Gene Clark’s vision and songwriting skills were instrumental in the Byrds producing two of the best albums in music history. Their debut album, Mr. Tambourine Man, and its follow-up, Turn! Turn! Turn! established a folk-rock fusion of styles that was unique.
Clark would leave the group early in the recording process of their third album. Roger McGuinn and David Crosby would assume the leadership of the band and together would write or co-write seven of the eleven tracks. Fifth Dimension, released in July of 1966, would be different from their first two releases. While several songs would be true to their folk-rock roots, the rest of the album would turn toward a psychedelic sound.
Gene Clark would leave behind one of the seminal songs of the sixties which McGuinn and Crosby would polish. “Eight Miles High” features no lead vocalist as the track is comprised entirely of harmonies. The 12 string guitar of Roger McGuinn and the guitar playing of David Crosby unite in an almost chaotic sound with Middle Eastern intonations. It may not be the first psychedelic song, but it was one of the earliest.
Roger McGuinn would continue in a psychedelic direction with his “5D (Fifth Dimension)” and “Mr. Spaceman.” Both are immaculately produced and have a layered sound and a depth of textures that make them memorable. The organ work of Van Dyke Parks adds a new element to the Byrds sound. While the lyrics may be obscure at times, they have a sixties feel about them.
David Crosby does not fare as well. “What’s Happening?!?” is fine musically but his philosophical ramblings are difficult to take. His take on the old garage band staple, “Hey Joe,” would pale next to that of Jimi Hendrix and the hit version by The Leaves. However, his co-creation with Roger McGuinn titled “I’ll See You” does work well as it has a dream like feel with some strong guitar playing.
The Byrds do return to their folk roots on several tracks. “Wild Mountain Thyme” is an old Scottish folk tune that they update in a rock direction. “I Come and Stand At Your Door” is a political song that worked well at the time. They also try to update the English folk song, “John Riley,” and while they make it interesting they fail to match the simple purity of Joan Baez’s rendition.
The album closes with a final Roger McGuinn song. “2-4-2 Fox Trot (The Lear Jet Song)” contains experimental sound effects in the studio and sounds terribly dated today.
Fifth Dimension may be more uneven than their first two releases, but when it is good it is brilliant. The Byrds adjusted to the loss of an important member and took some chances. They ended up producing one of the more interesting albums of the mid-sixties, and one that is still worth a listen today.