The Byrds returned to the studio during the second half of 1967 and the relationships between the members were not pretty. Michael Clarke left, Gene Clark returned, David Crosby was fired, Gene Clark left again, Jim officially became Roger McGuinn, and the resultant album, The Notorious Byrd Brothers, was brilliant and became a classic 1960’s release. Rolling Stone Magazine would rank it number 171 on their list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.
The original album cover featured three human Byrds and a horse. The horse was supposed to represent the departed David Crosby and at the time I thought he was lucky that they faced the horse forward.
Despite all the turmoil, McGuinn and Hillman soldiered on. They would change several of the tracks that Crosby had left behind and ultimately would write or co-write nine of the eleven songs. They also hired musicians to fill in the blanks. Session musician deluxe Jim Gordon would provide some of the best drum work of the group’s career. The most important addition would be guitarist Clarence White, who had also played briefly on their last album. He would later join The Byrds as an official member and provide the perfect foil for guitarist Roger McGuinn.
The album would be a compromise between McGuinn’s psychedelic tendencies and Chris Hillman’s country leanings. They would unite to present a fairly mellow affair which featured hauntingly beautiful music.
Producer Gary User, a former associate of The Beach Boys, was back for a second album. He is one of the forgotten studio wizards of the 1960s. He created a number of studio bands such as The Hondells and The Superstocks, who featured layered harmonies and catchy music. His production of The Notorious Byrd Brothers was impeccable and his ability to give the vocals and the music an almost sonic quality was outstanding. His greatest achievement, however, may have been his ability to keep the recording sessions focused in the middle of all the chaos.
The two non original tracks were written by the legendary team of Carole King and Gerry Goffin and continued the group’s tradition of superior cover work. “Goin’ Back” featured Roger McGuinns legendary 12 string guitar plus the vocal phrasing gave the lyrics new life and meaning which enabled the song to escape its pop foundation and become a memorable folk-rock tune. “Wasn’t Born To Follow” would feature one of the best vocals of McGuinn’s career.
The album contains a number of other delights. “Draft Morning” is a gentle but effective anti-war song that remains a social commentary about the late sixties. “Change Is Now” is highlighted by Chris Hillman’s bass beat and gorgeous harmonies on the chorus. “Old John Robertson” is the best of the country songs and looks ahead to the coming of Gram Parsons.
The final two tracks are a last hurrah for the pure psychedelic Byrds. “Dolphin's Smile” is David Crosby’s final brilliant gasp as a member of the group. “Space Odyssey” was written with the Stanley Kubrick movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey, in mind. While it was not used in the film it remains a unique psychedelic relic of the era.
The Notorious Byrd Brothers has a timeless quality about it and is one of the better, if not the best release, in their outstanding catalogue of work. It is a stunning album that was meant to be listened too with head phones firmly in place.