46 Years Ago: The Byrds Release ‘The Notorious Byrd Brothers’
Released on Jan. 15, 1968, ‘The Notorious Byrd Brothers’ marks the end of the first chapter of one of America’s finest rock ‘n’ roll bands. Change was something the Byrds were already used to. In less than three years, they lost three original members. Gene Clark, who was responsible for much of the band’s stellar early material, left in 1966, drummer Michael Clarke exited after the sessions for ‘Notorious,’ and the eternal wild card, David Crosby, was booted out in the fall of 1967.
Though Clark returned to the fold during the recording of this album, his return visit was a short one, leaving only Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman to proceed. This too, would change soon enough.
Despite, or perhaps because of, all the internal strife, ‘The Notorious Byrd Brothers’ rings out like a glorious chiming bell and remains one of the band’s most loved albums. Its consistency is amazing, with one song after another bending one’s mind and inducing a smile. ‘Artificial Energy’ kicks things off in fine style. Co-written by McGuinn, Hillman and Clarke, it’s a perfect album opener. The last song recorded for the album, it bursts forth with punchy horns and driving drums. Yes, it’s about speed, and it’s safe to say the lyrics probably wouldn’t fly today. “I’m coming down off amphetamine, and I’m in jail cause I killed a queen.”
The band’s take on Carole King and Gerry Goffin’s ‘Goin’ Back’ follows and is perhaps the definitive version of the song. ‘Natural Harmony’ and ‘Draft Morning’ are up next, basking in pure beauty. Chris Hillman’s role as songwriter really began to expand on ‘Notorious,’ co-writing eight of the LP’s 11 tracks.
Another Goffin/King song, ‘Wasn’t Born To Follow,’ is up next in all its countrified glory. It would later feature prominently in the movie ‘Easy Rider.’ It has long been said that the characters in that film played by Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda, were loosely based on Crosby and McGuinn. ‘Get To You’ and ‘Old John Robertson’ are both country-tinged numbers that glow of the era they sprang from, while ‘Change Is Now’ is one of the band’s most beautiful songs without question, and its jingle jangle guitars resonate for the ages.
‘Tribal Gathering’ has David Crosby written all over it. He and Hillman worked up this two-minute gem in homage to the ‘Gathering Of The Tribes’ festival held earlier that years in San Francisco. ‘Dolphin’s Smile’ conjures up its own psychedelic aquatic adventure in all of its two minutes, before the album ends on an eerie note. A spacey drone set to a sea shanty waltz, ‘Space Odyssey’ is driven by a swirling wash of keyboards and guitars. Its otherworldly sounds would have, if McGuinn had his way, pointed to the next chapter in the Byrds story. However, Hillman and (the soon-to-join) Gram Parsons had other ideas, but that’s another story for another time.
In the Jan. 15, 1968, edition of the Los Angeles Times, Pete Johnson wrote, “Logically, a group which decays from a quintet down to duo, has to pay for the process with vitality, retaining only a crippled imitation of the old sound, but McGuinn and Hillman still have something to give.” The album barely cracked the Top 50 in America, but hit No. 12 in the U.K.
While ‘The Notorious Byrd Brothers’ could be seen as dated and inextricably rooted in its time, over the years it has managed to transcend that era and stands proudly as one of the Byrds’ finest LPs. It’s a cohesive and entertaining ride for all of its thirty minutes, and song-for-song, it’s pretty hard to beat. If there is any fault to find with it, it would be that ‘Lady Friend’ (released as a single prior to the album) was not included on the LP. It is, arguably, the finest song David Crosby ever wrote, simply a perfect pop record. So dig on this masterpiece. All these years later, it still dazzles.
Listen to ‘The Notorious Byrd Brothers’