The Byrds: The Notorious Byrd Brothers

As darkness fell across the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, David Crosby decided it was time to get real about the Kennedy assassination. Over the course of his three years playing guitar with the Byrds, Crosby had fallen in with the emergent counterculture of the 1960s, transforming from a clean-cut Beatles lookalike into a mustachioed, long-haired, acid-dropping proselytizer of free love. He’d become a true believer in a pop artist’s ability to shift public attitudes toward a groovier equilibrium; decades later, he would earnestly claim that the Woodstock music festival—which he hated to be asked about but never failed to talk about—was the first falling domino that led to the end of the Vietnam War.

Stepping toward the microphone before the Byrds could launch into “He Was a Friend of Mine”—a traditional folk song that they’d reinterpreted to lament the late JFK—Crosby snuck in a conspiratorial spiel about the real killers on that Dallas afternoon. “When President Kennedy was killed, he was not killed by one man,” he declared, to a somewhat confused audience. “He was shot from a number of different directions, by different guns. The story has been suppressed, witnesses have been killed, and this is your country, ladies and gentlemen.”

Eventually, Crosby’s theory would be supported by a slow trickle of government documents, the work of Oliver Stone and Don DeLillo, and several podcasts recommended by your dad. At that moment, though, his bandmates were mortified. Privately, Byrds leader and guitarist Roger McGuinn agreed there was something to the conspiracy, but he believed the best way for a musician to promote their political ideas was through their music, not by harshing the vibe on stage. The next day, Crosby filled in for an absent Neil Young during Buffalo Springfield’s set, deepening his band’s suspicion that he was growing sick of the Byrds. When everyone reconvened the next month to start work on their next album, it wasn’t long before Crosby instigated another petty fight—the latest in a long, long string of petty fights—forcing McGuinn and bassist Chris Hillman to conclude that change was necessary. After becoming one of the biggest bands in America, the Byrds were beginning to sputter commercially; creatively, they couldn’t get on the same page. The first order of business, clearly, was getting rid of the guy who was writing way too many songs about threesomes. About the day he was officially fired, Crosby would remember nearly a decade later that “Roger and Chris drove up in a pair of Porsches and said that I was crazy, impossible to work with, an ego-manic—all of which is partly true—that I sang shitty, wrote terrible songs, made horrible sounds, and that they would do much better without me.”

Just two years earlier, the Byrds—composed initially of McGuinn, Crosby, Hillman, singer/songwriter Gene Clark, and drummer Michael Clarke—had achieved instant fame by becoming the first American act to marry the fizzy energy of the Beatles and the British Invasion with the reverential harmonies of the folkies. Their debut single, an electrified version of Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man,” had shot to No. 1 on the charts and placed them at the center of the Hollywood scene, where they held court for celebrities like Jack Nicholson and Jane Fonda at the buzzy Los Angeles night club Ciro’s. The appellation “folk rock” was instantly coined by Billboard to describe their sound, built around a catalog that drew from the works of Dylan and Pete Seeger, and the way McGuinn seemed to evoke the bloom of spring with every strum of his 12-string Rickenbacker guitar. They also connected on another important, primordial level: being very cool. “Not to be too shallow, but they also were just the best-dressed band around,” Tom Petty once wrote for Rolling Stone. “They had those great clothes and hairdos. That counted for something even then.” Michael Clarke had been recruited for his resemblance to Brian Jones, which overruled the fact that he didn’t own a drum kit.

But musical trends moved lightning fast during this period, and by the time Crosby was fired in 1967, the Byrds already seemed like yesterday’s news. (An essay on the back cover of a Greatest Hits LP, released that summer, noted that their impact had come “three or four generations ago.”)  Their Los Angeles fanbase had gravitated toward the Doors, who openly embraced the carnal extravagance of sex and drugs that was at inherent odds with the Byrds’ utopian invocation of sex and drugs—so much that singer Jim Morrison was unafraid to literally take his penis out at concerts. They’d worn out their repertoire of Dylan covers, which were especially redundant now that Dylan himself had gone electric and begun to reject his entire folkie mythology. Gene Clark had quit in 1966, defeated by his fear of flying. And now that the mobs of adoring women were beginning to shrink, Michael Clarke—who had never become that great of a drummer—seemed to have a foot out of the door.

The Summer of Love was over, and winter approached. The revolutionary aspirations of the political left, and the bohemian idealism of the hippies, had not transformed the American people. Soon, the electorate would turn away from the Great Society imagined by Lyndon B. Johnson and toward the paranoid indulgences of the Nixonites. And though it remained unpopular, the government would further commit to the morally catastrophic Vietnam War, sacrificing thousands more American and Vietnamese lives for the false cause of anti-communism.

This darkening mood, coupled with the band’s search for clarity, would fuel the Byrds’ fifth and best album, The Notorious Byrd Brothers. The recording had started not long after the Monterey debacle, with Crosby, not yet fired, angling more intensely for his songs to take precedence. Crosby was the resident enfant terrible, the LA-born son of an Oscar-winning cinematographer who’d given up a child for adoption in his early 20s. He wore a perpetually knowing smirk that, even in his babyfaced years, seemed to telegraph his interest in walking on the wild side—a self-fulfilling prophecy that would bear out over the next several decades as he went to jail for cocaine possession, became a sperm donor to Melissa Etheridge and her partner, and tweeted a lot about his sex life. Though he was a born provocateur, he had a natural instinct for constructing angelic harmony vocals, magnifying his bandmates’ austere voices into a powerful choir. At the same time, he’d grown into a more bullish songwriter, thrusting his songs onto the band’s LPs whether or not anyone else liked them. (Everyone hated the interminable “Mind Gardens,” from their fourth album Younger Than Yesterday, which is really saying something considering how much acid they were taking.)

Regardless of his conspicuous personal shortcomings, Crosby was the most attuned to how the kids were processing the fissures spreading throughout polite society, a perspective he increasingly inhabited in his songwriting. One of the many new songs he’d written for the band was “Tribal Gathering,” inspired by a jam-packed hippie festival called the Easter Sunday Love-In at Los Angeles’ Elysian Park, where he crooned about vibing with a faceless crowd of free spirits over a swinging jazz beat from Hal Blaine, who’d been hired for the session. Hillman had stepped up as a backing vocalist after Gene Clark left the band, and he sang in a bluegrassy baritone better suited for low harmonies, lending an air of perfumed mystery to Crosby’s wandering lyrics. As McGuinn scribbles off some languid guitar leads over the chorus, the rhythm section suddenly roars into a thick groove, conjuring the jet engine rumble of a potent trip. The Byrds rarely made explicit reference to illegal substances in their lyrics, but they were often stoned; they’d actually purchased their own Winnebago RV for touring, so they could smoke pot while traveling between shows. Though they couldn’t say it out loud given the social stigma, they made music to take drugs to, and much of The Notorious Byrd Brothers zips with the airy energy found after lighting up a joint on a bright day.

Crosby also brought in a song called “Draft Morning,” which McGuinn and Hillman agreed was the best of his tracks. After pushing him out they decided to record it anyway, but because they couldn’t exactly remember the lyrics they improvised their own verses and didn’t even write a chorus. Though they kept his credit, Crosby was understandably pissed off when it showed up on the record; still, it’s the most beautiful song he ever contributed to the Byrds. As McGuinn and Hillman chose to finish it off, “Draft Morning” is cinematic in its telling of a soldier ambling through the Vietnam jungle, the sun hot on his face, anticipating the moment he’ll have to break the tranquil morning and kill an enemy combatant. Michael Clarke, who’d managed to get it together for the session, opens up with a crescendo of cymbal crashes that give way to a serene arrangement, guided by Hillman’s loping basslines and McGuinn’s high, keening vocals. The peaceful atmosphere is interrupted by a cacophony of skronking instrumentation, meant to simulate the horrors of combat, contributed by a chaotic improvisational troupe from the radical Los Angeles scene called the Firesign Theatre. The anti-war movement would become a fixture of late-’60s pop music, but the Byrds’ take isn’t gimmicky or confrontational; it reaches for rare empathy with the occupying soldier, statistically likely to be a confused teenager conscripted into fighting and dying for an unethical war.

While Crosby was still in the band, he was pointedly irate over the idea that the Byrds might record material by outside writers, as they had on all their records, since he was coming up with his best work. When producer Greg Usher floated the idea of trying out some songs by the Brill Building songwriting duo Gerry Goffin and Carole King, he was the one member who refused outright, dismissing them as pop schmaltz. With respect to the late Crosby’s ego, he was completely off the mark. By 1967, Goffin and King had spent nearly a decade writing dozens of hit singles that perfectly articulated the inner lives of millions of American listeners. “Goin’ Back” was first recorded in 1966 as a slow, orchestral ballad by Dusty Springfield—perhaps that’s why Crosby balked, but the underlying songwriting was remarkably flexible. After the Byrds reentered the studio without the irascible guitarist, they stripped down the stately arrangement and enlisted pedal steel expert Orville “Red” Rhodes to add a touch of pastoral twang.

McGuinn was an unusually grounded bandleader, a devout Christian who in his mid-20s had already rejected the excesses of rock’n’roll, and embraced family life. Unlike rock contemporaries such as Lennon, Jagger, and Morrison, he was not a forceful singer—he possessed a tender, kind voice that seemed to glide for miles with the softest push. His emotional instincts were contemplative, a sensibility that fueled the anti-war and pro-nature songs they were gravitating toward. On Younger Than Yesterday, they’d been coaxed by management into recording a serviceable but uninspiring cover of  Dylan’s “My Back Pages,” a defiant song about rejecting the strident beliefs of adulthood and embracing more elemental truths about life. Now, they strummed a similar guitar pattern, pitched downward ever so subtly as if to communicate their matured understanding of what this rediscovery process actually entailed, to open their take on King and Goffin’s song: “I think I’m returning to/The days when I was young enough to know the truth.”

While thematically similar, “My Back Pages” is flecked with anger and defiance. The Byrds were more temperamentally aligned with Goffin and King’s lyrics, which reach for subtle revelations: They look backwards in order to move forward, and they find a fuller appreciation of life in the here and now. “Thinking young and growing older is no sin/And I can play the game of life to win,” McGuinn sings, his voice wistful and forlorn, as if he’s unlocked something profound about how to approach the future while also coming to terms with how much time has already gone by. There’s a gentle, dreamy momentum to his and Hillman’s playing, and as they sing about tapping into this reservoir of youthful perspective, their voices flower into a gorgeous la-la-la harmony, levitating their earthly concerns toward the heavenly unknown.

By the band’s own account, Gary Usher was the first producer who seemed interested in nudging them toward new artistic frontiers, rather than generating as much material as they could. (Their first four albums had been released in a blistering 20-month stretch.) With so many band members coming and going—Gene Clark even returned for a brief spell, only to disappear just as fast—the producer was empowered to experiment as much as possible. He employed some neat studio tricks, like connecting two eight-track recording machines so that the band could double the instrumentation and effects on any given song. For “Artificial Energy,” the crackling opener about the perils of taking speed, he ran McGuinn and Hillman’s vocals through a Leslie organ speaker in order to make them vibrate, as the Beatles had done on “Tomorrow Never Knows”; you can feel the nerves and jitters of the lyrics, which describe the miserable experience of being way too stoned on an airplane. He pushed them to futz more with the Moog synthesizer, a then-novel piece of equipment used heavily on the hallucinatory “Space Odyssey,” where McGuinn, inspired by an Arthur C. Clarke story, fantasizes about taking a trip to the stars.

By the time the Beatles released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in May of 1967, rock bands had begun to conceive of their albums as unified statements rather than a collection of disparate singles, and Usher’s best idea concerned the sequencing. Much of The Notorious Byrd Brothers feels like one unending track, as the middle section was edited so that each song would flow directly into the next with no pause. The cosmic frippery of “Natural Harmony,” Hillman’s one solo contribution, is suddenly brought to earth by the opening cymbals of “Draft Morning,” whose meditative outro slowly breaks into the jaunty pace of “Wasn’t Born to Follow,” another Goffin-King song.

Though this wasn’t necessarily their intention, it takes on the shape of a concept record about one man’s journey to find authentic meaning within tumultuous times: He embraces the wonder of nature and love, only to be sent into war, which disrupts his inner peace and makes him realize he isn’t meant to take orders about how to live his life. Maybe he’ll go back to taking speed; maybe he’ll exit society, and move to a commune. But after the band freaks out in the middle of “Wasn’t Born to Follow,” they settle back into a pleasant rhythm as McGuinn sings about the many astonishing things—the sacred mountains, the glowing moon, the clear and jeweled waters—that he’d like to see while he’s still alive. As he’s imagining all this, a door slams shut and our imaginary narrator doubles back to catch a plane to London on “Get to You,” ready to recommit to love rather than roam the world alone. Hal Blaine, a fixture during these sessions, undergirds McGuinn’s affecting vocal performance with an insistent 5/4 drum beat that builds a sense of anticipation, as if our traveler is watching the clock tick down at the airport, waiting for the moment he’ll soar through the skies.

The album’s most transformative moment happens midway through “Change Is Now,” where McGuinn—whose playing had become increasingly influenced by John Coltrane and Ravi Shankar, the latter of whom he would introduce to George Harrison—uncorks a wonderfully psychedelic guitar solo that sounds like some strange thing trying to break free from a chrysalis. This hard-won triumph is immediately followed by the galloping “Old John Robertson,” which is notable for a bunch of reasons: Crosby, not Hillman, plays a nimble bassline; the momentum is abruptly broken by an interlude of strings, the first the Byrds had intentionally deployed them on record; Gary Usher slapped a flange effect on the second half of the song, which in layman’s terms made everything sound real spacey and weird. But “Old John Robertson,” whose storybook lyrics describe an aging cowboy that everyone makes fun of, also just sounds free, coming after that transformative chrysalis moment. They pursue spiritual enlightenment on “Change Is Now”; unburdened of their woes and faced with miles of metaphorical hills and fields, they begin to sprint as though the day might never end.

Upon release in January 1968, The Notorious Byrd Brothers was well-received by critics; Robert Christgau called it “simply the best album the Byrds have ever recorded.” It failed to halt their commercial freefall, however, nor did it provide a measure of clarity about the band’s future. After entering the studio as a four-piece, they exited as the duo of McGuinn and Hillman, having decided to fire Michael Clarke due to his technical and personal inconsistency. (In the end, he’d played on just five of the record’s 11 songs.) They started planning a quick follow-up, one that McGuinn intended to encompass the evolution of American music: folk and bluegrass, psychedelia and jazz, country-western and rock’n’roll, and the nascent electronic sound they’d explored with Gary Usher. Working in an era when rock was not yet an endlessly commodified, billion-dollar industry, McGuinn could never pick just one identity or sound for the Byrds. But while they were recruiting new members, they fell in with a charismatic 21-year-old named Gram Parsons, who shortly convinced the band to go all-in on country.

Inspired by Dylan once again, they moved down to Nashville in the spring of 1968 to record Sweetheart of the Rodeo, an artistic masterpiece but total chart failure that was not only reviled by the country establishment, but further distanced themselves from the hip rock scene. Not long after, Hillman would join Parsons in forming the Flying Burrito Brothers, leaving McGuinn behind as the only original member. The reconstituted Byrds carried on for a few more years, morphing into a lean country-rock live act and cranking out a handful of OK-to-forgettable albums—one of which included the theme song for the groundbreaking New Hollywood film Easy Rider, in which actors Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda respectively based their wayward protagonists on Crosby and McGuinn. Finally, in 1973, the original members would reunite for what turned out to be a dismal self-titled record—produced by Crosby, who provided the exact level of behind-the-boards stability and maturity you might expect—before calling it quits for good, less than a decade after releasing “Mr. Tambourine Man.”

But something lived on, beyond their own discography: What McGuinn would offhandedly call “the jingle-jangle thing” influenced a gigantic family tree of artists topped by superstars like Tom Petty and R.E.M., and stretching all the way to 21st-century bands like Beach Fossils and the Clientele. (Peter Buck’s playing seems so obviously beholden to McGuinn that an extraordinarily inconsequential claim to make after drinking two beers is that without the Byrds, the entirety of college rock—and, from it, indie rock—wouldn’t exist.) The Byrds themselves, though, would be relatively muted presences in contemporary pop culture. Gene Clark and Michael Clarke would both die young in the early 1990s, permanently foreclosing the possibility of any more reunions of the original lineup. Crosby, who died earlier this year, would become far more associated with the supergroup Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, his legal troubles, and his Twitter account. McGuinn and Hillman released many more records, and are even active on social media, but their new work doesn’t garner much mainstream attention, and hasn’t in a long time.

Perhaps that’s a facile and clinical way to think about art—to judge it by the amount of press coverage, tweets, and Spotify monthly listeners—but as culture has continued to cannibalize nostalgia for classic rock bands, it feels notable that the Byrds themselves haven’t benefited from the same wave of retroactive goodwill. You can float your own guesses why, but here are some: They never rocked as hard; they never had a cool logo; they never had one singular frontman who developed a cult of personality; their shifting sound made it difficult for them to become an easily reducible brand to later generations; they lacked one mammoth single to endure across eras of rock radio and pop culture soundtrack placements like “Stairway to Heaven” or “Won’t Get Fooled Again”; their interpersonal drama was too uncontroversial (even Crosby admits he was a giant jerk, and Hillman and McGuinn seem to agree on how everything else went down); the records were too aesthetically indebted to the 1960s, and just don’t sound as good to modern ears.

But the ease with which McGuinn and Hillman appear to have welcomed their trajectories raises another question: Well, who cares? More meaningful than any made-up benchmarks of success is their embrace of change—not only in the way they shuffled through musical styles, but in life itself. Despite all of the adventurous and fascinating work that followed, their defining statement is from the early years, when they were still packing the room at Ciro’s. In 1959, Pete Seeger had taken a verse from the Book of Ecclesiastes and turned it into a ruminative folk song. “Turn! Turn! Turn!,” which got the full-blown folk-rock treatment from the Byrds into something both upbeat and introspective, is still moving in its sincerity and its call for genuine reflection about the passage of time. It’s a message that resonates through the band’s winding, open-hearted catalog and a lesson that came into clear focus on The Notorious Byrd Brothers. There is a season for all things—a time to be born, and a time to die—and accepting this can give you the confidence to move through the world and all its insurmountable realities, open-eyed and unafraid about what comes next.

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The Byrds: The Notorious Byrd Brothers