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The Best Byrds Album: The Notorious Byrd Brothers

The Byrds The Notorious Byrd Brothers

Background

The Byrds Mr. Tambourine Man

Californian folk-rock band The Byrds enjoyed immediate success in 1965 with their first single, a cover of Bob Dylan’s ‘Mr Tambourine Man’. The song was a watershed moment in pop music – combining Dylan’s poetic, creative lyrics with Roger McGuinn’s chiming twelve string electric guitar. The song launched the genre of folk-rock, influencing The Beatles’ 1965 album Rubber Soul, as well as later acts like Tom Petty and R.E.M..

By the time of their fifth album, 1968’s The Notorious Byrd Brothers, The Byrds were in turmoil. With three talented singer-guitarists competing for attention in their original lineup, band relationships were competitive and strained. Ace songwriter Gene Clark had already left the band, and David Crosby was fired in October 1967, during the sessions for The Notorious Byrd Brothers. The breaking point was ‘Triad’, about a ménage à trois, a song that the other members considered too risque. Drummer Michael Clarke also left the band during the recording sessions, and much of the drumming on the album is from studio players Jim Gordon and Hal Blaine.

The Notorious Byrd Brothers was completed by the two remaining Byrds; McGuinn and bassist Chris Hillman, using studio musicians to fill out the sound. The Byrds had often recorded songs from outside songwriters, famously Bob Dylan, and this time two songs from the pen of Carole King and Gerry Goffin are covered. Even though he was fired during the sessions, David Crosby’s also influential on the record – as well as contributing three songs, his rhythm guitar and vocals are on half of the songs. He also plays bass on ‘Old John Robertson’.

Why The Notorious Byrd Brothers is The Byrds’ Best Album

1967 was the year of psychedelia, but albums like Dylan’s John Wesley Harding and The Band’s 1968 debut swung the pendulum back to an earthy, homespun feel. The Notorious Byrd Brothers splits the difference – psychedelia mingles with country touches like pedal steel. There’s also the band’s usual folk-rock, and other styles are explored – ‘Old John Robertson’ starts as jaunty country, but detours into a baroque string quartet. Closer ‘Space Odyssey’ is the most disparate. a Moog coloured sci-fi experiment.

It’s these experiments in texture that make The Notorious Byrd Brothers The Byrds’ best album. There’s enough of the Byrds’ usual folk-rock to make Notorious a representative album from The Byrds’ oeuvre, but every track has a different sonic palette, lovingly thought out and distinct.

1960s themes of love and unity are prominent in songs like ‘Natural Harmony’, but there are also hints of darkness in the drug song ‘Artificial Energy’ and the anti-Vietnam war ‘Draft Morning’.

The Byrds’ first six albums are all strong, and 1967’s Younger Than Yesterday is a strong contender as the band’s best album. In the aftermath of their sixth album, 1968’s Sweetheart of the Rodeo, Hillman quit the band leaving McGuinn as the only original Byrd. Later Byrds albums are more like McGuinn solo records, excepting the reunion of the original lineup on 1973’s Byrds.

Key Tracks

Goin’ Back

Each of the previous Byrds albums features a iconic lead single; ‘Mr Tambourine Man’, ‘Turn Turn Turn’, ‘Eight Miles High’, and ‘So You Want To Be A Rock and Roll Star’ are arguably their four best known songs. The nostalgia of ‘Goin’ Back’, written by King and Goffin, has flown under the radar a little, but it’s a lovely song, wistful and nostalgic.

Draft Morning

‘Draft Morning’ was one of the three songs that Crosby had contributed before he was forced from the band. McGuinn and Hillman had forgotten some of Crosby’s lyrics, so made up their own to fill in the blanks, much to Crosby’s displeasure. Despite the confused circumstances, ‘Draft Morning’ is beautiful – Hillman’s bass is loud in the mix, providing much of the melodic interest, while McGuinn’s exploratory solo temporarily upsets the serene atmosphere.

Get To You

Gene Clark was bought band into The Byrds to replace Crosby. He only lasted three weeks, but was around for long enough to write ‘Get To You’ with McGuinn. ‘Get To You’ has a tension between McGuinn’s folk roots and psychedelia, and the time signature shifts between 5/4 and 3/4.

Do the Experts Agree?

The Notorious Byrd Brothers wasn’t a big hit – it barely cracked the top 50 in the US, placing #47 on the Billboard charts. It did better in the UK, reaching #12.

In 1973, Jon Landau wrote in Rolling Stone: “Younger Than Yesterday and Notorious Byrd Brothers stand with Mr. Tambourine Man as their greatest albums and I used to have a hell of a time choosing between them.”

On the website Rate Your Music, The Notorious Byrds Brothers is tied with Younger Than Yesterday on 3.87/5 as The Byrds’ best album.

On the website Acclaimed Music, The Notorious Byrd Brothers is ranked as the #294 best album of all time. It’s ranked as The Byrds’ fourth best album, behind 1968’s country record Sweetheart of the Rodeo at #192, Younger Than Yesterday, and Mr. Tambourine Man.

The Notorious Byrd Brothers is included in the original edition of 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, along with four other Byrds’ albums. The book also quotes Chris Hillman, who says “I’ve talked to more people over the years who’ve said that’s their favourite Byrds album”.


What do you think the best Byrds’ album is? Do you enjoy this record?

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21 thoughts on “The Best Byrds Album: The Notorious Byrd Brothers Leave a comment

  1. This is a difficult one and my honest opinion is that if you are a recent Byrds convert, it’s better to get a best-of. All of the albums contain brilliant stuff plus filler. On the other hand, they produced so much good stuff that even The Byrds’ Greatest Hits, solid gold cool as it is, doesn’t have room for Change Is Now or The World Turns All Around Her. I used to have a unique album put together by a British music magazine, white cover, black text and a booklet inside, which contained the great non-singles. Now I’m just glad you can pick and choose tracks on iTunes.

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    • They’re more of a singles band with some great album tracks. The two Byrds’ albums that are I enjoy from front to back are Younger that Yesterday and Notorious Byrd Brothers. Even on Younger Than Yesterday you have to deal with Crosby’s Mind Gardens, while Notorious does have a sense of OK material elevated by great arrangements. They also have a couple of my favourite tracks pushed out to b-sides or non-album singles – Gene Clark’s ‘She Don’t Care About Time’ and Crosby’s ‘Lady Friend’ are both terrific IMO.

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      • Yes, She Don’t Care About Time is another that made it onto the best-of album I mentioned. Great band. I was gobsmacked to learn via the Wrecking Crew video that McGuinn was the only one who actually played on their early stuff. So the record company clearly saw them as a singles band.

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        • It was just the debut single and bside that had the Wrecking Crew. Although Hal Blaine plays on Notorious Byrd Brothers as Clarke left the band for a while. Hillman’s a very good bass musician and Crosby’s rhythm guitar is distinctive, but Clarke’s drumming was limiting sometimes.

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  2. Can’t disagree with anything you’ve written here; this a great album. Start to finish a real treat.

    However, Sweetheart of the Rodeo gets my vote. Or at least it’s my favourite, but only by the narrowest of margins.

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  3. You picked a great album, that’s for sure. I think all of their albums through Sweetheart are exemplary, for different reasons, but my choice for #1 is Mr. Tambourine Man. It doesn’t date as well as the later ones, but it’s the best representation of the band’s best qualities: folk-rock harmony, Gene Clark’s beautiful love songs, and McGuinn’s 12-string Rickenbacker.

    I have the CD of Notorious, and there’s a real interesting in-studio discussion/argument tacked onto the end, if you wait about 60 seconds or so. These musical giants sound like little kids arguing. No wonder Crosby and Clarke both quit!

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    • Yes, I love that fight. Crosby does seem a bit like the aggressor. It would have helped if ‘Lady Friend’ had been a hit – I love that song.

      In general, I often gravitate towards more diverse albums. I like Mr Tambourine Man fine, but I don’t think the relatively uniform style does it any favours, even though most of the individual songs are excellent.

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  4. I would agree on the whole this is their best album. As with the Beatles, I look at the Byrds through blinders. I love McGuinn’s sound so much that it would be hard for me to truly dislike much.
    I also like their later period with Clarence White and Skip Battin. They were better live then but not as good on record as their earlier albums.

    On this album, my favorite song would have to be…Wasn’t Born To Follow.

    Sorry for the late post…I’m catching up.

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      • I agree with that on the whole. I think they could have had more of a quantity of stronger songs. I like their sound…whichever era they were in. It draws me in.

        It’s been only in the past few years I’ve noticed their later live work…

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