothing (well nearly nothing, there's a little bit on 'Old John Robertson' but that's still more rock than country and a brief pedal-steel yee-hah kick to 'Change Is Now' which lasts for all of eight seconds per verse; the session tapes revealed a lot of country songs were tried bu never used, including Hillman's first go at future Manassas song 'Bound To Fall'). The Byrds are about to take the biggest leap into the unknown of their career and yet seem on this record to have turned their backs on the sound they're about to go mainstream with (suggesting that Gram Parsons played an even bigger role in the next record than suspected!)

What's odd, too, is that a 'country' record is exactly what you'd expect from the date, the album title (much more likely for a country band than a rock one) and the album cover: three Byrds and a horse in a shack in the woods (left to right: Hillman, McGuinn, Clarke, Horse - the band changed facial hair styles so often it's hard to keep track). Late 1967 and early 1968 was all about being as 'weird' as possible - yet here are The Byrds, just weeks on from The Beatles' weird album sleeve for 'Magical Mystery Tour' in animal masks and The Stones' wizard-centric 'Satanic Majesties' - shooting what seems like the lowest budget and plainest cover imaginable.Where are the tribal gatherings? the dolphins smiling? The space oddyseys? Instead we get a shack in the forest with a tin roof so badly someone really needs to call in the builders...

That's about the only thing that is down-to-earth about this record though: 'Notorious Byrd Brothers' is a real 'trip' of a record (not withstanding the deeply anti-drugs and out-of-it's-times song with which the record begins), one that comes in lurid psychedelic colours and which sounds as if - at last - a lot of time has been spent on getting everything just right. The bad news is that The Byrds never achieved this again before or since - just think what Gene Clark or even Gene Parsons might have done with this much care and attention lavished on their songs and weep. The good news is that against all the odds The Byrds got near perfection at all during the making of one of the most turbulent, frustrated, angry, back-stabbing sessions ever held for a record. This album isn't just notorious, it's noteworthy, one of the brightest shining gems from a golden age in music that deserves every accolade going.

The Songs:
The lovingly lethargic [73] Artficial Energy is an interesting place to start, with the band singing of ‘coming down’ off something, but whether its drugs or a musical elation we never find out. The song even manages a cheeky reference to another alleged drug song with the line ‘took my ticket to ri-i-i-de’ – again giving us mixed messages of music or drugs. Each of this song’s parts should be energy personified – Chris Hillman’s bass stretches its legs every chorus, the horns blast at double-time and the song’s tempo is definitely upbeat. McGuinn - the least drugged up member of a drugged up band - delivers a lead vocal gloriously blurred and out-of-it, suggesting either that he's made a rare exception during the making of this record or that he's been closely watching how his colleagues act while 'tripping'. However what's odd for the times is how un-1967/68 these lyrics are: the drugs/music doesn't give the narrator any brilliant insight, just the fear that 'I'm going to die before my time' and later lands him in jail where 'I killed a queen' (ambiguously worded so we don't know if its a Royal or a man in drag - I'm hoping for the former). The fact is everything achieved on whatever stimulation this is isn't real - so the narrator needn't have bothered wasting his energy; the downside of 'Lucy In The Sky' this is, proof that not everyone in the 1960s was swayed by drugs (we'll ignore for now the fact that Crosby alone was responsible for turning half of America on to them!) So many phasing effects have been added to this song that it’s as if all the elements are taking place in some sort of fog – a neat mirroring of the song’s ‘artificial energy’ in that the energy is real, it’s the studio tricks that make it sound artificial on this song. A complete one-off for The Byrds, this song features blaring horns and Clarke’s drumming particularly high in the mix – one of Clarke’s most inventive parts, he fittingly gets his only writing credit for a Byrds song because of it, as well as for thinking up the song’s suitably blurry title. It's a strong start to a strong album, already most unlike anything else the band have ever tried - or will ever try again.

[74] Goin’ Back has its fair share of fans and often features on CD-length best-ofs, but I have to admit I’m not myself a fan of the Byrds’ rather dreary version. A rather drab and slow arrangement of a rather drab and slow tune masks Goffin and King’s actually rather clever and astute words and in album archive favourite Nils Lofgren’s hands this nod to childhood is a happy, snappy wistful little song. Here, like nearly all of the many cover versions of this song that exist, the band sound as if they are singing themselves a lullaby to send them to their childish sleep. I’m with Crosby on this one, who was partly booted out of the group for the tantrum he had on the day of the recording, refusing to take part in such an inane song until the Byrds’ production team physically barred him from leaving until he’d sung his part. The harmonies are in fact the Byrds’ saving grace – wistful and wise and yearning for simpler days – but you wish they’d pick the tempo up just a little bit and get on with it. Still, there’s no denying that this song’s simple but memorable lyrics deserve a better fate than the shoddy version the band put together here. Unlike most of Notorious, this track is neither daring nor beautiful.

The driving [75] Natural Harmony is a Hillamn song that finally gives McGuinn the right setting to play with all his futuristic toys. Roger also takes the lead vocal in a rare act pof Byrds diplomacy and even treated with lots of feraky distortion it's one of his better vocal performances too. The rest of the band (well, the bits that were left) also back him up superbly, especially Hillman’s mesmerising bass runs. The lyrics of the song sound more like Crosby’s work, though, championing the hippie generation’s growing belief in nature and natural order, experiencing what (so they believed anyway) their parents’ generation never had. The song’s chorus is the song’s secret weapon: goading on his pursuers with the line ‘catch us if you can’, McGuinn’s narrator seems to step into some sort of space-time continuum divide (hear this track and see what I mean), stretching Columbia’s recording facilities to their limit. The result is one of the more powerful songs on the album and new of the Byrds' rare forays into all-out psychedelia: a world where mankind is in tune in an awful lot bigger ways than just music. A neat crossfade brings us to...

 [76] Draft Morning,a Crosby song 'rewritten' by the others from what they could remember from an early recording (down to just two songwriters they were stretching themselves very thin across 1968). 'Morning' is daring and beautiful all at the same time, an uncharacteristically tender song about a favourite Crosby theme – mankind facing a choice between war and peace and why they should choose the latter (it's also very similar indeed to what Crosby's new pal Stephen Stills was up to in the dying days of the Springfield with one of his best last songs for the band , the draft-dodging 'Four Days Gone'). The band’s harmonies on the gloriously blissful verses - with Hillman taking Crosby’s part - are never better than on this track, gliding peaceful but eerily across the speakers in contrast to the trivial battle going on just outside proper earshot in the middle section. A barrage of battle sound effects competing with some of Michael Clarke’s hard-hitting drumming also conjures up a particularly chilling scene, with Hillman’s bass holding it all together and going for a bit of a stroll up and down the octaves as he does so. A CSN/Y prototype in all but name, Crosby must have been fuming when the band decided to hi-jack this partially recorded song after telling him to get lost, re-writing many of the words in the process because they couldn’t remember them! Out of all the great Crosby compositions around in late 67/early 68, this is one of the least known but one of the greatest; even though it came with the mixed blessing of re-writing most of the words, the Byrds obviously knew what a good song this was too. The song would also have made a fine addition to the first CSN album (Stills especially excelled on songs of draft dodging and melancholic beauty), ending with a lift from 'The Last Post' riff that sounds remarkably similar to an idea nicked by Neil Young for the CSNY 'Freedom Of Speech' tour in 2006.

The gentle lilt of [77] Wasn’t Born To Follow offers the usual conservative Byrdisan break at this point in the album, a chance to take a breather from all that psychedelic weirdness and go back onto firm hard land. Even in this delightfully peaceful song about escape, rebellion and happiness, however, there are some terrifically scary sound effects, mainly the loud distorted phasing solo that comes out of nowhere and catches your breath for a few seconds before disappearing again. Not one of this album’s better moments, psychedelic effects aside, this song was still perfectly cast for use in the 1969 Easy Rider film, which legend has it was based loosely on the characters of McGuinn (Peter Fonda) and Crosby (Dennis Hopper). 

[78] Get To You ends the side with a slight McGuinn song that once again veers from his two favourite styles – gutsy country and psychedelic rock and roll. A simple tale of how the narrator spent years trying to woo his missus and is excitedly waiting for her on the next plane, the song even starts with a slamming door just to get us in the right mood for the distance between the couple. This simple song develops a new layer of meaning courtesy of the exquisite middle eight, however, which explodes out of nowhere with strings, more psychedelic effects and some ‘vocal percussion’ in the Pink Floyd 60s style. Is McGuinn singing ‘that’s a little better’, ‘back to the garden’ ‘back to the better’ ‘back to the mountains’ or something else entirely during this part of the song? No one’s ever been able to tell for certain, probably including McGuinn.

[79] Change Is Now might well be the highlight of the album, meshing a burbling bass and tight guitar hook with some other-worldly vocals and space age lyrics. Another Byrds song about the growing feeling of change in the air in 1967-68, the fragmented lyrics are terrific and has there ever been a better line to sum up the 60s than ‘change is now, all around, dance to the day when fear is unknown’?! The restless tune is itself the perfect fit for this song about change and never knowing what might be next around the corner but – being the Byrds – the past and future sounds get a bit mixed up. Much of the song is based around the band’s space-age past of experimentation (and features Crosby on guitar), while the middle eight is more like the pure traditional country-style they are about to embark on during the next album (future member Clarence White also makes his present felt for the first time here). Hillman proved himself a master of going in unexpected directions with his material on Younger Than Yesterday (this song is a close cousin of that album’s stand-out track Thoughts And Words) and this melody is one of his best, sweepingly psychedelic in the way it takes us out into distant horizons but winningly cosy in the way it brings us back to earth too. The slightly out-of-control McGuinn guitar solo - which is just about crossing into feedback at the song’s end - and the gradually growing growl of the bass which both suddenly break free of their moorings for a second-half instrumental also constitutes perhaps the best 30-second burst in The Byrds’ back catalogue, as the band slowly spiral up and up, reaching for the stars and sounding like they make it too.

[72b] Old John Robertson may well be the last track the core quartet of the Byrds ever played on (that’s Crosby back on harmonies and, unusually, bass). If so, then it’s a strangely fitting track to end on, with Hillman’s lyrics about a social outcast who was jeered at by his peers but may have possessed some great secret to life after all fitting not only for Crosby’s acrimonious departure but Gene Clark’s as well. Actually, Hillman is here remembering a figure from his childhood who was dismissed for being weird but in retrospect seemed hyper-intelligent, unlocking truths that Hillman could only now appreciate in the psychedelic age and the bassist probably had no ulterior motive in mind when he wrote the song. In fact this trick seems to have struck a chord with several musicians and is one of a number of similar pieces written around this time by archive alumni (The Monkees’ Mr Webster, The Hollies’ B-side Mad Professor Blyth, and 10cc’s Old Mister Time among them). The fact that this might be the last ‘proper’ Byrds recording until an un-mitigatingly awful re-union LP is a shame, as Hillman’s joyous romping guitar riffs and McGuinn’s impassioned lead make for an enjoyable few minutes. However, what the instrumental section with its baroque string quartet solo (!) is all about I’m not quite sure (Hillman memorably said in an interview that ‘we weren’t intending to use that kind of a solo at all - these Salvation Army types just happened to walk into the studio one day playing that solo when we were playing that track and it just seemed to fit’ – although like many interviews with the Byrds in this period one senses he was pulling somebody’s leg).

[80] Tribal Gathering is another late-period Hillman classic, an atmospheric chant-like song whose understated poetic verses are unnervingly simple until giving way to an absolute sting of a guitar break that hints at the complexity behind the piece. Another candidate for McGuinn’s best guitar solo, over several repeat performances throughout the song it manages to tread a thin line between velvet jazz and feedback blistered rock before finding its way back to the main tune. The words are fascinating too and have been seized on by more than one music author to sum up the changes happening in the mid-60s: ‘strange thing, gathering of tribes…’ (more than one Byrds commentator reckons this song was inspired by the crowds at the June 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, at which the Byrds performed and in the brief film clip of which you can see McGuinn staring at Crosby with a look of pure hatred during one of his politically provocative outbursts). Tribal Gathering is very sketchy but it does conjure up a very strong image of comparing the present (and future) trends of youngsters to get together in groups, listening to music and spreading their own creativity with their caveman ancestors, huddled round a camp-fire telling stories. Even though Hillman had composed more songs for the band than McGuinn and Crosby combined by this point in the Byrds’ history, Hillman still hadn’t formulated a compositional style anything like as distinctive as his fellow group members. Here he takes his lead from McGuinn’s more futuristically-focussed arrangements with the emphasis on sudden surging instrumental passages and Crosby’s burgeoning hippie philosophy, based around wordy lyrics and strong harmonies. The resulting typically Byrds-like mix is a quiet triumph and another album highlight.

[81] Dolphin’s Smile might be short – it clocks in at two minutes exactly – and it may sound like a rough draft for Crosby’s later ocean-faring epics, but in many ways it’s a landmark in Crosby’s writing, the first time he uses his familiar metaphor of the healing powers of the sea. Using everything Crosby can think of that’s spiritual and great about the ocean – and sounding mightily like the Beach Boys in the process – he turns in one of the most poetic fragmented lyrics of his career. Dolphin’s Smile is among the lightest, prettiest songs the Byrds ever performed, even with another roaring guitar solo from McGuinn near the end that seems to mirror the rather worried verses, debating the scary future for America’s crystal-clear oceans. Like the rest of the album, McGuinn passes up his more usual jangly 12-string Rickenbacker for something much more expressive and it’s a shame that so many later Byrds albums find him aping his early style rather than the fluid, squealing sound he almost single-handedly invents here. As calm as a sea breeze and as deep as the ocean, Dolphin’s Smile is another of the album’s highpoints.

McGuinn gets the last word on the album in the comparatively long (nearly 4 minutes, double the length of the last track) and certainly comparatively weird track [82] Space Odyssey. With a tune straight out of a sea shanty (a slowed down version of Jack Tarr, which the Byrds in fact go on to cover on their 1969 Easy Rider album) and lyrics that try a bit of fortune-telling about mankind’s future progress, the song is a typical McGuinn track in that it tries to be everything at once and only half gets away with it. Amazingly McGuinn even guesses the imminent lunar landing wrong  – ‘In 92 and 96 we ventured to the moon’ – despite the fact that as a science buff he surely must have known preparations were underway, with the landing less than 18 months after this album came out (unless you believe the very convincing conspiracy theories that we never really landed there of course – but that’s another website for another time…) You were a bit out there, McGuinn (in both senses of the word!) Elsewhere the lyrics are equally dodgy and the tune repetitive to the point of boredom and yet so thrilling are the synthesiser effects and the burbling rocky guitar that you almost don’t notice. I’d also love to hear McGuinn revive this song as the bare-bones ballad it’s crying out to be underneath all that psychedelic clobber, as I bet it would sound even better! A strange false ending – after a few seconds pause the synthesiser drifts in and out again playing the song’s root chord – adds to the confusion of the listener.

In fact, confusion is a good word for this album all round as its not quite clear what the Byrds are trying to do. Beautiful as much of it is, pioneering as a good half of it might be, the Byrds - living up to their ‘notorious’ title - have thrown just about every contradicting style and lyrical theme they can into mix and yet somehow despite all that Notorious runs together beautifully, one of the last great psychedelic artefacts from a near-perfect era even though I haven’s got a clue what the hell most of it means. Not bad for a group falling apart and it makes you wonder just what miracles the Byrds could have put together in more stable conditions. Sadly the inspiration leaking out of nearly every song on this album is not to be found again for a while in their back catalogue. Once Chris Hillman checks himself off The Byrds’ flightplan and the trimmed down band get on their country high horses, their albums gradually become more and more ordinary and certainly far more unpleasantly schizophrenic, veering from the old to the new clumsily and artlessly in a way that this album does so beautifully and poetically.  Read on for the band’s one last moment of greatness when they finally get rid of the trappings that dogged them long before the Notorious years and finally set off for a brave new sunset….

A Now Complete Link Of Byrd Articles Available To Read At Alan’s Album Archives:

'Mr Tambourine Man' (1965)
‘Turn! Turn! Turn!’ (1965)

'(5D) Fifth Dimension' (1966)

'Younger Than Yesterday' (1967)

'The Nototious Byrd Brothers' (1968)

'Sweethearts Of The Rodeo' (1968)

'Dr Byrds and Mr Hyde' (1969)

‘The Ballad Of Easy Rider’ (1969)

'Untitled' (1970)
'Byrdmaniax' (1971)
'The Byrds' (1973)

Surviving TV Appearances
Unreleased Songs
Non-Album Songs (1964-1990)
A Guide To Pre-Fame Byrds Recordings
Solo/Live/Compilation Albums Part One (1964-1972)
Solo/Live/Compilation Albums Part Two (1973-1977)

Solo/Live/Compilation Albums Part Three (1978-1991)
Solo/Live/Compilation Albums Part Four (1992-2013)
Essay: Why This Band Were Made For Turn! Turn! Turn!ing
Five Landmark Concerts and Three Key Cover Versions

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