Goin’ Back: ‘The Notorious Byrd Brothers’ at 50

❉ In 1967, a hippie king, a punchy drummer, a country rocker, a gadget-crazed folkie and a man afraid of flying made their best album, but only just.

In late 1966, Eddie Tickner, co-manager of The Byrds was a worried man. His charges had successfully rode the crest of the folk-rock wave the previous year to much acclaim and success. They had been kings of the Sunset Strip, and dubbed the American Beatles. However, although, eighteen months on, they were musically flowering, things all seemed to be going wrong. Later, he would confide “I wasn’t too sure there would be another album.”  

The Byrds hadn’t advertised any intention to pack it in, but Tickner’s concerns weren’t unfounded. 1966 had been a rough year awash with setbacks. The band had already struggled with the departure of lead songwriter Gene Clark. There’d been controversy over their startling raga-jazz-rock single Eight Miles High, with the press dubbing it a ‘drug song’, an allegation feebly denied by band leader Jim McGuinn at the time, but later confirmed to Byrds biographer Johnny Rogan by co-singer and guitarist David Crosby with a wry “Of course it was a drug song. We were stoned when we made it.” Co-manager Jim Dickson, a powerful creative force for the band, had become estranged from them, leaving Tickner to handle the day to day business. It had also been a teeth-pulling experience for the band making the intriguing but disjointed Fifth Dimension album with unsympathetic CBS staff producer Allen Stanton. The band, always a fairly volatile bunch, were in disarray, as McGuinn and Crosby attempted to fill the void left by the prolific Clark, sometimes landing on the same page, but mainly bickering, as they tried to combine proto-psychedelia with jazz, with McGuinn synthesising Ravi Shankar and Coltrane to some success. This experimentation was also a little lost on their pop audience, which was dropping off. The music press also, perhaps a little unfairly, complained at the band’s abandonment of their customary Bob Dylan covers on Fifth Dimension, as they focused on their own new material and some revved-up traditional folk standards.

Tickner came to the band with a plan. “The guys weren’t very close” he later confided to Rogan. “I said to them ‘Let’s put our shoulders to the wheel, make another record, push it and I’ll renegotiate your contract and get $1,000,000. We’ll all take $200,000 and call it a day.”

The Byrds dutifully applied themselves to the making of their fourth album, Younger Than Yesterday, which saw the band working in unusual harmony with new producer Gary Usher, helped immeasurably by bassist Chris Hillman’s emergence as a songwriter, contributing four songs including the proto-country rock Time Between, and co-writing the brilliantly sarcastic So You Want To Be A Rock And Roll Star with McGuinn. The album showcased them at their best, combining studio experimentation with strong songs, and even a Dylan cover for the purists. Released on February 6th 1967, it was a moderate but not shattering success, despite being well-received. However, it gave the Byrds a second wind of sorts, and they pressed on.

Divisions would quickly re-emerge with a vengeance. In the new atmosphere of love-ins and generally letting it all hang out, Crosby, never a shrinking violet, grew in confidence. A self-anointed king of the hippies, he presided over a Laurel Canyon household full of naked girls and the finest pot money could buy. As the most social Byrd, he hung with new friends from the Jefferson Airplane, and the Buffalo Springfield, whose Stephen Stills would become a collaborator and confidante. The others, especially McGuinn, were more buttoned down and cautious. The whole band smoked pot and had been habitual users of LSD and amphetamines for some time, but whilst the others exercised a bit of restraint, Crosby was growing his hair, letting his freak flag fly, and didn’t care who knew it.

Crosby began increasingly to dominate on stage, taking more lead vocals, and with erratic performances entirely distinguished by what mood he was in that day. Five minute tuning interludes became more frequent, as did sightings of McGuinn and Hillman looking at watches and smoking through boredom.

In a rare attempt to bond with Crosby’s new friends in Buffalo Springfield, McGuinn joined Crosby and Stills for a jam at Stills’ home. Stills peeled off some bluesy guitar licks, and turned to McGuinn, asking “Can you do that?” McGuinn, a folkie at heart, sheepishly replied that it wasn’t really his forte, and was mortified when Stills turned to Crosby and said “See?”. Tensions between the two increased further when McGuinn announced that he was changing his Christian name from Jim to Roger due to his involvement with the Indonesian religion Subud. In response Crosby witheringly called Subud “The Oriental conspiracy to overcome the rock n’ roll world.”

Crosby enjoyed jamming with other musicians, and claimed not to be deliberately attempting to alienate McGuinn and Hillman, but the band’s June 1967 appearance at the Monterey Pop Festival didn’t do much for group relations. Monterey should have been a triumph for the Byrds, but their performance was erratic. Crosby, as usual, dominated, and chose to use the stage as a platform for some rambling raps on the Warren Commission’s findings on the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and to espouse the use of LSD, much to the embarrassment of McGuinn and Hillman. Salt was poured in the wound by Crosby joining Buffalo Springfield for their set to stand in for the absent Neil Young.

Somehow, in this atmosphere of growing hostility, sessions for a new album began that same month. The previous plan to make one more album and call it a day forgotten, that month the Byrds also split with Tickner and Dickson and replaced them with a new manager, Larry Spector, suggested, inevitably, by Crosby. As time went on, the Byrds would learn to regret Spector’s appointment.

The opening sessions for the new album saw Crosby well and truly in the driving seat, as the Byrds finished work on his new song, the soaring Lady Friend, started in April. A driving mix of clarion guitars, gorgeous harmonies, and rousing brass, it was lifted as a single, but failed to chart, despite being promoted by the band with a high-profile appearance on The Johnny Carson Show. Crosby would later blame Usher’s eccentric mix, which buried Clarke’s drums in overdub soup, for its failure. The same session saw the band work on Lady Friend’s b-side, Hillman’s cosmic country effort Old John Robertson, given a baroque edge by a string quartet’s sudden arrival and disappearance at the halfway mark. Unusually, Crosby stepped to the sidelines and picked up the bass for this session so that Hillman could provide the steely guitar twangs underpinning it.

Work continued through the summer, with McGuinn bringing in the chunky riff of his metaphysically pondering Change Is Now, and a moody backing track put down for Crosby’s Vietnam lament Draft Morning.

August 1967 saw the sessions hit troubled waters for the first time, captured in uncomfortable fly on the wall audio-verite in outtakes for Dolphin’s Smile, a mellow tune piloted by Crosby. The tape starts with the Byrds painfully working through the backing track with the bored Michael Clarke indelicately plodding over the top on drums, until Crosby breaks off, initially offering Clarke constructive criticism and encouragement on how to handle the song, but the mood in the room soon sours, despite producer Gary Usher’s best attempts at refereeing. Within minutes, Crosby has managed to start a spat with McGuinn, chewing him out for his “E-go”, and snaps “Try playing right!” at Clarke, causing the enraged drummer to hit back with “What do you know what the fuck’s right and and what’s wrong? What do you know, man? You’re not a musician.”

Such exchanges between the two were nothing new. As far back as the 1965 sessions for the Turn, Turn, Turn! album, there had been an incident prompted by Crosby attacking Gene Clark’s rhythm guitar playing, prompting Clarke to calmly stand up from his drums, walk over to Crosby, and punch him square in the face, knocking him off his stool, much to the guitarist’s fury. When challenged, Clarke responded with a shrug and simply said “I slapped him because he was being an asshole.”

Things escalate yet further between Crosby and Clarke as the air turns blue with obscenities, until Clarke announces “Send me away, man”, and Crosby trolls him with a theatrically mocking “Ah, the poor baby. Give him a pacifier!” Clarke hits back by saying he doesn’t like the song. In fact he doesn’t like any of the songs. He’s just sticking around for the money. The others then gang up on him, joking that they’ll enlist A-list session drummer Hal Blaine of Phil Spector’s Wrecking Crew instead. Clarke, resigned, says that he doesn’t mind.

This session would seal Clarke’s fate in the band. From here on, another Wrecking Crew drummer, Jim Gordon, would fill his shoes in studio, and Clarke was left to cool his heels in self-imposed exile until some planned gigs in the autumn.

Clarke’s benching aside, the Byrds’ use of session musicians was already on the rise anyway. Pioneering country-rock guitarist Clarence White had previously been brought in by Hillman on Younger Than Yesterday, returning to add graceful Nashville picking to Change Is Now alongside Crosby’s droning rhythm and an atypical acid-fuzz guitar solo by McGuinn. As time went on, partly through country nut Hillman’s influence, the gifted White would be recalled to the studio with increasing frequency.

Although McGuinn and Hillman worked harmoniously on Dolphin’s Smile and other songs Crosby brought in during this period, they drew the line at including his latest attempt to push boundaries, the polyamory anthem Triad on the forthcoming album. Despite the other Byrds providing spare, glistening backing to Crosby’s superb solo vocal, the song, a melodic, but provocative aquarian age meditation on the joys of living with multiple lovers now became a battleground between Crosby and the others. Crosby, on a creative roll and still stung over the failure of Lady Friend, labelled McGuinn and Hillman as jealous, as prudes, and declared that they were holding him back. The truth of the matter seems to be that neither of them much liked the song, although McGuinn would later admit that “It was just a song that I didn’t think was in particularly good taste.”

Crosby, furious at this rejection of his material, kept his cool for the next set of sessions where overdubs were laid down for his jazzy collaboration with Hillman, Tribal Gathering, but his ire was ignited by McGuinn and Hillman’s decision to cover Goffin and King’s melancholy, childhood-themed Goin’ Back. The song, previously a hit for Dusty Springfield a year earlier, was viewed with disdain by Crosby, who saw it as square and tame, and was angry that it was being included in place of Triad, who he offered to Jefferson Airplane, who happily accepted it for their latest album Crown of Creation.

Crosby would participate in a lifeless early take of Goin’ Back, but elected to sit out the rest of the recording, perching for several days on a studio couch in a fit of pique. Undaunted, McGuinn, Hillman, Gordon, pedal steel player Red Rhodes, and a small session orchestra laboured over Goin’ Back. Pleased with their efforts, the remaining Byrds and Gary Usher played back the master take-in-progress, only for Crosby to pour scorn over it, provoking a rare flash of rage from McGuinn, as Usher would later recall. “McGuinn got to the point where he couldn’t take any more, so finally he said, ‘Crosby, I’ve had enough of your bullshit, if you don’t want to be part of this song and the group just get your ass out of here. We don’t want you, or even need you.’ Well, that did it. He just picked up his guitar and walked out of the studio.”

Crosby began to sink into a depression. Proud, prolific, and impulsive, his status within the Byrds was rapidly sliding from leading man to collaborator to pariah. He’d quickly gone off new manager Larry Spector, who he’d practically imposed on the others, and with his relations with Hillman, McGuinn and Clarke (who only turned up for gigs) well and truly in the toilet, he became increasingly neurotic. There were clashes about the length of shows, and stays in separate hotels. With heavier drugs beginning to enter the picture, there were also near-overdoses to contend with.

After a gig in San Francisco, Crosby lost his rag and physically attacked roadie Jim Seiter for allowing the band to stay on stage for too long. In fact, thanks to Crosby’s livid reaction to a previous overrun, Seiter had the band offstage at exactly the agreed 45 minutes that night. Crosby would later apologise, and an air of beatific calm hung over the show the following night.

It would be Crosby’s last gig as a Byrd. Shortly afterwards, he would receive a visit from his bandmates, who delivered a bombshell.

“Roger and Chris drove up in a pair of Porsches and said that I was crazy, impossible to work with, an egomaniac” Crosby would tell Rolling Stone’s Ben Fong-Torres in 1970. “All of which is partly true, I’m sure, sometimes….that I sang shitty, wrote terrible songs, made horrible sounds, and that they would do much better without me. Now, I’m sure that in the heat of the moment they probably exaggerated what they thought. But that’s what they said. I took it rather much to heart. I just say, ‘OK. Kinda wasteful, but OK.’ But it was a drag.”

It was a brutal move, particularly by the standards of the quiet, measured McGuinn, but he had no regrets. In an interview with Vincent Flanders he summed up his issues with Crosby with cool economy. “He’s a great talent, you know, and a nice cat, I like him you know….but he was getting a little too big for his britches. So it was by mutual consent, you know like the three remaining Byrds got together and decided that it would be better if he wasn’t around any more.”

Crosby took a comfortable pay-off, and took some time out, sailing off on his boat, The Mayan. His ego was bruised, but he would find musical fulfilment soon enough. Meanwhile, reduced to a trio on the road, and a duo in the studio, the Byrds doubled down. Having not contributed many songs to the new album thus far, and with the release date looming, McGuinn, always more comfortable co-writing material with others, knuckled down with Hillman to complete the sessions. With Gordon, White, and Red Rhodes already contributing heavily to the sessions, gadget-head McGuinn, encouraged by Usher, brought in electronic specialist Paul Beaver to play the Moog synthesiser on a couple of tracks, before taking over himself. McGuinn would attempt first a (wisely abandoned) raga on the Moog, before utilising it for a canny cash-in on a much anticipated new movie from Stanley Kubrick, due out in the spring. In tribute to Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove, the Byrds had ended their 1965 debut album Mr Tambourine Man with a version of Vera Lynn’s We’ll Meet Again. Perhaps as an in-joke, the clanging, Moog and 12-string led Space Odyssey would end their latest effort. On release, longtime Byrd-watchers would be moved to note that the band seemed set on continuing a tradition of closing each album with a novelty track that didn’t quite work.

In addition to McGuinn’s electronic tinkering, Usher, a keen experimentalist, began to goose the tracks with flanging (including Old John Robertson, remixed and resurrected from the flip of the flop Lady Friend single), unusual instrumentation, and ambitious crossfades. Hillman’s Natural Harmony was an eerie mix of pedal steel, throbbing Moog, and some incongruous Wes Montgomery-like jazz guitar noodling at the fade. Another Goffin-King song, Wasn’t Born To Follow, was treated to a full psychedelic freak-out amidst its country-rock canter. Comedy Troupe The Firesign Theatre were invited to add gunshot effects to the unfinished Draft Morning. This new Byrds album would be the most psychedelic yet.

Despite all the upset of 1967, the sessions were going well. However, the Byrds still had to pay the bills. With touring commitments to fulfil, in a surprise move, Larry Spector brought original Byrd Gene Clark back in to the fold to replace Crosby. Clark had been pursuing an unsuccessful solo career since quitting in Spring 1966, and happily returned, eager to put the past behind him and rejoin his old friends. Clark’s arrival coincided with the release of Goin’ Back as a single, as a trailer for the new album. Despite the rancour it caused within the band, the Byrds’ version of Goin’ Back was majestic, with some fantastic soaring harmonies despite Crosby’s refusal to take part. Some eyewitnesses claim that Clark overdubbed some harmonies himself, but if so, he’s buried in the dense mix. Clark did, however, join the others to perform Goin’ Back on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, looking laid-back and thoroughly at home.

Unfortunately, despite appearances, all was not well with Clark. A gifted, prolific songwriter, he managed to co-write the mysterious Get To You with McGuinn (although the fudged publishing credits attributed Clark’s contribution to Hillman instead), but Clark had his demons. Increasingly on edge, terrified of flying, and by all accounts subsisting on a diet of acid and margueritas, he lasted only a few weeks before a dramatic exit.

We had this one date we had to fly to, and he’d been up all night in a cold sweat” McGuinn told Rolling Stone in 1970. “He came into the room about seven or eight in the morning and we said, ‘Come on, we’ll give you sleeping pills or whatever you want to knock you out,’ but he said, ‘No, man, can’t do it.’ Somebody said, ‘It’s Mother,’ and he snapped back, ‘You’re damn right it’s Mother!’ Real soap-opera psychodrama-ish. So he took a train back to L.A.”

With the second coming of Clark over almost as soon as it began, the Byrds finished up the gigs as a trio and returned to the studio. Still a couple of tracks short, McGuinn and Hillman elected to complete Crosby’s unfinished Draft Morning. Crosby hadn’t got round to laying down a vocal, so McGuinn, remembering his melody, but with no lyric sheet to go on wrote new lyrics with Hillman and laid down an affecting new vocal. Artistically, it was a triumph, but Crosby was enraged, later telling Johnny Rogan “It was one of the sleaziest things they ever did. I had an entire song finished, the just casually rewrote it and decided to take half the credit.”

For the last track of the sessions, the powerful opener Artificial Energy, Michael Clarke returned to the studio. Clarke suggested that the band write a song about speed, and they duly knuckled down to the task, knocking out a storming, queasy ode to amphetamines, led by Clarke’s thumping drums, phased brass, and an unsettling processed vocal from McGuinn, ending on a disturbing note of speed psychosis as McGuinn sings “I’m in jail ‘cause I killed a queen.” It would make for a startling opener, even if McGuinn griped that Usher’s vocal effects made him sound like “Donald Duck.”

In a show of solidarity, Clarke would earn a rare songwriting co-credit for Artificial Energy. Shortly after its recording, the Byrds took part in a photo session for the album sleeve, which centred around the band posing on horseback. Dismounting, the band posed in a stable, and were joined by Clarke’s curious horse, who lined up next to them. With this moment of serendipity, photographer Guy Webster had his cover shot. Days after the shoot, Clarke was informed that his services were no longer required.

The Notorious Byrd Brothers was released on January 3rd 1968. It remains perhaps the Byrds’ crowning achievement, a remarkably cohesive, sonically stunning album conceived and recorded in an atmosphere of chaos and acrimony, with a revolving door line-up of current and ex-Byrds and session musicians. It would, however, remain a sore point for Crosby for many years. Despite his massive success with Crosby, Stills, and Nash (and later Young) eclipsing that of the commercially declining Byrds, he remained bitter about Triad, about the changes to Draft Morning, and mortally offended at what he saw as his replacement on the sleeve by a horse.

For McGuinn the album would be a pyrrhic victory, igniting an increasingly uncontrollable tide of line-up and management changes and a search for the soul of the Byrds that lasted for decades.

Nowadays, Crosby and McGuinn are at peace. A recent exchange between the two on Twitter saw Crosby admit “Made a lot of mistakes in my life…one of them was forgetting who the real leader of the Byrds was for a minute there.” McGuinn touchingly replied “I made a lot of mistakes in my life and one of them was firing the best harmony singer in the world.”

With the new album to promote, and the coffers depleted after paying off Crosby and Clarke, the Byrds headed off on a brief, ill-starred tour of the college circuit as a trio with new drummer Kevin Kelley, Hillman’s cousin. The tour didn’t go well, and McGuinn and Hillman began to shop around for a full-time replacement for Crosby.

One fateful day in February 1968, Hillman found their man, after bumping into a charming young southerner he’d previously met in passing at a party whilst queueing at a bank. Hillman had a good feeling about this, and arranged to meet the young man for an audition. The young southern gentleman’s name was Gram Parsons, and if the Byrds had thought that Crosby, Clarke, and Clark were trouble, they were in for a rude awakening…..

To be continued…

❉ ‘The Notorious Byrd Brothers’ was originally released by Columbia Records (US: CS 9575/UK: 63169) on 3 January 1968. An expanded edition of the album was released by Columbia Legacy (Sony CK 65151) on 25 March 1997.

❉ Martin Ruddock has written for ‘Doctor Who Magazine’, the ‘You And Who’ series, and is a regular contributor to We Are Cult. He lives in Bournemouth with a beautiful, very patient woman and teetering piles of records and nerd stuff. He loves writing, and may write something for you if you ask nicely. Martin was recently a guest on Tim Worthington’s podcast Looks Unfamiliar. You can find the episode here.

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