The Byrds – The Notorious Byrd Brothers

The Notorious Byrd Brothers – The Byrds
Released January, 1968

Well, wasn’t “The Notorious Byrd Brothers” an interesting album! Released in January ’68 in the States, and April of the same year in the UK, it only made it to #47 on the Billboard Top LP’s chart, but did a lot better in the UK where it reached #12, maybe due to the UK being more widely accepting of crazy prog rock, with other progressive bands like King Crimson and Pink Floyd emerging around the same time. The Notorious Byrd Brothers was all round well received by critics. My favourite press quote was from Rolling Stone magazine’s John Landau: “Their music is possessed by a never-ending circularity and a rich, child-like quality. It has a timelessness to it, not in the sense that you think their music will always be valid, but in the sense that it is capable of forcing you to suspend consciousness of time altogether.” And it’s dead right.

As much as it wasn’t my favourite album of afyccim, it definitely can make you lose track of time, with the fantastic sound effects blurring the gaps between tracks. There certainly was an awful lot going on! And I guess it makes sense when you consider that The Byrds lineup reads like a Bold And The Beautiful story line… Guitarists and drummers fighting, leaving, coming back, temporary musicians being hired, vocalists leaving, returning for a few weeks and leaving again! No wonder it sounded messy! There is a fair bit of DFN in this album, and they freely admit it! In ‘Artificial Energy’, they sing “I’m coming down off amphetamines, and I’m in jail coz I killed the queen”. Err… Right. The Byrds were famous for experimenting with guitar effects, and the first we hear of this is in ‘Natural Harmony’. Gratuitous use of flanging and phasing gives it a kind of weird ethereal feel, though I think it makes the song too busy. But, they were high, so…

Probably my favourite song on this album was ‘Wasn’t Born To Follow’, Carole King’s song. It’s a very simple kind of folk song, with lovely harmonies, AND THEN A CRAZY GUITAR EFFECTS SOLO!
Weirdly, I quite liked ‘Old John Robertson’. The fast country guitar, the organ solo in the middle, the Stetson hat, it all just worked. Now. ‘Dolphin’s Smile’. I don’t really understand what was going on. It’s all very airy fairy, and I guess musically it’s very pretty, but the lyrics! Verse two: “Wind-taut line split the sky/ curlin’ crest rollin’ by/ floating free aimlessly/ in a dolphin’s smile”. I wish that was out of context… ‘Space Odyssey’ is probably the most off it’s chops. There’s phasers galore! I just wonder why they say they venture to the moon in 1996, when the moon landing was only a year after this was recorded? Surely they knew it wasn’t that far away?

It wasn’t a bad album, but it was very cluttered and busy, and got kind of hard to listen to. I don’t think I’ll do it again…

Listening to The Byrds takes me to a completely different place. Their sepia-tinged music for some reason seems to recall summers past, great loves, and evoke childhood memories. Musically, the pure folk moments on “The Notorious Byrd Brothers” are what make it so right; the airy and dream-like 3-part vocal harmonies that have become synonymous with The Byrds, and the jangly 12 string guitar are its saving grace. Although I appreciate and respect the fact that the psychedelic and electronic experimentation employed on this album helped shape future styles of music, I think that they got a bit synth-happy in the studio. I didn’t really enjoy the sound of blaring synth horn sections, battlefield sound effects and seemingly out of place baroque style synth string solos. Having said all of that, the fusion of folk rock and country by mixing pedal steel with electric worked really well. In true folk style, the songs on the album are thematic and the lyrics cover issues current at the time such as the Vietnam War, freedom, peace, drug use and more. Standout tracks for me were the ones featuring all the good stuff – great lyrics, beautiful vocal harmonies, and simple instrumentation – including ‘Goin’ Back’, ‘Get to You’, and ‘Wasn’t Born to Follow’. It’s lucky we’re listening to this album with hindsight, because knowing that it was a highly prolific album to the evolution of folk and country rock is what made me persevere and follow through with my 6 listens. I think that “The Notorious Byrd Brothers” is an album that requires understanding to appreciate. Definitely worth a listen, and there are some really pretty moments. My advice – have a listen, and pick out the songs you like for your iPod playlist – cull the rest. That’s what I’ll be doing.

I was quite surprised that there were no Dylan covers on this record. Except for 1966’s “Fifth Dimension” each Byrds album up until this point had at least one – their debut effort “Mr Tambourine Man” contained four. They had become famous for taking a Dylan song and radically reworking it, adding lush harmonies and their trademark jangly electric guitars. They do, however, cover two Gerry Goffin and Carole King songs, ‘Goin’ Back’ and ‘Wasn’t Born To Follow’, the latter being my favourite track here. This record sees the band moving away from their folk/pop covers and writing more of their own songs, with a country and western flavour slowly creeping in. Some numbers benefit from some wonderful pedal steel guitar work, most notably ‘Change Is Now’ and the aforementioned ‘Wasn’t Born To Follow’. Opening track ‘Artificial Energy’ announces that this is quite a different Byrds album; the song’s dark message on the ills of amphetamine use is punctuated by a fanfare of blaring trumpets. Several songs employ a flange effect and most feature a guitar break or a chorus that changes feel or tempo or style…or all three! I think this approach marred what could have been a very good album, because there’s just too much going on here. The closing ‘Space Odyssey’ is a mess of a song featuring extensive use of the Moog synthesiser, which I feel takes away from the song. It is interesting to note that founding member and contributing songwriter David Crosby was fired from the group during the making of this album, as was drummer Michael Clarke. I believe the band were struggling for direction and eventually found it after the group dynamic significantly changed. This album is the sound of that struggle.

The Byrds are one of those bands who I was kind of familiar with but I had never really sat down with one of their albums, so I was excited to listen to “The Notorious Byrd Brothers”. I knew they were famous for their lush harmonies, the infamous 12 string Rickenbacker and some sweet pedal steel action. I’m a quite a big fan of all of these things. I was therefore surprised to find that whilst this album had those folky/rock elements, there was a lot of experimental, psychedelic stuff going on also. There were struggles in the band during the recording of this album, culminating in both David Crosby and Michael Clarke leaving part way through, and I feel this is evident in the final recording. It has moments of glory but overall it feels quite fractured and hectic. There isn’t a solid theme holding it together, rather a mismatch of songs and ideas. It’s one thing to take risks, but there is always the danger of it becoming self indulgent, and there does tend to be a lot of moments where it feels this way. I am however quite fond of the more folkier moments, particularly the tracks ‘Goin’ Back’, ‘Wasn’t Born to Follow’,  ‘Get to You’ and the slightly rockier ‘Change is Now’. I feel that this album hasn’t dated as well as some of the albums we have already listened to. It sounds very much like it was made in the 60s. “The Notorious Byrd Brothers” is a polarising album. You either love it or hate it. Despite your opinion of it, it’s worthy of its place on this list. If it wasn’t for bands like The Byrds pushing the envelope and fusing what were quite static genres in the 60s, we wouldn’t musically be where we are today.

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