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.
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’ 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?